Enlightenment, Revolution, and Romanticism: The Genesis of Modern German Political Thought, 1790-1800

By Frederick C. Beiser | Go to book overview

13
THE POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY OF C. M. WIELAND

13.1. Wieland as a Political Thinker

Indisputably, one of the central social and political thinkers of the 1790s was Christoph Martin Wieland ( 1733-1813). A major figure of Weimar classicism, along with Goethe and Schiller, Wieland is best known for his contributions to German literature. He has been seen as the founder of the Bildungsroman and as one of the great masters of modern German prose and verse. But we do Wieland a grave injustice if we pigeonhole him as a belletrist, for he was first and foremost a social and political writer. 1 Almost all his major writings after 1759-Geschichte des Agathon, Der goldene Spiegel, Die Geschichte der Abderiten, and Geschichte des weisen Danischmend--are devoted to social and political themes. These novels have an underlying social and political point, a moral that people can improve their lives only by creating a more just society. This concern with the social and political comes from nothing less than Wieland's conception of his role as an author. "The core or the aim of, or the key to, all my works, rhapsodies, stories, and tales in prose and verse," he wrote in 1770, is "to promote a more thorough improvement of the life of man."2 The chief condition of this improvement, he then added, is the creation of a state providing for the freedom and welfare of all its citizens.

Wieland's interest in social and political issues is apparent not only from his novels but also from his many essays on social and political philosophy. As early as the 1750s he wrote several articles on social and political themes, and he planned books and even a journal devoted to them. In 1770 he published his first work on political philosophy, a set of essays examining Rousseau's critique of the Enlightenment, entitled Beyträge zur geheime Geschichte der Menschheit. Throughout the 1770s and 1780s he continued to concern himself with politics, publishing articles on subjects such as enlightenment, freedom of speech and the press, natural law, German patriotism, and the ideal form of government. The most striking proof of his social and political concern came in the 1790s with his intense involvement in the French Revolution. Wieland's literary output in the 1790s is

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