Christoph Martin Wieland is the least known, but perhaps the most lovable, of the four men who made Weimar’s fame. Almost all the influences of the time played upon him and tuned his lyre in their turn. Son of a pastor in Oberholzheim (near Biberach in Württemberg), he was nurtured in piety and theology. When he discovered poetry, he made the virtuous Klopstock his ideal, and then turned to Voltaire for relief. At nearby Warthausen he found the extensive library of Count von Stadion; he plunged into French and English literature, and sloughed off so much theology that in a romance, Don Sylvio von Rosalva (1764), he held up his boyhood faith to ridicule. He published prose translations of twenty plays by Shakespeare (1762-66), thereby giving Germany for the first time a view of Shakespeare as a whole, and providing German playwrights with an escape from the classic formula of French drama. Meanwhile Winckelmann and others were spreading the Hellenic gospel; Wieland made his own version of it, adopted a light epicurean tone in Komische Erzählungen (Comic Tales, 1765), and made a fictitious Greek the protagonist of his main prose work, Geschichte des Agathon (1766-67). Lessing called it “the only novel for thinking men.”6
In its wandering pages Wieland (aged thirty-three) proposed to expound his philosophy of life, exemplified in the physical and intellectual adventures of an Athenian of the Periclean age. “Our plan,” said the preface, “required that our hero should be represented in a variety of trials,” whose effect would be to educate a man in integrity and wisdom without the use of religious incentives or supports.7 Agathon (i.e., Good), young and handsome, resists the attempt of a Delphic priestess to seduce him; instead he develops for the simple maiden Psyche (Soul) a pure though passionate love. He enters politics, becomes disgusted by the factionalism of parties, denounces the voters for their lack of principle, and is banished from Athens. Wandering in the mountains of Greece, he comes upon a band of Thracian women who are celebrating the feast of Bacchus with wild and sensual dances. They mistake Agathon for Bacchus, and almost stifle him with their embraces; he is rescued by a pirate band, which sells him as a slave in Smyrna to Hippias, a Sophist of the fifth century B.C Wieland expounds the philosophy of the Sophists with indignation:
The wisdom of which the Sophists made a profession was in quality, as well as in effect, the exact opposite of that professed by Socrates. The Sophists taught the art of exciting other men’s passions [through oratory]; Socrates inculcated the art of controlling one’s own. The former showed how to appear wise and virtuous, the latter how to be so. The former encouraged the youth of Athens to assume control of the state; the latter pointed out to them that it would take half their lifetime to learn how to rule themselves. The Socratic philosophy took pride in going without riches; the philosophy of the Sophists knew how to acquire them. It was complaisant, prepossessing, versatile; it glorified the great, … dallied with women, and flattered everybody who paid for it. It was everywhere at home, a favorite at court, in the boudoir, with the aristocracy, even with the priesthood, while Socrates’ doctrines … would be pronounced unprofitable by the busy, insipid by the idle, and dangerous by the devout.8
Hippias, as Wieland pictures him, embodies all the ideas and vices of the Sophists. He is a philosopher, but he has seen to it that he is also a millionaire. He resolves to bring the upright Agathon to an epicurean way of thought and life. The wisest policy, he argues, is to pursue pleasant sensations, and “all pleasures are in reality sensual.”9 He laughs at those who deny themselves mundane joys to gain heavenly delights that may never materialize. “Who has ever seen those gods, and those spiritual beings, whose existence it [religion] asserts?” All that is a trick the priests play upon us.10 Agathon condemns this philosophy as ignoring the spiritual element in man and the needs of social order. Hippias introduces him to the rich and lovely Danae, encourages her to seduce him, and conceals from him Danae’s hetaera past. She dances, and the grace of her body, added to the charm of her conversation and the music of her voice, leads Agathon to offer her his full but virtuous love. Danae spoils Hippias’ plot by returning Agathon’s love in kind. She, who had passed through many arms, finds a new experience and happiness in Agathon’s devotion. Tired of soulless loves, she aspires to begin with Agathon a new and purer life. She buys him from Hippias, frees him, and invites him to share her wealth. Hippias, in revenge, reveals to Agathon Danae’s career as a courtesan. Agathon takes ship to Syracuse.
There he gains such repute for wisdom and integrity that he becomes chief minister to the dictator Dionysius. By this time he has surrendered some of his idealism:
He did not now have as highflown conceptions of human nature as before. Or, rather, he had come to know the infinite distance between the metaphysical man, of whom one thinks or dreams in speculative solitude, or the natural man as he proceeds in crude simplicity from the hands of the universal mother, and the artificial man whom society, laws, opinions, needs, dependence, and continual struggle of his desires with his circumstances, of his own advantage with the advantage of others, and the consequent necessity of continual dissimulation and masking of his true intentions, have falsified, degraded, distorted, and disguised, in a thousand unnatural and deceptive forms. He was no longer the youthful enthusiast who imagined that it would be as easy to carry out a great undertaking as to conceive it. He had learned how little one ought to expect from others, how little one ought to count on their co-operation, and (what is most important) how little one ought to trust oneself. … He had learned that the most perfect plan is often the worst [and] that in the moral world, as in the material, nothing moves in a straight line; in short, that life is like a voyage, where the pilot must adapt his course to wind and weather, where he is never sure that he will not be delayed or drifted aside by contrary currents; and that everything depends upon this: amid a thousand deviations from one’s course, yet to hold one’s mind unbendingly fixed upon the port of destination.11
Agathon serves Syracuse well and accomplishes some reforms, but a court cabal deposes him, and he retires to Tarentum. There he is welcomed by his father’s old friend the Pythagorean philosopher and scientist Archytas (fl. 400-365 B.C.), who realizes Plato’s dream of a philosopher-king. There Agathon finds his youthful love Psyche, but, alas, she is married to Archytas’ son, and turns out to be Agathon’s sister. However (with the magic wand of a novelist) Danae is brought from Smyrna to Tarentum; she has abandoned her epicurean ways to live in a demure modesty. Agathon, realizing that he had sinned in deserting her, begs her forgiveness; she embraces him, but refuses marriage; she has resolved to atone for the meandering morals of her past by living her remaining years in continence. The story ends with Agathon incredibly content with sisters.
The book has a hundred faults. The structure is loose, the coincidences are lazy evasions of artistry; the style is agreeable but diffuse; in many paragraphs the subject avoids the predicate until it is forgotten; a critic greeted the author’s birthday by wishing him a life as long as his sentences. Even so, The History of Agathon is one of the major works of the Frederician age. Its conclusions indicated that Wieland had reconciled himself with the world, and could now be trusted to teach and tame stormy and stressful youths. In 1769 he was made professor of philosophy at Erfurt. Thence, three years later, he issued Der goldene Spiegel (The Golden Mirror), which expressed his ideas on education. Anna Amalie was charmed; she invited him to try his pedagogy on her sons. He came, and spent the rest of his life in Weimar. In 1773 he founded Der teutsche Merkur (The German Herald), which under his leadership was for a generation (1773-89) the most influential literary review in Germany. He was the intellectual star of Weimar till Goethe came; and when, in 1775, the dashing young author of Werther took the city by storm, Wieland welcomed him without jealousy, and was to remain his friend for thirty-six years.