Gotthold Ephraim Lessing

German writer, philosopher, publicist, and art critic (1729–1781)

Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (22 January 172915 February 1781) was a German writer, philosopher, dramatist, publicist, and art critic, and one of the most outstanding representatives of the Enlightenment era. His plays and theoretical writings substantially influenced the development of German literature. He is widely considered by theatre historians to be the first dramaturge.

The worst of superstitions is to think
One's own most bearable.
Lessing directs here, for the modern English author, see Doris Lessing.


Man, whence is he?
Too bad to be the work of a god, too good for the work of chance.
The true value of a man is not determined by his possession, supposed or real, of Truth, but rather by his sincere exertion to get to the Truth.
  • Was ist ein Held ohne Menschenliebe?
    • What is a hero without love for mankind?
  • Denn zu einem großen Manne gehört beides: Kleinigkeiten als Kleinigkeiten, und wichtige Dinge als wichtige Dinge zu behandeln.
    • It is the mark of great people to treat trifles as trifles and important matters as important.
  • Perlen bedeuten Tränen.
  • Besserer Rat kommt über Nacht.
    • Better counsel comes overnight.
      • Emilia Galotti (1772), Act IV, scene III
  • Und ein Vergnügen erwarten, ist auch ein Vergnügen.
    • To look forward to pleasure is also a pleasure.
  • The true value of a man is not determined by his possession, supposed or real, of Truth, but rather by his sincere exertion to get to the Truth. It is not possession of the Truth, but rather the pursuit of Truth by which he extends his powers and in which his ever-growing perfectibility is to be found. Possession makes one passive, indolent, and proud. If God were to hold all Truth concealed in his right hand, and in his left only the steady and diligent drive for Truth, albeit with the proviso that I would always and forever err in the process, and offer me the choice, I would with all humility take the left hand, and say: Father, I will take this one—the pure Truth is for You alone.
  • I, who ne'er
    Went for myself a begging, go a borrowing,
    And that for others. Borrowing's much the same
    As begging; just as lending upon usury
    Is much the same as thieving.
  • Der Mensch, wo ist er her?
    Zu schlecht für einen Gott, zu gut fürs Ungefähr.
    • Man, whence is he?
      Too bad to be the work of a god, too good for the work of chance.
      • As quoted in Dictionary of Quotations from Ancient and Modern English and Foreign Sources (1899) by James Wood, p. 61
    • Variant: Man — who is he? Too bad to be the work of God; Too good for the work of chance!
  • Trust no friend without faults, and love a maiden, but no angel.
    • As quoted in Dictionary of Quotations from Ancient and Modern English and Foreign Sources (1899) by James Wood, p. 499
  • Es ist unendlich schwer, zu wissen, wenn und wo man bleiben soll, und Tausenden für einen ist das Ziel ihres Nachdenkens die Stelle, wo sie des Nachdenkens müde geworden.
    • It is infinitely difficult to know when and where one should stop, and for all but one in thousands the goal of their thinking is the point at which they have become tired of thinking.
  • Eben die Bahn, aus welcher das Geschlecht zu seiner Vollkommenheit gelangt, muß jeder einzelne Mensch (der früher, der später) erst durchlaufen haben.
    • Precisely the way on which the species reaches its perfection, every individual human being (one earlier, one later) must have traversed, too.
      • The Education of Mankind, § 93

Quotes about Lessing

  • ... Shakespeare conquered Germany with his word and thought: then England, for the first time, had a voice on the Rhine and by the Danube, and became a force in the growth of German culture.
    The man who was chiefly instrumental in bringing this about was Lessing. Many educated Germans felt about Shakespeare as he felt, and some of our literary men were working in the same direction in which he worked; but Lessing produced the strongest argument.
    • Alois Brandl (Annual Shakespeare Lecture, 1914): "Shakespeare and Germany". Proceedings of the British Academy, 1913–1914 6: 249–260. (quote on p. 250)
  • Lessing, who chafed under the sense of various limitations, makes one of his characters say: No one must do anything. A clever pious man said: If a man wills something, he must do it. A third, who was, it is true, an educated man, added: Will follows upon insight. The whole circle of knowledge, will, and necessity was thus believed to have been completed. But, as a rule, a man's knowledge, of whatever kind it may be, determines what he shall do and what he shall leave undone, and so it is that there is no more terrible sight than ignorance in action.
  • 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.
    • Prose miscellanies from Heinrich Heine (The Romantic School) p. 167-168
  • One seldom finds an author who is so pleasant to have to do with as Lessing. And how comes it to be so? Because, I think, he is so sure of himself. All this trivial and comfortable intercourse between a distinguished man and one less distinguished: that the one is a genius and master, the other pupil, messenger, slave and so forth, is here excluded. Even if I strove with might and main to become Lessing’s disciple, I could not, for Lessing has prevented it. Just as he himself is free, so I imagine that he desires to make everyone else free in relation to himself. He begs to be excused the exhalations and gaucheries of the disciple, fearing to be made ridiculous through repetitioners who reproduce what is said like a prattling echo.
    • Soren Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript 1846, Lowrie 1941 P. 66
  • Lessing opposes what I would call quantifying oneself into a qualitative decision; he contests the direct transition from historical reliability to a decision on an eternal happiness. He does not deny that what is said in the Scriptures about miracles and prophecies is just as reliable as other historical reports, in fact, is as reliable as historical reports in general can be. But now, if they are only as reliable as this why are they treated as if they were infinitely more reliable-precisely because one wants to base on them the acceptance of a doctrine that is the condition for an eternal happiness, that is, to base an eternal happiness on them. Like everyone else, Lessing is willing to believe that an Alexander who subjugated all of Asia did live once, but who, on the basis of this belief, would risk anything or great, permanent worth, the loss of which would be irreparable?
  • Lessing had a genuine French talent, and, as writer, went most assiduously to the French school. He knows well how to arrange and display his wares in his shop-window. Without this true art his thoughts, like the objects of them, would have remained rather in the dark, nor would the general loss be great. His art, however, has taught many (especially the last generation of German scholars) and has given enjoyment to a countless number. It is true his disciples had no need to learn from him, as they often did, his unpleasant tone with its mingling of petulance and candour.—Opinion is now unanimous on Lessing as “lyric poet,” and will some day be unanimous on Lessing as “dramatic poet.”
    • Friedrich Nietzsche, Human All Too Human Book 2 103
Wikipedia has an article about: