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Johann Kaspar Lavater

Johann Kaspar Lavater (November 15, 1741 - January 2, 1801), German poet and physiognomist, was born at Zürich.

He was educated at the Gymnasium of his native town, where JJ Bodmer and JJ Breitinger were among his teachers. When barely one-and-twenty he greatly distinguished himself by denouncing, in conjunction with his friend, the painter H Fuseli, an iniquitous magistrate, who was compelled to make restitution of his ill-gotten gains. In 1769 Lavater took orders, and officiated till his death as deacon or pastor in various churches in his native city. His oratorical fervour and genuine depth of conviction gave him great personal influence; he was extensively consulted as a casuist, and was welcomed with demonstrative enthusiasm in his numerous journeys through Germany. His mystical writings were also widely popular.

Scarcely a trace of this influence has remained, and Lavater's name would be forgotten but for his work on physiognomy, Physiognomische Fragmente zur Beförderung der Menschenkenntnis und Menschenliebe (1775-1778). The fame even of this book, which found enthusiastic admirers in France and England, as well as in Germany, rests to a great extent upon the handsome style of publication and the accompanying illustrations. The two principal sources from which Lavater developed his study of physiognomy were from the writings of the Italian polymath Giambattista della Porta and the physiognomical observations made by Sir Thomas Browne in his Religio Medici a work which was translated into German in 1748 and which Lavater read and praised.

As a poet, Lavater published Christliche Lieder (1776-1780) and two epics, Jesus Messias (1780) and Joseph von Arimathia (1794), in the style of Klopstock. More important and characteristic of the religious temperament of Lavater's age are his introspective Aussichten in die Ewigkeit (4 vols. 1768-1778); Geheimes Tagebuch von einem Beobachter seine selbst (2 vols., 1772-1773) and Pontius Pilatus, oder der Mensch in allen Gestalten (4 vols., 1782-1785).

From 1774 on, Goethe was intimately acquainted with Lavater, but at a later period he became estranged from him, somewhat abruptly accusing him of superstition and hypocrisy. Lavater had a mystic's indifference to historical Christianity, and, although esteemed by himself and others a champion of orthodoxy, was in fact only an antagonist of rationalism. During the later years of his life his influence waned, and he incurred ridicule by some exhibitions of vanity. He redeemed himself by his patriotic conduct during the French occupation of Switzerland, which brought about his tragical death. On the taking of Zürich by the French In 1799, Lavater, while endeavouring to appease the soldiery, was shot through the body by an infuriated grenadier; he died after long sufferings borne with great fortitude, on the 2nd of January 1801.

Lavater himself published two collections of his writings, Vermlschte Schriften (2 vols., 1774-1781), and Kleinere prosaische Schriften (3 vols., 1784-1785). His Nachgelassene Schriften were edited by G Gessner (5 vols., 1801-1802); Sämtliche Werke (but only poems) (6 vols., 1836-1838); Ausgewählte Schriften (8 vols., 1841-1844). See G Gessner, Lavaters Lebensbeschreibung (3 vols., 1802—1803); U Hegner, Beiträge zur Kenntnis Lavaters (1836); FW Bodemann, Lavater nach seinem Leben, Lehren und Wirken (1856; 2nd ed., 1877); F Muocker, J. K. Lavater (1883); H Waser, J. K. Lavater nach Hegners Aufzeichnungen (1894); J. K. Lavater, Denkschrift zum 100. Todestag (1902).

This entry was originally from the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica.