Born 22 January 1729 in the parsonage at Kamenz in Saxony, Lessing was destined to come to grips with Christianity throughout his life. He was the first great thinker among the many men of letters and philosophers in Germany who came from a Lutheran parsonage. As "the first free writer of the German language" (der erste freie Schriftsteller deutscher Sprache), he emancipated himself from the yoke of Christian tradition, yet respected its intellectual and cultural heritage more than his successors. The way he preserved "the religious traditions of his ancestry," moreover, was unique. He did this not so much by "appropriating them respectfully" as by having "serious doubt" (kluglicher Zweifelf about them.
Lessing's father, Johann Gottfried Lessing (1693—1770), was a learned pastor of Lutheran orthodoxy who had mastered theology and philosophy at the University of Wittenberg. His mother, Justina Salome Lessing (née Feller, 1703—1777), had herself been raised in a parsonage as a Lutheran pastor's daughter. Gotthold Lessing, born and reared within Lutheran Christianity, formed his own personality in serious dialogue and inner battle with this earliest of Protestant traditions.
In 1741 Lessing entered the famous ducal school of St. Afra in Meissen. There he stood out for his "intellectual acumen and excellent memory."3 The schoolmaster is said to have compared him to "a horse that must have double fodder" (ein Pferd, das doppeltes Futter haben muß) because Lessing mastered all subjects with extraordinary eagerness and understanding. In particular, the young boy showed keen interest in classical philology and mathematics. At the same time, however, he felt within himself an irresistible bent for story writing and even at that young age wrote his first play, The Young Scholar.
On graduating from St. Afra at the age of seventeen, a year earlier than his classmates due to his academic excellence, he entered the University of Leipzig to study theology. It was then customary for sons of the parsonage to study theology, for the time in which Lessing spent his youth was, to borrow Dilthey's expression, "a time in which the whole of German culture was theological."5 At that time, the famous theologian and philologist Johann August Ernesti was a member of the theological faculty at the University of Leipzig. But the young Lessing's eyes had already been opened to the wider world of the humanities, and he experienced a budding love for literary creation. As a result, he found most of the lectures offered at the school of theology rather tedious and boring. The teachers who attracted him most were the philologist Johann Friedrich Christ and the philosopher of mathematics Abraham Gotthelf Kästner. But his initial desire to study theology did not last long. He soon put aside theological study to study the world of real life.
Leipzig, known in those days as "a small Paris," was full of charms and temptations for a lad fresh from the country.6 What attracted young Lessing was the theater, to which he was introduced by Christlob Mylius, a cousin seven years older than himself, who was working as a journalist in Leipzig. In one of the few extant letters to his mother, Lessing reflects on his development during the time he spent in Leipzig.
I graduated from school young, in the conviction that my entire happiness was to consist in books. I came to Leipzig, a place where one could see the whole world in small size. For the first few months I lived an even more sequestered life than I had lived in Meissen. Always among my books, occupied only with myself, I rarely thought of other people or, perhaps, of God. . . . This state, however, did not last long. My eyes were opened—should I say fortunately, or unfortunately, for me? The future will decide which is the case. I came to see that books would make me a scholar, but never a man. I ventured forth among my fellows. Good God! What a difference I perceived between myself and them! A boorish shyness, a neglected and awkward body, utter ignorance of the manners of society, a gloomy, unfriendly bearing in which every one believed he could read my contempt for him—these were the good qualities that my self-criticism disclosed. I felt such shame as I had never felt before. The effect was a fixed determination to better myself in this, cost what it may. You know what I started. I learned to dance, to fence, to vault. . . . I advanced so far in these things that those who, in anticipation, had denied me all talent in these respects came to admire me in some degree. My body had become a bit more suitable, and I sought society in order that now I might also learn to live. I laid aside serious books for a time in order to make myself acquainted with others, which are far more pleasant, and perhaps quite as useful. I took up comedies first. It may seem unbelievable, but they rendered great service to me. From them I learned to distinguish between good and forced behavior and between rude and natural behavior. From them I learned to know true and false virtues, and learned that vices would disappear because of their ridiculousness and shamefulness. (Letter to his mother of 20 January 1749.)7
Frequenting local theaters and spending excessive amounts of time in the company of playwrights, actors, and actresses eventually caused Lessing to drop out of the university To the great disappointment of his parents, he fled to Berlin to lead a hand-to-mouth life as a cub writer and editor. He hoped to become someday "a German Molière" (ein deutscher Molière)} But in the eyes of his devout parents, his wish to become a writer of comedies was painfully like the biblical parable of the prodigal son. Worrying about his son's spiritual condition and salvation, the father-pastor wrote stern letters remonstrating against his seemingly immoral life. In reply to one of these letters, the twenty-year-old freelance journalist defended himself with the following memorable words:
Time will tell whether I have respect for my parents, conviction in my religion, and morality in my path through life. Time will tell whether the better Christian is 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; or whether the better Christian is one who has held serious doubts and, after examining them, has attained conviction, or at least is still striving to attain it. The Christian religion is not something to be swallowed blindly and taken in good faith from parents. Most of us simply inherit it from them, as we do their possessions, but our parents too show by their behavior the kind of honest Christians they are. As long as I see that one of the most important commandments of Christianity, "Love thine enemy" is observed no better than it is now, I shall continue to doubt whether those people who say they are Christians, really are Christians. (Letter to his father of 30 May 1749.)9
Ernst Cassirer perceives in this defiant statement "genuine Lessingian devoutness."10 Be that as it may, this letter is vivid testimony to the fact that "serious doubt" about the religious traditions of his forebears formed the starting point of the young Lessing's engagement with Christianity.
In serious dialogue and inner battle with the Christian tradition as he knew it from strict, yet benevolent, parents, Lessing gradually came to form his own philosophy of religion. He had to go through many trials and errors, many twists and turns, before eventually attaining to "a high eminence from which he believes it possible to see beyond the limits of the allotted path of his present day's journey."11 Only in the works brought to fruition when he served as librarian at the ducal library in Wolfenbüttel, especially in Nathan the Wise (Nathan der Weise, 1779) and The Education of the Human Race (Die Er%iehung des Menschengeschlechts, 1780) did there come into being what can be called an authentic "Lessingian philosophy of religion."
Lessing's formative period (Bildungsjahre) covers the years from 1748 to 1760. Having fled Leipzig, he began his career as a freelance journalist, changing his residence every few years: Berlin (1748—51), Wittenberg (1751—52),
Berlin again (1752-55), Leipzig (1755-58), and once more back to Berlin (1758-60). During this formative period, he may seem to have led an impious, godless life that had little to do with the religion in which he was raised. But this was not the case. He never lost his serious interest in Christianity. The fragments written during this period bear witness to his deep concern with religion in general, and with Christianity in particular. For example, in the preface to the fragment Religion (Die Religion, 1749/50), it is stated that "religion has for many years been the theme that invokes my more serious poetic inspirations."12 Other fragments ascribed to the same early years, such as Some Thoughts about the Moravians (Gedanken über die Herrnhuter, 1750) and The Christianity of Reason (Das Christentum der Vernunft, 1751/52), testify to the young Lessing's deep and continuing concern with religion. They also illustrate the salient characteristics of his developing religious thought.
Toward the end of 1751, Lessing, temporarily interrupting his activity as a journalist and editor, went to Wittenberg, where his younger brother Johannes Theophilus was staying, in order to enter a Magister, or M.A., program.13 At the University of Wittenberg, he made an intensive study of religious thought in the period of the Reformation. The results of his historical studies are collected in his Vindications (Rettungen, 1754). These vindications focused attention on a number of thinkers whose ideas had been unjustly ignored or distorted due to public prejudice or malice. His aim was to do justice to them and to rehabilitate their reputations from a disinterested and objective point of view. The fact that Lessing, running against the stream of general opinion, chose to shed new light on these heretical or apostate thinkers and thoughts may be useful in clarifying his motivation for publishing, during his Wolfenbüttel period, the Fragments from an Unnamed Author.
The Breslau period (1760-65) is of great importance for the development of Lessing's thought. When Berlin, the capital of Prussia, was besieged and occupied by Austrian troops in October 1760, Lessing was about to embark on a new kind of employment, one that signified a major change in his life. From Friedrich Bogislaw von Tauentzien, a general officer newly assigned to Breslau, he received an invitation to serve as the officer's secretary. Having become acquainted with Tauentzien through his friend Edwald von Kleist14 during his second stay in Leipzig (1755-58), Lessing went to Breslau to take up this post and stayed there four and a half years. He did not return to Berlin until May 1765.
During his stay in Breslau, Lessing enjoyed a pleasant life and had more free time and greater economic stability than ever before. He took advantage of this opportunity to conduct intensive philosophical studies of Leibniz and Spinoza, on the one hand, and to carry out in-depth studies of the church fathers, on the other. Samuel Benjamin Klose provides us with a contemporary report on this period:
In the last years of his stay in Breslau, he began to concern himself with theological studies. He drafted an outline for a major treatise on the persecution of
Christian martyrs, and proposed to one of his friends that they read the church fathers together. According to his affirmation, he found in Justin Martyr religious theses utterly different from those prevalent in modern times. At the same time, Spinoza's philosophy became an object of study. He read those who wanted to refute Spinoza. Among them, Bayle, in his judgment, was the one person who understood Spinoza least. For him, the person who entered most deeply into Spinoza's true meaning was Dippel. Nevertheless, Lessing never expressed his ideas on this topic at all, either to Jacobi or to his most trusted friends.15
In any event, the philosophical and theological studies Lessing carried out during his Breslau period caused a significant turn in the direction of his thought. These studies emancipated him from the spell of Enlightenment theology. With his eyes opened to a higher worldview, he was now able to adopt his own religious-philosophical stance in controversies between orthodoxy and Enlightenment. Subsequent chapters will develop this point in more detail. But it is important to observe here that Lessing's involvement with theology did not begin suddenly during his Wolfenbüttel period but had a long history, traceable to the religious education that began at home with his father.
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