Lessing, Gotthold Ephraim°

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LESSING, GOTTHOLD EPHRAIM ° (1729–1781), German dramatist, philosopher, and critic. One of the outstanding representatives of the Enlightenment in Germany, Lessing was devoted to the principle of toleration. One of Lessing's earliest literary ventures was Die Juden (1749), a one-act comedy in which for the first time a Jew was presented on the German stage in a reasonably objective manner. Lessing later upheld the play's defense of toleration against the criticism of J.D. *Michaelis. Through a physician, Aaron Solomon Gumpertz, he became a friend and admirer of Moses *Mendelssohn, whom he encouraged to publish his first philosophical work. The outcome of their common interest in aesthetics was Pope ein Metaphysiker (1755) and a critical journal, Briefe, die neueste Literatur betreffend (1759–60). Their correspondence, mainly on philosophical themes, continued until Lessing's death.

Mendelssohn was the inspiration for Lessing's Nathan der Weise (1779), his last play, and once more a plea for toleration. Based on the parable of the three rings, adapted from *Boccaccio's Decameron, the play presents Judaism, Christianity, and Islam as three sons of a benevolent father who has given each an identical ring, although each one claims that his ring alone is authentic. Nathan is made the spokesman for the aspirations of the Enlightenment: tolerance, brotherhood, and love of humanity. Lessing's vision of Jewish-Christian amity was ridiculed by Julius von Voss in Der travestierte Nathan der Weise (1804), and attacked by the antisemites Wilhelm *Marr, Karl Eugen *Duehring, Sebastian *Brunner, and Adolf Bartels. On the other hand Lessing's personal example and ideals were vigorously upheld and emphasized by German Jews such as Gabriel *Riesser, I.H. *Ritter, Berthold *Auerbach, Emil *Lehmann, and Johann *Jacoby. Nathan der Weise was translated into Hebrew, notably by Simon *Bacher and A.B. *Gottlober, and many of Lessing's other plays were also translated. His ideological and stylistic influence on the *Haskalah was as decisive as that of Friedrich *Schiller.

However, Lessing's attitude toward Judaism was ambivalent. While never forsaking the principle of tolerance, he came to depreciate Judaism in relation to Christianity with his publication of Fragmente eines Ungenannten (1774–78), the posthumous writings of the ultra-rationalist theologian H.M. Reimarus. He reached a further stage in his epoch-making Erziehung des Menschengeschlechts ("Education of Humanity"), which was published anonymously. In it the Old Testament is described as morally and aesthetically inferior to the New Testament, which itself is on the verge of being superseded by rational enlightenment. The monotheistic and universalistic mission of Judaism as the forerunner of Christianity had been completed. This attitude also appeared in Nathan der Weise, in which the brother representing Christianity accuses the Jewish religion of having given birth to intolerance through the concept of a chosen people.


ADB, 19 (1884), 756–802: L. Zscharnack, Lessing und Semmler (1905); L. Geiger, Die deutsche Literatur und die Juden (1910), 54–58; P. Hazard, European Thought in the Eighteenth Century from Montesquieu to Lessing (1954); Ettinger, in: Zion, 29 (1954), 182–207; H.E. Allison, Lessing and the Enlightenment (1966); P. Demetz (ed.), G.E. Lessing: Nathan der Weise (1966); H.M.Z. Meyer, Moses Mendelssohn Bibliography (1965), index, s.v.Lessing; EJ, bibliography; see also the exchange of letters between Lessing and Mendelssohn in Moses Mendelssohn's Gesammelte Schriften (1932), vol. 11. add. bibliography: W. Barner, "Vorurteil, Empirie, Rettung, Der junge Lessing und die Juden," in: H.A. Strauss and C. Hoffmann (eds.), Juden und Judentum in der Literatur (1985), 52–77; B. Fischer, Nathans Ende? Von Lessing bis Tabori. Zur deutsch-jüdischen Rezeption von "Nathan der Weise" (2000); V. Forester, Lessing und Moses Mendelssohn. Geschichte einer Freudschaft (2001); W. Jasper, Lessing: Aufklaerer und Judenfreund. Biographie (2001), 437–459, with bibliography; H. Goebel (ed.), Lessings "Nathan." Der Autor, der Text, seine Umwelt, seine Folgen (2002); K.-J. Kuschel, "Jud, Christ und Muselmann vereinigt?" Lessings "Nathan der Weise" (2004), 222–26, with bibliography.

[Michael J. Graetz]

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