Among ordinary people, the cultural bedrock of life remained religion intermixed with folk knowledge and wisdom. Yet, as society restabilized after the Thirty Years War, adult men and women increasingly displayed the elemental literacy that came with Protestantism, Baroque-era Catholic Church reform, and the rise of the absolutist state. This accomplishment manifested itself minimally in an ability to decipher holy scripture and the hymnal, if not to sign one’s name with confidence. Throughout the eighteenth century, many among the common folk displayed a robust appetite for devotional and inspirational tracts and for broadsheets that reported recent news – especially sensations, catastrophes, and prophecies. Protestant piety encouraged introspective autobiography among those with a bent for writing, if only for the desk drawer. Eventually, at the eighteenth century’s close, folk-savants appeared, publishing their gritty but hopeful life stories and other compositions to the applause of the newly enlightened upper classes.
The sons and daughters of the propertied upper classes, both bourgeois and noble, moved beyond basic literacy to varying degrees of familiarity with their age’s high culture. Until the mid-eighteenth century, this was framed within, and meant to express and reinforce, theologically orthodox Christianity in its prevalent German forms. Thereafter, among many university graduates active as officials and within the learned professions, and among the intelligentsia of artists and writers, Christian orthodoxy weakened. Challenging it was metaphysical Deism, conceiving God as the creator of the rational universe, though it also often perpetuated (sometimes unwittingly) Christian concepts and imagery from sacred history.
There arose as well an influential, quasi-religious aesthetics of nature, expressed as pantheism and sometimes attacked by establishment theologians as “Spinozan atheism” (in reference to seventeenth-century dissident thinker Baruch Spinoza, who found reason and God coterminous in nature). Yet the German Enlightenment [Aufklärung], dawning in the late seventeenth century and reaching high noon a century later, retained a strong religious sensibility, even as it increasingly turned away from Baroque-age Christian orthodoxy. In France and England, by contrast, Enlightenment culture’s embrace of secular-minded rationalism, empiricism, and (in varying degrees) materialism was more ardent. Many leading figures in German intellectual and cultural life were the sons of Protestant divines. Many, too, had studied theology at university.
In Protestant Germany, the late seventeenth-century emergence of Pietism represented a sea change. Though guided by clergymen, this was a revitalization movement among lay-people, aimed at personalization and subjectivization of faith beyond mere rote observance, missionizing and inspirational publishing, and ministration to social needs for poor-relief and education. Though comparable movements arose elsewhere in Germany, in the first half of the eighteenth century, the Prussian monarchy patronized Pietism, both to its own advantage – through Pietism’s reinforcement in public life of an ethic of work and duty – and that of the movement, whose institutions gained royal funding, though this ended after 1740 under the freethinking and skeptical Frederick II.
Such celebrated and brilliant Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment writers as Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, Immanuel Kant, Johann Gottfried Herder, Novalis (Friedrich Philipp von Hardenberg), Friedrich Schiller, Johann Gottlieb Fichte, and Georg Friedrich Wilhelm Hegel displayed a striking talent for imagining humanity’s identity and destiny as unfolding toward (a perhaps never wholly to be attained) fulfillment in historical time. Conversion of Christianity’s salvational narrative into a corresponding conception of earthly progress, whether cumulative or revolutionary, toward a final (that is, teleological) end – Reason, Freedom, Democracy, God-like Self-Knowledge – occurred wherever the Enlightenment shone, but nowhere more brightly than in Germany. Doubtless the influence of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz helps explain this characteristic, for this earliest, widely read, multi-talented luminary of German philosophical and scientific rationalism also strove toward an understanding of the world in which Divine Providence enabled humanity to attain, in historical time, moral and intellectual self-perfection.