Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Lessing Between Enlightenment Christianity and Romantic Atheism

This is, essentially, the last paper I wrote before graduating, the paper for my senior history seminar. I did write a brief little ditty on Augustine and moral philosophy, but it was written in French, ergo, I myself can't really read it anymore. Nor was it that good. Nor was the French that good. It's unreadable on many levels. But, as you can tell, I'm about to post a bunch of stuff I've already written, rather than write new stuff, to pad the score. So I'll probably post that one, too.


Gotthold Lessing’s theological writings sit on a bridge between the old and the new. The old in Lessing’s time was the Christian faith. While it still wasn’t entirely kosher to be an outed atheist during the 18th-century, atheists were becoming more and more brash and philosophers like Voltaire, Hume, and Kant took as one of their prime functions the putting of God in his place. The new at this time was Man’s innate capacity of reason. Enlightenment intellectuals at this time, given immense confidence by Galileo and then Newton’s successes in natural philosophy, thought that they had the power to figure reality out, that God alone did not have this power. Lessing appears on a bridge because he argues for both the reality of revelation and the innate power of reason. Through his use of certain literary tropes, namely through an analogy between revelation and education and a synecdochal relationship between the temporality of history and the eternity of God, Lessing is able to create a religious position that attempts to skirt the supposed doom of atheism. If Lessing fails, it is only because of the path he helped open up.

Before I go further, I would first like to define a few terms that will underwrite the paper. M. H. Abrams defines Romanticism as writers who “undertook … to save traditional concepts, schemes, and values which had been based on the relation of the Creator to his creature and creation, but to reformulate them within the prevailing two-term system of subject and object, ego and non-ego, the human mind or consciousness and its transactions with nature.”[1] As Abrams’ book’s title suggests, it was a process of turning the supernatural natural. I would like to call this thesis naturalism and distinguish it from another thesis also frequently present in Romantic writers, namely historicism. Historicists are those who take history seriously, not believing that anything happens outside its confines. Historicism might look to be a natural outgrowth of naturalism, but one of the things I shall argue is that Enlightenment rhetoric about Nature and Reason, which they used as their “natural” replacements of God, is a last ditch effort to retain something supernatural, something outside history. I shall oppose historicism to Enlightenment rationalism, the idea that reason is a natural capacity of humans and that it is everywhere the same. Enlightenment writers, because they believe that universal Reason is able to deduce the outlines of Nature, tend to demote the use of history as being extraneous to a correct apprehension of reality—much like their theological counterparts. Lessing, certainly an Enlightenment writer, sits awkwardly across rationalism and Romanticism by both using the rhetoric of Nature and Reason and also taking history seriously in his attempt to accommodate God.

I. The Analogy Between Education and Revelation

The essay of Lessing’s that has preoccupied most commentators is The Education of the Human Race. In this essay, Lessing attempts to pave the way for reason and nature by reconstruing the history of Christianity in terms of it. Lessing begins by drawing an analogy between education and revelation: “What education is to the individual man, revelation is to the whole human race.”[2] This immediately has the effect of drawing a comparison between something commonsensical and human, namely an education we might gain in school, and something considered divine and miraculous, namely God’s voice to his people. Lessing uses this analogy to suggest that just as a person in school suddenly “realizes” the truth of, say, mathematical propositions through the instruction of their teacher, the human race is taught by God through his revelations to them.

Lessing, however, quickly moves to his main thesis, that humankind has within itself the capacity to teach itself, without the aid of an outside teacher. “Education gives man nothing which he could not also get from within himself….”[3] Lessing knows that he is veering dangerously close, by way of his analogy, to the atheistic idea that we could do quite well without God (which then leads us to question his very existence), so he also quickly ameliorates the situation by granting that God simply gets us to the truth quicker than reason: “…only it [revelation] has given, and still gives to it, the most important of these things sooner.” Lessing develops this analogy by suggesting that God is a teacher raising children into adulthood. Young children start with easy primers to teach them the basics, but eventually they move on from their old primers to new ones, like moving from a Basic Algebra book to Advanced Calculus. Nothing in the old primer is contradicted by anything later learned, but everything must be learned in steps. “A primer for children may fairly pass over in silence this or that important piece of the science or art it expounds…. But it must contain absolutely nothing which bars the way to the knowledge which is held back…”[4] Pulling us back to the work of reason, however, Lessing adds that some children will perhaps be smarter than the others: “some educate themselves to an astonishing degree.”[5] Lessing is constantly involved in a balancing act between the usefulness of revelation for education and the self-reliance of reason. God teaches us truth, but we could­ have done it on our own.

By establishing this analogy between education and revelation, Lessing is able to turn the history of Christianity into a story of maturation. Lessing argues that the Jews of the Old Testament were God’s chosen people because he chose them to teach the rest of humankind when they had grown up enough through his tutelage.[6] But they must first grow up. Further developing his analogy, Lessing argues that the Jews, like small children, must be taught authoritatively, with rules and discipline: “Of none other but such as is adapted to the age of children, an education by rewards and punishments addressed to the senses.”[7] This again strikes us as commonsensically true based on our experience with children and it makes sense of and explains why the Old Testament reads as it does, with Mosaic Law and the Great Flood. God was taking “a people so raw, so incapable of abstract thoughts, and so entirely in their childhood”[8] and molding them through time—and so through the Old Testament—into something greater than what they had been.

The epochal turning point is then naturally the advent of Jesus Christ and the creation of the New Testament. All the pieces are in place for Lessing. The maturation of children from a first primer to a second, the shift from the Old Testament to the New, from Mosaic Law to the example of Christ. Lessing says that “every primer is only for a certain age,”[9] which plays with a double meaning between the age of a child and a sweeping historical designation. Lessing says that primers are meant to be outgrown and that it is dangerous to hold onto old primers. He thereby makes Jesus a rebel figure who must “tear the exhausted primer from the child’s hands.”[10] Jesus launches us into a new stage in human history by shifting us from rules that must be followed to gain rewards in the afterlife to providing us an example to live by. In Jesus’ example, we would no longer do good to get into heaven but rather we would “direct one’s inner and outer actions in accordance with it.”[11] And all along the way of his argument about Jewish-Christian history are his asides about the self-sufficiency of human reason: “For seventeen hundred years past they [the New Testament Scriptures] have occupied human reason more than all other books, and enlightened it more, were it even only through the light which human reason itself put into them.”[12]

After spelling all of this out, Lessing is finally able to suggest the advent of an even newer age for a finally matured people. Playing off Joachimite tradition, Lessing suggests splitting history into three ages and that we are about to enter this third age: the “new eternal gospel.”[13] Lessing admonishes the impatient for wanting to usher in this age too quickly,[14] again appeasing and accommodating God and theists, but pushes ahead with what this age will look like. Lessing suggests that we must cast aside the old primers by transforming revealed truths into truths of reason: “the development of revealed truths into truths of reason, is absolutely necessary, if the human race is to be assisted by them.”[15] Through his analogy between education and revelation, Lessing is able to shift thinking about religion from either the theist’s dogmatic handling of the Bible’s texts or the ever-emboldening atheist’s dogmatic rejection of God into an historical dialectic. Instead of a plainly universal vertical relation between God and Humanity or Reason and Humanity, Lessing tosses the line over on its side as a horizontal, gradual temporal awakening, the gradual maturation and education of humankind through history.

II. Figural Interpretation and Synecdoche

One of the reasons Lessing is able to effect this shift is because of his use of what Erich Auerbach calls “figural interpretation.” By figural interpretation Auerbach means the establishment of “a connection between two events or persons in such a way that the first signifies not only itself but also the second, while the second involves or fulfills the first.”[16] Lessing enters into a long-standing tradition of figural interpretation that was begun by Paul and the New Testament writers. With this “method of revisional interpretation” Auerbach says that the early Christians played down the Old Testament as “popular history and as the code of the Jewish people and assumed the appearance of a series of ‘figures,’ that is of prophetic announcements and anticipations of the coming of Jesus and the concomitant events.”[17] Lessing continues this tradition by interpreting the Judeo-cum-Christian history as a process of maturation, whereby earlier elements can sometimes only be understood in light of later developments.

Figural interpretation thus uses the rhetorical trope of synecdoche as a philosophy of history. The interpreter takes history as their text and uses various events in history as signifying the whole arc of history itself. Auerbach argues that this kind of historical interpretation will in the end devalue history itself, that “a connection is established between two events which are linked neither temporally nor causally—a connection which it is impossible to establish by reason in the horizontal dimension…. It can be established only if both occurrences are vertically linked to Divine Providence, which alone is able to devise such a plan of history and supply the key to its understanding.”[18] The figural interpreter’s focus thus becomes that of the vertical link with God and not the horizontal, temporal linkages between events. This produces a dialectic of interpretation. As history marches on, new events are produced that must be placed in vertical connection with God and made sense with the already in place vertical connections, since after all these vertical connections are eternal. Auerbach says that “wherever the two conceptions [vertical and horizontal] met, there was of necessity a conflict and an attempt to compromise—between, on the one hand, a presentation which carefully interrelated the elements of history, which respected temporal and causal sequence, remained within the domain of the earthly foreground, and, on the other hand, a fragmentary, discrete presentation, constantly seeking an interpretation from above.”[19]

Lessing fits perfectly into this tradition. He takes full advantage of this dialectic by suggesting that Christians themselves are only a stage on the way to something greater. Auerbach suggests that the very process of figural interpretation, or “universal history,” creates a situation in which the frame of interpretation is forced out of necessity to change and shift as time marches on, as new events need interpreting.

Paul and the Church Fathers reinterpreted the entire Jewish tradition as a succession of figures prognosticating the appearance of Christ, and assigned the Roman Empire its proper place in the divine plan of salvation. Thus while, on the one hand, the reality of the Old Testament presents itself as complete truth with a claim to sole authority, on the other hand that very claim forces it to a constant interpretive change in its own content; for millennia it undergoes an incessant and active development with the life of man in Europe.[20]

Lessing represents a theological reaction to the Enlightenment. Lessing interprets the phenomenon of the Enlightenment, with its rhetoric of reason and nature, as the fulfillment of Christ, who was Himself the fulfillment of Mosaic Law. Lessing takes advantage of the very process by which Christianity was able to supersede Judaism to argue that Christianity itself will be superseded.

By analogizing the Old and New Testaments to educational primers, Lessing suggests that, much like textbooks, the Testaments cannot contain anything that “bars the way to the knowledge which is held back, or misleads the children away from it.”[21] In addition, Lessing is also able to employ figural interpretation. About the Jews in Persia, Lessing says, “Thus enlightened respecting the treasures which they had possessed without knowing it….”[22] Lessing is able to suggest that the Jews had before them in the Old Testament the materials to interpret Jehovah the national deity as God the single, pure universal, but they lacked the ability until they had encountered the Persians. Thus Lessing is able to agree to the figural interpretation of the captivity as “the visible fulfillment of the prophecies which had been spoken and written respecting the Babylonian captivity and the restoration from it,”[23] but is also able to argue that this figural interpretation is only made possible by presupposing “the exalted ideas of God as they now are.”[24] In other words, events only become visible fulfillments or figures after a certain level of education or enlightenment has been reached. Lessing is then able to tie together figural interpretation with education, which makes for the play of history a much more important phenomenon.

Lessing historicizes the vertical connection between events and God by arguing that fulfillment only occurs to the enlightened, thus laying the vertical connection back over on its side. With his publication of fragments from Reimarus, Lessing was at the forefront of what is called the search for the Historical Jesus. And if we look at how Lessing describes the enlightenment of the Jews, how they changed Jehovah into God, Lessing does not refer to figures in the Bible, he refers to the historical event of Persian ideas disseminating into Jewish culture. It was only after learning of the “pure Persian doctrine”[25] that Jews were then able to find God in their sacred writings, instead of the national deity Jehovah. Lessing even goes so far as to insinuate in this passage that God may not actually be in Jewish scripture: “and since they could the more readily find him and show him to others in their sacred writings, inasmuch as he was really in them.”[26] If this were true, it would then call the whole idea of God being anywhere in the Bible into question insofar as Christianity is figuratively built out of Judaic materials.

Lessing seems to suggest that the figural interpretation of history is then an ad hoc, post facto event of the pasting on of divine interpretations on events that had nothing to do with them, that historical forces can be found that causally created the event, but if we want we can stretch our imagination and also come up with how Divine Providence worked parallel to those forces. Near the end of The Education, Lessing says, “Go thine inscrutable way, Eternal Providence! Only let me not despair of thee because of this inscrutableness. Let me not despair of thee, even if thy steps appear to me to be going backward. It is not true that the shortest line is always straight.”[27] Lessing leaves Divine Providence to its own devices because he has already argued that we will not be able to come up with a suitable path between the past and the present until we’ve reached a suitable level of education. Providence thus drops out because it will never be a predictive device, only a “Well, I guess that’s the direction God wanted to go.”

III. Lessing's Defense Against Atheism

It is this kind of talk that has led many scholars to talk about Lessing as an atheist and also of Christianity as naturally and necessarily leading to its own demise in atheism. Through his argument, and particularly his master analogy, Lessing turns the history of Christianity back into history rather than as a tradition of universal history. Mosaic Law was important to us because it disciplined us. Jesus was important to the maturation of humankind because he taught us to internalize God’s code and to live it, thus becoming an example to live by. Lessing is able to argue that these were important historical events leading up to our age. Lessing’s stroke of genius was to use the precepts of universal history, of figural interpretation, to dismantle the tradition of universal history. In another synecdoche, instead of the Bible being history, Lessing made the Bible a part of history. This is the transformation of progressive revelation into the civil history of religion.

The process of Judeo-Christianity turning into secular atheism works by a method of historical accommodation. Stephen Benin says that divine accommodation is the process by which “divine revelation is adjusted to the disparate intellectual and spiritual level of humanity at different times in history.”[28] Benin finds this phenomenon at the roots of Jewish and Christian thought. In explaining the appearance of change in God’s message, a theologian responds that God is simply accommodating us by condescending to the level we are equipped to handle. Different levels means seemingly different received messages. As time pressed forward, however, and this method of biblical exegesis progressed, it became used principally as a method of explaining humanity’s progression, rather than God’s progression. In Enlightenment terms, accommodation was the balancing of God’s revelation with Man’s reason. The shift occurs as humanity changes in ways unexplained or predicted by the Bible. As humanity’s reliance on reason grew, God’s message changed, but eventually humanity’s reason eclipsed revelation on a scale of importance and rather than God accommodating us, a subtle shift was affected in which we now accommodated God, or in Kant’s spirit, we tried to make room for faith in an age of reason. As Karl Löwith says of Kant’s belief in the Enlightenment’s superiority to previous ages, “It is the most advanced expression of the Christian faith for the very reason that it eliminates the irrational presupposition of faith and grace.”[29]

Lessing, however, won’t go down that easily. It is difficult to tell whether he was an atheist condescending to his Christian brothers or a Christian accommodating the rising tide, but there are defenses against atheism in his writings. In several of Lessing’s other theological writings we see the Enlightenment’s rhetoric of reason, along with its atheistical tones, pop through very clearly. In On the Origin of Revealed Religion, Lessing opposes natural religion to positive, revealed religion. Natural religion is the purified common denominator of all historical instantiations of religion. Positive religion was created as a reflection of natural religion to help the community, just as positive law was created out of natural law. Lessing, however, blurs the difference between reason and natural religion by suggesting that natural religion is “To acknowledge one God, to seek to form the ideas most worthy of him, to take account of these most worthy ideas in all our actions and thoughts….”[30] Lessing here spends most of his time talking about ideas or reason, rather than about God, in defining natural religion. And in the end he suggests that “The best revealed or positive religion is that which contains the fewest conventional additions to natural religion, and least hinders the good effects of natural religion….”[31] The best religion is the kind that stays out of our way.

In Lessing’s short polemic, The Religion of Christ, he is even more abrupt, though still elusive. The same distinction as before is cut, though this time between the “religion of Christ,” the religion that Jesus himself practiced, and the “Christian religion,” which makes of Jesus an object of worship. In Lessing’s description of the religion of Christ, he makes quick, rapid allusion to Enlightenment reason by first emphasizing that Christ was a “mere man,” i.e. just like us, and that his religion is “that which every man has in common with him.”[32] This alludes to the Enlightenment doctrine, begun by Descartes, of the psychic unity of humanity. As Arthur Lovejoy says, “For in nearly all the provinces of thought in the Enlightenment the ruling assumption was that Reason … is the same in all men and equally possessed by all.”[33] This is the Enlightenment reason we find in Lessing’s writings, the reason by which we can educate ourselves.

All of this might lead to a negative assessment of Lessing’s Christian pose, but I think we find in another of his writings the key to his master plot. In On the Reality of Things Outside of God, Lessing appears to be involved in a short polemical sideswipe at Leibnizian possible worlds. By the end, however, he effectively argues that God contains within himself sheer, temporal contingency, which is typically considered to be the opposite of God’s necessary universality. This gives us the key to Lessing’s master trope. Lessing attempts by another synecdoche to radically place history, with all of its individual events, within God’s eternity, in such a way as to not lose God and to not lose the importance of history and humanity. Change is always embarrassing to the philosopher or theologian talking about the eternal. This created the history of accommodation. Lessing, however, has effectively argued for the enshrinement of Enlightenment Reason, with all of its naturalistic overtones and atheistical leanings, by ensconcing it in a theological argument about the eternity of God, that even contingency itself, the seeming contradistinction of God’s necessity, is contained within God. Lessing is arguing that temporality is dangerous unless we place it within God’s spatial plenitude, effectively raising again Auerbach’s vertical connections.[34]

Lessing’s The Christianity of Reason is a perfect complement to his Education on this count. Whereas the Education presents us with a temporal, horizontal axis on which to place the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and by those means the Old Testament, the New Testament, and Lessing’s “new eternal gospel,” the Christianity presents us with a spatial, vertical axis on which to place God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit. Lessing’s synecdoche is made clear when he says, “Since these simple beings [God’s creations] are as it were limited gods, their perfections also must be similar to the perfections of God, related as parts to the whole.”[35] This spatial, vertical connection between individuals with God finds its temporal, horizontal complement in the Education when Lessing says, “And what if it were as good as proved that the great, slow wheel, which brings mankind nearer to its perfection, is only set in motion by smaller, faster wheels, each of which contributes its own individual part to the whole?”[36] And just as Lessing says that “the harmony which exists between them [the Father and the Son] is called by Scripture the Spirit which proceeds from the Father and Son,”[37] the harmony between temporal and spatial, between time and eternity, is found in Lessing’s trope for the third age, which is represented by the Holy Spirit: the “new eternal gospel,” which achieves its power by its almost nonsensicalness.

IV. Traveling the Garden Path to Atheism

The rain on Lessing’s parade occurs, however, when we look back to history and how the arguments Lessing is wielding have panned out. We can begin by looking at how Harold Bloom handles synecdoche and Auerbach and Paul. In Bloom’s early theory of poetry, from such books as The Anxiety of Influence and A Map of Misreading, poets are involved in an agonistic contest with earlier poets, always trying to stave off their own belatedness. One of Bloom’s revisionary ratios is what he calls tessera, which is a completion or fulfillment of the earlier poet’s poem (the most obvious being Paul’s contest with the Redactor and Blake’s contest with Milton). The rhetorical trope used for this revision is, of course, synecdoche. Bloom, however, later seems to take back, or at least shift, this part of his theory in Ruin the Sacred Truths. In their own ways, Auerbach, Benin, and Löwith all chart divine accommodation, or figural interpretation, from the earliest Jewish and Christian origins as a way of reinterpreting the letter of the Scripture to accommodate the changes in history. In Joachim, as Löwith says, we see that “the fundamental law of the history of salvation is the continuous progress from the time of the Old and New Testament ‘letter’ to that of the ‘spirit’.”[38] Bloom, however, wants to argue against Auerbach’s (and others’) “rigorous insistence upon functioning wholly within Pauline interpretive categories of the letter and the spirit.”[39]

Bloom distinguishes between the “allegory of the theologians” and the “allegory of the poets.” The former effectively aligns itself with what Auerbach calls figural interpretation and the latter is a weak strawman set up by these allegorical theologians: “In the allegory of the poets, the first or literal sense is a fiction, and the second or allegorical sense is the true one…. In biblical or theological allegory, the literal sense is true and historical, and the second or allegorical sense is spiritual, being an interpretation of fact and history.”[40] In arguing against Auerbach’s interpretation of Dante, Bloom says, “On this distinction between an allegory of the poets that is so palpably weak and an allegory of the theologians at once true and prophetic, it is obvious why Dante made his choice.”[41] But Bloom does not think this distinction will stand. In answering the question “is the historical Virgil truly a figura of which Dante’s Virgil is the fulfillment?”, Bloom says that,

Dante, and Auerbach, and Saint Paul, cannot really have it both ways at once. You cannot say that Virgil in Dante’s Comedy is the historical Virgil, but then again not. If the historical Virgil or Cato or Moses or Joshua is only a figura of the fulfilled truth that Dante’s Comedy, or the New Testament, reveals, then this fulfillment necessarily is more real, more replete with significance, than the figura was or is. … Instead of the Hebrew Bible of J, Jeremiah, and Job, we get that captive work, the Old or indeed senescent Testament, considerably less vital than the New Testament. The Hebrew Bible becomes the letter, while Saint Paul and Saint John become the spirit.[42]

Bloom is arguing on historico-pragmatic grounds that there can be no fulfillment except transumptive dominance, which is a cancellation, not a fulfillment. “In merest fact, and so in history, no text can fulfill another, except through some self-serving caricature of the earlier text by the later. To argue otherwise is to indulge in a dangerous idealization of the relationship between literary texts.”[43] In this same way, to call Lessing a fulfillment of Christianity, to call atheism a fulfillment of Christianity, would be a dangerous idealization of history. Just as Auerbach’s and Paul’s stance for Bloom refuses “the temporal anguish of literary history,”[44] we must be careful not to suggest that atheism is the natural outcome of Christianity. The temporal agon of history will not allow it.

Rather than arguing, as Lessing might suggest to us, that God has within himself the desire for us to be free of him, we can instead chart the changes in intellectual history that has led to the increasing respectability of atheism. One of these changes is the gradual replacement of internalization by projection. Lessing’s tripartite scheme does seem to chart one thing, and that’s the increasing propensity for internalizing God’s authority. The God of the Old Testament handed down authoritative rules, an outside structure that imposed on us strictures of conduct. With Jesus we reach a man to be emulated. Jesus had internalized God’s rules and we should simply act as Jesus did. This created an increasing role for interpretation, however, as how Jesus acted, and what this should suggest to us, is a little more ambiguous than “thou shalt not kill” (though surely in certain contexts this is debatable). We thus see the rise of a priest class who are the sole authoritative interpreters of the Bible and God’s message. With the Protestant Reformation, however, we see a further internalization as Luther argued that we do not need priests to be intermediaries between us and God, which opens the gates to all to interpret the Bible. In many respects, the Reformation seems to be a fine historical candidate for Lessing’s epochal change into the “new eternal gospel.” Lessing often rails against the priesthood and what Abrams says of the Inner Light Protestant Gerrard Winstanley equally applies to Lessing: “Biblical history is completely internalized and the entire text becomes no more than a sustained metaphoric vehicle for the powers, states, conflicts, and processes of individual minds in the course of their experience on earth.”[45]

Increasingly putting powers into human hands, however, both in terms of interpreting God’s message and our use of reason generally, is what created Lessing’s process of internalization’s transumptive figure, that of projection. A handy figure in this tradition is that of Ludwig Feuerbach. Feuerbach says that “Whatever is God to a man, that is his heart and soul; and conversely, God is the manifested inward nature, the expressed self of a man,—religion the solemn unveiling of a man’s hidden treasures, the revelation of his intimate thoughts, the open confession of his love-secrets.”[46] Feuerbach is arguing that whatever God says, we put in his mouth. Once we get God stuffed into our inner selves, who’s to say that he wasn’t always already there, or rather that God was simply our own projected creation. Abrams argues that the Romantics culminate this tradition by writing a theodicy without God, by naturalizing the categories of Christian history, of fall, redemption, and ultimate restoration, and transforming them into a progressive education. “This is a theory of progress—or more precisely, a theory of the progressive education of the mind of man—but it is not a philosophy of optimism, except insofar as the Christian view of history is itself optimistic in holding that the best is yet to be….”[47] Thus, as Löwith puts it, “Man will seek to replace providence, but within the established horizon, by secularizing the Christian hope of salvation into an indefinite hope of improvement and faith in God’s providence into the belief in man’s capacity to provide for his own earthly happiness.”[48]

Even with Bloom’s strictures in mind, we can still wonder whether the Enlightenment or the Romantics freed themselves from the Christian religion, from supernaturalism. Many like Carl Becker think that for all of the Enlightenment’s rhetoric about reason and nature, and their sharp break from the prejudice of religions, that Enlightenment philosophy was simply theology by other means.[49] Keeping Lessing’s balancing act between theism and atheism, between reason and enthusiasm, and his writings about natural religion in mind, we see Becker write this of Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion:

In the end Hume manages to chevy Christian mystics and atheists into the same camp, since they obviously agree on the main point, that reason is totally incompetent to answer ultimate questions; and so he concludes with that masterpiece of irony: ‘To be a philosophical Sceptic is, in a man of letters, the first and most essential step towards being a sound, believing Christian.’ To read Hume’s Dialogues after having read, with sympathetic understanding, the earnest deists and optimistic philosophers of the early century, is to experience a slight chill, a feeling of apprehension. It is as if, at high noon of the Enlightenment, at the hour of the siesta when everything seems so quiet and secure all about, one were suddenly aware of a short, sharp slipping of the foundations, a faint far-off tremor running underneath the solid ground of common sense.[50]

The Enlightenment philosophers found in nature their guiding norm. Everything was to be made natural, religion, morality, law. And to replace God’s voice, his revelation, they looked to themselves, to their reason. But the Enlightenment philosophers found themselves with the same problem as the theologians, that which originally produced theodicy: how do you explain evil? If nature is good and is to be emulated, and man is the product of nature, “then how could man and his customs ever be out of harmony with nature?”[51] Becker suggests that the Enlightenment philosophers faced a dilemma: with nature our guiding norm and reason our guiding light, where do we go? “They have followed reason faithfully. Will they follow her to the end? She is pointing in two directions: back toward Christian faith; forward toward atheism. Which will they choose? It does not really matter much, since in either case she will vanish at last, leaving them to face existence with no other support than hope, or indifference, or despair.”[52]

If we turn back to Lessing, we find our answer in historicism. The problem with the Enlightenment’s naturalism was that it created in Nature and Reason new Gods. Positive theology, the naming of God’s attributes, dies at the hands of Feuerbach. What we still have left, however, is negative theology, the notion that all we can say about God is what he is not. This activity chimes with mystics whose ultimate claim is that you cannot say anything about God because to say something would be to contaminate the springs with anthropomorphic debris—one can only experience God. This is why Hume is able to gerrymander together atheists and mystics: both think that it is pointless to think, or reason, about God. However, in Kant’s great usurpation of Hume, he claimed that reason was a faculty that could limn the true world, thus transcending the world if only to draw a circle around what we can know so as to distinguish the knowable (the world, phenomena) from the unknowable (effectively God, noumena). What we see in Kant we see everywhere with the rhetoric of nature and reason—eternal, universal categories of interpretation.

In discussing the use of nature as a norm in Tertullian, Lovejoy ends by pointing at two implications of Tertullian’s writings. One was “the epistemological assumption that there is a light of nature uniformly and equally present in the minds of all men by virtue of their rationality….”[53] This is what was previously called the psychic unity of humanity and is pervasive in Enlightenment thought. The second implication came from Tertullian’s “efforts to reconcile his faith in a divine revelation contained in the Old Testament writings with the innovations of the Christian doctrine” in which “he was led to contradict his own assertions of the uniformity of operation of the human reason and the immutability of the ‘teaching of Nature,’ and to propound the thesis of the necessarily gradual development of man’s capacity for apprehending truth….”[54] Here we see Lessing’s answer in that, rather than a light ever gleaming, we would have a light slowly getting brighter.

Following Bloom, we can see this as the contradiction Lovejoy says it is. Historicism appears as the full naturalization of the supernatural because it destroys the “absolute authority” that Auerbach suggests is the reason why theology must always “be adapted through interpretative transformation.”[55] There are no absolute authorities in Lessing’s vision, only stopping points in the history of humanity, primers that sum up current human wisdom. This explains why Lessing so blithely dismisses the nature of Providence. Revelation becomes a technique by which positive religions established rules in real human communities, to establish order. Lessing wants to acknowledge that these rules played their role in the progressive history of humanity: “it is recognized as a good thing to make religion a concern for the community, people must be united about certain things and ideas….”[56] However, he also wants to be able to pave the way for new rules and ideas that do not conform to the old. He wants new speculations to be acceptable, even if they are proven to be wrong. “Reproach is due, not to these speculations, but to the folly and tyranny which tried to keep them in bondage; a folly and tyranny which would not allow men to develop their own thoughts.”[57] The only way this is a secularization of Christianity in some substantive way is if hope is the sole province of Christians, of the religious. Because of his attachment to Enlightenment rhetoric, Lessing still sits awkwardly between the two stools of Christianity-cum-rationalism and Romanticism-cum-historicism. But Lessing remains a suggestive figure on the road between them.

[1] M. H. Abrams, Natural Supernaturalism, (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1971), 13

[2] Gotthold Lessing, Lessing’s Theological Writings, trans. Henry Chadwick, (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1956), 82

[3] ibid., 83

[4] ibid., 87

[5] ibid., 85

[6] ibid.

[7] ibid., 84

[8] ibid.

[9] ibid., 91

[10] ibid.

[11] ibid., 92

[12] ibid., 93

[13] ibid., 96

[14] ibid., 93

[15] ibid., 95

[16] Erich Auerbach, Mimesis, trans. Willard R. Trask, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1953), 73. Auerbach is here quoting himself from a paper, “Figura.”

[17] ibid., 48

[18] ibid., 73-4

[19] ibid., 74

[20] ibid., 16

[21] Lessing, 87.

[22] ibid., 89. Italics mine.

[23] ibid., 90.

[24] ibid.

[25] ibid., 89.

[26] ibid.

[27] ibid., 97

[28] Stephen D. Benin, The Footprints of God, (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993), xiv

[29] Karl Löwith, Meaning in History, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1949), 244-5, fn. 8

[30] Lessing, 104

[31] ibid., 105

[32] ibid., 106

[33] Arthur O. Lovejoy, The Great Chain of Being, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1936), 288

[34] It is useful to remember Lessing’s admiration for Spinoza, the philosopher for whom there was but one substance, namely God, and all else was contained within, that both Henry Chadwick (Lessing, 46-7) and Paul Tillich (Paul Tillich, A History of Christian Thought, ed. Carl E Braaten, (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1967), 369) recall and that Spinoza was considered an atheist during his time.

[35] Lessing, 101

[36] ibid., 97

[37] ibid., 100. Italics Lessing’s.

[38] Löwith, 149

[39] Harold Bloom, Ruin the Sacred Truths, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1987), 39

[40] ibid., 40

[41] ibid.

[42] ibid., 42. Considering that Auerbach acknowledges this outcome of figura (“This conception of history is magnificent in its homogeneity, but it was completely alien to the mentality of classical antiquity, it annihilated that mentality down to the very structure of its language, at least of its literary language, which … became wholly superfluous as soon as earthly relations of place, time, and cause had ceased to matter, as soon as a vertical connection, ascending from all that happens, converging in God, alone became significant.” 74) I am less sure about Bloom’s attack on Auerbach than on the Pauline interpretive categories as a whole.

[43] Bloom, 43

[44] ibid.

[45] Abrams, 52

[46] Ludwig Feuerbach, The Essence of Christianity, 12-3, found in Fall Semester 2002 Course Packet

[47] Abrams, 189-90

[48] Löwith, 111

[49] See especially Susan Neiman’s Evil in Modern Thought (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002)

[50] Carl L. Becker, The Heavenly City of the Eighteenth-Century Philosophers, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1932), 68-9

[51] Becker, 66. Italics Becker’s.

[52] Becker, 69

[53] Arthur O. Lovejoy, Essays in the History of Ideas, (New York: John Hopkins Press, 1948), 336

[54] ibid., 338

[55] Auerbach, 15

[56] Lessing, 104

[57] ibid., 96

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