The Spinoza Conversations Between Lessing and Jacobi

According to Jacobi's report, his conversations with Lessing31 began when he showed the author of Nathan the Wise Goethe's unpublished poem "Prometheus."32 Since this poem is important for the argument to follow, the English translation is here cited in full.

Prometheus (1773)

Cover your heaven, Zeus, / With cloudy vapors / And like a boy / Beheading thistles / Practice on oaks and mountain peaks— / Still you must leave / My earth intact / And my small hovel, which you did not build, / And this my hearth / Whose glowing heat / You envy me.

I know of nothing more wretched / Under the sun than you gods! / Meagerly you nourish / Your majesty / On dues of sacrifice / And breath of prayer / And would suffer want / But for children and beggars, / Poor hopeful fools.

Once too, a child, / Not knowing where to turn, / I raised bewildered eyes / Up to the sun, as if above there were / An ear to hear my complaint, / A heart like mine / To take pity on the oppressed.

Who helped me / Against the Titans' arrogance? / Who rescued me from death, / From slavery? / Did not my holy and glowing heart, / Unaided, accomplish all? / And did it not, young and good, / Cheated, glow thankfulness / For its safety to him, to the sleeper above?

I pray homage to you? For what? / Have you ever relieved / The burdened man's anguish? / Have you ever assuaged / The frightened man's tears? / Was it not omnipotent Time / That forged me into manhood, / And eternal Fate, / My master and yours?

Or did you think perhaps / That I should hate this life, / Flee into deserts / Because not all / The blossoms of dream grew ripe?

Here I sit, forming men / In my image, / A race to resemble me: / To suffer, to weep, / To enjoy, to be glad—/ And never to heed you, / Like me!

As he handed Lessing the copy of Goethe's "Prometheus," Jacobi joshingly said, "you have so often given offence that you will not mind taking offence for once."

Lessing: (After reading the poem and returning it to Jacobi) I take no offence; I long ago became acquainted with it first hand. Jacobi: You know the poem?

Lessing: I have never read the poem; but I find it good.

Jacobi: I find it good too, in its way; otherwise I would not have shown it to you.

Lessing: That's not what I mean. . . . The point of view in which the poem is cast is my own point of view. . . . The orthodox concepts of the divinity are no longer for me; I cannot stand them. Hen kai Pan! [= One and All] I know naught else. That is also the tendency in this poem; and I must admit, I like it very much. Jacobi: Then you would indeed be more or less in agreement with Spinoza. Lessing: If I am to call myself by anybody's name, then I know none better.

Jacobi: Spinoza is good enough for me; nevertheless, there is scant benefit ... to be found in that name. Lessing: Well fine, if that is what you think! . . . And yet . . . are you aware of a better one?33

In the meantime, a third person enters the room, so they go to the library. The next morning, when Jacobi returns to his room to dress after breakfast, Lessing follows him in. As soon as the servants have left, Lessing begins:

Lessing: I came to talk with you about my Hen kai Pan. You looked startled yesterday.

Jacobi: You surprised me and I felt confused. Dismay it was not. I certainly did not expect to find you a Spinozist or pantheist; and still less did I

expect that you would put it to me directly and so frankly and clearly. I had come chiefly in the hope of receiving your help against Spinoza.

Lessing: Then you really do know him?

Jacobi: I believe as probably only very few have.

Lessing: Then there is no help for you. Why don't you become his friend openly? There is no other philosophy but the philosophy of Spinoza.

Jacobi: That may be true. For if a determinist wants to be consistent, he must become a fatalist; all else will follow as a matter of course.

Lessing: I can see we understand each other. That makes me the more eager to hear from you what you consider to be the spirit of Spinozism; I mean the spirit which possessed Spinoza himself.

Jacobi: Probably it was none other than is found in the time-honoured phrase a nihilo nihilfit [= nothing is made out of nothing] which Spinoza contemplated, applying more abstract concepts than did the philosophising Cabbalists and others before him. When using those more abstract concepts, he found a something out of nothing to be posited by anything that originated within the infinite, no matter what metaphors or words one might use to express it, or by each and every change within the infinite. And so he rejected any transition from the infinite to the finite [= creation]; he rejected transient causes altogether, be they secondary or remote. In the place of the emanating One he posited an Ensoph that was immanent only; an inherent cause of the world, eternally unchangeable in itself, which, taken together with all that followed from it, would be One and the Same.34

At this point in the conversation, Jacobi unfolds his interpretation of Spinoza's philosophy, asserting that it denies free will, divine providence, and the personal God. Lessing, after hearing Jacobi's interpretation, speaks out again:

Lessing: Let us not quarrel over our credo.

Jacobi: Quarrel, certainly not. But my credo is not to be found in Spinoza. I believe in an intelligent personal first cause of the world.

Lessing: Oh! all the better! Now I am going to hear something quite new.

Jacobi: Do not rejoice too soon. I extricate myself from the affair by a salto mortale and you do not usually take great pleasure in somersaults.

Lessing: Say not so; provided I am not required to follow suit. And anyway you will soon land back on your feet. If it is not a secret, I insist on hearing what you have to say.

Jacobi: You could always learn the trick from me. The whole matter consists in my arguing from fatalism directly against fatalism and all that is connected with it.35

Their conversation then shifts to the question of freedom. Here too we find an interesting exchange of opinions. Jacobi asserts that the most important concept is that of "final cause" (Endursache). For if there were no final cause, we could not help, in his opinion, denying freedom and becoming fatalists. If fatalism is right, moreover, the thinking faculty can do nothing but observe.

Noticing that Jacobi has a strong desire for free will, Lessing counters him by saying, "I have no craving for free will"

(ich begehre keinen freyen Willen).

According to him, it is "human prejudice" to "consider the idea as primary and supreme, and want to derive everything from it."

On hearing this, Jacobi says that Lessing's thought is more extreme than Spinoza's. Jacobi: You are going further than Spinoza. Understanding (Einsicht) was everything to him.

Lessing: Only as far as human beings are concerned! He was, however, far from considering as the best method our wretched way of acting according to intentions and of giving the idea pride of place.36

After this interesting exchange of opinions on the issue of freedom, Lessing directs his attention to Jacobi's "personal, extra-mundane divinity" (Ihre persönliche extramundane Gottheit). Endeavoring to see what kind of philosophical proof Jacobi intends to offer for such a divinity, he anticipates what Jacobi will say, and in order to lead the discussion forward, cleverly brings forward his hypothetical assertion that Leibniz was a Spinozist.

Jacobi heartily agrees with Lessing's assertion and develops a lengthy, pedantic argument as to the fundamental agreement between Leibniz and Spinoza. To crown his argument, he goes so far as to say, "To grasp Spinoza requires too long and persistent an effort of the mind. Anyone for whom a single line of the Ethics remains obscure has not really grasped him. . . . Few will have enjoyed such peace of mind or so celestial an understanding, as he reached through the crystal clarity of his mind."37 Yet even with this high appraisal of Spinoza, and with all his pedantic knowledge of Spinozism, Jacobi nevertheless declares, on his honor, that he is not a Spinozist.38

On hearing this flat denial, Lessing cuts in:

Lessing: If you follow your philosophy, you ought indeed, on your honour, to turn your back on all philosophy. Jacobi: Why turn my back on all philosophy? Lessing: If you don't, you are a total sceptic.

Jacobi: On the contrary, I draw back from a philosophy that makes a total scepticism necessary. Lessing: But where do you go from there?39

This question primes the pump for further discussion. During the course of the discussion, Jacobi's argument reaches its climax. Referring to a statement by Spinoza, Jacobi declares that, though not a Spinozist, he will "follow the light which, Spinoza says, illumines both itself and the darkness." For, he says, "more that [sic| any other philosopher" Spinoza has led him "to believe firmly that certain things cannot be explained; things that we therefore cannot disregard but must take as we find them." It follows, Jacobi contends, that a person "who does not attempt to explain the inexplicable, but simply to know the line of demarcation where the inexplicable begins, simply to recognize its presence, has created within himself the maximum space for the harbouring of human truth."40

Dissatisfied with Jacobi's explanation, Lessing presses him for a further, more satisfactory explanation.

Lessing: Words, words, my dear Jacobi! The line you wish to draw cannot be drawn. And besides, you are giving free rein to nonsense, fancies, blindness.

Jacobi: I think, it is possible to find such a line of demarcation. To draw it is not my intent, simply to discover the one already there and let it be. As far as nonsense, fancies, blindness are concerned . . . Lessing: They find their dwelling wherever confused concepts prevail.

Jacobi: They are even more at home wherever deceitful concepts prevail. There we find enthroned the blindest, the most foolish, not to say the most stupid of beliefs. For if anyone ever becomes infatuated with a certain type of explanation, he will accept blindly all conclusions following from it; he is powerless to resist the compulsion for consistency, even if that consistency means he must needs stand on his head.

... In my own judgment a scholar's greatest merit is to unveil, to reveal existence (Daseyn zu enthüllen, und zu offenbaren).. . . To explain is for him simply a means, a pathway to an end . . . the proximate, but never the ultimate goal. His ultimate goal is that which cannot be explained: whatever is insoluble, whatever is immediate, whatever is simple.41 Restraining Jacobi from developing his pedantic view, Lessing makes the ironical remark:

Lessing: Good, very good! That's all very helpful to me; but it does not help me in the same fashion. All in all, I find your salto mortale not bad and I can see how a man with a head on his shoulders might have to turn a somersault in order to get moving ahead. Take me with you if that is possible.

Jacobi: If you will just jump onto this springboard from which I am launched . . . , that's all you need to do. Lessing: Even to do that would entail a leap I may no longer ask of my old legs and my muddled head.42 The statements cited above give a rough outline of the philosophical conversations that Lessing, in his last years, is said to have had with Jacobi.

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