New Eternal Gospel and the Completion of the Human Race

The fact that Lessing's The Education of the Human Race is still a subject for research and discussion is due not so much to its importance for the philosophy of religion or the philosophy of history as to the "new, eternal gospel" that he made famous in this book. For he is generally regarded as the thinker who has rendered the greatest service to "the rediscovery of the eternal evangel."46

Having mentioned "the time of the perfecting" in §85, Lessing declares that "it will assuredly come! the time of a new, eternal gospel, which is promised to us in the primers of the New Covenant itself!" (§86). This implies that the time of the perfecting is the time of "a new, eternal gospel" and that the coming of such a time is promised in the books of the New Testament. In fact, there is mention of an "eternal gospel" (zUa\\iKiOV aiWVlOV; evangelium aeternum) in Revelation 14:6.

At any rate, Lessing jumps from the New Testament age directly to the enthusiasts of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries in order to make some comments about them. According to him, "perhaps even some enthusiasts of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries had caught a glimmer of this new eternal gospel, and only erred in that they predicted its arrival as so near to their own time" (§87). What is more, "perhaps their 'Three Ages of the World'

were not so empty a speculation after all," says Lessing, "and assuredly they had no bad intentions when they taught that the new convenant must become as antiquated as the old has become. There remained with them the same economy of the same God. Ever, to put my own expression into their mouths, ever the selfsame plan of the education of the human race" (§88).

It is generally taken for granted that Lessing had in mind here the Calabrian abbot Joachim of Fiore and the radical Franciscan spiritualists influenced by his ideas. The surprising thing is, however, that no mention of Joachim of Fiore occurs anywhere in Lessing's works. Moreover, it is not clear whether Lessing had ever read Joachim's works at all. Christian Gross, one of the editors of the Hempel edition of Lessing's works, was the first to assert that in §87 Lessing made implicit reference to Joachim of Fiore. Gross made this assertion in the editor's notes to volumes 14 through 17, volumes he edited in 1873—74. Since then, Gross's surmise has gained wide recognition in the academic world. But it remains unclear as to exactly how much Lessing knew about Joachim of Fiore and, if he did know something, through what channel he came to know about Joachim's theory of the "Three Ages of the World."47

Be that as it may, it is certain that from the very outset Lessing conceived The Education of the Human Race in terms of a Joachim-like scheme of three ages of the world. According to this theory of the tripartite development of history, the New Testament must become as antiquated as the Old Testament has become, and in its place there must someday begin a new age of the eternal gospel. Lessing has incorporated into this scheme of historical development his original idea of the necessary development of revealed truths into truths of reason. "You who are cleverer than the rest, who wait fretting and impatient on the last page of the primer" (§68) could be taken as meaning Lessing himself. In any event, when he says, "Take care that you do not let your weaker classmates notice what you are beginning to scent, or even see," this exhortation certainly has to do with the coming of "the time of a new eternal gospel."

What is novel, then, in his espousal of the new, eternal gospel? It is undoubtedly his characterization of this gospel as the attainment of "perfect illumination" (die völlige Aufklärung) and "purity of heart" (die Reinigkeit des Herzens) which is capable of loving virtue solely for its own sake.

Admittedly, there are some scholars who object to this generally held view. Heinz Bluhm, for example, relativizes the novelty of Lessing's concept when he says:

The answer to the question raised in this treatise, whether Lessing's conception of the eternal gospel is new, must therefore be as follows. Lessing's concept of the eternal gospel is new only insofar as Lessing has given an ethical definition of Joachim of Fiore's commonly held idea of evangelium aeternum and has thereby provided it with solid content. Yet the higher morality propagated by Lessing as of the eternal gospel itself is—contrary to the opinion widely held in German circles today—not new48

Christoph Schrempf, from a different perspective, also poses an objection to the idea of novelty in Lessing's higher morality. From Schrempfs point of view, the higher morality Lessing espoused is characterized by naivete. But a morality characterized by naivete, Schrempf maintains, is exactly what Jesus Christ proclaimed and practiced. Accordingly, the Lessingian higher morality should be called "a second naivete" (eine zweite Naivität). But, says Schrempf, Lessing's misunderstanding of Jesus's ethics makes his relationship to Christianity somewhat awkward.49 Bluhm's and Schrempfs criticisms of Lessing's idea of a "new, eternal gospel" appear to raise important questions, but we must press on to the question of its relation to enthusiasm.

As Lessing puts it, "Some enthusiasts of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries had caught a glimmer of this new, eternal gospel." The only mistake they made is that "they predicted its arrival as so near to their own time." "They were," he says, "premature. They believed that they could make their contemporaries, who had scarcely outgrown their childhood, without enlightenment, without preparation, at one stroke men worthy of their third age" (§89). He goes on:

And it was just this which made them enthusiasts. The enthusiast often casts true glances into the future, but for this future he cannot wait. He wants this future to come quickly, and to be made to come quickly through him. A thing over which nature takes thousands of years is to come to maturity just at the moment of his experience. For what part has he in it if that which he recognizes as the best does not become the best in his life time? Does he come again? Does he expect to come again? It is strange that this enthusiasm is not more the fashion, if it were only among enthusiasts. (§90)

We can see here Lessing's attitude toward enthusiasts (Schwärmer). According to him, the enthusiasts often see truly into the future, but they are too impatient to wait calmly for its arrival. They want what they have glimpsed, what nature takes thousands of years to realize, to materialize immediately. Lessing is not fond of this enthusiastic impatience. He is a man of farseeing wisdom and patience. "Until these weaker fellows of yours have caught up with you, it is better that you should return once more to this primer, and examine whether that which you take only for variations of method, for superfluous verbiage in the teaching, is not perhaps something more" (§69). As this statement shows, Lessing as the educator of the human race impressed on the fretful and impatient the importance of "waiting" (Warten).50 He is distrustful of the notion that his immature contemporaries could be made, "without enlightenment, without preparation, at one stroke men worthy of [the] third age." Looking forward to the dawning of a new age, he calmly waits for the moment to take a step forward.51

"Go thine inscrutable way, Eternal Providence! Only let me not despair of thee because of this inscrutableness. Let me not despair of thee, even if thy steps appear to me to be going backward. It is not true that the shortest line is always straight" (§91). "Thou hast on thine eternal way so much that thou must concern thyself with, so much to attend to! And what if it were as good as proved that the great, slow wheel, which brings mankind nearer to its perfection, is only set in motion by smaller, faster wheels, each of which contributes its own individual part to the whole?" (§92).

These two paragraphs most clearly demonstrate Lessing's "faith in providence" (Vorsehungs-Glaube^).52 It is true that referring to God's providence, even when it had no special religious meaning, was a common practice in the age of the Enlightenment. But Lessing's reference to God's providence in these paragraphs is to be distinguished from the common practice.53 These paragraphs express Lessing's own deep religious piety and mature wisdom. The protagonist's words in Nathan the Wise 4/7, "If Providence demands her at my hands / Again—I shall obey," can be regarded as connoting Lessing's own faith in providence.54 In any event, it would be safe to assume that Lessingian reason, backed by this faith in providence, is of a dimension that differs completely from the shallow reason characteristic of the Enlightenment, reason that takes it for granted that "the shortest line is always straight." For Lessingian reason, being wise enough to discern that eternal providence has "so much that thou must concern thyself with," is also backed by a piety capable of accepting with serenity the slow and winding course of inscrutable providence.55

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