Lessings Defense

In order to defend himself from Goeze's vehement attack, Lessing published, in due course, his Axioms. In this treatise he examined and refuted Goeze's arguments one by one and defended what he had set forth in his "Editor's Counterpropositions." He did not, however, resort to all-out confrontation from the start. Instead, he began with a strategy intended to evade attack. The first piece he issued in his fight against Goeze was A Parable in three parts: "a parable," "a request," and "a challenge." This small piece is full of metaphors and allegories, but it well reflects the characteristic features of Lessing's theological thought.

There was once "a wise and active king" who ruled "a large, large kingdom." In its capital, he had "a palace of immeasurable scale and peculiar architecture." The scale was immeasurable because in the palace he gathered around himself all the assistant and tools that he needed for his government. The architecture was so peculiar that it conflicted with all known rules of building. Nevertheless, it aroused everyone's admiration for its simplicity and majesty, its durability and comfort. The whole palace stood, after long, long years, in the same purity and perfection it had had when the original builder completed it. From outside, it seemed a bit incomprehensible; from inside, however, there was light and good sense everywhere. Connoisseurs of architecture were especially annoyed by its external appearance, for it had only a few windows here and there, some larger, some smaller, some round, some square, while on the contrary it had an exceptional number of doors and gates of many shapes and sizes.

People could not understand how there came to be enough light in so many rooms when the windows were so few. Only a few people perceived that the highest windows received their light from above. Many people were confused by the fact that the palace had a great number and variety of corridors, for they thought that a big entrance on each side would have been more majestic and convenient. They failed to see that these corridors allowed anyone summoned to the palace to come swiftly and unerringly to the place where he or she was needed.

Disputes thus arose among the connoisseurs of architecture. The fewer opportunities they had to see the inside of the palace, the more vehemently they disputed. On the face of it, there were things that would seem to have solved the disputes very easily, but in reality they complicated the disputes and supplied the fuel for their continuation. Many connoisseurs of architecture possessed plans, which they claimed to be the plans of the original builder. These plans had been written in words and signs that were almost as good as lost today. Consequently, each connoisseur interpreted these words and signs as he liked. Each imagined an ideal new building based on his old plans. All were so preoccupied with the imagined ideal building that often they were not content with believing in the authenticity of their plans and interpretations in their own right but sought to persuade and even compel other to believe in them too.

Only a few people took another view, saying, "What do your plans matter to us? Whether it is this plan or that is all the same to us. It is enough that we learn at every moment that the most benevolent wisdom fills the whole palace and that from it nothing but beauty, order, and well-being spread over the whole land." These people were often badly treated. For when, in a lighthearted mood, they examined one of these plans in detail, they were rebuked by the possessor of the plan, as if they had been murderous arsonists intent on destroying the palace itself. They made little of the reproach, however, and thereby proved themselves qualified to join the people who worked within the palace. They had neither time nor desire to meddle in the disputes.

But one night, at midnight, when disputes about the original architect's plans were not so much resolved as dormant, the night watchmen began, all at once, to shout, "Fire! Fire in the palace!" What happened then? Everyone jumped out of bed and rushed to the place where he kept his most valued possession, namely, his own plan of the palace—as if the fire had occurred not in the palace but in his own house. "Let us save the plan at least!" each one thought. "The palace cannot be utterly destroyed by the fire there so long as the plan is preserved here!"

So everyone ran out in the street, each carrying his own plan in his hands. Instead of running swiftly to the palace to help extinguish the fire, each one pulled out his plan and tried to locate where the fire might be. One would cry, "Look, neighbor! Here's where it's burning! Here's where we can best get at the fire!" Then another would cry, "Not there, but here, neighbor, here!" Whereupon a third would interject, "What are you two talking about? It's burning here!" Then each tried to uphold his own claim. "What would it matter if it was burning there? The fire is certainly here!" "You can put it out there!" "I am not going to put it out there!" And while they were busy arguing, the palace, if there had been a real fire, would have burned to the ground. But the startled watchmen had mistaken the northern lights for a conflagration.30

From this outline of Lessing's parable, the basic ideas, expressed metaphorically, are clear. God is compared to "a wise and active king of a large, large kingdom" and religion to "a palace of immeasurable scale and peculiar architecture." The palace (religion) is incomprehensible to those trying to understand it from without; but the inside of the palace is full of "light from above"

(Licht von oben). The architecture of the palace reflects "the most benevolent wisdom" (die gütigste Weisheit), and good taste can be perceived everywhere. But the connoisseurs of architecture (orthodox theologians) are not content to experience the palace itself and the "beauty, order, and well-being" (grace and peace of the Spirit) that spread from the palace over the whole land. Instead, they take undue interest in the palace's "architecture" (theological doctrines) or "plans" (the Bible) and argue over the interpretation of "words and signs that are almost as good as lost today" (the letter). They quarrel over unimportant details all the more because they have little experience of "the inside of the palace" (the inner truth of religion).

Lessing's own position is succinctly implied in the words, "What do you plans matter to us? Whether it is this plan or that is all the same to us. It is enough that we learn at every moment that the most benevolent wisdom fills the whole palace and that from it nothing but beauty, order, and well-being spread over the whole land." This assertion is in complete agreement with what he asserted in his "Editor's Counterpropositions":

But how do this man's hypotheses, explanations, and proofs affect the Christian? For him it is simply a fact, this Christianity which he feels to be true and in which he feels blessed. When the paralytic experiences the beneficial shocks of the electric spark, does it worry him whether Nollet or Franklin or neither is right?31

But why, then, instead of remaining content with "the beneficial shocks of the electric spark," did Lessing venture to publish Reimarus's sensational fragments, knowing full well that they might provoke bitter controversies like the "disputes over the plans"? Why did he toss into the Christian world live coals that a "night watchman" like Goeze, mistaking them for a conflagration, would use to create an uproar?32

The answer that Lessing gives in A Request., which immediately follows A Parable, is that he did so precisely because he was a librarian. Lessing compares the difference between Goeze as pastor and himself as librarian to that between a shepherd (Schäfer) and a botanist (Kräuterkenner).33 As he puts it, the primary concern of the shepherd is for the safety of the sheep in his care, and he takes interest in herbs only insofar as they have to do with his sheep. The botanist, on the other hand, wanders the mountains and valleys to study herbs. And what pleasure he feels when he finds a new herb, one for which there is no recorded name in authoritative botanical books, "How indifferent he is as to whether this new herb is poisonous or not!"34

Lessing goes on to give the following account of the professional difference between the librarian and the pastor:

We are much the same, dear Hauptpastor. ... I am a supervisor of book treasures. . . . When I find among the treasures entrusted to me something that I believe is unknown, I publish it. I do so first of all in our catalogs, and little by little, as I learn that it fills this or that gap and helps to correct one thing or another, I also do so publicly. And I am utterly indifferent as to whether this person declares it important or that person unimportant, whether it benefits one person or injures another. Useful and destructive are relative concepts, just as relative as large and small. On the other hand, you, Reverend Sir, appreciate literary treasures only as regards the influence that they can exert on your flock, and prefer being too solicitous to being too negligent. What matters to you, whether something is known or unknown, is the possibility that it could offend even one of the least [of these] who are entrusted to your spiritual supervision.35

Having thus clarified their professional differences, Lessing goes on to make an earnest request, namely, that Goeze not interfere with what he does as a librarian, since he for his part has no wish to find fault with what Goeze does as a pastor. In response to Goeze's judgment day threat, Lessing declares that even if what he has published proves detrimental to Christianity, and even if he might be terrified at the moment of death, he will not be terrified at the prospect of death. On the contrary, he justifies his action in publishing what Goeze regards as "the worst that one can think"36 with the words, "I have done what sensible Christians today wish that the ancient librarians in Alexandria, Caesarea, and Constantinople had done, had they been able, with the writings of Celsus, Fronto, and Porphyry."37

In any event, Lessing asserts that one does not have to overreact, as Goeze did, to the appearance of anti-Christian books. One can, in his opinion, trust with perfect serenity in the advance of the Christian religion. In his words,

Christianity proceeds at its unchanging, gradual pace, and eclipses do not pull the planets from their orbits. But the sects of Christianity are its phases, which can endure only through the immobilization of all nature, when sun, planet, and observer all stand fast at one point. God protect us from this frightful immobility!38

Goeze's judgment day threat thus poses no menace whatever to Lessing. He can even ask of Goeze the pastor that he "at least censure [him] less severely for having been honest enough to rescue from oblivion not only some very unchristian fragments but also a very Christian writing by Berengar."39 He requests his onetime acquaintance to remain unruffled by the publication of Fragments from an Unnamed Author, repeating what he has already asserted in his "Editor's Counterpropositions." That is, even if one cannot answer all the objections and difficulties that the unnamed author raises from a rationalistic or deistic point of view, what does that matter to us? For despite such scholarly attacks, religion remains intact. It remains "steady and unstunted" in the hearts of "those Christians . . . who have inwardly felt its essential truths."40

Lessing initially intended to complete his reply to the first half of Goeze's Something Preliminary with the two tracts A Parable and A Request. But before he finished, Goeze published the second half of Something Preliminary. On reading it, Lessing quickly wrote a third tract, A Challenge, and published all three at once. He found it intolerable that Goeze would brand him an enemy of the Lutheran church. As the son of an upright Lutheran orthodox pastor, Lessing adamantly declares:

I simply will not be decried by you as a man who means less well by the Lutheran Church than you do. For I am conscious of being a far better friend to it than a man who wishes to persuade us that all tender feeling for his remunerative pastorate ... is holy zeal for the cause of God.41

Asking which of the two has more "sparks of the Lutheran spirit,"42 Lessing hauls Luther into court as a judge. He says:

Oh, that he could do it, he whom I should most like to have as my judge!—Thou, Luther!. . . Thou hast released us from the yoke of tradition. Who will release us from the more intolerable yoke of the letter?43

In the end, Lessing declares war against "the Inquisitor of Hamburg" in the following defiant and challenging words:

But there is only one thing I will not tolerate: your pride, that denies reason and learning to any person who uses reason and learning differently from the way you use them. Most of all, you infuriate me by continuing to treat my unnamed author, whom you know only from disparate fragments, in such an inept and immature way. For man weighed against man—not cause against cause—this unnamed author was of such weight that in all manner of learning, seven Goe%es could not outweigh one of him. Believe me in this, Mr. Hauptpastor, take my word for it. And now, very briefly, to my knightly challenge: Write, Mr. Hauptpastor, and let your supporters write, as much as you will; I too shall write. If in the least thing that concerns me or my unnamed author, I admit that you are right where you are not right, I shall never again be able to hold my pen.4

The die was cast! A noble man like Lessing could not withdraw now. He had to fight out his battle to the best of his ability, no matter what it cost him.

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