Lessings Ugly Broad Ditch

An impromptu statement sometimes takes on immortality. An image or metaphor, though produced almost offhandedly, sometimes attains universal validity. Lessing's famous metaphor or image of the "ugly broad ditch" (der garstige breite Graben) is a case in point. This image has played the role of "a kind of code or shorthand"1 signifying the hiatus between revelation and reason in general, and the divorce between faith and history in particular—a problem that is "a really serious and difficult problem of modern life."2

What, then, is Lessing's "ugly broad ditch"? To quote the words within which this metaphorical image is found: "That, then, is the ugly, broad ditch which I cannot get across, however often and however earnestly I have tried to make the leap. If anyone can help me over it, let him do it, I beg him, I adjure him. He will deserve a divine reward from me."3 This quotation alone, however, does not tell us what the ditch is like. It is when we broaden our view that it becomes clear to us that the ditch has to do with "Lessing's proposition."

Lessing's proposition, as is well known, is the statement that "accidental truths of history can never become the proof for necessary truths of reason" (zufällige Geschichtswahrheiten können der Beweis von notwendigen Vernunftswahrheiten nie werden).4 It is evident, therefore, that Lessing's "ugly broad ditch" is a metaphor for the divorce between "accidental truths of history" and "necessary truths of reason." As to how we should interpret this metaphorical image in practice, however, there have been such a great variety of interpretations—sometimes diametrically opposed to each other—that even today the question of how to interpret it constitutes one of the most difficult tasks in Lessing studies. This variety of interpretations is attributable not necessarily to differences in the theological or religious-philosophical standpoints of the interpreters but to Lessing himself. Henry Chadwick, one of the most brilliant patristic scholars in England and the editor and translator of Lessing's Theological Writings.,5 says, "The tract [namely, On the Proof of the Spirit and of Power] is of importance for understanding Lessing; yet it may be doubted whether any writing equally influential in the history of modern religious thought has been marked by a comparable quantity of logical ambiguity."6 According to him,

"the latent obscurity and confusion" involved in this tract had already been perceived by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. The great English romantic poet, who loved Lessing's style of writing and argument and took it for a model, left the following memo: "Year after year I have made a point of reperusing the Kleine Schriften, as masterpieces of style and argument. But in the Reasoning [employed in this tract] I feel at each reperusal more and more puzzled how so palpable a miss could have been made by so acute a mind."7 More recently, Gordon E. Michalson, Jr. has pointed out what he calls "serious confusion"8 in Lessing's argument.

In view of this state of affairs, we wish to discuss the theological problems of Lessing's "ugly broad ditch" by closely analyzing the tract On the Proof of the Spirit and of Power in the hope of explicating the significance of Lessing's proposition for the present.

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