Johann Kaspar Lavater (November 15, 1741 – January 2, 1801), was a poet and physiognomist.
He was born at Zürich, and educated at the Gymnasium there, where J. J. Bodmer and J. J. Breitinger were among his teachers. When barely twenty-one, he greatly distinguished himself by denouncing, in conjunction with his friend, the painter Henry Fuseli, an iniquitous magistrate, who was compelled to make restitution of his ill-gotten gains.
In 1769 Lavater took Holy Orders, and officiated till his death as deacon or pastor in 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 enthusiasm on his journeys through Germany. His mystical writings were also widely popular.
In the same year of 1769 Lavater tried to convert Moses Mendelssohn to Christianity, by sending him a translation of Charles Bonnet’s Palingenesie philosophique, and demanding that he either publickly refute Bonnet’s arguments or convert. Mendelssohn refused to do either. In this affair many prominent intellectuals took Mendelssohn’s side – among them Lichtenberg and Herder.
Lavater’s name would now be forgotten but for his work on physiognomy, Physiognomische Fragmente zur Beförderung der Menschenkenntnis und Menschenliebe (1775-1778). The fame of this book, which found admirers in France and England as well as in Germany, rests 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 observations made by Sir Thomas Browne in his Religio Medici (translated into German in 1748 and praised by Lavater).
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).