Wednesday, 30 January 2013



Literary Notices.

"LESSING, HIS LIFE AND WORKS," by ADOLPH STAHR, Berlin. 8th edition.

"LESSING," by JAMES SYME. 2 vols. Trubner and Co., London.


These three works will give anyone who chooses to read them a large amount of information respecting the life and works of the celebrated Lessing. Germany is now proud of being the fatherland of such a distinguished critic as Lessing, although a few years back, after the republican scare of 1848, some difficulty was experienced in obtaining sufficient subscriptions to erect a monument over his tomb.  . . .
Lessing was the son of a Lutheran pastor at Kamentz in Lusatia. His father was of the Puritan type, and was horrified at the idea of his son becoming a critic and a playright instead of a dogmatist. He did all a parent could do to wean the erring youngster from what Puritanism regarded as the certain road to perdition. But young Lessing, having made up his mind, was not to be turned from his purpose by either tears or remonstrances; and so he broke loose from parental control and set up as a Bohemian or literary pack at Berlin, where he obtained for some years a precarious livelihood by writing and translating for the publishers. About 1767 he established himself as publisher, author, and impresario, in Hamburg, where he failed in business both as an impresario and as a printer. Reimarus having left the Wolfenbüttel Fragments to the care of his daughter, she, after her father's death, gave them to Lessing, who published them and at once became famous. From that time forth he became a power in the literature of Germany.
His philosophy may he estimated by the following extract. His biographer says:—
Lessing's belief that there is a law in human conduct, as well as in physical processes, was the ground of his conviction that there is also a law in human history. If we cannot to some extent foretell the action of the individual, we cannot at all foretell the course of the mass. But grant that there is order even in the apparently confused web of individual conduct, and the conclusion that there is order in the apparently still more confused web of human development is a necessary result. In the one case as in the other we shall be able to predict the future precisely in proportion to our knowledge of the determining circumstances. The progress of the race involves so vast a sweep of thought that we shall probably never be able to advance beyond very general propositions respecting it ; that Lessing detected progress at all, and formulated something approaching to a law of progress, is one of his greatest services to modern thought.
His idea of the Divine element in the history of humanity may now be more easily understood. All religions systems he regarded as the product of the ordinary faculties of men, faculties which, in the case of the great founders of religions, have worked with exceptional force and intensity. But these faculties are themselves elements of the Divine thought. God acts directly in every mind; and the minds which have the grandest conceptions, and are moved by the best impulses, are the minds in which His qualities are most displayed. Historical religions, therefore, may be truly called revelations; only they are revelations evolved without miracle, in accordance with the laws which may be studied in the least, as in the most important of the operations of the heart and intellect. In like manner we may speak of every great result achieved by man as a revelation. Plato, Shakespeare, Moliere, Newton; such men as these open new and unexpected aspects of existence ; they raise their fellows to points of view from which the eye can sweep over wider ranges. And they do this because the Divine energy is greater in them than it is in ordinary humanity. The whole of human development is thus, according to the philosophy of Lessing, a manifestation of God. . . . .
The debt Germany owes him is immense. On the year of his death, Schiller published his first drama, and Kant issued his "Critique of Pure Reason." Soon afterwards Goethe returned to the career he seemed to have abandoned, and by-and-bye Fichte began to impress his countrymen by the power of his splendid personality. Thus Germany passed into the midst of that classical period in her literature to which she looks back with pride and longing. Thoroughly awake, she exercised her energies in all directions, and, while beaten and humiliated in the world of politics, took for a time the acknowledged lead in the greater world of thought.
But for Lessing this classical period would have been impossible. By his dramas, his incessant criticism, his controversies in literature, art, and theology, he awakened in the national mind a spirit of genuine freedom, an impatience of commonplace, a thirst for intellectual achievement of enduring excellence. He cleared and ploughed the soil on which his successors cast their fruitful seeds.
For the charm that belongs to quiet and resigned minds we must not look in Lessing. There never existed a more restless, ardent spirit. Nor will he please those whose ideal of a man is one who retires from contact with the world into the solitude of his own thoughts. He was essentially a man amongst men ; he found in society his highest happiness, his chief stimulus ; it was the steel that struck from the flint its most brilliant sparks. And in his vast labours it was society —the society of his own time—which he kept always before him as that to whose needs he was bound to minister. Even in questions that seemed remote from his age he detected points of contact with the impulses of the living present.
Miss Zimmern's work was written before Mr. Syme's work was published, but the latter had priority of publication, and to some extent forestalled the market. Those, however, who feel interested in the subject would do well to read the three works we have referred to. There is an American translation of Stahr's work. The reader of the three works will see Lessing's life and mental and moral character reviewed from almost every stand-point. Miss Zimmern often dwells on topics which the other biographers merely glance at, and vice versa. We extract her remarks on the "Wolfenbüttle Fragments," as a sample of her style. She says :
The "Wolfenbüttle Fragments" are no longer read. Modern theological criticism has far outstripped their crude speculations, belonging to the mechanical school of Deism, that held miracles as sheer impostures. Exegetical examination was unknown ; a narrative was either false or true, wilfully perverted or dictated by heaven. Written before the growth of myth was understood, or had been scientifically investigated, they were imbued with that early spirit of rationalism, which, in its earnest wish to be useful, ceased to be reasonable, and grew fanatically intolerant, indiscriminately condemning the past as worthless and rotten. The rationalist could see in the adherents of orthodoxy only the blind followers of a cunning imposture; while these based their beliefs upon a rigid theory of inspiration, " The child dream of a dead universe, governed by an absent God," was then in its heyday. On the other hand, the historical value of the Fragments" is unquestionable. Enlightenment owes them vast obligations, since their publication gave birth to a controversy whose like had not agitated Protestantism since the Reformation.
Reimarus was a forerunner of David Strauss; he wrought in the spirit of Wolff's philosophy, as Strauss in that of Hegel. The relative nature of truth was as yet unrecognised, as well as the gradual adaptation of truth to the requirement of every age. The spirit of inquiry that begot the Reformation was a breath of it; Bodin preached it in his "Republique," but the minds of men were unprepared for it. In Lessing's day it was floating in the air ; he seized it, and gave it written shape. He had the honesty that places a man above the factions of creeds, and a good portion of the personal indifference to odium needed by the innovator. In the notes—"Hints," he names them—with which he accompanies his "Fragments," he seeks to establish the legitimacy of free discussion on controversial themes. Until our time, he contends, religion had been as ill attacked as defended ; the author of the "Fragments" seemed to him to approach the ideal of a worthy adversary. But in the same sentence he expresses a wish that a man may arise who will no less approach the ideal of a defender of religion.
Lessing has been reproached for hiding his opinions. The classifiers of human minds have been unable to force him into any of their categories, and it was their utter misunderstanding of his purpose that furnished for Lessing the amusing element in the discussions excited by the publication of the "Fragments." He was not afraid of the issue.  Religion was to him apart from theology ; it consisted in feeling. This was his fundamental axiom. He carefully distinguishes between Christians and theologians, saying : "How do this man's hypotheses, and explanations, and proofs concern the Christian ? The Christianity which is so true, in which he feels himself so happy, cannot be a fiction, for it is here. When the paralysed man feels the beneficial shocks of the electric spark, what does it concern him whether Nollet or Franklin is right, or whether both are wrong?" He turned against the Conservatives, whose belief in the letter closed their minds against the theory which Lessing, with advanced insight, called to his aid ; he turned against the innovators, whose reform meant destruction. "Dirty water," says Reimarus, " ought not to be poured out before you have clean." " But," retorts Lessing, "he who does not pour out the dirty water can never have clean." For the author of the "Fragments" Christianity as a positive religion fell with its props of miracle, revelation, and fulfilment of prophecy. Not so for Lessing. He only inferred that the props were vain. Such arguments might confound the theologian, but they did not touch the simple Christian. The weight of Lessing's intellect leaned to untrammelled individual thought, and he regarded those who followed Reimarus, and the orthodox, as the two extremes, the neologians holding the central place. He could sympathise with all three parties and with none. This was extremely puzzling to his contemporaries. His own thoughts are reflected in some MS. notes published post-humourously. Preparing to study the manner in which the Christian religion has been founded and spread, he wrote :—" Undertake this investigation as an honest man," I say to myself, "look everywhere with your own eyes, distort nothing, embellish nothing. As the conclusions follow, so let them follow ; do not check their course, do not influence it."
One more extract and we shall leave the work in the hands of our readers. His biographer says :
Lessing was a man in whom two ages, two opposed tendencies of thought were combined in unique harmony. He exhibited in his person all the good elements of the eighteenth century, while he became the pioneer of the new. It was his peculiar characteristic to be at the same time the representative of his own and of a succeeding generation. For while the eighteenth century was negative and destructive, the nineteenth is affirmative and constructive: Lessing was both. He anticipated the nineteenth century in its tendency to return to the past, and its endeavours to disengage primitive truth from the disfiguring accretions of later ages. In this respect alone he presents a remarkable contrast to Voltaire : a contrast wholly to his advantage. In art, in religion; he helped towards the liberation of mankind from the shackles of mere tradition and authority as such. But while he destroyed, he built ; he did not use the thin weapons of sarcasm and persiflage to undermine both good and bad together, and leave his fellows shelterless. Hence it is that Lessing may lay claim to be the intellectual pioneer of our present culture. There are few departments of thought into which he did not penetrate, and none into which he penetrated, without leaving the impress of his genius behind him. So varied and catholic were his interests, that to many he is only known as a theologian, to others as an aesthetician, to others, again, as a dramatist, poet, critic, or philogist. In one point only he did not free himself from a characteristic defect of his age ; and this was his indifference to the beauty and significance of nature. In this respect alone he cannot be ranked as a precursor of Goethe, whom he anticipated in his attachment to the Greeks, Shakespeare, and Spinoza.
Born at the most depressed period of his native literature, he lived to see the first fruits of Goethe's genius, while the year of his death was marked by the publication of the book which may be said to close the eighteenth century mode of thought, the " Critique of Pure Reason."
The sculptor Rauch exhibited correct and delicate perception, when among the crowd of famous men that surround the monument of Frederick the Great at Berlin, he placed Lessing with his face turned towards Kant, as though exchanging ideas with him. Both were great emancipators of the human mind. Both strove to establish individual liberty of thought and action, both tried to awaken in their countrymen a just conception of the nature of freedom. It is small wonder that interest in Lessing has revived latterly in Germany, for the overgoverned and bureaucratic German still has need of him. At the same time Lessing never confounded liberty and licence. He did not live to see the French Revolution ; but he would have been the first to proclaim that despotism was equally degrading whether it were an imperial diadem or a red cap. He desired that each human being should be a man, thinking for himself. He recognised this as the secret of freedom, when he said, "Think wrongly if you please, but think for yourself."
 Lessing's life was made up of controversies. He liked literary warfare. It is said that his controversy with the pompous Goetz, of Hamburgh, was begun as a mode of relieving his grief at the death of his wife. Most of his works are now out of date, but they exercised an immense influence in their day over German culture, and were the heralds of that golden age in which Schiller and Goethe shone as stars of the first magnitude.

Australian Town and Country Journal 17 August 1878, 

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