Johann Kaspar Lavater, a Swiss mystic and physiognomist, born in Zurich, Nov. 15, 1741, died there, Jan. 2, 1801. He was the son of a physician, a timid, sensitive, imaginative boy, with an aversion to school, but fond of poetry, solitude, and religious revery. Intended for holy orders, he pursued his studies at Zurich, but was more interested in Klopstock and Rousseau than in controversialists, and sought the revival of piety rather by humble labors as member of an ascetic society than by weighing theological formulas. " Limit yourself at every moment, if you can, to what is nearest to you," was one of his early ethical precepts. Notwithstanding his shrinking nature, his first public act was a vehement pamphlet (1762) assailing an oppressive but influential officer of Zurich, which made it advisable for him to leave his native town for a time. He went to Berlin, then, under Frederick the Great, the centre of intellectual culture in Germany, and continued his studies there, enjoying the friendship of Sulzer and Mendelssohn, and in Barth, Pomerania, under the theologian Spalding. Returning to Zurich in 1764, he entered on the duties of pastor, and the peculiar charm of his mystical discourses, his benevolent character, and blameless life made him warmly and universally beloved.
His published sermons and his correspondence soon extended over Europe. In 1767 appeared his Schweitzerlieder, containing his finest poems, which was followed by his Aussichten in die Ewigkeit (3 vols., 1768-'73), the first of a series of works in which he maintained the perpetuity of mir acles, the irresistibility of prayer, and the necessity for every person to conceive of God as manifested in Christ crucified in order to be really alive himself. The last doctrine was called his Christomania. He determined to oppose his illuminism to the philosophy that was reigning at Paris and Berlin; and having found in the Palingenesie philosophique of Bonnet what he deemed a triumphant exposition of Christian faith, he sent a translation of it with remarks of his own to his friend Mendelssohn, the mildest and ablest living advocate of deism, and summoned him either to refute it or to become a Christian. The controversy which ensued excited the greatest interest. Mendelssohn maintained that according to the system of Bonnet it would be as easy to demonstrate the divine origin of Islamism or Buddhism as of Christianity; and Lavater, fearing that his imperious challenge had been intolerant and unkind, withdrew it in a long letter. From that time he was the chief and almost the idol of the mystics.
He explained the performances of Gessner and Mesmer by the theory of the Rosicrucians, visited and disputed with Cagliostro under a conviction that he was an envoy of Satan, and was suspected by his contemporaries of almost all heresies, of being an atheist, and of being secretly a high officer in the order of Jesuits. His celebrity was extended into foreign countries chiefly by his Physiognomische Fragmente zur Befor-derung der Menschenkenntniss und Mensehen-liebe (Leipsic, 1775-'8), the first elaborate attempt to reduce physiognomy to a science, illustrated with numerous engravings and vignettes, and superior in respect of paper and typography to any book previously issued from the German press. It was the fruit of singularly acute observations from an early period of life, confirmed by the study of a large collection of likenesses of distinguished personages which are introduced into the work. Though he was sometimes deceived, the remarkable skill of Lavater in detecting character by some slight feature was often proved. The new science was widely studied, occasioned many discussions, and was assailed with ridicule by Lichtenberg at Gottingen, by Nicolai at Berlin, and by Zimmermann in a parody on the physiogomy of tails.
The author was visited at Zurich by numerous curious and eminent persons, whose characters he usually judged with sagacity; at a glance he recognized Necker, Mirabeau, and Mercier. He made a long and philosophically impartial commentary on his own physiognomy as displayed in several silhouettes: "A most delicate organization, forming a singular ensemble, many of whose parts are in contrast. He delights in high metaphysical speculations, and his intelligence cannot grasp the simplest mechanism. His imagination is extravagant, disordered, immensely eccentric; but it is checked by two severe guardians, good sense and a good heart. He knows much, but is the least erudite of all professional savants. None of his knowledge has been acquired; everything has been in some sort given to him. He loves, and has never been in love." The last years of his life were connected with the efforts of the Swiss for freedom. He had hailed the French revolution with an enthusiasm which was quickly changed to horror. His declamations in the pulpit against the French party caused him to be banished to Basel in 1796. He was soon permitted to return, renewed his pastoral offices, and opposed the oppressive measures of the French directory, till, when Massena took Zurich (Sept, 26, 1799), he was shot in the streets while encouraging the soldiers and relieving the wounded.
The shot is said to have proceeded not from a French but a Swiss soldier, who thus gratified a personal and partisan spite; and though Lavater recognized him he did not divulge his name, but wrote verses of forgiveness. He languished from the wound with severe suffering for more than a year. The original and peculiar character of Lavater was admired by Goethe, who pronounced him "the best, greatest, wisest, sincerest of all mortal and immortal men that I know." Their friendship was however interrupted in consequence of Lavater's portraiture of the non-Christian in his " Pontius Pilate."- A selection from his voluminous works was edited by Orelli (8 vols., Zurich, 1841-'4). His biography was written by Gessner (1802-'3). His work on physiognomy has been issued in various forms in the principal languages of Europe, The best English translation is by Henry Hunter, D. D. (5 vols., London, 1789-'98), the engravings for which were under the superintendence of Fuseli, who also translated his "Aphorisms on Man" (London, 1788). Other translations are by Thomas Ilolcroft (3 vols., London, 1789-'93; 10th ed., 1 vol., 1858), Morton (3 vols., 1793), and Moore (4 vols., 1797).