Lessing and the Pursuit of Truth

Lessing was himself a child of the Enlightenment and deemed it the supreme end of his literary activity to make everyone think about religion rationally. For him, orthodoxy was something like "impure water, long unusable," to be thrown away sooner or later. But he did not side with "the new-fashioned theology," or neology. According to him, this newfangled theology, "under the pretext of making us reasonable Christians," merely "turned us into extremely unreasonable philosophers." For this reason, neology was a greater obstacle than orthodoxy to the ultimate goal to which Lessing devoted himself, the goal of human enlightenment. Neology was to orthodoxy as liquid manure was to dirty water. Both were impure—that is to say, untruth—but dirty water (orthodoxy) was more tolerable than liquid manure (neology). That is why Lessing, in leveling caustic criticisms at neology, often took the side of orthodoxy.

Yet Lessing sought "to take care of his [neighbor's] collapsing house [orthodoxy] as if it were [his] own," because he did not want his neighbor to "prop it up and support it in a way that entails the complete ruin of [his own] house." His attempt to "defend the old system" was not, therefore, from the bottom of his heart. In his heart of hearts, he was willing to help his neighbor pull down the collapsing house if the latter wished it.29 Nevertheless, his taking the side of orthodoxy should not be taken as a mere pose. It is attributable, rather, to the fact that Lessing himself did not "know where we can get purer [water]." In other words, he did not possess this purer water (truth) but was in search of it.

Seen from this viewpoint, Lessing's act of publishing Reimarus's fragments can be construed as an act intended to serve the search for truth. In our interpretation, Lessing, by publishing these sensational fragments, sought to create a stir in the stagnant theology of his time. Making the fragments public would, he hoped, provoke a heated discussion or controversy between the "genuine disputer of religion" and the "genuine defender of religion" for the purpose of attaining a deeper understanding of the truth. He was convinced, in fact, that controversy could contribute to the search for truth. As he put it, "controversy has fostered the spirit of investigation (Geist der Prüfung); it has kept prejudice and reputation off balance; in short, it has prevented rouged untruth from establishing itself in place of truth."30

Such an attitude, incidentally, is characteristic of Lessing. We have already seen the young Lessing's letter of 30 May 1749 to his father, the letter in which he defended himself against his father's remonstrations. In this letter we found him saying that although "most of us simply inherit it from them [our parents], as we do their possessions," nonetheless "the Christian religion is not something to be swallowed blindly and taken in good faith from parents." "Time will tell," he went on, that "one who has held serious doubts and, after looking into the matter, has attained conviction, or at least is still striving to attain it," is a better Christian than "one who has the principles of Christian teaching memorized and on his tongue, often without understanding them, who goes to church, and follows all the customs because he is used to them."31 We may be able to sense something of the noble spirit of this son of the parsonage, the spirit that did not deviate from the search for truth, no matter how far he deviated from the academic or clerical course that his parents had wanted their son to take. In any event, it is evident that having "serious doubts" about Christianity formed the starting point of Lessing's lifelong religious quest.

Lessing declares it his duty "to test with his own eyes quid liquidum sit in causa Christianorum" (what it is in the Christian cause that may be taken as certain). Hence he hunts out all sorts of theological books and reads whatever he can lay his hands on: first apologetic, pro-Christian books, then polemical, anti-Christian ones.32 According to his reminiscences, however, "the more conclusively the one wished to prove [the truth of] Christianity, the more doubtful I became, while the more wantonly and triumphantly the other wished to stamp it into the ground, the more I felt inclined, at least in my heart, to support it."33

But it was probably in his Breslau period, no later than the beginning of 1771, that Lessing, having passed through the storms of doubt and skepticism, began to take a more positive attitude toward Christianity. In his letter to Moses Mendelssohn of 9 January 1771, he makes a significant statement about the retrieval of lost truths:

I am now going to study Ferguson properly. I can see already from the table of contents that this is the kind of book I have missed here, where for the most part I have only books that sooner or later dull my understanding and waste my time. When one does not think for a long time, he ends up not being able to think at all. Is it really good, though, to contemplate and concern oneself seriously with truths with which one has lived and, for the sake of peace, must continue to live in constant contradiction? I can already see from afar many such truths in the Englishman.

Among them are some which I have long ceased to regard as truths. Still, it is not merely since yesterday that I have been concerned lest, while discarding certain prejudices, I may have thrown away a little too much, which I shall have to retrieve. It is only the fear of dragging all the rubbish back into my house that has so far hindered me from doing this. It is infinitely difficult to know when and where one should stop, and for the vast majority of men, the object of their reflection lies at the point where they become tired of reflecting.34

Many scholars see in this statement Lessing's retrieval or reevaluation of the Christian revelation.35 Whether the truths that Lessing "can already see from afar" and wishes "to retrieve" signify the revealed truths of Christianity or something else, one thing is certain: it is about this time that there occurs a decisive turn in his pursuit of truth. There now begins a truly theological or religious-philosophical investigation not motivated by doubt but nourished by the Christian revelation. Against the background of his erstwhile meandering pursuit of truth, the following famous words should be read:

The worth of a man does not consist in the truth he possesses, or thinks he possesses, but in the pains he has taken to attain that truth. For his powers are extended not through possession but through the search for truth. In this alone does his ever-growing perfection consist. Possession makes him lazy, indolent, and proud. If God held all truth in his right hand and everlasting striving for truth in his left, so that I should always and everlastingly be mistaken, and said to me, "Choose," I would humbly pick the left hand and say, "Father, grant me that. Absolute truth is for thee alone."36

We must bear in mind that such words can be spoken only by the mature Lessing as one who recognizes that he "has set himself upon a high eminence from which he believes it possible to see beyond the limits of the allotted path of his present day's journey."37

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