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Duke University Press

New German Critique


Enlightenment against Fundamentalism: The Example of Lessing
Author(s): Agnes Heller and David Caldwell
Source: New German Critique, No. 23 (Spring - Summer, 1981), pp. 13-26
Published by: Duke University Press
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/487934
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againstFundamentalism:
Enlightenment
The Exampleof Lessing*
by Agnes Heller

It was a double joy forme to be honoredwiththeLessingPrize by the


Senate of the Free Hanseatic City of Hamburg. Honor and recognition
previouslyhad not been mycompanionsin life,and it was preciselytheir
absence whichI took foran indicationthatthepathI had decidedto follow
was more honorablethanthatof conformity,
whichI have avoided. Thus I
have cultivated in my character an almost instinctivemistrustof all
institutional
honors,a mistrust
borderingon arrogance.However,since,as
the jury'sdecisionstates,politiciallyengagedphilosophyis beinghonored
withmyaward, a philosophywhichalso has politicalenlightenment
as its
am
I
aside
and
goal,
setting
myarrogancequite willingly
today
acceptthis
with
thanks.
prize
happy
I am doublyglad thatthe prizecarriesthe name of Lessing.I was three
years old when my fatherfirsttold me the parable of the three rings.
Perhaps he had startedout on the thirdlevel of the educationof humankind. So it is no wonderthat forseveral yearsthe raptureof the Knight
Templar was more appealingto me thanthewisdomof Nathan.Even so, I
believe thatthe subterraneaninfluenceof thisstory,whichwas told to me
at such an early age, contributedto my liberationfroma self-incurred
immaturity.Since then my relationshipto Lessing has always been an
intimateone. The word "intimacy"is completelyapplicable here. The
philosophical structuresof Aristotle,Kant or Marx have influencedmy
thoughtprofoundly.But I would not have been able to deal on a personal
level with the people who created these structures:I never would have
chosen themformyfriends.Lessing,however,was and stillis myfriend.
He extends his hand to us, he impartsno uneasiness in us with his
greatness:he is on our level. In The HamburgDramaturgyLessingwrites
the followingabout Socrates: "Beautiful aphorismsand morals are preciselywhat we hear least froma philosophersuch as Socrates; the way in
whichhe leads his lifeis theonlymoralitywhichhe preaches.But knowing
humanityand ourselves,to be attentiveto our feelings;. . . to judge each
thingaccordingto its intention,thisis whatwe -learnin associationwith
* Acceptance speech forthe Lessing Prize, awarded February20, 1981.

13

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14

Heller

him. This is whatEuripideslearnedfromSocrates.Happy is thepoet who


has such a friendand can call upon himforadvice at any time." Lessing
portrayedhimselfhere,just as we see himtoday.Yet Socrateshad written
nothing,onlyhis personalpupilswere so fortunateas to be able to consult
withhim in dailyconversations.But Lessingleftus hiswritings.
Although
they are texts,theyhave the effectof the spoken word: Lessing speaks
directlyto us. In thisway he honorsus withhis friendshiptwo hundred
years afterhis death. We can call upon himat any hourof any day.
How much has happened in these last two centuries!There were
intermittent
periods in which one arrogantlyand mistakenlycame to
believe that there was nothingmore to be learned fromLessing. Once
more these timeshave passed. Today we anxiouslyenterinto friendship
withhim again. His silentprayerto Providencecomes also to our lips: Let
me not despairof you, even thoughyourfootstepswouldseem to me to be
in retreat.

Fundamentalismis flourishing
once again. Even its traditionalforms,
whichtheEnlightenment
thoughtto have banishedforeverfromtheworld,
now hold swayover a wide following,notonlyin theWest,butin theEast,
and in theThirdWorld as well. The fundamentalist
offensiveaffectsevery
human relationship.From the bedroom to the courtroom,fromour
education to our decisions between social and politicalalternatives,the
fundamentalists
wantto determine,regulateand controlall thosemeansby
which we findexpressionforour lives. There are otherswho do thisas
well: non-traditionalfundamentalists
who derive their"singulartruths,"
whethertheybe of nationalisticor idealisticnature,not fromthe god in
heaven but from false deities here on earth. However, anyone who
todayis notlikelyto respondto therecent
acknowledgestheEnlightenment
renunicationof the Enlightenmentwitha cruellymisanthropic
laughter,
the kind of laughterwhichfilledMinna von Barnhelmwithterror.For
misanthropyis in itselfactuallya way of renouncingthe Enlightenment.
Those who have remainedtrueto the Enlightenment
shouldlearninstead
to understandthe humanneeds whichfindexpression,even ifin distorted
form,in the modernfundamentalists.
Adorno and Horkheimerhave alreadytaken up thistask. However,a
oftheirtime,drovethemso faras to see the
justifieddespair,characteristic
blame for the renunciationof the Enlightenmentas lyingwithinthe
Enlightenmentitself.They did not take the second, even moreimportant
step of challengingthat traditionof the Enlightenmentwhich recommended an undistortedand non-fundamentalist
of the needs
fulfillment
which manifestthemselvesin fundamentalism.
In the shadow of Sade's
Justine,Emilia Galotti was forgotten.Not a singlewordin thiscritiqueof
the Enlightenmentrefersto thecase of Lessing.Lessingwas farfrombeing

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Enlightenment
againstFundamentalism 15
a guardian of instrumental
rationality.It was not trueknowledge,rather
the truth,or betterput, truthsin the plural, withwhichhe confronted
fundamentalism.Truthto Lessingwas the unityof the trueand the good.
The highestexpressionof truthis not constructing
an exact science, but
being able to make oneself amiable and pleasing to others. Lessing
considerstheonlygood argumentto be theone whichleads to good deeds,
which wants to accomplish good deeds. Moreover, goodness without
cleverness stands higherin his hierarchyof values than does cleverness
withoutgoodness. Only thefriarcompletelyrevealshimselfto Nathan.He
says, concerningthe decisive tragedyof his life,"I tell it onlyfrompious
of the "one ring,"he does
simplicity."And whenhe speaks of the tyranny
not onlymean by thatthe fundamentalism
of traditionalreligions.Lessing
knew, he had foreseen, that the Enlightenment,too, can lead to the
tyrannyof the "one ring."Even the Freemasonis not supposed to belong
to just one lodge. The defenseof Moliere's MisanthropeagainstRousseau
The inhumanity
of moralrigorwas
is also evidence of his farsightedness.
understoodby Lessingas a new kindof fundamentalism.
The Educationof
how
no
matter
its
Humankind,
verynaivelyprogressive conceptionmight
seem to be, does have its widsom. The work is not concerned with
denouncingthe old laws as emptynamesand merefanciesafterthemodel
of instrumentalrationality.The true idea of freedomis to free oneself
completely fromthe utilitarianrationalityfound in human relationseven in its subtle formas a beliefin personalimmortality,
a beliefwhich
the
of
and
in this
contains
means
ends.
remarks
always
Lessing
relationship
connection,"It will come, it definitelywill come - the time of completion, because humans,the moreconvincedtheyare in theirunderstanding
of an increasinglybetterfuture,at the same time willnot need to relyon
thisfutureas motivationfor theiractions,because humanswilldo whatis
good, because it is good..."
When Adorno and Horkheimermaintainthatthe Enlightenment
failed
to establish moralitybecause it failed to establishgeneral principles,it
must be added that this was not at all Lessing's intention.Quite the
contrary:these kindsof generalprinciplesagain would have meantforhim
the tyrannyof the one ring,the tyranny
whichhe so resolutelyopposed. If
truthis the unityof the trueand the good, thenit can be confirmedonly
retrospectively.In the event that the truthis acknowledgedas being
amiable and pleasant, then today one cannot formulatecommonlyvalid
principlesof morality.There are a varietyof persuasions,and all of them
have theirown particularlyappropriateprinciples.One can be good in a
varietyof ways, whichmeans attainingthe good; but one shouldbe good,
even ifin different
ways. There is a moralprincipleconcealed herewhich,
in defianceof pluralism,could be describedas theregulativeidea of truth.
Though we do not knowwhattruthis, we can nevertheless- makinguse
- stillbe in the truth.
now of Hegel's formulation
We can accomplishthisin variousways. We can be in the truthon the

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16

Heller

basis of our differentpersuasionsand personalities,but the attemptis


possible for us all. One is in the truthwhenone reasonablyapplies one's
own principles,argueson theirbehalf,and openlylistensto thearguments
of others.Openness of character,whichafterall makesrationaldiscourse
possible, is itselfnot groundedin thisrationaldiscourse,ratherin religio,
in the ties that bind human beings to fellowhumanbeings. Lessing had
already establishedas a fundamentalprinciplesomethingwhichGoethe
would later formulatein these terms: Ideas cannot be tolerant,but
character should be tolerant.If one has arrivedat truth,one must be
completelyconvincedthatone's own principles,and not thoseof another,
are the trueones. The idea of tolerancedoes nottolerateeven theidea of
intolerance.If thiswere to mean, though,thatthosewho acknowledgethe
idea of tolerance did not tolerate the needs, and more especiallythe
personal existence, of those who are intolerant,then the work of the
Enlightenmentwould be futilefromitsveryoutset.
Such was certainlynotLessing'sintent.WithLessingrationaldiscourse
is always accompaniedby religio,by the bond betweenthosewho arguea
point and all otherhumanbeings,by opennessof characterwithregardto
all human needs, feelings,and especiallywithregardto all humansuffering. For thisreason moralitybecomes deed. At thispointI would like to
refer to Hannah Arendt's splendid essay and add a criticalcomment:
Nathan had not sacrificedtruthforfriendship,
because in Lessing'sview
of theneeds ofothers,becomesa
friendship,in thatitmeansa recognition
symbolforreligio.Friendshipbelongsto truth,because it belongsto that
which is good. In order that our own convictionsmightopen doors to
othersand notclose them,we mustact in sucha waythatourtruthcan find
acceptance and favorfromhumanity.Accordingly,we ourselvesshould
also be pleasingand amiable,forthatwhichis pleasingand amiablein us is
part of the truthof our conviction.When Falk, in Conversationsfor
Freemasons,explainshis ideas to hisfriendErnst,he adds thathiscautious
formulationsshould not be understoodas a "lack of personalconviction."
The feelingfortactwhich,as Lukics had alreadynoted,playeda central
role in Lessing's ethics, is a decisive traitof the moral character.It
contributesquite emphaticallyto makingour convictionspleasing and
amiable.
The factthatthetwocomponentsofgood are quiteinseparable- that
is, rationalargumentand opennessofcharactertowardall humansuffering
and need - has as a consequence a situationin whichfor Lessing the
Thereis onlya continuous
public and privatespheresare indistinguishable.
step-ladder of spheres, which also overlap one another. It is not the
historicalfunctionof his greatestdramaswhichmakes themso attractive
today. Of course, we know about the decisive role whichthe bourgeois
drama played in theGermantheaterof Lessing'stime.But thisinterests
us
onlyas historicalknowledge.In our emotionaland intellectualworldthese
dramas are moresymbolicportrayalsof universalhumanrelationships;
not

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Enlightenment
againstFundamentalism 17
of the humanmind,
only in the usual sense of all great accomplishments
but also in a more specificsense. To quote Conversations
for Freemasons
once again, Falk characterizesFreemasonrywiththese words: "For it is
not based on externalrelations,whichso easilydeteriorateintobourgeois
minds." One
proscriptions,ratheron the mutualfeelingof sympathizing
even could say thatthe bourgeoisproscriptions
mentionedabove playonly
a verysuperficialrole in mostofLessing'sworks.Of course,thissuperficial
role also has a specificfunction,and I will returnto it later.
However, the aforementionedbourgeois determinantsdo not at all
define the qualityof humanrelations.Those who are evil and thosewho
are good confronteach otheras evil people and good people, as "naked
souls," and not as representativesof theirgroups. In thissense, and of
course only in thissense, Lessing is veryclose to Dostoevsky.The sudden
catharsisof the tyrantat the end of Emilia Galottican be understoodonly
from this viewpoint,as long as one does not wish to ascribe a naive
optimismto Lessing, which we have absolutelyno reason to do. One
certainlycannotimaginea RichardIII, a Macbeth or even a King Philipp
suddenlyacknowledgingGood at a drama'send. Alienatedpoliticalpower
is totallyincapable of makingsuch a gesture.Still,in lightof the death of
innocence, the prince behaves not like a prince, rather like a guilty
person - like Raskolnikov. With Lessing, the humanbeing is not at all
determinedbythe level ofpoweror class. Powerhas no logic.Thereis only
one logic: thatof humanrelationships.For thisreasonpeople can deplete
power as faras theyare able, in orderto supportand preservetheGood in
theirhuman relationships.
Power existsonly insofaras it is capable of cripplinghumanrelations.
The depletionofpower
This itcan do onlywhenitis somehowinternalized.
is the process throughwhichpeople freethemselvesof such internalization. All threeof Lessing's greatestdramasvarythisbasicallystoic idea,
althoughalways in a modernizedfashion.However,in thefinalvariation,
Nathan the Wise, Lessing succeeds in overcomingseclusion,in whichthe
old stoic notion is perpetuallyconcealed. Emilia Galottiand Minna von
Barnhelmportraythetragicand non-tragic
possibilitiesforthedepletionof
time.
in
as
existed
Nonetheless,the outcome of
Lessing's
they
power
Nathan is a philosophicalutopia. Power is depletedwithinthe institutions
humanized:That is whythe
of bourgeoissociety,and it is simultaneously
in
form
a
tale.
the
of
is
conceived
fairy
story
Today, no less thanin Lessing'stime,thereariseboundarysituationsin
whichone can deplete poweronlyby means of voluntarydeath. Suicide is
the extremevariantof seclusion.However, ifthe onlyotheralternativeis
the internalizationof tyrannicalpower, the complete loss of one's own
personality,the renunciationof moral obligations,preciselythiskindof
escape is the onlychoice worthyof humanity.Emilia Galottishowsherself
to be a genuine and profoundthinkerwhenshe designatesthe essence of
power with these words: "Violence! Violence! Who cannot oppose vio-

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18

Heller

lence? Violence means nothing. Seduction is true violence." Emilia


chooses death, not because she is incapable of defyingviolence, but
because she feelsherselftoo weak to defyseduction.She knowsthatwere
she to go on living,she would completelyinternalizethe power of the
to the
tyrantand could be broughtso faras to subjugateherselfvoluntarily
man who murderedherlover. Voluntarily,
not
a
as
free
for
yet
person, is a
person freewho voluntarilyfollowsthe siren-songof the tyrant?
Unfortunately,we who live amid the tyrannicaltwistsof twentiethcenturyfate can understandthe message of Emilia Galottionlytoo well.
What was the basis of Hitler'sand Stalin'spower, ifnot seduction?What
would their violence have been withoutseduction?Nothingat all. The
same people who were seduced by one of these two powers could not
always defythe other power. But once one confrontsseductionwithout
any means of opposition,voluntarydeath remainsas theonlysolution,as
long as one wishes to maintainone's personal freedom.When I read
Emilia Galotti,Koestler's Darknessat Noon comes immediatelyto mind.
This book, too, deals withviolenceas seduction."Die in silence" appears
on the anonymousnotewhichwas passed to Rubashovbeforethetrial.Yet
Rubashov does not respondto the voice of morallaw. Insteadof breaking
out of the Satanic circle,he once again submitsto seduction.Ratherthan
depletingthe power that killed his loved ones, he legitimatesthatsame
power throughhis own voluntaryand internalizedobedience. For this
reason his is not a tragiccharacter,even thoughhe, too, is killed.We are
aware that a similar fate awaits Emilia Galotti. Countess Orsina had
already warned Emilia's fatherthatthe princewas accustomedto leaving
his seduced women to theirfatesafteronlya fewdays. Yet Emilia Galotti
does not fear her demise, rathershe fearsthatwhichcomes betweenfree
choice and her demise. That is what Rubashov does not fearenough.
In Minna von Barnhelmpower is depleted in a non-tragicway. The
situationhere is also an extremeone, althoughin a quite different
sense
than in Emilia Galotti.Power is disposedofin an extremeform,thatis, itis
not personifiedin anyway in thecomedy.It is presentonlyinthemindand
characterof Tellheimas an iddefixe.Tellheim'sfixationwithpoweris both
positiveand negative.He feelsoffendedbyhispower,even disgraced.The
thoughtthatpower is capable of disgracingus legitimatesit as a sourceof
honor. The thoughtthatpowercan offendus, legitimatesit as a sourceof
recognition.But for Minna power is emptyfromthe very outset. She
understandsTellheim'sfixation,yetdoes notshareit in theleast. Even the
concept of an honor bestowed by power is tautologicalforMinna. Consider this dialogue: von Tellheim:"Honor is not the voice of our conscience, not the pronouncementof a few righteouspeople . . ." Das
Friiulein:"No, no, I know,Honor is - honor."This ironictautologyis no
less a gestureof the depletionof power than was Emilia Galotti's tragic
monologue. What sort of moral categoryis it, thatdoes not containthe
voice of our conscience,nor even the pronouncementof a fewrighteous
people? As a moral categoryit can only be completelyempty,and that

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Enlightenment
againstFundamentalism

19

whichis emptyis not binding.A merelyexternalhonoris onlythe facade


of power, because it says nothingabout the humanbeing,onlysomething
about the "bourgeois determinants"of the humanbeing. At firstMinna
wants to use love to overcomeTellheim'sfixationforpower,whichintertwines itself with offenses. Yet she refuses to. She does not refuse,
however, to follow throughon her decision to cure the fixationwith
compassion. Tellheimremarks:Vexationand obstinatewrathhad clouded
all of my soul; love could create no light,even on the path of fullest
fortune.But love sends her daughter,compassion,and opens once more
all the passages of my soul to the touches of tenderness... From this
moment on, I will respond to the injusticewhich befalls me here with
nothingbut contempt.Is this countrythe world? Does the sun rise only
here? With these words Tellheim's twofoldpower-fixationis broken.
Power is now held in contempt,it is depleted. There is seclusionhere as
itis stillimportant.
The decision
well, and thoughnotof greatsignificance,
to withdrawfromthe worldof power standsas Tellheim'slastword,since
At theend of the
the power whichhe now despisesoffershimsatisfaction.
the
values
whichcomprise
a
and
a
sincere
friend
are
woman
comedy, good
a life of human dignityforboth Tellheimand Werner.
in the
Depletion of power is a themecomposedin double orchestration
down
into
of
It
breaks
Nathan
the
Wise.
primaryand
philosophicalutopia
the
which
to
each
themes
other,raising
respond
problemto a
secondary
and
not
solvingit there.A
artistically,
higherniveau,
theoretically,though
the
in
one
of
seclusion
secondarythemesof the
appears
humanlydignified
who
in
of
the
fate
El-Hafi,
relinquisheshis fortuneand
play, namely
and
returns
to
the
desert.
of
Nathan,however,does notgo
position power
into the desert,even aftersendingEl-Hafi offwiththeexquisitestatement
thatthe onlytruekingis the truebeggar.El-Hafi depletespowerin a stoic
fashionbut does not contributeto thehumanizationof power.The destiny
of thepatriarchis just as mucha storyof thedepletionofpower.As longas
the friarobeys thepatriarch,as longas theKnightTemplarturnsto himfor
Machiavellian-fundamentaladvice, he is a typicaland frequently
recurring
ist combination,a power no less threateningthan the prince in Emilia
Galotti.From the momentat whichhe is no longerobeyed, hispositionof
power becomes a mere shell, depleted of the seed of evil. His terrible
threatto have theJewburnedat thestake soundsalmostcomical,because
a leader withouta followingis always comical. Here we findourselves
at the maximal moral possibilitiesof the times- of Lessing's time and
of contemporarytimes.But in the dialogue betweenSaladin and Nathan,
the story is raised (aufgehoben) to a philosophicalutopia. "Raised" is
meant here in the Hegelian sense of the word. Nathan also had the
opportunityto deplete Saladin's power throughhis own voluntarydeath,
course. On theone hand he depletesthe
but he chose to followa different
directed
which
is
against humanity,but at the same time he
power
humanizesthispower by convertingit intoa powerwhichbenefitshumanity. He knows that Saladin will use the truthfor entrapment.So he

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20

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presentsSaladin witha truthwhichin no way can be used as a trap.Once


this truthbecomes a regulativeconceptionof power, it no longercan be
directed against humanity.Then power no longercan serve people as a
mere means. This is thatutopiawhichI designatedas the"humanizationof
power." Power is depletedin thatitis pluralized.Thereis no power,rather
there are powers, just as therealso is no longera truth,thereare only
truths. In order to reach truth,power must make itselfpleasing and
amiable to people, and it mustbe capable of enteringinto a relationship
withothertruthsand powerswhichwouldallow forexchangeamongthem.
It is easy to see thatthisphilosophicalutopia also containswithinit a
kindof skepticism.In Conversations
forFreemasonswe read thefollowing
Thus
be
order
must
able to existeven in the absence of
"Falk:
dialogue:
If
each
individual
knowshow to governhimself,why
Ernst:
government.
not? Falk: Do you thinkpeople will ever come to such a point?Ernst:I
hardly thinkso. Falk: A pity. Ernst: Yes, it is." The pluralizationand
humanizationof powers is the maximumof which the human race is
capable. As Falk putsit,"The sumtotaloftheindividualhappinessesofall
the membersis the happinessof thestate. Otherthanthishappinessthere
is none. Every other happiness of the state in whicheven only a few
individual memberssuffer,and mustsuffer,is the cloakingof tyranny.
Nothingelse!"
In the above sentence the word "must" was emphasizedby Lessing.
Indeed, were the powersto be humanized,thenno individualmembersof
the state would have to suffer.But even the best state is a balance of
power. The state cannotunitethe people withoutsimultaneously
dividing
them. As Falk expressedit: "People would thenstillbe Jewsand Christians, and Turks and such . . theywillbehave not as merepeople against
merepeople, but as thiskindof person againstthatkindof person.They
will make a certainspiritualpreferencecontentiousand then base their
rightson it . . ." Only in the lightof Conversations
for Freemasonsdoes
the theoreticalimplicationof Nathan'sstatement,"I am a humanbeing!"
become reallyclear. This statementis not to be understoodas a denial of
his Jewishness.In thesphereofhumanizedpower,he is a particularkindof
person, a Jew,a merchant.But humanizedpoweris also inhuman,because
it stilldividespeople in theprocessofunitingthem.To be simply"a human
being" is an acknowledgementof the relativedepletionof humanized
power throughdirectpersonalrelations.The humanbeingshouldrebuke
inhumanpower, resistits temptation,be freeof its determinants.
However, if humanizationof power is possible, thenone shares it; thenone
does not go into the desert; then it is not necessary,as Nathan says, for
truthto die. As Hannah Arendt accuratelynoted, the discourseof the
plural truthsand powers is the formassumed by discussionamong all
separate entities.But friendship,this symbolof directhumanrelations,
does not exhaustitselfin thisdiscourse."Mere humanbeings"can extend
theirhand to other"mere humanbeings" onlywhen theydo not identify

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Enlightenment
againstFundamentalism 21
themselveswith their roles in the political discourse. The Aristotelian
distinctionbetween the good citizenand the good person appears here
once again. The latterimpliestheformer,butis also somethingmore.That
is whyI have said thattheconceptof depletionofpowerin thephilosophical utopia of Nathan the Wise is raised in a Hegelian sense: it is negated,
but also preservedon a higherlevel. Discourse and religioare combined
once again.

In the three Lessing dramas analyzed above, power appears in three


in Minna
forms.In Nathan theWise it is fundamentalist,
totallydifferent
von Barnhelm it is bureaucratic,and in Emilia Galottiit is cynicaland
tyrannical.Perciselyforthisreason the critiqueof Dialecticof Enlightenmentis not at all applicableto Lessing.WhenLessinggoes to battleagainst
fundamentalism,he wants to follow a course which will preventthe
bureaucratic,as well as the cynicalor tyrannical
principlefromtakingthe
the "immoral"and
The
differentiation
between
fundamentalism.
of
place
the "unmannered" in Anti-Goetzeis also intendedin this sense. Only
identifiesthe unmanneredwiththe immoral.One should
fundamentalism
avoid the immoral,even if thiscan be accomplishedonlyin an "unmannered" way.
The distinctionbetween the "moral" and the "mannered" later becomes a basic thoughtin Kant's philosophyof morality.Lessingis no less
radical on thispoint.But themoralitywhichhe places opposite"manners"
is conceivedas the unityof reasonand thesumof theindividual'sfeelings.
Mannersand moralitystandopposed to each otherin nameand in essence.
Mannersare merelya rubricand are non-essential.
Moralityis thatwhichis
essential,even ifit is not designatedwitha singlename, thatis, even ifit
cannot be attributedto any one concretesocial idea or conviction.The
moral authorityis not the law, ratherthegood person, the person who
does Good. In The Education of Humankind,Lessing describesChrist
of the soul:
as the firstdependable, practicalteacherof the immortality
as a philothe
soul
of
"The firstpracticalteacher. For the immortality
is
and
believing, something
sophical speculation, as assuming,wishing
else. It is somethingelse to orderone's deeds, bothinternaland external,
accordingly."And he adds, "An innerpurityof the heart,whichserved
to recommenda differentlife, was somethingreservedspecificallyfor
Christ." Conversely,Sittah,in Nathan the Wise, characterizesthe Christians of her time in these words: "Not his virtue,ratherhis name should
be spread everywhere... They are only concernedwiththe name, just
the name." I must also quote fromConversationsfor Freemasonsonce
willputyouat ease and
more: "Falk:... This disclosure,thisillumination
make you happy,even withoutbeingcalled a Freemason.Ernst:You put
so much emphasis on being called something.Falk: Because one can be

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22

Heller

somethingwithoutbeingcalled by thatname." In one of the mostsublime


moments in Nathan the Wise, the problemof the unessentialnatureof
names again appears: "Friar: Nathan! Nathan! You are a Christian!By
God, you are a Christian!There was nevera betterChristian!Nathan:It is
well withus! For whatmakesme a Christianin youreyes,also makesyoua
Jew in mine!"
I have alreadyindicatedthe different
betweenbourgeoisdeterminants
and the religioof the bond withone's fellowhumanbeings.It is onlyin the
sphereof thereligiothatthehumanbeingis, withoutbeingcalledanything.
Only there is one "simplya humanbeing." But we should also unremittinglyrelativizeour namingof thingsin the bourgeoisworld,theworldof
bourgeois determinants,where it is not simple "human beings" who
confronteach other,but "this kindof person" confronting
"thatkindof
"Are
a
Freemason?"
asks
And
Ernst.
Falk
person."
you
answers, "I
believethatis whatI am." The question"What are you?" alwaysshouldbe
answeredthisway,forexample,"I believe I am a Christian,I believeI am
a socialist,I believe I am a liberal,I believe I am a democrat."When we
can answerthatquestionmerelybysaying"This is whatI am," thenwe are
whichwe were not at all freeto
dealing eitherwithorganicdeterminants
choose or rechose, or we are operatingin the belief that we are quite
representativeof the truth,the absolutetruthin our special determinants.
In eitherevent we are dealingwitha kindof fundamentalism.
One could
answer the question as Nathan did, "I am a humanbeing!", but withthis
answer we put ourselvesoutside bourgeoisdeterminants
and convictions,
and into the sphere of the religio,the sphere of the bonds whichunite
human beings to one another.
Can I answerthe question,"Are you yourfather'sdaughter?"withan
answersuch as, "I believe thatI am"? No, and thenagain,yes.The answer
is inappropriateforconfirming
organicrelationships.In such cases a clear
"yes" is theonlyanswer.But whenthequestionimpliesthefreechoiceofa
given organic relationship,thenthe answer"I believe thatI am" is quite
fitting.When one takes this into consideration,the plot developmentin
Nathan theWise willno longerappear to be dramaticconvention,rathera
symbolicconfirmationof profoundlyphilosophicalthought.Neitherthe
KnightTemplar, nor Recha, norNathanare thatwhichtheyappear to be.
The KnightTemplar is not a Franconian,he is a Turk. Recha is nota Jew;
she is a Christianand the daughterof a Moslem Turk. Nathan is not
Recha's father.And whenRecha asks, "But is it onlyblood thatmakes a
father?Only blood?", she is choosingNathanas herfather,just as Nathan
had chosen her as his daughter.Recha could just as well have said, "I
believe that I am Nathan's daughter,"and this would have meant the
following:"I have accepted the teachingsof Nathan freely,and today I
again accept themfreely.I wantto remaintrueto himof myown freewill.
I want to prove myselfworthyof his goodness. I am Nathan's daughter,
even ifI am no longercalledhisdaughter."Accordingto Lessing,themerely
organic relationships,a quiet acceptance of them,and an identification

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Enlightenment
againstFundamentalism

23

withthemare the breedinggroundsof fundamentalism.


The oppositepole
to the organicrelationshipis not,however,the "mechanical"relationship,
but those relationshipswhich are freelyand reasonablychosen. When
something is freelychosen, then there exists an authoritybehind the
choice: the freepersonality.Thus I cannot and should not say thatI am
what I am called, onlythatI believe thatis whatI am. Withthe words"I
believe that is what I am," I expressmydetermination
to remaintrueto
the profoundand freemovtivations
of mychoice,and so to remaintrueto
myself.

I have alreadymentionedLessing'sconceptoffriendship
as a symbolof
of
which
exist
sublime
human
beyondall
relationships
relationshps,
purely
determinants.
and
contains
is
chosen
nothing
bourgeois
Friendship freely
could stillbe considereda symbolof
organic. But forthisreason friendship
because, as we have seen, Lessingintendedthese
bourgeois determinants,
determinantsto be freelychosen, or newlychosen ones. In the bourgeois
sphere, however, the normof equalityshould be the valid one, because
timeand timeagain, bourgeoisrelationships
give riseto inequality.EqualBut friendship
is a relaof
reflection.
are
determinants
and
ity
inequality
It
is
a similar
determinants
of
reflection.
above
these
which
stands
tionship
situationwithlove, whichcontainsfriendship.
Tellheim'swords,"Equality
and
is always the most enduringbond of love," are repeated irritatingly
love
and
but
is
a
Minna.
determinant,
quantitative
Equality
derisivelyby
is
the
are
not
categoryof
friendship
quantifiableobligations.Equality
business contacts,but in friendshipthereare no businesscontacts;there
is only giving.One mightbe amazed at the importantrole whichwealth,
material goods and moneyplay in Lessing's dramas. Only by thismeans
could the non-essentialnature of wealth, propertyand money within
friendshipbe made clear. "We have, whenour friendhas," saysWerner.
When Nathan findsa friendin Saladin, he gives him more than Saladin
once had wanted to forciblytake fromNathan. In friendshipand in
love between friendsthereis no "mine" and "yours." That whichseparates people in the bourgeois world unites them in friendship.Friendship is no less a reciprocalrelationshipthan is a contract.But it is the
highest formof reciprocity.It is the reciprocityof the essential. Marx
expresses the same thoughtin his earlywritings.In Economic and Philosophic Manuscriptshe writes,"Once you assume thathuman beingsare
human beingsand thattheirrelationshipto theworldis a humanone, then
you can exchangelove onlyforlove, trustonlyfortrust,etc." And I hardly
thinkI am goingtoo farwithmyspeculationwhenI recognizethethemeof
The Education of Humankindin the followingsentencefromMarx: "The
entiretyof historyis thehistoryof thepreparationand developmentof the
human being intoan object of materialawareness,and of theawarenessof
the 'human being as humanbeing' intoa necessity."Of course the young

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24

Heller

Marx was muchless skepticalthanLessing.For him,thedirectunityof the


individual and the species was, at least in Economic and Philosophic
Manuscripts,a social projectwhichwas universalin scope. As we know,
Lessing was more modest.He imaginedthedirectunionof thespeciesand
the individualpersonalitywithina societywhich- despitetheplurality
of
truthsand of powers, despite the rational and discursiverelationships
between these truthsand powers,despitethe factthatno singlemember
of the stateshouldhave to be unhappy- nonethelesscan uniteitscitizens
only by dividingthem,thuswithina societywherebourgeoishierarchies
cannot be suspended. Today Lessing's rationalutopia appears not only
more worldlyto us, buttherealso appear to be moretiesbetweenitand us
thanwas thecase withtheexaggeratedutopiaoftheyoungMarx. Precisely
forthisreason Lessing's utopia,in all itsrationality,
paradoxicallyappears
more radical to us.
Lessing's utopia obligesus to performa twofoldtask.On theone hand
it obliges us to participatein the process of humanizingpower. Lessing
offersno general prescriptionforhow we oughtto go about this.We do
know that in the case of a tyrannicalpower whichcan be depletedonly
we should not spare ourselves.We also know
throughour self-sacrifice,
that when bureaucraticpower can be depleted only by contemptand
thenwe should learn to acquire such contemptand indifferindifference,
ence. But we know, too, that the humanizationof power has perhaps
the best chance of success when one is capable of pluralizingpowers
and truthsand enteringinto rationaldiscoursewiththem.We are aware
that in order to be true to our obligations,we mustfreeourselvesfrom
and fromall identification
withour organic
everykindof fundamentalism
determinants,thusansweringthequestionwhetherwe are thisor thatwith
the statement,"I believe thisis whatI am." We shouldkeep in mindyet
anotherparadox fromLessing'sConversations
forFreemasons:"Whatever
has blood as its price,is certainlynot worthblood."
The rationalutopia of Lessingobligesus on theotherhandto formour
personal contacts as true friendships,as bonds between "mere human
beings" in orderthat,at least here,sheddingour bourgeoisdeterminants,
we can realize the unityof the individualand the species; not tomorrow,
but today. However, neitherof these two obligationsis based purelyon
reason. Both stress openness of character,love of one's fellowhuman
beings, and compassionforall humansuffering.
They are not identicalto
the rigorous demands of the categorical imperative.There are tragic
is a basically
situations;yet most conflictsare not tragic,and friendship
serene venture."What could the Creatorsmore gladlysee thana happy
creature!" says Minna. Yes, whynot happiness,when it is coupled with
reason, love and compassion?If we do not trustour own senses and our
character,how can we put our trustin anyone else? And withouttrust
there is no friendship,and also no discourse.
So we mustapply Lessing's words about Socrates to Lessing himself:

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Enlightenment
againstFundamentalism

25

"The onlymoralitywhichhe preachesis thewayin whichhe leads hislife."


to some setofgenerallyapplicable
But whyshouldthismoralitybe inferior
are
Moral
completely
emptyunlesstheyactuallyare
principles
principles?
In
order to become a practical
few
a
active
at
least
people.
upheld by
teacherof thehumanrace, one does notneed to knowhow to resolveone's
conflictswiththephilosophicalwisdomof a Nathan,ratherone onlyneeds
to know how to resolve conflictswith the worldlyand commonplace
wisdom of a Minna. None of us is a Baron Miinchhausen,who can pull
himselfout of thequagmirebythetuftsof hisown hair:we need thehands
of others. By the same token, others also need our hands. No moral
philosophy,regardlessof how completeand consistentit mightbe, can
accomplishforus whatanotherpersonwithclear reasonand open character is alwayscapable of accomplishingforus. By leadingour livestheway
Lessing led his,we gain morefootholdsin a humanlyworthyand practical
ethics than we would gain fromall purelyphilosophicalprinciples.Interpretingthe universalnormsof freedomin sucha waythattheinterpretation
is tailoredto the needs of othersis a simple,yetreliablerule of conduct.
Still,it is no guaranteeof goodness.There simplyis no suchguarantee.But
when we do not findthe betterchoice in some particularsituation,we still
always can say, along withtheKnightTemplar,"What I have done, I have
done! Pardon me, Nathan." Is thatcommonplace?Nathan,in hiswisdom,
says, "The ultimatemiracleis thattrueand genuinemiraclescan become
so commonplace,and should become so commonplace."

Goethe wrotethatthe divinetalentof thepoet is to expressthatwhich


he suffers.As a man of the Enlightenment,
Lessingtranslatedthisdivine
talentinto a human,a freelychosen undertaking:in his dramaticwritings
he bestowedthisdivinetalentupon thosewho are notautonomous.Witha
friendlygesturehe gave themthe language,the word,the argument,and
as a result,those who were not autonomousbegan to progress,to articuand joys in poetic illumination.In Lessing's major
late their sufferings
dramas all the protagonistsare drawn from those contemporariesof
Lessing who were notautonomous.Three ofthemare women,and one is a
Jew. Women and Jews, the outcastsof bourgeoissociety,who are ophad been only
pressed in everysocial groupand class, whosecontributions
the
of
the
silence and obedience, the pariahs
world,
symbolsof futility,
terms
of
in
the
defined
entities which were always
others, who were
themselvesincapable of definingtheirown existence theseare theones
portrayedin Lessing'sdramasas beingmorallyand humanlysuperior.This
by itselfmeans thatLessing's art is evidenceof a practicalmorality.
Those who were notgrantedthisdivinetalentforexpressingthatwhich
the humanbeingsuffers,stillhave thesame obligation,thoughtheydo not
have the same means at theirdisposal. To mentionthe problemof the

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26

Heller

theoreticiansforone, theycannotgiveautonomyto thosewho do nothave


it, theycan onlyspeak for thesepeople, and in theirstead.Alwayslurking
in this situation is the danger that we mightimpute certain needs to
someone, or that we mightattributeto a person a consciousnessand
interests,or wishes and ideas. Indeed, there is the danger here thatwe
mightfource our ring, as the only true one, onto people who are not
autonomous. Relativizingtruthsis hardlya panacea, because thisoffersa
solution only where there is discourse with people who already have
become autonomous.There is no panacea whatsoever,butthereis an idea
whichcould serveas a ruleofconductfortheoreticaldiscourse.This idea is
a deliberate partialityforreason, togetherwitha deliberatepartialityfor
those who sufferthemost, and it means actingin the spiritof these two
obligations.And thisidea is Lessing's giftto us.
Translatedby David Caldwell

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