Germany was now leading Europe in elementary education. In 1717 King Frederick William I of Prussia made primary education compulsory in his kingdom, and during the next twenty years he founded 1,700 schools to instruct and indoctrinate the young. These schools were usually taught by laymen; the role of religion in education was diminishing. Stress was laid on obedience and industry, and flogging was de rigueur. One schoolmaster reckoned that in fifty-one years of teaching he had given 124,000 lashes with a whip, 136,715 slaps with the hand, 911,527 blows with a stick, and 1,115,800 boxes on the ear. In 1747 Julius Hecker, a Protestant clergyman, established in Berlin the first Realschule, so named because it added mathematics and industrial courses to Latin, German, and French; soon most German cities had similar institutions.

In the universities the study of Greek rose to new prominence, laying the foundations for later German supremacy in Hellenic scholarship. Additional universities rose at Göttingen (1737) and Erlangen (1743). Financed by the Elector of Hanover (become King of England), Göttingen followed the University of Halle in according freedom of teaching to its professors, and expanding instruction in natural science, social studies, and law. University students now discarded the academic gown, wore cloak, sword, and spurs, fought duels, and took instruction from the looser ladies of the town. Except in philosophy and theology, German was the language of education.

Nevertheless the German language was now in bad repute, for the aristocracy was adopting French. Voltaire wrote from Berlin (November 24, 1750): “I find myself here in France; no one talks anything but French. German is for the soldiers and the horses; it is needed only on the road.”9 The German theater presented comedies in German, tragedies in French—usually from the French repertoire. Germany was then the least nationalistic of European states, because it was not yet a state.

German literature suffered from this lack of national consciousness. The most influential German author of the age, Johann Christoph Gottsched, who gathered about him a literary circle that made Leipzig “a little Paris,” used German in his writings, but he imported his principles from Boileau, denounced baroque art as a glittering chaos, and called for a return to the classical rules of composition and style as practiced in the France of Louis XIV. Two Swiss critics, Bodmer and Breitinger, attacked Gottsched’s admiration of order and rule; poetry, they felt, took its power from forces of feeling and passion deeper than reason; even in Racine a world of emotion and violence welled up through the classic form. “The best writings,” Bodmer urged, “are not the result of rules; … the rules are derived from the writings.”10

Christian Gellert, who exceeded all German writers in popularity, agreed with Bodmer, Breitinger, and Pascal that feeling is the heart of thought and the life of poetry. He deserved his Christian name; he was so respected for the purity of his life and the gentleness of his ways that kings and princes attended his lectures on philosophy and ethics at the University of Leipzig, and women came to kiss his hands. He was a man of unashamed sentiment, who mourned the dead at Rossbach instead of celebrating Frederick’s victory; yet Frederick, the greatest realist of the age, called him “le plus raissonable de tous les savans allemans”— the most reasonable of all German savants.11 Frederick, however, probably preferred Ewald Christian von Kleist, the virile young poet who died for him in the battle of Kunersdorf (1759). The King’s judgment of German literature was harsh but hopeful: “We have no good writers whatever; perhaps they will arise when I am walking in the Elysian Fields.… You will laugh at me for the pains I have taken to impart some notions of taste and Attic salt to a nation which has hitherto known nothing but how to eat, drink, and fight.”12 Meanwhile Kant, Klopstock, Wieland, Lessing, Herder, Schiller, and Goethe had been born.

One German of the time won Frederick’s active sympathy. Christian von Wolff, son of a tanner, rose to be professor at Halle. Taking all knowledge as his specialty, he tried to systematize it on the basis of Leibniz’ philosophy. Though Mme. du Châtelet called him “un grand bavard” a great babbler, he pledged himself to reason, and in his stumbling way began the Aufklärung, the German Enlightenment. He broke precedent by teaching science and philosophy in German. Just to list his sixty-seven books would clog our course. He began with a four-volume treatise on “all the mathematical sciences” (1710); he translated these volumes into Latin (1713); he added a mathematical dictionary (1716) to facilitate the transition to German. He proceeded with seven works (1712–25) on logic, metaphysics, ethics, politics, physics, teleology, and biology, each title beginning bravely with the words Vernünftige Gedanke,” reasonable thoughts,” as if to fly the flag of reason at his mast. Aspiring to a European audience, he covered the same vast area in eight Latin treatises, of which the most influential were the Psychologia empirica (1732), the Psychologia rationalis (1734), and the Theologia naturalis (1736). After surviving all these pitfalls he explored the philosophy of law (1740–49); and to crown the edifice he wrote an autobiography.

The systematic march of his scholastic style makes him hard reading in our hectic age, but now and then he touched vital spots. He rejected Locke’s derivation of all knowledge from sensation, and served as a bridge from Leibniz to Kant by insisting on the active role of the mind in the formation of ideas. Body and mind, action and idea, are two parallel processes, neither influencing the other. The external world operates mechanically; it shows many evidences of purposive design, but there are no miracles in it; and even the operations of the mind are subject to a determinism of cause and effect. Ethics should seek a moral code independent of religious belief; it should not rely on God to terrify men into morality. The function of the state is not to dominate the individual, but to widen the opportunities for his development.13 The ethics of Confucius are especially to be praised, for they based morality not on supernatural revelation but on human reason.14 “The ancient emperors and kings of China were men of a philosophical turn, … and to their care it is owing that their form of government is of all the best.”15

Despite Wolff’s earnest avowals of Christian belief, many Germans thought his philosophy dangerously heterodox. Some members of the Halle faculty warned Frederick William I that if Wolff’s determinism were to be accepted, no soldier who deserted could be punished, and the whole structure of the state would collapse.16 The frightened King ordered the philosopher to leave Prussia in forty-eight hours on “pain of immediate death.” He fled to Marburg and its university, where the students hailed him as the apostle and martyr of reason. Within sixteen years (1721–37) over two hundred books or pamphlets were published attacking or defending him. One of the first official acts of Frederick the Great after his accession (1740) was his warm invitation to the exile to return to Prussia and Halle. Wolff came, and in 1743 he was made chancellor of the university. He grew more orthodox as he aged, and died (1754) with all the piety of an orthodox Christian.

His influence was far greater than one would judge from his present paltry fame. France made him an honorary member of her Académie des Sciences; the Imperial Academy of St. Petersburg named him professor emeritus; the English and the Italians translated him assiduously; the King of Naples made the Wolffian system obligatory in his universities. The younger generation of Germans called him the Sage, and felt that he had taught Germany to think. The old Scholastic methods of teaching declined, academic freedom increased. Martin Knutzen took the Wolffian philosophy to the University of Königsberg, where he taught Immanuel Kant.

The development of science and philosophy, and the disillusioning consequences of Biblical research, shared with powerful secularizing forces in weakening the influence of religion on German life. Deistic ideas, coming in from England through translations and through the connection of England with Hanover, spread among the upper classes, but their effect was negligible compared with the result of the subordination of the Church-Catholic as well as Protestant—to the state. The Reformation had for a time strengthened religious belief; the Thirty Years’ War had injured it; now the subservience of the clergy to the ruling princes deprived them of the godly aura that had sanctified their power. Appointments to ecclesiastical office were dictated by the prince or the local feudal lord. The nobility, as in England, affected religion as a matter of political utility and social form. The Lutheran and Calvinist clergy lost status, and Catholicism slowly gained ground. In this period the Protestant states of Saxony, Württemberg, and Hesse passed under Catholic rulers; and the agnostic Frederick had to conciliate Catholic Silesia.

Only one religious movement prospered in Protestant areas—that of the Unitas Fratrum, the Moravian Brethren. In 1722 some of its members, oppressed in Moravia, migrated to Saxony and found refuge on the estate of Count Nikolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf. Himself a godson of Philipp Jakob Spener, the young Count saw in the refugees a chance to revive the spirit of Pietism. He built for them on his lands the village of Herrnhut (“the Lord’s hill”), and spent nearly all his fortune in printing Bibles, catechisms, hymn-books, and other literature for their use. His travels in America (1741–42), England (1750), and elsewhere helped to establish colonies of the Unitas Fratrum in every continent; indeed, it was the Moravian Brethren who inaugurated the modern missionary activity in the Protestant churches.17 Peter Böhler’s meeting with John Wesley in 1735 brought a strong influence of the Brethren into the Methodist movement. In America they settled near Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, and in Salem, North Carolina. They kept their faith and discipline almost untouched by winds of doctrine and fashions of dress, perhaps at the cost of some hardness of spirit in their family relations; but the skeptic must respect the strength and sincerity of their belief, and its exceptional accord with their moral life.

Morals in this age were generally more wholesome in Germany than in France, except where imitation of France passed from language to lechery. In the middle classes family life was subject to an almost fanatical discipline; fathers habitually whipped their daughters, sometimes their wives.18 Frederick William I kept the court of Berlin in fearsome order, but his daughter described the Saxon court at Dresden as quite up to that of Louis XV in adultery. Augustus the Strong, we are assured on dubious authority, had 354 “natural” children, some of whom forgot their common parentage in incestuous beds. Augustus himself was alleged to have taken, as one of his mistresses, his bastard daughter Countess Orczelska,19 who later taught the ars amoris to Frederick the Great. In the early eighteenth century the faculty of law at the University of Halle issued a pronouncement defending princely concubinage.20

Manners were strict, but laid no claim to Gallic grace or conversational charm. The nobles, shorn of political power, warmed themselves with uniforms and titles. “I have known,” wrote Lord Chesterfield in 1748, “many a letter returned unopened because one title in twenty had been omitted in the direction.”21 Oliver Goldsmith’s judgment was patriotically harsh: “Let the Germans have their due; if they are dull, no nation alive assumes a more laudable solemnity, or better understands the decorum of stupidity”;22 and Frederick the Great agreed with him.23 Eating continued to be a popular way of spending the day. Furniture took over the styles of carving and marquetry then flourishing in France, but there was nothing in France or England quite as jolly as the gaily colored ceramic stoves that roused the envy of Lady Mary Montagu.24 German gardens were Italianate, but German houses, with their half-timbered fronts, mullioned windows, and protective eaves, gave to German towns a colorful charm revealing a keen, however unformulated, aesthetic sense. And indeed it was a German, Alexander Baumgarten, who in his Aesthetic (1750) established the modern use of that term, and announced a theory of beauty and art as a part and problem of philosophy.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at admin@erenow.org. Thank you!