Lessing, Gotthold Ephraim (1729–81)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-M029-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved May 22, 2024, from

Article Summary

Gotthold Ephraim Lessing occupies a central place in eighteenth-century European belles-lettres. He was a significant religious and theological thinker whose work puzzled his contemporaries and still provokes debate. He has been variously called a deist, a concealed theist, a Spinozist–pantheist, a panentheist, and an atheist. He was a significant dramatist whose major works include Minna von Barnhelm, known as the first modern German comedy, and Nathan the Wise, which places Lessing in the tradition of eighteenth-century toleration and humanism. He was an active promoter of the contemporary German theatre and an influential drama critic and theorist. He had broad classical and antiquarian interests. And he has some claims to being one of the early developers, if not a founding father, of the discipline of philosophical aesthetics.

Philosophically, Lessing belongs to the tradition of G.W. von Leibniz and Christian Wolff and was familiar with the post-Wolffian aesthetics being developed by Alexander Baumgarten and his follower Georg Friedrich Meier. Most importantly, perhaps, Lessing was acquainted with Moses Mendelssohn, to whose work his own philosophical writings bear many similarities and who read and commented on Lessing’s aesthetic writings. But Lessing cannot be identified with any of these philosophical sources and influences. His work retains many rationalist presuppositions, but Lessing also consciously sought a more inductive approach. He adhered to neoclassical standards with respect to beauty and the application of rules of art, but severely qualified those standards by justifying them empirically and appealing to emotional effects rather than to ideal forms or Cartesian clarity. Lessing’s aesthetics must be inferred from his work, particularly from his Laocoon, some of the numbers of the Hamburg Dramaturgy, and to a lesser extent from short works such as ‘How the Ancients Represented Death’ and the letter of 26 May 1769 to Friedrich Nikolai. What emerges is a sometimes inconsistent and fragmentary aesthetic, which one might describe as a critical rationalism.

    Citing this article:
    Townsend, Dabney. Lessing, Gotthold Ephraim (1729–81), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-M029-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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