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Exploring the Interior

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Karl S. Guthke

II. Worlds in the starry skies

8. Lessing’s Science: Exploring Life in the Universe1

Texte intégral

The Blank Spot on the Map of Lessing’s Learning

  • 1 This article was originally published as “‘Nicht fremd seyn auf der Welt’: Lessing und die Naturwi (...)
  • 2 Richard Daunicht, Lessing im Gespräch (München, 1971), 526. References to Lessing texts are to the (...)
  • 3 Goethe, Sämtliche Werke, Deutscher Klassiker Verlag (1986–2000), XIV, 629.
  • 4 See Karl S. Guthke, “Haller und Lessing: Einsames Zwiegespräch,” in Guthke, Literarisches Leben im (...)
  • 5 See Emanuel Hirsch, Geschichte der evangelischen Theologie (Gütersloh, 1949), 209–216.
  • 6 Herbert Schöffler, Protestantismus und Literatur, 2nd ed. (Göttingen, 1958).
  • 7 Paul Raabe, “Lessing und die Gelehrsamkeit: Bemerkungen zu einem Forschungsthema,” Lessing in heut (...)

1Nature bored him, as an anecdote relates. When his attention was drawn to the approach of spring, Gotthold Ephraim Lessing is said to have replied that he wished the leaves would turn red for once instead of always turning green.2 Goethe found this so memorable that he recounted it in his autobiography, Dichtung und Wahrheit.3 Like the Swiss poet and scientist Albrecht von Haller,4 Lessing’s lifelong partner in a lonely dialogue, Goethe saw the wonder of nature in its continual sameness, in the eternal recurrence of the same. The anecdote, however, places Lessing firmly in the other of the two camps into which C. P. Snow, in his influential Rede Lecture at Cambridge in 1959, divided the inhabited world: those who know the second law of thermodynamics and those who do not. In the language of the Enlightenment, however, we must reckon not with two but with three cultures – the humanistic, the scientific and the theological. In the dispute between “two truths,” so categorically distinguished by Balthasar Bekker in De betoverde wereld (The Enchanted World, 1691)5 – that of the Bible, which must be accepted in faith, and that of Nature, which demands rational cognition – Lessing would have chosen the former. As early as 1755, the extensive controversy surrounding Bekker’s Enchanted World inspired the young Lessing with the plan of writing a critical study of it (XI/1, 65); and though, like so much in Lessing’s life, this came to nothing, one may still conclude that for him the issue could not be resolved so simply as the anecdote about unblushing nature might suggest. All the same – whether one starts from the strong position that theology still retained in Lessing’s day, or from the discovery made by many sons of the manse that alongside the world of theology there existed the much more attractive world of belles-lettres6 – at first glance, the natural sciences seem to lie outside Lessing’s purview. Hence Lessing scholarship, from its beginnings until today, has concentrated on the history of ideas to the exclusion of the sciences, and has taken a consistent view. It maintains that, according to Lessing’s own statement about his Meissen schooldays, his “world” (III, 154) consisted of Theophrastus, Plautus and Terence, representing the domain of humane letters and arts, and perhaps also of the book collection acquired by his father as a country clergyman, but not of the sciences. And yet the same scholars assure us that Lessing’s interests all through his life were universal, and that he could not focus his undivided attention on anything.7 Including the sciences?

  • 8 R. F. Jones, Ancients and Moderns, 2nd ed. (St Louis, MO, 1961), ch. 6: “Progress of Science”; Jür (...)
  • 9 See Thomas P. Saine, “Natural Science and the Ideology of Nature in the German Enlightenment,” Les (...)
  • 10 J. C. Gottsched, Versuch einer critischen Dichtkunst, 4th ed.(Leipzig: Breitkopf, 1751), 105.
  • 11 Wilhelm Scherer, Poetik, ed. Gunter Reiss (Tübingen, 1977), 139.
  • 12 J. S. Spink, Literature and the Sciences in the Age of Molière (London, 1953); H. B. Nisbet, Herde (...)
  • 13 Schiller, Sämtliche Werke, Hanser Editon, V (1958), 972.
  • 14 Walter Schatzberg, Scientific Themes in the Popular Literature and Poetry of the German Enlightenm (...)

2Now it is well known that in Lessing’s day and earlier, not least among men of letters, science was a matter of intense discussion. In the querelle des anciens et des modernes, which spread also to Germany, it was precisely the literary people who argued that the superiority of the moderns consisted principally in the scientific achievements of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The many who took this view included Fontenelle, Voltaire, Haller and Bielfeld.8 Indeed, in the Enlightenment, literature and science are closely linked. Enlightenment is practically defined by its openness towards science, which at this period is flourishing as never before.9 Gottsched, pedantic as always, thought it essential for the poet to avoid making a fool of himself through howlers in the various branches of natural science.10 The two cultures were not yet sharply distinct; if anything, they were united by their tense relationship to the third, the theological, and it was only when the latter faded in the nineteenth century that the first two entered upon their mutual hostility or indifference (though in the closing years of the century Wilhelm Scherer, with the best intentions, sought to preserve the harmony between them by maintaining that science provided literary people with “material,” as botany gave Goethe the material for “Kennst du das Land…”).11 Montesquieu studied physiology, Voltaire experimental physics, Diderot chemistry, Rousseau botany, Haller medicine, Goethe optics and Herder psychology.12 Schiller is merely following in the footsteps of a long tradition when in his review of Bürger’s poems (1791) he makes as a matter of course the same demand that his Romantic antagonists would soon make – that poetry must advance in step with the “advance of scientific culture.”13 La Fontaine writes a poem on quinine, Georg Matthias Bose one on electricity and so forth. “Scientific themes” multiply like rabbits in eighteenth-century literature, including that of Germany.14

  • 15 See Lessing’s not uncritical account of the rise of natural science in Gedanken über die Herrnhute (...)
  • 16 Wolfgang Martens, “Lessing als Aufklärer: Zu Lessings Kritik an den Moralischen Wochenschriften,” (...)
  • 17 “the destiny of man was to search rather than to find”; Moses Mendelssohn on Lessing, quoted in Ho (...)
  • 18 “the pleasure of a hunt always matters more than the catch”; VIII, 138.
  • 19 “not being a stranger in the world”; I, 117.

3What about Lessing? Does he not fit smoothly into this development? Love of science is becoming the “allgemeiner Geschmack” (“universal taste”) in Germany, he writes in 1753 when his “cousin” and colleague Christlob Mylius plans to undertake a “scientific” expedition to America (II, 480).15 It would be curious if Lessing had cut himself off from this movement; curious too if anyone were right in criticising him – an example of the philologists’usual attitude to the real world and its science – for taking an interest, on his Italian journey, only in books (and gambling), but not in midwifery and lightning conductors.16 With no disrespect to the motives of other travellers in Italy, Lessing did pay attention to what was going on in the real world around him, instead of the world of books, though in his case it may often be difficult to separate the two. (As a child he wanted to be painted with a great pile of books instead of a birdcage; who knows whether the pile did not contain works on ornithology?) If it is true that in Lessing’s restless urge to attend to everything “[die] Bestimmung des Menschen mehr Forschen als Finden [war],”17 that for him “[d] as Vergnügen einer Jagd ist ja allezeit mehr wert, als der Fang,”18 then it is also true that his favourite hunting ground was books. And it was from books that from early in his life he learned a great deal about the study of nature. Even if that is not apparent at first glance, it is at the second. Even as a young man, after all, he joined the chorus of querellistes who extolled the scientific achievements of the moderns above any literary monuments, Newton above Homer, and by doing so, like many others, he indirectly defined his century as that of science (I, 116). As a journalist in Berlin, he defended the sciences against Rousseau’s first Discours by maintaining that they were not necessarily the cause of moral degeneration (II, 72–73 and 679). Lessing himself studied medicine and gained a master’s degree for a thesis on a medical subject. He published poems on astronomical themes (I, 120–123). He was justified in criticising Pastor Lange, the faulty translator of Horace, for an ignorance of heaven and Earth not shared with his critic (III, 143). Even for the young Lessing, a knowledge of nature and its laws is nothing less than a sign of “nicht fremd sein auf der Welt.”19

  • 20 On the sometimes uncertain authorship of the reviews ascribed to Lessing, see Guthke, “Lessings Re (...)

4That is not all. For the present-day view of Lessing it is astonishing to learn that he not only took an occasional interest in the sciences, as he did in so much else, but that even in his early years he ranked the sciences higher than the humanistic and theological studies which were his own field, and even considered them the “only true philosophy” (II, 480). Of Pierre Massuet’s Elémens de la philosophie moderne (to convey what this book is about, its title must be cited in full) qui contiennent la pneumatique, la métaphysique, la physique expérimentale, le système du monde, suivant les nouvelles découvertes, he writes in 1752 (and his authorship of this text can scarcely be questioned)20 that Massuet was the “most plausible” of recent philosophers because, unlike any of the others, he had founded his intellectual system on the basis of experimental scientific knowledge, while others “arrange Nature according to their ideas, instead of arranging their ideas [like Massuet] according to Nature” and do not reserve judgement until “new discoveries provide more illumination.” Here Lessing is polemically pitting “deep thought” against exact, empirical “doctrines of Nature” (II, 470). Once one has been alerted to such passages, it ceases to be surprising that Lessing, the literary critic, who in his Literaturbriefe conducts a well-informed and masterful debate with Johann Jakob Dusch about scientific problems and facts, should in the same work, while criticising Wieland’s pedagogical ideas, mention, as though it were obvious, that any educational programme should begin with science, since “natural science [contains] the seeds of all other academic subjects” (IV, 480). And even the Antiquarische Briefe include the self-critical remark that the concerns of someone obsessed with words (“Wortgrübler”) – meaning the etymologist, but by implication the philologist in general – are “trivial” when “compared with the study of things,” to which Lessing is still as “devoted” as in his youth (V/2, 530–531).

  • 21 See John Dillenberger, Protestant Thought and Natural Science: A Historical Interpretation (Garden (...)
  • 22 See Otto Zöckler, Geschichte der Beziehungen zwischen Theologie und Naturwissenschaft, I (Güterslo (...)

5Such an attitude towards the sciences, in a pastor’s son, is all the more remarkable given that this interest had to prevail over the misgivings about the study of nature habitually expressed by the orthodox Lutheranism of the time, of which Lessing’s father was a representative. It was the holy scriptures, not nature itself, that, according to this branch of Lutheranism, formed the main source of information about nature, though Lutheran attitudes of humble submission and distrust of intellectual knowledge meant that small value was attached to such information,21 and even less to information about the human body, proverbially described as “maggot-riddled.” No wonder Lessing’s parents were unenthusiastic about their son’s decision to study – of all things – medicine (XI/1, 17). From Sir Thomas Browne’s Religio Medici, Lessing was well aware of the opposition between the Church and a physician’s religion (LM, XXII, 245); it lies behind the mocking remark he made late in life to the effect that Haller, who, like Browne, became attached to the scriptures in his later years, had made it fashionable for physicians to want to die in the odour of sanctity, since earlier theologians had considered them suspect – as though this were still the case in 1779 (XII, 294). The Lutheran orthodoxy with which Lessing was intimately familiar also viewed the study of the cosmos with profound scepticism. Taking their stand on the divinely inspired character of scripture and on the geocentric passages in the Bible, the orthodox could welcome neither Copernican astronomy nor the physico-theology that appeared in its wake. The latter, by presuming to discern God in nature, found itself in conflict with revelation, especially when it postulated a plurality of worlds in addition to our Earth.22 Yet one of Lessing’s earliest poems is an affirmative treatment of this very theme (I, 26–28).

  • 23 “When the paralytic feels the beneficial effects of the electric spark, what does he care whether (...)
  • 24 See Harald Schulze, “Lessings Auseinandersetzung mit Theologen und Deisten um die ‘innere Wahrheit (...)
  • 25 “ugly broad ditch”; VIII, 443.
  • 26 “Contingent truths of history can never provide proof for necessary truths of reason”; VIII, 443.
  • 27 Johann Christian Edelmann (1698–1767) was the most notorious German freethinker of his time, espec (...)

6So, in emancipating himself from the orthodox Lutheranism of his upbringing, Lessing moved towards secularisation. But this must not be taken to mean that in turning to natural science, which, as his review of Massuet indicates, he understood as inductive and empirical, he had placed his worldview on a new and exclusive basis, directly opposed to that of theology. There are two reasons why not. For one thing, his religious beliefs were not based on conclusions drawn from empirical observation of the purposiveness of nature and the like, but on an inner certainty, an emotional faith, superior to any empirical knowledge. Significantly, this faith is expressed in a famous passage of the Gegensätze (Antitheses) with a barb directed against experimental physics: “Wenn der Paralyticus die wohltätigen Schläge des Elektrischen Funkens erfähret: was kümmert es ihn, ob Nollet, oder ob Franklin, oder ob keiner von beiden Recht hat?”23 Thus Lessing adheres to the mystical tradition with its doctrine of illumination by “inner truth.”24 Moreover, Lessing is convinced that there is no bridge over the “garstigen breiten Graben”25 separating empirical truths from truths of reason: “Zufällige Geschichtswahrheiten können der Beweis von notwendigen Vernunftswahrheiten nie werden,”26 he writes in Über den Beweis des Geistes und der Kraft (On the Proof of the Spirit and of Power, 1777). Both texts mean that, for Lessing, natural science can never become the foundation of faith. Do their positions apply also to Lessing’s earlier period? It is true that as early as 1750 Lessing expressed his horror at the science-based materialism and nihilism of La Mettrie: compared to the author of L’Homme machine, he said, Edelmann was a saint (XI/1, 32).27 Yet in a careful examination of Lessing’s statements about science, the question must be asked whether Lessing, as a scientist, did after all succeed in making the leap from empiricism to religious faith. I have in mind his sympathy, never yet assessed, with the physico-theology that was popular in his age.

  • 28 David Hill, “‘Es ist nicht wahr, daß die kürzeste Linie immer die gerade ist’: Eine Quelle,” Eupho (...)

7How then is Lessing’s interest in the natural sciences to be explained? Why did he pay special attention to them? What did the various branches of science mean to him? How is this interest related to his theological and literary inclinations? Scholarship has not shown much interest in these questions. David Hill, writing in 1991, and citing an earlier remark of my own, justly reminds us how little we still know about Lessing’s acquaintance with natural science, and, just as Hill discloses profound and minute expertise in physics behind a seemingly casual remark by Lessing in Die Erziehung des Menschengeschlechts, so there may be all manner of things concealed in this area of Lessing’s knowledge.28

The Sciences in Lessing’s Life and Works: An Overview

8Let us take stock of Lessing’s interest in the sciences as shown first in his biography, then in his works. Lessing’s whole life reveals a continuous, though not dominant, preoccupation with the knowledge of humanity and the world offered by the “other” culture, and the most diverse branches of science receive at least a glance, though sometimes little more. The biographical links with science are particularly close in Lessing’s early period. His own claim that in the academy of St Afra his “world” consisted of classical authors (III, 154) cannot be entirely true, since his favourite teacher there was Johann Albert Klimm, who directed the boy’s interest towards mathematics, his own pet subject. It is well known that the seventeen-year-old Lessing delivered a valedictory speech at St Afra, entitled “De mathematica barbarorum”; moreover, he translated the second, third and fourth books of Euclid and made notes for a history of mathematics which his brother Karl saw (LM, XIV, 143). None of this has survived, and we can only speculate about the significance that Klimm’s interest in astronomy may have had for the young Lessing. Klimm had published Astronomische Tabellen des Herrn de La Hire (1725; 2nd edn, 1745) and an edition of Jacques Cassini’s Mathematische und genaue Abhandlung von der Figur und Größe der Erde (1741).

  • 29 Daunicht, 16.
  • 30 Daunicht, 15. On Klimm, see J. C. Poggendorf, Biographisch-literarisches Handwörterbuch zur Geschi (...)

9While Lessing in later years makes only occasional vague reference to mathematics, regretting that his contemporaries know too little about it (e.g., II, 177–178), there is no mistaking the spell cast on him by astronomy throughout his life. In 1748, apropos Maupertuis’s expedition to Lapland to ascertain the oblateness of the North Pole, Lessing talked about Cassini’s problem of determining the shape of the Earth (I, 119). Even though it cannot be demonstrated, Klimm’s chief influence may have consisted in making his pupil – of whom a school report in Michaelmas 1745 said that he plunged into every “doctrinae genus,” every branch of learning29 – aware of the study of the real, external world, if indeed it is true that Klimm, who also taught languages, regarded them as an instrument of learning, not as “the thing itself.”30

  • 31 Daunicht, 52.
  • 32 Daunicht, 78.
  • 33 For Kästner’s testimonial, see Daunicht, 23; for Hundertmark’s, see 38. See also 24, 78.
  • 34 “the failed medical student who spent his time on literature”; Daunicht, 55.

10At the University of Leipzig Lessing was at first, in 1746, registered as “stud. theol.,” but in 1748 he switched to the faculty of medicine. Both during his brief period of study at the University of Wittenberg in autumn 1748, and during the year he spent there in 1751–1752, he is officially listed as a medical student, and his master’s dissertation, a translation of Juan Huarte’s Examen de ingenios para las ciencias, which appeared at Zerbst in 1752 as Prüfung der Köpfe zu den Wissenschaften, was on a topic, the psychology of aptitudes, which was understood in a broad contemporary sense as a medical one. His friend C. N. Naumann introduces him in 1752 as a “Candidat der Arzneykunst” (“student of medicine”) at Wittenberg.31 His medical studies probably were not deep. According to Nicolai, Lessing himself said that as a medical student at Leipzig he attended no lectures except on chemistry and midwifery.32 This sounds good (as do similar anecdotes), and may be largely true. For although his diligence is praised in reports by the mathematician and physicist Abraham Gotthelf Kästner on his participation in the latter’s seminar (mainly on philosophy, and the report was written after only three weeks), and by the physician and physiologist Karl Friedrich Hundertmark on the lectures on chemistry and botany Lessing attended,33 the bel esprit, theatre-goer and copious author will have hit the nail on the head when he described himself to Naumann as “der verdorbene Mediciner mit der Literatur.”34 Yet in the course of his life he frequently returns to medical topics, often with an air of expertise.

  • 35 Daunicht, 75.
  • 36 See Wilfried Barner, “Lessing und sein Publikum in den frühen kritischen Schriften,” Lessing in he (...)

11In his Berlin period Lessing had many conversations with the astronomer and academician Johann Kies.35 As was then unavoidable, Kies was interested in Newton, who is also often mentioned by the young Lessing, but one can hardly even speculate on the content of their conversations. There are more hints, however, about the themes that probably concerned Lessing during his time as a student and journalist when he was close to Mylius, whose “favourite science” was the “study of nature” (III, 333). Mylius was particularly interested in astronomy and edited the journal Der Naturforscher (The Student of Nature), in which he included poems by Lessing on astronomical topics such as the plurality of worlds. Lessing for his part, as a journalist writing in the Berlinische privilegirte Zeitung (1753–1754), followed with sympathetic interest the scientific expedition which was supposed to take Mylius to Surinam (II, 480–481, 490; III, 31–32, 36), and his obituary assesses his friend’s achievements in both literature and science (III, 330–349). In the notes and corrections that Lessing writes on Jöcher’s encyclopedia from 1751 onwards, scientific matters are constantly discussed or made the subject of bibliographical references (LM, XXII, 198–263). His activity as a reviewer, which extends to the mid-1750s, often touches on scientific themes, and they find an echo in the debate with Dusch in the Literaturbriefe (IV, 561–581). More will be said about these themes presently; here it may be emphasised that science, which for Lessing was always inductive and empirical, will have exerted some influence on the development of his own inductive method of literary criticism and criticism in general.36

  • 37 The titles in question can be found in Lessings Büchernachlass, eds. Paul Raabe and Barbara Strutz (...)

12In the subsequent period Lessing’s biographical contacts with science largely coincide with bibliographical references in his works and hence with what can be established from his own writings and notes. To complete the biographical survey, it may suffice to observe that in the 1760s Lessing paid much attention to geological themes, especially in connection with the Antiquarische Briefe directed against Christian Adolf Klotz. He probably possessed considerable expertise in the study of precious stones, as is further confirmed by numerous brief hints scattered across many volumes of his collected works. Finally, as librarian at Wolfenbüttel and a friend of Dr Johann Friedrich Topp and Dr Albrecht Thaer, he was intensely interested in medical questions (the healing powers of the oak, venereal diseases), and especially in the corollaries of planetary astronomy (bearing on the plurality of worlds and palingenesis). Appropriately, the documentation for this extends, so to speak, beyond Lessing’s death, when his “liberated soul” – like that of his friend Mylius, as he had put it (III, 333) – was already roaming from star to star in search of new worlds. The list of books found in Lessing’s house after his death, which had been borrowed unofficially from the ducal library, includes some fifteen medical and scientific works, including texts on mathematics, astronomy, geography, geology and medicine.37

Lessing and Natural History

13The evidence cited in the above biographical account shows how diverse Lessing’s interest in the natural sciences was. Let us try to survey the various disciplines that are involved. A principle of organisation, by no means unusual at that time, is provided by Lessing’s humorous poem, “Die drei Reiche der Natur” (“The Three Kingdoms of Nature”), in which, as in many other poems from around 1750, he proves that for him there was no contradiction in being both a “student of Nature” and a wit:

Drei Reiche sinds, die in der Welt
Uns die Natur vor Augen stellt.
Die Anzahl bleibt in allen Zeiten
Bei den Gelehrten ohne Streiten.
Doch wie man sie beschreiben muß,
Da irrt fast jeder Physikus.
Hört, ihr Gelehrten, hört Mich an,
Ob Ich sie recht beschreiben kann?

Die Tiere sind dem Menschen gleich,
Und beide sind das erste Reich.
Die Tiere leben, trinken, lieben;
Ein jegliches nach seinen Trieben.

Der Fürst, Stier, Adler, Floh und Hund
Empfindt die Lieb und netzt den Mund.
Was also trinkt und lieben kann,
Wird in das erste Reich getan.

Die Pflanze macht das andre Reich
Dem ersten nicht an Güte gleich.
Sie liebet nicht, doch kann sie trinken,
Wenn Wolken träufelnd niedersinken.
So trinkt die Ceder und der Klee,
Der Weinstock und die Aloe.
Drum was nicht liebt, doch trinken kann,
Wird in das andre Reich getan.

  • 38 “There are three kingdoms that Nature shows us in the world. Scholars have at all times agreed on (...)

Das Steinreich ist das dritte Reich,
Und dies macht Sand und Demant gleich.
Kein Stein fühlt Durst und zarte Triebe;
Er wächset ohne Trunk und Liebe.
Drum was nicht liebt, noch trinken kann,
Wird in das letzte Reich getan.
Denn ohne Lieb und ohne Wein,
Sprich, Mensch, was bleibst du noch? Ein Stein.38

14The human and animal kingdom, the vegetable and mineral kingdoms, equate to zoology and medicine, botany and mineralogy. Lessing has practically nothing to say about zoology (III, 61–62), but all the more on a subject that may be subsumed under mineralogy, namely astronomy. If we arrange his statements according to this scheme, we discover that on botany and mineralogy proper he has only scattered remarks that scarcely suggest broader philosophical questions, whereas medicine and astronomy fascinate him not only in themselves but also by their implications for his view of the world.

15Lessing’s Anacreontic science, that is, his humorous poetry on contemporary topics from popular science, extends only tangentially to medicine. At most, he composes an epigram on the English doctor and specialist in tuberculosis, Richard Mead:

  • 39 “When Mead appeared by the Styx, Pluto exclaimed in terror:/Alas! He has come to awaken even the d (...)

Als Mead am Styx erschien, rief Pluto voller Schrecken:
Weh mir! Nun kömmt er gar, die Todten zu erwecken.39

  • 40 See Martin Franzbach, Lessings Huarte-Übersetzung (1752) (Hamburg, 1965).

16The dissertation based on Huarte, mentioned earlier, despite Huarte’s focus on the psychology of aptitude, characterology and the doctrine of temperaments, fails to explore the anthropological questions that so intrigued the Enlightenment, namely the dependence of the mind and its conceptions on physical reality, climate, national character, geography and other “physical causes.”40 These are mentioned, but no more, in the review of Espiard’s Esprit des nations that Lessing published in the Berlinische privilegirte Zeitung, which deals with related issues (II, 474–476).

17These questions, however, which are powerfully suggested by Huarte’s texts, were not entirely ignored by Lessing (who in an early letter, already quoted, had seen in La Mettrie’s physiological materialism and mechanism a danger for the religious outlook; XI/1, 32); that much is clear from the philosophical poems he wrote around 1750. In the fragment “Die menschliche Glückseligkeit” (“On human happiness”), the obligatory theme of Enlightenment philosophy, Lessing paraphrases the mechanistic determinism that leads inevitably to atheism:

  • 41 “Freedom is but a dream; the soul becomes a mere sound, and unless the brain is meant, the word is (...)

Die Freiheit ist ein Traum: die Seele wird ein Ton,
Und meint man nicht das Hirn versteht man nichts davon.
Dem Gut und Bösen setzt ein blöder Weise Schranken,
Und ihr beglaubtes Nichts wohnt nur in den Gedanken.
Cartusch und er, der nie sein Leid und Meid vergaß,
Cartusch und Epictet verdient nicht Ruhm, nicht Haß.
Der stahl, weils ihm gefiel, und weil er stehlen mußte; Der lebte tugendhaft, weil er nichts bessers wußte;
Der ward wie der regiert, und seiner Taten Herr
War, wie ein Uhrwerk nie, auch nie ein Sterblicher.
Wer tut was ihm gefällt, tut das, was er tun sollte;
Nur unser Stolz erfand das leere Wort: ich wollte.
Und eben die, die uns stark oder schwach erschaft,
Sie die Natur schaft uns auch gut und lasterhaft.41

18Lessing’s reply, which is equally categorical and lacking in rational support, is astonishingly reminiscent of his positions in the 1770s, when he talks of faith being predetermined by God and about the immediate certainty felt emotionally by a soul that cannot be reduced to organic matter:

  • 42 “I believe there is a God, and join with the rest of the world in believing this, because I have t (...)

Ich glaub, es ist ein Gott, und glaub es mit der Welt,
Weil ich es glauben muß, nicht weil es ihr gefällt.
[…]
Gnug, wer Gott leugnen kann, muß sich auch leugnen können.
Bin ich, so ist auch Gott. Er ist von mir zu trennen,
Ich aber nicht von ihm. Er wär, wär ich auch nicht;
Und ich fühl was in mir, das für sein Daseyn spricht.
Weh dem, der es nicht fühlt, und doch will glücklich werden,
Gott aus dem Himmel treibt, und diesen sucht auf Erden!42

  • 43 On Lessing and gambling, see Karl S. Guthke, “Der Philosoph im Spielkasino,” in Guthke, Das Abente (...)

19Yet for Lessing the world without a Creator, dismissed from an anthropological standpoint as a “clock,” is also, and illogically, the world of chance. Here we note another intellectual factor, one that worried Lessing, as a gambler, throughout his life: the horror inspired by a world without God is the horror of “sa majesté le Hasard,” as Frederick the Great called it with casual cynicism.43 In order to shut out a philosophy of chance, Lessing does not disdain even the help of physico-theology, which has in principle nothing to do with the immediate emotional conviction that his poem has just evoked:

  • 44 “Miserable world, if you lack a Creator whose wisdom resolves that our well-being shall be the pur (...)

Beklagenswürdge Welt, wenn dir ein Schöpfer fehlt,
Des Weisheit nur das Wohl zum Zweck der Thaten wählt!
Spielt nur ein Ungefehr mit mein und deinem Wesen,
Ward ich nur, weil ich ward, und bist du nicht erlesen;
Was hält den feigen Arm, daß er beym kleinsten Schmerz,
Zu seiner Rettung, sich den Dolch nicht drückt ins Herz?
Stirb, weil dein Leiden doch zu keiner Absicht zwecket,
Und dich in Freud und Leid ein hämscher Zufall necket,
Der dich durch kurze Lust ruckweise nur erquickt,
Daß dich der nächste Schmerz nicht unempfindlich drückt.
Ein Weiser schätzt kein Spiel, wo nur der Fall regieret,
Und Klugheit nichts gewinnt, und Dummheit nichts verlieret.
Verlust ohn meine Schuld ist ein zu bittres Gift,
Und Glück ergötzt mich nicht, das auch die Narren trift.
Stirb, und verlaß die Welt, das Urbild solcher Spiele,
Wo ich Pein ohne Schuld, und Lust mit Eckel fühle.
Doch warum eifr’ich so? Gott ist, mein Glück steht fest,
Das Wechsel, Schmerz und Zeit mir schmackhaft werden läßt.44

  • 45 “O time, happy time! in which rare spirits have revealed God in the creation, the craftsman in the (...)

O Zeit, beglückte Zeit! wo gründlich seltne Geister
Gott in der Creatur, im Kunststück seinen Meister,
Dem Spötter aufgedeckt, der blind sich und die Welt,
Für eine Glücksgeburth des blinden Zufalls hält.45

  • 46 “What is man? What remains of him?”; II, 267.
  • 47 “changes in our bodily fluids”; II, 265.

20In the fragment “Die Religion” Lessing returns to the challenge offered by the mechanistic reduction of the soul to the organic brain (II, 264–276). Lessing encountered this argument in Berlin, put forward by the physician La Mettrie, who died of overeating (though Lessing does not mention him by name; in 1751 he records La Mettrie’s death in the Critische Nachrichten, II, 258–259). “Was ist der Mensch? […] Was bleibt von ihm?”46 Dust, an animal, a piece of clockwork? The materialism that denies the soul is again rejected. The mechanistic system of anthropology without God reduces humanity to a life form for which virtue and vice are no longer meaningful concepts but result merely from “Veränderung unsrer Säfte”47 – a familiar naturalistic fear in the eighteenth century which, for obvious reasons, particularly worried doctors such as Haller and, later, Schiller, not to mention stud. med. Gotthold Ephraim. And like these far more experienced medical men, Lessing too fears being overwhelmed by seeing the human body not as a wondrous system that proclaims God’s wisdom, but as a “system of loathsome diseases” that might reveal God as a bungler (II, 265). Here speaks the clear voice of Lessing the medical student, who must have attended lectures on more than midwifery. His confident physic-theology is placed in jeopardy – but he presents such fears as objections which will be refuted later in the poem. Unfortunately, he obviously never got that far.

21Lessing also speaks as a medical man in the reviews he writes in the early 1750s. It is true that in his reviews he comments on all manner of things, but in medicine he did have some competence, and he is understandably eager to display it. Yet these reviews do not suggest a more comprehensive view of humanity, such as appeared, however modestly, in his philosophical poems. Generally, Lessing the reviewer stays on the surface, not to mention the fact that he often sets such store by a book’s preface or table of contents that he copies it out more or less verbatim, and this applies also to some reviews on medical topics. Thus it means little that the one-time student of gynaecology (if that is what he was) writes a rather vacuous review, inspired by local patriotism, of a festive poem by a physician in Kamenz about the “white effluxion” of women (II, 155–156), or that he reviews sundry medical texts by merely listing their contents (II, 155–156, 171–172, 204–207; III, 75–76). His marginal notes in Jöcher’s encyclopedia from 1751 on, in the diary he later kept on his Italian journey, and in his commonplace books do not even amount to that. These notes, mostly bibliographical, historical, philological or etymological, reveal nothing about the philosophical or even the substantive content of such contacts with medical science.

  • 48 LM, XV, 390; see Daunicht, 337.

22In his later years Lessing twice undertakes a more thorough engagement with medicine. Around 1770, inspired by a discovery in the Wolfenbüttel library, he planned to write a treatise on venereal disease, but, characteristically, from a historical rather than a medical point of view. What he thought he could prove was that syphilis was already rampant in Spain when Columbus returned from America the first time.48 The discovery of a late-medieval treatise by Arnold de Villa Nova which the librarian immediately recognised as a little-known rarity gave him the idea of writing something about the pharmacological properties of the oak tree (LM, XII, 451–452). But that too came to nothing.

23Lessing’s very occasional encounters with botany are decidedly unrewarding. To that extent, therefore, his comparison of himself and Pastor Goeze (in “Eine Parabel”) to a herb gatherer and a shepherd (IX, 44) is a (symbolic) self-overestimation.

  • 49 See Dietrich Hoffmann, “Lessing im Gespräch mit Naturforschern,” Wolfenbütteler Studien zur Aufklä (...)

24Finally, the mineral kingdom. References to mineralogy, especially to the study of precious stones, are strewn in quite considerable numbers among the nooks and crannies of the monumental Lachmann – Muncker edition. As a rule, they are once more bibliographical, historical or philological in character, and do not suggest any more extensive reflections.49 Here we recognise Lessing the antiquarian, and naturally this hobby of his, which to the “modern mind” undoubtedly seems recondite, reaches its fullest and oddest development in the Antiquarische Briefe. The peculiar nature of this hobby emerges there more distinctly than in letters, commonplace books or other marginalia. Its focus is invariably on the study of antiquity: stones arouse interest less from a mineralogical or chemical standpoint than from that of the philologist who is familiar with his classical authorities, knows classical loci, ponders etymologies and tries to identify the terms used on the basis of textual interpretation. Beyond that, Lessing is concerned with details of preparing gems, polishing and cutting stones, and other practical, artisanal matters. Actual science, whether mineralogy or geology, is left out.

Lessing and Astronomy

  • 50 “a convinced poetic and religious faith”; “to a previously unknown, indeed unimagined freedom of t (...)

25Astronomy, on the other hand, is the branch of science to which Lessing, from his teens to his maturity, paid the closest attention, not only by acquiring knowledge which issued in all manner of learned notes, as with mineralogy, botany and medicine, but also by sensing, confronting and exploring the implications or challenges that the data of this science presented to his worldview. The “provinciality” of the humanist and theologian is repeatedly overcome, almost demonstratively, by looking not only at the stars but also at the “worlds” that must orbit them by analogy with our own planetary system. Goethe was also speaking for Lessing (who was rarely far from his thoughts) when he said of Copernicanism, an unavoidable subject in the wake of Newton, with whom Lessing was familiar, that it had put “die Überzeugung eines poetisch-religiösen Glaubens” out of joint, while simultaneously encouraging its adherents to rise “zu einer bisher unbekannten, ja geahneten Denkfreiheit und Großheit der Gesinnungen.”50

  • 51 “conversational topics of contemporary discussions on popular science”; Richter, “Lessing: ‘Die dr (...)
  • 52 Richter, 199.
  • 53 See Karl S. Guthke, Der Mythos der Neuzeit: Das Thema der Mehrheit der Welten in der Literatur-und (...)

26In Lessing’s early rococo poems the demands of the new astronomy are not yet met, but are only the subject of playful humour. With a lightness of touch suitable for the general reader, the poems take up “Gesprächsthemen der zeitgenössischen (populär-) wissenschaftlichen Diskussion”51 – nothing out of the ordinary at that time, especially in the circle around Mylius and his journal Der Naturforscher. Such poems, it has been said, do not treat natural science seriously.52 Even so, Lessing’s particular interests are apparent here. For the poems repeatedly recur to the theme of the plurality of worlds, that is, of heavenly bodies, including comets, which are inhabited (by “departed souls,” among others). Judging from Lessing’s obituary for Mylius, this must have been a favourite topic of conversation in Mylius’and Kästner’s Leipzig circle, which was familiar with Heyn’s theory of comets (III, 337); given the general popularity of the subject, this is hardly surprising.53 The song “Alexander” characteristically combines astronomy with Anacreontic motifs:

  • 54 “The sage said to Alexander: ‘Up there, where lighted worlds roam, are many nations, many cities.’ (...)

Der Weise sprach zu Alexandern:
“Dort, wo die lichten Welten wandern,
Ist manches Volk, ist manche Stadt.”
Was thut der Mann von tausend Siegen?
Die Memme weint, daß, dort zu kriegen,
Der Himmel keine Brücken hat.
Ists wahr, was ihn der Weise lehret,
Und finden, was zur Welt gehöret,
Daselbst auch Wein und Mädchen statt;
So lasset, Brüder, Thränen fließen,
Daß, dort zu trinken und zu küssen,
Der Himmel keine Brücken hat.54

27Similarly in “Die Einwohner der Planeten” (“The inhabitants of the planets”):

  • 55 “To take delight in pleasant fancies, to place inhabitants in planets before one has good reasons (...)

Mit süßen Grillen sich ergetzen,
Einwohner in Planeten setzen,
Eh man aus sichern Gründen schließt,
Ob auch Wein da vorhanden ist;
Das heißt sich übereilen.
Drum, Freund, bring nur zuvor aufs reine,
Daß in den neuen Welten Weine,
Wie in der, die wir kennen, sind.
So kann dann auch das kleinste Kind
Auf seine Trinker schließen.55

28The theme is articulated more seriously in Lessing’s early philosophical poetry. It is notable that in choosing the querelle as a theme and siding with the advocates of modern science, Lessing recognises the superiority of the moderns as lying in astronomy. In the fragmentary poem about the querelle which appeared in Der Naturforscher in 1748 and which Lessing later reprinted as “An den Herrn M **” (i.e., Mylius), he chooses Homer to represent the ancients and Newton, “his equal in stature,” as the equally obvious spokesman for the moderns:

  • 56 “Who doubts that Homer would have been a Newton, and Newton, like Homer, the glory of immortal poe (...)

Wer zweifelt, daß Homer ein Newton worden wäre,
Und Newton, wie Homer, der ewgen Dichtkunst Ehre,
Wenn dieser das geliebt, und dieses der gewählt,
Worinne beiden doch nichts mehr zum Engel fehlt.56

29And when Lessing subsequently proposes the modern ideal of “nicht fremd sein auf der Welt,” he describes it with illustrations from astronomy:

  • 57 “To know the heavens, to be familiar with moon and stars, to learn their paths, times, size and li (...)

Der Himmel Kenner sein, bekannt mit Mond und Sternen,
Ihr Gleis, Zeit, Größ und Licht, durch glücklichs Raten, lernen:
Nicht fremd sein auf der Welt, daß man die Wohnung kennt,
Des Herrn sich mancher Tor, ohn ihre Einsicht, nennt:57

30Only after the queen of the sciences has been mentioned do the other branches of science follow as an afterthought, with Lessing showing himself reasonably well informed:

  • 58 “Now in the dark mineshaft, where wealth and horror reign, and danger dwells alongside utility wit (...)

Bald in dem finstern Schacht, wo Graus und Reichtum thronet,
Und bei dem Nutz Gefahr in hohlen Felsen wohnet,
Der Steine teure Last, der Erzte hart Geschlecht,
Der Gänge Wunderlauf, was schimmernd und was echt,
Mit mühsamer Gefahr und fährlichen Beschwerden,
Neugierig auszuspähn, und so ihr Herr zu werden;
Bald in der lustgen Plän, im schauernd dunkeln Wald,
Auf kahler Berge Haupt, in krummer Felsen Spalt,
Und wo die Neubegier die schweren Schritte leitet,
Und Frost und Wind und Weg die Lehrbegier bestreitet,
Der Pflanzen grünen Zucht gelehrig nachzugehn,
Und mit dem Pöbel zwar, doch mehr, als er, zu sehn;
Bald mehr Vollkommenheit in Tieren zu entdecken,
Der Vögel Feind zu sein und Störer aller Hecken:
Zu wissen, was dem Bär die starken Knochen füllt,
Was in dem Elend zuckt, was aus dem Ochsen brüllt,
Was in dem Ocean für scheußlich Untier schwimmet,
Und welche Schneckenbrut an seinen Ufern klimmet;
Was jedem Tier gemein, was ihm besonders ist,
Was jedes Reich verbindt, wo jedes Grenzen schließt:
Bald mit geübtem Blick den Menschen zu ergründen,
Des Blutes Kreislauf sehn, sein festes Triebwerk finden:
Dazu gehöret mehr, als wenn beim Glase Wein
Der Dichter ruhig singt, besorgt nur um den Schein.58

31Immediately afterwards, however, Lessing declares how much less interesting these sciences are than astronomy, when he triumphantly ranks Newton above Aristotle:

  • 59 “Truth came flying down to us in radiant light,/letting Newton see, where the Stagirite had misled (...)

Die Wahrheit kam zu uns im Glanz herabgeflogen,
Ließ Newton sehn, wo uns der Stagirit betrogen.59

32Admittedly, he then says:

  • 60 “An Aldrovandus or a Réaumur adorns us more/than all the Muses can do for you with Homer alone”; I (...)

Uns ziert ein Aldrovand, ein Reaumur ziert uns mehr,
Als alle Musen euch im einzigen Homer.60

33Apart from these, however, the only names Lessing drops in his wild dash through the sciences are those of astronomers: Georg Samuel Dörffel, who calculated the parabola of the comet of 1680, and Maupertuis, who managed “happily to measure” (“glücklich messen”) the oblateness of the poles and thus confirmed one of Newton’s hypotheses (I, 118–119).

  • 61 See Wolfgang Philipp, Das Werden der Aufklärung in theologiegeschichtlicher Sicht (Göttingen, 1957 (...)

34But Lessing does not stop at the mere facts of modern scientific achievements. He also praises the “wit” of the “philosopher” (I, 118). The latter takes empirical findings and draws philosophical conclusions from them. His thinking is teleological; he represents the physico-theology of the time.61 The philosopher is the person who

  • 62 “sees in the midge the Creator of all things; for each drop of vinegar becomes a new world, create (...)

in der Mücke sieht den Schöpfer aller Dinge[,]
Dem jeder Essigtropf wird eine neue Welt,
Die eben der GOtt schuf, und eben der GOtt hält.62

35This is where the modern philosophers are superior to the ancients:

  • 63 “No truth can be based on arbitrarily chosen grounds, on dreams rather than one’s own observations (...)

Ein selbst erwählter Grund stützt keine Wahrheit fest,
Als die man, statt zu sehn, sich selber träumen läßt.
Und wie wir die Natur bei alten Weisen kennen,
Ist sie ihr eigen Werk, nicht Gottes Werk, zu nennen.
Vergebens sucht man da des Schöpfers Majestät,
Wo alles nach der Schnur verkehrter Grillen geht.
Wird gleich die Faulheit noch die leichten Lügen ehren,
Genug, wir sehen GOtt in neuern klärern Lehren.63

  • 64 “One of my very first attempts at poetry”; II, 681.
  • 65 “At that time the new theories put forward by Whiston and Huygens’Kosmotheoros had filled my imagi (...)

36Lessing must of course have been less concerned to base his physicotheological demonstration of the Creator’s wisdom and goodness merely on midges and vinegar than on astronomy. About “einen von meinen allerersten Versuchen in der Dichtkunst,”64 which he dates to the year 1746, he reports in the eleventh of his critical Briefe: “Die neue Theorie des Whistons und des Hugens Kosmotheoros hatten damals meine Einbildungskraft mit Begriffen und Bildern erfüllt, die mir desto reizender schienen, je neuer sie waren. So viel sahe ich, daß sie einer poetischen Einkleidung fähiger, als irgend eine andre philosophische Materie seyn müßten.”65 Lessing is referring to his poem “On the plurality of worlds,” which undertakes a serious treatment of the topic toyed with in his humorous, Anacreontic “Songs.” The short surviving fragments do not talk about “astro-theology,” but physico-theological thought on a popular level is already present in the very subject of the plurality of worlds, and it is no accident that Lessing introduces such thinking casually at one point in his poem:

  • 66 “That is why God gave you the mind’s sharp eye, /that it might serve to improve your bodily eye”; (...)

Deswegen gab dir Gott des Geistes schärfres Auge,
Daß es das leibliche dir zu verbessern tauge.66

37We have already encountered the rudiments of physico-theology when discussing the medical views held by the young Lessing, the versemaker. Now we must consider the intellectual circumstances that enabled Lessing to reach this position, the argument from design. We need to recall some general considerations mentioned above. Assuming that Lessing’s inclination towards science implies an emancipation, if seen from the orthodox Lutheran standpoint, it must be added in the light of the early poems that this was not an emancipation that led to atheism. The sciences do not tempt Lessing to embrace atheism, nor even deism. On the contrary, they provide him with a bulwark against the atheism of the atomists, in so far as the latter uphold the doctrine of chance. However much it may secretly fascinate him, Lessing, even in his already quoted early poem on happiness, rejects such a conception of the world as a false deduction from the understanding of nature. Rather, science, whether physiology or cosmology, is in Lessing’s view a matter of natural laws. But such an understanding of nature can also permit an atheistic conclusion, and against this Lessing, even in his youth, as has already been said, also takes up the cudgels with equal vehemence: against the determinism of La Mettrie’s physiology and the mechanistic cosmology of ancient and modern Epicureans.

  • 67 “Rational cognition of a natural law that is not arbitrary”; II, 254.

38Lessing still maintains that science deals with natural laws and that, as such, it does not conflict with the Christian religion (II, 546–547). Hence he says in a 1751 review of Joachim Oporin’s Die Religion und Hofnung im Tode, which speaks among other things of the “vernünftigen Erkenntnis eines nicht willkürlichen Naturgesezes”:67

  • 68 “It is certain that the advance of science brings about the demise of superstition, and false that (...)

So gewiß es ist, daß das Aufnehmen der Wissenschaften den Fall des Aberglaubens bewirkt, so falsch ist es, daß eben dieses Aufnehmen der wahren Gottesfurcht verderblich sein solle. Es ist ein Irrtum, wenn man es für eine notwendige Folge unsrer aufgeklärten Zeiten hält, daß hier und da ein witziger Kopf, stolz auf nichts entscheidende Einfälle, und zu faul die Gründe der Religionen zu untersuchen, alle Pflichten derselben für Träume schwermütiger Lehrer und staatskluge Menschensatzungen hält. Wären Irreligion und ein großer Umfang erlangter Einsichten notwendig mit einander verbunden, so wäre ein frommer Newton ein weit größrer Freigeist gewesen, als Diderot, und Leibniz ein größerer Feind alles Göttlichen als Edelmann.68

39But how were religion and science to be combined? For Lessing, this situation permits only one possibility: to accept the laws of nature as the work of God, even of a personal God, who thus aims to promote the wellbeing of humanity. This is the possibility that Lessing did in fact adopt. It has been completely forgotten, and is hard to reconcile with current theological interpretations of Lessing and, as was remarked earlier, with Lessing’s own fideism and his meta-empirical grounding of rational truths, that the young Lessing, the critic and the poet, was an enthusiastic devotee of physico-theology. The passages already quoted speak an unambiguous language. In his youth, therefore, he ventured to leap over the “ditch” separating empirical facts from metaphysical truths, thanks to his teleological conception of natural facts as the work of a God who thought and acted according to a plan.

  • 69 U. K. Ketelsen, Die Naturpoesie der norddeutschen Frühaufklärung (Stuttgart, 1974). That Luther vi (...)
  • 70 Incidentally, Whiston, who meant so much to the young Lessing (II, 170, 546–547, 681), was a Newto (...)
  • 71 “a hand in every game”; X, 74.

40One wonders what gave him the courage to do so. Ketelsen’s book on Brockes’circle has taught us that this leap was a possibility present within Lutheranism, both the liberal and the orthodox varieties.69 Yet everything suggests that Lessing’s physico-theological combination of science and theism was rooted not in Lutheranism, but in Newtonianism. For, as already indicated, the young Lessing, in verse and prose, repeatedly declared his allegiance to Newton, not just in the querelle.70 Lessing’s Newtonianism has barely been noticed, yet it is not really surprising, since, as Lessing immediately realised, the “pious Newton” was at least implicitly hostile to both forms of atheism – by falling back on a God conceived in theistic, indeed Christian, terms as having purposefully created the cosmic machinery of our planetary system and sustaining it by intervention as he thought fit, hence as having, for the benefit of mankind, “seine Hand bey allem im Spiele.”71 Newton’s theological determinism is also Lessing’s, as can be seen in the postscript to his edition of Jerusalem’s essays or in Nathan der Weise. Providence seems vindicated, chance has been expelled.

41It is just here, however, that Newton – or rather, the circle of Newton’s pupils – presents a problem. For if, according to Newton, the fixed stars are suns like our sun, then, by analogy with Newton’s model of the world, there may be other planetary systems, and also human or human-like inhabitants of other planets. But that casts doubt on something that early physico-theology takes for granted – the singularity and centrality of Adam’s descendants in God’s plan of salvation. And with this doubt, there reappears the ghost of chance as the principle governing the world; for the most prominent upholders of the doctrine of the plurality of worlds were the ancient atomists, who ascribed these worlds to the operation of chance. For such doubt, for suggesting that we might not be alone, the crown of creation and under God’s special protection, people in the eighteenth century were no longer condemned by the Inquisition to be burned at the stake, like Giordano Bruno, but at the end of the eighteenth century Thomas Paine still made this idea the starting point for his polemic against Christianity, and it could still be fatal to Christian belief, as it was for Shelley (and even for the young Claudel). Hence in Lessing’s time this “new heresy” was intensively discussed, and the young Lessing, in particular, paid considerable attention to the problem of the plurality of inhabited worlds, which today would make him the guru of those adventurous hearts who are spellbound by the current projects designed to discover extraterrestrial intelligence. In Lessing’s case, the issue had a serious background: he was very interested in the attempts by James Bradley and Huygens to measure stellar parallaxes, and immediately grasped that this meant the death knell for the view that our solar system was located in the centre of the universe; instead, the fixed stars are at various distances from the sun, and there is no question of any crystal sphere, with fixed stars attached, enveloping us and lending us a richly symbolic special position.

42Lessing’s interesting solution to the question of plurality is clearest in the poem “Die lehrende Astronomie” (“The lesson of astronomy”), which is really a piece of science fiction. Here Lessing rescues theological anthropocentrism (man as the apple of God’s eye) by a physic-theological recourse to palingenesis: after the death of the body, the soul will increase in happiness and see better worlds. So we have plurality of worlds, but singularity of the soul, which theologically is just about acceptable:

Dank sei dem Schöpfer, der mein Haupt
Auf hohe feste Schultern baute,
Und mir die Pracht zu sehn erlaubt,
Die nie ein hängend Tieraug schaute!
Hier lern ich mich und ihn erkennen,
Und hier mich nichts, ihn alles nennen.

Was bin ich? Ich bin groß genung,
Bin ich ein Punct der Welt zu nennen.
Mein Wissen ist Verwunderung;
Mein Leben leichter Blitze Brennen.
Und so ein Nichts, verblendte Toren,
Soll sein zum Herrn der Welt geboren?

Der Stolz, der Torheit Eigentum,
Verkennt, zu eignem Trost, sich gerne;
Die Demut ist des Weisen Ruhm,
Und die lernt er bei euch, ihr Sterne!
Und wird nur groß, weil er euch kennet,
Und euern Gott auch seinen nennet.

Auch wenn sein Unglück ihn den Weg,
Den harten Weg der Prüfung führet,
Und wenn, auf dem einsamen Steg,
Sich Lieb und Freund von ihm verlieret,
Lernt er bei euch, durch süße Grillen,
Oft allzuwahre Schmerzen stillen.

O Tugend! reizend Hirngedicht,
Erdachte Zierde unsrer Seelen!
Die Welt, o Tugend, hat dich nicht:
Doch wirst du auch den Sternen fehlen?
Nein, starbst du gleich bei uns im Abel,
Du selbst bist viel zu schön zur Fabel.

Dort seh ich, mit erstauntem Blick,
Ein glänzend Heer von neuen Welten;
Getrost, vielleicht wird dort das Glück
So viel nicht, als die Tugend, gelten.
Vielleicht dort in Orions Grenzen
Wird, frei vom Wahn, die Wahrheit glänzen!

“Das Übel,” schreit der Aberwitz,
“Hat unter uns sein Reich gewonnen.”
Wohl gut, doch ist des Guten Sitz
In ungezählten größern Sonnen.
Der Dinge Reihen zu erfüllen,
Schuf jenes Gott mit Widerwillen.

  • 72 The seventh and eighth stanzas were not in the original version of the poem, published in Der Natu (...)

So, wie den Kenner der Natur
Auch Quarz und Eisenstein vergnügen,
Nicht Gold-und Silberstufen nur
In Fächern, voller Lücken, liegen:
So hat das Übel Gott erlesen
Der Welt zur Füllung, nicht zum Wesen.72

O nahe dich, erwünschte Zeit,
Wo ich, frei von der Last der Erde,
In wachsender Glückseligkeit,
Einst bessre Welten sehen werde!
O Zeit, wo mich entbundne Schwingen
Von einem Stern zum andern bringen!

Gedanken! fliehet nur voran!
Verirrt euch in den weiten Sphären,
Bis ich euch selber folgen kann.
Wie lang, Geschick, wird es noch währen,
O Lust, hier seh ich schon die Kreise,
Die Wege meiner ewgen Reise!

Drum kränkt der blinde Damon sich
Nur in der Nacht um sein Gesichte,
Geruhig, Tag, vermißt er dich,
Und dein Eitelkeit im Lichte;
Und wünscht sich, von der Weltlust ferne,
Ein fühlend Aug nur für die Sterne.

  • 73 “Thanks be to the Creator, who set my head on firm and lofty shoulders, allowing me to behold the (...)

O selge Zeit der stillen Nacht,
Wo Neid und Bosheit schlafend liegen,
Und nur ein frommes Auge wacht,
Und sucht am Himmel sein Vergnügen!
Gott sieht die Welt in diesen Stunden,
Und spricht, ich hab sie gut gefunden!73

  • 74 “That more than five senses are possible for human beings”; X, 229–232.
  • 75 See Guthke, Der Mythos der Neuzeit, ch. 4; Ernst Cassirer, Die Philosophie der Aufklärung (Tübinge (...)

43Thus Lessing in Der Naturforscher in 1748. But is this not just a youthful whim – a text that should come under child protection laws against interpretation? Apparently so: the later theologian Lessing, whether rationalist or spiritualist, is, as was remarked earlier, relatively provincial in a cosmological sense – he knows only one inhabited world and shows no interest in psychic tourism. But this appearance is deceptive: interplanetary palingenesis, a popular topic at this time – not least in Swedenborg, whose work on the subject Lessing borrowed from the library and had in his house when he died – is one on which Lessing often remarks, and not only in his early years. Even in the Wolfenbüttel period, probably around 1780, he writes a (fragmentary) essay on what he calls his philosophical system, under the title “Daß mehr als fünf Sinne für den Menschen sein können”74 – a theme that, for anyone familiar with this recondite material, points unmistakably to his early, scientifically inspired speculations on the plurality of inhabited worlds and on interplanetary palingenesis. The idea of developing more than five senses is known from Fontenelle, Voltaire, Brockes, Diderot, Herder and others, and especially – in a scientific context – from Charles Bonnet, who moreover explicitly links it with the idea of plurality of worlds and palingenesis.75

  • 76 “man’s continued existence after death”; Daunicht, 509. On Lessing’s knowledge of the Palingénésie (...)
  • 77 X, 229–231. In view of the length of the original, the text is here given only in translation, tak (...)

44And now a little surprise: among the things Lessing said to Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi around 1780 was this: that he was just rereading a book whose ideas closely coincided with his own philosophical “system” (that word again), with his own “ideas” about the “Fortdauer des Menschen nach dem Tode.”76 Which book? Bonnet’s Palingénésie, of course. But what exactly this (half-scientific, half-philosophical) “system” of Lessing’s amounts to – that can be discerned in Lessing’s hints only to a limited extent. He begins with the logical, scientifically based possibility of developing more senses than our five:77

6) If nature nowhere makes a leap, the soul will also have progressed through all the lower stages before it reached the stage at which it is at present. It will first have had each of these five senses singly, then all ten combinations of two, all ten combinations of three, and all five combinations of four before it acquired all five together.

7) This is the route it has already covered, and there can have been very few stops along the way if it is true that the way which it still has to cover in its present condition continues to be so uniform – that is, if it is true that no other senses are possible beyond the present five, and that the soul will retain only these five senses for all eternity, so that the wealth of its representations can grow only through an increase in the perfection of its present senses.

8) But how greatly this way which it has hitherto covered is extended if we contemplate, in a manner worthy of the creator, the way which still lies before it – that is, if we assume that far more senses are possible, all of which the soul has already possessed singly and in their simple groupings (i.e. every combination of two, three, or four) before it arrived at its present combination of five senses.

[…]

16) But what is the need? It is enough that we know for sure that there are more than five homogeneous masses such as those which correspond to our present five senses.

  • 78 The translation has been modified at this point with the translator’s permission.
  • 79 Nicholas Saunderson (1682–1739), English mathematician who lost his sight at the age of one.

17) Thus, just as the sense of sight corresponds to the homogeneous mass through which bodies attain a condition of visibility (i.e. light), so also is it certain that particular senses can and will correspond, e.g., to electrical matter or magnetic78 matter, senses through which we shall immediately recognise whether bodies are in an electrical or magnetic state. We can at present attain this knowledge only by conducting experiments. All that we now know – or can know in our present human condition – about electricity or magnetism is no more than what Saunderson79 knew of optics. – But as soon as we ourselves have the sense of electricity or the sense of magnetism, we shall experience what Saunderson would have experienced if he had suddenly gained his sight. A whole new world will suddenly emerge for us, full of the most splendid phenomena, of which we can as little form a conception now as he could of light and colours.

18) And just as we can now be assured of the existence of magnetic and electrical forces, and of the homogeneous elements (masses) in which these forces are active, despite the fact that little or nothing was known about them at one time, so also can we be confident that a hundred or a thousand other forces exist in their respective masses, although we do not yet know anything about them. For each of these, a corresponding sense will exist.

45A second approach then combines these abstract speculations with the ancient theory of transmigration of souls, though Lessing cannot have had in mind solely the wandering of the soul from planet to planet (or star to star). For at least Pythagoras, whom he mentions, thought of the soul’s return “in this world” (X, 98), hence about metempsychosis rather than palingenesis, as did Lessing himself in Die Erziehung des Menschengeschlechts. Lessing continues:

This system of mine is surely the oldest of all philosophical systems. For it is in fact none other than the system of the soul’s pre-existence and of metempsychosis, which not only Pythagoras and Plato, but the Egyptians and Chaldeans and Persians – in short, all the wise men of the East – thought of before them.
And this alone must predispose us in its favour. The first and oldest opinion in speculative matters is always the most probable one, because common sense immediately lit upon it.
But two things stood in the way of this oldest, and in my opinion uniquely probable, system. First –

  • 80 Altmann, 7 notes that Lessing consistently uses this word in the context of his speculations on th (...)
  • 81 See Albrecht Schöne’s study Lichtenberg: Aufklärung aus dem Geist der Experimentalphysik (München, (...)
  • 82 “The noblest study of mankind is man”; II, 474.
  • 83 “Turn your gaze towards yourselves! […] Grasp and control here the only thing you were meant to gr (...)

46Here the fragment breaks off. We cannot make very much of it. But the literary detective will be struck by how Lessing, both in this fragment and in the conversation reported by Jacobi, speaks of his “system.”80 If, however, he regarded his “system” as corresponding to Bonnet’s doctrine of the interplanetary transmigration of souls, which can hardly be in doubt, then we have an unmistakable clue to Lessing’s participation in a widespread but exceptionally exciting scientific and intellectual adventure undertaken by the Enlightenment. Mystical speculation, scholarly empiricism and anthropology are integrated to prove that “Enlightenment in the spirit of experimental physics”81 need not be a prisoner to this particular science. Even as a scientist, Lessing remains the philosopher, to some extent also the imaginative bel esprit, and, above all, the man who maintained the contemporary maxim “Die edelste Beschäftigung des Menschen ist der Mensch”82 and the Socratic polemic against the anti-humanist obsession with heaven: “Kehret den Blick in euch selbst! […] Hier begreifet und beherrschet das einzige, was ihr begreifen und beherrschen sollt; euch selbst.”83

Notes

1 This article was originally published as “‘Nicht fremd seyn auf der Welt’: Lessing und die Naturwissenschaften,” Lessing Yearbook, XXV (1993), 55–82, and reprinted in Karl S. Guthke, Der Blick in die Fremde: Das Ich und das andere in der Literatur (Tübingen, 2000), 180–204. It was translated by Ritchie Robertson and slightly adapted with the permission of the author.

2 Richard Daunicht, Lessing im Gespräch (München, 1971), 526. References to Lessing texts are to the Frankfurter Ausgabe of Werke und Briefe, Deutscher Klassiker Verlag (1985–2003) or, if preceded by LM, to Sämtliche Schriften, eds. Karl Lachmann and Franz Muncker (1886–1924).

3 Goethe, Sämtliche Werke, Deutscher Klassiker Verlag (1986–2000), XIV, 629.

4 See Karl S. Guthke, “Haller und Lessing: Einsames Zwiegespräch,” in Guthke, Literarisches Leben im achtzehnten Jahrhundert in Deutschland und in der Schweiz (Bern and München, 1975), 118–152.

5 See Emanuel Hirsch, Geschichte der evangelischen Theologie (Gütersloh, 1949), 209–216.

6 Herbert Schöffler, Protestantismus und Literatur, 2nd ed. (Göttingen, 1958).

7 Paul Raabe, “Lessing und die Gelehrsamkeit: Bemerkungen zu einem Forschungsthema,” Lessing in heutiger Sicht, eds. Edward P. Harris and Richard E. Schade (Bremen and Wolfenbüttel, 1977), 65–88; Georges Pons, “Lessing: Un érudit malgré lui?,” Recherches germaniques, IX (1979), 30–54.

8 R. F. Jones, Ancients and Moderns, 2nd ed. (St Louis, MO, 1961), ch. 6: “Progress of Science”; Jürgen von Stackelberg, “Die ‘Querelle des Anciens et des Modernes,’” Wolfenbütteler Studien zur Aufklärung, VI (1980), 35–56.

9 See Thomas P. Saine, “Natural Science and the Ideology of Nature in the German Enlightenment,” Lessing Yearbook, VIII (1976), 61–88.

10 J. C. Gottsched, Versuch einer critischen Dichtkunst, 4th ed.(Leipzig: Breitkopf, 1751), 105.

11 Wilhelm Scherer, Poetik, ed. Gunter Reiss (Tübingen, 1977), 139.

12 J. S. Spink, Literature and the Sciences in the Age of Molière (London, 1953); H. B. Nisbet, Herder and the Philosophy and History of Science (Cambridge, 1970).

13 Schiller, Sämtliche Werke, Hanser Editon, V (1958), 972.

14 Walter Schatzberg, Scientific Themes in the Popular Literature and Poetry of the German Enlightenment, 1720–1760 (Bern, 1973), mentions only a few early poems by Lessing (306–307).

15 See Lessing’s not uncritical account of the rise of natural science in Gedanken über die Herrnhuter (1750), which alludes to Newton and Leibniz (I, 938).

16 Wolfgang Martens, “Lessing als Aufklärer: Zu Lessings Kritik an den Moralischen Wochenschriften,” Lessing in heutiger Sicht, 237–248.

17 “the destiny of man was to search rather than to find”; Moses Mendelssohn on Lessing, quoted in Horst Steinmetz, Lessing – ein unpoetischer Dichter (Frankfurt, 1969), 168.

18 “the pleasure of a hunt always matters more than the catch”; VIII, 138.

19 “not being a stranger in the world”; I, 117.

20 On the sometimes uncertain authorship of the reviews ascribed to Lessing, see Guthke, “Lessings Rezensionen,” in Guthke, Der Blick in die Fremde, 351–392.

21 See John Dillenberger, Protestant Thought and Natural Science: A Historical Interpretation (Garden City, NY, 1960), 65–66, 79–93, 190–191.

22 See Otto Zöckler, Geschichte der Beziehungen zwischen Theologie und Naturwissenschaft, I (Gütersloh, 1877), 608–611, 678–689.

23 “When the paralytic feels the beneficial effects of the electric spark, what does he care whether Nollet, or Franklin, or neither of them is right?”; VIII, 312.

24 See Harald Schulze, “Lessings Auseinandersetzung mit Theologen und Deisten um die ‘innere Wahrheit,’” Lessing in heutiger Sicht, 179–185.

25 “ugly broad ditch”; VIII, 443.

26 “Contingent truths of history can never provide proof for necessary truths of reason”; VIII, 443.

27 Johann Christian Edelmann (1698–1767) was the most notorious German freethinker of his time, especially for his Spinozistic work Moses mit aufgedecktem Angesichte (1740), ed. Walter Grossmann (Stuttgart, 1987).

28 David Hill, “‘Es ist nicht wahr, daß die kürzeste Linie immer die gerade ist’: Eine Quelle,” Euphorion, LXXXV (1991), 98–101. Older studies provide only (incomplete) lists of passages in which Lessing refers to the sciences.

29 Daunicht, 16.

30 Daunicht, 15. On Klimm, see J. C. Poggendorf, Biographisch-literarisches Handwörterbuch zur Geschichte der exakten Wissenschaften, I (Leipzig, 1863), col. 1272; Klaus Briegleb, Lessings Anfänge 1742–1746 (Frankfurt, 1971), 45–46. See also Martin Dyck, “Lessing and Mathematics,” Lessing Yearbook, IX (1977), 96–117.

31 Daunicht, 52.

32 Daunicht, 78.

33 For Kästner’s testimonial, see Daunicht, 23; for Hundertmark’s, see 38. See also 24, 78.

34 “the failed medical student who spent his time on literature”; Daunicht, 55.

35 Daunicht, 75.

36 See Wilfried Barner, “Lessing und sein Publikum in den frühen kritischen Schriften,” Lessing in heutiger Sicht, 334.

37 The titles in question can be found in Lessings Büchernachlass, eds. Paul Raabe and Barbara Strutz (Göttingen, 2007), 161–162.

38 “There are three kingdoms that Nature shows us in the world. Scholars have at all times agreed on their number. But when it comes to describing them, almost every physicist goes astray. Listen to me, you scholars, and tell me if I describe them correctly. //I drink, and as I drink, the reason occurs to me why Nature is divided into three kingdoms. Animals and human beings drink and make love as their various urges prompt them. Princes, bulls, eagles, fleas and dogs feel love and wet their lips. Whatever drinks and makes love therefore belongs in the first kingdom. //The second kingdom is made up of plants, but is not as excellent as the first: a plant does not make love, but it can drink when low clouds drip moisture. Thus cedar and clover, vine and aloe, all drink. So whatever does not make love, but can drink, belongs in the second kingdom. //The third kingdom is that of stones, and here sand and diamond are equal. No stone feels thirst or tender yearnings; it grows without drink or love. So whatever neither makes love nor drinks belongs in the third kingdom. For tell me, man without love or wine, what is left of you? A stone”; I, 100–101. On this as a rococo poem, see Karl Richter, Literatur und Naturwissenschaft (München, 1972), and his interpretation of it: “Lessing: ‘Die drei Reiche der Natur,’” Gedichte und Interpretationen, ed. Karl Richter (Stuttgart, 1983), II, 193–203.

39 “When Mead appeared by the Styx, Pluto exclaimed in terror:/Alas! He has come to awaken even the dead”; LM, I, 24.

40 See Martin Franzbach, Lessings Huarte-Übersetzung (1752) (Hamburg, 1965).

41 “Freedom is but a dream; the soul becomes a mere sound, and unless the brain is meant, the word is meaningless. A timid sage sets limits to good and evil, and thinks only of the nothingness which is all he believes in. Cartouche and he who never forgot his ‘suffer and abstain,’ Cartouche and Epictetus deserve neither praise nor hatred. The one stole because he felt like it and because he had no choice but to steal; the other led a virtuous life because he could think of nothing else to do. Both were controlled in the same way, and no mortal was ever master of his actions, any more than a clock. Anyone who does what he likes does what he ought to do; it was only our pride that invented the empty phrase ‘I willed it.’ And she who creates us strong or weak, she, Nature, makes us good or vicious”; II, 647. “Suffer and abstain” is the key maxim of the Stoic Epictetus (II, 1254).

42 “I believe there is a God, and join with the rest of the world in believing this, because I have to believe it, not because it pleases the world. […] Anyone who denies God must also deny himself. If I exist, so does God. He is distinct from me, but I am not distinct from him. He would exist, even if I did not. And I feel something in myself that attests his existence. Alas for anyone who does not feel this and yet wants to be happy, who expels God from heaven and looks for heaven on Earth!”; II, 648.

43 On Lessing and gambling, see Karl S. Guthke, “Der Philosoph im Spielkasino,” in Guthke, Das Abenteuer der Literatur (Bern and München, 1981), 94–122.

44 “Miserable world, if you lack a Creator whose wisdom resolves that our well-being shall be the purpose of our actions! If mere accident plays with my being and yours; if I exist just because I exist, and if you are not specially chosen; what can restrain a coward’s arm from plunging a dagger into his heart to save himself from the slightest pain? Die, because your suffering serves no purpose, and spiteful chance teases you in both joy and sorrow, refreshing you with brief flashes of pleasure so that you feel the succeeding pain more acutely. A wise man cannot value a game in which accident rules, skill cannot win and stupidity cannot lose. To suffer loss through no fault of my own is too bitter a poison, and happiness cannot please me if it falls equally to a fool. Die and quit the world, the model of such games, where I feel grief without guilt and pleasure combined with loathing. But why am I so fervent? God exists, my happiness is secure, and allows me to appreciate change, pain, and time”; LM, I, 239.

45 “O time, happy time! in which rare spirits have revealed God in the creation, the craftsman in the artifice, for the benefit of the scoffer, who, being blind, thinks he and the world are a fortuitous product of blind chance”; LM, I, 245.

46 “What is man? What remains of him?”; II, 267.

47 “changes in our bodily fluids”; II, 265.

48 LM, XV, 390; see Daunicht, 337.

49 See Dietrich Hoffmann, “Lessing im Gespräch mit Naturforschern,” Wolfenbütteler Studien zur Aufklärung, II (1975), 250–270; Morton Nirenberg, “The Opal: Lessing’s Ring Re-examined,” Modern Language Notes, LXXXV (1970), 686–696.

50 “a convinced poetic and religious faith”; “to a previously unknown, indeed unimagined freedom of thought and breadth of imagination”; Goethe, Sämtliche Werke, XXIII/1, 667.

51 “conversational topics of contemporary discussions on popular science”; Richter, “Lessing: ‘Die drei Reiche der Natur,’” 198.

52 Richter, 199.

53 See Karl S. Guthke, Der Mythos der Neuzeit: Das Thema der Mehrheit der Welten in der Literatur-und Geistesgeschichte von der kopernikanischen Wende bis zur Science Fiction (Bern, 1983); The Last Frontier: Imagining Other Worlds, from the Copernican Revolution to Modern Science Fiction, translated by Helen Atkins (Ithaca, NY, 1990).

54 “The sage said to Alexander: ‘Up there, where lighted worlds roam, are many nations, many cities.’ What does the man of a thousand victories do? The poltroon weeps because the sky has no bridges to let him wage war there. If the sage’s teaching is true, and if wine and women – a necessary part of any world – exist there too, then, brothers, let our tears flow because the sky has no bridges to let us drink and kiss there”; II, 364.

55 “To take delight in pleasant fancies, to place inhabitants in planets before one has good reasons for concluding that there is wine in these planets, is to be overhasty. /Friend, first prove to me that in the new worlds there are wines as in the one we know, and then even the smallest child can work out that there are also drinkers”; I, 122–123.

56 “Who doubts that Homer would have been a Newton, and Newton, like Homer, the glory of immortal poetry, if one had loved, and the other had chosen, that in which both scarcely fall short of the angels?”; I, 116.

57 “To know the heavens, to be familiar with moon and stars, to learn their paths, times, size and light, by lucky guesses; not to be a stranger in the world, and to know the dwelling of which many a fool calls himself the master without knowing it”; I, 117.

58 “Now in the dark mineshaft, where wealth and horror reign, and danger dwells alongside utility within the hollow rocks, to spy out the precious load of stones, the hard race of metals, the wondrous maze of passages, what glisters and what is genuine, with toilsome danger and perilous labour, and thus to become their master; now to pursue knowledgeably the verdant breed of plants in the cheerful meadow, in the dark and frightening wood, atop bare mountains, in crevices of twisted rocks, wherever curiosity guides one’s heavy steps, on paths where the urge to learn is accompanied by frost and wind, and to see what the rabble sees, but also something more; now to discover more perfection in animals, to be the enemy of birds and the disturber of all hedgerows; to know what fills the bear’s strong bones, what makes the elk tremble and the ox bellow, what dreadful monsters swim in the ocean, and what breed of snails climb on its shores; what all animals have in common, what makes each one distinct, what connects all kingdoms, what marks each boundary between them; now with practised glance to understand humanity, to see the circulation of the blood and discern the structure of the body: all this requires more than when a poet sings in peace with his glass of wine, concerned only with appearances”; I, 117.

59 “Truth came flying down to us in radiant light,/letting Newton see, where the Stagirite had misled us”; I, 118.

60 “An Aldrovandus or a Réaumur adorns us more/than all the Muses can do for you with Homer alone”; I, 118.

61 See Wolfgang Philipp, Das Werden der Aufklärung in theologiegeschichtlicher Sicht (Göttingen, 1957), though he does not discuss Lessing.

62 “sees in the midge the Creator of all things; for each drop of vinegar becomes a new world, created by God and sustained by God”; I, 118.

63 “No truth can be based on arbitrarily chosen grounds, on dreams rather than one’s own observations. And Nature, as ancient sages describe it, may be called their work, not God’s work. It is vain to seek for the majesty of the Creator where everything depends on perverse whims. Although laziness may give credit to easy lies, enough, we discern God in newer, clearer teachings”; I, 119–120.

64 “One of my very first attempts at poetry”; II, 681.

65 “At that time the new theories put forward by Whiston and Huygens’Kosmotheoros had filled my imagination with ideas and images that seemed the more attractive the newer they were. I could at least see that they were more capable of assuming a poetic garb than any other philosophical material”; II, 681–682. Lessing is referring to William Whiston’s A New Theory of the Earth (1696), which argued that the Flood was caused by the regular reappearance of a comet, and Christian Huygens’Kosmotheoros (1698). He claims that it was only after starting work on this early “attempt” that he got hold of Fontenelle’s Entretiens sur la pluralité des mondes.

66 “That is why God gave you the mind’s sharp eye, /that it might serve to improve your bodily eye”; I, 26.

67 “Rational cognition of a natural law that is not arbitrary”; II, 254.

68 “It is certain that the advance of science brings about the demise of superstition, and false that this advance damages the true fear of God. If an occasional wit, proud of his inconclusive notions, and too lazy to investigate the foundations of religion, takes all its duties to be the dreams of melancholy teachers and human maxims to ensure prudent government, it is wrong to consider this a necessary consequence of our enlightened times. If irreligion were necessarily connected to a mass of hard-won insights, then the pious Newton would have been a much greater freethinker than Diderot, and Leibniz a greater enemy to all things divine than Edelmann”; II, 254.

69 U. K. Ketelsen, Die Naturpoesie der norddeutschen Frühaufklärung (Stuttgart, 1974). That Luther viewed Copernicanism tolerantly is suggested by Eduard Fueter, Geschichte der exakten Wissenchaften in der schweizerischen Aufklärung (Aarau, 1941), 242, n. 9.

70 Incidentally, Whiston, who meant so much to the young Lessing (II, 170, 546–547, 681), was a Newtonian.

71 “a hand in every game”; X, 74.

72 The seventh and eighth stanzas were not in the original version of the poem, published in Der Naturforscher in 1748; they appear first in an edition of Lessing’s works published in 1853, and were included without comment in the Lachmann/Muncker edition. They are quoted here from I, 1035.

73 “Thanks be to the Creator, who set my head on firm and lofty shoulders, allowing me to behold the splendour that an animal’s downcast eye never saw! Here I learn to know myself and him, and to call myself nothing and him everything. /What am I? I am big enough to be called a dot within the world. My knowledge is amazement, my life a flash of lightning. Can such a nonentity, ye blinded fools, be born to be the master of the world?/Pride, the property of folly, readily finds comfort in misjudging itself; humility is the sage’s, and he learns it from you, ye stars! He is only great because he knows you and calls your God also his. /Even if his misfortune should lead him along the hard road of tribulation, and if on this lonely path he loses friends and lovers, he learns from you, through sweet fancies, often to soothe pain that is only too real. /O virtue! charming poem of our brain, contrived to adorn our soul! The world, o virtue, has you not; but are you lacking also from the stars? No, even if you died for us with Abel, you are much too fair to be a fable. /There, with astonished gaze, I see a glittering army of new worlds; be of good cheer, perhaps fortune will not count for as much as virtue there. Perhaps within Orion’s bounds the truth will shine, free from illusion! /‘Evil,’ cries folly, ‘has gained its empire among us.’ Maybe, but goodness has its seat in innumerable greater suns. God created evil reluctantly so that the list of things might be complete. /Just as the student of nature is pleased with quartz and iron, and it is not only samples of gold and silver that lie in the collector’s unfilled drawers: so God chose evil to complete the world, not to be its essence. /O draw closer, longed-for time, when, free from Earth’s burden, in growing happiness, I shall one day behold better worlds! O time when free wings shall carry me from one star to the next! /Thoughts! fly ahead of me! Ramble in spacious spheres until I myself can follow you. How long, fate, must it endure? O pleasure, here already I see the circles, the paths of my everlasting journey! /So it is only at night that blind Damon regrets having lost his sight. He can calmly do without you, Day, and your vanity revealed by the light; and wishes, far from worldly pleasure, to have a sensitive eye only for the stars. /O blessed time of silent night, when envy and malice lie asleep, and only a pious eye is awake, seeking its satisfaction in the heavens! In these hours God beholds the world and declares: ‘I made it well!’”; I, 120–122.

74 “That more than five senses are possible for human beings”; X, 229–232.

75 See Guthke, Der Mythos der Neuzeit, ch. 4; Ernst Cassirer, Die Philosophie der Aufklärung (Tübingen, 1932), 155; Georges Pons, Gotthold Ephraïm Lessing et le christianisme (Paris, 1964), 411. See also Alexander Altmann, “Lessings Glaube an die Seelenwanderung,” Lessing Yearbook, VIII (1976), 7–41; Daniel Cyranka, Lessing im Reinkarnationsdiskurs (Göttingen, 2005).

76 “man’s continued existence after death”; Daunicht, 509. On Lessing’s knowledge of the Palingénésie, see Klaus Bohnen, “Lessings Erziehung des Menschengeschlechts (§4) und Bonnets Palingenesie: Ein Zitat-Hinweis,” Germanisch-Romanische Monatsschrift, New Series, XXXI (1981), 362–365.

77 X, 229–231. In view of the length of the original, the text is here given only in translation, taken from Lessing, Philosophical and Theological Writings, translated by H. B. Nisbet (Cambridge and New York, 2005), 180–183.

78 The translation has been modified at this point with the translator’s permission.

79 Nicholas Saunderson (1682–1739), English mathematician who lost his sight at the age of one.

80 Altmann, 7 notes that Lessing consistently uses this word in the context of his speculations on the transmigration of souls. The assumption of palingenesis that there is more than one planetary world is incompatible with the conception in Lessing’s early “Das Christentum der Vernunft” similar to the idea of the great chain of being, presented there as central to Christian “Naturlehre” (II, 406).

81 See Albrecht Schöne’s study Lichtenberg: Aufklärung aus dem Geist der Experimentalphysik (München, 1982), 155–156.

82 “The noblest study of mankind is man”; II, 474.

83 “Turn your gaze towards yourselves! […] Grasp and control here the only thing you were meant to grasp and control: yourselves”; I, 937.

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