Truths of History and Truths of Reason

The sharp distinction between "truths of history" and "truths of reason," incidentally, is not Lessing's invention. Leibniz, as is well known, had already clearly distinguished the two kinds of truth. In his theory of knowledge we find that he differentiated between "truths of reason" (les vérités de raisonnement; Vernunftwahrheiten) and "factual truths" (les vérités de fait; Tatsachenwahrheiten). "Truths of reason are necessary and their opposite is impossible; factual truths are contingent and their opposite is possible."22 Necessary truths of reason come from the understanding alone and are governed by "the principle of contradiction" (principe de la contradiction), while contingent, factual truths come from experience or sense-observations and are governed by "the principle of sufficient reason" (principe de la raison suffisante).

Leibniz's sharp distinction between these two kinds of truth, and his closely related exclusion of historical truths from the realm of absolute, or eternal, truths, can be traced back further to Spinoza. In his Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, Spinoza says:

Natural divine law . . . does not depend on the truth of any historical narrative whatever, for inasmuch as this natural divine law is comprehended solely by consideration of human nature, it is plain that we can conceive it as existing as well in Adam as in any other man. . . . The truth of a historical narrative (fides historiarum), however assured, cannot give us the knowledge or, consequently, the love of God, for love of God springs from knowledge of him, and knowledge of him should be derived from general ideas, in themselves certain and known, so that the truth of a historical narrative is far from being a necessary requisite for our attaining our highest good.24

Lessing's proposition as to the two kinds of truth undoubtedly presupposes and follows in the wake of these lines of thought from Spinoza and Leibniz. But the proposition is not merely a refashioning of their thought. For Lessing also discusses, though indirectly, a contemporary problem concerning the existential "appropriation" (Aneignung) of truth by asking about the historical reliability of the Christ-event. What is important is that it is this issue, rather than the differentiation between two kinds of truth, that is at stake for him. That is to say, what really matters to him is how a modern person of sound understanding can appropriate the Christian message, including what is offensive to human reason, and still attain Christian conviction without surrendering his intellect (sacrificium intellectus).

The reason "appropriation" can become a theological problem of great importance for the modern person is that heteronomous elements involved in the truth claim of traditional Christianity offend the autonomy of human reason. Between the Christian message and the present-day believer there is, to borrow yet another term of Michalson's, an "existential ditch."25 Consequently, in order to believe in the Christian message, the modern person has to surrender his intellect, or to put it more positively, has to make a "leap" (Sprung) or a "decision" (Entscheidung) in the Kierkegaardian sense.26 Needless to say, the first to raise this problem most acutely was Kierkegaard himself. He considered the essence of the knowledge of truth to be its "appropriation," and sought throughout his life to carry out this task.27 Yet as he himself declares in "a word of thanks to Lessing" in the Concluding Unscientific Postscript to the Philosophical Fragments, it was Lessing who first showed him the importance of appropriation. Kierkegaard says:

His merit consists precisely in his having prevented it. I refer to the fact that he religiously shut himself up within the isolation of his own subjectivity; that he did not permit himself to be deceived into becoming world-historic and systematic with respect to the religious, but understood and knew how to hold fast to the understanding that the religious concerned Lessing, and Lessing alone, just as it concerns every other human being in the same manner; understood that he had infinitely to do with God, and nothing, nothing to do with any man directly. This is my theme, the object of my gratitude—now if I could only be sure that Lessing really does exemplify this principle!28

The topic of "Lessing and Kierkegaard" comes into view, then, as one that would be well worth pursuing. Since space is limited, however, we cannot discuss this issue here. We must remain content to refer the reader to others' studies.29

Yet one can perceive the self-assertion of modern, autonomous selfhood in Lessing's own words:

I do not for one moment deny that in Christ prophecies were fulfilled. I do not for one moment deny that Christ performed miracles. But since the truth of these miracles has completely ceased to be demonstrable by miracles still occurring now, since they are no more than reports of miracles . . . , I deny that they can and should bind me in the least to faith in the other teachings of Christ.

What does bind me then? Nothing but these teachings themselves. Eighteen hundred years ago they were so new, so alien, so foreign to the entire mass of truths recognized in that age, that nothing less than miracles and fulfilled prophecies were required if the multitude were to attend to them at all.30

In this passage, one can see Lessing's true character as a thinker of the Enlightenment. The sentence that contains the verb "bind" (verbinden) implies a resolute attitude to refuse anything heteronomous so as to preserve the autonomy of human reason.31 That is to say, Lessing wants to reject anything, whatever its authority, that would seek to "bind" him from outside. It is important to note, in this connection, that Lessing justifies the claim for autonomy in religious knowledge by referring to the spirit of Martin Luther.

The true Lutheran does not wish to be defended by Luther's writings but by Luther's spirit; and Luther's spirit absolutely requires that no man may be prevented from advancing in knowledge of the truth according to his own judgment.32

It is questionable, to be sure, whether interpreting "Luther's spirit" as a claim for free inquiry in the matter of religion is correct. But the idea that the "teaching themselves" bind human reason without violating the autonomy of human reason is worthy of notice. This idea, it would seem, has a profound connection with that of the "inner truth" of religion.

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