- Lessing and the German Enlightenment ed. by Ritchie Robertson
This volume, skillfully edited by Ritchie Robertson, assembles fourteen impressive contributions that were originally presented at a 2010 interdisciplinary conference in Oxford. The conference had a two-fold purpose: to recognize the achievements of Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, and to honor the work of one of his most important interpreters, Hugh Barr (Barry) Nisbet, whose outstanding biography of Lessing has just appeared in English.
Barry Nisbet opens the volume with a solid overview of “Lessing’s achievement” (following the title of his essay) in the fields of aesthetics, drama, and religion that frames the discussions to follow. He emphasizes that Lessing did not pursue a life plan, but rather oriented his life on principles that guided his thinking and actions, of which the most important was his “commitment to individual autonomy” (2), which precluded any hero worship while at the same time promulgating “an almost unlimited tolerance of outsiders” (3). Instead of providing definitive answers, Lessing posed open questions that are still relevant today. The interdisciplinary contributions in this volume confirm this assessment and serve as expressions of a living and thoughtful discussion of Lessing and the German—or, rather, European—Enlightenment. For it is striking that all of these essays view Lessing not only in terms of his engagement with the German Enlightenment, but also with contemporary English and French works that he introduced to a German audience through reviews, critical analyses, and translations that made him an important agent of cultural exchange.
This becomes particularly clear in the informative essay from Romira Worvill that focuses on Lessing’s engagement with the French Enlightenment. She shows that he was by no means an opponent of the French—a view that was based on his rejection of neoclassical drama—but rather that he engaged intensively and critically with the most important representatives of the French Enlightenment, taking a stance that was similar to their own. In his reviews, for instance, of Rousseau’s Discours sur les sciences et les arts or Diderot’s Lettre sur les sourds et muets, Lessing posed the same questions that he would later address in his own works, such as Laokoon. Lessing himself stressed the positive influence Diderot had on his own dramatic work, and he translated and published Diderot’s Le Fils naturel and Le Père de famille into German under the title Das Theater des Herrn Diderot. Worvill’s solid and interesting contribution provides a basis for further explorations in this direction, for instance Lessing’s reception of Voltaire or D’Alembert.
Less commonly discussed topics are the themes of Richard E. Schade’s “Lessing’s poetry” and Karl S. Guthke’s “Lessing and science.” Schade presents [End Page 253] Lessing as a “practicing poet and scholar focused on the art of poetry” (65) and concentrates primarily on his early work modeled on Anacreontic poetry. Guthke’s essay reminds us that many of Lessing’s early poems take up very different themes. He points to Lessing’s continuous study of the natural sciences, especially medicine and astronomy. Guthke demonstrates that Lessing rejected determinism and materialism along the lines of La Mettrie and showed that work in the natural sciences does not necessarily entail any conflicts with the Christian religion, since he saw the “laws of Nature” as “the work of God” (283).
The other contributions address such topics as the culture of debate, drama and drama theory, Lessing reception, religion, and aesthetics. The thought-provoking essay by Ritchie Robertson and Alexander Košenina, “Lessing as journalist and controversialist,” portrays, on the one hand, an argumentative Lessing at the center of the Berlin Enlightenment, and on the other, reflects on Lessing’s position within the emerging German public sphere, in which he conducted extended public debates with Samuel Gotthold Lange, Christian August Klotz, and Johann Melchior Goeze on questions of religion and antiquity that attracted widespread attention. Always in pursuit of the truth, Lessing thereby established an important principle: namely, that “criticism is professional and impersonal” (57), though one can also ask whether Lessing himself...