Personal contact between Lessing and Jacobi began, incidentally, on 18 May 1779 when Lessing, in token of thanks for a complimentary copy of Woldemar from Jacobi, sent him a copy of his newly published Nathan the Wise. Deeply moved by this gift, Jacobi wrote a lengthy letter of thanks on 20 August 1779, expressing his wish to pay a visit to Lessing when he next traveled to Wolfenbüttel. Having received a cordial invitation, he visited Lessing's home in Wolfenbüttel for the first time from 5—11 July 1780. He then had good opportunity to engage Lessing in long and heated discussions on metaphysical topics.
About a month later (according to Scholz's assumption), presumably between August 10th and 15th, he again met Lessing both in Brunswick and in
Halberstadt (where Lessing had business to attend to) and had another opportunity to engage him in metaphysical discussions.43
The first question we have to ask here has to do with Jacobi's intention in visiting Lessing at this time. In order to clarify his motive, we direct our attention to his remark, "I had come chiefly in the hope of receiving your help against Spinoza." This clearly shows that Jacobi sought out Lessing not to converse about general topics in literature, philosophy, and religion, but for the definite purpose of discussing the specific topic of Spinozism. But why this particular topic? And why seek help from Lessing? In my view Frederick Beiser has an accurate grasp of the matter and of the circumstances. I propose, therefore, to follow his account.
According to Beiser, Lessing was "a deeply symbolic figure for Jacobi" and was essentially "a vehicle for Jacobi's criticisms of the Berlin Aufklärer,, and in particular Mendelssohn."44 Since his early days, Jacobi had been disdainful of the Berlin Aufklärer. In his eyes the Enlightenment thinkers of the Berlin circle represented "a form of intellectual tyranny and dogmatism." These thinkers behaved as if they were the guardians of tolerance and free thought. In his view, however, they were in reality hypocrites who were "willing to forfeit their intellectual ideals for the sake of compliance with the moral, religious, and political status quo." Although they championed "the ideals of radical criticism and free inquiry," they easily abandoned these ideals and acquiesced in the Establishment as soon as "they seemed to threaten the foundation of morality, religion, and the state." In the final analysis, they were Popular-philosophen who, Jacobi thought, aimed at practical or utilitarian ends, such as "the education of the public, the promotion of the general welfare, and the achievement of a general culture." But he wondered whether philosophy could serve two masters: reason and the public. With regard to philosophy he asked, "Can it be both critical and practical, both rational and responsible, both honest and useful?" Is the purpose of philosophy "truth or the general happiness?" Is it not an illusion to think, as the Berlin Aufklärer do, that philosophy supports morality, religion, and the state? On the contrary, is it not true that free inquiry, when pursued to its limits without restraint, inevitably leads to skepticism? And is it not always the case that "skepticism erodes the very foundation of morality, religion, and the state?"45
Guided by such ideas, Jacobi sought to teach the Berliners the lesson that philosophy could not serve both truth and the public. For this purpose, he conceived the notion of "preparing for them the eighteenth-century equivalent of hemlock: namely, the bitter pill of Lessing's Spinozism."46 For in his eyes Lessing represented "the very antithesis of the Berliner Geist" and was "the only courageous and honest thinker of the Aufklärung.' That is to say, "he alone had the courage to pursue inquiry for its own sake, despite the consequences; and he alone had the honesty to take criticism to its tragic conclusion without moral or religious scruples."47 To put it in Jacobian terms, "Lessing was the only man with the honesty to admit the consequences of all inquiry and criticism: atheism and fatalism."48 But such atheism and fatalism are, in Jacobi's view, the quintessence of Spinozism. Thus despite his remark that "I
certainly did not expect to find you a Spinozist or pantheist," it is quite possible that Jacobi, from the outset, suspected Lessing of being a Spinozist and took him in by means of shrewd, leading questions.49 If this observation is correct, then we can say that Jacobi used "the figure of Lessing to criticize the Berlin establishment."50
The next question to be considered is that of Jacobi's relationship to Spinozism. To put it in a nutshell, it is, as Vallée says, "a love-hate relationship."51 Jacobi's vivid and empathetic presentation of Spinozism can easily give us the impression, the false impression, that he speaks "in Spinoza's stead."52 For example, the following previously cited words can be taken as an indication both of Jacobi's high esteem for Spinoza and of his pedantic knowledge of Spinozism:
To grasp Spinoza requires too long and persistent an effort of the mind. Anyone for whom a single line of the Ethics remains obscure has not really grasped him. . . . Few will have enjoyed such peace of mind or so celestial an understanding as he reached through the crystal clarity of his mind.53
Nevertheless, Jacobi's attitude toward Spinoza is extremely paradoxical. To use Heinrich Scholz's formulation, Jacobi's conclusion is that "Spinozism is, according to its form, a system of consistent rationalism and, according to its content, atheism."54 For what reasons, then, and by what method of argument was Jacobi led to this conclusion? If, moreover, Spinozism is a form of atheism, why does he praise Spinoza so much, even going so far as to say, "I love Spinoza"?55
In Jacobi's view, reason by itself cannot grasp the transcendently infinite. At most, all it can do is to conceive the infinite within the world. Nevertheless, rationalists seek to grasp and explain everything in terms of reason. Rationalism, when it pursues its ideal to the limit, inevitably ends up in pantheism. What happens to Spinoza is nothing but an example of how rationalism, through being self-consistent, ends up as a form of pantheism. Thus the true character of Spinozism is consistent rationalism. But the immanent "infinite substance" in Spinoza and the truly infinite (the personal God who creates and presides over the world) are alike only in appearance.56 To be sure, Spinoza speaks of God. But to identify God with blind necessity or nature as Spinoza did is nothing but "the deification of the world" ('Weltvergotterung).57 Even if a somewhat euphemistic term like "cosmo-theism" (Kosmotheismus)58 is used, "the personal extramundane divinity" is in fact denied. For Jacobi, consequently, in the final analysis Spinozism is atheism.
Jacobi's method of argument, illustrated above, seems forced. In any event, his assertion that Spinozism as a consistent rationalism represents the destiny and the problems of every rationalism in an extreme form, and that Leibniz-Wolffian philosophy and the Berlin Aufklärung are less consistent than Spinozism, lead, in the end, to the same dilemma of which he accused Spinozism. Does not Jacobi's position turn, of necessity, into anti-philosophy? Does philosophy itself not become impossible if, and to the extent that, one holds to Jacobi's presuppositions? When Lessing said to Jacobi, "If you follow your philosophy, you ought indeed, on your honor, to turn your back on all philosophy," he implied precisely these questions.
Since our task here is not to discuss Jacobi's philosophy or his understanding of Spinozism, we must be content to refer to other scholars' studies on this point.59 The most important thing to observe is that Jacobi used Spinozism as a springboard for his "philosophy of faith" (Glaubensphilosophie). His criticism of Spinozism as a thoroughgoing rationalism served as the fulcrum from which his salto mortale was to be converted into his fideistic philosophy.60 Hence his understanding of Spinoza and Spinozism is dubious. Indeed, David Bell passes a rigorous judgment on Jacobi's understanding of Spinoza. He says:
Spinoza is thus no more than an instrument used by Jacobi as part of his grand scheme to discredit rationalism and replace it with his own "science of ignorance." . . . Jacobi's interpretation of Spinoza must therefore ultimately be seen as part of his own philosophy of faith, implacably opposed to the Aufklärung. . . . In the last resort, then, Jacobi's view of Spinoza must be seen to be severely limited. Spinoza simply plays the part of a weapon in his campaign against the Aufklärung.61
However that may be, it is clear that a correct understanding of Lessing's confession of "Spinozism" requires meticulous and painstaking analysis. First of all, one has to uncover Jacobi's real intention in disclosing "Lessing's secret" to Mendelssohn. Then one must investigate whether the content of their conversations has not been biased or distorted by Jacobi's own "philosophy of faith." And if there is any possibility that the content of their conversations as reported by Jacobi has been biased or distorted, his report should not be accepted at face value. Instead, one needs to discount Jacobi's account wherever this is the case. Before setting about this task, however, we should attend to what Mendelssohn has to say.
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