The Question of Methodology for Lessing Studies

Whether we can even find such an approach is the question before us. Since the history of Lessing studies tells us that no cure-all method has been discovered, we should like to begin by reexamining old interpretive methods.

What interests us here is Lessing's own peculiar way of accepting or appropriating other people's thought into his system. Carl Schwarz simply called it "accommodation."59 Martin Haug named it, more specifically, "pedagogic accommodation" (diepädagogische Akkommodation) or "the method of education" (die Methode der Erziehung)}'0 Thielicke refined it into what he called the "method of assimilation" (Angleichungsmethode)' The point is that "Lessing's peculiar manner of thinking and writing"62 should be clearly distinguished from the "substance of [his] thought" (Gedankensubstanz)' If we distinguish these two discrete things clearly, we will not have to reach a negative conclusion like the one Loofs drew from his premise.

In this connection, we give special attention to Lessing's utterances in his Leibniz on Eternal Punishments. What he stated here to vindicate Leibniz against the attacks of Johann August Eberhard can be applied to Lessing himself. For this reason his statements provide, as Henry E. Allison aptly observed, "important clues to his own philosophical position."64 What, then, is the main point of Lessing's defense of Leibniz?

In refutation of Eberhard, who had accused Leibniz of accommodating his philosophical views to prevailing theological doctrines, Lessing made the following statement:

One cannot truly say that he [Leibniz] sought to accommodate the prevailing doctrines of all parties into his system. . . . Leibniz, in his search for truth, never took commonly held opinions into consideration. But he firmly believed that no opinion could be generally accepted which was not in a certain aspect, in a certain sense, true. With this firm conviction, he often took pleasure in turning and twisting these commonly held opinions until he made their certain aspect visible, until he made their certain sense comprehensible. He struck fire from the flint, but he did not conceal his fire in the flint. . . . To be sure he believed in them [commonly held opinions], that is, in the supportable sense which he did not so much add to them as discover in them. The supportable sense was true, and how could he not believe in the truth? This should not be regarded as either duplicity or vanity. He did nothing more, or less, than the ancient philosophers were wont to do with their exoteric lectures. He observed a bit of prudence for which our most recent philosophers have become much too wise. He willingly set his own system aside and sought to lead each toward truth along the road on which he found him.65

According to Lessing, Eberhard's charge that Leibniz accommodated his views to prevailing theological views was utterly unjustifiable. Leibniz endeavored, rather, to accommodate the prevailing theological views to his philosophical system. He sought to find a "supportable sense" (ein erträglicher Sinn) in them. At any rate, Lessing continues, Leibniz accepted the orthodox doctrine of eternal punishment in its "supportable sense."

I am convinced, rather, and believe myself able to prove, that Leibniz simply acquiesced in the ordinary doctrine of damnation, with all its exoteric grounds, [and that] he even wished to strengthen it with new grounds. [This is] because he recognized that it agreed better with a great esoteric truth of his own philosophy than the opposing doctrine. To be sure, he did not accept it in the crude and unseemly sense in which so many theologians accept it. But he found that even in this crude and unseemly sense, it still possessed more truth than the equally crude and unseemly concepts of the enthusiastic defenders of the restoration. And this alone induced him to have a bit too much to do with orthodoxy and its business rather than too little with the latter.66

On the basis of his meticulous analysis of these and other statements by Lessing, Thielicke summarizes the results in four points important for the question of method:

1. The mode of thinking specific to Lessing can be characterized as "assimilation to the opponent" ('Angleichung an den Gegner). This mode of thinking always presupposes a "static substance of thought" (eine ruhende Gedankensubstanz), the existence of which alone makes such assimilation possible and easy. For this reason, "system" and "method" in Lessing must be separated in principle.

2. Assimilation consists, in the first place, not in adaptation or accommodation to the opponent, but rather in the accommodation of the prevailing doctrines of all parties to his system. Actual assimilation to the opponent, if any, exists only in the formal sense. That is to say, it consists in a calculation of the opponent's standpoint, presuppositions of thought, and language.

3. The exoteric mode of thinking must not be regarded merely as a matter of method exterior to Lessing's system. It belongs to the system itself. Consequently, it is not permissible to go behind the fundamental interweaving of exoteric and esoteric with a view to isolating Lessing's true or esoteric conviction. The exoteric and esoteric were, rather, systematically interwoven in his thought. The ultimate cause of such systematic interweaving is that Lessing, because he was still developing his ideas, could not advance from exoteric "believing" (Glauben) to esoteric "seeing" (Schauen).

4. The fact that Lessing was still in process of development forces him to ask questions and wait for answers. This "attitude of asking and waiting" accounts for the ambiguity in his thought with regard to transcendent revelation. It also throws light on the fact that his repeated tackling of the problem of revelation and reason, transcendence and immanence, was destined to remain fragmentary and failed to achieve clarity.67

These are the main points that Thielicke formulated as a result of methodical reflection on Lessing's theology or philosophy of religion. By and large, we can agree with his points insofar as questions of method are concerned.

The basic premises for our interpretation of Lessing bear some resemblance to the ones Thielicke employs. For the purpose of this inquiry we shall assume as working hypotheses, vindication for which will be presented in the course of our discussion, the following five points: (1) There was an enduring core of thought in Lessing's system, and it was this enduring core that made possible his elastic accommodation to all sorts of opinions. (2) Lessing as theologian or philosopher of religion was at once a first-rate inquirer and a first-rate pedagogue. This double role of tireless inquirer and skillful pedagogue inevitably demanded accommodation from him. (3) As a tireless and persevering inquirer, Lessing constantly sought the truth and sensed, ahead of his time, a germ of advanced knowledge as yet unavailable to his contemporaries. As a skillful and patient pedagogue, however, he considered it more appropriate to keep the higher knowledge of which he had had a foretaste secret until his contemporaries became ripe for it. (4) Possession of the germ of higher truth and the necessity for its concealment caused the peculiar interweaving of exoteric and esoteric in his system. The exoteric and esoteric, however, were so closely related that one could not be isolated from the other. (5) Lessing was still in the ever-changing stream of historical process. Despite possessing the germ of advanced knowledge, he had not yet obtained the whole truth, but was waiting for its fuller manifestation in future.

Our approach to Lessing thus owes a great deal to Thielicke's methodical refinement. Nevertheless, the actual mode of procedure we propose to follow is completely different from his. Unlike Thielicke, we will not place a one-sided emphasis on Lessing's last work, The Education of the Human Race (Die Er%iehung des Menschengeschlechts). Nor will we attempt to interpret Lessing's theology or philosophy of religion solely or primarily in subjective-existentialist terms. We propose, rather, to interpret Lessing's theological and religious-philosophical thought from a great variety of his writings, which are in most cases fragmentary and often contradict each other. We also propose to pay greater attention to the historical context within which each text came into being, and to interpret his thought in correlation with this historical context. What is attempted here is not a systematic reconstruction of Lessing's philosophy of religion. Ours is, rather, a trial interpretation of Lessing's theological and religious-philosophical thought in several of its important aspects. It is, as it were, an assay into the hidden and presumably rich vein of Lessing's thought. This "intellectual assay" is intended, however, for systematic reconstruction in future. Such reconstruction can only be attempted after this and other assays of a similar kind bear fruit. The main purpose of this book, then, is to elucidate Lessing's "basic ideas" (Grundgedanken), with special concentration on his theological and religious-philosophical writings, for the sake of such a future task.

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