On May 6, 1796, Freiherr Adolph Franz Friedrich Ludwig Knigge passed away. In Germany, Knigge is best remembered for his book ‘Über den Umgang mit Menschen‘ (On Human Relations), a treatise on the fundamental principles of human relations that has the reputation of being the authoritative guide to behaviour, politeness, and etiquette.
“Without inspiration, which fills the soul with a healthy warmth, nothing great can ever be brought to pass.”
— Adolph von Knigge
Knigge grew up to a nobel, but poor family and when his parents passed away in early age, he inherited their debts and was sent to Hannover in order to continue his studies. Knigge enrolled at the University of Göttingen in order to study law in 1769. Afterwards, he was appointed member of the court and assessor of the chamber of warfare of the city of Kassel. In later years, he changed the position and was appointed chamberlain in the city of Weimar. However, his interest in writing increased as much as his contempt for life on court. He moved to Frankfurt to devote most of his lifetime to literature. In his later life in Bremen, he became known as a supporter of the local culture scene, especially theater.
In 1788, the very first edition of his book ‘Über den Umgang mit Menschen‘, which is today simply known as ‘Knigge‘ was published. Further editions appeared in the following years and Knigge faced an instant success with his work and after his death, numerous editions followed with the introduction of behavior rules. The modern ‘Knigge‘ we know today was born. Now, we associate ‘Knigge‘ with good manners and behavior even though this is not, what the author intended. According to Knigge, the book gives an introduction to the social interactions influenced by the ideals of the enlightenment. Furthermore, the author discusses sociological and social-psychological topics. Knigge also gives insights into his historical, literary, and journalistic knowledge.
“Act well and properly, less to please others, more to keep your own self-respect.”
— Adolph Freiherr von Knigge, Über den Umgang mit Menschen (1788)
The work consists of three major parts. In the first section, Knigge gives an introduction to human relations and he explains how a person interacts with others concerning their different natures and tempers. In the next part he describes these aspects concerning a person’s family followed by a description of a person’s interaction with animals. The book was translated into the English language and published in 1805 titled ‘Practical Philosophy of Social Life: Or the Art of Conversing with Men‘. In later years, Knigge’s work was increasingly mistaken as a guide to behavior and politeness. After Knigge’s death, the publisher expanded the original work with behavior rules, which even strengthened the ‘error’.
At yovisto academic video search, you may be interested in a video lecture on the Age of Enlightenment. Professor Dustin Champion discusses, why the ideas of the period still matter today.
References and Further Reading:
-  Knigge Website
-  Knigge at the German National Library
-  Fulltext of Knigge’s Über den Umgang mit Menschen [German]
-  More SciHi Blog articles from the era of enlightenment
-  Adolph von Knigge at Wikidata