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The Enlightenment (1650–1800)

History SparkNotes

The German Enlightenment

Skepticism and Romanticism

Other Arenas of the Enlightenment

1774 Goethe publishes The Sorrows of Young Werther
1781 Kant publishes Critique of Pure Reason
1785 Kant publishes Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals
1808 Goethe publishes first part of Faust
1832 Goethe publishes second part of Faust
Key People
Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz -  Mathematician and philosopher; invented many components of calculus; conceived of “spiritual atoms” called monads
Immanuel Kant -  Skeptic philosopher who formulated idea of transcendental idealism; had enormous influence on later philosophy, especially in Germany
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe -  Immensely prolific writer whose The Sorrows of Young Werther epitomized German Sturm und Drang movement; best known for epic verse drama Faust

Hurdles to the German Enlightenment

The political, social, and cultural layout of Germany in the eighteenth century inhibited much of the Enlightenment advancements that took place in France. Germany was divided into a number of smaller states, most of which were ruled by despots who stifled intellectual development. The total number of German newspapers had barely increased at all in the 150 years leading up to the Enlightenment, and the literary language in the country was predominantly Latin, which made the dispersion of other Enlightened works difficult.

Moreover, whereas France had a combination of antsy intellectuals and flighty nobility, as well as a boom in middle-class literacy, Germany did not. Germany lacked the distinct rift between the middle class and the aristocracy, and there was not nearly the popular discontent with religion or the Church that there was in France. As a result, many German intellectuals refuted the French idea of empiricism, refusing to believe that a simplistic set of laws, akin to the laws of physics or astronomy, could dictate the operation of human society. Germany’s literary landscape was also quite jumbled: it had no distinct literary style, and different regions pulled from different languages and influences.

The Aufklärung

Nonetheless, after King Frederick the Great of Prussia introduced some Enlightenment ideas from other parts of Europe, a small German Enlightenment (often known by its German name, the Aufklärung) began, although it went off in an entirely different direction from the English or French movements. The German Enlightenment never subjected religion to the same scrutiny as in other countries; in fact, the Aufklärung retained a somewhat mystical view of the world, with some of Germany’s leading writers adhering to the idea of combining reason with religion.


The first major figure in the German Enlightenment was the brilliant Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (16461716), who began his career in law but quickly moved out into other fields. Mathematically, he was Newton’s equal, as the gentlemen both “discovered” calculus at the same time. Although the two would bicker for some time over proper credit, a few elements of calculus have been attributed exclusively to Leibniz, such as the idea of a function and the integral symbol. Foraying into metaphysics, Leibniz proposed the idea that everything in the universe consisted of monads, which he conceived of essentially as “spiritual atoms” that constitute our perception of the world but lack physical dimension. Unlike many figures in the French and English Enlightenment, Leibniz was very religious and in fact saw monads as reflections of a structured, harmonious universe—the work of a perfect God.

Leibniz’s deep religious faith and affinity for tradition kept him conservative in his approach to his work, permeated his writings, and paved the way for the mysticism of the rest of the German Enlightenment. Even so, Leibniz laid a foundation that all future Enlightenment scholars would build upon. His monadologial approach to metaphysics may come across as bizarre, but it brought metaphysics into the spotlight and left it ripe for both elaboration and criticism, the latter of which came at the hands of Hume and Kant. Although these two prominent later philosophers disagreed with Leibniz, he gave them something to think about and in that sense enabled their own advances.


Considered the last major philosopher of the Enlightenment, Immanuel Kant (17241804) was enormously influential and essentially founded an entire school of thought out of the blue. Living and working in relative isolation in Königsberg, East Prussia, for his entire life, Kant began his career as a tutor and then took a position as professor in a local university. He spent that time, however, studying the works of other philosophers and formulating his own postulates about the world, which he finally released as the Critique of Pure Reason (1781).

The Critique is a response to the questions that Descartes, Hume, Leibniz, and other contemporaries had posed about perception and reality. Attacking the age-old question of knowledge versus experience, Critique proposes that all people are born with an inborn sense of raw experience—a phenomenon that Kant dubbed transcendental idealism. Whereas the Enlightenment had been built around the idea that man can discover the laws of nature with his mind, Kant countered that it is the mind that gives those laws to nature. In so doing, he elevated skepticism to unfathomable heights, cemented his place high atop the pantheon of philosophy, and knocked the Enlightenment down a few rungs.

Kant’s work with skepticism perfectly sums up the German Enlightenment’s mistrust of empiricism. The Critique suggests that we all are born with our own ideas and perceptions of the world and, as such, can never know what is “real” and what is “our perception.” In other words, reality is in the eyes of the beholder. However, because nothing really exists separate from its existence in the eyes of the observer, then perceptions and observations in the world cannot be trusted. As a result, empirical evidence cannot be trusted either. By thus stating that only a select few universal truths in the world were valid, Kant effectively disagreed with the premise of the entire French Enlightenment.

Kant also tried to define morality, another timeless philosophical question, in Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals (1785). In this work, he argues that reason must be the basis for moral action and that any action undertaken out of convenience or obedience cannot be considered moral, even if it is the right thing to do. Rather, the morality of an action depends on the motivation for the action. Hence, if an individual arrives at the conclusion that a certain action is right and pursues that course of action as a result, then that behavior is moral. These and other ideas of Kant’s continued to influence philosophers—especially German philosophers—long after his death. Hegel, Marx, and Nietzsche all borrow significantly from Kant’s line of thinking.


Though known less for his philosophy, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (17491832) would nevertheless emerge from the Enlightenment regarded as Germany’s finest writer. The moody Goethe was prone to alternating between periods of production and remission, but during his times of productivity he churned out two landmarks in German literature. His novel The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774), about a young boy who falls for an unattainable girl and eventually kills himself out of despair, had an unimaginable impact on German youth at the time. It is primarily for that work that Goethe is considered the most prominent figure in Germany's Sturm und Drang (“storm and stress”) movement, a roughly twenty-year period from the 1760s to 1780s in which young German intellectuals, inspired by Rousseau’s emphasis on emotion, revolted against optimism and reason and plunged into darker, more anarchic themes.

Goethe released numerous essays, poems, and critiques over the following thirty years, then unveiled the literary masterpiece that would solidify his place in history. The first part of the epic verse drama Faust was published in 1808, the second in 1832. The work—a retelling of the German legend of a man who promises his soul to the devil in exchange for knowledge and power (previously told in Christopher Marlowe’s 1604 Dr. Faustus)—was massively successful. Goethe, however, died the same year that the second part was published.

Goethe was never terribly concerned with the politics of his era, even amid the massive governmental shifts that were taking place in Germany at the time. He was a writer and scholar, plain and simple, and spent the bulk of his career creating an enormous body of literature, translations, and scientific inquiries. The Sorrows of Young Werther had such an impact that German youngsters started dressing like Werther and even killing themselves; in subsequent editions, Goethe felt obligated to include a warning discouraging readers from taking their lives. In Faust, his monumental foray into satire and social commentary, Goethe continued in his intimate, emotional vein. Between the two parts of Faust, Goethe released collections of personal, introverted poetry. Just like Rousseau’s works in France, Goethe’s works focused on emotions and innate human feelings, signaling the end of the German Enlightenment, which flowed right into the Romantic movement that was burgeoning throughout Europe.

Results of the German Enlightenment

Although the pessimism and anarchism of the Sturm und Drang movement exposed a one-sidedness to German thought at the time, the movement was brief, and contrasting forces prevailed. A strong nationalistic voice emerged during the German Enlightenment, which did much to unify Germany culturally. Although other factors played in as well, political unity came hand in hand with cultural unity: laws and districts were consolidated, more freedoms were granted to the press, and judicial treatment became more humane. Ultimately, Germany would become a unified nation in 1871.

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