Franz Mehring

The Lessing Legend

5. Lessing and Religion

The instinct of bourgeois class interest determined Lessing’s thoughts and actions; and from this point of view his philosophical struggles appear as one undivided whole. [1]

Lessing, a cheerful child of this world, did not possess any theological streak at all. When only twenty he already began “to doubt wisely,” striving to come to a conviction in religious questions, but he never arrived at a positive conviction. Indeed we are informed that in the last year of his life he became an, that is, a Spinazist. But even then all he said, according to Jacobi’s report, was: “If I must follow someone, I know nobody else whom I could follow other than Spinoza ... the orthodox notions of divinity convey nothing to me, I cannot stand them.” Not long before, Lessing had written in the preface to Nathan: “Nathan’s opinions against all positive religion have always been mine,” [2] and this was absolutely correct. Already a generation earlier the young Lessing had called “all positive and revealed religion equally true and wrong,” and stated that for his part “man is created to act and not to subtilize.”

It was bourgeois class instinct that led Lessing to adopt an attitude which proletarian class consciousness formulated in the words “religion must be a private affair.”

He troubled nobody with his religion, and did not interfere with the religion of others. Although he always fought orthodoxy, he fought it only as implying social oppression, as restraining scientific research, and as an ideological symptom of royal despotism. Rationalism meant for Lessing that the bourgeois classes came to understand their life interests. Everyone may believe what he likes, but no belief entitles anyone to persecute and oppress others because they hold different beliefs. This is directed principally against orthodoxy as a despotic means of power, but in practice even orthodoxy as religious doctrine benefited by it. Lessing never participated in dogmatic quarrels; as a religious system dogmatism was as good as any other, and he always detested cheap jokes against religion. He would have assisted a persecuted orthodoxy as readily as he opposed a persecuting one, and he denounced as unjust the prohibition of the Jesuit order by the pope. Religion was for him simply a private affair, and should not interfere with bourgeois legal conditions. His tolerance was very distant from the “tolerance” of Frederick, representing bourgeois as against despotic tolerance ...

As might be expected, Lessing dealt his chief blow against shallow rationalism, which spoiled religion as well as philosophy, and which impeded alike liberty of thought and of belief. In a very different and more profound sense than Frederick he wanted everyone to find salvation after his own fashion, but he fought every religion as soon as it began to restrain liberty of scientific research and as soon as it degenerated into an instrument of Frederickian or any other despotism. For him every religion was right as far as it constituted a step forward in the mental development of humanity, every religion was wrong as far as it wanted to fetter the further mental development of humanity. Lessing conceived religions not as logical but as historical categories, to use a modern expression; they were not imperishable but indispensable steps in the evolution of the human mind.

He saw during his own lifetime how the orthodoxy of despotism gradually entered into the philosophy of the bourgeoisie; and he knew well that a historical process cannot be hastened by external means, still less by forcible ones. The cowardly and lazy rationalists interfered clumsily in this mental process, they purposely obliterated the demarcation which had become clear between philosophy and religion; they represented a supposedly purified but actually falsified Christianity with much greater intolerance; they made the orthodox system seemingly a bit more reasonable but actually even more senseless. This “refined error” was a heavy impediment in the current of free thought and endangered the mental development of the German bourgeoisie, which now threatened to become absolutely stagnant. Even the plain old orthodoxy appeared firm against these “rationalists” and it was against this fatal error that Lessing warned.

... Lessing calls his Nathan the Wise a son of his old age, born of controversy; and of the verse of this dramatic poem he says that it would be much worse if it were much better. One should be contented with this criticism of the great critic. Nathan is a play most characteristic of Lessing, an enduring possession of our literature, a precious vessel into which he poured the still magnificent though vanishing power of his heroic spirit; but it has the traces of age and polemic. Unfortunately Jacob Grimm is not quite wrong in saying that it compares with Emilia as Don Carlos compares with Fiesco. [3] Nathan is rich in beautiful and profound words, though sometimes one would prefer to have them in the classical prose of Lessing rather than his awkward verse. Some secondary characters, like the dervish, the friar and the patriarch, representing classically orthodox fanaticism, have become classical figures, not to forget the scene between Nathan and Recha, written with the whole warmth of his heart; but the absolutely unhistorical assumptions and the comfortable manner of the discussion on tolerance between the Jew, the sultan and the Knight Templar brought upon Nathan the worst fate that could have befallen a play of Lessing; it became the banner of the garrulous and bumptious rationalist, the very type whom Lessing always challenged.

One must be careful not to judge the value of this dramatic poem by its present followers. It remains the solemn accord in which Lessing’s greatest struggle ended. Lessing wrote to his brother: “It will be anything but a satirical play, ending in ironical laughter. It will be the most touching play I ever wrote.” He says, too: “My play has nothing to do with our present blackfrocks ... though the theologists of all revealed religions will always abuse it, they will know better than to declare themselves publicly against it.” Lessing wrote Nathan under the most difficult conditions, the deadly disease already in his lungs, paralyzed in his literary activity by police persecution, broken by the death of his beloved wife, tormented by worries over his daily bread. Regarding the royalties from his poem, he wrote that maybe “the horse will have died of hunger before the oats have ripened.”

From all this misery his high spirit rose to the serene naiveté which Goethe had already praised in Nathan. On the best of his contemporaries the play acted like an overwhelming revelation.

“For a long, long time,” wrote Elise Reimarus, “no drop of water, drunk in a dry desert, could have been more refreshing than the Nathan was to us ... What a Jew, what a sultan, what a Recha, Sittah, what men! If there were to be many such as these, who would not like to live on earth as much as in heaven?”

In spite of the defects claimed by famous and non-famous critics, the shortest and best criticism remains Herder’s words to Lessing: “I do not say a word of praise; the work praises the master, and this is a man’s work.”

Nobody, not even the cleverest man, can surpass the possibilities of his time; what we know to-day on the basis of modern science, namely that historical religions only reflect different economic levels in the development of human society, Lessing could only feel intuitively. He viewed religious quarrels from a bourgeois idealistic standpoint as the causes rather than the results of social struggles. He remarked: “I do not know any place in Germany where this play could yet be performed, but good luck to him who first performs it.” Well, two years after his death Nathan was performed in Berlin, but this did not signify very much. Frederick remained the enlightened despot, using the positive religions as means of power. The Jewish usurer continued to enjoy “the liberty of a Christian banker,” but the Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelssohn was merely tolerated, and after his death his daughter Recha did not even know where to put her head. Lessing could not see to the very bottom of things, his understanding being limited by the conditions of his time. Nonetheless admirable is the clarity with which he expressed a point of view which the best men of our time have failed to surpass: the view that religious belief is the private affair of each individual; and therefore all religions whatever their designation which restrain scientific research and are used for social oppression must be relentlessly fought. The young Lessing considered all revealed religions equally right and wrong, the aging man gave expression to the same trend of thought in the parable of the three rings, already known in world literature since the days of the Crusades: No ring is the true one, the true ring possibly was lost, but he who believes his ring to be the true one should reveal its power by hearty tolerance and by good deeds.


1. The essential blame for the one-sided, distorted conception of Lessing’s theological controversies is due to the intellectual flatness of the German bourgeoisie. Individual writers are scarcely to be made responsible for it, but the conception finds an especially glaring expression, as one might expect, in Protestant theology, as in Karl Schwarz, Lessing als Theologe. Then Röpe turned the tables in his work on Goeze; he is followed by Redlich in the article on Lessing in the Allgemeine deutsche Biographie, XIX, pp.756ff, and by Christian Gross in Lessing’s Werke, XV, pp.9ff. Gross makes the glorious discovery of Lessing’s “unclear, yes, in the deepest sense, untrue position”; he also attacks in an unworthy fashion Johann Jacoby’s excellent essay on Lessing as a philosopher. The most penetrating and thorough work in this direction was done by Hehler in his Lessing-Studien and by Zeller in his essay on Lessing as a theologian in the Historische Zeitschrift, XXIII, pp.343ff. – F.M.

2. Italics are Lessing’s in both cases. Translation by E.K. Corbett, ed. Lessing’s Nathan the Wise, p.xix, London 1833.

3. Plays by Schiller.


Last updated on 9.2.2006