The author Pestalozzi

Life crisis

"There he stood, the crowd surrounded him and one said: You are our painter? It would have been better if you were here to mend our shoes.

He answered: I would have mended your shoes, I would have carried stones for you, I would have scooped water for you, I would have died for you, but you did not want me. So I saw in this enforced emptiness of my life no other way than to learn painting." (PSW 11, p.101)

Pestalozzi could see himself in this situation. The only way left for him to do social and political work was writing, to paint the man and its life in the words of poets and philosophers.

The time from 1780 till 1798, Pestalozzi's best prime, is not only considered as Pestalozzi's real writing epoch among specialists but also as a "time of big life crisis". Pestalozzi suffered more and more from his own poverty, from his loneliness, from the disdain people showed towards him and especially from the general judgement people pronounced on him: he was useless. So his former optimistic image of the human that was supported by Rousseau's conviction of the genuine goodness of the man, changed gradually. He became a hard realist, free of illusions, who saw above all the egoist in every human, whom he had to cope with. In loosing his faith in the man and its inner forces Pestalozzi also lost his very strong religious feelings. Temporarily he was full of a feeling of disdain for the human. He, who longed so passionately for loving and being loved. In a review to Stans, where he once again was able to work as a father for the poor, he wrote:

"It disappears, it disappears completely. I delete the disgrace of my life. The virtue of my youth is renewing. Like a man that dwells in mud and faeces up to his throat, who is awaiting his death and sees that the completion of his most urgent journey will never happen. Like this man I lived for years, years of despair and of unpronounceable misery. I could have spit in the face of the whole world that surrounded and saw me." (PSB 4, p.20)

Of course writing was not the only thing Pestalozzi did during these 18 years. He worked at his estate, he did some clothes printing in outwork, he met a lot of people at home and abroad, he looked over and over again for educational or political work- he hoped for employment at the court of the emperor. He read books and wrote a lot of critical annotations, he worked as a mediator in political dangerous situations and he even acted as director of a silk factory in Zurich, because this position could only be occupied by a citizen of the city of Zurich. Actually he had no command at all but he got bread and his wife was able to earn money in the office of the factory.

Above all Isaak Iselin encouraged Pestalozzi to write:

"Iselin was the first one, who raised the idea in me that I had had to make certain experiences in my situation which would enable me to work as an author for the rural population. Long ago we had started to talk about the nature of the best way to educate the people. I had tried out different kinds of education but none was really satisfactory. I felt that the people first had to be taught to see themselves and their situation more clearly. I felt that the people only believe someone, who loves them and that they do not believe in the love of anybody unless he is lending them his helping hand in any way. I saw that images and stories were the only effective mean to educate the people. So I thought it would be possible to prepare an interesting story including all the basic points of view, which one could present afterwards in certain principles. The idea for my two "Volksbücher" was born." (PSW 8, p.247)

Talking about "Volksbücher" Pestalozzi means "Lienhard und Gertrud" and "Christoph und Else". The literary yield from the time between 1780 and 1798 is very diverse and interesting. It shows Pestalozzi's different sides of character: he was an intimate expert for the life of the poor, an outstanding specialist for law, a historian, a most promising novel author, an educator, a politician concerned with various questions and he was also a philosopher who dealt with questions about the nature of the human, society, religion and law. The scientific edition of his work contains 60 bigger and smaller scripts from this time. The most important works are presented in the following paragraphs:


"Abendstunde eines Einsiedlers", written in 1779 and published in Iselin's "Ephemeriden der Menschheit" in May 1780 was considered by Pestalozzi as "Prologue to everything I am going to write in future" (PSB 3, p. 96). The text considers the following main questions: What is the real nature of the human? What is his destiny? How can the human find truth and happiness? What principles should we stick to in education? On what foundation should a just society and a charitable state be based on? What is the importance of religion?

The leading idea is, that human society should represent a copy of the father-child-relation between god and man and that the man is happy in the masses when government and people feel in their social behaviour as children of god and act according to this feeling.

Read the detailed work-analysis


Pestalozzi explained this vision from "Abendstunde" in his literary main work, the fourt-part novel "Lienhard und Gertrud". The first part published in 1781 caused a sensation in all cities and in all walks of life and established Pestalozzi's worldwide glory. In shortest time the book was translated into several languages. This success encouraged the author to write the following parts that were published in 1783, 1785 and 1787. Pestalozzi' work is also literary important because it is the first time that not only the destiny of single persons is described but the fate of a whole village is in the centre of attention.

(go to abstract of "content and main ideas of Lienhard und Gertrud").

As big as the success of the first two parts of "Lienhard und Gertrud" was, it did not make Pestalozzi entirely happy. He complained several times about people loving his books but not getting the main message and not acting according to it. So he started to write his second "Volksbuch" called "Christoph und Else" already in 1782. The plot is simple: The in the title mentioned couple is sitting together with the smart farm hand Joost- he attends to Pestalozzi's point of view- and the boy Fritz. They read a chapter from "Lienhard und Gertrud" and talk about it. For people supporting Pestalozzi's ideas the book was obviously a treasure trove but the rather boring plot did not fill the masses with enthusiasm. Therefore Pestalozzi did not continue this project; he rather tried to weave more of his own thoughts into the story of "Lienhard und Gertrud". But in this way however the last two books were harder to read. And so Pestalozzi had to accept that it is hard to improve the world by a book.

The first edition of the four parts is especially interesting for the philosophical reader because above all the last two parts show Pestalozzi's turn from the optimistic picture of the human in "Abendstunde" to a position characterized by hard realism and even pessimism. The most obvious expression of this changed point of view is shown in the popular Leutnantsphilosophie, that means in chapter 41 of the fourth part ("Die Philosophie meines Leutnants und diejenige meines Buches") when Pestalozzi makes the abdicated and disabled Lieutenant Glüphi, who became teacher in Bonnal, his mouthpiece.

Already before the breakdown of his house for the poor Pestalozzi asked his friend Iselin to help him to find an employment abroad. He trained his sight on the emperor's court in Vienna setting his hopes on the socially very progressive emperor Joseph II. Pestalozzi corresponded with the emperor's minister for finance Graf Johann Christian von Zinzendorf since 1783 and since 1787 also with the emperor's brother Herzog Leopold von Toscana. In these actions one can discern Pestalozzi's attempt to influence nobility and "Lienhard und Gertrud" is the obvious evidence that Pestalozzi hoped for an improvement of the social situation by an inner change of nobility until 1792. He also hoped to improve his chances for an employment in Austrian service by this book. It can be seen as a very awkward way to curry favour with the influential emperor's minister of finance Zinzendorf that Pestalozzi named the minister of finance in his novel Endorf. This Endorf by the way agreed step by step to Pestalozzi's methods. Pestalozzi's ambitions also finally were the decisive factor to revise the whole novel. So he published in 1790/92 a shorter second edition of "Lienhard und Gertrud" in three parts. Bur it did not have he desired effect because Joseph II. died in 1790 and Leopold who succeeded his brother as emperor in Vienna and for whom Pestalozzi probably wrote the second edition of his novel, also died in 1792. So Pestalozzi's connection to Vienna broke off. "Lienhard und Gertrud" however stays according to Pestalozzi's own words "an eternal monument […] for the fact that I exhausted my forces to save the pure aristocratism." (PSB 3, p. 286)

"Über Gesetzgebung und Kindermord"

Another important work Pestalozzi printed in 1783 on his own costs was "Über Gesetzgebung und Kindermord". Pestalozzi was animated to write this important work by an announcement that Isaak Iselin published in his "Ephemeriden" in November 1780, saying that a philanthropist from Germany endowed the best answer to the question "What are the best practicable means to avoid murder of children without supporting illicit sexual relations with children?" with 100 Dukaten. Due to Enlightenment many thoughtful people in Europe dealt with criminal law and penal system. Generally there was a tendency not to punish objectively discovered offence by previously fixed sentences but to take into consideration the personal motives of the perpetrator to find a just verdict. The punishment was not seen as an act of expiation or revenge but rather as an act of education and re-integration into society. At that time the people were especially moved by numerous murders of children that were all sentenced death penalty. As known also Goethe dealt with this subject in Faust I.

Pestalozzi felt immediately invited to work on this urgent social and ethical question. He managed to organise the files of several trials that he partly copied to his work word-for-word. So he was able to arouse the reader's sympathy for the unhappy young mothers, who killed their own children because of their mental misery and were now given to executioner. The whole book is a passionate defence of the poor mothers who went astray and a heavy charge to society, its institutions and its hypocritical moral standards.

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"Ein Schweizer Blatt"

Also an important literary product written at that time is the so called "Schweizer Blatt", a weekly newspaper that Pestalozzi published for the whole year 1782 and that contained mostly his own texts. In the beginning he did not reveal his identity but after a time it was obvious to every interested reader that the author was nobody else than Pestalozzi himself, so he stopped hiding later on.

Pestalozzi did what a lot of other people did at that time: Due to Enlightenment and the improved printing techniques there developed new newspapers frequently, whereas most of them were very short-lived. Pestalozzi shared this destiny. His paper was meant for educated readers and was demanding in every respect so who wonders that it did not sell like hot cakes? Furthermore Pestalozzi was nerved by the weekly revise of the drafts so he was happy when the 52nd week of the year began and he was able to give up his enterprise more or less honourably.


Pestalozzi had already published a series of fables in the "Schweizer Blatt", mostly stories about animals or plants in that the man can discern all his own confusion and contradiction as long as he is able to interpret the metaphors. At that time there was no freedom of the press at Switzerland; the authorities controlled what was printed. So it was difficult to publish ideas on political questions. Fables were a good solution to this problem because they did not reveal their meaning so openly that the censors were able to prevent the publication. Of course Pestalozzi was not the only one who spoke in fables at that time. During the years his collection grew. He was able to publish over 230 of them in 1797 in a book with the complicated title "Figuren zu meinem ABC-Buch oder über die Anfangsgründe meines Denkens". Possibly Pestalozzi described here his novel "Lienhard und Gertrud" by the synonym "ABC-Buch", because he once called it "ABC-Buch der Menschheit" (PSW 3, p. 3). It is also very likely that he means his philosophical basis-work "Meine Nachforschungen über den Gang der Natur in der Entwicklung des Menschengeschlechts" published in the same year and that the "Figuren" he is talking of symbolize the prototype of social and political life. Pestalozzi is absolutely aware of the fact that his ideas are not based on a philosophical thesis but on vivid images.

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In the same year, 1797, Pestalozzi published his most important philosophical work: "Meine Nachforschungen über den Gang der Natur in der Entwicklung des Menschengeschlechts". It was the result of several years' work. His very optimistic view in "Abendstunde" had proved as dead end but Pestalozzi also considered the hard realism and pessimism of the "Leutnantsphilosophie" as increasing limiting factor. As the famous Nicoloviusbrief shows, Pestalozzi's previous enquiries were focussed on the connection between the animal nature of the human and social reality whereas he -following Rousseau- tended to see the absolute necessary morality in a genuine connection to the social. So his ideas offered him only one solution: To see the morality of the human as a possibility of the single individual, that means a way of existence, that was based on a from the animal and social aspects independent inner force of the individual (he calls it "divine sparks" one time). The animal nature of the human and his social existence were not the reasons from this point of view but just the premises and conditions for a moral existence of the human. This dualism of the human nature, that is presented in Pestalozzi's other works nearly stereotype on the one hand as "animal", "lower", "sensuous" nature and on the other hand as "higher", "eternal", "inner", "divine" nature, explains the never ending excitements the man has to endure contrarily to the animal. Additionally the different characteristic features of the natural, of the social and of the moral existence can not only explain the contradictions the man is living in but it also shows the necessity and the possibility to come over this contradiction at least partly, when the individual is coming to morality in its single acts of life.

Go to analysis of "Nachforschungen"