The Young Lessing and His Religious Skepticism

In Berlin, Lessing began his freelance career as a reporter for the Berlinische Privilegierte Zeitung, or Berlin Licensed Newspaper. Changing residence every few years, he engaged in numerous activities as a columnist, literary critic, dramatist, and editor. On the face of it, his life and activities during this period seem to have had nothing whatever to do with the Christian religion. But the truth is that he did not lose his initial interest in religion at all. We have already seen that in his preface to the fragment Religion (Die Religion, 1749/50), Lessing clearly stated that "religion has for many years been the theme that invokes my more serious poetic inspirations."2 Furthermore, as we will shortly observe, other fragments ascribed to the same early years, fragments such as Some Thoughts about the Moravians (Gedanken über die Herrnhuter, 1750), The Christianity ofReason (Das Christentum der Vernunft., 1751/52), and a number of literary criticisms in the Berlinische Privilegierte Zeitung or Das Neueste aus dem Reiche des Wittes, testify to the deep and continuing involvement with religion on the part of the young Lessing.

As 1751 drew to a close, Lessing broke off his freelance activity in Berlin in order to study for a Magister degree at the University of Wittenberg, where his younger brother, Johannes Theophilus, was then studying. This decision may reflect, in part, his acceptance of the strong wishes of his parents for him to complete university study. At any rate, Lessing took advantage of this opportunity to carry out intensive historical studies on the religious thought of the Reformation period by making use of old documents and sources in the university library.

These studies, contained in his Vindications (Rettungen, 1754), are composed of four investigations: the Vindication of Hieronymus Cardanus-, the Vindication of Inepti Religiosi and of its Anonymous Author, the Vindication of Cochlaus-, and the Vindication of Horace. All four of these vindications are intended to exonerate and reappraise, from a more impartial, scientific standpoint, thinkers whose ideas had been unjustly neglected or misrepresented because of bias or ill will. It is important that Lessing, contrary to accepted opinion, chose to study, and if possible to exonerate, these heretical or apostate thinkers. This fact will help us to clarify his motive for publishing, during his Wolfenbuttel period, the Fragments from an Unnamed Author. But this matter we leave in abeyance for the time being.

More than once we have noted that entertaining "serious doubt" about Christianity formed the starting point of Lessing's lifelong religious quest. The fragment Religion, written in iambic hexameter, is a testimony to this point of view. In its preface the young poet briefly alludes to the background and main theme of the poem. He says that it deals with his religious skepticism, which is also the skepticism of his age, in the form of "a soliloquy . . . conducted in silence on a lonely day of annoyance." "Self-knowledge has always been the shortest way to religion, to which I add that it is also the surest."3 He asks what we discover when we look back to the moment of birth, and replies that we see it is as something we share with the beasts, as a birth even more miserable than theirs. We first realize we are human, he goes on, when, after long years of spiritlessness and emotionlessness, we find vices in ourselves and learn that our vices are more powerful than our virtues. "Who is excluded from this miserable lot? Even the wisest man is not excluded. It is only that in him vices reign under beautiful masks and are less harmful due to the nature of their objects. But in him vices are just as strong as they are in the most depraved souls among the rabble." In the face of this reign of vices, the poet deeply laments. "What a sight! To find nothing but vices in the whole range of the human heart! And are they from God? Tormenting doubt!" But a religious intuition occurs to him. "Yet perhaps our spirit is more divine on this account. Perhaps we were created for the truth, for we are not [created] for virtue." Nevertheless, another doubt soon occupies his heart. "For the truth? How multiform is it? Each one believes that he possesses the truth, but each has it in a different way. No, only fallacy is our portion, and delusion our science." Thus assaulted by a storm of doubts, the poet, in search of a solution, asks himself, "What is man? Where does he come from? [He is] too bad for a God, too good for chance."4

Whether or not this poem is "a document of priceless value for insight into the development of Lessing's worldview,"5 it is certain that "Lessing is here far removed from Enlightenment theology of any sort."6 He is highly critical of both neology and Leibniz-Wolffian optimism, and the tone of his speech is very much like that of Lutheran orthodoxy. For example, he denounces the rationalistic position of the Enlightenment with sententious words like these: "Damned school-wisdom! You whims of wise fools!" (l. 35); "I too was misled by school-wisdom, puffed up with my own arrogance, / And took even a philosophical blade of grass for the truth." (ll. 61—62) He does, however, make a frank confession of human sinfulness and of the impotence of the will:

Pride, lust for revenge, obstinacy have often betrayed in children's deeds / The sharp glance of the teacher in a quite masculine way. / Ah! Why does your poison rage in marrow and blood / With self-spoiling yet welcome fury, / Before the malleable spirit learns to know virtue? / From it nature, not the spirit itself, removed the spirit. / No! It did not remove itself, for it was asleep in the soul, / Still a wavering concept of good and evil, / And when the spirit awoke, and when I wanted to choose, / Ah! I was already determined to do wrong in my choice. (ll. 129—38). ... In vain do you raise up in me free strength of will! / I will, I will!—And yet I am not virtuous. (ll. 167—68). . . . Oh heart, black as the Moor, and spotted as the panther! (l. 342)

On the face of it, the poet's standpoint, making human misery "the guide to religion" (der Wegweiser zur Religion), seems Lutheran. It is doubtful, however, whether Lessing at this point in time represents the standpoint of Lutheran orthodoxy. For what concerns the poet with regard to religion is not so much its saving message as its epistemological content.8 Hans Leisegang ought to have been more circumspect, therefore, than to pass the following judgment:

In any event one thing is certain. Lessing has already abandoned the standpoint of [Lutheran] orthodoxy. For his religion, or the religion he seeks, lacks the key concept around which all things organize themselves in Lutheran orthodoxy, the concept of faith that holds the whole orthodox system together from within.9

In contrast, Johannes Schneider asserts that "the fragment must be judged as it stands before us. To supplement it and read anything into it is impermissible."10 So far as this fragment is concerned, we are of the same opinion as Schneider. We too think that "we must be content with the statement that in the first canto there is nothing that contradicts the teaching of [Lutheran] orthodoxy."11 We do not know why Lessing abandoned the poem midway, when he had originally intended to write large-scale, hexametric poems. But we must reckon with the fact that the poem remains fragmentary.12

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