Basic Features of the Education of the Human Race

It has already been shown that Lessing's thought is eminently polemical, antithetical, "gymnastic," and hypothetical.7 This is especially true of The Education of the Human Race, where his mode of thought and description has been characterized as highly "fragmentary, antithetical, hypothetical-tactical—and in every respect pedagogical."8 According to Martin Haug, "we may often regard Lessing's apparent propositions as actually no more than hypotheses."9 It may safely be said, moreover, that by the very nature of how it came into being, this work is "a batch of 'counterpropositions' " (ein Stück der ""Gegensätze').10 What, then, were the propositions to which the counter-propositions were opposed? These, needless to say, were the radical propositions advanced by Reimarus, the anonymous writer whose manuscripts Lessing had published under the title Fragments from an Unnamed Author.

It was Eastertime 1780, one year before Lessing's death, that The Education of the Human Race appeared in book form. The first half, however,

(paragraphs 1 through 53) had already appeared three years earlier, appended to the Fragments as part of the "Editor's Counterpropositions." When he published the first half, Lessing did not reveal that he himself was the author of these paragraphs, but pretended that they had been borrowed from "a small essay in handwritten form" that had been circulating "among a certain circle of friends for a few years."11 The first half was originally issued to enunciate the assertions with which the editor proposed to counter the unnamed author's fourth fragment. At least this part, therefore, may be characterized as Lessing's counterpropositions to Reimarus's proposition "that the books of the Old Testament were not written to reveal a religion."

Reimarus's line of argument is consistent with his rationalistic presuppositions. On his view, a "revealed religion" is "a supernatural beatific religion" that must contain among its essential doctrines three tenets: (1) "immortality of the soul," (2) "future reward and punishment in an everlasting life," and (3) "the union of devout souls with God in ever-greater glorification and beatitude."12 As this definition shows, Reimarus's basic position is generally that of deism. According to the rationalistic conception of religion derived from the English deists, what has been revealed must be true, but only what accords with reason is true. A revealed religion, therefore, must be both true and reasonable; that is, it must contain all the fundamental truths of rational religion. These fundamental truths are the concept of God, the obligation to do the good and be rewarded for doing so, and the immortality of the soul. As unflinching historico-critical study shows, however, the Old Testament does not contain the doctrine of the immortality of the soul, nor does it know anything of reward and punishment in an afterworld. Consequently, the religion of the Old Testament lacks two of the essential characteristics of rational religion. Because of this lack, it cannot be in accord with reason, and therefore cannot be revealed. This, in brief, is Reimarus's argument.

Over against Reimarus's bold assertion, Lessing, in his "Editor's Counter-propositions," offers his own argument. To be sure, he agrees with Reimarus on subjecting the biblical accounts to radical historical criticism, and he subscribes to Reimarus's conclusion that the doctrine of the immortality of the soul is lacking in the Old Testament. Taking a step beyond Reimarus, Lessing even goes so far as to advance the bold conjecture that the books of the Old Testament, or the Jewish people before the Babylonian captivity, did not have "the true conception of the One." That is to say, he suggests that genuine monotheism, said to be the primary element of rational religion, was lacking in the first stage of Old Testament religion. Nevertheless, he resolutely rejects Reimarus's conclusion "that the books of the Old Testament were not written to reveal a religion." What made Lessing's seemingly paradoxical view possible was a brand new idea, alien both to Lutheran orthodoxy and to deistic rationalism. Though deistic rationalism objected to Lutheran orthodoxy, particularly with regard to the doctrine of verbal inspiration, these two ways of thinking were at one in their implicit premise. Both presupposed that revealed religion must always contain the rational truths of God's unity and of the immortality of the soul. Lessing, in contrast, contends that revelation does not necessarily contain all the content of rational religion from the outset. If we assume, he argues, that human reason develops slowly and gradually, and that truths now evident to all were once difficult for most people to understand, it follows that all the contents of rational religion need not be fully revealed from the first. Would it not be wiser to think that some truths, rather than being revealed all at once, were held in reserve at the early stages when human reason was still undeveloped, still too immature to grasp rational truths? If this assumption is correct, what Reimarus criticizes as the "unreasonable" (nichtvernunftig aspects of the Old Testament can also be taken as signifying "not yet reasonable" (noch-nicht-vernunftig. In this case, they need not be understood as "contrary to reason" (contra rationem). Accordingly, they do not prove that the books of the Old Testament are contrary to revelation.13

The paragraph above gives the gist of the "counterpropositions" (Antithese) that Lessing formulated in opposition to Reimarus's "propositions" (These). To buttress his assertions without revealing himself as the author, he produced an excerpt from a handwritten form of what later became The Education of the Human Race. Three years later, he used this excerpt to form the first fifty-three paragraphs of The Education of the Human Race. We turn now to an examination of the structure of this book.

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