Enlightenment (literature)

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The literature of the Enlightenment or Enlightenment literature is generally assigned to works that were created between 1720 and 1800 and consciously or unconsciously represent the ideas of the Age of Enlightenment . The metaphor of light is used in many languages ​​for this epoch ( English Age of Enlightenment , French Siècle des Lumières , Polish Oświecenie ). The major literary project was the Encyclopédie , created in France from 1750 . Numerous pioneers of the Enlightenment were also writers.


During the early Enlightenment , the bourgeoisie began its rise within the absolutist state . The literature turned to the bourgeois public, instead of continuing to praise the princes , so that new forms of literature developed on the basis of them. The two hundred year struggle for the correct interpretation of religion had also been exhausted; the thought of vanitas or the mystical experiences appeared as emotional baggage; they gave way to the demand for clarity of spirit and useful orientation knowledge as well as the idea of ​​a natural religion understandable for all peoples.

The literature of the Enlightenment primarily had an educational function and called for the "moral improvement" of people. With her thoughts she ties in with the ancient ideals and perspectives - revived by the Renaissance . The educated and wealthy bourgeoisie in particular strove to free themselves from the dogmatic teachings of the church and the “spiritual tutelage” by the authorities in order to initiate an “ emancipation of thought”. The elliptical motto of Voltaire's Écrasez l'infâme was already known throughout Europe during his lifetime, referring to both the institution of the church and superstition.


The Enlightenment can be considered a period of transition between the Early Modern and the Modern are considered. This is true to a large extent in the literature. The normative poetics lost its dominant position. As a result of a more intensive Shakespeare reception, the classical division of theater into high (tragedy) and low genre (comedy) lost its importance. In France arose mainly from Pixérécourt the melodrama as a popular entertainment theater. The theater itself developed more and more into a bourgeois institution.

The writers emancipated themselves from their (mostly noble) clients and gradually became independent entrepreneurs. Since then, they no longer only served the needs of European courts, but a market for readers that, like other markets, is determined by the law of supply and demand.

Folk language education and changes in the literary audience

Jürgen Habermas advocates the thesis that it was only the emergence of an early bourgeois literary public that paved the way for the emergence of the bourgeois political public, which, however, was denied by various authors with a view to the sources and viewed as idealization.

Rather, it was the efforts of the absolutist monarchies aimed at improving popular education that led to a broadening of the reading public. In large parts of Germany, compulsory schooling or instruction was enforced up to the early 18th century (in Prussia 1717). The expansion of popular education paradoxically led to the displacement of the language of the educated, namely Latin. A wider reading public grew due to the improvement in the vernacular. Weekly newspapers had been around since the early 17th century, the first daily newspapers since around 1650. In addition to curiosities, they also contained political information and, unlike book manuscripts, were not entirely censored .

Latin has also become superfluous as a scientific language in many disciplines. This process was initially quite hesitant, since (New) Latin was still used for Europe-wide communication between scientists, until it was largely replaced by French as the lingua franca . French-language books have been printed in the Netherlands (e.g. at Elsevier ) since the 17th century in order to circumvent the previous French censorship. An English-language book market with modern distribution methods arose in London; German booksellers also had their books printed here.

Christian Thomasius gave the first German philosophy lectures in 1680. Giambattista Vico published his Scienza Nuova in 1725 in Italian. In this way philosophy broke with the scholastic tradition; the texts tended to become accessible to educated laypeople and increasingly included the treatment of practical problems. Around 1730, around 30 percent of the books traded in Frankfurt and Leipzig were written in Latin. But as early as 1740/50, Latin was being replaced as the scientific language in most Western European countries by the national languages, even if this process was slower in the Catholic countries and many scientists, e. B. Alessandro Volta and Luigi Galvani stuck to Latin longer. However, Kant's thinking was largely influenced by the Latin language.

The book and magazine market, however, remained very divided. In addition to the cheap folk books and religious writings in the vernaculars, the segment of the belles lettres developed in the 17th century , the better-equipped books, some with expensive copperplate engravings , which remained closed to the general public.

The literary public has undergone a serious change since the appearance of literary magazines. This public, which was in the process of being formed and was completely apolitical until around 1780, was still heavily controlled and restricted by royal and princely censorship. It was only when Frederick the Great eased the previous censorship in Prussia in 1740 that the work was a little easier for writers and journalists (see Berlin Enlightenment ). By reading circle , reading societies in lending libraries also literature available to the public for a wider circle and coffee houses. France continued the tradition of literary salons , which had already been established in the 17th century and which were now also important for the philosophical and political debates of the Enlightenment .

The relativization of reason

From around 1740 (in England much longer), the literature of the Enlightenment in France and Germany was shaped by the current of sensitivity with its relativization of the role of reason as well as the emphasis on private life and the positive, non-destructive role of feelings. This primarily addressed a female reading audience. A clear delimitation by epoch is not possible, however; it is rather a current within the Enlightenment that corresponds to the aesthetics of the Rococo and prepares the emotional explosion of the Sturm und Drang or romanticism , which turn decisively against the rule of reason and social conventions.

Enlightenment in Germany

The most important author of the Early Enlightenment in Germany was Christian Fürchtegott Gellert with his fables , a literary form that flourished at this time because it was particularly suitable for the implementation of the didactic intentions of the writers. The most important figure in literary life was Johann Christoph Gottsched . His most important work was a collection of theater pieces that he published under the title Deutsche Schaubühne . His attempt at a critical poetry before the Germans (1730) was based on the French Classic , especially Boileau's L'Art poétique (1674). With his theory of drama, he significantly influenced the development of classical German drama, but at the same time was sharply criticized from many sides. The dying Cato from 1732, his attempt to write a rule drama , is considered to have failed. Gottsched organized the German translation of Peter Baylen's historical and critical dictionary (Leipzig 1741–1744). He also advocated a uniform standard German language.

Gotthold Ephraim Lessing was one of the most important poets of the German Enlightenment . With his dramas and his theoretical writings, which are above all committed to the idea of ​​tolerance (e.g. Nathan the Wise ), he has shown the further development of the theater and has had a lasting impact on the public impact of literature. Lessing turned against the dominant literary theory and the normative poetics of Gottscheds. Lessing did not want to achieve moral instruction in the Gottschedian sense, but rather a moral purification.

Book manufacturers such as those of Johann Friedrich Cotta , Friedrich Nicolai or the Dieterich'sche Verlagsbuchhandlung became centers of the German Enlightenment from the middle of the 18th century.

The German literature of the Enlightenment drew essential suggestions from France. Schiller and Lessing translated works by Denis Diderot . Goethe used a creative crisis to translate the following works: Tancred and Mahomet , both by Voltaire (1802), and Le Neveu de Rameau by Diderot (1804). In some cases, secret societies such as the Illuminati campaigned to spread the ideas of the Enlightenment .

Literary forms

An important characteristic of the literature of the Enlightenment period is the play with known literary forms and their new and further development. Beaumarchais ' Die Hochzeit des Figaro (1778, first performance 1784), in which the servant, contrary to literary and previous social conventions, takes on the leading role, was downright revolutionary .


The revaluation of prose is also new: Montesquieu used the letter form in his Lettres persanes , 1721. The two protagonists from Persia gave him a new perspective on French society with a correspondingly critical distance.


In England (where the early Enlightenment is referred to as neoclassicism ), moral weeklies developed in the early 18th century as an important branch of entertainment literature and a medium for the rising bourgeoisie. They served this to develop a new self-image: “Private” stories from the area of ​​marriage, family and business were interpreted in a moral and didactic way. Richard Steele was an important editor of such papers . In England the political-critical essay and prose satire also flourished. The Irish Jonathan Swift and Samuel Butler have emerged as masters of satire who leave the traditional form of criticism wrapped in allegories far behind . Lawrence Sternes novel Tristram Shandy is a form experiment without a precursor that ties in with John Locke's theory of association . Because of his narrative attitude, which is often broken and fluctuates between sensitivity , irony and rough satire , on the one hand he already refers to romanticism and modernity , on the other hand one can see in him an offshoot of the picaresque novel . Most of the successful ones of the 18th century originated in England. These were called novels there .


In the novel Insel Felsenburg , the four parts of which appeared from 1731 to 1743, Johann Gottfried Schnabel combines the genre of the Robinsonade with the draft of an early Enlightenment, pietistic social utopia and severe criticism of the situation in Europe at the beginning of the 18th century.

Around this time the genre of moral weeklies reached Germany as entertainment and self-assurance literature for the bourgeoisie; it served above all as an instrument for the moral education of the " women ". In 1748 Gellert's family novel Life of the Swedish Countess von G *** was published , which, with its loosely connected episodes, tied in with the style of these weeklies as well as with Samuel Richardson's work and can already be assigned to the phase of sensitivity. The fables of Gellert and Lessing also served to educate readers morally. Groundbreaking prose works in Germany were the Bildungsroman Geschichte des Agathon (1766/67) by Christoph Martin Wieland and the psychological novel Anton Reiser (1785/86) by Karl Philipp Moritz . Christian Felix Weisse published children's and youth literature .


In France, the contes philosophiques (philosophical story, short novel) were discovered as a new narrative form by Voltaire ( Candide , 1759) and D. Diderot. With Rousseau's Confessions (“Confessions”, 1765–1770, published posthumously from 1782) one of the first modern autobiographies was created . In 1771 Louis-Sébastien Mercier anonymously published the first utopian science fiction. In L'An 2440, rêve s'il en fut jamais , he compares the absolutist monarchy with a free society in which recognition is based not on inherited privileges but on merit. Goethe later adopts the form of the letter novel in his Werther from 1774, which is assigned to the epoch of Sturm und Drang .



Most of the authors and works of the French Enlightenment Theater have been more or less forgotten today. Only Beaumarchai's pre-revolutionary comedy The Marriage of Figaro continues to be popular because of Figaro's witty character and Mozart's opera version. To avoid censorship, Beaumarchais moved the plot of the play to Spain, but the parallels to the Ancien Régime were clear to everyone. Even the king's performance ban could not prevent the work's success. As a representative of the Third Estate, the servant simply knows how to contradict the Count's plans in a subtle and imaginative way, thus clearly showing his moral superiority.

The most important poetology about the theater goes back to Denis Diderot: Discours sur la poésie dramatique (1758). His foreword to Le Père de famille places the theater of the future somewhere between classic tragedy and comedy. Diderot called for a drame bourgeois - a bourgeois drama with ordinary protagonists.


In Germany Lessing created through his dramas, u. a. Emilia Galotti (1772), the new literary genre of the bourgeois tragedy . In form (no poetry) and content, it corresponds to the identification and presentation needs of the increasingly educated, financially potent and politically still insignificant middle class. The impotence of the bourgeoisie and the arbitrariness of the nobility in the 18th century had to. a. Experience Schiller's father as a recruiting officer in the service of the Duke of Württemberg , who freely dispose of his citizens and sold them to England as mercenaries to finance his lavish court life. Schiller escaped this tutelage in 1782 by fleeing. This contemporary conflict between the bourgeoisie and the nobility is also the focus of his drama Kabale und Liebe (1784). In contrast to Lessing, however, Schiller did not use historical material as a template, but instead placed his play at the court of a German prince without a date . In his lecture The Schaubühne viewed as a moral institution (1784) he underlined the educational possibilities of the theater as an institution . Interestingly enough, he uses the light metaphor for this: “The stage is the communal channel in which the light of wisdom streams down from the thinking, better part of the people and from there it spreads in milder rays through the whole state. ... the fog of barbarism, of dark superstition disappears, the night gives way to the conquering light. "


Court poetry was replaced in lyric poetry at the beginning of the 18th century and thus much sooner than in epic or drama. Enlightenment poetry possessed a great variety of forms; it ranged from thought poetry, didactic poems, odes and hymns to ballads.

Literary and art criticism

Art and literary criticism developed from the 17th century . Diderot gave new impetus to this with his salons between 1759 and 1781. In Germany, Johann Christoph Gottsched was the first literary theorist to receive the work of the early French Enlightenment. His critique of the baroque gay style was groundbreaking . A large part of Lessing's work can also be classified as literary and theater criticism.

The end of the Enlightenment: Sturm und Drang

In German-language literature, the “ Sturm und Drang ” at the end of the 18th century was a violent reaction, influenced by Rousseau's reception, to the rational Enlightenment, which was also expressed in a cult of genius . Representatives of this literary epoch were u. a also the young Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Friedrich Schiller , who criticized the "traditional" social conventions and wanted to bring them down. The main difference to the epoch of the " Enlightenment " is that instead of the sensible to share, an emotional and passionate action takes place. Nevertheless, it would be too short to see the Sturm und Drang as a pure counter-movement to the Enlightenment. On the contrary, in many points this was continued and enriched, in some cases also radicalized. This is evident not least from the strikers 'and pushers' view of literature.

Occult Literature

The term “occult literature” is understood here as a collective term for the “secret knowledge” handed down at that time, which includes everything that, according to the view of the time, cannot be explained “naturally”. The spectrum of these traditional, widespread views unfolds in almost endless literature in a variety of forms. There are numerous collections of everyday superstitions: advice on the use of magical practices such as magic spells and their averting, reports from clairvoyants and telepathic long-distance effects, the so-called "materializations" in spooks and ghosts, spells and love spells and finally influencing natural phenomena (as an example : the Eskimos can supposedly create storms with magical rites).

Although the number of relevant literature at this time was a few hundred titles, today's research on educational literature has so far hardly taken notice of this area. The Enlightenment themselves also more or less ignored these works at the beginning of the epoch. According to their opinion, they belonged to a popular, at best popular-philosophical “literary lower class” whose function was to maintain an unenlightened consciousness. Only after the turn of the century did the often unfortunate struggle to free spirits from this traditional compulsion lead to a serious confrontation in which the subject and the fight against it were intensively discussed in the interests of enlightenment. Now the "higher ranks" are also entering the fight against the dumbing down of the people - even Kant , who at times believed in the visions and conversations of the ghost Emanuel Swedenborg , commented on this. How broad the dispute is towards the end of the century is clearly shown by Johann Christoph Adelung's story of human folly or the biography of famous black artists, gold makers and the like. a. , which comprises seven thick volumes.

With the emergence of romantic tendencies, the occult tendencies in literature intensified, and the Enlightenment criticism of occultism fell silent for a while.

Works and important authors


Alexander Pope , 1688-1744

Gotthold Ephraim Lessing , 1729–1781

Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock (1724–1803)


Daniel Defoe , 1660-1731

Jonathan Swift , 1667-1745

Johann Gottfried Schnabel , 1692–1744 / 1748

Christoph Martin Wieland , 1733–1813

Friedrich Nicolai , 1733-1811

Karl Philipp Moritz , 1756–1793


Gotthold Ephraim Lessing , 1729–1781

Christian Fürchtegott Gellert , 1715–1769
In addition to numerous fables (2 volumes, 1746–1748), stories, treatises, speeches and lectures, Gellert published:

  • The Prayer Sister (comedy, 1745)
  • The lottery ticket (comedy, 1746)
  • The tender sisters (comedy, 1747)
  • The life of the Swedish Countess von G *** (epistolary novel, 2 parts, 1747/48)
  • Letters, along with a practical treatise on good taste in letters (1751)
  • Spiritual odes and songs (1757)

Philosophical literature

John Locke , 1632-1704

Montesquieu , 1689-1755

Voltaire , 1694-1778

Jean-Jacques Rousseau , 1712–1778

  • Julie ou la Nouvelle Héloïse (1761) ( Julie or The New Heloise )
  • Les Confessions (1782) ( The Confessions , autobiography)
  • Les rêveries du promeneur solitaire (1782) (The reveries of the lonely walker)

Georg Christoph Lichtenberg , 1742–1799

  • From 1761 Lichtenberg wrote splinters of thought in the form of aphorisms in exercise books, which he called Sudelbücher . These were published posthumously.

Johann Christoph Gottsched

  • Attempt at critical poetry before the Germans (1730)

See also


  • Enlightenment literature 1765–1800 ; Edith Rosenstrauch-Königsberg, Böhlau, Vienna 1988, licensed edition Verlag Volk und Welt (GDR) 1988 (Austrian literature)
  • Peter André Alt: Enlightenment. Textbook German Studies. 3rd updated edition. Stuttgart 2007, ISBN 978-3-476-02236-3 .
  • Wilfried Barner (Ed.): Tradition, Norm, Innovation. Social and literary tradition in the early days of the German Enlightenment (= writings of the historical college . Colloquia, vol. 15). Munich 1989. ISBN 3-486-54771-2 ( digitized ).
  • Fritz Brüggemann : From the early days of the German Enlightenment: Christian Thomasius and Christian Weise ; H. Böhlaus descendants, Weimar 1928; Unchanged reprographic reprint Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, Darmstadt, 1972, ISBN 3-534-02914-3
  • Fritz Brüggemann: The world view of the German Enlightenment: Philosophical foundations and literary impact: Leibniz , Wolff, Gottsched, Brockes, Haller ; Reclam, Leipzig, 1930
  • Gerhard Kaiser: Enlightenment, Sensitivity, Storm and Stress. History of German Literature. 6th adult UTB, Stuttgart 1996, ISBN 3-8252-0484-7 .
  • Iwan-Michelangelo D'Aprile, Winfried Siebers: The 18th Century. Age of Enlightenment . Akademie Verlag, Berlin 2008, ISBN 978-3-05-004364-7 (Academy Study Books - Literary Studies).
  • Lieselotte Steinbrügge: The moral sex. Theories and literary drafts on the nature of women in the French Enlightenment , Beltz, Weinheim / Basel; 2nd edition Metzler, Stuttgart 1992 ISBN 3-476-00834-7 .
  • this .: The Moral Sex. Woman's nature in the French Enlightenment , Oxford University Press, New York 1995 ISBN 0-19-509493-X .

Web links


  1. ^ Hermann Glaser, Jakob Lehmann, Arno Lobus: Ways of German literature. Propylaea, Berlin undated, p. 116.
  2. Meant was, among other things, Écrasez l'infâme superstition , German: "Destroy the vile superstition"
  3. Voltaire signed numerous letters with the phrase Écrasez l'infâme or Écrlinf since 1761
  4. ^ Jürgen Habermas: Structural Change of the Public , Frankfurt 1962.
  5. See e.g. B. Andreas Gestrich : Absolutism and the public. Political communication in the early 18th century. Goettingen 1994.
  6. Graham Jefcoate: German printer and bookseller in London 1680-1811: Structures and importance of the German share of the English book trade. Berlin, New York 2015.
  7. Martin Korenjak: History of the neo-Latin literature: From humanism to the present. Munich 2016.
  8. Jump up ↑ Germany: Die reasonable Tadlerinnen 1725–1726 and Der Biedermann 1727–1729, Contributions to the Critical History of the German Language, Poetry and Eloquence 1732–1744, New Book Hall of Fine Sciences and Freyen Künste 1745–1750 all four edited by Johann Christoph Gottsched, Contributions to the history and reception of the theater from 1750, edited by Christlob Mylius and Lessing, Letters, the latest literature on 1758–1765, edited by Friedrich Nicolai , Moses Mendelssohn and Lessing, General German Library (ADB) 1765–1796 (1–118 ), published by Friedrich Nicolai, Der Teutsche Merkur 1773–1789, published by Christoph Martin Wieland, Thalia 1787, Die Horen 1795–1797, both published by Friedrich Schiller, Deutsche Monatsschrift 1790–1799, published by Friedrich von Gentz ​​(until 1795) and Gottlob Nathanael Fischer , New German Monthly 1795, edited by Friedrich von Gentz, New General German Library (NADB) 1793-1806 (1-107), edited by Friedrich Nicolai; France: Correspondance littéraire, philosophique et critique 1747–1793, edited by Friedrich Melchior Grimm , Guillaume-Thomas Raynal, Denis Diderot
  9. cf. the salons of the so-called precious under Louis XIV.
  10. ^ The foundation of a German art of language , Leipzig 1748
  11. Wolfgang Beutin: German literary history: from the beginnings to the present . Metzler, 2008, ISBN 978-3-476-02247-9 , pp. 160-161 .
  12. Elizabeth Willnat: Johann Christian Dieterich. a publisher and printer in the Enlightenment . Dissertation. Booksellers Association, Frankfurt am Main 1993.
  13. The theater of Mr. Diderot translated by Lessing, 1760, therein a. a. Le fils naturel (1757) and Le père de famille (1758); Strange example of female vengeance . Drawn from a manuscript of the late Diderot, Thalia, 1, 1785 translated by Schiller ( full text on Wikisource )
  14. ^ Daniel Defoe Robison Crusoe (1719), Moll Flanders (1722), Roxana (1724), Jonathan Swift Gulliver's Travels (1726), Samuel Richardson Pamela (1740), Clarissa (1748), Sir Charles Grandison (1753), Henry Fielding Joseph Andrews (1742), Jonathan Wild (1743), Tom Jones (1749), Tobias Smollett Roderick Random (1748), Peregrine Pickle (1751), Laurence Sterne Tristram Shandy (1760–1767), A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy (1768 )
  15. Michel-Jean Sedaine (1719–1797), Le Philosophe sans le savoir 1765, Voltaire Zaïre 1732, Mahomet ou le Fanatisme 1741; D. Diderot Le fils naturel 1757, Le père de famille 1758
  16. The Barber of Seville , 1775 and The Great Day or Marriage of Figaro , 1784
  17. Le nozze di Figaro , 1786
  18. Read out at a public meeting of the Electoral German Society in Mannheim in 1784
  19. ^ J. Chr. Gottsched: Attempt at a critical poetry before the Germans. Leipzig 1729.
  20. Wolfgang Beutin, Matthias Beilein, Wolfgang Emmerich, Christine Kanz, Bernd Lutz: German literary history: From the beginnings to the present . Springer-Verlag, 2019, ISBN 978-3-476-04953-7 , pp. 162 .
  21. cf. JG Schmidt: The groomed rock philosophy, or sincere examination of the superstitions held up by many super-clever women. Chemnitz, 1705.
  22. ^ Leipzig 1785–1789: digitized version .
  23. See Jean Paul's assessment of these phenomena; on this Walter Lauterwasser: The occult literature in the 18th century. An attempt at an overview. Weimarer Contributions 4, 2005, pp. 588–611.
  24. Jeßing, Benedikt: Modern German Literature History An Introduction . Fool Francke Attempto, 2014.