Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, a German author, born in Camenz, Jan. 22, 1729, died in Brunswick, Feb. 15, 1781. His father, a clergyman, desired him to embrace his own profession, and at the age of 17 he went with this intention to the university of Leipsic. Already far advanced in the classics and mathematics, his restless and inquiring disposition soon diverted him from theology; and he acquired a passion for the theatre, cultivated the friendship of actors, became familiar with dramatic literature, and produced some dramatic pieces, including Der junge Gelelirte, Dev Freigeist, and Die Juden. Toward the close of 1748 he followed his friend Mylius to Berlin, and there established a quarterly periodical devoted to the drama, which was continued for one year, and published a volume of poems under the title of Kleinigkeiten. From 1752 to 1760 he lived either in Wittenberg, where he received the degree of master, in Potsdam, in Leipsic, or in Berlin, being in the last city intimately associated with Moses Mendelssohn and F. Nicolai. He was constantly prosecuting literary projects during this period, translated from the Spanish Huarte's Examen de los in-gcnios, wrote literary and theatrical criticisms for the journals, published several volumes of minor writings, fables, epigrams, and songs, and completed the tragedy of Miss Sara Sampson (1755), which contributed largely to free German literature from the prevalent imitation of that of France, and to give it a new and original character.
To the same end he edited with Nicolai and Mendelssohn the Bibliothek der schonen Wissenschaften, a literary periodical, and founded in conjunction with Nicolai the Literaturbriefe. In this he was the first to call attention to the genius of Kant, Ha-mann, and Winckelmann, while he opposed Klopstock and Wieland, striving to purge religion from sentimentality and literature from frivolity. He began also a tragedy, of which the subject was the story of Virginia, which was completed in 1772 under the title of Emilia Galotti, the Roman Virginia being transferred into modern relations. This still remains one of the most admirable tragedies on the German stage. In 1760, after being elected to the Berlin academy of sciences, he went to Bres-lau as secretary to Gen. von Tauenzien, governor of that capital. The best fruit of his residence there, which continued till 1765, was his celebrated drama Minna von Barnhelm. Returning to Berlin, he published there (1766) his Laokoon, oder uber die Grenzen der Ma-lerei und Poesie, a work which has exerted a permanent influence upon both literary and artistic criticism.
In 1767 he became director of a theatre at Hamburg, where he published his Dramaturgic (1767 - '69), a critical periodical, which played an important part in the strife then prevalent in Germany as to the relative merits of the French and English drama. He became intimate here with his subsequent antagonist the pastor Goeze. In 1770 he received from Prince Ferdinand of Brunswick the appointment of chief librarian at Wolfenbuttel, "rather that the library might serve him than he the library." He employed himself in exploring the literary treasures in the collection, and discovered the long lost work of Berengarius on the Lord's supper. In 1774 appeared the first of the Wolfenbut-telsclie Fragmente eines Ungenannten, a manifesto against the historical basis of Christianity, written by the Hamburg professor Rei-marus, but published and defended by Lessing. His principal opponent was his friend Goeze, against whom he directed his admirably satirical Anti-Goeze. His love of intellectual independence and impatience of authority appear from his declaration that if God held closed in his right hand all truth, and in his left the eternal desire for truth, and offered him the choice between them, he would humbly fall on the left, as pure truth was for God alone.
He gave his confession of faith in a poetical and dramatic form in his Nathan der Weise (1779), the principal characters in which are a Jew, a Christian, and a Mohammedan, who vie with each other in tolerance, charity, and respect for the universal dogmas of morality. His last literary labor was the Erzieliung des Menschen-geschlechts (1780), an important contribution to the philosophy of history. His later years were engrossed by theological, antiquarian, and literary controversies, in which he took an eager delight as long as the vigor of his mind remained. Exhausted by labor, grieving for the loss of his wife, whom he had married in 1776, and who died in giving birth to his first child, which died with her, his health and spirits began in 1779 slowly to decline, and toward the close of his life he struggled in vain against frequent fits of cheerlessness and somnolency. He was an original and peculiar character, and was better appreciated by the next generation than by his own. Perhaps no one man has done more to confer on German literature its present many-sided character, or to strengthen German criticism by a study of art. His style is concise, simple, and equally lucid and vigorous.
The spirit of independence which characterizes his writings also marked his entire life, and, in the words of Schlosser, " he neither made parties, cringed about courts, nor revelled in a little brief authority; he was neither the organ of an academy nor of a university." He has frequently been called the Luther of German literature, of the German drama, and of German art. - The first complete edition of his works appeared in 1771-'94 (30 vols., Berlin), and an excellent edition was edited by Lachmann (13 vols., Berlin, 1838-40). Concerning his life and character, see F. Schlegel, Lessings Gedan~ken und Meinungen (3 vols., Leipsic, 1804); Dan-zel, G. E. Lessing, sein Leben und seine Werke (1st vol., Leipsic, 1850; completed by Guh-rauer); and Adolf Stahr, G. E. Lessings Leben und Werke (1859; translated into English by E. P. Evans, 2 vols., Boston, 1866). The Laokoon has been translated into English by E. C. Beasley (1853), by Ellen Frothingham (Boston, 1874), and by Sir Robert Phillimore (London, 1874); Nathan der Weise, by Dr. Reich (1860) and Ellen Frothingham (1867); Minna von Barnhelm, by Wrackmore (Boston, 1866). An English translation of his Erziehung des Menschengeschlechts ("Education of the Human Race") appeared in London in 1858. His fables and several of his comedies have also been translated.