Lessing, Gotthold Ephraim (1729–1781)

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Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, the German dramatist and critic, was born at Kamenz in Saxony. The son of a scholarly Lutheran pastor, he was sent to study theology at Leipzig University. There, however, he absorbed the popular rationalism of the Enlightenment, whose leading contemporary exponent was the Leibnizian Christian Wolff, of Halle. Lessing was influenced in the same direction by his friends from Berlin, Christoph Friedrich Nicolai and Moses Mendelssohn, and by the writings of the English deists, many of which had been translated into German. Although literature, and especially the drama, became Lessing's supreme interest, he was to return to theology in the last decade of his life. He has no special claim to being ranked as a philosopher of originality and distinction, but with regard to the diffusion of certain ideas and attitudes among educated minds, his historical influence is preeminent. He was above all a critic, and his attitude may be described as one of "passionate detachment." His nonconformity made him appear to be perennially restless; he was never permanently satisfied to adopt the conventional opinions of society, always preferring to be in a "minority of one." The movement of his mind carried him beyond his parents' theological beliefs and the commonplace deism of his twenties until, through his invocation of Benedict de Spinoza, he eventually prepared the way for the romantic reaction against the Enlightenment.

Literature and Art

Lessing's approach to the drama was based on his conviction that it was urgently necessary to break the tyrannical dominance over German literature exerted by the established French classicisma trend that was encouraged by Frederick II of Prussia. In Lessing's eyes, the effect of this French influence was the suppression of the native German genius. In a series of "literary letters" (Briefe, die neueste Literatur betreffend, Leipzig, 17591765), written in cooperation with Nicolai and Mendelssohn, Lessing exhorted German writers to turn their backs on the artificial perfections of Pierre Corneille and Jean Racine; he claimed that they should take as their stylistic model the bold naturalism of William Shakespeare, whom Voltaire had characteristically dismissed as a "drunken savage."

Lessing's best-known work of criticism is his Laokoon, oder, über die Grenzen der Malerei und Poesie (Laocoön, or the Bounds of Painting and Poesie, Berlin, 1766). Judged as constructive thinking about the nature of art, it is a disappointing work, although it is noteworthy in that it contains the first explicit statement of the concept of "art for art's sake." Moreover, its overt thesisthat painting works by forms and colors in space, while poetry belongs to a quite different category in that it sets out to describe successive moments in timeis not only inadequate, since it fails to take account of lyric poetry and indeed of all poetry that describes states of mind, but also much less original than Lessing implied. But it is significant that the Laokoon takes the form of a critique of Lessing's German, English, and French predecessors; he could not write well without a target to attack. In the Laokoon, Lessing's main critique was directed against Johann Joachim Winckelmann and the latter's idealization of "noble simplicity and quiet grandeur." Lessing was prepared to acknowledge that this ideal may hold good for painting, which, he claimed, is exclusively concerned with the beauty of physical form. But he wholly denied its validity or relevance for judging poetry, which is concerned with action and passion. Laokoon, like much that Lessing wrote, has a subtle undercurrent of irony and polemic, the thrust of which, on the surface, is not apparent to the rapid reader. Although Lessing took as his text a famous piece of ancient sculpture, his essay is more an oblique sermon about literature than an aesthetic analysis of the visual arts by a critic with a real understanding of, or even sympathy for, his subject. Its essential thesis is a warning that Winckelmann's neoclassical ideals must not constrict the freedom of the poet, who, unlike the painter, is primarily concerned with passionate action.

Lessing's writings on art and literature do not constitute a serious analysis and critique of aesthetic experience. But his work was directed toward liberating the artist from all the limiting rules and conventions of artificial formality. Lessing was not in any sense a romantic writer, but because of his demand for the free expression of natural feelings and his retrospective interest in antiquity, he occupies an important place among the forces that made German romanticism possible. The significance of Lessing's role as a precursor of the romantic movement emerges even more prominently in his treatment of religious problems. He initiated the endeavor to discover within the immanent order of the world those values that had been derived by traditional Christianity from a transcendental view of the universe.

History and Theology

Lessing inherited from his father strong scholarly and historical interests. By temperament antipathetic to all partisan historiography, he published a series of Rettungen (Vindications) in 1754, in which he defended historical figures to whom ecclesiastical historians, for dogmatic reasons, had not been quite fair. These essays are quite characteristic of Lessing's nature and cast of mind. Written with suppressed passion and permeated with a profound sense of engagement, they nevertheless remain uncommitted to any personal judgment either for or against the doctrinal beliefs of those whom he was vindicating. His neutrality toward Christianity never took the form of quasi-Gibbonian irony. He always wrote as one wholly sympathetic to Christian ethical ideals, but coolly reserved toward dogmatic formulas that breed unreasoning prejudice and the negation of humane values.

The turning point of Lessing's life occurred in 1769, when he became librarian for the duke of Brunswick at Wolfenbüttel. In 1773 he began to publish essays on historical theology based on the Wolfenbüttel manuscripts. Earlier, during a three-year residence in Hamburg from 1766 to 1769 as a theater critic, Lessing had met the deist Hermann Samuel Reimarus (16941768), whose daughter had lent him the manuscript of an unpublished book by her father titled Apologie oder Schutzschrift für die vernunftigen Verehrer Gottes (Apology for rational worshipers of God). In 1774, and from 1777 to 1778, Lessing printed extracts from this work as fragments from the writings of an anonymous and unidentifiable deist whose manuscripts had presumably been found in the Wolfenbüttel library ("Wolfenbüttler Fragmente eines Ungenannten," in Beitrage zur Geschichte und Literatur ).

The last and most important fragment precipitated a violent controversy with a Hamburg pastor, Johann Melchior Goeze, and effectively initiated the long nineteenth-century quest for the Jesus of history behind the Christ of faith. Reimarus was a believer in natural religion, but he was skeptical about revelation. His objections to traditional Christianity presuppose that biblical inerrancy is essential to faith. Lessing sometimes wrote as if he shared this assumption and sometimes as if he did not, so that it is not possible to arrive at a strictly coherent view on this point.

In his more cynical moments, Lessing treated liberal theology, such as that represented by J. S. Semler of Halle, with hostile contempt, on the ground that it was deceptively credible; he preferred to "defend" orthodoxy as being so patently absurd that by defense it would be sooner ended. Strictly as a scholar, Lessing was Semler's inferior; nevertheless, Lessing's genuinely scholarly instinct, combined with his inner detachment from the entrenched positions of the contemporary theological schools, as well as from those of the Enlightenment, enabled him to begin the critical study of the sources of the Synoptic Gospels (a fundamental question on which Reimarus had naively said nothing) with his pioneer essay, Neue Hypothese über die Evangelisten als bloss menschliche Geschichtsschreiber betrachtet (New Hypothesis concerning the Evangelists Regarded as Merely Human Historian). This was written from 1777 to 1778 and first printed in 1784 in Lessing's Theologische Nachlass.

Prevented by the duke of Brunswick from indulging in theological controversies, Lessing put his theology into a play, Nathan der Weise (Nathan the Wise, 1779) which was a plea for religious indifferentism on the ground that what is required of man is not an assent to the propositions of a creed, but sincerity, brotherly love, and tolerance. It is not easy to discover precisely what Lessing's positive beliefs were, so little did he commit himself, either in published writings or even in private correspondence, to any positive avowal of convictions. But he certainly accepted the commonplace thesis of the Enlightenment that the quintessence of Christianity, hidden beneath the accretions of theology, consists in universal brotherhood and a basic moral code. Like many rationalists of his age, he passed for a time into Freemasonry, though he emerged disillusioned with what was for him evidently a pale substitute for Christianity. In one sense, it could be said that Lessing spent his life hoping that Christianity was true and arguing that it was not. But his basic attitude toward religious belief was neither one of affirmation nor of denial; it took the form of an impassioned question.

Lessing was the first modern writer explicitly to emphasize that even if conclusions about historical events were more certain than they are, any religious affirmation based upon them involves a transition to another plane of discourse, that of faith. He was torn between the idea of revelation as the communication of timeless propositional truths, and the untidiness and irrationality of history. "Accidental truths of history can never become the proof of necessary truths of reason" (Über den Beweis des Geistes und der Kraft, 1777). Events and truths belong to altogether different categories, and there is no logical connection between one and another. Lessing's statement of this antithesis presupposes on the one hand the epistemology of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, with its sharp distinction between necessary truths of reason (mathematically certain and known a priori) and contingent truths (known by sense perception), and on the other hand the thesis of Spinoza's Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, that the truth of a historical narrative, however certain, cannot give us the knowledge of God, which should be derived from general ideas that are in themselves certain and known. Lessing's own way out of the dilemma was to conceive the role of religious belief in the historical process as a relative state in the advance of humanity toward maturity, a thesis that he argued at length in the tract Die Erziehung des Menschengeschlechts (The Education of the Human Race; Berlin, 1780). Lessing thus became the father both of the "post-Christian" consciousness expressed in nineteenth-century positivism, and of the liberal religion of thinkers such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Frederick Denison Maurice.

There is more relativism than skepticism in Lessing's view. He did not think that absolute truth is revealed; but even if it were, and even if he were capable of apprehending it, he would not have wished to apprehend it. Adapting an aphorism of Clement of Alexandria, Lessing declared:

The worth of a man does not consist in the truth he possesses, or thinks he possesses, but in the pains he has taken to attain that truth. For his powers are extended not through possession but through the search for truth. In this alone his ever-growing perfection consists. Possession makes him lazy, indolent, and proud. If God held all truth in his right hand and in his left the everlasting striving after truth, so that I should always and everlastingly be mistaken and said to me, Choose, with humility I would pick on the left hand and say, Father grant me that; absolute truth is for thee alone. (Eine Duplik, K. Lachmann and F. Muncker, eds., Vol. XIII, p. 23)

The move to Immanentism

Several fragmentary notes found among Lessing's papers, and published in 1784 by his brother Karl in Theologischen Nachlass, disclose the extent of Leibniz's influence. Lessing's interest was always most deeply aroused by Leibniz's references to theology and ethics. One of these pieces, written by Lessing about 1753, "Das Christentum der Vernunft" (The Christianity of Reason), foreshadowed a section of Die Erziehung in its attempt at making a speculative restatement of the doctrine of the Trinity, with the help of Leibnizian ideas on the hierarchy of being and the harmony of the monads. But there is a strong admixture of Spinoza in Lessing's conception of this harmony; he did not think of it as something preestablished by a Creator who is a superobject behind and beyond phenomena, but rather as being itself God, so that the perfect continuum of existents, in which there can be no gap, is indistinguishable from the perfection of the divine being. Similarly, in the brief notes titled "Ueber die Wirklichkeit der Dinge ausser Gott" (On the Reality of Things outside God; written in 1763, published in 1795 in Karl Lessing's Lessings Leben ), Lessing denied the thesis of traditional theism that the created world exists independently of its Creator, in the sense of being distinct from him. Lessing urged that nothing can be outside the divine mind, and that there need be no hesitation before the conclusion that, since ideas of contingent things are themselves contingent, there is contingency even in God. These aphoristic fragments hardly amount to a coherent system. They show Lessing looking toward Spinoza, whom he had studied in his years at Breslau from 1760 to 1765, for a solution to some of the problems left unanswered by Leibniz.

Leibniz had formally asserted the freedom of the will, though it was doubted by Pierre Bayle and others whether Leibniz's libertarian assertions were in fact fully compatible with his philosophical principles. Lessing agreed with Spinoza that free will is a superfluity and an illusion. In 1776 Lessing published the Philosophische Aufsätze ("Philosophical Papers") of Karl Wilhelm Jerusalem, with the intention of making a protest against Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's Werther, with its description of Jerusalem's suicide. In a note to Jerusalem's third essay Lessing commented on his wisdom in recognizing that freedom is nothing but a cause of anxiety and fear, and that the recognition of necessity and destiny as beneficent is the only way to true happiness. "I thank my God," Lessing added, "that I am under necessity, that the best must be." The notion that the moralist has anything to fear from deterministic philosophies is just a mistake.

In 1785 at Breslau, Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi published his Ueber die Lehre des Spinoza in Briefen an der Herrn Moses Mendelssohn (Letters to Moses Mendelssohn on Spinoza's Doctrine), in which he disclosed that at Wolfenbüttel in July 1780, he had been told by Lessing, seven months before Lessing's death, that he could not believe the old transcendental metaphysic, and that he unreservedly accepted the pantheism of Spinoza"There is no other philosophy." Jacobi was astonished to hear Lessing add that the determinism of Spinoza was no obstacle to him, and indeed that he had no desire for free will. Jacobi's revelations precipitated a furious controversy known as the Pantheismusstreit. The Enlightenment had derived from Bayle's Dictionnaire historique et critique such an unflattering picture of Spinoza that Jacobi's attribution of Spinozistic views to Lessing seemed like a shocking libel of a dead man. Moses Mendelssohn was moved to write an irate reply, in which he denied that Lessing was a pantheist and a determinist. Although not all of Jacobi's deductions were correct, the substantial accuracy of his account of what Lessing said is sufficiently vindicated by the fragments found among Lessing's papers. Lessing's final creed was a belief in an immanent destiny, with no room either for the concept of transcendence or for special revelation in any form; he believed in a determined pattern of cause and effect extending not only throughout the physical order of nature, but also to morality and "the realm of ends."

Lessing's legacy to posterity was therefore to give an impetus to the notion of historical inevitability, especially in Die Erziehung des Menschengeschlechts at the end of which he even toyed with speculations about the transmigration of soulsobviously because this concept seemed to him more compatible with his historical determinism than the traditional eschatology connected with the Christian ideas of freedom and of personality.

The strong influence of Lessing is manifested in the history of religious thought in the nineteenth century. It can be traced particularly in the work of Søren Kierkegaard, whose Concluding Unscientific Postscript took its starting point from Lessing's statement about the intellectually impossible leap from the contingent truths of history to the necessary truths of divine revelation. The other, more liberal, side of Lessing was reflected in Coleridge, whose work was even suspected of being a plagiarism of Lessing's. In the field of literature and art, Lessing's attack on French classicism opened the way for the romantic ideal of free self-expression and naturalism, while his final theological position of Spinozistic immanentism clearly foreshadowed Friedrich Daniel Ernst Schleiermacher's Speeches on Religion (Reden über die Religion, 1799). His consciousness of living in an age of humanist maturity anticipated the Hegelian and Comtian estimates of religion as a useful, though now surpassed, stage in the education of humanity toward something higher and truer. Probably Lessing did as much as anyone to encourage among the educated European minds of his time an attitude of critical doubt that would lead to passionate engagement, rather than impersonal remoteness.

See also Aesthetic Experience; Clement of Alexandria; Deism; Enlightenment; Jacobi, Friedrich Heinrich; Kierkegaard, Søren Aabye; Leibniz, Gottfried Wilhelm; Mendelssohn, Moses; Nicolai, Christian Friedrich; Pantheismusstreit; Positivism; Rationalism; Reimarus, Hermann Samuel; Schleiermacher, Friedrich Daniel Ernst; Spinoza, Benedict (Baruch) de; Coleridge, Samuel Taylor; Voltaire, François-Marie Arouet de; Winckelmann, Johann Joachim; Wolff, Christian.


works by lessing

Selected Prose Works. Translated by E. C. Beasley and Helen Zimmern. London, 1879.

Gesammelte Werke. 23 vols., edited by Karl Lachmann and Franz Muncker. 18861924.

Werke, edited by Julius Petersen and W. von Olshausen. Berlin, 19251935.

Hamburgischen Dramaturgie, edited by G. Waterhouse. Cambridge, U.K., 1926.

Lessings Gesammelte Werke. 10 vols., edited by Paul Rilla. Berlin: Aufbau-Verlag, 19541958.

Laocoön. Translated by E. A. McCormick. New York, 1962.

works on lessing

Aner, K. Die Theologie der Lessingzeit. Halle: Niemeyer, 1929.

Bernstein, J. M., ed. Classic and Romantic German Aesthetics. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Cassirer, Ernst. Die Philosophie der Aufklärung. Tübingen: Mohr, 1932. Translated by F. C. A. Koelln and J. P. Pettegrove as The Philosophy of the Enlightenment. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1951.

Chadwick, Henry. Lessing's Theological Writings. Palo Alto, CA, 1956.

Goetschel, Willi. Spinoza's Modernity: Mendelssohn, Lessing, and Heine. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2004.

Gombrich, E. H. "Lessing." Proceedings of the British Academy 43 (1957): 133156.

Hazard, Paul. La pensée européenne au 18ēme siècle. De Montesquieu à Lessing. Paris, 1946. Translated by J. Lewis May as European Thought in the 18th Century. London, 1954.

O'Flaherty, James C. The Quarrel of Reason with Itself: Essays on Hamann, Michaelis, Lessing, Nietzsche. Columbia: Camden House, 1988.

Ritchie, Gisela F. "Contributors to the Genesis of Europe: Gotthold Ephraim Lessing and His Followers." History of European Ideas 19(13) (1994): 425430.

Wessel, Leonard P. G. Lessing's Theology, Reinterpretation: A Study in the Problematic Nature of the Enlightenment. The Hague: Mouton, 1977.

Henry Chadwick (1967)

Bibliography updated by Tamra Frei (2005)