Lessing, Gotthold Ephraim
Lessing, Gotthold Ephraim the generator of modern German literature of the 18th century. both secular and ecclesiastic, declared by Macaulay to have been "beyond dispute the first critic in Europe," who "in the same breath convulsed powerfully both the dramatic and theological world, and by his critical acuteness has laid hands on both, and has produced polemics and called forth controversy in art as well as in religion, without having left behind him a finished system in either department, indeed without having been a professional poet in the strict sense of the word, or a professional theologian."
Life. — Lessing was born at Kamentz (Camenz), in Upper Lusatia, Jan. 22, 1729. His father was the Protestant (Lutheran) "pastor primarius" of the place, and was widely noted for his learning, especially in the historical department. Designed for the ministry, young Lessing was trained by his pious parents "in the way he should go;" and he was not simply taught what he should believe, but how and why he should believe. Long before he was old enough to be sent to school the youth displayed an uncommon desire for books. After thorough preparation at an elementary school, he entered at the age of twelve the high-school at Meissen, and of his extraordinary diligence in study a sufficient idea may be formed when it is stated that while there he perused a number of classic authors besides those which entered into the regular course, translated the third and fourth books of Euclid, drew up a history of mathematics, and, on taking leave of it, delivered a discourse "De Mathematica Barbarorum." In 1746 he was ready to proceed to the university, and, as his parents had fondly hoped, to enter upon the studies which should fit him for the ministry of the word of God. His mother, in particular, designed that her Gotthold Ephraim "should be a real man of God." Like an earnest and ardent student, which he always proved himself, Lessing now devoted his time to all the studies which that university encouraged, except the one upon which the family hopes were set — theology; and this need not be wondered at, if we will but glance for a moment at a programme of the lectures in the four faculties of that high- school upon Lessing's entry. In theology, jurisprudence, medicine, and philosophy twenty-two lectures were delivered weekly, yet the names of the lecturers were prominent only in the last-named department; they were notably obscure in that of theology. In philosophy Gottsched was lecturing upon the early Greek philosophers, Christ upon Horace and Ovid, Jocher upon the Reformation, Winckler upon Epictetus, Miller upon logic, May upon ethics, and Heinsius upon rectilinear and spherical trigonometry. Ernesti, the future noted theologian, was yet lecturing in the department of ancient literature, and it was by his direct and permanent influence, as well as by the exertions of professor Christ, that Lessing was led to enter upon the profound philological studies, which finally resulted in such great service to classical literature and art. Thrown into company with Mylius, an old schoolmate of his, and an ardent advocate of the stage as a means of moral reform, and other auditors of professor Kastner, who was then lecturing on dramatic art, Lessing acquired a decided taste for the theater, and was finally led to abandon his classical studies altogether, not only devoting himself more fully to this one study, but actually coming to entertain the thought of going on the stage himself. His conduct greatly displeased his parents and his sister, who warned him against it as being not merely trifling, but sinful. But Lessing continued in his course. Driven further, also, by the announcement that the family could contribute no allowance for his support except with extreme difficulty, he determined to shift for himself, and decided for his subsistence hereafter to devote his talents to poetry, criticism, and belles-lettres, as that field of literature which had been least of all cultivated by his countrymen, and where, besides having few rivals, he might employ his pen with greater advantage to others as well as to himself. His first productions were one or two minor dramatic pieces, which were printed in a journal entitled Ermunterungen zum Vergniigen. In the meanwhile the gossip about his relation to the ungodly Mylius, who had by this time become his most intimate associate, spread, and reached the ears of his aged parents. Desperate measures only could secure his return to the parental hearthstone. Madame Lessing was overwhelmed with grief; her Gotthold Ephraim must be restored to her immediate influence, or he would forever be lost to the Church and the blessings of religion, and for once the end should justify the means. Accordingly, the youthful sinner was written to: "On receipt of this, start at once; your mother is dying, and wishes to speak to you before her death." Of course, no sooner had the letter reached Lessing than we find him starting for the little country town. His personal appearance and assurances of his good intentions, both as a Christian and an obedient son, soon quieted the disconsolate parents, and he was suffered once more to return to Leipsic. From this place he removed in 1750 to Berlin-the home of freethinkers, whither the arch-atheist Mylius had preceded him some time- certainly not a very comforting turn in his personal history for his well-nigh despairing parents.
Lessing was now twenty years of age. He had no money, no recommendations, no friends, scarcely any acquaintances — nothing but his cheerful courage, his confidence in his own powers, and the discipline acquired through past privations. He was so poor that he was unable to obtain even the decent clothing necessary to make a respectable appearance. He applied for aid to his parents, but they neither felt able nor willing to grant his request, and he had no other course open to him but to throw himself upon the influence and resources of his old schoolmate, Mylius, who was now editing a paper in Berlin. By this friend's exertions, oftentimes not stopping short of real sacrifices, Lessing managed to exist. Master of English, French, Italian, and Spanish, he found work in translating from these languages, while he also contributed largely to different literary journals of the Prussian metropolis. Gradually he was introduced to the notice of the scholars of the city, among them Mendelssohn, the Jewish philosopher, and Nicolai, the noted publisher and author of works of value in the department of secular German literature. Indeed, the association of Mendelssohn the Jew, and Lessing the Christian, has perhaps had greater influence on the position which Lessing assumed in after life than any he had with other persons. Both were yet young men.
The former had come to Berlin from Dessau in indigent circumstances, ignorant of the German language, but determined, nevertheless, to rise above his condition, and to master not only the German, Latin, and English, but also the intricate subject of philosophy; and in this attempt he had so well succeeded that at the first meeting of Lessing and Mendelssohn, in 1754, the latter was already acknowledged a man of superior ability and a scholar. They recognized in each other qualities that could well be used unitedly for the good of humanity, and they soon were content only when in each other's society. For two hours every day regularly they met and discussed together literary and philosophical subjects. Lessing came to comprehend the truth that virtue, honor, and nobility of character could be found in the Jew also, which the people of his day, led by a narrow-minded clergy, were prone to disbelieve: and this gave rise first to his important play entitled Die Juden, and later to his chef-d'oeuvre, Nathan der Weise (transl. by Ellen Frothingham, Nu. Y. 1871,12mo, with which compare the essays by Kluno Fischer [Mannheim, 1865] and David Strauss [Berlin, 1866, 8vo, 2d ed.], and (Grütz, Gesch. der Juden, 11:35 sq.; also the works on German literature at the end of this article). Near the close of 1751 Lessing decided to return once more to the university, and this time chose Wittenberg, to penetrate into "the innermost sanctuary of book-worm erudition." For nearly a year he here gave himself up to the study of philology and history, especially that of the Reformation and the Reformers. His reputation as a critic grew daily, and in live years after his first entry at Berlin he was counted among the most eminent literati of the Prussian capital. Even at this early age Lessing had ventured into the whole circle of esthetic and literary interests of the day, never failing to bring their essential points into notice, and subjecting them to an exhaustive treatment, notwithstanding the fragmentary form of the composition, while in point of style he had already attained an aptness and elegance of language, a facile grace and sportive humor of treatment, such as few writers of that day had even dreamed of. "His manner lent enchantment to the dryest subjects, and even the dullest books gained interest from his criticisms." It was during his sojourn at Berlin that, with his and Mendelssohn's assistance, Nicolai (q.v.) started the Library of Polite Literat. (1757) and the Universal German Library (1765). (See Hurst's Hagenbach, Ch. Hist. 18th and 19th Cent. 1:278, 307.)
In 1760 the Academy of Sciences of Berlin honored itself by conferring membership on Lessing, and shortly after a somewhat lucrative position fell to his lot in Breslau, whither he at once removed, and where he remained five years. It is in this, the chief city of Silesia, that most of Lessing's valuable contributions to the department of general literature were prepared. After a short visit to his parents, Lessing returned in 1765 to Berlin, then removed to Hamburg, and in 1770 finally started for Wolfenbüttel, to assume the duties of librarian to the duke Frederick William Ferdinand of Brunswick, a position congenial to his taste, and here he remained until his death, Feb. 15, 1781.
Theological Position. — We here consider Lessing as a writer and thinker of the 18th century, but in so far only as the works which he published, both his own productions and those that were sent forth with his approval, affected the theological world in his day and since, more especially in Germany. Originally intended for the pulpit, Lessing suddenly came to entertain the belief that morality, which to him was only a synonym of religion, should be taught not only from the pulpit, but also on the stage. Germany, in his day, was altogether Frenchified. "We are ever," said he himself, "the sworn imitators of everything foreign, and especially are we humble admirers of the never sufficiently admired French. Everything that comes to us from over the Rhine is fair, and charming, and beautiful, and divine. We rather doubt our senses than doubt this. Rather would we persuade ourselves that roughness was freedom; license, elegance; grimace, expression; a jingle of rhymes, poetry; and shrieking, music, than entertain the slightest misgiving as to the superiority which that amiable people, that first people in the world (as they modestly term themselves), have the good fortune to possess in everything which is becoming, and beautiful, and noble." Such had been the doctrines taught by the great ruler Frederick II himself, and no wonder the people soon fell into the frivolous ways of the French; and, as the literature is said to be the index of a people, we need feel no surprise at Lessing's great onslaught on Gottsched and his followers while vet a student of the university in which this leader of the school of French taste held a professorship. Nor must it be forgotten that the history of literature stands in unmistakable connection with the history of the thinking and struggling intellect generally, and consequently, also, with the history of religion and philosophy. One is reflected in the other. The influence of the vapid spirit of French literature of the age of Voltaire was transferred to (German ground, and soon the fruits became apparent in the general spread of French illuminism (q.v.) and a sort of humanism. SEE ROUSSEAU. The great German philosopher Wolf, following closely in the footsteps of Leibnitz, had sought to check this rapid flow of the Germans towards infidelity by a system of philosophy that should lay securely the foundations for religion and morality, "fully persuaded that the so-called natural religion, which he . . . expected to be attained by the efforts of reason, and which related more to the belief in God and in immortality than to anything else, would become the very best steppingstone to the temple of revealed religion" (Hagenbach. Ch. Hist. 18th and 19th Cent. 1:78). Indeed, the theologians themselves sought to prove, by the mathemlatical, demonstrative method, the truth of the doctrines of revelation, and the falsity of infidelity, forgetting altogether the great fact that "that sharp form of thought which bends itself to mathematical formulas is not for every man, least of all for the great mass;" and had it not been for the influence which pietism was exerting in the 18th century upon orthodox Christianity, the latter must have suffered beyond even the most ardent expectations of the most devoted German Voltaireans. As it was, even, there gradually arose a shallow theology, destitute of ideas, and limited to a few moral commonplaces, known under the name of neology (q.v.), which, at the time of Lessing's appearance, controlled the German mind. See SEMLER. An active thinker like Lessing, who, when yet a youth, could write to his father that the Christian religion is not a thing which one can accept upon the word and honor of a parent," but that the way to the possession of the truth is for him only "who has once wisely doubted, and by the path of inquiry attained conviction, or at least striven to attain it," such a one was not likely to remain passive in this critical period of the history of thought. Unfortunately, however, the mature Lessing had shifted from the position of the youthful inquirer, and, instead of accepting the truth when attained by conviction, he had come to believe that truth is never to be accepted. "It is not the truth of which a man is, or thinks he is, in possession that measures the worth of the man, but the honest effort he has made to arrive at the truth, for it is not the possession of truth, but the search for it, that enlarges those powers in which an ever-growing capacity consists. Possession satisfies, enervates, corrupts." "If God," he says, "held all truth in his right hand, and in his left hand nothing but the ever-restless instinct for truth, though with the condition of forever and ever erring, and should say to me, Choose, I would bow reverently to his left hand and say, Father, give; pure truth is for thee alone !" 'Thus, forgetting altogether that Christianity is not a striving after truth, but possession of the truth, Lessing became unconsciously one of the greatest promoters of Rationalism in its worst form (comp. Hurst, History of Rationalism, p. 147, 149). We say Lessing unconsciously became the promoter of Rationalism; for, with Dorner (Gesch. d. Protest. Theol. p. 731), we believe that his object was not to write against religion, but against theology; not against Christianity, but only against the poor proofs that were advanced in its behalf. Indeed, his own words on Diderot's labors condemn the charge so often brought against Lessing, that he was an outright opponent of Christianity, a pure deist, and nothing more. In reviewing one of Diderot's works, he says: "A shortsighted dogmatist, who avoids nothing so carefully as a doubt of the memorial maxims that make his system, will gather a host of errors from this work. Our author is one of those philosophers who give themselves more trouble to raise clouds than to scatter them. Wherever the fatal glance of their eyes fall, the pillars of the firmest truth totter. and that which we have seemed to see quite clearly loses itself in the dim, uncertain distance; instead of leading us by twilight colonnades to the luminous throne of truth, they lead us by the ways of fancied splendor to the dusky throne of falsehood. Suppose, then, such philosophers dare to attack opinions that are sacred. The danger is small. The injury which their dreams, or realities-the thing is one with them-inflict upon society is as small as that is great which they inflict who would bring the consciences of all under the yoke of their own." While librarian of Wolfenbüttel, Lessing discovered there a MS. copy of the long-forgotten work of Berengar (q.v.) of Tours against Lanfranc (q.v.), which proved that some of the views of the Lutheran Church concerning the doctrine of the Eucharist had already been advanced by one of the most eminent teachers of the 11th century. Here was an evident service to theology, and for it he was commended by the theological world. Not so, however, when, with the same intent to serve, he sent forth a work which for years had been waiting for a printer and an editor. It is true the work was of decided infidel tendency, but Lessing never could hesitate on that account to give to the world what had been intended for its perusal and judgment, and he therefore sent forth "the Wolfenbüttel Fragments," as they are termed, in his Beiträge zur Gesch. der Literatur (1774-1778), which treat,
1, of the tolerance of the Dists; 2, of the accusations brought against human reason in the pulpit; 3, of the impossibility of a revelation which all men could believe in in the same manner;
4, of the passage of the Israelites through the Red Sea; 5, of the O. Test. not having becn wvritten with the intention of revealing a religion; 6, of the history cf the resurrection.
The last essay, especially, called forth a storm cf opposition, but this did not prevent Lessing's publishing in 1778 a final essay on the object of Jesus and of the apostles. With the views of these fragments, however, Lessing by no means himself coincided. SEE WOLFENBÜTTEL FRAGMENTS. They were intended simply to induce deeper researches on the part of theologians, and to establish a more stringent system of criticism. He desired to raise from a deep lethargy, and to purify from all uncritical elements, the orthodox whom he had so valiantly defended against neology, and proved that this was his intention by the manner in which he opposed the attempt of the Rationalists to substitute to intuitions of reason for the dictates of the heart and for the promptings of faith. "What else," he asks, "is this modern theology when compared with orthodoxy than filthy water with clear water? With orthodoxy we had, thanks to God, pretty much settled; between it and philosophy a barrier had been erected, behind which each of these could walk in its own way without molesting the other. But what is it that they are now doing? They pull down this barrier, and, under the pretext of making us rational Christians, they make us most irrational philosophers. In this we agree that our old religious system is false, but I should not like to say with you [he is writing to his brother] that it is a patchwork got up by jugglers and semiphilosophers. I do not know of anything in the world in which human ingenuity has more shown and exercised itself than in it. A patchwork by jugglers and semiphilosophers is that religious system which they would put in the place of the old one, and, in doing so, would pretend to more rational philosophy than the old one claims." When assailed by Gotze (q.v.) as attacking the faith of the Church by his publication of the Fragments, he replied that, even if the Fragmentists were right, Christianity was not thereby endangered. Lessing rejected the letter, but reserved the spirit of the Scriptures. With him the letter is not the spirit, and the Bible is not religion. "Consequently, objections against the letter, as well as against the Bible, are not precisely objections against the spirit and religion. For the Bible evidently contains more than belongs to religion, and it is a mere supposition that, in this additional matter which it contains, it must be equally infallible. Moreover, religion existed before there was a Bible. Christianity existed before evangelists and apostles had written. However much, therefore, may depend upon those Scriptures, it is not possible that the whole truth of the Christian religion should depend upon them. Since there existed a period in which it was so far spread, in which it had already taken hold of so many souls, and in which, nevertheless, not one letter was written of that which has come down to us, it must be possible also that everything which evangelists and prophets have written might be lost again, and yet the religion taught by them stand. The Christian religion is not true because the evangelists and apostles taught it, but they taught it because it is true. It is from their internal truth that all written documents cannot give it internal truth when it has none" (Lessing's Werke, ed. by Lachmann, 10:10, as cited by Kahnis, Hist. of Gernan Protestantismn, p. 152, 153). Lessing also distinguished between the Christian religion and the religion of Christ; "the latter, being a life immediately implanted and maintained in our heart, manifests itself in love, and can neither stand nor fall with the [facts of the] Gospel. The truths of religion have nothing to do with the facts of history" (Hurst, Rationalism, p. 154). "Although I may not have the least objection to the facts of the Gospel, this is not of the slightest consequence for my religious convictions. Although, historically, I may have nothing to object to Christ's having even risen from the dead, must I for that reason accept it as true that this very risen Christ was the Son of God?" Scripture stands in the same relation to the Church as the plan of a large building to the building itself. It would be ridiculous if, at a conflagration, people were first of all to save the plan; but just as ridiculous is it to fear any danger to Christianity from an attack upon Scripture. In his Duplix Lessing maintained, in reference to the history of the resurrection, that it contains irreconcilable contradictions; but he held also that it does not follow from this circumstance that the resurrection is unhistorical. "Who has ever ventured to draw the same inference in profane history? If Livy, Polybius, Dionysius, and acitus relate the very same event, it may be the very same battle, the very same siege, each one differing so much in the details that those of the one completely give the lie to those of the other, has any one, for that reason, ever denied the event itself in which they agree?" Such are the thoughts which Lessing advanced in his theological polemical writings, particularly in the controversy with pastor Gotze after the publication of the so-called "Wolfenbüttel Fragments," but to present from them a connected theological system strictly defining Lessing's stand-point has not vet been made possible. Indeed, we would say with Hagenbach (Church Hist. of 18th and 19th Cent. 1:288) that "he had none." But just as much difficulty we would find in assigning Lessing a place anywhere in any theological system of thought already in vogue. Really, we think all that can be done for Lessing is to consider in how far his writings justify the disposition that has been made of him as a theological writer. There are at present three different classes of theologians who claim him as their ally and support. By some he has been judged to have held the position of a rather positive, though not exactly orthodox character. This judgment is based upon his views on the doctrine of the Trinity in his Erziehung des Menschengeschlechtes. (He there says: "What if this doctrine [of the Trinity] should lead human reason to acknowvledge that God cannot possibly be understood to be one, in that sense in which all finite things are one? that his unity must be a transcendental unity, which does not exclude a kind of plurality," evidently explaining the Trinity as referring to the essence of the Deity.) By others, either in praise or condemnation, he has been adjudged a "freethinker;" while still others have pronounced him guilty not only of a change of opinion — of a change from the camp of orthodoxy to heterodoxy but have also given him up in despair, as incapable of having cherished any positive opinion, because he was so many-sided in his polemics; indeed, he had himself explicitly declared that he preferred the search for the possession of the truth. The first to break away from one and all of these classifications has been Dr. J. A. Darner (Gesch. der protest. Theol. [Munich, 1867, 8vo], p. 722 sq.), who assigns Lessing a position similar to that generally credited to Jacobi, the so-called "philosopher of faith", SEE JACOBI, and for this there is certainly much in favor in Lessing's own declarations; for, like Jacobi, he held that reason and faith have nothing in conflict with each other, but are one. He held fast, likewise, to a self-conscious personal God of providence, to a living relation of the divine spirit to the world, to whom a place belongs in the inner revelation, notwithstanding that he assails the outer revelation in its historical credibility, and assigns it simply a place in the faith of authority (Autoritätsglauben). "It is true," says Dorner (p. 737), "Lessing has particularly aimed to secure for the purely human and moral a place right by the side of that generally assigned only to Christianity. But he is far from asserting that the understanding (Vernunft) of humanity was from the beginning perfect, or even in a normal development, but rather holds it to be developing in character, and in need of education by the divine Spirit, whom also he refuses to regard as a passive beholder of the acting universe." (We have here a number of premises, which later writers, particularly Schleiermacher, have taken to secure for historical religion a more worthy position.) Indeed, right here, in the attempt to make humanity progressive, and this progress dependent upon revelation, centred the whole of Lessing's theological views. "To the reason," he said, "it must be much rather a proof of the truth of revelation than an objection to it when it meets with things that surpass its own conceptions, for what is a revelation which reveals nothing?" (Comp. Hegel on this point as viewed by Hagenbach, Ch. Hist. of 18th and 19th Cent. 2:364 sq.) Thus he acknowledged the truth of revelation, though he would not regard the idea of a revelation as settled for all time, but rather as God's gradual act of training; and to elucidate this thought he wrote, in 1780, Die Erziehung des lensch engyeschlechtes (the authorship of which has sometimes been denied him: comp. Zeitschr.: d. hist. theol. 1839, No. 3; Guhrauer, Ernziehung des Menschengeschlechtes kritisch und philosophisch erirtert [Berlin, 1841]), a work in which, concentrated in a hundred short paragraphs, is a system of religion and philosophy — the germ of Herder's and all later works on the education of the human race. "Something there is of it," says a writer in the Westminster Rev. (Oct. 1871, p. 222, 223), 'that reminds the reader of Plato. It has his tender melancholy and his undertone of inspired conviction, and a grandeur which recalls that moving of great figures and shifting of vast scenes which we behold in the myth of Er. There speaks in it a voice of one crying words not his own to times that are not yet come." The English Deists, as Bolingbroke and Hobbes, had regarded religion only from the standpoint of politics. "Man," they held, "can know nothing except what his senses teach him, and to this the intelligent confine themselves; a revelation, or, rather, what pretends to be one, might be a good thing for the populace." SEE DEISM. Lessing came forward, and, while seeking to make morality synonymous with religion, aye, with Christianity, taught that in revelation only lies man's strength for development. "Revelation," says Lessing, "is to the whole human race what education is to the individual man. Education is revelation which is imparted to the individual man, and revelation is education which has been and still is imparted to the human race. Education no more presents everything to man at once than revelation does, but makes its communications in gradual development." First Judaism, then Christianity; first unity, then trinity; first happiness for this life, then immortality and never-ending bliss. (See the detailed review on these points in Hurst's Hagenbach, Ch. Hist. of 18th and 19th Cent. 1:291 sq.) The elementary work of education was the O.T. The progress to a more advanced book is marked by the timely coming of Christ, "the reliable and practical teacher of immortality;...reliable through the prophecies which appeared to be fulfilled in him, through the miracles which he performed, and through his own return to life after the death by which he had sealed his doctrine;" whose disciples collected and transmitted in writing his doctrines, "the second and better elementary book for the human race," expecting (according to Ritter [Lessing's philosophische u. religiose Grundsatze, p. 56 sq.]) the complete treatise itself in the fulfillment of the promises of Christianity. Some have interpreted Lessing, because Christianity is spoken of as the second elementary work, as anticipating another religion, to be universally enjoyed, to supersede Christianity, but for this we can see no reason, and side with Ritter.
The position of Lessing has sometimes become equivocal by the peculiar interpretation of his Nathan the Wise. In his Education of Humanity, Christianity unquestionably is the highest religion in the scale; in his "Nathan" it is not so. Hence it has been asserted by many, Christian writers especially, that in his later years Lessing had become a most decided Rationalist, and Jacobi even asserted that he had died a Spinozist. (Compare the article JACOBI, and the literature at the end of this article.) The former interpretation is due, however, to wrong premises. Lessing wrote Nathan the Wise simply for one object: not to aggrandize and ennoble his associate and friend Meendelssohn the Jew, not to deprive Christianity of the best of her beauty, but only to teach humanityy, to the followers of the Christ of the Gospel in the 18th century, the great lesson of toleration. The great French infidel-philosopher Voltaire had sought to do this, but he had failed — had failed utterly — and only because his idea of tolerance was really intolerance. He meant entirely too much by tolerance, for he demanded of the party tolerating not only to esteem all religions alike, to be content with any and every belief, to have no rights in conflict with another in religious matters, but to be obliged to conform to the notions and inclinations of others out of mere politeness; and we do not wonder when Hagenbach (1:29) says that "this is the toleration of shallowness, of cowardice, of religious indecision, of religious indifference — a toleration that finally and easily degenerates into intolerance, which is the hatred of every one who wishes to hold and to profess a firm and positive religion. Such persons must come at last to regard the tolerating party as unyielding and stiff-necked. Such was the toleration of the Romans, which was so much praised by Voltaire. It soon came to an end with the Christians, because they neither could nor would submit to a strange worship. Nothing, however, is more foolish or more opposed to true toleration than precisely this effort to force such toleration upon those who do not agree with us in opinion, for toleration no more admits of force than religion does." Lessing believed that this grand lesson was yet to be taught. He would teach it especially to the Christian, who stood higher in the scale, and could easily influence those below him; nay, he believed that he should teach it. and that most effectually, by practicing it upon his inferiors in belief. He therefore would shame the Christian by examples most noble from religions generally regarded as inferior, and its followers as more fanatical. Yet it must not be forgotten that Lessing never went so far as to ignore his own religion, for these grand specimens of Judaism and Mohammedanism reveal their Christian painter after all, when once the lay brother is made to say, "Nathan, you are a Christian. Never was a better" (act iv, scene vii, line 2). He would teach us that Christianity is the most perfect of all religions, but that the others also have in them many parts which go to make it up; that as they shall modify in course of time, so shall also Christianity grow on to perfection (see above, Ritter's view). His principal fault was this, that his peculiar view of revelation led him to believe that no religion is as yet absolutely perfect, and that therefore none of the positive religions could justly claim the character of universality, and of exclusive privileges and rights; and hence he regarded all religions as an individualization of reason, according to time and place, and a product, on the one hand, of the culture of a people, and, on the other, of divine education and communication, thus making Christianity capable also of an objective perfectibility. (This is a view which has been advanced of late by many Christian writers of Mohammedanism; comp. Freeman, The Saracens [Oxford and London, 1870, 12mo], lect. 1.) Regarding the charge of his Spinozaism, we would say with Mendelssohn, who defended Lessing from this charge after his death: "If Lessing was able absolutely and without all further limitation to declare for the system of any man, he was at that time no more with himself, or he was in a strange humor to make a paradoxical assertion which, in a serious hour, he himself again rejected" (Jacobi, Werke, vol. 4, pt. 1, p. 44; comp. Kahnis, Germ. Prot. p. 164 sq.; Dorner, Gesch. protest. Theol. p. 723). SEE MENDELSSOHN. All that Jacobi had for his assertion that Lessing died a Pantheist was a conversation with him a few years before Lessing's death. Upon this fact Prof. Nichol justly observes: "The reporting of such conversation must ever be protested against as breach of confidence, and it is almost as certainly a source of misrepresentation. What thinker does not, in the frankness and confidence of intercourse, give utterance at times to momentary impressions, as if they were his abiding ones? This much is unquestionable: Lessing has not written one solitary word inconsistent with a firmest persuasion in the personality of man. This great writer, indeed, belongs to a class of minds very easily misapprehended — minds which none but others in so far akin to them can rightly understand. Oftenest in antagonism, or in a critical attitude, thinkers like Lessing do not generally express their whole thought; they dwell only on the part of the common thought from which they dissent. So far, however, from being ruled by mere negations, it is certainly more probable that their dissent arises from a completer view and possession of truth; and that their effort is confined to the desire to separate truth from error, or, at all events, from non-essentials." Not even the modest charge that Lessing in his latest years, by reason of his affiliation with Nicolai and Mendelssohn, inclined towards Rationalism, can, upon examination, be substantiated. His own words from Vienna, whither he had gone on a call from Joseph II, who in 1769 invited all the great and learned men of the times to his capital for a general assemblage, addressed to Nicolai. who had taken this occasion to ridicule Vienna, and praise his own Berlin by contrast, go far to disprove any such assertion: "Say nothing, I pray you, about your Berlin freedom of thinking and writing. It is reduced simply and solely to the freedom of bringing to market as many gibes and jeers against religion as you choose, and a decent man must speedily be ashamed to avail himself of this freedom." If Lessing is to be classed at all with Rationalists, we should first distinguish between the higher Rationalism of humanity and its double-sighted compeer, trivial and vulgar Rationalism, and then assign Lessing a place in that of the former, for to it alone can he be claimed to have rendered intentional aid.
Of his service to German literature generally, it may be truly said "he found Germany without a national literature; when he died it had one. He pointed out the ways in poetry, philosophy, and religion by which the national mind should go, and it has gone in them" (Westmn. Rev. Oct. 1871, p. 223). "Honor," says Menzel (German Lit. [transl. by C. C. Felton, Bost. 1840, 3 vols. 12mo], 2:405), "was the principle of Lessing's whole life. He composed in the same spirit that he lived. He had to contend with obstacles his whole life long, but he never bowed down his head. He struggled not for posts of honor, but for his own independence. He might, with his extraordinary ability, have rioted in the favor of the great, like Goethe, but he scorned and hated this favor as unworthy a free man. His long continuance in private life, his services as secretary of the brave general Tauenzien during the Seven Years' War, and afterwards as librarian at Wolfenbüttel, proved that he did not aspire to high places....He ridiculed Gellert, Klopstock, and all who bowed their laurel-crowned to heads to heads encircled with golden crowns; and he himself shunned all contact with the great, animated by that stainless spirit of pride which acts instinctively upon the motto Noli me tangere."
Literature. — The complete works of Lessing were first published at Berlin (1771, 32 vols. 12mo), then with annotations by Lachmann (1839, 12 vols.), and by Von Maltzahn (1855, 12 vols). See Karl Gotthelf Lessing, Lessing's Biographie (Berl. 1793, 2 vols.); Danzel, Lessing, sein Leben und seine Werke (1850), continued by Guhrauer (1853-54); Stahr, G. E. Lessing, sein Leben u. s. Werke (6th ed. Berl. 1859, 2 vols. 12mo, transl. by E. P. Evans, late professor at Mich. Univ., Boston, 1867, 2 vols. 12mo); H. Ritter, in the Göttingen Studien (1847); Ritter, Gesch. d. christi. Philos. 2:480 sq.; Bohtz, Lessing's Protestantismnus und Nath. der Weise; Lang, Religiose Charaktere, 1:215 sq.; Röpe, Lessing und Gotze; Rohr, Kleine theoloqische Schriften (Schleusingen, 1841, vol. 1); Schwarz, Lessing als Theologe (1854); Gervinus, National-Liter. d. Deutschen, 4:318 sq.; Mohnike, Lessingianea (Lpz. 1843, 8vo); Schlosser, Gesch. d. l8ten Jahrhund. 3:2; Schmidt, Gesch. d. geist. Lebens in Deutschld. von Leibnitz bis auf Lessing's Tod; Hurst's Hagenbach, Ch. History 18th and 19th Cent. vol. 1, lect. 13; For. Quart. Review, 25:233 sq.; Westmnist. Rev. 1871, Oct., art. 8; Herzog, Real-Encyklop. 8:336 sq.; Kahnis, Hist. of German Protestantisn, p. 145 sq. (J. H.W.)