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By MOSES MENDELSSOHN
UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS Copyright © 2012 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
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Introduction On February 15, 1781, Gotthold Ephraim Lessing died at the age of fifty-two. The two final works of Moses Mendelssohn's career, Morgenstunden (Morning Hours, 1785) and An die Freunde Lessings (To the Friends of Lessing, 1786), were written in the long shadow cast by this death over the remaining years of Mendelssohn's life. "The death of this friend with whom, one could say, I felt I had come to share my life has struck a deep wound in my heart," Mendelssohn confessed, just one month after Lessing's death, in a letter to Johann Gottfried Herder. Two months later, Mendelssohn informed Herder, "I have the intention this summer, if my health permits, to write something about the character of our Lessing." This intention was never fulfilled, although not because Mendelssohn's health did not permit it. Instead of the planned book on Lessing's character, we have Morning Hours (MH) and To the Friends of Lessing (TFL).
Both MH and TFL have Lessing at their center, but in a ways that are far different from what Mendelssohn had originally intended. And if Mendelssohn had first seemed concerned that his health might prevent him from completing a book on Lessing, he abandoned all such concern in order to write MH and TFL. Mendelssohn informs us in his foreword to MH that the book was composed in the face of a nervous disorder that in those years plagued him whenever he engaged himself seriously with philosophy. Not many months after publishing MH, Mendelssohn penned TFL in great haste. Feeling it was urgent that the manuscript reach his publisher as soon as possible, Mendelssohn carried it to him on a bitterly cold Saturday, the thirty-first of December 1785. He grew feverish that evening, and on Wednesday of the same week he died. He was fifty-six years old. Reflecting upon the final outcome of Mendelssohn's intention to "write something about the character of our Lessing," Alexander Altmann put it best when he wrote that "it was as if [this intention] was born under an evil star." Despite the fact that the books as we have them now do not correspond to Mendelssohn's original intention to write about Lessing's character, MH and TFL are nonetheless testimonies to the lifelong friendship and creative collaboration of Lessing and Mendelssohn. They do not, however, provide a mere record of a past friendship or a portrait of his dear friend's character. Rather, MH and TFL were written to stake a claim upon the future. They were written to ensure that the friendship between Lessing and Mendelssohn would continue to inspire the transformation of German culture along the path of the Enlightenment ideal of religious toleration, to which both men had devoted themselves throughout their decades-long association. The last two writings of Mendelssohn's career seek to provide a firm foundation for an ambitious cultural project that he characterized with the term Bildung, defined by him as the guided formation of a nation's character through the intertwined development of, first, the practical and creative arts (generally designated with the term Kultur, or culture) and, second, the theoretical clarification and systematization of the nation's moral and religious ethos (Aufklärung, or enlightenment). Mendelssohn regarded Lessing's death as a serious blow to their shared Bildung project, but one that could be overcome if posterity would remember Lessing as a model of Bildung, as the harmonious embodiment of both Kultur and Aufklärung. This was certainly how Mendelssohn remembered him, and it was how he wished him to be remembered by others. But as a rule, history does not conform to our wishes. When Mendelssohn published MH in the fall of 1785, he was instantly caught up in a public battle over Lessing's legacy that significantly reshaped the course of both German philosophy and literature.
A few words about Mendelssohn's friendship with Lessing are in order before turning to this battle over Lessing's memory. Lessing had been Moses Mendelssohn's closest friend since their first meeting in 1754. The two friends worked closely together on a number of philosophical and literary projects. In 1755 Lessing edited and published Mendelssohn's first foray into philosophy, his Philosophical Conversations (Philosophische Gespräche), which was written in the form of a conversation between two friends. In subsequent years, Lessing and Mendelssohn, joined by their mutual friend and publisher Friedrich Nicolai, worked as editors and major contributors to journals devoted to the advancement of new aesthetic standards in German literature and art, primarily aimed at freeing German culture from its dependence on French models. Lessing's friendship with Mendelssohn, this unique and unprecedented friendship between Germany's leading dramatist and a Talmud-trained Jewish philosopher whose first language was Yiddish, was seen as the living demonstration of the Bildung project that both men were seeking to spearhead: to free Germany from the shackles of its cultural backwardness and fawning reverence for outworn traditions, and to let the bright light of critical reason and the spirit of an enlarged and humane sensibility guide the creation of a new and broad-based cultural renaissance.
Both MH and TFL contain passages in which Mendelssohn offers sometimes moving testimony to the memory of Lessing and the profound significance, in Mendelssohn's view at least, of their friendship and collaboration. But it is not in these passages, perhaps all that is left of the original intention to write about "the character of our Lessing," where Mendelssohn preserves and, one might say, fights for Lessing's legacy and their common project of a German cultural renaissance. In fact, the effort to establish Lessing as a model of Bildung is not always apparent on the surface of these last writings of Mendelssohn. MH especially seems to have moved so far from Mendelssohn's first plans for his Lessing book that it is hard to believe that Lessing plays anything more than a tangential role in it. MH is a wide-ranging and systematic exposition in the form of early morning "lectures," occasionally interrupted by Mendelssohn's youthful pupils, including his son Joseph (born in 1770) and two of his friends, concerning a number of philosophical topics: the nature of truth, the foundations of human knowledge, the basis of our moral and aesthetic powers of judgment, the reality of the external world, and the grounds for a rational faith in a providential deity. We know from the later testimony of Joseph himself that these early morning conversations, beginning at five o'clock and concluding at nine, did in fact take place, but we are not certain exactly in what year they began. It must have been either in late 1783 or early 1784, however, and it is therefore not far-fetched to describe MH as the record of the theological bar mitzvah training that Mendelssohn provided to his son.
And what did Mendelssohn hope to teach his son and his two companions? Mendelssohn was convinced that the theology of Judaism was nothing other than the rational theology to which everyone, regardless of creed, could assent if only they had a proper training in the basics of philosophy. Such at least was the claim that Mendelssohn had advanced in his Jerusalem, oder über religiöse Macht und Judentum (Jerusalem; or, On Religious Power and Judaism, 1783). And thus in MH we have a demonstration of how easy it is to gain a universally valid understanding of the nature of God. If Socrates in Plato's Meno had led a young slave boy to produce the Pythagorean theorem, the "Socrates of Berlin" would lead his young interlocutors to a common knowledge of God. Even though Joseph, having reached the age of bar mitzvah, would now be responsible for following the commandments enjoined by God upon one particular people, he could take his place within the universal community of all humanity in his rational acknowledgment of the one God, the providential Creator whom all people can worship together.
What, then, has become of Lessing in MH? What place does he have in this theological bar mitzvah training? The battle over Lessing's legacy remains at the heart of the book, but it is true that only in Lectures XIV and XV does Lessing himself make an overt appearance. In Lecture XV we read a fulsome praise of Lessing's devotion to the unprejudiced pursuit of the truth and his commitment to religious tolerance that is placed in the mouth of an unnamed interlocutor "D.," a guest at one of the morning lectures. This particular praise of Lessing reflects the same sentiment that Mendelssohn had expressed to Lessing's younger brother Karl in a letter of consolation composed immediately after Lessing's death. In this letter Mendelssohn wrote that Lessing's critique of intolerance in Nathan der Weise (Nathan the Wise, 1799) showed him to be "in advance of his century by more than one generation." Mendelssohn adds that it was said of Copernicus, "He brought his new system into the world, and died." He continues: "The biographer of your brother will be able to write, with the very same assurance: 'He wrote Nathan the Wise, and died.'"
The most famous, and most controversial, passage in the play Nathan the Wise is what has come to be known as the Parable of the Three Rings (Lessing 1882, lines 1911–2055). The parable is told by the Jewish character Nathan, a resident of Jerusalem during the time of the Crusades. Nathan describes a ring of "inestimable worth" that has the power to make its possessor beloved of men and of God, on the sole condition that he remain convinced that it truly has this extraordinary power. The owner, intent on keeping the ring in his family, gives it to his most beloved son, and he in turn passes it on to his most beloved son. After many generations, the ring comes into the possession of a father with three sons, each equally beloved. The father promises the ring to each son, and as he faces death, he contrives to have copies of the ring made. So perfectly made are these copies that the father himself cannot tell which ring is the original. Just before he dies, he gives each of his sons a ring. After their father's death, each son contests the claim of the other to govern the household, and they agree to bring their suit before a judge. The judge realizes that it is a simple matter to detect which son holds the authentic ring. He asks the brothers one question: "Which of you is most beloved?" When the brothers find it impossible to answer, the judge realizes that each brother loves himself most. He thus concludes that no brother possesses the authentic ring. But he offers the sons advice: "Do not despair, but hold fast to your conviction that you possess the true ring. Make every effort," he tells each of the brothers, "to demonstrate that yours is the true ring by doing all in your power to make yourself the most beloved of the other two. Perhaps this was the intention of your father," he explains, "who truly loved each son equally and sought to free his house of the 'tyranny of one ring' (l. 2036) by creating two, and perhaps three, copies of the original ring."
Lessing's Parable of the Three Rings is narrated by Nathan to the Sultan, who rules over Jerusalem. The Sultan has asked Nathan, a man admired for his wisdom, for his opinion about which of the three Abrahamic faiths is the true one. The parable rejects the possibility of determining the truth of any faith by an objective examination of its doctrines. Instead, the truth of the faith is only able to be established (after many thousands of years, as the judge in the parable states) by the degree to which it leads its practitioners away from acts performed out of self-love to acts done with "humility, heartfelt tolerance, benevolence, and deep devotion to God" (ll. 2045–48). This is certainly a sentiment with which Mendelssohn would be sympathetic, especially since he believed that Judaism was not in possession of any objectively ascertainable theological truth that was unavailable to any person who could think clearly and examine the evidence, both speculative and empirical, for the existence of a providential Creator. But it was indeed the case that Lessing, as Mendelssohn told Lessing's brother, "was in advance of his century by more than one generation." Søren Kierkegaard, in the middle of the next century, reinterpreted the parable and all of Lessing's theological writings as expressing the view that the one truth on which human happiness depends is not an objectively verifiable truth but is, rather, "only in the becoming, in the process of appropriation." Kierkegaard was the first Christian thinker who was able to read Lessing's parable as more than a thinly disguised rejection of Christianity in favor of, at best, some form of natural religion or neutral deism. In Lecture XV Mendelssohn's "D." describes how, after the publication of Nathan the Wise, Lessing became a social pariah. His plea for religious tolerance, as Mendelssohn interpreted it, was seen as a denunciation of Christianity rather than as a harbinger of a new cultural renaissance, a new form of Bildung:
Basically, his Nathan had promoted, if we are to speak honestly, the true glory of Christendom. At what a lofty level of enlightenment and culture must a nation stand in which a man can lift himself to this height of sentiment, can develop himself to this refinement of knowledge concerning things divine and human! At least, it seems to me, this is how posterity will judge him, but Lessing's contemporaries were of a different mind. Every rebuke he made against some of his co-religionists for their conceit and one-sided thinking, or that he allowed one of his dramatic characters to make, they heard as an insult directed at themselves personally by Lessing. The friend and acquaintance who was once welcome everywhere now found faces everywhere unfriendly, glances everywhere restrained and frosty, greetings cold and farewells glad, and he saw himself abandoned by his friends and acquaintances and left exposed to all the sneers of his enemies. (Lecture XV, par. 9; emphasis added)
Mendelssohn certainly wants to show that Lessing had written Nathan the Wise only to promote the "true glory of Christendom," but in Lecture XV it is no longer the play that is the foremost issue. Mendelssohn's more pressing challenge is to defend Lessing's pantheism.
That Mendelssohn should want to defend Lessing's pantheism is at first sight surprising. In Mendelssohn's letters composed soon after Lessing's death, there is not the slightest hint that Lessing had abandoned a theistic faith in favor of pantheism, and certainly there is no suggestion that Mendelssohn would need to pen a defense of Lessing's pantheism. We may well wonder what brought Mendelssohn to so drastically alter his plan to write a book about "the character of our Lessing" in the summer of 1781 "if my health permits." What has led him to offer us instead MH, a record of tutorials in rational theology with a lengthy digression on Lessing's pantheism?
Excerpted from Last Works by MOSES MENDELSSOHN Copyright © 2012 by Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois . Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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