the Fourth Week of Lent
Nicolai, Christoph Friederich
Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature
an eminent German Rationalist, noted as a writer on aesthetics and other branches of philosophy, was born March 18,1733, at Berlin, Germany, where his father was a bookseller. At the age of sixteen, just as he was beginning to make some proficiency in his studies, he was obliged to abandon them, being sent to Frankfort-on-the-Oder for the purpose of learning the bookselling trade; yet such was his eagerness for information, his love of reading, and his perseverance, that he employed every moment of leisure, his evenings and the early part of every morning, in study, and, without other assistance than that of books, made himself a proficient in Greek, Latin, and English, and likewise acquired a knowledge of some parts of mathematics and philosophy. On his return to Berlin, in 1752, his attention to business did not interrupt his self-imposed studies, of which both English and German poetry then formed a considerable part; and in 1755 he produced his Briefe iiber den jetzigen Zustand der Schonen Wissenschaften, wherein he impartially discussed the pretensions of the two literary sects headed by Bodmer and Gottsched, the former advocating pure German, and the latter favoring a dependence on French taste and influence. Nicolai exposed the errors of both schools, and surprised the literati of the country by his keen criticisms. Indeed the work excited considerable attention, and led to his intimacy with Lessing and Moses Mendelssohn.
After the death of his father he' retired from business, leaving it to his brother, and determined to content himself with his own slender means in preference to the pecuniary advantages to be reaped by sacrificing his literary leisure and enjoyments. The unexpected death, however, of his elder brother, in 1758, put an end to this short interval of tranquil study, he being obliged to carry on the business for the benefit of the family in general. But this only increased his diligence and economy of time, and led to his connection with several literary enterprises, which he had before projected. In conjunction with Mendelssohn he had already commenced (1757) the Bibliothek der Schonen Wissenschaften, one of the earliest and best belleslettres journals in the language, which was afterwards continued, till the end of 1805, under the title of the Neue Bibliothek, etc. With Lessing and Mendelssohn, he established, in 1759, the Briefe der Neuesten Literatur; and in 1765 projected the Allgemeine Deutsche Bibliothek, of which periodical he continued to be editor till it reached its 107th volume. At the head of this periodical Nicolai played no unimportant part in that epoch of German history known as "the period of enlightenment."
The truth is, Nicolai possessed great abilities in certain directions. He was an able executive, and knew how to gather about him the best of his country's talents. The appliances of the Universal German Library" are conceded even by his severest opponents to have been remarkable. It by no means confined itself to home talent. It commanded a survey of the literature of England, Holland, France, and Italy. Whatever appeared in these lands received its immediate attention, and was reproached or magnified according to its relations to the peculiar creed of Nicolai and his colaborers. And what was this peculiar creed? The sundering of humanity and Christianity. Not the making of Christians in order to have men, but the making of men to become Christians or anything else they chose; and all this was claimed in the name of liberty of thought and of Protestantism. By appealing to the people in the name of the latter Nicolai betrayed an interest in Christianity, but it appears that he simply sought the moral development before he desired the religious training. So long as the work of purifying the public mind from the filth of superstition, and emancipating it from prejudices remained to be done, he labored with most salutary effect for the good of his countrymen in ethical and aesthetical directions; but when the victory over traditional absurdities had been gained, and the positive replenishment of the public mind with a nobler content became the main problem, his influence was most pernicious. An adept of illuminism, his unphilosophical mind was the skillful master of bold and unscrupulous arguments, which he used with great and undue acerbity against all who would oppose him or reject his plans. He was especially violent against the heroes of German philosophy, the very men who labored for the solution of the great problem then before the German people, the substitution of a positive for a negative principle, the part in which, as we have already said above, Nicolai failed.
He was opposed by such men as Herder, Goethe, Schiller, Lavater, and Fichte. These men were laboring for the solution of a problem which he misunderstood. Of course they wrote simply in defense, yet they grew hot in the contest; and in determining the historic estimate of Nicolai, these writers should be granted no greater influence than the hostile criticism by Plato and Socrates of the Sophists should have in determining the usefulness of the latter. But let us hear Fichte on Nicolai's view of Protestantism, making due allowance for acerbity of tone in an opponent so decided as Fichte: "His (i.e. Nicolai's) Protestantism was a protestation against all truth which pretended to remain truth; against all that is above our senses, and against every religion which by faith put an end to dispute. To him religion was only a means of education for the head, in order to furnish materials for never-ceasing talk, but by no means a matter of the heart and the life. His liberty of thinking was freedom from all that was and is thought, the licentiousness of emptythinking, without substance and aim. Liberty of judgment was to him the right of every bungler and ignorant man to give his opinion about everything, whether he understood it or not, and whether or not there was either head or tail in what he said." As to the general influence of the Bibliothek, the rationalistic Hase even goes so far as to declare that under Nicolai's management it "exercised an absolute sway as a tribunal of literature, and always exerted its secret influence in opposition to the ancient system of faith, and rejected everything which exceeded the limits of its own bald intelligence and morality. on the ground of a liability either to the reproach of superstition or the suspicion of Jesuitism." The truth is, if we carefully estimate Nicolai's system, we find that it professed to regard Christianity only as a historical development of natural morality and religion, and a popular system of instruction as to the best way to become happy in this world and the next.
In consequence of the power possessed by the opposition among the influential classes, and its continued adherence to the general basis of Christianity, it would neither be discarded as a heresy, nor did it attempt to set up a peculiar Church of its own. By the thinkers of Protestantism it was looked upon as simply one among many theological views, and as heterodoxy by the side of orthodoxy. Yet, as Hagenbach has well said of the labors of Nicolai and his associates: "In this pronounced effort towards universal culture and popular illuminism, and in this intellectual activity, who would dare to say' there was nothing but vanity and destructive sentiment and effort? Nay, who would deride it with cold and careless presumption, or condemn it with blind zeal? We must frankly confess that, with this perverted tendency, there was also a noble impulse towards something better than European humanity in general had previously possessed-an impulse to escape from the diminutive forms of a contracted and commonplace life into universal humanity, and to attain a safe and joyous consciousness of it. It was a tendency which we still call by the beautiful name of the public good."' Nicolai did not contribute much to the Bibliothek himself, but the management alone of such a periodical, so largely circulated and read in its day, shows him to have been indefatigable, as in the meanwhile, notwithstanding all his other avocations, he produced many works.' Among these the most important in their bearings on religion and theology are, Sebaldus Nothanker (1773, etc.), a sort of religious novel, which had great success, and was translated into English, French, Dutch, Danish, and Swedish; a sharply satirical performance: — Geschichte eines dicken Mannes (1794), against the disciples of the Kantish philosophy, to which Nicolai objected that all its new views were incorrect, and all its correct views not new: — Sempronius Gundibert (1799), a satire against the Kantians. Besides these there are worthy of our notice, an Autobiography, published in the Bildnisse jetzt lebender Berliner Gelehrten; and a work entitled Ueber meine gelehrte Bildung, uber meine Kenntniss der Kritischen Philosophie und meine Schrifien dieselbe' betreffend, und iiber die Herren Kant, J. B. Erhard, und Fichte(Berl. 1799). Nicolai died in Berlin in 1811. See Jorden's Lexikon deutscher Dichter u. Prosaisten (4:32); Gockingk, Nicolazis Leben, etc. (Berlin, 1820); Koberstein, Gesch. d. deutschen National-Literatur (in Index); Kurz, Gesch. d. deutsch. Lit. vol. ii; Fichte (J. J.), Nicolais Leben -u. Sonderbare Meinungen (Tubing. 1801); Hase, Ch. Hist. p. 539; Ueberweg, Hist. of Philos. 2:118; Hurst's Hagenbach, Ch. Hist. of the 18th and 19th Cent. 1:297, 304, 306 sq., 312 sq., 346, 490; 2:178 sq., 263, 280; Kahnis, Hist. of German Protestantism, p. 44. See also the peculiar views of Dr. Hurst, Hist. of Rationalism, p. 117, 118.
These files are public domain.
McClintock, John. Strong, James. Entry for 'Nicolai, Christoph Friederich'. Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature. https://www.studylight.org/​encyclopedias/​eng/​tce/​n/nicolai-christoph-friederich.html. Harper & Brothers. New York. 1870.