Gotthold Ephraim Lessing: His Life, Works and Thought 
by H.B. Nisbet.
Oxford, 734 pp., £85, September 2013, 978 0 19 967947 8
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One of the curiosities of German literature is a spirited little pamphlet called Pope ein Metaphysiker!, which appeared anonymously in Berlin bookshops in 1755. The argument is tendentious, convoluted and slightly mad, but the overall purpose is clear: to make fun of the learned members of the Royal Prussian Academy and accuse them of dishonouring the memory of their founding president, Gottfried Leibniz. The academy had decided to offer a prize for a dissertation about Pope’s Essay on Man, concentrating on what it called ‘Pope’s system, as contained in the proposition daß alles gut sey (that all is well)’. This sounded innocent enough, but according to the pamphlet the competition was really a sneaky way of declaring open season on Leibniz’s doctrine that ‘everything is for the best,’ and implicitly on German philosophy as a whole.

But the plot was stupid as well as devious. The academicians must be hopeless at English if they believed that Pope’s declaration that ‘whatever is, is right’ had anything to do with Leibniz’s ‘everything is for the best,’ or that either of them could be reduced to the fatuous assurance that ‘all is well.’ And they must be ignorant philistines if they thought Pope could be treated as a metaphysician rather than a poet. He might have borrowed a few phrases from Plato and the English moralists, but he had never engaged in anything like the virtuosic logical reasoning practised by Leibniz. Pope was a poet – not just a versifier, but an inventor and entertainer – and he presented his readers with an elegant dance of words and impressions rather than a long trek through definitions, axioms and proofs. (‘Poets do not construct systems – and they would not want to even if they could.’) The case against the academy was clinched with a quotation in which Pope himself appeared to describe his Essay as a masquerade rather than a manifesto, asking his readers for permission to ‘wear the beard of a Philosopher, till I pull it off, and make a jest of it.’ In treating Pope as a proxy for Leibniz, the benighted academicians were confusing poetry with philosophy; or in other words they were ‘mistaking a false beard for the real thing’.

Pope ein Metaphysiker! was an impudent prank at the expense of the cultural establishment in Berlin, and the perpetrators covered their tracks by suppressing their names and getting their pamphlet printed in faraway Danzig. But they seem to have wanted to be found out in due course, and on the title page they left a riddling clue to their identity: a vignette depicting a chubby cherub holding a bearded mask to his face and startling two naked boys. Intriguing, but what could it mean?

In 1740, when the Prussian throne passed to the youthful crown prince, Friedrich Wilhelm, there had been jubilation in the salons of Paris but not in the streets of Berlin. Friedrich was notorious as an art-loving Francophile, and had recently placed himself under the tutelage of Voltaire, receiving masterclasses in the rules of French poetry. Voltaire seems to have been impressed. He described his pupil as a modern Socrates who would turn Berlin into a better Athens; and when the prince philosophe became King Friedrich II he hailed him as a great man as well as a great monarch – ‘your humanity’, ‘the Prussian Marcus Aurelius’ and ‘my messiah of the north’. Friedrich was well aware of the hopes riding on him, and in the early years of his long reign – before becoming the rapacious empire-builder Frederick the Great – he tried to fulfil them by finding ways to make German civilisation more philosophical and more French. He devised an elaborate stratagem to get Voltaire expelled from France so that he would move to Berlin and take charge of his cultural revolution, but the scheme misfired, and Voltaire ended up for a while as official historian to the French court. Friedrich then turned to another French superstar, the mathematician Pierre Maupertuis, who accepted the presidency of a reformed Royal Prussian Academy in 1746. As a long-standing partisan of Newton against Leibniz, and a Frenchman with no intention of learning German, he was well equipped to antagonise the old guard in Berlin, and soon proved his usefulness as an ally to the king. But Friedrich did not want his courtiers to become complacent, and he was delighted when Voltaire found it necessary to leave France in the summer of 1750 and take refuge at the Prussian court. To the discomfiture of Maupertuis and his circle, Voltaire settled in as a well-paid guest at the royal palaces in Berlin and Potsdam, cheerfully adding to the turmoil and rivalry that swirled around the king. After two and a half years, however, he had to hurry off to Geneva amid a flurry of court proceedings and recriminations. It can’t be easy to be a philosopher in the service of a philosopher king.

As far as Friedrich was concerned, the reform of German culture still had a long way to go. Hoping to turn the Berlin Academy into a beacon of enlightened cosmopolitanism, he had decreed that mathematics and the natural sciences should be systematically subordinated to ‘speculative philosophy’ in a way that even the French couldn’t equal. ‘Ours shall be the only Academy devoted to the science of sciences,’ as an official announcement put it, adding, rather disingenuously, that it could thus become ‘a daughter worthy of the great Leibniz’. A prize for a philosophical essay, to be awarded every four years, formed part of the plan. The first two competitions, in 1747 and 1751, took Leibniz as their theme, and led to strife when a conservative faction in the academy tried to obstruct the Francophiles by stipulating that criticism of Leibniz would not be tolerated. The committee responsible for the 1755 competition may have hoped to avoid trouble by changing the subject to Pope’s Essay on Man, but if so they were mistaken. The jury was dominated by a group of Leibnizians who had secretly promised victory to one of their friends, but their scheme collapsed when one of them switched sides and the prize went to a diatribe against Pope as a fatalistic disciple of Leibniz. The whole episode was an embarrassment for the academicians, and their embarrassment grew deeper a few weeks later with the appearance of Pope ein Metaphysiker!

The mystery of the pamphlet’s authorship unravelled over the following months, and the business about ‘the beard of a philosopher’ and ‘mistaking a false beard for the real thing’ began to fall into place. Real beards were almost unknown in 18th-century Europe except among Jews, and one of the authors of Pope ein Metaphysiker! was indeed a bearded Jew. He was 25 years old, and had been raised in Dessau with Yiddish as his first language, then schooled in Hebrew and the Talmud before leaving home at the age of 14 to study under the chief rabbi in Berlin. His status as an ‘unprotected foreign Jew’ meant that he was practically an outlaw, but he managed to earn a living as a tutor and Hebrew scribe, and found time to teach himself Latin, English, French and standard High German, and to study the main works of modern philosophy. In due course he became a disciple of Locke, an admirer of Leibniz, and a critic of the französische Sophisterey that had taken hold at the Prussian court. ‘Well-bred people,’ he observed, would converse pleasantly about the latest system of philosophy without ‘paying any attention to the difficulties that it solves and those it may give rise to’. The king and his minions were treating philosophy as a symbol of refinement and distinction rather than a mortal struggle between prejudice and truth, generating an atmosphere in which genuine thinking could not breathe and ‘truth itself becomes a prejudice.’

The young Jew was Moses Mendelssohn, and he might never have become a writer if he hadn’t happened to run into Gotthold Lessing, a Gentile who shared his distaste for French fads and his interest in Leibniz and Locke. They were the same age, but Lessing radiated a worldly confidence that Mendelssohn lacked. He had led an unruly life as a student at Leipzig and Wittenberg, defying his father – a pious Saxon pastor – by refusing to train for the ministry and preferring to work in popular theatre. He had recently moved to Berlin, where he quarrelled with Voltaire, made a living as a journalist and translator (from English and French), and established a reputation as a playwright. His light-hearted social drama The Young Scholar had been performed successfully in Leipzig when he was 19, and he repeated the formula in works like The Old Maid, The Misogynist and The Freethinker. His most recent play was The Jews, which tells the story of a baron who is waylaid by a gang of bearded men whom he takes to be Jews (‘the most evil, despicable people’), then rescued from certain death by a passing traveller. Afterwards the traveller exposes the assailants as Gentiles who used false beards to disguise themselves as Jews. When they protest their innocence, he observes sagaciously that the face itself can be a mask, and that we can never be sure which mask represents the truth. The baron rewards the traveller’s wisdom and gallantry by offering him his lovely daughter in marriage. The traveller is tempted, but declines, explaining – to the baron’s consternation – that even if he doesn’t look like one he is in fact an evil and despicable Jew.

Lessing and Mendelssohn bonded over their shared interests in philosophy, Jewishness and poetic drama. Their attitudes differed, but their friendship thrived on the differences. Lessing had been brought up as a simple Christian, but he was also a bold and ebullient Theatermensch for whom writing would always involve wearing masks and playing parts. He once remarked that when a poet speaks in the first person, we should remember that ‘this “I” is only rarely his own “I”,’ and his own works are crowded with ‘I’s that are not his own. Mendelssohn, on the other hand, was a fastidious and disciplined Denker who would rather stay silent than utter an ill-considered judgment, as well as a yiddisher Jew who never felt wholly at home in Gentile culture. Lessing’s first great act of friendship towards him was a benign subterfuge designed to rid him of literary anxiety: he persuaded him to compose some philosophical conversations, then borrowed the manuscript and arranged for it to be printed as an anonymous book. Mendelssohn was astonished to find that he had been tricked into becoming a published author, but in the event he was grateful. His work was respectfully received: critical opinion was divided over his attacks on the ‘well-bred ignorance’ of the French and his portrayal of Spinoza as a pious Jew rather than a dangerous atheist, but his prose was commended as ‘pleasant, sharp-witted and entertaining’, and he and his friend were delighted to hear a rumour that the author might in fact be Lessing. They then got wind of the philosophical ructions at the academy and decided to collaborate on Pope ein Metaphysiker!

If Lessing made an author out of Mendelssohn, Mendelssohn made a thinker out of Lessing. Lessing would never give up on Christianity, but he became increasingly impatient with theological dogma. He had once annoyed his father by telling him that ‘the Christian religion is not something one should take over on trust from one’s parents,’ and that the best Christians are those who have found their way to faith through an ordeal of ‘intelligent doubt’. Mendelssohn might have said the same about Judaism. He would always remain an observant Jew, but he developed a minimalist theology much indebted to the English deists, and called for mutual respect between followers of different religions. He agreed with his Christian friend in seeing religion in terms of Selbstdenken, or intellectual self-reliance, rather than anxious adherence to universal creeds. Truth, when it really mattered, was always local, provisional and idiosyncratic: or, in the words of a character in Lessing’s The Freethinker, ‘truth cannot be universally shared, any more than the sun can shine on the whole world at once.’

Lessing and Mendelssohn remained close for the rest of their lives, though the lives they led had little in common. Mendelssohn prospered in business, achieving the status of Schutzjude (‘protected Jew’), and finding happiness in a long marriage with devoted sons and daughters. In spite of chronic illness, he was able to spend his spare time writing, partly in Hebrew but mainly in his adoptive German, and he became celebrated for his translations of Psalms and the first five books of the Bible (originally printed in Hebrew characters), as well as several works of literary criticism, essays on themes from Leibniz and Locke, and a plea for the autonomy of religious institutions. His constant theme was that it is easy to issue reams of judgments backed up by ‘magisterial authority’, but hard to achieve a single honest intellectual insight.

Lessing, on the other hand, was a footloose loner and a dedicated gambler, often teetering on the edge of financial disaster. He worked for various indulgent patrons – he was librarian to the Duke of Brunswick for more than a decade – and produced masses of journalistic reviews as well as collections of popular fables, epigrams and poems. He also wrote a range of theoretical essays, and works of literary theory criticising French drama and promoting Shakespeare as a worthy successor to the ancient Greek tragedians. But he was a dramatist first and last, widely respected for a series of increasingly serious and original plays, beginning in 1755 with Miss Sara Sampson, a tragedy of ordinary life set in an English inn, and culminating in 1779 with Nathan the Wise, a drama of ideas that combines parable, dialectic, caricature and irony in a way that can be seen as anticipating Wagner, Shaw or Brecht. Nathan the Wise is set in Jerusalem at the time of the Crusades, and the title character is a venerable Jew, modelled no doubt on Mendelssohn, who acknowledges that Judaism has no more right to stake an exclusive claim to truth than either Islam or Christianity. His wife and his seven sons have been massacred by Christian zealots, but he continues to find consolation in his faith and refuses to become embittered. By the end of the play his wisdom, steadfastness and generosity have transformed the murderous intolerance of others into forgiveness, hopefulness and love.

There is a terrible vividness in Lessing’s portrayal of Nathan’s patience in adversity that surely came from experience. Lessing was a stranger to personal contentment until he got married in his late forties and his wife gave birth to a son; but the baby died within days and the wife followed two weeks later. ‘I had hoped that things might go well for me one day,’ he wrote, but ‘my happiness did not last.’ He worked through his grief by polishing the text of Nathan the Wise and engaging in a series of theological polemics in which he contrasted an authentic ‘religion of Christ’ with the dark dogmatism of ‘Christian religion’. The New Testament was an unrivalled source of instruction, he once said, not because of any truths it may contain, but because of what its readers have brought to it; and if God were to offer him the choice, he would prefer a constant striving after truth to definitive possession of it. His own restless striving came to an end soon afterwards: he died in 1781 at the age of 52.

By that time Mendelssohn had become a living symbol, within Jewry and outside, of the possibility of assimilation, tolerance and saintly forbearance, and in the remaining five years of his life he did his best to ensure that his old friend would be revered as well. When Lessing was denounced as an atheist, a materialist and even a ‘nihilist’, Mendelssohn insisted that he had always been a sincere believer, and went on to compare him to Copernicus, because he discovered a new point of view on the world, and to the prophet Elijah, because his death had left his followers stupefied, staring ‘in amazement at the place where he rose up and disappeared’.

A biography published in 1793 by Lessing’s brother Karl Gotthelf started a tradition of indiscriminate but baffled admiration that has continued ever since. Friedrich Schlegel claimed that Lessing had a historic significance far beyond his talents: his poetry might be mechanical rather than inspired, and his dramas mere exercises in algebra, but he was the ‘revolutionary spirit’ who had rescued the German language from obscurity, and the ‘author of the nation’ who gave Germany a literature of its own. Since then generations of German schoolchildren have been taught, as E.H. Gombrich once put it, to see Lessing as a ‘Moses who led his people out of French servitude towards the promised land of Deutsche Klassik’. The ‘father of German literature’ was inevitably conscripted into Goebbels’s fantasy of Germany as ‘the motherland of world theatre’, though Nazi propagandists had difficulty portraying him as an anti-Semite, and Nathan the Wise and The Jews were banned.

Lessing’s reputation in the English-speaking world is a different story, based more on his philosophy than on his poetic works. When the young Coleridge travelled to Germany in 1798 he was planning to gather materials for a Life of Lessing, a project which became the prototype of all his subsequent failures and disappointments. He was not particularly impressed by Lessing’s plays (he described Nathan the Wise as ‘tedious’) but liked his poetic epigrams and translated some of them with panache:

If the guilt of all lying consists in deceit,
Lie on – ’tis your duty, sweet youth!
For believe me, then only we find you a cheat
When you cunningly tell us the truth.

Above all, Coleridge was impressed by Lessing’s philosophical essays, among them Laocoön, which proposed the extravagantly neat thesis that the literary arts are essentially concerned with successive events spread out along a line of time, whereas the visual arts are confined to representing a mass of facts all obtaining in a single moment. For some reason Laocoön caught on in England: Dorothy Wordsworth read it with pleasure, and Henry Fuseli lectured on it at the Royal Academy and persuaded William Blake to take an interest. George Eliot admired its style (‘the most un-German of all German books that I have ever read’), de Quincey translated it, and Matthew Arnold opened a poem with the lines ‘One morn as through Hyde Park we walk’d,/My friend and I, by chance we talk’d/Of Lessing’s famed Laocoön.’

If the projected Life of Lessing proved too much for Coleridge, he was not entirely to blame: Lessing never gave any indication of the kind of unified personality whose growth and vicissitudes might make a good subject for biography. He was one of those writers who play perpetual hide-and-seek with their readers: you may admire him but – as Kierkegaard once put it – your admiration ‘will not let you enter into a direct relation with him, since what is admirable in him is precisely that he prevents any such thing.’ Kierkegaard began ‘Something about Lessing’ – which must be one of the loveliest tributes ever paid by one writer to another – by confessing that he wasn’t very keen on the aspects of Lessing that were ‘universally admired’. He wasn’t interested in the edifying dramas or the ‘theses’ about art and literature that were supposed to have piloted German literature through a ‘period of ferment’ and brought it safely into harbour. (‘According to an old newspaper that I found somewhere,’ Kierkegaard wrote, ‘the world was then in a ferment the likes of which had never been seen before – just as it is today.’) But Lessing was able to rise above the praise of small-minded admirers: he had never allowed himself to be ‘bamboozled into becoming world-historical or systematic’, or to get sucked into what Kierkegaard called a ‘ditto ditto mediation of the words and thoughts of the Cherethites and the Pelethites, the geniuses and the professors’. He was too good a teacher to have any need for disciples: he simply wanted the freedom to find ‘something of his own’, and if he happened to jolt others into claiming the same freedom for themselves, then he would count himself lucky. Kierkegaard recalled a time of loneliness and dejection in which he had come across a sentence of Lessing’s to the effect that the real dilemmas of our lives will never be resolved by any amount of evidence and argument: at that moment, he said, he felt that someone had addressed him personally and fortune smiled on him at last. No more ditto ditto, just the courage to think a fresh thought: ‘thank you Lessing.’

But if Lessing can offer liberation to an individual reader, he is a biographer’s nightmare. More than seventy biographies have appeared to date, by H.B. Nisbet’s reckoning, and most of them have simply recycled the same old story about his role in the creation of Germany’s national literature. Nisbet’s magnificent and monumental new book restores Lessing to us in all his glorious unexpectedness. Nisbet has been writing industriously about Lessing for more than forty years, and he resorts from time to time to the ditto ditto method: he spends a lot of time conducting negotiations with other scholars, and has a habit of presenting Lessing as a more or less reliable ‘representative’ of ‘the Enlightenment’, as if he were referring to an unambiguous objective force rather than a precarious historical hypothesis.

But the dreary stereotypes drop into the background as Nisbet proceeds with a meticulous survey of Lessing’s writings and a sober reconstruction of his life. The most striking thing about him, it would seem, was his openness to the enthusiasms of others. Take Caroline Neuber, an actress who ran her own company and toured all over Europe: she befriended Lessing when he was a student half her age and introduced him to the risky world of theatre. There was also the radical rogue Christlob Mylius, an atheistic editor and writer who guided the young Lessing round the journalistic byways of Berlin, before moving to London, where he sank into debt and died. Then there was Elise Reimarus, a free-thinking author and teacher who took a shine to him towards the end of his life, flirting over Gibbon and Hume. You get the impression that if Lessing had lived into old age he would only have grown more curious, more multifarious and more elusive. He was, as Nisbet triumphantly shows, a poet without boundaries and a philosopher who knew that there are truths in poetry that philosophy does not know.

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