Gotthold Ephraim Lessing

Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (22 January 1729–15 February 1781)

Today is the 293rd anniversary of the birth of Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (22 January 1729–15 February 1781), who was born on this date in 1729.

Lessing was a man of the eighteenth century, with his 52 years entirely contained within the century, and, true to the eighteenth century, Lessing was a man of the Enlightenment. Lessing is named by Arthur Lovejoy along with Herder, Kant, and Schiller as among the eighteenth century progressive philosophers of history:

“A series of eminent German writers between 1780 and 1796 published what may be called progressivist philosophies of history; and these were, of course, intrinsically adverse to most forms of primitivism, and implied the rejection of the assumption of the superiority of ‘nature’ to ‘art.’ The most important of these writings are Lessing’s Erziehung des Menschengeschlechts, 1780; Herder’s Ideen zu einer Philosophie der Geschichte der Menschheit, 1784–91, and some parts of the Briefe zu Beforderung der Humanitat, 3te Sammlung, 1794, especially Bk. VI; Kant’s Idee zu einer allgemeinen Geschichte in weltbiirgerlicher Absicht (1784) and Muthmasslicher Anfang der Menschengeschichte, 1786; Schiller’s Was heisst und zu welchem Ende studiert man Universal geschichte (1789) and Briefe uber die asthetische Erziehung des Menschen (1795).”

The work cited by Lovejoy, Die Erziehung des Menschengeschlechts (The Education of the Human Race), was only one of many works by Lessing, who, like an eighteenth century Sartre, wrote many plays as well as art criticism. A review of Wilm Pelters by Jerry Glenn said of Lessing:

“Lessing, the greatest thinker of the German Enlightenment, was throughout his life concerned with the search for truth and goodness. He sought a philosophy of history which would accommodate divine revelation, human reason (and reason was at that time to some extent equated with goodness), and the facts of history which often seem to deny man’s rationality and virtuousness.”

As announced in the title of Die Erziehung des Menschengeschlechts, the work is concerned with education — both the education of the individual human being and humanity as a whole. The familiar circumstances of the education of the individual becomes, for Lessing, a model and a metaphor for the education of humanity:

“A primer for children may very well pass over in silence this or that important part of the science or art which it expounds, if the teacher judges that it is not yet appropriate to the capacities of the children for whom he is writing. But it must contain absolutely nothing which might block the children’s way to the important items hitherto withheld, or point them in the wrong direction. Instead, all the avenues to these items must be carefully left open; and to direct the children away from even one of these avenues, or to delay their entry to it, would in itself be enough to turn the incomplete state of the primer into a fundamental fault.” (section 26)

What Lessing here characterizes as the appropriate virtues of a primer, and implies as much for the education of humanity on the whole, is an ideal not often realized in practice, but I do not think that this would have bothered Lessing: Enlightenment philosophies of history believe in potential and progress toward the realization of human potential. For Lessing, human history is the education of humanity, as the life of the individual is the education of the individual.

Lessing explicitly defended rational speculation on religious mysteries:

“Let it not be objected that such rational speculations on the mysteries of religion are forbidden. — The word ‘mystery’, in early Christian times, meant something quite different from what we understand by it now; and the development of revealed truths into truths of reason is absolutely necessary if they are to be of any help to the human race. When they were revealed, of course, they were not yet truths of reason; but they were revealed in order to become such truths. They were, so to speak, the result of the calculation which the mathematics teacher announces in advance, in order to give his pupils some idea of what they are working towards. If the pupils were satisfied with knowing the result in advance, they would never learn to calculate, and would frustrate the intention with which the good master gave them a guideline to help them with their work.” (section 76)

In Lessing’s history, divine revelation ultimately serves the cause of reason. This is as optimistic as Lessing’s idea of the ideal school primer. Another optimistic interpretation of violent human history is Lessing’s view on heresies:

“It is not true that speculations on these things have ever done damage and been disadvantageous to civil society. — This reproach should be aimed not at these speculations, but at the folly and tyranny of suppressing them and begrudging them to those who pursued them on their own initiative.” (section 78)

Passages like this remind us of the extent to which the Enlightenment was a reaction against the passions set loose by the Reformation and the religious wars that followed. The idea that religious speculation does no harm to society would have been regarded as anathema to many of Lessing’s time, and to almost everyone a generation before Lessing.

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