Gotthold Ephraim Lessing

In his own times, Lessing (1729 - 1781) might have been called an Aufklärermann, an ‘Enlightenment man.’ Today, we’d call him the equally mouthy ‘multi-hyphenate.’ Born to a prominent family of preachers in a provincial town in present-day Germany, Lessing had so many interests and careers he would have broken LinkedIn. Accepted at the University of Leipzig at age seventeen, he would go on to be a poet, playwright, translator, critic, editor, aesthetician, philosopher, lay theologian, journalist, publicist, archivist, historian, and librarian before his death at 52. He could read eight languages. His collected works run ten volumes. He fenced, danced, and rode horses. He became a Freemason. He hung out with the theatrical revolutionary Caroline Neuber and attempted, more than once, to start a national theater. He was best friends with polymath philosopher Moses Mendelsohn, with whom he advocated for religious tolerance. Though today he is often overshadowed by his late contemporaries Goethe and Schiller, Lessing lived and worked at a true pivot point in European culture and history. He championed freedom of thought, pushed back against myopic religious doctrines, and provided an example of a person striving tirelessly to better human understanding and relationships.

At the Folger: