Lessing, Klopstock, Herder, and the Emergence of German Literature and Aesthetics in the 18th Century
The arts in the German Lands were dominated by foreign influences for decades. Due to Johann Joachim Winckelmann’s influence on the German artistic and architectural developments of the eighteenth century, historians have frequently referenced the ‘tyranny of Greece over Germany.’ This comes from a 1935 book by the English scholar Eliza Marian Butler. The classical models of Greece (or purported to come from ancient Greece) dominated aesthetic tastes but faced increasing competition as the eighteenth century transitioned into the nineteenth. Notions of German-ness and vernacular aesthetic styles, which found in Herder’s philosophy a way to push against the flattening out that Enlightenment rationality tended to promote, competed against these earlier influences. One can see similar developments in the realm of literature and stage drama in the middle of the eighteenth century. The two towering figures of German literature — Luther and Goethe — certainly had more influence over the development and proliferation of the printed word, as well as the images and stories they told or translated. The world of the stage, and related philosophic and literary ideas, also faced significant changes that were to impact those who would come later. Before Goethe, three of the most important figures in this development were Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1729–1781), Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock (1724–1803), and Johann Gottfried Herder (1744–1803) — a dramatist/philosopher, a poet, and a theologian/philosopher. It was under the influences of these three people that German literary, dramatic, and poetic forms would move away from domineering French influences and allow German drama and poetry to develop independently.
“Lessing was the literary Arminius who emancipated our theatre from that foreign rule. He showed us the vapidness, the ridiculousness, the tastelessness, of those apings of the French stage, which itself was but an imitation of the Greek. But not only by his critiques, but also through his own works of art, did he become the founder of modern German original literature. All the paths of the intellect, all the phases of life, did this man pursue with disinterested enthusiasm. Art, theology, antiquarianism, poetry, dramatic criticism, history, — he studied these all with the same zeal and with the same aim. In all his works breathes the same grand social idea, the same progressive humanity, the same religion of reason, whose John he was, and whose Messiah we yet await.” -Heinrich Heine (1797–1856), German Romantic poet and essayist
The printing revolution, which began in the German Lands and suffered considerably during the apocalyptic Thirty Years’ War, saw its own renaissance during the eighteenth century as German reading habits and book production developed to such an extent that it surpassed pre-Thirty Years’ War levels. In The German Genius, historian Peter Watson notes the development of a reading revolution during this time and situates it with other major development which were to propel German intellectual culture to the forefront of that of Europe:
“It had been true, in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, that most educated German regarded French literary and artistic culture as superior to their own, and that British political freedoms and parliamentary practices were likewise to be envied. But that was before the changes introduced by Pietism and the country’s various rulers had taken hold and the universities had undergone their radical transformations. In that same period a number of economic, political, social, and intellectual changes had occurred in Europe that impacted disproportionately on German speakers and helped ensure that, before the eighteenth century was out, German culture had caught up with French and British achievements — and in some areas outstripped them.” -Peter Watson, ‘The German Genius’ p.55
This is the context out of which figures like Lessing, Klopstock, and Herder emerge — a context which sets the organic development for what Herder, in particular, will try to articulate in his philosophical works dealing the language and the notion of the volk (people united by language and custom). While the seventeenth century was a period of turmoil and levels destruction not to be seen in the German Lands again until the 1940s and the nineteenth century was a period of industrial innovation and nationalism, the eighteenth century was a period of cultural flourishing in many parts of Germany. The decentralized nature of the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation allowed for, and even encouraged, the development of technological innovations as well as increased literacy and (unintentionally) the spread of new and potentially subversive ideas. Whereas the French state was very much top-down, German monarchies ruled smaller territories and the Holy Roman Emperor had anything but top-down power in the Empire. This also fostered the increase of cosmopolitanism with various centers emerging — Berlin, Hamburg, Jena, and Weimar, just to name a few. The city of Hamburg would prove of great importance to the first of this great trinity of German intellectuals that we will look at in this article: Gotthold Ephraim Lessing.
Writer, poet, philosopher, art critic, editor, and dramatist — Gotthold Ephraim Lessing was a man of many talents who would go on to find notoriety in Hamburg as a critic for the newly-established Hamburg National Theater. He became the first of what would be known as a dramaturg (or dramaturge) — defined as “literary editor on the staff of a theater who consults with authors and edits texts.” Lessing emphasized the importance of Aristotle’s Poetics as opposed to the prevailing French modes of theatrical production. Tragedy, Lessing argued, is defined as ‘imitation of an action worthy of pity and comedy those performances which produces laughter and tears. If one recalls the Poetics of Aristotle, one immediately notices that the text is incomplete — only the section on tragedy has survived (and only the equivalent of lecture notes on that portion). Lessing’s understanding, or rather creative misunderstanding, of Aristotle’s poetics speaks more of an independent thinker developing a new style, influenced by perceptions of ancient texts, but in opposition to domineering French models. As resident critic at the Hamburg National Theater, Lessing helped cultivate a sense of a distinct German theater.
In addition to his work as a critic and dramatist, Gotthold Ephraim Lessing was one of the most important philosophers of the age in the German Lands. His play Nathan the Wise (1779) drew on a story from Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron to emphasize the importance of toleration and the equality of the three major monotheistic religions — Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. It stands as a work of incredible humanism but also contains elements of Enlightenment skepticism with regard to miracles.
“The worst of superstitions is to think
One’s own most bearable.” -Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, ‘Nathan the Wise’ (1779)
Generally in favor of religious toleration, Lessing was not an atheist or even necessarily a deist. He gravitated toward the pantheistic philosophy of Baruch Spinoza (1632–1677) and generated controversy through his well-known interest in that philosopher’s work. Lessing’s interest in Spinoza led to a revival in interest in his work. This was shortly before his death in 1781.
Klopstock and German Poetry in the 18th Century
“In the shade of spring I found her
then with garlands of roses bound her;
she did not feel it and slumbered on.
I looked at her: my life hung
upon her life with this glance;
I truly felt it, and knew it not.
But speechlessly I whispered to her
and rustled with the rose garlands;
then she woke from slumber.
She looked at me; her life hung
upon my life with this one glance
and around us rose Elysium.”
The above short poem serves as a basic introduction to the translated work of Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock. His masterpiece is a much longer epic poem called ‘The Messiah,’ written in a poetic form called dactylic hexameter (the same form as the Homeric epics) and influenced by a German translation of John Milton’s Paradise Lost. Having spent years writing the epic poem (published in 1773), Klopstock aimed at a suggestive effect with his handling of verse so as to give reading the work an experience of awakening. The theme of the play is grounded in Christian notions of redemption. Unlike Lessing, Klopstock was a devout Lutheran and sought to use his literary gifts to express his metaphysical outlook. In this sense, Paradise Lost was probably the best source for inspiration.
In looking to an English author, Klopstock was not alone. Shakespeare was becoming increasingly popular in the German Lands during the latter half of the eighteenth century and even influenced Goethe. In this sense, too, Klopstock was rebelling against prevailing French modes of expression.
“Sing, immortal soul, the redemption of sinful men,
which the Messiah perfects on earth in his humanity
and through whom he has given Adam’s family the love of the Godhead
with the blood of the holy covenant anew.
So the Eternal Will was done. In vain did
Satan rise up against the divine Son, in vain Judea rose up
against him; he did it and made the great atonement.” -Klopstock, beginning of the First Chant of his famous ‘The Messiah’ (1749–1773)
Though he contributed to the development of German poetry away from French models, Klopstock was an enthusiastic supporter of the French Revolution when it first erupted in 1789. He grew disillusioned with it after it had become clear how violent it became. Klopstock greatly admired British Admiral Horatio Nelson and wrote an ode in his honor.
Herder — Folk Philosopher and Anti-Colonial Cosmopolitan
Few figures rank as highly in eighteenth century German philosophy as Johann Gottfried Herder. He’s up there with Immanuel Kant and Christian Wolff. Like Lessing, Herder was also strongly influenced by Baruch Spinoza’s ideas — most notably pantheism. Herder was also a man of two philosophic worlds, so to speak — the Enlightenment and the Romantic. He was an influential writer in the Strum und Drang literary movement (‘storm and thrust’ — the movement made famous by Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther). A passionate defender of reason and well aware of the utility of the intellectual tools cultivated by the Enlightenment, Herder also moved against the general flattening out that excesses in Enlightenment rationality led to. Herder was a kind of cultural relativist in terms of understanding and appreciating the distinctness of different cultures. The term ‘cultural relativism’ can be misleading because Herder was not necessarily arguing for a kind of equality of radically different kinds of morality.
Herder’s inquiry into the nature of folk culture centered around language. In the German Lands, language was the closest thing to a unifying factor. The German Lands were not a single country, had no single religion, and no single shared institutions. Even in language, there were distinct regional differences. However, there was a distinct ‘German-ness’ which could be discerned from French or Danish culture. Herder was also not arguing for the supremacy of one culture over another, he was merely focusing on the importance on language and custom for the individual in any particular society. Two of the most famous people influenced by Herder were Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm — the Brothers Grimm — who sought folk tales as a way of learning more about the German language and the antifragile customs, traditions, and metaphysical substructure of regular people. When compiling the tales, Wilhelm Grimm wrote that he could “hear the horns of elfland faintly blowing." The dark allure of the tales balance the wonder which accompanies any mythological representations of the world (however exaggerated) with the underlying harsh realities which accompanied them. For example, the tale of Hansel and Gretel may date back to the terrible famine of 1315.
In the 1780s, Johann Gottfried Herder reflected on notions of nascent nationalism, before it was stained with the blood of numerous wars over the succeeding centuries — wars that would have horrified Herder beyond measure.
“Every one loves his country, his manners, his language, his wife, his children; not because they are the best in the World, but because they are absolutely his own, and he loves himself and his own labours in them.” -Herder, deen zur Philosophie der Geschichte der Menschheit (1784–91)
Herder’s was an intellectual vision heavily influenced by the folk cultures of the people, not elites. Like many intellectuals of his time, he was an enthusiastic supporter of the French Revolution in its early phase. Herder’s understanding of nation was grounded in custom and language, not linked specifically to ‘states.’ Herder tended to keep politics at an arms length and was opposed to colonialism, slavery, and imperial expansion.
The three of these men constitute an intellectual trinity which helped turn German into a literary and intellectual language (and, by 1900, into the intellectual language). Domineering French models for literary and artistic production gave way to other modes — with ancient Greek influences becoming prominent — which ultimately allowed distinctly German literary and aesthetic perspectives to emerge. The eighteenth century was an incredibly fruitful time when the German Lands had the lion’s share of intellectual giftedness and artistic vision in Europe. Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock, and Johann Gottfried Herder laid the foundation for the giants — like Goethe and Schiller — who would follow.
“Calmly take what ill betideth;
Patience wins the crown at length:
Rich repayment him abideth
Who endures in quiet strength.
Brave the tamer of the lion;
Brave whom conquered kingdoms praise;
Bravest he who rules his passions,
Who his own impatience sways.”