Beginning and Development of the Controversy

In the first phase of the fragments controversy, the target of people's reproach and criticism was, as observed earlier, the unnamed author. In addition, all the critics were men of minor importance. Thus Lessing was able to continue in his chosen role as a mere editor of the fragments. He was able to behave as if he were no more than a disinterested spectator.

The intervention of Johann Melchior Goeze,3 however, brought about a complete change in the character and pace of the controversy. Goeze, already notorious as "the Inquisitor" and representing himself as the defender of Lutheran orthodoxy, took aim at Lessing and attacked him fiercely. To this end, he published two acrimonious booklets: first,

Something Preliminary against Court Councillor Lessing's Direct and Indirect Malevolent Attacks on Our Most Holy Religion, and on Its Single Foundation, the Bible (Etwas Vorläufiges gegen des Herrn Hof rat Lessings mittelbare und unmittelbare feindselige Angriffe auf unsre allerheiligste Religion, und auf den einigen Lehrgrund derselben, die heilige Schrift); and second, Lessing's Weaknesses (Lessings Schwächen).

Lessing took up the gauntlet and counterattacked in print, publishing his own polemical writings: A Parable (Eine Parabel); Axioms, If There Be Any in Such Things (Axiomata, wenn es deren in dergleichen Dingen gibt); the eleven-installment Anti-Goe%T; and The Necessary Answer to a very Unnecessary Question by Hauptpastor Goeze in Hamburg (Der nötigen Antwort auf eine sehr unnötige Frage des Herrn Hauptpastor Goeze in Hamburg). Going further, Lessing even put into print the most offensive portion of Reimarus's fragments under the title On the Purpose of Jesus and His Disciples (Von dem Zwecke Jesu und seiner Jünger).

As a result of a misunderstanding (to be described below) and the mutual hatred to which it gave rise, the initially theological dispute between Lessing and Goeze eventually deteriorated into personal abuse and vituperation. More important, when the tide of controversy turned in Lessing's favor, Goeze appealed to the Duke of Brunswick. As a result, Lessing was deprived of his earlier privilege of freedom from censorship. In July 1778 every product of his pen was strictly censored, and from August 1778 he was forbidden to publish anything without advance permission from the government of Brunswick.

No authority in the world, however, could prevent this "lover of truth" from writing. When it became impossible to carry on his controversy with Goeze within the territory of the Duke of Brunswick, Lessing determined to return to "his old pulpit, the theater,"4 and to continue his theological battle with Goeze from that vantage point. This was when he decided to write the play Nathan the Wise.

The foregoing paragraphs constitute a rough description of the course of the Lessing-Goeze controversy, "the second stage of the fragments controversy."5 Before undertaking a theological analysis of this controversy, however, we must consider a few important things. First is the matter of the personal relationship between Lessing and Goeze. In point of fact, Lessing and

Goeze had already become acquainted with each other long before their confrontation over the Reimarus fragments. Their personal relationship began in Hamburg some eight years before the beginning of this controversy. In his documents, Lessing left behind the following remark: "On 24 October 1769 I met personally with the Hauptpastor, Goeze, for the first time. At his repeated invitation, I visited him and found him to be a man who was very natural in his demeanor and by no means unsuitable with regard to his knowledge. We first spoke of the public library in this city. "6 At their first meeting they seem to have exchanged views on the city library in Hamburg, which was in a deplorable state, on Goeze's magnificent collection of Bibles, and so on.7 The talks with Goeze seem to have held a certain charm for Lessing because he visited Goeze several times. His brother Karl wrote about Lessing's visits with Goeze:

Goeze, then the Hauptpastor, or, to use Bahrdtian terms for religious reason, the head stallion of the orthodox herd in Hamburg, received a few social calls from Lessing. During these visits, they admittedly did not establish which books of the Old and New Testaments were canonical, or the value of the old and new theaters in Hamburg, but spoke of other recondite matters. The Lutheran zealot, who felt himself powerless to impose ecclesiastical penance on Lessing, knew how to entertain a secular scholar just as Christ had known how to eat with tax collectors and sinners.

Lessing, who took to every intelligent man regardless of what cap he wore, found pleasure in Goeze's erudition—and, enlightened slanderers might add, in his Rhine wine. He visited him often, without placing His Reverence under the embarrassment of a return visit. Lessing's friends and acquaintances soon got wind of this news, and began to tease him about it in tones at once abusive and earnest. They were utterly astonished, however, when he candidly confessed, making no secret of it, that he esteemed Goeze's erudition and even his theology. The sophisticated took this as expressing a spirit of contradiction, the supersophisticated as mockery.8

The good relationship between the two seems to have continued for a while even after Lessing moved to Wolfenbuttel. On his way to other places, Goeze once stopped off in Wolfenbuttel to see Lessing. Unfortunately, however, they did not meet on that occasion because Lessing happened to be gone on business for Brunswick.

But something occurred that led to a rift in their relationship. The origin of the rift was that Goeze, in connection with his biblical research, asked Lessing to provide him with some information from the holdings in the ducal library. For some unknown reason, Lessing neither provided this information nor gave any reply whatever.9 Growing resentful at Lessing's ignoring of his request, Goeze publicly blamed "a [certain] famous librarian in a big out-of-town library"10 for neglecting his duty. When he became aware of Goeze's resentment, Lessing immediately thought that he ought to apologize for his neglect in a personal letter to Goeze. But he carelessly forgot to write the letter. Lessing did not think the matter very important, but Goeze thought it very important and was quite incensed.11

Another thing that had a bearing on their controversy was the matter of their respective circumstances. Goeze, a family man, had four children, but two died in infancy and a third while attending university. In 1774 he lost his beloved wife, with whom he had shared married life for twenty-eight years. With regard to his position, he adhered to the extremely strict doctrines of Lutheran orthodoxy so bigotedly that he caused discord among his fellow pastors. As a result, in 1770 he had to resign his post as Hauptpastor of the Hamburg pastors, a position he had held since 1760. Thus both as a family man and as a public man, Goeze lived in growing isolation and loneliness.12

In Lessing's case, on the other hand, the position of director of the Herzog-August-Bibliothek at Wolfenbüttel took the place of his erstwhile easygoing life as a freelance journalist. But he was still far from well-off. For this and other reasons, the period of his engagement to the beautiful widow Eva König lasted over five years. They married in October 1776.13 Eva became pregnant the following year and gave birth to a boy on Christmas Day of 1777. But the newborn baby, Traugott, died within twenty-four hours. What was worse, his mother, because of the difficult labor, fell into a comatose state and died on 10 January 1778. So Lessing's happy married life ended suddenly in bitter grief and woe. It was precisely at this time, when Lessing was in the depths of despair, that Goeze opened his assault.14 For this very reason, Goeze's inquisitorial accusations must have been extremely difficult for him to bear. But he somehow summoned up the energy to set his grief aside and counterattack the Inquisitor of Hamburg.

The controversy between Lessing and Goeze thus involves complicated non-theological factors. It is important to keep these personal factors in mind as we discuss the Lessing-Goeze controversy. We turn now to the substance of the controversy, with particular attention to its early phase when the two combatants were still comparatively dispassionate.

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