The conversation

On the surface, the controversy swirled around the "orthodox" theological doctrines of God and free will, but it also had a deep undertow that would pull the conversation in an unchartered direction - toward the edge of "nothingness." It all began in a conversation prompted by Goethe's poem "Prometheus." It did not take long for Spinoza's name to be uttered. As Jacobi recounted the conversation, Lessing had admitted, "The point of view from which the poem is treated is my own point of view The orthodox concepts of the Divinity are no longer for me; I cannot stomach them. Hen kaipan [One and All]! I know of nothing else. That is also the direction of the poem, and I must confess that I like it very much." Jacobi replied, "Then you must be pretty well in agreement with Spinoza." Lessing rejoined, "If I am to name myself after anyone, I know of nobody else." Interrupted, they continued the conversation the next morning. Lessing began, "I have come to talk to you about my hen kai pan. Yesterday you were frightened." Jacobi conceded, "You surprised me, and I may indeed have blushed and gone pale, for I felt bewilderment in me. Fright it was not. To be sure, there is nothing that I would have suspected less, than to find a Spinozist or a pantheist in you. And you blurted it out to me so suddenly. In the main I had come to get help from you against Spinoza." To this, Lessing could only say, "Then there is no help for you. Become his friend all the way instead. There is no other philosophy than the philosophy of Spinoza."

Jacobi and Lessing agreed at least on this: the God of the philosophers of the Aufklärung was not a God in which either one was interested. Also, both wanted to avoid the skepticism that presented itself as the reasonable response to the crisis of history (which Lessing himself helped to inaugurate)9 and the crisis of metaphysics (which impelled Kant to write his Critique of Pure Reason [1781]). Whereas Lessing found in Spinoza an attractive alternative to skepticism, Jacobi found in Spinoza the perfect representative of skepticism.

Indifferent to the notion of free will, Lessing was satisfied with Spinoza's moral determinism. Bored with the idea of a personal God, he found relief in the ancient view of the "One and All," which he interpreted as meaning that the "One" is the soul of the "All." According to Jacobi, the hen kai pan was "the sum concept of [Lessing's] theology and philosophy." This, however, is a slippery sort of Spinozism. And yet, as Lessing himself pointed out, in denying free will, he was merely being a good Lutheran. Moreover, neither the dictum "One and All" nor the notion of a world soul is to be found in Spinoza's writings. Both were included in Toland's description of pantheism, but Lessing's appeal to the hen kai pan appears to have been a reference to certain pre-Socratic philosophers. Finally (again, if we are to trust Jacobi), Lessing tossed in some of the mysticism of the cabbala. Lessing's "Spinozism" was thus an unlikely mixture of several varied elements. Lessing had read Spinoza carefully enough to have been able to come up with a stricter kind of Spinozism, but perhaps he had learned that it was safer to be enigmatic about such things.

Still, on a carefree summer morning he asked a friend, "How on earth can you believe the opposite of Spinozism?"10 Jacobi replied, "On the contrary, I draw back from a philosophy that makes perfect scepticism a necessity." How could Spinoza, that confident rationalist, be considered a skeptic? Because, Jacobi argued, the principle a nihilo nihil fit is the very "soul" of Spinoza's philosophy: nothing comes from nothing. Everything else that belongs to the "spirit of Spinozism" - materialism, fatalism, and atheism - follow necessarily from this one principle.

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