With regard to Lessing's best-known dramatic work, Friedrich Schlegel once made the noteworthy comment: "Nathan the Wise is not only a continuation of his A.nti-Goe%e, a twelfth installment in the series, as it were; it is also, and it is indeed, a dramatized primer of higher cynicism."1 This remark by one of the most prominent exponents of German romanticism suggests two important perspectives from which to interpret this classic work. In the first place, this dramatic masterpiece needs to be interpreted in close connection with, and as a prolongation of, Lessing's theological controversy with Goeze. In the second place, it also needs to be regarded as transcending the occasion that gave it birth, as representing the crystallization or embodiment of a universal idea.
Nathan the Wise was indeed, as Lessing himself admitted, a by-product of his controversy with Goeze. Accordingly, a proper understanding of the significance of this work requires us to have a clear idea of the course of the controversy. Conversely, to understand Lessing's theological position in the controversy fully and correctly, it is absolutely necessary that we pay full attention to the religious idea expressed in Nathan the Wise. For Lessing's statements in his controversy with Goeze—a controversy that the authorities brought to a premature end—were little more than a litany of bitter irony and sarcasm caused by his overreaction to Goeze's inquisitorial tone of censure. As a result, it is quite difficult to grasp Lessing's authentic theological ideas from the polemics of his anti-Goeze writings.
On the other hand, this dramatic work, said to be "a work produced by sheer reason," possesses a literary independence and a conceptual universality that hold good quite apart from the immediate context in which it came into being. Dilthey says of the idea of humanity that it "once made the hearts of the best people of our nation throb audibly in their breasts, but already by Herder's latter days, had became more and more threadbare."2 It was this very idea of humanity that for the first time in German intellectual history took vivid and definite form in two of Lessing's best-known works, Nathan the Wise and The Education of the Human Race.
Our main task in this chapter will be to elucidate "Lessing's ideal" or his "new ideal of life"3 as given poetic expression in Nathan the Wise, and to clarify the "new feeling for life" or "new worldview"4 that emerge from this work. In carrying out this task, we will have to pay special attention both to the drama's immediate background, that is, Lessing's theological controversy with Goeze, and to the closely related work, The Education of the Human Race.
Was this article helpful?