Lessings Spinozism

For the student of Western philosophy today, it is simply a matter of common sense that the most important philosophical event to take place during the 1780s and 1790s was the appearance of Immanuel Kant's three critiques: the Critique of Pure Reason (1781; 2d ed., 1787), the Critique of Practical Reason (1788), and the Critique of Judgment (1790). But the common sense of the present is not always that of the past. Much to our surprise, at the time it came into being, Kant's critical philosophy was not taken to be an epoch-making philosophical event. It took four or five years from the time of its publication for the Critique of Pure Reason to draw the attention of the reading public.1 By contrast, the "Spinoza controversy" (Spino%a-Streil), in which Moses Mendelssohn and Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi fought over the question of who should assume the deceased Lessing's mantle, was an entirely different matter. According to Hermann Timm, "in connection with the pros and cons of the matter, there entered into the consciousness of contemporaries [the awareness of] a change in eras. There is no event of comparable influence in modern intellectual history."2 This controversy eventually engaged almost all the best minds of late eighteenth-century Germany. Wizenmann, Herder, Goethe, Hamann, Reinhold, Kant and other eminent thinkers took part. It led to what is known as the "pantheism controversy" (Pantheismusstreti), which in turn gave rise to the "Spinoza renaissance."3 The Jewish philosopher, who had been treated like "a dead dog" (ein todter Hund)4 for over a hundred years due to misunderstanding and slander, was now cordially welcomed and extolled as "Benedictus," or "the blessed." The philosophy of Spinoza thus resurrected was to give rise, in the course of time, to the great German idealist philosophy as represented by Fichte, Schelling, Hegel, and Schleiermacher.5

Apart from the revival of Spinozism, the pantheism controversy posed "the dilemma of a rational nihilism or an irrational fideism,"6 a central problem that occupied Fichte, Schelling, Hegel, Kierkegaard, and Nietzsche. Consequently, as Beiser pertinently states, "It is indeed no exaggeration to say that the pantheism controversy had as great an impact upon nineteenth-century philosophy as Kant's first Kritik."7 In any event, the pantheism controversy is "one of the most significant debates for the emergence of a modern view of the world and one that considerably shook the self-confidence of the German Enlightenment."8 As mentioned above, the pantheism controversy, which is so important for the history of modern German philosophy, originated in the Spinoza controversy that began soon after Lessing's death between Mendelssohn and Jacobi over Lessing's theological and/or religious-philosophical convictions. The immediate cause was that Jacobi, soon after Lessing's death, disclosed the content of private conversations he had held with Lessing during his last years. According to what Jacobi alleged in his Concerning the Doctrine of Spinoza, in Letters to Herr Moses Mendelssohn (Über die Lehre des Spinoza in Briefen an den Herrn Moses Mendelssohn), Lessing confided to him his secret allegiance to "Spinozism." Hence the focus of the dispute between Mendelssohn and Jacobi was Lessing's alleged Spinozism. The burning question was that of how Lessing's Spinozism should be interpreted.9

From the start, however, three dimensions of the question were involved in the pantheism controversy. From "the biographical issue of Lessing's Spinozism," the central issue gradually shifted to "the exegetical question of the proper interpretation of Spinoza" and eventually to "the problem of the authority of reason" as such.10 To use Heinrich Scholz's words, the pantheism controversy, while involving many thinkers, shifted its center of gravity "from Lessing to Spinoza and from this to the worldview of rationalism."11 Since telling the whole story of the pantheism controversy12 would be too big a topic for us here, the discussion to follow will be restricted to a consideration of Lessing's "Spinozism."

The rationale for this restriction is that quite apart from the development of the pantheism controversy, it is a task of the highest importance for an appraisal of Lessing's theological and religious-philosophical thought as a whole to interpret the allegedly "Spinozistic" confession that Jacobi claimed to have heard in conversation with him. As Vallée pertinently states, "Indeed Spinozism has been the Trojan horse [which,] introduced into Lessing's works . . . [shakes] the citadel of his thought."13 It is no exaggeration to say that the loss of Lessing's prestige or the vindication of his honor hinges on how one interprets his ëv sal jtäv.

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