In a tribute to the memory of Lessing, his senior by fifteen years, the romantic poet Johann Gottfried Herder, another advocate of "the ideal of humanity," made a significant comment about Lessing's last prose work: "It is well that Lessing completed his career with a confession of faith [that is, his alleged confession of Spinozism] and a booklet on The Education of the Human Race. For all its exaggerated hypotheses, the latter is a work that many theologians might wish to have written."1 As this comment suggests, Lessing's The Education of the Human Race (1780) is widely regarded as a work that offers important clues to his theological and religious-philosophical thought.
According to Helmut Thielicke, who provided one of the most penetrating theological interpretations of Lessing's philosophy of religion in this century, "an intrinsically well-rounded system of . . . thought undoubtedly lies in The Education of the Human Race. For many reasons, therefore, it is recommended for the analysis of Lessing's esoteric theology, that is, his normative attitude in the conflict between religious faith in the transcendent and adhesion to the immanent."2 Paul Tillich, another theologian, endorses this view when he says that one can perceive in this work "the most genuine spirit of Lessing, a really Lessingian mode of thought and speech."3 Judging from the comments of these two theologians, we can safely assert that The Education of the Human Race is the manifesto of Lessing's theological and religious-philosophical thought.
Though full of antithetical statements, hypothetical assertions, mere hints, and the intentional concealment of some truths, this small book, composed of one hundred brief paragraphs, is a pithy expression of the results of Lessing's lifelong quest in pursuit of theology and philosophy of religion.4 It can be read as containing his final convictions—or at least some clues as to what those convictions were. Accordingly, it is undoubtedly one of the most important works we have for discerning some of the key ideas in his "esoteric" theology.
Furthermore, this work is regarded by many as "the foundation of a modern philosophy of religion and the beginning of a deeper observation of history."5 From this point of view, it is sometimes characterized as inaugurating the great idealist philosophy of Germany. Wilhelm Lutgert, for example, maintains:
The idealist philosophy of history begins with Lessing's The Education of the Human Race. By sketching a historical worldview, he stepped over the horizon of the Enlightenment. Through this attempt, he belongs to the fathers of German idealism. He knew no such thing as reason that is the same and complete at all times. Instead, by understanding history as a developmental process of reason, he drew reason into history. He was the first man to apply the concept of development to history. Lessing's philosophy of history is religious and theological. The authentic core of history for him is the history of religions.6
This is an eloquent statement as to the significance of The Education of the Human Race for the history of ideas in early nineteenth-century Germany. It does not mean, however, that Lessing's basic thought as contained in this work is so evident that no special effort is needed to discern it. Quite the contrary. In fact, it is not too much to say that the ambiguity of his philosophy of religion, notorious for its ironical expressions and paradoxical assertions, reaches its climax in this, his final work. The difficult problem of the "exoteric" and "esoteric" with which every Lessing scholar has been confronted reaches its acme here. Consequently, proper understanding of the work calls for hard and painstaking labor. It is a task of grasping Lessing's real intentions and identifying the esoteric convictions hidden under, or behind, the exoteric statements. The subtle maneuvers and tricks Lessing has employed will easily mislead the superficial reader who is unable to fathom Lessing's innermost spirit. As a result, this work has given rise to diametrically opposed interpretations, causing Lessing the theologian or Lessing the philosopher of religion to remain enigmatic to the present day.
Our main task in this chapter, therefore, is to unravel the basic thought of Lessing's philosophy of religion as contained in his The Education of the Human Race. We embark on this task by undertaking a detailed reading and comprehensive interpretation of the German original.
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