Lessings Historical Position

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Most of Lessing's writings during the period of the fragments controversy open with a citation in Latin or Greek taken from the church fathers or from ancient writers. The Education of the Human Race likewise opens with a quotation from one of the classical languages. Taken from Augustine's Soliloquies 2, 10, the citation reads: "Haec omnia inde esse in quibusdam vera, unde in quibusdam falsa sunt."17 What significance does this epigraph have for understanding the content of Lessing's discussions in the book? Is it a mere embellishment with no particular meaning at all?

According to Eckhard Heftrich, Lessing's use of classical phrases for epigraphs was not merely a matter of conformity to the custom of the day, nor was it merely for the purpose of showing off his erudition. In choosing an epigraph, says Heftrich, Lessing presupposes "the erudite reader who, like himself, sees not merely the isolated sentence but also knows, or looks for, the context in which the sentence originally stands."18 It is only to such a reader, he goes on, that it matters whether the cited phrase is faithful to the original text and context, or whether the original meaning is slightly altered or intentionally skewed. How is it, then, with Lessing's citation from Augustine? As Heftrich sees it, "With this motto, Lessing seemingly refers to the authority of Augustine; in reality, however, he twists the sentence of this authority, expecting that the reader will recognize and understand what lies behind this twisting of the original meaning.


In this connection, it will be helpful to inquire into the nature of Augustine's Soliloquies. This is a work comprising a fictitious dialogue between the author and "Reason." The dialogue centers on the locus of truth and its absoluteness, to which the immortality of the soul is closely related. Reason, by heaping up roundabout arguments, endeavors to convince the author that truth is eternal and the soul immortal. It induces the author to consider what separates the false from imitation, implying that a man painted on a canvas or an actor on the stage is in some respects true and in other respects false. It suggests to him "that all these things are in certain aspects true, by this very thing that they are in certain aspects false." Reason then asks him the following question: "Wherefore, if it avails some things that they be somewhat false in order that they may be somewhat true; why do we so greatly dread falsity, and seek truth as the greatest good?" To this rhetorical question the author's answer is: "We ought . . . to seek that truth, which is not, as if laid out on a bifronted and self-repugnant plan, false on one side that it may be true on the other." Satisfied with this answer, Reason eventually declares: "High and Divine are the things which thou requirest."20

Heftrich, after comparing the original context and the new, comes to the conclusion that Lessing is here trying to sever Augustine's phrase from its original context in order to make it serve his own "model for thinking about history" (ein Denkungsmodell von Geschichte)2 Willi Oelmuller seems to concur when he says—quite aptly, in our view—that Lessing has transformed Augustine's phrase into one that connotes "historical ambivalence" (die geschichtliche Ambivalenz).22 Lessing has twisted the meaning, Oelmuller avers, to make the phrase imply that "the present still belongs to the second age, yet already belongs to the third."23 That is to say, the citation from Augustine turns out to be instrumental to the famous theory that Lessing espouses in the latter part of the book, the theory of the "Three Ages of the World."

The question that arises most acutely here is that of the "locus of truth" (Ort der Wahrheit) and the "point of view" (Gesichtspunkt) from which truth is sought.24 This inevitably leads to the further question as to the "position" or the "standpoint" (Standort)25 of the author of The Education of the Human Race. Where does he stand? The "Editor's Preface" has much to do with this question. There Lessing states:

I have published the first half of this essay in my Contributions. Now I am in a position to give the remainder. The author 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. But he does not call away from his road any wanderer hastening home whose one desire is to reach his night's lodging. He does not ask that the view which enchants him should also enchant every other eye.

And so, I would suppose, he may be allowed to stand and wonder where he stands and wonders. Would that from the immeasurable distance which a soft evening glow neither entirely conceals nor wholly reveals to his gaze, he could bring some guiding hint, for which I have often felt myself at a loss!

This is what is in my mind. Why are we not more willing to see in all positive religions simply the process by which alone human understanding in every place can develop, and must still further develop, instead of either ridiculing or becoming angry with them? In the best world there is nothing that deserves this scorn, this indignation we show. Are religions alone to deserve it? Is God to have part in everything except our mistakes?26

It is to be noted, first of all, that Lessing is posturing here as if he were no more than an editor (Herausgeber). He is pretending that the editor, or "I" (ich), and the author (Verfasser) are quite different persons.27 Why did he contrive this fictitious construction?28 Was the fabrication due to a desire to be consistent with what he had once said to Johann Albert Reimarus? For to this trusted friend he had said, "The Education of the Human Race was [written] by a good friend, who is fond of making various hypotheses and systems for the pleasure of tearing them to pieces again."29 Or was it rather the case that he did not wish to present this book as his own work because it consisted largely of hypothetical counterassertions to the assertions of other thinkers? Such motives may have played a role, but there seems to have been yet another reason. Our conjecture is that Lessing's fabrication of an anonymous author had something to do with the structure of Augustine's Soliloquies., a fictitious dialogue between Augustine and Reason. That is to say, it is a dialogue that takes place within Augustine's mind and is therefore a monologue. Erwin Quapp seems to endorse our conjecture when he says, "The fiction of an [anonymous] author is ... a figure necessary for an inner dialogue."30

Let us examine, then, the content of the editor's preface. The author claims to stand on "a high eminence" that is "beyond the limits" of the historical horizon of his contemporaries. From this height he "believes it possible to see" what is still invisible to them or hidden from them. The view and knowledge now available to him are superior to those that have hitherto prevailed. But he does not insist that his newly acquired view and knowledge be recognized as objectively and absolutely superior; neither will he force them on others. He is remarkably humble. He merely "believes" that he can see "something more"

(etwas mehr) than what is currently accessible to the limited view of his contemporaries. "He does not ask that the view which enchants him should also enchant every other eye." And so, he modestly suggests, "he may be allowed to stand and wonder where he stands and wonders." That is to say, his contemporaries, still confined within the ordinary knowledge of the time, should not be allowed to prevent him from pursuing the new knowledge dawning upon him!

Yet no matter how high it may be, and what a superior view it may command, the place where the author stands is still a point within history. The consummation of history lies at an "immeasurable distance" from the place he now stands; it must be looked forward to and awaited in the future.31 Accordingly, as "a soft evening glow is neither entirely concealed from nor wholly revealed to his gaze,"32 so the whole truth to be manifested at the consummation of history is neither fully revealed to nor entirely concealed from him. Thus the author's position, to use Oelmuller's term again, is one of "historical ambivalence." This implies that truth as known in the present is ambiguous (zweideutig). It is in this sense that Lessing, in his epigraph, cites Augustine's words from the Soliloquies-. "All these things are in certain aspects true, by this very thing that they are in certain aspects false."33

Nonetheless, Lessing entertains a secret expectation: the expectation that the author might possibly "bring some guiding hint, for which I have often felt myself at a loss!" The guiding hint is that the history of the human race, especially the history of religions, may be seen as the locus of a process whereby human reason is educated, developed, and brought to completion. This expectation, this hint, will help us to examine the arguments Lessing presents in this book.

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