Lessings Anti Goeze

According to Henry Chadwick, the eleven-part Anti-Goe%e that Lessing churned out in record time is "mere theological Billingsgate."45 It contains a few brilliant theological discussions, to be sure, but in most cases is nothing more than a vindication of his publication of the Fragments from an Unnamed Author as well as a castigation of his adversary by all possible means. This being the case, it will be unnecessary to discuss each essay in detail. We intend, rather, to focus on the most important points in Lessing's arguments.

In the first essay, Lessing boldly declares his determination to fight against Goeze. He says to his opponent: "You can outshout (überschreien) me every week; you know where. But you shall certainly not outwrite (überschreiben) me."46 He continues:

God knows that I have no objection to the fact that you and all schoolmasters in Lower Saxony are campaigning against my unnamed author. On the contrary, I am pleased with this. For I brought him to light for the very purpose that a goodly number of people could examine and refute him. I also hope that he will in the near future come into the right hands, where he does not yet seem to be.

Thus I believe that I have really rendered greater service to the Christian religion through making him known than you, with all your magazines and newspapers.47

Accordingly, he maintains that Goeze's censure is misconceived. Goeze casts Lessing in the role of an enemy of Christianity, but is really barking up the wrong tree. Lessing asks:

How is it, since I have more confidence than you in the Christian religion, that I should be an enemy of the Christian religion? Since I notify the public health department of a poison that lurks in the dark, am I supposed to have brought the pestilence into the land? Briefly, Reverend Sir, you are making a mistake if you believe that the unnamed author would have remained completely outside the world had I not helped him in.48

By the same token, the publishing of the unnamed author's fragments is warranted, Lessing asserts, in light of "Luther's spirit" (Luthers Geist). For when Luther sought to translate the Bible into German in defiance of the ecclesiastical practice of the day, he did so on his own authority and on his own responsibility. Hence Lessing boldly declares:

The true Lutheran does not wish to be defended by Luther's writings but by Luther's spirit; and Luther's spirit absolutely requires that no man may be prevented from advancing in knowledge of the truth according to his own judgment. But all are prevented if only one is forbidden to communicate his advance in knowledge to others. For without this communication at the individual level, no progress whatever is possible.49

Whatever objections Luther specialists may raise against Lessing's interpretation of Luther, or however one-sided it may be, the fact remains that Lessing himself is firmly convinced that he has the authority of Luther, thus interpreted, on his side. Because of this conviction, he can say with a clear conscience: "I have had the fragments printed; and I would still have them printed even if people like Goeze were to condemn me and the whole world to the deepest abyss of hell."50 But polemics aside, Lessing, as a dialectical thinker, held the lifelong conviction "that new objections will lead to new debates, more penetrating doubts to more penetrating solutions."51 Goeze's censorious attacks are therefore powerless against Lessing.

Against Goeze, who reproves him for his allegedly unchristian conduct, Lessing maintains that what is unchristian (unchristlich) is "that which argues against the spirit of Christianity, or against the ultimate purpose of Christianity."52 What, then, is the ultimate purpose of Christianity? As he puts it, "the ultimate purpose of Christianity is not our salvation, which may come how it will, but our salvation by means of our enlightenment.." Consequently, "to contribute nothing to the enlightenment of many people," he says, is far more contrary to the spirit of Christianity than making "a few people, perhaps, angry."53 In his opinion, "the true Christian plays neither the coward nor the braggart." The hallmark of the true Christian, rather, is to be "mistrustful of one's reason" and "proud of one's feelings."54

It is very interesting that in his sixth essay Lessing, in order to justify his having published the Fragments from an Unnamed Author, refers to the fact that Jerome translated Origen's nept'Apx«v into Latin under the title De Principiis. Bringing his erudition into full play, he defends himself brilliantly.

When Jerome translated from Greek a work that in his judgment was most pernicious to the Christian religion, namely, Origen's book nepi'Apxfiv—take good note of the word "translated," [for] to translate is much more than merely to edit—when he translated this dangerous work so as to rescue it from the bunglings and mutilations of another translator, Rufinus, that is, so as to present it to the Latin world in its full strength; and when the schola tyrannica [school of Tyrannius] reproached him on this account, as if he had a punishable offense on his soul, what was his answer? O impudentiam singularem! Accusant medicum, quod venena prodiderit [Oh, what singular impudence! They accuse a doctor of making poisons known to the public].55

In other words, if editing and publishing the Fragments from an Unnamed Author deserves the condemnation of the Christian church, how can it be that Jerome escaped condemnation when he translated Origen's anathematized book? Ought the great benefactor of orthodox faith to be regarded as an enemy of the church on this account? But if Jerome's act of translating Origen's book is permissible (and even Goeze must allow as much), then Lessing's less reproachable act of editing and publishing the Fragments from an Unnamed Author must, by the same token, naturally be permitted.

For Goeze, however, the issue is not merely the fact that Lessing edited and published the Fragments. What is more important, and more reprehensible, to him is that while acting as editor, Lessing took on himself the "advocacy of the author" (die Advokatur des Vefassers).5 Though he had already touched on this issue in his third essay, Lessing takes it up again in his seventh, where he offers the following explanation:

Advocacy? The advocacy of the author?—What kind of advocacy did my unnamed author have, which I took upon myself in his place? An advocate [is one who] has the right to plead a certain case before certain tribunals. I was not aware that my unnamed author possessed such a right.57

According to Lessing, Goeze intentionally misunderstands and distorts the relationship between the unnamed author and himself. Consequently, he makes the following objection:

I never said that. Rather, I have said precisely the opposite. I have said, and proved, that even if the unnamed author is right and wins the argument at however many individual points, nonetheless, on the whole, what he apparently wishes to conclude therefrom does not follow.58

Yet even so, Lessing argues, "I am not, and cannot be a true, authentic advocate for my unnamed author, an advocate who would be of one mind and one spirit with his client as to the dispute in question."59

As the foregoing citations show, Lessing tries to keep a clear distance between himself and the unnamed author. In fact, as indicated in chapter 1, his theological position is substantially different from that of Reimarus. Goeze, however, because "gall has mastered his sight and made him violate boundaries,"60 pays no attention to such differences. For him, "it does not matter what intelligent persons believe in secret, if only the rabble, the dear rabble, remain neatly in the groove in which clergymen alone know how to lead them."61 From Goeze's perspective, any disturbing elements must be suppressed or eliminated wholesale, regardless of "trivial" differences between them. Lessing bitterly impeaches the Goezes of this world for their fanatical intolerance:

Oh, you silly fools! You would like to banish the tempest from nature because it buries a ship in a sandbank here and shatters another against the rocky coast there.—Oh, you hypocrites! For we know what you really are. You are not concerned about this unfortunate ship. For you may depend on it: the only thing that concerns you is your own little garden, your own petty comfort, [your own] petty entertainment.62

Compared to such "silly fools," Lessing argues, "my unnamed author was a decent man."63 In his ninth essay, Lessing portrays him as follows:

Though my unnamed author admittedly puts every revealed religion in a tight spot, he is by no means a man devoid of all religion. I know no one but him in whom I have found, with regard to purely rational religion, such a true, complete, and warmhearted concept.64

At any rate, Lessing's relationship to the unnamed author is not that of a counsel to a defendant. To use Lessing's own words, he is not acting for the benefit of the unnamed author as an "advocate who wishes to win his case." He "merely speaks as an honest man who does not wish to see him damned so tumultuously."65 He defends the unnamed author only because accusers, including Goeze, "have to this day never refuted him at all; they have only inveighed against him."66

With this, we have considered the main points of the Lessing-Goeze controversy. Our consideration shows that from the very start this controversy involved many factors that were too personal for it to be fought as a genuinely theological dispute. As a result, it eventually and inevitably turned into something completely different from what Lessing had first expected. Lessing was partly responsible for this undesirable result, to be sure. But far greater responsibility falls on Goeze. For when Lessing published Reimarus's fragments as if their author were anonymous, his intention was to break the ice of the frozen theological situation of his time and thus to render service in the manifestation of the truth. In his view, therefore, provoking theological controversy by publishing Reimarus's Fragments can be regarded as "a means for the pursuit of truth."67 Having found in Reimarus a person who came close to "the ideal of a genuine disputer of religion," Lessing wished for "a man who would come just as close to the ideal of a genuine defender of religion."68 He expected, moreover, that such a man would pass ruthless countercriticism on the deist. He seems to speak straightforwardly when he says: "For I brought him to light for the very purpose that a goodly number of people could examine and refute him."69

But the "truth question" (Wahrheitsfrage)10 that Lessing raised when he published the Fragments was distorted into an issue of an entirely different kind, namely, a social and political one. For the adversary who appeared on the stage was, to use Boehart's term, a man of "fortress mentality" (Festungsmentalitit).11 Goeze was incapable of playing "a hermeneutical game for gymnastic fitness of spirit."12 Lessing wanted to discuss the question of the truth claim of Christian revelation in an open forum, hoping thereby to advance understanding of revelation beyond the level of comprehension that had hitherto prevailed. Goeze, on the other hand, shunned the open forum, and once the discussion became public, soon had recourse to the civil authorities (Obrigkeit) to bring it to a halt as quickly as possible.13 Hence the unhappy situation that Lessing deplored as "a dialogue but no dialogue" (ein Dialog und k,ein Dialogg).14 Contrary to his intention, the controversy between Lessing and Goeze turned into a personal quarrel characterized by faultfinding and mudslinging.

But the controversy was not entirely barren. For one thing, the breaking off of the controversy because of political intervention provided the immediate occasion for the birth of the immortal classic Nathan the Wise. For another, out of Lessing's lonely and heroic fight against a Lutheran orthodoxy bound up with state power, a truly modern Protestantism shortly came into being.

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