Gotthold Ephraim Lessing

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Lessing, Gotthold Ephraim (22 January 1729 - 15 February 1781)

A deist, aestheticist, and key representative of the Enlightenment, Lessing was born in Kamenz, Saxony, where his father was a pastor in the Lutheran Church. He studied theology, medicine, and philosophy at the University in Leipzig, becoming particularly interested in literary criticism.

George W. Foote has written,

  • At an early age Lessing showed his independent nature, and this independence was especially noticeable in his views on religion. In his essay, ‘How the Ancients Represented Death,’ he contrasts the attitude of classical antiquity to death as the natural end of life with that of the Christian faith, which considers death a penalty for sin. Some of the posthumous essays of Hermann Samuel Reimarus, ‘The Principal Truths of Natural Religion’ and the ‘Doctrines of Reason,’ in which he subjects the important claims of Christianity to a profound examination and rejects them as untenable, were edited by Lessing, who took them with him to Wolfenbuettel. Lessing himself was greatly impressed by Reimarus’s work, though he dissented from many of its conclusions. His part in circulating these heterodox views and his own ideas of the need of free discussion in religion, as expressed in ‘The Education of the human Race,’ were distasteful to the orthodox of the time, and Pastor Coeze pursued him as viciously as Talmage pursued Ingersoll a century later.

A dramatist and critic, Lessing wrote Miss Sara Sampson in 1755. Minna von Barnheim (1767) is a classic comedy.

Lessing’s Nathan the Wise (1779) spoke of the need for the peaceful coexistence of all religions. His Education of the Human Race (1780) spoke of the ideas of progress and evolution as related to religion.

Rather than the French classical theatre, Lessing preferred Shakespeare as a model whom Germans should revere.

A Freemason and “a deist with a difference,” unlike Voltaire he was profoundly interested in theology and confronted Christianity on its own grounds. Volker Dürr tells how in A Rejoinder Lessing formulated his credo and his legacy most eloquently: “

  • f God were holding all the truth that exists in his right hand, and in his left just the one ever-active urge to find the truth, even if attached to it were the condition that I should always and forever be going astray, and said to me: ‘Choose!’ I should humbly fall upon his left hand and say: ‘Father, give! Pure truth is surely for thee alone!

In his Hamburgische Dramaturgie (1767–1769), which concerned the Moslem faith in general and one Ismenor in particular, he observed that the Crusades, “which in their origin were a political stratagem of the popes, developed into the most inhuman persecutions of which Christian superstition has ever made itself guilty: the true religion had then the most and the bloodiest Ismenors.”

His Origin of Revealed Religion (c. 1760) professes to hold to a naturalist view of religion, for he believed that Christianity was established and propagated “by entirely natural means” - this before Gibbon.

In 1780, Lessing in a conversation with Jacoby expressed high appreciation of Goethe’s Prometheus. “If I am a follower of anyone, it can only be Spinoza,” he added. “There is no other philosophy but Spinoza’s.”

According to J. M. Robertson, Lessing with his versatile genius and vast reading was “a man of moods rather than a systematic thinker,” that “in his strongest polemic there was always an element of mystification; and his final pantheism was only privately avowed.”

Although he did not array himself as a champion of rationalism, at the end he proved to be one of the strongest promoters of its reign. Heine called Lessing, after Luther, the greatest German emancipator. In contemporary times, Paul Edwards has cited Lessing’s sympathy toward the idea of reincarnation.

Toward the end of his life, Lessing suffered severely from asthma. In February 1781, the malady became acute. According to Foote, he felt that the hand of death was upon him but conversed with his friends “with much of his old liveliness.” To one of them who spoke of the annoyance which the clerics caused Voltaire on his deathbed, Lessing exclaimed:

  • When you see me about to die, call the notary; I will declare before him that I die in none of the prevailing religions.

On February 15 he rallied “and joked with some of those who came to visit him,” wrote his biographer James Sime. However, in the evening of the same day “a stroke of apoplexy followed, and after life’s fitful fever he slept well.” Meanwhile, Bishop J. F. Hurst’s History of Rationalism (1865) reports that upon Lessing’s death, some believed “the devil came and carried him away like a second Faust.”

(See the article by Karl Becker in the Encyclopedia of Unbelief.) {BDF; CE; CL; EU, Volker Dürr; FFRF; FO; JM; JMR; JMRH; PE; PUT; RAT; RE}