Though we are accustomed to think of the European Enlightenment’s ideas as seeds of revolution – 1776 in the Thirteen American Colonies, 1789 in France – in Germany they first helped strengthen and relegitimize the system of monarchical absolutism (though later their liberal and democratic implications grew clearer). Leibniz became the first post-1648 German philosopher of European stature. Against Christian religious orthodoxy’s preoccupation with humanity’s fallen nature, he emphasized a divinely inspired drive within human life toward moral and intellectual “fulfillment” [Vervollkommnung].
Yet Pietism, though not unmindful of Man’s sinfulness, also contributed to the emergent Aufklärung, especially through its orientation toward charitable and educational works. At the Pietist-influenced Prussian University of Halle, Christian Thomasius and Christian Wolff introduced the basic ideas of the western European Enlightenment, especially those of natural law and natural rights, to which German philosopher Samuel von Pufendorf had earlier made contributions influential also in the Anglo-American world. Thomasius also pioneered Latin’s replacement as the language of university lectures with German, advancing the process of associating the vernacular language with a specifically German modern intellectual culture.
The European Enlightenment’s basic principles held that the Divine Creator structured the physical and human world according to inherent and invariable laws and endowed human beings with the faculty of reason, enabling them to perceive both the laws of nature and humanity’s path toward a rationally structured felicity on earth. That is, God enabled them to discover and apply the liberating tools of scientific understanding – here, Isaac Newton’s universal laws of physics were celebrated as paradigmatic – as well as to grasp the right (available first and foremost to rationally educated men) to individual freedom and self-determination, including through representative, constitutional government (of which Englishman John Locke was widely hailed as the incontrovertible philosopher).
The Enlightenment’s progress was also aesthetic, making art and literature paths to moral and intellectual ennoblement. These were ideas brought to eloquent expression in Germany by the dramatist Lessing, the philosopher of art Johann Joachim Winckelmann, and the poet of genius, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, whose early works – such as The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774) – proclaimed an anti-authoritarian, socially critical message of cultured individualism, emotional liberation, and aestheticism.