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Institute of German Studies - Edition Johann Caspar Lavater

Biography and Works

Johann Caspar Lavater was born in Zurich on 15th November 1741. His father was a doctor and "Pfleger" at the Grossmünster Seminary. In his autobiography (1779), Lavater describes his father as quiet, honest and of sound and healthy mind. His mother, née Escher vom Glas, from one of the best families in Zurich, was exactly the opposite: inquisitive and thirsty for knowledge, imaginative and strong-willed. Lavater respected her. He may even have feared her slightly. Familiar with the pietist body of thought, she sought contact to the religious and intellectually enlightened circles of Zurich of the 1750's.

As befitted a child of good Zurich background, Lavater attended the schools foreseen for young boys: the German School at Wolfbach, then at six the Latin School at Grossmünster. There followed two years at the Collegium Humanitatis at Fraumünster. At fifteen, Lavater began six years of instruction at the Collegium Carolinum, the forerunner of the University of Zurich, founded in 1833. In the final two years, besides Philology, Philosophy and History, especial attention was paid to Theology. Upon completion of his studies as Verbi Divini Minister, Lavater joins the list of "Exspektanten", candidates for appointment to posts as Church Ministers.

During his studies at the Carolinum, Lavater's teachers included Johann Jacob Bodmer and Johann Jacob Breitinger. Their syllabus, which was committed to the thoughts and ideas of the Enlightenment, no longer held with traditional mechanical and repetitive learning by rote. Instead students were led back to their hereditary nature and essence. With the help of his imagination, the writer became a discoverer of world order and superceded the image of Creation, which until then had existed uniquely in the Bible. Thus Lavater succeeded, upon this footing, in sensing his own possibilities as an individual, as a person. And so he began, even during his studies, to record in writing his first philosophico-religious reflections. This emerging personality can be clearly made out in those handwritten texts that have survived from that time (1759-1762) until today. In his almost daily exchange of letters with his close friends - especially with the brothers Felix and Heinrich Hess - and in his early diaries, Lavater began to structure his thoughts and to find his way towards his "raison d'être" as a human being, to what made him unique as a person. He sensed his individuality, though still within the collective community of friendship, the Enlightenment and committal to Faith. For Lavater, friendship represented a Werkstatt der Tugend, a "workshop of virtue". The key concept was the search for the divine in Man. Lavater considered the best way to find this, to sense this, was to pray together and to practise "virtue" together.

For Bodmer's students, this concept of virtue was, besides its religious aspect, also transposed into political terms or, to be more precise, into the accusation against Felix Grebel. This affair, which has gone down in the annals of history as "Grebelhandel" is doubtless the best-known quarrel of 18th century Zurich. In 1762, Lavater and his fellow students, the painter Heinrich Füssli (later very well-known in England) and Felix Hess, made anonymous accusations of abuse of office against the former Landvogt of Grüningen. In an anonymous letter, Felix Grebel, the son-in-law of Leu, the incumbent Mayor, was required to confess his misdemeanour and to compensate the thereby affected population for the wrong committed against them. When Grebel did not comply with this request, the affair was made public. At the end of August 1762, the three theologians wrote a tract entitled Der Ungerechte Landvogt oder Klagen eines Patrioten (JCLW, Bibliographie [bibliographical details and download see below], no. 352) demanding the Zurich government to give its opinion on the events in the Province of Grüningen. After trial, Felix Grebel was sentenced and exiled from the territory of the City and the canton of Zurich. However, his plaintiffs also had to appear before the City Fathers in order to offer their apologies for their unlawful procedure.

After the "Grebelhandel", which had certainly stirred up heated discusssion in Zurich, and which Bodmer had termed an "example of patriotism" in which "young men had torn old men out of their sleep", the families of the three Candidates for Ministerial Office thought it wise to send their sons to Germany on an educational trip until things had calmed down somewhat. As students of theology, Lavater, Füssli and Hess had, after all, been educated to become Ministers and also wanted to take up office in Zurich. Given their audacious act and the incessant surplus of Ministers in Zurich (the educational system was such that good twenty new Ministers were created every year in a city that only numbered 10,000 inhabitants), there was no guarantee that this would happen.

For this reason, Lavater, Hess and Füssli left Zurich for Germany in the spring of 1763 as Exspektanten, candidates for ministerial office. They were accompanied by Johann Georg Sulzer, the Winterthur philosopher and educationalist, who was then teaching in Berlin. Acting as their mentor, he introduced them to the most important scholars of the time as they made their way to Berlin. Thus they visited poets such as Christian Fürchtegott Gellert and Johann Wilhelm Gleim and theologians like Johann August Ernesti and Georg Joachim Zollikofer. In Berlin itself, they saw both the Prussian King, Friedrich II and his son, Crown Prince Friedrich Wilhelm, who also granted them a short audience. In addition, they met the Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelssohn, the publisher Friedrich Nicolai, the preachers Samuel Diterich and Martin Crugot, whose edifying book Der Christ in der Einsamkeit Lavater was to defend in 1764 in his letter Zwey Briefe an Herrn Magister Carl Friedrich Bahrdt (JCLW, Bibliographie, no. 394) against the attacks made by the then orthodox-minded theologian Bahrdt.

Their journey then took them from Berlin to Barth, a small town in Swedish Pomerania, where the enlightened reform theologian Johann Joachim Spalding was at work. Spalding's Die Bestimmung des Menschen, written in 1748, had received much attention in Zurich upon its publication. During this almost ten-month stay in Barth, Lavater read with great intensity works not only by German authors, but also by French and English ones, thus gathering the tools and qualifications for his later (theological) career. In addition to this, Lavater read and listened to letters, judgements and sermons by Spalding. The diaries Lavater wrote during this educational trip to Germany show clearly how intensively Lavater considered Spalding, his work and the trends of that time. It was also during these months that Lavater began to formulate his riposte to Carl Friedrich Bahrdt's attacks and to write his Evangelische Harmonie. On the return journey from Barth to Switzerland via Berlin, Lavater also visited the poet Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock in Quedlinburg and the theologian Johann Friedrich Wilhelm Jerusalem in Braunschweig.

In March 1764 Lavater and Felix Hess returned to Zurich (Heinrich Füssli travelled northwards to settle in England). However, there was no open ministerial office waiting for the two candidates in Zurich, as Lavater would have wished, not even one in the country either. Thus Lavater continued to live with his parents and intensified his work as a writer.

In 1764/1765 Lavater and Salomon Hirzel founded the "Moral Society" in Zurich. From 1765, Lavater also took an active part in the sessions of the "Helvetic Society" in Schinznach. As a member, he wrote the Schweizerlieder im Tone der Gesellschaft zu Schinznach (JCLW, Bibliographie, nos 317-319) in 1767. These were sung well into the 20th century, first in the musical version by Johannes Schmidlin and then in Egli's. A first part of the Auserlesene Psalmen Davids (JCLW, Bibliographie, no. 61) appeared in 1765.

At this time, Lavater continued to write and publish anonymously. Thus the author's initials did not appear in the moral weekly periodical Der Erinnerer (JCLW, Bibliographie, no. 131), which he had founded with the later "Obmann" Johann Heinrich Füssli in 1765, until the second year of publication, that is to say 1766. Der Erinnerer examined the customs and morals of the Zurich population very closely. It also included new patriotic, religious and philosophical thoughts every week, which did not always please the authorities. The aim of this weekly periodical was to effect moral improvement of society. In 1767, the periodical was closed down following prevailing governmental pressure.

On 3rd June, Lavater married Anna Schinz (1742-1815), his junior by one year. They had eight children together, only three of whom, however, survived childhood, Heinrich (1768-1819), Anna ("Nette", 1771-1852) and Anna Louise (1780-1854).

The 18th century enjoyed writing and was the century of the letter par excellence. The highly frequent correspondance of people like Albrecht von Haller, Isaac Iselin or, in our case, Johann Caspar Lavater with almost all the religious and intellectual personalities of the Europe of those times shows how eminently important this medium was for the spreading of one's personal body of thought. As a bearer of information and communication (letters were copied and passed on) the letter was irreplacable. It could almost be termed the Internet of the 18th century and, in its semi-public form as part of published literature, it took on a new function.

In 1768, Lavater began to write his utopian picture of life after death in Aussichten in die Ewigkeit (JCLW, Bibliographie, no. 64) (1768-1773 / Revised Volume 1778). In twenty-five letters to his friend, doctor and learned scholar Johann Georg Zimmermann, Lavater took, in turn, as his central theme Death, the state between Death and Resurrection, Resurrection, Judgement and the Hereafter. Originally conceived as a poem with a hidden Christian message, comparable to Klopstock's Messias or Cramer's Die Auferstehung, Lavater first summarized his thoughts in openly published letters to his friend, the scholar Zimmermann, hoping thereby to reach the "Depositairs des gesunden Verstandes, des guten Geschmackes, der wahren Weltweisheit, und der apostolischen Gottesgelehrsamkeit" (JCLW, Bibliographie, no. 14). And so it was that his eschatological thoughts also attracted great attention among scholars in German-speaking areas, not least of all because he had taken as the base of his reflections Charles Bonnet's doctrine and theories of germination, which Bonnet had presented in his Contemplation de la Nature (1764) and then later in his Palingénésie (1769). The Aussichten in die Ewigkeit immediately made Lavater's name known throughout German-speaking Europe. His correspondance grew to almost unmanageable proportions in this and the following years. As his biographer Ulrich Hegner writes, "there were always between 400-600 letters lying around waiting to be answered."

The Geheimes Tagebuch. Von einem Beobachter seiner Selbst (JCLW, Bibliographie, no. 183) was published anonymously in Leipzig in 1771. Lavater had forwarded the manuscript to his friend Georg Joachim Zollikofer, who was at work in Leipzig. Zollikofer removed the passages that would have given Lavater away as their author and had the Diary printed with an Introduction. It was not long however, before the Zurich minister and author of the Aussichten was recognized as the author of this publication, too.

As literary interest in the Geheimes Tagebuch was widespread, Lavater decided to publish the continuation of his dairy entries himself in 1773 as Unveränderte Fragmente aus dem Tagebuche eines Beobachters seiner Selbst (JCLW, Bibliographie, no. 183). This second diary, however, was unable by far to match the spontaneous and open character of the first.

Lavater was, of course, best-known thanks to his Physiognomische Fragmente, zur Beförderung der Menschenkenntniß und Menschenliebe (JCLW, Bibliographie, no. 274-275). Working with Goethe and Herder, Lavater tried to discern and understand the human soul through the face. In order for physiognomical studies to be conducted at all, the face, and especially the profile, had to be represented as accurately as possible. The cheapest and the most accurate method for Lavater was the silhouette.

It is not difficult to understand that this theory of the physiognomy did not raise unanimous enthusiasm. However, Lavater maintained his theory throughout his life. This can be the only explanation for the over 22,000 sheets that he collected in his Physiognomisches Kabinett, most of them labelled and mounted in a passpartout. (Today these sheets are to be found in the Portrait Collection of the Austrian National Library in Vienna.)

On 14th March 1775, the Church Council appointed Lavater Senior Minister of the parish of the Orphanage Church. Three years later, on 7th April 1778, he became Deacon of St Peter's, one of the Zurich City Churches. Between 1782 and 1786, the following works were written: Pontius Pilatus (JCLW, Bibliographie, no. 278) (1782-1785), Jesus Messias (JCLW, Bibliographie, no. 218-219) (1782-1786) and Nathanaél oder die ebenso gewisse, als unerweisliche Göttlichkeit des Christentums (JCLW, Bibliographie, no. 259) (1786). In addition to these, until his death Lavater produced a mass of poems, sermons (JCLW, Bibliographie, no. 279-295), songs (JCLW, Bibliographie, no. 240-243), tracts and letters, as well as numerous theological treatises and discourses.

In 1786, Lavater was offered a Preacher's Chair at the St. Ansgar Church in Bremen. Although he did not accept it, he travelled to the city, where he was given a frenzied welcome by the citizens of Bremen. Before the year was out, he was appointed Senior Minister of the parish of St Peter's in Zurich.

Upon the invasion of Zurich by French troops in 1798, Lavater wrote a paper entitled Ein Wort eines freyen Schweizers an die französische Nation (JCLW, Bibliographie, no. 21) and addressed a critical letter An das helvetische Vollziehungs-Directorium (JCLW, Bibliographie, no. 23). He was arrested in 1799 and deported to Basel. Upon his return to Zurich, he was too badly wounded by a bullet in an incident with a drunken French soldier to be able to recover completely again. Lavater died in Zurich on 2nd January 1801 after nearly two years of suffering.

In the last quarter of the 18th century, Europe is more aware of Johann Caspar Lavater than of any other Zuricher. He is recognized as a patriot, preacher and pastor, writer, correspondant and friend:

The Patriot

Lavater showed himself to be a patriot on three occasions:

In 1762 in the "Grebelhandel"

In 1795 in the so-called "Stäfnerhandel" in which the economically ever better-off communities around the Lake of Zurich began to demand political rights. Lavater acted as a mediator between the rigid severity of the Zurich authorities and the spokesmen of the community of Stäfa.

In 1798/99 on the invasion of Zurich by French troops (1st and 2nd battles of Zurich) Here Lavater fought against the occupation of Zurich by a foreign regime.

The Preacher and Pastor

Lavater's sermons were like magnets. People flocked to St. Peter's from everywhere to hear Lavater preach. Lavater's sermons had such a forceful effect because, to quote Goethe, "Lavater refuses all terminology; he speaks and acts from the fullness of his heart and seems to transport those listening into an unknown world by leading them into the unsuspected reaches and realms of their own hearts". Today we can only read the sermons he made in 1783 (should we have the time to do so). What, however, brought them alive was the aura of this charismatic person, Lavater, the man with the "moonbeam face" (Claudius). Goethe describes him the following way: "Clear and ordered as he was, he created around himself a clear and ordered world. When near him, people were pure and innocent, so as not to bring adversity to touch him."

After the sermons, many people who had come both from Lavater's own parish as well as from further afield would seek Lavater's pastoral advice.

The Writer

Lavater's life and work were characterized by the imitation of Christ, by the search for the divine in Man.

Whereas in the Aussichten in die Ewigkeit Lavater outlined a utopian picture of the world to be, in the Tagebücher he withdraws back to the self, to the soul in Man, to that part that most ressembles Christ, "Man-God". The soul can be explored and revealed through observation; it can be perfected by leading a virtuous and Christian life. In the Physiognomische Fragmente Lavater revokes introversion and instead uses external observation to judge and classify man. Yet again here, it is the soul that is observed and judged, the soul that reveals itself - as the theory of physiognomy teaches - in the face of man.

According to Lavater's theology, the aim of man's life is self-perfection in this life, in the life we lead on earth, a life that we can after all, as enlightened people, decide upon ourselves. Man should therefore try to ressemble Christ, the archetype of mankind, as closely as possible in this life. Here we clearly see how firmly Lavater's roots were anchored in the Enlightenment. He tries to support all his reflexions scientifically by explaining and substantiating them in a rational and comprehensible way. This is achieved through the use of analogy. If things are so, then so must they be. However, as with the hierarchy in the animal world from frogs to gods, somewhere along the line he goes beyond the limits of the really explicable and comes to conclusions that have little to do with reason and far more to do with his own religious imagination. The representatives of the Enlightenment then branded him a visionary zealot, because of his "miracle-seeking", his quest for superhuman, or rather, supernatural forces. (The 18th century called those "zealots" who sought an individual approach to (religious) truth and protested faith in Chiliasm.

Already in December 1765, in a letter to Johann Georg Zimmermann concerning Frau von Tavel (Tavel and Zimmermann had quarreled), Lavater makes a rather delicate confusion between apostolic force and narcistic feelings of omnipotence when he writes (letter of 10.12.65): "Eine Frage ist: Was würde izt Paulus, wenn er in einem vertraulichen Briefwechsel mit der Fr. v. Tavel stühnde, wie ich, was würde er ihr wol über die Art, gegen Z. zu verfahren ... schreiben? - Ich setzte ihr also einen solchen Brief im Namen Pauli auf - eine Nachahmung an Philemon." ("A question: What would Paul write, if he corresponded secretly with Fr.v.Tavel, as I do, what would he write her about the way she was proceding against Z.? I shall set up a draft of such a letter in Paul's name - an imitation of Philemon.").

In 1792 Lavater went as far as to write Worte Jesu, zusammengeschrieben von einem christlichen Dichter (JCLW, Bibliographie, no. 386).

The Correspondant

Even in the 18th century, when letter-writing was at its height, Lavater was a phenomenon.

In the 18th century, letters, in their semi-public form, served as a communication network for scholars. The letters they received were sent on or handed over to friends - but not before the most important passages had been selected and copied. Lavater's "conversation par écrit" was enormous. Not only did he have to reply to thousands of letters every year, and that in addition to his authorial activity (often in letter form, too) and the writing of sermons, he also had to put these letters in order and - if necessary - pass them on to others. The enormity of his epistolary work does not become obvious until one takes a closer look at Lavater's unpublished works in the Manuscript Room of Zurich Central Library. Unfortunately, only very few letters and replies have been edited to date.


One can hardly name all the innumerable friendships that also go to make up the person that Lavater was. The friendship with the brothers Felix and Heinrich Hess, which dates back to their youth, has already been mentioned. Zimmermann and Dr. Hotze from Richterswil were important medical friends; but there were also countless other friends like Iselin, Spalding, Basedow, Pfenninger, Herder, Goethe and many, many others. Princes and princesses, many women, all felt drawn to him as he felt drawn to them.

Goethe talks in hindsight about his relationship with Lavater in the fourteenth book of Dichtung und Wahrheit as follows: "It was not long before I too came to correspond with Lavater. He had understood parts of "The Pastor's Letter", addressed to his colleague, most clearly. Indeed, many things corresponded entirely with his [Lavater's] views and convictions. His unremitting drive soon rendered our correspondance most animated." In 1773, Goethe reviewed the third volume of Lavater's Aussichten in die Ewigkeit in the Frankfurter Gelehrten Anzeigen. In 1774 the two men met for the first time in Frankfurt. Of this meeting Goethe wrote: "Our first meeting was most sincere; we embraced each other in the friendliest of ways, and I immediately preceived him to be exactly as so many pictures had suggested he would be. Before me, I saw an exceptional and excellent individual, a man fervent and full of effect, one as never seen until then, one never to be seen again."

Author: Ursula Caflisch-Schnetzler; Translation: Hania Bociek

JClW, Supplementary volume: Bibliographie der Werke Lavaters. Verzeichnis der zu seinen Lebzeiten im Druck erschienenen Schriften, ed. Horst Weigelt et al., Zurich 2001