On 15 February 1781, when he died at the age of fifty-two, Lessing left behind a great number of fragments and unfinished manuscripts. Among them, those in the fields of theology and philosophy were of special value. When his younger brother Karl edited and published them after a few years in several volumes of Lessing's collected works,14 people were amazed at the breadth and depth of his interests in theology and philosophy of religion. To the surprise of the general public, however, Jacobi, who had held private conversations with Lessing during the last years of his life, imputed to him the disgrace of being a Spinozist, though no clear avowal of Spinozism could be found even in these posthumous works. The story thus evolves dramatically, the dramatis personae being two of Lessing's oldest friends, Moses Mendelssohn and Elise Reimarus, and a newly emergent friend, Jacobi, who claimed to be "the legitimate heir and spokesman for Lessing."15
Shortly after Lessing's death, the Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelssohn, who "had lived with him in intimate friendship for over thirty years, had unceasingly sought with him the truth, had conversed with him repeatedly, by letter and face to face, on those important [religious-philosophical] matters,"16 determined to "write something on the character of our Lessing."17 He set about preparing for this task, but poor health prevented smooth progress. Meanwhile, Elise Reimarus, a close friend of Lessing for some fifteen years and through him a good friend of Mendelssohn as well, brought him unexpected news. By letter she informed him that that Jacobi, knowing that Mendelssohn intended to write a work commemorating Lessing, had sent her the following message:
I was not able to answer your letter by return post because I wanted to tell you something of great importance: about our Lessing's thinking toward the end of his life, and that Mendelssohn might be so instructed, should you find it appropriate. —You know perhaps, and if you do not know, I confide it to you here sub rosa, that in his final days Lessing was a firm. . .Spinozist. It is conceivable that Lessing may have expressed this view to others; in that case, it would be necessary for Mendelssohn, in the memorial he intends to dedicate to him, either to avoid certain matters totally or at least to treat them with the utmost caution. Perhaps Lessing expressed himself to his dear Mendelssohn as clearly as he did to me; or again, perhaps not —because he had not conversed with him for a long time and wrote letters only with reluctance. It is a matter for your discretion, my dear and trusted friend, whether or not you wish to disclose any of this to Mendelssohn; but for now I can write in no greater detail.18
At that time, being a "Spinozist" was considered almost the same as being an atheist or a blasphemer ('Gotteslästerer).19 Jacobi's bombshell announcement that "Lessing in his final days was a firm Spinozist" was therefore a great shock to Lessing's old friends.
Perceiving the great importance of the information she had received from Jacobi, Elise Reimarus immediately wrote Mendelssohn to inform him of what Jacobi had communicated to her as "Lessing's secret."20 Mendelssohn was deeply perturbed by Elise's letter. In great shock and disturbance he asked himself, "Was Lessing a Spinozist? Did Jacobi hear the same from Lessing himself? What precisely was their state of mind when that confidence passed between them?"21 Through Elise, because of her personal acquaintance and correspondence with Jacobi, he asked Jacobi the following questions: "Did Lessing come right out and say: I believe Spinoza's system to be true and well founded?" "Which system [of Spinoza's did he mean]?" "Is it the one propounded in his Tractatus theologico-politicus, or the one in his De principiis philosophiae cartesianae, or the one Ludovicus Mayer circulated under Spinoza's name after his death?" "Did Lessing. . .understand the system with the mis-understanding of a Bayle or with the better understanding of some others?" and so forth.22 At this time Mendelssohn thought that if Lessing had concurred with another person's system of thought without qualification, he would either have been distraught or made paradoxical assertions, half jokingly or from caprice.23
In response to Mendelssohn's request for greater detail of his conversations with Lessing, Jacobi sent the Jewish philosopher, by way of Elise as before, a minute report of about thirty-six pages in quartos on 4 November 1783. This report, however, contained such unexpected material that Mendelssohn was first shocked, then became indignant.24 Contrary to his initial assumption, it was not "a mere retailing of anecdote," or "something which a visiting traveller might possibly have passed on to him,"25 but "the sum total of those. . . intimate conversations"26 with Lessing which Jacobi had had the good fortune to enjoy. There could be no doubt of the authenticity of Jacobi's report. It became abundantly clear to Mendelssohn that Jacobi was by no means the "amateur at philosophy" he had assumed, but "a man who has made thinking his chief business and who possesses the strength to throw off the reins and go his own way."27 Mendelssohn felt himself greatly humiliated and even grew angry that Lessing, his closest friend for many years, seemed to have "concealed his real system from [him] . . . his most esteemed friend," while "another mortal," on short acquaintance, "was being made privy to Lessing's great secret."28
Stunned by Jacobi's report, Mendelssohn asked himself, "Did Lessing deem me unworthy of his confidence? Was I, in his eyes, so philosophically weak and immature of mind that he concealed the real heart of his esoteric philosophy in order not to rob me of my Jewish conviction?" Whatever the answer to these questions, the heart of the Jewish philosopher, who had deemed himself Lessing's oldest, most intimate, and most esteemed friend, was deeply hurt by such humiliating thoughts. This hurt, this humiliation on Mendelssohn's part, as our consideration will shortly reveal, was precisely what Jacobi intended.29 Consequently, the dispute between Mendelssohn and Jacobi, occasioned by "a trap"30 that Jacobi laid for Mendelssohn, was from the very start destined to lead to an unhappy end.
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