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—Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, Lob der Faulheit (1747), reproduced in Werke, vol. 1, p. 77-78 (G. Göpfert ed. 1970)(S.H. transl.)
One of the key aspects of Lessing’s voluminous writings on literature and literary esthetics is the relationship between Witz, Humor and Genie—three concepts that can be rendered by their English cognates, wit, humor, and genius (though only in the second case is the English word really coterminous with the German). In general, Lessing valued the English tradition for its development of a kind of humor distinct from the then-prevailing French tradition of ridicule. The English approach reflected a genuinely humanist tradition with foundations in antiquity; in this context, Lessing repeatedly cited a passage from Pindar: “????? ? ????? ????? ???: ???????? ?? ?????? ??????????, ??????? ??” (“Wise is he who knows things through himself”).
This innocent, simple poem is a solid, lighthearted demonstration of Lessing’s principle, and a reminder, much like the works of Mozart, that the lighthearted, self-deprecating aside that aims for a simple chuckle may well be linked to serious genius, whereas a mocking, venomous, ill-spirited attack rarely is.
Remembering Gotthold Ephraim Lessing on his 283rd birthday.
Listen to a setting of the poem by Franz Joseph Haydn (Hoboken XXVIa) (1781), performed by Rüdiger Buell, with Ulrike Zeitler on the piano:
More from Scott Horton:
Six Questions — October 18, 2014, 8:00 pm
Nathaniel Raymond on CIA interrogation techniques.
Mark Denbeaux on the NCIS cover-up of three “suicides” at Guantánamo Bay Detention Camp
From the June 2014 issue
Estimated total calories members of Congress burned giving Bush’s 2002 State of the Union standing ovations:
A fertility scientist named Panayiotis Zavos announced that he had created human-cow embryos that were theoretically viable, but denied that he planned to allow such a hybrid to be implanted in a woman’s womb. “We are not trying to create monsters,” he said.
A statistician determined that the five most common first names among New York City taxi drivers are Md, Mohammad, Mohammed, Muhammad, and Mohamed.
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“I hope that after reading the following pages the leaders of the Y. M. C. A. will start a campaign to induce good young men to do nothing. If so, I shall not have lived in vain.”