Lessings Hen Kai

Hell Really Exists

Hell Really Exists

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So far, we have gained some idea of the nature of the philosophical conversations between Lessing and Jacobi, conversations which, when their content was disclosed, gave rise almost immediately to the "Spinoza controversy" between Mendelssohn and Jacobi and, eventually, to the "pantheism controversy" that engaged almost all the best minds of late eighteenth-century Germany. We have seen that the controversy between Mendelssohn the Jewish philosopher and Jacobi the "poet-philosopher of Goethe's era" (Philosophund Literat der Goethezeit)178 is, in the last analysis, a dispute between two different interpretations of Lessing's worldview Mendelssohn depicts Lessing as a representative of a "rational theism" similar to his own and identifies his worldview as one of "refined pantheism." Jacobi, on the other hand, portrays this rational theism as nothing more than "an exoteric veil" (eine exoterischeHütte) for Lessing's esoteric Spinozism.

Seen in this light, the dispute can be said to center on the issue of whether Lessing is a rational theist or a Spinozist.19 Our analysis so far, however, does not permit us to tell which of these two interpretations is the more probable, or whether both are wrong. In our view, Mendelssohn and Jacobi alike interpret Lessing a bit too one-sidedly. In particular, it would be a mistake to swallow Jacobi's account whole and to speak without further ado of Lessing's "Spinozism." Instead, one needs to attend to the minute details of the Lessing-Jacobi conversations, particularly to Lessing's remarks, and examine them carefully, paying full attention to their original context.

First of all, it is important to observe that it was not Lessing but Jacobi who first brought up the name of Spinoza. When Jacobi showed Lessing Goethe's poem "Prometheus"80 and asked him what he thought of it, Lessing indicated that he was in sympathy with the poem and indeed that the viewpoint it expressed was his own. Then he added, "The orthodox concepts of the divinity are no longer for me; I cannot stand them. Hen kai Pan! I know naught else." On the face of it, Jacobi was greatly surprised at Lessing's "unexpected" answer. But as mentioned above, this answer of Lessing's was precisely what he had expected and precisely what he had intended to draw from him. Happy to hear such an answer, Jacobi mentioned Spinoza's name for the first time: "Then you would ... be more or less in agreement with Spinoza."

In this connection the questions to be considered here are these: (1) why did Jacobi show Goethe's poem "Prometheus" to Lessing? (2) can Goethe's poem be regarded as an expression of Spinozism? and (3) does Lessing's vm n'y- signify Spinozism as Jacobi assumes?

As to the first question, we cannot help thinking that Jacobi took Goethe's unpublished poem to Lessing with a specific intention. As suggested above, if it is the case that Jacobi suspected Lessing of being a Spinozist from the very outset, we have to assume that Jacobi had some ulterior motive for taking the poem with him when he visited Lessing. We conjecture that Jacobi, having intuitively caught the scent of Spinozism in Goethe's poem, wanted to prove through Lessing that his intuition was correct and, if all went well, to worm out of Lessing his secret allegiance to Spinozism. Jacobi's act of showing Goethe's poem to Lessing meant, according to this conjecture, that Jacobi was both testing the accuracy of his own intuition and trying to get at what he supposed was Lessing's Spinozism. Thus Goethe's "Prometheus" served, in two senses, as a litmus test for the existence of Spinozism.

What, then, was the result of his test? On the face of it, Lessing seems to have been so taken in by Jacobi's shrewd leading questions that he disclosed his secret allegiance to Spinozism. Jacobi's litmus test seems to have proved the accuracy of his intuition as poet-philosopher. But it would be hasty to jump to such a conclusion. For even judging from Jacobi's report alone, his conversations with Lessing disclose a slight but significant divergence on the point at issue between the two thinkers.

Having read the poem, Lessing remarked, "I take no offence; I long ago became acquainted with it first hand." On hearing these words, Jacobi wondered if Lessing was already familiar with the poem and asked, "You know the poem?" Lessing answered, "I have never read the poem; but I find it good." In this dialogue, a divergence as to the point at issue is already evident. The key to the divergence is implied by Lessing's words, "I long ago became acquainted with it first hand" (ich habe das schon lange aus der ersten Hand). But what is meant by the term "first hand" (aus der ersten Hand)? How could Lessing be acquainted with the poem first hand if he had never read it before? According to our conjecture, Lessing, without knowing who the author was, keenly perceived the spirit of the poem and expressed his sympathy with it. At the same time, he wanted to state that he was well acquainted with the classic source of the poem, namely, Aeschylus's work. Hence the term "first hand" may be taken as implying his familiarity with Aeschylus's classic tragedy.

If this is so, it can safely be said that Lessing expressed his sympathy not with Spinozism but with the point of view, expressed in the poem, that goes back to Prometheus Bound. At this point, the second question becomes all the more acute. Was Goethe's poem "Prometheus" an expression of Spinozism? Was the author's viewpoint, which Lessing identified with his own, Spinozistic as Jacobi suspected?

With regard to this question, one can best let the author speak for himself. In his Truth and Poetry, part 3, book 15, Goethe says:

The myth of Prometheus came to life in me. I tailored the old titanic garments to my size, and without further reflection began to write a play portraying the difficulties Prometheus experienced with Zeus and the new Olympian gods when he formed human beings on his own initiative, brought them to life with Minerva's help, and founded a third dynasty. And truly, the gods who were now ruling had every cause to complain, because they could be viewed as entities illegitimately inserted between the Titans and mankind. Set as a monologue into this singular composition is that poem which has won a significant place in German literature because it prompted Lessing to declare his views to Jacobi on some important points of philosophy and sentiment. It served as the tinder for an explosion which revealed and brought to discussion the most secret concerns of worthy men, concerns which, unknown even to them, slumbered in an otherwise very enlightened society. The fissure was opened so violently that because of it, and some contingent occurrences, we lost one of our worthiest men, Mendelssohn.

Although, as actually happened, one can attach philosophical, indeed religious considerations to this subject matter, it really belongs to the realm of poetry. The Titans are the foil to polytheism, just as the devil can be viewed as the foil to monotheism. But neither the latter nor the one God to whom he stands in contrast is a poetic figure. Milton's Satan, gallantly as he is portrayed, remains in a disadvantageously subaltern position as he attempts to destroy the splendid creation of a superior Being. Prometheus, on the other hand, has the advantage of being able to create and form in defiance of higher beings. Also, it is a beautiful thought, one appropriate for poetry, to have human beings created, not by the supreme ruler of the world, but by a lesser figure who, however, is sufficiently worthy and important to do this because he is a scion of the oldest dynasty. And, in general, Greek mythology offers us an inexhaustible wealth of human and divine symbols.82

These words of Goethe show unmistakably that the poem "Prometheus" originally had nothing to do with Spinozism. According to Erich Trunz, editor of Goethe's Werke, Prometheus is both a mythical and a poetic figure: a demigod (Halbgott) in the Greek myth, on the one hand, and a genius enhanced to the level of myth, on the other. Consequently, it would be appropriate to regard the poem as a poetic expression of Goethe's "idea of genius" (Geniegedanke)P In other words, wishing to found the whole of his existence on "my productive talent" (mein produktives Talent) or "this natural gift" (diese Naturgabe), Goethe borrowed from Prometheus an old mythical costume in order to give poetic expression to his idea of the whole man.84 The poem is intended to be, then, as Goethe himself makes clear, a poetic expression of "this trend toward the titanic-gigantic and earth-shaking" (der titanischgigantische, himmelsturmende Sinn)8

The great Goethe scholar H. A. Korff sees in this poem "the battle of man for his metaphysical freedom."86 In his view, it expresses the spirit of the genius-poet Goethe, aware of something divine within himself, and it expresses "revolt against God out of the feeling of his own inner divinity."87 Accordingly, it is a product of that spirit closely connected with the famous epigraph in part 4 of Truth and Poetry: "Nemo contra deum nisi deus ipse."88 Since Korff makes a convincing case for the view that this new feeling of divinity, in which both intimacy with and revolt against God coexist, has some connection with "a pantheistic sense of the world,"89 it might be possible to speak of a "Spinozistic" point of view in this poem. But this would be possible only by way of such a pantheistic detour—and even then, it would be more accurate to speak of a "pantheistic" rather than a "Spinozistic" point of view. In any event, our consideration shows that Goethe's "Prometheus" is not, in the first instance, a manifestation of Spinozism.

Our third question has to do with the relationship between Lessing's sv K«i raw and Spinozism. It will be recalled that on reading Goethe's poem (though strictly speaking, he did not know its author's name), Lessing expressed complete sympathy for its point of view, going on to say, "The orthodox concepts of the divinity are no longer for me; I cannot stand them. Hen kai Pan! I know naught else." And when Jacobi seized on these words with the comment, "Then you would ... be more or less in agreement with Spinoza," the response Lessing made was, "If I am to call myself by anybody's name, then I know none better."

Judging from this dialogue alone, people may well be led to conclude that Lessing's ev Kai nav is a manifestation or confession of Spinozism. But since we have familiarized ourselves with Lessing's character and his peculiar mode of thinking, we need to be very careful here. For Lessing did not praise Spinoza as his philosophical mentor unconditionally. On the contrary, he qualified his agreement with Spinoza by saying, "If I am to call myself by anybody's name"—and did so only after Jacobi had introduced Spinoza's name. In addition, Spinoza, who had been treated as badly as "a dead dog," was for him a philosopher whose lost honor ought to be retrieved. At any rate, Lessing was not the sort of thinker who had no choice but to cling to a greater thinker's shirttail. As we have seen in the preceding chapters, he was an utterly independent thinker with his own style and logic. To cite Windelband's words again, Lessing was "the only creative mind in German philosophy between Leibniz and Kant."90 In fact, Lessing was unwilling to agree completely even with the great German philosopher Leibniz, with whom he felt the most affinity and congeniality. It is unthinkable, therefore, that so independent a mind would have accepted Spinoza's philosophy without qualification.91

The words Lessing used when he resumed with Jacobi the conversation that had been broken off the day before are worth remembering. Instead of saying that he had come to talk about Spinozism, Lessing said, "I came to talk with you about my ev Kai mdv" (italics added). The use of this personal pronoun "my" seems to point toward the correctness of our conjecture.

But how, then, are his words "There is no other philosophy but the philosophy of Spinoza" to be understood? These words too can be taken as expressing Lessing's peculiarly ironical attitude toward Jacobi, who took pride in his erudition with regard to Spinozistic philosophy. For it is not Lessing but Jacobi who develops a lengthy and pedantic interpretation of Spinozism in the succeeding discussion, and it is not Spinoza's philosophical system but "the spirit of Spinozism" (der Geist des Spino%ismusf2 that is of interest to Lessing. What is more, when Jacobi declares, "But my credo is not to be found in Spinoza," Lessing responds, "I sincerely hope that it is not to be found in any book."93 For one who distinguished sharply between "letter" and "spirit" and attached greater importance to the spirit, this response is by no means insignificant.

On the basis of the foregoing observations, we venture to assert that the evsoi ?cav of which Lessing spoke is not to be linked with Spinozism, as Jacobi sought to do, but should be interpreted independently of Spinozism. What, then, is Lessing's ev k«i nav?? How is it to be interpreted? This is the problem to be taken up in the next section.

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