Mendelssohn and Refined Pantheism

We have already seen how Mendelssohn reacted to the "apple of discord" (Zankapfel) that Jacobi hurled at him at an early stage of their controversy. He declared it an outrage that Jacobi would brand Lessing "a Spinozist, an atheist, and a blasphemer." His friend Lessing, the author of Nathan the Wise, was, rather, a "great and respected champion of theism and of the religion of reason."62

But when he realized that there was little room for doubt as to the authenticity of Jacobi's account, Mendelssohn sought to make Jacobi's poisonous apple as innocuous as possible. He did so by interpreting Lessing's alleged "Spinozism" in a harmless way.63 For this purpose, and before Jacobi's account had been made public, he published a book, Morning Hours, or Lectures on the Existence of God (Morgenstunden oder Vorlesungen über das Dasein Gottes). In this book he discussed the problem of Spinozism and pantheism in three chapters, and in the last chapter, Lessing's worldview He thus made full use of the information confidentially supplied by Jacobi, but did not mention his source at all.64

In these lectures, the theist Mendelssohn draws a clear line between theism and pantheism, particularly as to the God-world relationship. According to him, theists make a sharp distinction between God and the world, maintaining that God (the infinite One) has brought the world (the finite Many) into being, while pantheists deem God and the world identical, asserting that God is one and all, infinite and finite at the same time. Hence Mendelssohn says:

Accordingly, we separate God from nature and ascribe an extramundane existence to God just as we ascribe an extradivine existence to the world. On the other hand, the adherents of the aforesaid pantheism, with which we have to do here, assume that there is no extradivine existence at all. But their presupposition is that the ideas of the infinite, by reason of their necessity, obtain a sort of existence in God himself, [an existence that] at bottom is intimately united with his existence.65

Thus Mendelssohn insists on the fundamental difference between theism and pantheism. He does not, however, force us to choose between them. For the problem that divides them has to do with an extremely subtle metaphysical speculation devoid of practical consequence. Instead, he suggests that theism and pantheism, in the end, might possibly draw nearer to each other than people generally deem possible. There can be a position, he suggests, that affirms the immanence of the world in God without abandoning the basic convictions of theism (the createdness of the world by God's free act of creation and its objective existence outside God). He calls such a position "refined pantheism" (dergeläuterte Pantheismus, der verfeinerte Pantheismus) and stresses its "harmlessness" and "compatibility with religion and morality."66 His concept of refined pantheism, however, lacks further elaboration and gives us the impression that it is a mere artifact brought forth so as to exonerate Lessing from the charge of Spinozism.67 In any event, having thus laid the foundation for his discussion of Lessing's worldview, Mendelssohn asserts that "Lessing envisaged pantheism in the totally refined manner I have ascribed to him" and that "he was on his way to link pantheistic concepts even with positive religion."68 His conclusion is that Lessing's worldview, as a refined pantheism, is "totally compatible with the truths of religion and morality."69

In these assertions we can discern Mendelssohn's intention to defend his deceased friend from slander and abuse. That is to say, he presented an argument that would make nonsense of Jacobi's branding of Lessing as a Spinozist and atheist. He intended to minimize any bad effects and shape public opinion in a way that would be favorable to his friend, even if his adversary should disclose to the public the content of his conversations with Lessing. But his intention was defeated because Jacobi, doubting Mendelssohn and suspecting that he would do what he did, published the content of the conversations as a book entitled Concerning the Doctrine of Spinoza, in Letters to Herr Moses Mendelssohn. He took this action mainly out of fear of being forestalled by the Jewish philosopher. Adding insult to injury, he also broke his promises to

Mendelssohn and to Elise Reimarus by putting into print private letters from them without their permission, hoping that his appeal to the public would justify bringing their letters to light.70 Bitterly resentful of this unforgivable action, Mendelssohn, old and sick though he was, took up his pen and completed in great haste a manuscript To the Friends of Lessing (in German). Wishing to have it published as soon as possible, he hurried to the publisher on 31 December 1785 in freezing Berlin weather without an overcoat. This was a reckless and imprudent action for one who was said to have been the model for Nathan the Wise. On returning home, he took to his bed and passed away on the morning of 4 January 1786.71

Mendelssohn's posthumous work To the Friends of Lessing, which became his swan song, contains superb appraisals of Lessing that only he could have made. One cannot read it without being touched by their extraordinarily deep friendship. In this moving piece, Mendelssohn acutely takes note of Jacobi's secret intention in confiding to him the content of his private conversations with Lessing. According to him, Jacobi's true intention is nothing other than "to lead his fellow-men, who have lost their way in the arid wastes of speculation, back to the straight and narrow path of faithT72 or "to retreat to the shelter of faith."73 For this purpose Jacobi has, in Mendelssohn's eyes, labeled Lessing a Spinozist and is now using him as a weapon in his own campaign against the Berlin Enlightenment circle. In other words, branding Lessing a Spinozist was merely a means to the end of fighting against the adherents of reason. Thus Mendelssohn proclaims that Jacobi's secret intent was to convince him of the following lessons: "Speculative reason, when consistent, leads perforce to Spinozism," and "once someone has reached the precipitous peaks of metaphysics, there is no recourse but to turn one's back on all philosophy and plunge headfirst into the depths of faith."74

It is clear, therefore, that Mendelssohn has his own interpretation for what he has discerned of Jacobi's secret intention and underlying antagonism. Furthermore, he calls attention to Lessing's innate perversity and roguish playfulness, traits which he, through his long years of friendship with Lessing, was better acquainted with than anyone else. He thus raises a serious question as to whether Lessing's alleged Spinozism was "a joke or a philosophy" (Schackerey oder Philosophic,).75 To this extent, Mendelssohn's attempt to vindicate his deceased friend against the charge of being a Spinozist may be considered successful in a general way.

In any event, the question Mendelssohn raises has something to do with the extremely difficult question of -yu^vaanKrai; and SoY^atiKwi; or of "the esoteric" and "the exoteric," which confronts every student of Lessing.76 Since this is so, the problem of how we should take Lessing's "Spinozistic confession" is indeed formidable. Heinrich Scholz remarks, "Jacobi has understood Lessing much too dogmatically. He has overlooked the antithetical, the hypothetical, and the humorous—three infinitely important factors for Lessing—in Lessing's expressions and thereby, in a certain sense, has mystified himself."77 Be that as it may, to correctly understand Lessing's "Spinozism" calls for a more in-depth, full-scale investigation.

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