Lessings Significance for German Intellectual History

Lessing is usually considered "an important nodal point" in the German intellectual history leading from Luther through Leibniz up to German idealism. According to the well-known literary historian Benno von Wiese, Lessing not only brought European rationalism to completion but also, being anchored in German religious and speculative traditions, transmuted it into a specifically German form. By so doing, he opened the way to the German classicism of Goethe and Schiller as well as to the German idealist philosophy of Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel.4 In view of his position in this line of intellectual development, it is no exaggeration to say that Lessing demonstrated most clearly the closest of ties between the German Enlightenment and German idealism.

Lessing has enjoyed great popularity among the German people. Some of his admirers even assign him a status comparable to that of the Reformer Martin Luther. Heinrich Heine, for example, extols him as follows:

No German can utter the name [of Lessing] without finding a greater or smaller echo resounding in his heart. Since Luther, Germany has produced no person greater or better than Gotthold Ephraim Lessing. These two men are our pride and our bliss.5

I would say that Lessing succeeded Luther. After Luther emancipated us from the yoke of tradition and elevated the Bible to Christianity's sole authority, an obstinate bibliolatry arose . . . and the letter of the Bible became just as tyrannical a ruler as the earlier tradition. For emancipating us from this tyrannical reign of the letter, Lessing has rendered the greatest service. Just as Luther was not the only person who fought against tradition, so too it was certainly not Lessing alone who fought against the letter; but it was Lessing who fought the most formidable fight.6

There is no denying that Heine's extolment of Lessing contains a degree of hyperbole. Nevertheless, such words of praise may not necessarily be unjustified when we read them in the light of the following noteworthy remarks uttered by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. This greatest of German writers, one of the noblest minds in German history, declares:

Luther was a genius of a very significant kind. He has exercised great influence for a long time, and the number of days until the time when, in remote centuries, he will cease to be productive is unforeseeable. Lessing sought to refuse the noble title of genius, but his lasting influence testifies against what he thought of himself.7

Given Lessing's importance for German intellectual history, it is not surprising that hundreds of his complete or collected works have been edited, and that yet another new, critical edition is now being published.8 The International Lessing Society now serves as a kind of common forum for all scholars engaging in the study of the literary and intellectual history of eighteenth-century Germany.9 As one might expect from these facts, so many studies about Lessing already exist that it is almost impossible today for any single researcher to survey the whole spectrum of Lessing studies.10 In addition to studies in the fields of literature, literary criticism, and dramaturgy, there are numerous studies in the fields of theology and philosophy of religion. Despite this body of research, no consensus has been attained to date regarding the real core of his theological and religious-philosophical thought. On the contrary, diametrically opposed interpretations prevail among researchers.

The reason for such interpretive contradictions must be assigned to Lessing himself. Dilthey, in his now classic monograph on Lessing, makes the following noteworthy observation:

There are indeed convincing reasons to believe partly that he did not present the final and supreme results of his lifelong inquiry at all, and partly that he presented them to his contemporaries in half-concealed form. As over against those contemporaries who were theologically restricted and oppressed, he felt himself a pedagogue. . . . He was the very first German thinker who, in complete freedom from every tradition and from every bias and aversion to it, faced real life and created a self-reliant and positive view of life. One cannot yet say this even about Leibniz, who is so incomparably original in his worldview As Lessing proceeded toward this view of life in his last period, one feels that he became more and more lonely. For this voyage of discovery he did not have, and was unable to have, any companion just as he had once had none for his aesthetic exploration. He was in utter loneliness and yet took up the fight against all tendencies that took the theological tradition as their starting point, it being a matter of indifference to him whether they were friendly or hostile to this tradition. He had to conceal this isolated position, make temporary allies, and raise contemporaries to his own [view] gradually. This was his position. And this explains the possibility that what is in front of us is not fully his real opinion and that the final results of his lifelong inquiry are not set down in what lies before us.

Much immediate and enthusiastic interest on our side, and much of an enigmatic character on his, cling to Lessing studies. If there is anything at all in modern German literary history that requires rigorous methodical research, it is Lessing.11

It is true that a number of in-depth studies have been made to disclose what Dilthey called the "enigmatic character" (Rätselhaftigkeit) or "mystery" (Geheimnis) of Lessing. Nevertheless, as a theologian or philosopher of religion, Lessing is still a riddle to us.

Sixty years after Dilthey's monograph, however, Karl Guthke reported that "the irreconcilable contradictions of Lessing interpretation can be observed in the interpretations of his theological writings."12 Fifteen years later, he again reported with regret that "Lessing the theologian is still a subject of dispute. The question at issue, ever since the eighteenth century, has to do with his Christianity."13 The situation remains the same today. That is to say, no consensus has been attained to date as to the real core of his theological and religious-philosophical thought.

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