Tasks of Lessing Studies

Taking Lessing as a "special admirer or lover of theology," we make it the precise aim of our inquiry to elucidate his theological and religious-philosophical thought. But as the history of previous Lessing studies demonstrates, this is a very difficult task that requires extraordinarily meticulous analysis.

The reason that Lessing, as theologian or philosopher of religion, has escaped the persistent pursuit of researchers for more than two centuries is that his thinking is essentially "inquiring" and "experimental" (experimente//),31 with the result that it is always open to new possibilities. This accounts for the "fragmentary character"32 of most of his theological and religious-philosophical writings. As pointed out by many researchers, fragmentariness, unsystematicness, ambiguity, and contradictoriness are prominent features of his theological and religious-philosophical thought. But these features should not be explained away as mere idiosyncratic traits. They must be understood, rather, within the wider context of the eighteenth-century German social and political situation, with which the country's religious and intellectual situation was inseparably connected.33

The territorial system based on the principle of cuius regio, eius re/igio outlived "the confessional age" far into the age of reason. To engage in open criticism of Lutheran orthodoxy, which was bound up with the territorial state, involved putting one's civil life in jeopardy.34 To this extent, genuine freedom of religious belief did not yet exist in Lessing's Germany. On the other hand, however, as time went on, modern rationalistic ideas gained a foothold even among clergymen and theologians. As a result, neo/ogy35—an approach to theology based on advanced, enlightened ideas—was on the rise during the mid-eighteenth century in Germany. But Lessing was not content to reconcile the opposition between orthodoxy and the Enlightenment in the easy way the neologists did. He was thus led to search for "a third way,"36 a way different from both Lutheran orthodoxy and neology. This option meant, however, that he had to engage in "theological battle on two fronts" (der theo/ogische Zrnifmntenkampjf1 against both orthodoxy and neology, or again, in a "war on three fronts" (Dreifrontenkriegg):38 against Reimarus's rationalism, Goeze's orthodoxy, and Semler's neology.39

But Lessing had neither ecclesiastical nor political patrons behind him. His only resources were his brain and his pen. The theological battle, therefore, was far from easy. At times he may have pretended to be a friend or ally to his enemies in order to deceive them. At other times he may have been forced to adumbrate his real opinions or knowledge of newly germinating truths instead of setting them forth in a straightforward way.40 At still other times he may have had no choice but to conceal them from others entirely.41 It is true that in his treatise Berengar of Tours, Lessing says (probably with neology in mind):

I do not know whether it is a duty to sacrifice life and fortune for truth; at least the courage and resolution needed for this are not gifts that we can give to ourselves. But if one wishes to teach the truth, I know it is an obligation either to teach the whole truth or not to teach it at all. [It is a duty] to teach the truth clearly and plainly, without using enigmatic terms, without reservation, without distrust of its strength and usefulness. And the gifts needed for this lie within our power. Anyone who does not wish to acquire the gifts, or who does not wish to use them if he has acquired them, deserves only ill of human understanding.

[This is so] if one removes grave errors from us, but withholds the whole truth and wishes to please us with a garbled mixture of truth and falsehood. For the greater the error, the shorter and straighter is the road to truth. A subtle error, however, can keep us from the truth perpetually, since it is much more difficult for us to recognize it as

an error.

On the other hand, however, he defended a freemasonry attitude by saying that there are "truths which are better left unsaid" and that "the wise man cannot say what is better left unsaid."43

Be that as it may, Lessing was a first-rate tactician as well as a first-rate lover of truth. Given the ecclesiastical-political situation of mid-eighteenth-century Germany, it is understandable that he may have deemed it permissible, in the battle for truth, to skimp on human fidelity when circumstances compelled it.44 In him realistic tactics coexisted with love for the truth, hence his frequently quoted phrases: "I must aim my weapons at my opponent; not all that I write 7u)jvaonKioc ["gymnastically," or as a mental exercise] would I also write Sortum*«*; [dogmatically, or as an authoritative principle]."45

In addition, Lessing was born with a spirit of defiance and had a tendency to side with the underdog. As his friend Christoph Friedrich Nicolai testifies of his personality, "Lessing . . . could not tolerate anything that was overdecisive, and in polite or learned discussion often liked to take the side that was the weaker, or the one whose opposite someone was trying to assert."46 Nicolai provides a telling illustration: "Many of Lessing's friends will still recall that during the Seven Years War he always supported Prussia at social gatherings while he stayed in Leipzig, whereas in Berlin [he supported] the cause of Saxony. He was thus an object of heartfelt hatred to true patriots in both places, patriots who . . . were a trifle fierce while the war lasted."47 He also recalls that Lessing, in debate, often exercised "the skill either to take the weaker side or, if somebody presented the pro, to hunt immediately, and with rare acuteness, for the contra."48

This kind of antithetic spirit had a bearing on his attitude toward Christian apologetics. "The more insistently a person wanted to prove Christianity to me, the more doubtful I became. The more willfully and triumphantly another sought to trample it completely underfoot, the more inclined I felt to uphold it, at least in my heart."49 The "polemical, antithetic character"50 of Lessing's theological and religious-philosophical writings is, as many researchers have repeatedly pointed out, rooted in his inborn dialectical nature. He was by nature "a genuinely dialectic thinker of strict logic."51 Hence it may be no exaggeration when Martin Haug says of this dialectical thinker's theological and religious-philosophical writings that "indeed almost all of Lessing's assertions (Sdtsg)" were "counterassertions" (Gegensdt%e).52

Given this state of affairs, it is clearly impermissible to take Lessing's theological or religious-philosophical statements at face value. What he wrote or said about theological or religious-philosophical topics must not be easily generalized into an abstract system. In interpreting his words, we must give special attention to the immediate, concrete context in which they were initially written or uttered. In particular, we must take into consideration the original assertions of his adversaries, assertions toward which his statements, intended as "counterassertions," were directed.

As a matter of fact, "most of Lessing's theological expressions grew out of dialogues. For this reason they have, to a large extent, a dialogical and ephemeral character."53 Being a first-rate dramatist, Lessing often employed dramatic methods and techniques in his theological and religious-philosophical writings, with the result that his theological and religious-philosophical arguments contained theatrical elements. This is why his antagonist Goeze severely attacked his logic as "theater logic" (Theater/ogik).54 Whether or not Goeze was right in this insistence, it is certain that Lessing's arguments were considerably more dramatic and dynamic than the ordinary theological argument. As Heinrich Scholz rightly observes, "the antithetical, the hypothetical, and the humorous" (das Antithetische, das Hypothetische und das Humoristische) are "three factors of infinite importance for Lessing."55 We should not, therefore, take Lessing's theological and religious-philosophical statements literally, though we must take them seriously. We agree with Hermann Timm when he says:

If we accept this proposal as a basis for interpretation, then his lifelong critique of theologians can only be understood as an overture of a negative sort. Also, and precisely in his theological writings, Lessing has given full play to his agonistic, sportsmanlike nature. He was a competitor and a virtuoso of irony, masterfully skilled in formulating points of opposition in the manner of a dramatic scene. Nearly as attractive as paradoxes, they were for the most part constructed in such a way as to convince [people] that the twisted words have the appearance of evident truths. In short, he was a master at rhetorically digging "ugly broad ditches."56

If this is the case, then Lessing's theological and religious-philosophical statements should not be taken as expressions of firm dogmatic convictions. He often engaged in "interpretive play for the sake of gymnastic training of the spirit."57 As a result, most of his statements are experimental and heuristic. To borrow Whitehead's famous phrase, they are tentative results of his "adventures of ideas."

Thus arises the problem of the exoteric and the esoteric in his theology. This is said to be the most difficult problem in the interpretation of Lessing. Friedrich Loofs, the first to pose this question, drew a very negative conclusion. He ended his discussion of the matter by saying, "It would be nonsense, therefore, to attempt to identify a Lessingian 'theology'. For Lessing's exoterically expressed theological thoughts lie only in part on one level, and we know too little of his esoteric view."58 His point is that the "exoteric teachings," the teachings Lessing set forth in public, do not reflect his real opinion or conviction, and they cannot be treated on a single level because they range over a variety of levels. At any rate, Lessing's "esoteric" view is concealed, Loofs concluded, behind the "exoteric" walls that we lack the ability to penetrate.

This problem, which has been blocking our understanding of Lessing, must be overcome in one way or another if we are to talk about Lessing's theology or his philosophy of religion. But how can we penetrate the exoteric walls that have blocked our access to his esoteric view? Or rather, does the way in which Loofs formulated the problem need to be called in question? In any case, we have to search for a new approach to Lessing's theology and philosophy of religion if we are to escape Loofs's dilemma.

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