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Alle grossen Dinge gehen durch sich selbst zu Grunde,

durch einten Akt der Selbstaufhebung: so will es das Gesetz
des Lebens, das Gesetz der notbwendigen „Selbstüber-
windung" im Wesen des Lebens [...]. Dergestalt gieng das
Christenthum als Dogma zu Grunde, an seiner eignen
Moral; dergestalt muss nun auch das Christenthum als
Moral noch zu Grunde gehn, — wir stehen an der Schwelle
dieses Ereignisses. Nachdem die christliche Wahrhaftigkeit
einen Schluss nach dem ändern gezogen hat, zieht sie am
Ende ihren stärksten Schluss, ihren Schluss gegen sich
Although Lessing's name does not appear in this passage from Die
Genealogie der Moral, it could serve äs the clue to the theme of Nietzsche's
relationship to Lessing, that of a radical intensification and sharper formu-
lation of Lessing's theological ideas. Indeed, one might even regard
Nietzsche's late work Anti-Christ äs a last version of Lessing's Erziehung des
Menschengeschlechts — following of course the many transformations it ex-
perienced in German literary history — among the Romantics, by Heine and
Feuerbach, "Was, in aller Strenge gefragt, hat eigentlich über den christlichen
Gott gesiegt?' Nietzsche muses in the same passage quoted above, replying:
"Die christliche Moralität selbst, der immer strenger genommene Begriff der
Wahrhaftigkeit, die Beichtväter-Feinheit des christlichen Gewissens, über-
setzt und sublimirt zum wissenschaftlichen Gewissen, zur intellektuellen
Sauberkeit um jeden Preis/*2 In Der Wanderer und sein Schatten Nietzsche
remarks: "Lessing lebt vielleicht heute noch,0 but adds a note of deprecation
in the ensuing comment: "— aber unter jungen und immer jüngeren Ge~
A radier unambiguous reference to Lessing's work is noted in the first
book of Die Morgenröte^ where Nietzsche entitles a fragment "Zur neuen
Erziehung des Menschengeschlechts", exhorting all well meaning individuals
to aid him in the abolition of die concept 'punishmem*. The task Nietzsche

GM t Was bedeuten asketische Ideale? Aph. 27.
* FWt Aph- 357.
* MA II. WS, Apk 125.
158 Diana L Bchler

promulgates here, that of ridding causality of the equation "Ursache —

Strafe" seems to formulate a specific conclusion one might draw from
Lessing's utopian ideal of doing good for the sake of good itself.4
Nietzsche's so-called self-fulfillment of philosophical atheism is usually
related to the philosophy of French Enlightenment, in that Nietzsche is
viewed äs the apex of a development beginning with the free thinkers of the
eighteenth Century, *les philosophes* and the Encyclopedists.5 Such an
analysis, however, fails to reveal that Nietzsche's criticism of religion and
especially his argument with Christianity finds its roots in a specifically
German form of the modern religious emancipation movement which goes
back from David Friedrich Strauss, Heinrich Heine, the left HegeHans
surrounding Bauer and Feuerbach, the philosophy of Idealism and early
Romanticism, to Herder and Lessing, and even to the Reformation.
Admittedly, the Suspension ('Aufhebung') of Christianity sought here is
often not immediately visible because it has been masked by a peculiar
Christian terminology such äs "drittes; Evangelium", "Reich Gottes" or
"Johanneisches Logoschristentum". Heine had tried to enlighten the French
about the secret ('das Schulgeheimnis') of German philosophy — that its true
message did not reside in the renovation of Christianity, but rather in the
proclamation of an accomplished atheism. Whether or not his analysis of
idealistic philosophy is altogether correct is not at issue here. What is
noteworthy is that Heine had already perceived a separate German religious
emancipation movement.paralleling French Libertinism and had characterized
Lessing äs the John the Baptist of this progressive religion of humanity
('Humanitätsreligion') > whose Messias was still anticipated.6 Like Henry
Crabb Robinson, who in 1804 had chöseti to translate Lessing's Erziehung
des Menschengeschlechts to provide his British countrymen with the essence
of Lessing's religious attitudes, Heine too considered this particular work
best suited to conveying the German author's spirit to the French. Robinson
had valued the philosopher above the poet Lessing and claimed that even
Nathan der Weise, although portraying a noble Jew most impressively,
nevertheless had "no dramatic worth" for him aside from the parable of the
three rings. Robinson did admire Lessing's style, his "infinite wit" and
"admirable skill in controversy."7 Heine had even prophesied in tones
M, Aph. 13.
See Karl Löwith, "Nietzsches Vollendung des Atheismus," in: Nietzsche. Werk und Wir-
kfingen, ed. Hans Steifen (Göttingen, 1974), pp, 7-18. Lessing also greatly ^dmired Pierre
Bayle äs a critical philosopher.
Heines sämtliche Werke, ed. Ernst Elster (Leipzig und Wien), Vol. 5, "Die romantische
Schule," I, p. 229. (In the following "Werke")
See Diana Behler, "Henry Crabb Robinson äs a Mediator of Lessing and Herder to
England," Lessing Yearbook VII (1975), pp. 105-126. · .
Nietzsche and Lessing; Kindred thoughcs 159

reminiscent of Lessing: "Ja, kommen wird auch der dritte Mann, der da
vollbringt was Luther begonnen, was Lessing fortgesetzt und dessen das
deutsche Vaterland so sehr bedarf — der dritte Befreier* — Ich sehe schon
seine goldne Rüstung, die aus dem purpurnen Kaisermantel hervorstrahlt,
,wie die Sonne aus dem Morgenrot!*"8 Aithough Heine himself might have
wished to lay claim to this title, it would perhaps be more justifiable to grant
Nietzsche this place in the historical development of Protestant religious
Certainly Nietzsche represents an important phase, if not the
culmination of this particular reception of Lessing in Germany. Character-
isrically, he mentions Lessing primariiy in his early writings, especially in the
Unzeitgemasse Betrachtungen, where he takes up the banner of Opposition of
his forerunner Lessing against the philistine leveling of education. His most
extensive reference to Lessing can be found in the essay "David Friedrich
Strauss", which one could term Nietzsche's Anti-Goeze, since here he con-
centraies his crushing polemics upon the most typical representative of that
attitude he labeled "Bildungsphilister*1. His wrath is intense when he accuses
Strauss of daring to praise Lessing's "universality", which Nietzsche
sympathetically views not äs Lessing's mark of excellence, but that of sheer
necessity. Lessing enthusiasts like Strauss have no understanding, "dass ein
solcher Mensch wie eine Flamme zu geschwind abbrannte, ... dass die
gemeinste Enge und Armseligkeit aller seiner Umgebungen und namentlich
seiner gelehrten Zeitgenossen so ein zart erglühendes Wesen trübte, quälte,
erstickte, ja dass eben jene gelobte Universalität ein tiefes Mitleid erzeugen
sollte/*9 This sympatheric outrage at false praise exhibits Nietzsche*s
emotional kinship to Lessing perhaps more poignantly than any other
reference to him.
In the later works Lessing's name appears only sporadically and in
connecrion with peripheral themes, but this is a typical mode of Operation for
Nietzsche. After having absorbed the central impulse of an author, he no
longer mentions the name, but presents that which he has digested äs his own
opinion. It is furthermore symptomatic that Nietzsche (like Schlegel,
Robinson, and Heine before him) concentrates entirely upon the critical,
philosophical, and theological aspects of his forerunner to the virtual neglect
of his poetic and dramatic contributions. Like Euripides, Lessing was for
Nietzsche interesting äs a thinker, not äs a poet, äs an author in whom the
cxtraordinary richness of his critical talent had also manifested itself in a
secondary artistic drive.10
* Werke, Vol. 4, "Zur Getchkhtc der Religion und Philosophie in Deutschland/' p. 240.
ÜB, DS, Aph. 4.
In thist Nieuschc may have bcen influenccd by the Romraucs, panicularly Friedrich
160 Diana L Bchler

There arc other traits significam to this history of Lessing's influence

revealed in Nietzsche's image, above all, Lessing's highly lauded
forthrightness and intellectual honesty. Already in Die Geburt der Tragödie
Lessing appears äs the most honest theoretical person, who never remained
satisfied with the mere unveiling of truth, never allowed himself an illusion,
and who to the annoyance of more modest thinkers dared to express the
inner secret of analytical thinking ('Grundgeheimnis der Wissenschaft'),
namely, that he was more interested in the search for truth than truth itself.11
More recently, Hannah Arendt has highlighted this aspect of Lessing's
Lessing's greatness does not merely consist in a theoretical insight that there
cannot be one single truth within the human world but in bis gladness that
it does not exist and that, therefore, the unending discourse among men will
never cease so long äs there are men aj/äll.12
Nietzsche had recognized in bis predecessor the same love for infinite
reflection, for continuous dialogue and never ending speculation. Even
Lessing's stylistic virtuosity, which Nietzsche calls a truly French virtue,
relates to Lessing's position in the religious emancipation movement äs is
clearly evidenced in an aphorism from Jenseits von Gut und Böse. Here
Nietzsche highlights the tempo of Lessing's prose, which conveys to him a
love for "free thinking", for "flight out of Germany", a true Macchiavellian
tempo, namely, "die ernsteste Angelegenheit in einem unbändigen Alle-
grissimo vorzutragen: vielleicht nicht ohne ein boshaftes Artisten-Gefühl
davon, welchen Gegensatz er wagt, — Gedanken, lang, schwer, hart, gefähr-
lich, und ein tempo des Galopps und der allerbesten muthwilligsten
Laune."13 It would be unfair to overlook, however, that Nietzsche's critical
perception of Lessing's style was not without its negative component. He
considered it a "spitzfindige, übermässig bewegliche und — mit Erlaubniss
gesagt — ziemlich undeutsche Manier" and praised Schopenhauer for not
having succumbed to the temptation of emulating it. With regard to prose
works among the Germans, however, Lessing's verbal agility made him the
most "seductive author".14 Heinrich Heine too had valued Lessing's style äs

Schlegel. GT, Aph. 11. Nietzsche praises the critic Lessing äs superior to the poet and places
him within Germany's "Geschichte der erwachenden Männlichkeit" (KGW.Vtt -35 [44]). In
the heretofore unpublished posthumous works, Nietzsche also refers to Lessing in mäny
instances (especially in the preparatory writings for Geburt der Tragödie, KGW III, 3—4;
i. e., l [81]; l [90], [94]; 2 [12]; 7 [103]. But these references also evidence that Nietzsche
concentrated his iiiterest on the thinker and theoretician and not the poet Lessing.
GT, Aph. 15.
"On Humanity in dark times; thoughts about Lessing," in: Men in Dark Times (New York,
1968), p. 27.
JGB, Der freie Geist, Aph. 28.
ÜB, SE, Aph. 2. , · .·
Nietzsche and Lessing: Kindred thoughts 161

his most disringuishing characteristic and identified it with his entire

personality. He considered Buffon's phrase "der Stil ist der Mensch selber"
to correspond to Lessing more than any other author.15
When Lessing had to contend with censorship of his essays dealing with
controversial religious themes, he turned to the stage and expressed his belief
in religious tolerance through the indirect and symbolic fonn of drama and
parable. Nietzsche too considered art to be a suitable vehicle for philo-
sophical thought» In a passage mentioning Lessing, he contends that when
metaphysical speculation about existence reaches the boundaries of scientific
thought, then science must transform itself into art.16 Indeed, modern
scholarship wavers between evaluating Nietzsche primarily äs a philosopher
or äs an anist, and thus it has ever been with Lessing criticism äs well. In the
tradition of Heine who had noted that the history of great men in Germany
is the legend of martyrdom and that the Germans forgave every enviable
human quality but genius,17 Nietzsche counted Lessing among those who
had suffered from his time and milieu.
Also ihr seid stolz, meine guten Germanen, auf eure Dichter und Künst-
ler? ... ihr dürftet darauf stolz sein, daß alle die genannten glänzenden und
edcln Geister durch euch, durch eure Barbarei vorzeitig erstickt, ver-
braucht, erloschen sind? Wie, ihr dürftet ohne Scham an Lessing denken,
der an eurer Stumpfheit, im Kampf mit euren lächerlichen Klötzen und
Götzen, unter dem Mißstande eurer Theater, eurer Gelehrten, eurer
Theologen zu Grunde gieng, ohne ein einziges Mal jenen ewigen Flug
wagen zu dürfen, zu dem er in die Welt gekommen war?
The Germans have never helped their geniuses, declares Nietzsche and
wonders what Lessing, Winckelmann, Beethoven, Schiller, and Goethe were
able to gain from the German "Bildung" of their rimes.18
Finally, Lessing knew how to write, how to project his thoughts, a
talent without which his ideas would have remained forever enshrouded: "An
seiner Kunst haben aber Viele gelernt [...] und Unzählige sich erfreut." Here
Nietzsche refers specifically to the previous generation of German authors
and notes sarcastically that they needn't have taken over his flaws äs well, his
"unangenehme Ton-Manier*' in their admixture of "Zankteufelei und Bieder-
keit." In his typical self-contradictory fashion, Nietzsche remarks that had
Lessing's thoughts remained obscure, the general loss would perhaps not
have been great.19 Such obvious deprecation after equally cnthusiastic praise
might simply reflect Nietzsche'* habitual tendency either to ignore or relegate
Werke, Vol. 4, p. 241.
'* GT, Aph. 15.
»* Werke, Vol. 4, p. 242.
Cber die Zukunft unserer BildungsarwtaJtcn, Vortrag IV.
MA H, WS, Aph. 1D3.
162 Diana L Behlcr

significant predecessors to inconsequential Status. But Nietzsche could not

overlook this man, for although he never wrote a book and all his thoughts
had the fragmentary character of "prefaces, preliminary attempts, explana-
tions, and postscripts" in Nietzsche's assessment, Lessing's intellectual
stature overshadowed any of his works.20
In all of these mirrorings one can see Nietzsche's own reflection, those
characteristics so easily detected within himself - the positive, the negative,
the great, and the petty. Like Friedrich Schlegel before him, Nietzsche surely
viewed himself äs one of Lessing's intellectual descendents — perhaps even a
"Lessing redivivus".

Common Features
If one goes beyond Nietzsche's specific references to Lessing to their
similarity of philosophical personality, then the dedication to the search for
truth looms äs their most obvious common denominator. Nietzsche's phrase
"I do not wish to deceive myself" and Lessing's aforementioned preference for
the search for truth äs opposed to its possession are exceedingly well known,
but more significant are the underlying reasons for their reluctance to
ascertain one single truth. For Nietzsche, to hope to recognize the character
of the universe in absolute fashion, to all eternity, would be the height of
stupidity; his "nothing is true, everything is permitted"21 phrase is not a sign
of cynicism, but rather sums up his contention that only perspectives are
valid, that any truth once attained becomes subject to investigation, or äs he
states in Die Fröhliche Wissenschaft: "Aber ich mag von allen Dingen und
allen Fragen, welche das Experiment nicht zulassen, Nichts mehr hören. Diess
ist die Grenze meines 'Wahrheitssinnes': denn dort hat die Tapferkeit ihr
Recht verloren."22 He wages his battle against any dogma, against the "thou
shalts" and "thou shalt nots", the coercive axioms which derive from
particular truths and limit human freedom. Nietzsche was always fearful that
his own Statements might take oft the aura of permanence, of validity uiider
all circumstances, and warned his readers to be on guard continuously not
only against the "truths" of others, but against Nietzsche's all too seductive
language äs well. Presumably, his externally contradictory style'would prove
sufficient to alert the astute and confound the unsubtle reader.

GA XI, 109f.
FW, Aph. 344; Za IV, "Der Schatten"; GM, "Was bedeuten asketische Ideale," Aph. 24; KGW
VII 25 [304]; 26 [25].
FW, Aph. 51, . .
Nietzsche and Lessing: Kindred thoughts 163

Perspectivism is already inherent to much of Lessing's thought, in "Eine

Parabel" or Nathan's story of the three rings. As Hannah Arendt has pointed
out, Lessing was always concerned "with the worid", his writings constitute
an anticipated dialogue, not to seek a particular truth or one binding
perspective, but radier to stimulate independent thinking, "Lössing's primary
concern in the whole debate was freedom, which was far more endangered by
those who wanted 'to compel faith by proofs" than by those who regarded
faith äs a gift of divine grace."23 Furthermore, Lessing's dramatic technique
of presenring mixed characters rather than one-dimensional types, or by
utilizing what has been termed the "fragmented norm", the "conscious
distribution of positive attributes ... among all of the personages", demon-
strates his basic perspectivistic approach.24 Lessing was sceptical äs to the
ultimate possibility of reaching absolute truth in the temporal realm, an
attitude reflected in a letter to his brother Karl stating that if the worid must
operate with falsehoods, then the old ones, already practicable, might be just
äs good äs the new ones.
In his perceptive discussion of Lessing's parable of the three rings, Peter
Heller comes to the conclusion that "the parable annihilates itself, cancels
itself out/*25 But just äs Lessing had treated the revealed religions in the Er-
ziehung äs "pious frauds of the divine pedagogue" to educate man through
error, so does the paradox of the ring parable demonstrate Lessing's
conviction that man's only access to truth is indeed through error. Heller
regards the fable's ambiguity not only äs a "declaration of inconclusiveness",
but äs a symbolic Statement of "faith in the open horizon" and analyzes
Lessing's recourse to poeric or figurative expression äs a necessary mode of
exposing truth äs a movement, äs dialectic, a "'way of truth' — in reiation to
which every position (assertion, Statement) is but a symbol." Thus, "the
inconclusiveness and ambiguity of the parable is related to the inconclusive-
ness of all human striving for truth and thus to the gymnastic of the mind so
passionately recommended by Lessing."
In his essay "Leibniz, von den ewigen Strafen0 of 1773, Lessing takes a
stand regarding eternal damnation which ostensibly refutes the Wolffian
philosopher Eberhard's rebuttal of such punishment and maintains Leibniz9
position.16 As in comparable dtsputes, Lessing prefers to side with the ortho-
dox view against superficial rationalism because errors easily believed
Mcn in Dark Times, pp* 5-6«
See Robert Eric Rentabler, "Lessing'i Fragmcntcd Norm: a Rc-cxamin-ition of 'Der junge
Gelehrte'," Th* Gtrmamc Revitw (May, 1975), L, No, 3, pp. 165-183.
25 M
Paduan Coin* Concerning txssiitg^s Parable of the Three Ring$fM Letsing Yearbook V
(1973), pp, 163-171.
GotthoU Ephraim tetfingt tamilicbe Schriften, cd. Kar) Lachmann and Franz Muncker, 3d
editkm (U-iprig, l%4), Vol II t p. 473. {In the following LM)
164 Diana I. ßehler

cndanger truth far more than any false premises of orthodox/. In the course
of the essay, Lessing essentially equates Hell with the natural consequences of
sin rather than a place of corporal punishment, the memory of one's own
sinfulness constituting an eternal Hell in itself. Thus, while affirming the
doctrine of eternal punishment, Lessing alters the concept of Hell to such a
degree that he provides a far more damaging criticism of Christianity than the
Wolffians. As Henry Allison states: "Thus relativized, Heaven and Hell
become reduced to states of mind, and given the nature of man they are not
only compatible with, but actually seem to require the notion of eternal
punishment (understood äs the eternal consciousness of one's own
Lessing's defense of Leibniz in this argument reveals his own kinship to
Vielmehr bin ich überzeugt und glaube es erweisen zu können, dass sich
Leibniz nur darum die gemeine Lehre von der Verdammung nach allen ihren
exoterischen Gründen gefallen lassen, ja, gar sie lieber noch mit neuen
bestärkt hätte: weil er erkannte, dass sie mit einer grossen Wahrheit seiner
esoterischen Philosophie mehr übereinstimme als die gegenseitige Lehre.
Freihlich nahm er sie nicht in dem rohen und wüsten Begriffe, in dem sie so
mancher Theologe nimmt. Aber er fand, dass selbst in diesem rohen und
wüsten Begriffe noch mehr Wahres liege als in den ebenso rohen und wüsten
Begriffen der schwärmerischen Verteidiger der Wiederbringung: und nur das
bewog ihn, mit dem Orthodoxen lieber der Sache ein wenig zu tun als mit
den letztern zuwenig.
Lessing also defends his position by virtue of the vastly different perspectives
available to man and God: "Denn wenn jene rächende Gerechtigkeit Gott
wirklich zukömmt: welcher endliche Verstand kann ihre Grenzen be-
zeichnen? Wer darf sich zu entscheiden wagen, was für einen Massstab sie bei
diesen ihren Strafen anzunehmen habe, und was für einen nicht? Der
Massstab ihrer eignen Unendlichkeit ist wenigstens ebenso wahrscheinlich als
jeder andere/' Such reasoning may be detected again and again in Lessing's
philosophical thought, but whereas his particular brand of perspectivism
makes him reluctant to cast aside the vestiges of religious tradition, Nietzsche's
allows little to remain intact.
Nietzsche's scepticism towards the attainability of unmitigated truth finds
both artistic and philosophical representation in his wqrks. In the fourth
book of Die Morgenröte, Nietzsche discusses "Eine Fabel. — Der Don Juan
der Erkenntniss", who is characterized by the same fickleness äs the fabled
Don Juan of amorous adventure.28 Nietzsche's Don Juan lacks genuine love

Lessing and the Enlightenment: His Philosophy of Religion and its Relation to Eighteenth
Century Thought (Arm Arbor, 1966), pp. 89-90.
M, Aph. 327. , -
Nietzsche and Lessing: Kindred thoughts 165

for the things he comes to know and thus searches for ever new modes of ex-
perience, What he does possess are "Geist, Kitzel und Genuss an Jagd und
Intriguen der Erkenntniss — bis an die höchsten und fernsten Sterne der Er-
kenntniss hinauf !" Eventually, there remains nothing for him but the pain of
knowledge, "das absolut Wehethuende der Erkenntniss" which Nietzsche
has so of ten characterized äs perhaps the most distinguishing feature of true
insight. Like one addicted to alcohol, who eventually desires only absinthe
and aqua fortis, the Don Juan of truth, seduced by the challenge of ultimate
knowledge (c<die letzte Erkenntniss0), finally seeks only Hell. But then even
Hell may not provide soiace, for once known and fathomed, it might not live
up to its reputation and disappoint the weary seeker:
Und dann müsste er in alle Ewigkeit stehen bleiben» an die Enttäuschung
festgenagelt und selber zum steinernen Gast geworden, mit einem Ver-
langen nach einer Abendmahlzeit der Erkenntniss, die ihm nie mehr zu
Theil wird! — denn die ganze Welt der Dinge hat diesem Hungrigen keinen
Bissen mehr zu reichen.
Kafka's hunger artist could not find a more understanding or kindred soul!
What detracts from the desirability of the possession of knowledge is its
finality, and for a thinker who revels in the process of thinking, in the testing
of ever new possibiliries, who prides himself in having sät in every corner of
the European consciousness, but continues to try out new corners, this
would be a Hell far surpassing that of Christian doctrine. For Nietzsche, of
course, die search for truth is symbolically associated with reaching higher
realms, with progressive coldness and snowy mountain peaks, and thus äs for
Dante, his Hell might not be one of fire, but of ice.
Nietzsche's respect for the magnitude and awesomeness of absolute
knowledge is not unlike the Old Testament code prohibiting images of God,
since such depiction would constitute a reduction of God to man's limited
understanding and Imagination. For Nietzsche, the attempt to penetrate the
depths of knowledge is a similar act of hybris and in a sense, both God and
truth are demeaned wben man seeks to circumscribe them.29 Thus there is in
Nietzsche's reiationship to truth the same modesty and self-criticism implied
by Lessingfs attitude. It is essentially the Christian virtue of humility, which
in Nietzsche, however, akernates with the demands of the insatiable Don
Juan of knowledge, who üke a flame, consumes all he touches.30
Like Nietzsche, Lessing reaiized that in the pursuit of truth often great
subtlety and dexterity are required, and he often agreed with his obvious
enemies in order to be better on guard against his secret adversaries, äs he
wrotc to his brother Karl in March of 1777:

Nict7,sche mik^Ä an idcntiftcarion of God with truth in FW, Aph. 346.

Cf, FW, Apb. 62.
166 Diana I. Behler

... weil es im Grunde allerdings wahr ist, dass es mir bey meinen theo-
logischen — wie Du es nennen willst — Neckereyen oder Stänkereyen, mehr
um den gesunden Menschenverstand, als um die Theologie zu thun ist» und
ich nur darum die alte orthodoxe (im Grunde tolerante) Theologie, der
neuern (im Grunde intoleranten) vorziehe, weil jene mit dem gesunden
Menschenverstände offenbar streitet, und diese ihn lieber bestehen möchte.
Ich vertrage mich mit meinen offenbaren Feinden um gegen meine
heimlichen desto besser auf meiner Hut seyn zu können.31
As one critic has noted, the semi-orthodox language of the Erzieh fing perhaps
conceals a deeper radicalism thaii that of many of Lessing's Berlin friends. It
was devised to make the work palatable to the public, whereas the esoteric
meaning covered up his true opinions.32 Lessing did not feel it his duty to
sacrifice life and fortune for truth, but thought one was obliged not to mix it
with falsehood.33
As a young Student, Lessing confessed some inner misgivings about his
relationship to truth in "Die Religion" of 1749.34 He hoped to unveil the
labyrinths of self-recognition, the surest way to religion, but was shocked to
find that the foremost proof of our humanness is not virtue, but vice. "Und
es ist von Gott?" he questions. "Es ist von einem allmächtigen, weisen Gott?
Marternde Zweifel!" But perhaps just these doubts make our minds godlier,
and since we were obviously not created for virtue, perhaps we were
fashioned for truth. But here Lessing's penetrating dialectic begins anew:
"Für die Wahrheit? Wie vielfach ist sie? Jeder glaubt sie zu haben, und jeder
hat sie anders. Nein, nur der Irrthum ist unsör Theil, und Wahn ist unsre
Wissenschaft." Even the body, "ein Zusammenhang mechanischer Wunder,"
evidencing an eternal anist, is joined to dreadful illnesses that are anchored in
its very constitution, illnessess "welche die Hand eines Stümpers verrathen."
The doubting poet feels driven to cönclude:
Der Mensch? Wo ist er her?
Zu schlecht für einen Gott; zu gut für Ungefehr.35
Thus not only method, but an underlying belief in the inaccessibility of the
naked truth to man's eye, a belief in human frailty, forms Lessing's
intellectual stance. Whatever his own reservations and cautiöns, however, he

LM, XVIII, No. 546, pp. 226-227. ·
Henry Chadwick's introduction to Lessing's Theological Writings. Selections in translation
(Stanford, 1967), p. 44. See also Friedrich Loofs "Lessings Stellungnahme zum Christentum,"
Theologische Studien und Kritiken, 83 (1913), pp. 31-64.
LM, XI, pp. 69-70. See also Klaus Bohnes, Geist und Buchstabe. Zum Prinzip des kritischen
Verfahrens in Lessings literarästhetischen und theologischen Schriften (Köln/Wien, 1974) for a
discussion of Lessing's ambivalence of "Geist" und "Buchstabe" äs it relates to the Erziehung
des Menschengeschlechts.
LM, I, pp. 255-267.
Ibid., p. 256.
Nietzsche and Lessing: Kindred thoughts 167

did admire forthrightness in others.36 With regard to the publication of the

Erziehung, Lessing was indeed reluctant to proclaim it äs his own brainchild
and wrote to his bröthfcr that he had sent it to Voss without fear of un-
pleasant personal repercussions, since he would never be likely to recognize it
äs his work anyway.37 What we see in such instances of Lessing's behavior is
not really a matter of prudence or cowardice, but simply attempts to open
new honzons of thought without the audacity to chart the course towards a
specific truth.
Again and again Nietzsche reverts to the problera of "truth", questions
the origin of our drive towards ascertaining it, and our establishment and
uülization of such "truths" in human interaction. In Über Wahrheit und
Lüge im aussennoraliscben Sinne he relates so-called "truth" to the necessities
of social convention, so that what was originally deemed to be true
necessarüy became its opposite because lies inevitably prove to be more
functional than truth:
Wir wissen immer noch nicht, woher der Trieb zur Wahrheit stammt: denn
bis jetzt haben wir nur von der Verpflichtung gehört, die die Gesellschaft,
um zu existiren, stellt: wahrhaft zu sein, d. h. die usuellen Metaphern zu
brauchen, also moralisch ausgedruckt: von der Verpflichtung nach einer
festen Convention zu lügen, schaarenweise in einem für alle verbindlichen
Stile zu lügen*
He casts an image of truth in symbolic form in die same passage concerning
truth and deceprion "im aussermoralischen Sinne", asking:
Was ist also Wahrheit? Ein bewegliches Heer von Metaphern, Metonymien,
Anthropomorphismen, kurz eine Summe von menschlichen Relationen, die,
poetisch und rhetorisch gesteigen, übertragen, geschmückt wurden, und die
nach langem Gebrauche einem Volke fest, canonisch und verbindlich
dünken: die Wahrheiten sind Illusionen, von denen man vergessen hat, dass
sie welche sind, Metaphern, die abgenutzt und sinnlich kraftlos geworden
sind, Münzen, die ihr Bild verloren haben und nun als Metall, nicht mehr
als Münzen in Betracht kommen.38
So ahhough symbol may indeed convey truth, what matters is how valid the
symbol still is, how close to its origin, or conversely, how much distorted
into Illusion. Is it merely inflated paper money, or do economic realities back
it up?
** Lessing considcred Rousseau to be a man "welcher keine Vorurtheilc, wenn sie auch noch so
allgemein gebilligt wären, ansiehst» sondern graden Weges auf die Wahrheit zugehet, ohne
sich um die Schwierigkeiten, dieser ihr bey jedem Tritte aufopfern muss* zu bekümmern/'
LM, VII« p. 38, Nietzsche certainly dkl't share this positive view of Rousseau, however, .
LMf XVIll, No. 674, Febroary 25, 1780, p. 355: "Auch habe kh ihm (Voss) die Erziehung
de» Menschengeschlechts geschickt, die er mir auf ein halbes Dutzend Bogen ausdehnen soll.
Ich kann ja das Ding vollends in die Welt schicken« da ich es nie für meine Arbeit erkennen
werde, und mehrere nach dem ganzen Plane doch begierig gewesen sind/'
** Ober Wahrbett und LM%C m ax$*ermw4li$chen Sinne, l,
168 Diana I. Behlcr

From the tree of knowledge man received "Wahrscheinlichkeit, aber

keine Wahrheit: Freischeinlichkeit, aber keine Freiheit/'39 and thus one
should not confuse the tree of knowledge with that of life. In a fraginent
entitled "Letzte Skepsis*'40 Nietzsche asks what then are conclusively the
truths of men, answering: "Es sind die unwiderlegbaren Irrthümer des
Menschen." And why are these errors indisputable? — because of the "Ein
Mal eins" of Nietzsche's ironic logic, namely, that one individual is always
wrong, but with two witnesses, refutation becomes impossible!41 In place of
such ascertainment of "truth", Nietzsche offers the method of doubt, of
distrust towards any established norm, a scepticism "gegen Alles und Jedes.
Es ist der einzige Weg zur Wahrheit. Das rechte Auge darf dem linken nicht
trauen, und Licht wird eine Zeitlang Finsterniss heissen müssen: diess ist der
Weg, den ihr gehen müsst."42 /
Thus Nietzsche's "truth" is somethiiig quite different from previous
"holy" truths, and he would even prefer to appear äs a fool ("Hanswurst")
than a samt: "Aber meine Wahrheit ist furchtbar: denn man hiess bisher die
Lüge Wahrheit." His truth is of course the revaluation of values, his formula
for the highest self-affirmation of the human being: "Mein Loos will, dass ich
der erste anständige Mensch sein müss, dass ich mich gegen die Verlogenheit
von Jahrtausenden im Gegensatz weiss ... Ich erst habe die Wahrheit
entdeckt, dadurch dass ich zuerst die Lüge als Lüge empfand — ",43 He
maintains that nothing previously deemed true is true: "was uns als unheilig,
verboten, verächtlich, verhängnißvoll ehemals verwehrt wurde — alle diese
Blumen wachsen heute am lieblichen Pfade der Wahrheit."44 Yet although
Nietzsche appears in these Statements far more radical than his predecessor
Lessing, there is still an element of reservation ever present in his writings,
the antagonistic pole to his daring; and that concerns his conviction that
Illusion is necessary to life, that no matter how intellectually alluring truth
may be, man lives with deception and contradictory perceptions: "Wahrheit
ist die Art von Irrthum, ohne welche eine bestimmte Art von lebendigen
Wesen nicht leben könnte. Der Werth für das Leben entscheidet zuletzt."
Furthermore, it is unlikely that human understanding extends any further
than is barely necessary for the maintenance of life.45
What is real, however, what is "true" and not imaginary fpr Nietzsche is
not a single entity, nor could it ever be reduced to an identifiable unity: "Es
MA II, WS, Aph. 1.
FW, Aph. 265.
FW, Aph. 260.
MA II, WS, Aph. 213.
EH, Warum ich ein Schicksal bin, Aph. 1.
KGW VIII 15 [77]; See also MA II, VM, Aph. 20.
KGW VII 34 [253]; 36 [19].
Nietzsche and Lessing: Kindred thoughts 169

giebt vielerlei Augen. Auch die Sphinx hat Augen: und folglich giebt es
vielerlei ,Wahrheiten V und folglich giebt es keine Wahrheit." Like his
forerunner, Nietzsche doesn't think it necessary to die for a "truth", since
one could never ascertain its validity in the first place, but he might be willing
to die for freedom of thought: "Aber vielleicht dafür, dass wir unsere
Meinungen haben dürfen und ändern dürfen/*46 Although one may never be
sure of the result, one never pursues truth in vain: "Im Gebirge der Wahrheit
kletterst du nie umsonst: entweder du kommst schon heute hinauf oder du
übst deine Kräfte, um morgen höher steigen zu können."47 What this
truth-seeker realizes and shares with Lessing is that every determination of a
"truth" falsifies it by defining it in human terms, too narrowly, too
permanently, too pettily: "Der Wille zur Wahrheit ist ein Fesi-machen, ein
Wahr-Dauerhaft-Af#cÄeH, ein Aus-dem~Auge-schaffen jenes falschen Cha-
rakters, eine Umdeutung desselben ins Seiende."4* The process of truth-
seeking, of analysis, of sceptical prying, that is what unites the basic drives of
both Lessing and Nietzsche, not the desire to establish truth äs a given
reality. Truth is not something that exists someplace to be discovered for
Nietzsche, but rather something to be created, "das den Namen für einen
Prozeß abgiebt, mehr noch für einen Willen der Überwältigung, der an sich
kein Ende hat: Wahrheit hineinlegen, als ein processus in infinitum, ein
aktives Bestimmen > nicht ein Bewußtwerden von etwas, (das) ,an sich* fest
und bestimmt wäre."49 This is Nietzsche's definition of the "will to power"
and Lessing's will to truth.
As Lessing had often donned the mask of orthodoxy to serve his greater
goals, so did Nietzsche become increasingly aware of the need for the ironic
pose. He even questioned the ulrimate desirability of truth at any cost in Die
Genealogie der Moral, radicaiizing Lessing's atritude: "Der Wille zur Wahr-
heit bedarf einer Kritik — bestimmen wir hiermit unsre eigene Aufgabe —,
der Werth der Wahrheit ist versuchsweise einmal in Frage zu stellen ."50
Like Nietzsche who judged the measure of a man by how much truth he could
withstand,51 Lessing too recognized the suffering involved in truth-seeking.
But for him it was not the amount of truth a person deemed to possess that
determined his worth, but rather the pains he had taken to attain it.52
The pain associated with truth-seeking is not only a battle scar for
Nietzsche, but the ultimate liberator of the spirit: "Erst der grosse Schmerz,
» KGW Vll 34 [230]; MA H, WS, Aph, 333.
MA II, VIA, Aph. 358.
« KGW VIII 9 {91}.
* Ibid.
GM, WM bedeuten askttwbe Ideale. Aph. 24,
JGBt Der freie Geist. Aph. 39.
LM. XVIH, Eine D*pl&. pp. 23-24.
170 Diana I. Hehler

jener lange langsame Schmerz, der sich Zeit nimmt, [...} zwingt uns Philo-
sophen, in unsre letzte Tiefe zu steigen und alles Vertrauen, alles
Gutmüthige, Verschleiernde, Milde, Mittlere, wohinein wir vielleicht vordem
unsre Menschlichkeit gesetzt haben, von uns zu thun."53 Such suffering does
not perhaps improve the individual, but it does give him greater profundity.
Yet in typicai fashion, almost äs if his comrnents might assume the posture of
a truth, Nietzsche in the ensuing paragraph questions this "Wille zur Wahr-
heit", what he calls the adolescent madness residing in the love of truth.
Having once been burned by the searing pain of knowledge, Nietzsche is
again sceptical — he is "zu erfahren, zu ernst, zu lustig, zu gebrannt, zu
tief..." Like the little girl who finds it "unanständig" that God is supposed-
ly omnipresent, philosophers too should eschew the modern mania for knowl-
edge and hold modesty ("Scham") in higher, esteem, for this is the modesty
with which nature has clothed herseif in mysteries and puzzles. "Wir glauben
nicht mehr daran, dass Wahrheit noch Wahrheit bleibt, wenn man ihr die
Schleier abzieht" he remarks, a phrase reminiscent of his romantic.forerunner
Novalis, for whom the deepest truths lie not within the realm of conscious
knowing, but in the recessed regions of the psyche. Of course, Nietzsche is
attacking here primarily the "Jahrmarkt-Bumbum" of the so-called educated
classes who partake of art, music, and books in tasteless greed for purposes
of self-improvement and upward mobility.54 Lessing might have sympathized
with Nietzsche's distaste for the new at any cost and often indicated his own
disdain for the merely modern, particularly in theological matters.
Lessing had to resort to the mask for practical reasons, tp avoid the
censor following the publication of the controversial Reimarus fragments,
and although his polemics had often served to lead his opponents astray, he
eventually took to the stage. Similarly, Nietzsche praised the use of the mask,
the need for self-irony and artistic dissimulation when in the Prologue to
Zaratbustra he depicted the physical vulnerability of one who would dare to
teil the unmitigated truth to an unwilling public. Like Lessing, Nietzsche
realized the advantage of appearing to advocate one positioii, while secretly
maintaining the other, and he enjoyed being understood with difficulty,
letting his readers have some "romping space" within the foregrounds and
backgrounds of his thought. The world of appearances, that Apollonian
realm of language and form, the parable, the myth, -*· all serve the ends of
both authors, and äs Lessing had insisted on the spirit äs opposed to the letter
of theological matters, so did Nietzsche recognize the limitations of verbal
formulations: "Man kann auch seine Gedanken nicht ganz in Worten wieder-

FW, Vorrede, Aph. 3.
FW, Vorrede, Aph. 4. ,. ·
Nietzsche and Lessing: Kindred thoughts 171

geben," or in more melancholy tones: "Ach, was seid ihr doch, ihr meine
geschriebenen und gemalten Gedanken!"5*
Lessing's rejection of a literal Interpretation of the Bible parallels
Nietzsche's argument against the historical dissection of the living spirit of
Christianity. "Der historische Sinn, wenn er ungebändigt waltet und alle
seine Konsequenzen zieht, entwurzelt die Zukunft, weil er die Illusion zer-
stört und den bestehenden Dingen ihre Atmosphäre nimmt, in der sie allein
leben können/9 Historical truth is in the last analysis historical dissection
performed upon the living body of human existence, and if forced to choose
sides between iife-supporting Illusion and death-dealing truth, then Nietzsche
Stands on the side of life. "Die historische Gerechtigkeit, selbst wenn sie
wirklich und in reiner Gesinnung geübt wird, ist deshalb eine schreckliche
Tugend, weil sie immer das Lebendige untergräbt und zu Falle bringt: ihr
Richten ist immer ein Vernichten." Only within the pious atmosphere of the
illusion of love can the human being create, "nämlich nur im unbedingten
Glauben an das Vollkommene und Rechte."56 These words bring not only
Lessing to mind, but also Novalis in his condemnation of Luthers
introduction of philological biblical analysis and ensuing loss of the unity of
the faithful in his Christenheit oder Europa. Scientific pursuit of knowledge is
not always the most effective means and constitutes for Nietzsche a detour
from reality, or äs Lessing had noted in Paragraph 91 of the Erziehung: "Es
ist nicht wahr, dass die kürzeste Linie immer die geradste ist."57 In this sense
neither author upholds the tenet of objective truth, a virtue so soundly
ridiculed by Nietzsche in his polemics against Hegel and implicitly rejected in
most of Lessing's theological writings: "Womit sich die geoffenbarte Religion
am meisten weiss, macht mir sie gerade am verdächtigsten."58
Whereas for Lessing the gradual enlightenment of the human race
through "Erziehung" envisions the perfectibility of mankind in the course of

» JGB, Aph* 296.

** ÜB U, Vom Nutzen and Nach teil der Historic für Jas Leben, Aph. 7.
LM, XIII, p. 434.
Nietzsche polcmicizes against Hegel tu ÜB U, Vom Nutzen und Nachteil der Historic für dat
Leben, Aph. S. What he objected to in Hegclian thought cspecially was that it crcated an
atmosphere of the iatecomer: "Wahrhaftig, lahmend und verstimmend ist der Glaube, ein
Spätling der Zeiten zu sein: furchtbar und zerstörend muss es aber erscheinen, wenn ein
solcher Glaube eines Tages mit kecker Ümstulpung diesen Spätling als den wahren Sinn und
Zweck alles früher Geschehenen vergöttert, wenn sein wissendes Elend einer Vollendung der
Weltgeschichte gleichgesetzt wird. {-. *} Man hat diese Hegelisch verstandene Geschichte mit
Hohn das Wandeln Gottes auf der Ende genannt* welcher Gott aber seinerseits erst durch die
Geschichte gemacht wird. Dieser Gott aber wurde sich selbst innerhalb der Hcgelischen
Hirnschalen durchsichtig und verständlich und ist bereits alle dialektisch möglichen Stufen
seines Werdern, bis zu jener Selbstoftenbanmg, emporgestiegen: so dass für Hege! der Höhe-
punkt und der Endpunkt des Wettprozesse* in seiner eigenen Berliner Existenz zusammen-
fielen/'; LM. XVI, pp. 3W-400.
172 DianaLBchler

history, Nietzsche is somewhat more scepticaL He shares with his

predecessor the premise that man must be educated, but is not äs optimistic
about the ultimate outcome. Certainly his idea that education strives to
transform "conscious activities" into unconscious ones parallels the rationale
of the Erziehung.59 If one perceives in Lessing's third Gospel a self-over-
coming of the Christian God, then Nietzsche's contention that education will
flourish when one has relinquished the belief in God no longer seems so
radical.60 Yet whereas the historical process remains for Lessing one of
progression towards a higher goal, Nietzsche has no such certainty. The
message of the superman presupposes the same perfectibility of the individual
evident in Lessing's essay, but it is counterbalanced by Nietzsche's infinite
dialectic, by his hypothesis of the eternal recurrence, by his suspicion that
mankind will perhaps be at a lower ebb at its conclüsion than in its inceptions,
that it may not be "in progress" at all.61 On the other hand, Nietzsche
admits that man has been educated through his mistakes, that insights
accumulated gradually in the earlier stages of mankind suddenly appear all at
once,62 and that the individual develops piece by piece. "Der Mensch ver-

KGWVI l, 5 [87].
MA I, Aph. 242.
M I, Aph. 49. Nietzsche discusses here "Das neue Grundgefühl: unsere endgültige Ver-
gänglichkeit. —": "Ehemals suchte man zum Gefühl der Herrlichkeit des Menschen zu
kommen, indem man auf seine göttliche Abkunft hinzeigte: diess ist jetzt ein verbotener Weg
geworden, denn an seiner Thür steht der Affe, nebst anderem greulichen Gethier, und fletscht'
verständnissvoll die Zähne, wie um zu sagen: nicht weiter in dieser Richtung! So versucht
man es jetzt in der entgegengesetzten Richtung: der Weg, wohin die Menschheit geht, soll
zum Beweise ihrer Herrlichkeit und Gottverwandtschaft dienen. Ach, auch damit ist es
Nichts! Am Ende dieses Weges steht die Graburne des letzten Menschen und Todtengräbers
(mit der Aufschrift ,nihil h um an i a me alienum puto4). Wie hoch die Menschheit sich ent-
wickelt haben möge — und vielleicht wird sie am Ende gar tiefer, als am Anfang stehen! — es
giebt für sie keinen Übergang in eine höhere Ordnung, so wenig die Ameise und der
Ohrwurm am Ende ihrer ,Erdenbahn* zur Gottverwandtschaft und Ewigkeit emporsteigen.
Das Werden schleppt das Gewesensein hinter sich her: warum sollte es von diesem ewigen
Schauspiele eine Ausnahme für irgend ein Sternchen und wiederum für ein Gattungchen auf
ihm geben! Fort mit solchen Sentimentalitäten!"
62 HI} Aph. 115: "Die vier Irrthiimer. — Der Mensch ist durch seine Irrthümer erzogen
worden: er sah sich erstens immer nur unvollständig, zweitens legte er sich erdichtete Eigep-
schaften bei, drittens fühlte er sich in einer falschen Rangordnung zu Thier und Natur,
viertens erfand er immer neue Gütertafeln und nahm sie eine Zeit lang als ewig und unbe-
dingt, sodass bald dieser, bald jener menschliche Trieb und Zustand an der ersten Stelle stand
und in Folge dieser Schätzung veredelt wurde. Rechnet man die Wirkung dieser vier Irr-
thümer weg, so hat man auch Humanität, Menschlichkeit und »Menschenwürde* hinwegge-
Cf. also FW I, Aph. 9: "Unsere Eruptionen. - Unzähliges, was sich die Menschheit auf
früheren Stufen aneignete, aber so schwach und embryonisch, dass es Niemand als angeeignet
währzunehmen wusste, stösst plötzlich, lange darauf, vielleicht nach Jahrhunderten, an's
Licht: es ist inzwischen stark und reif geworden. Manchen Zeitaltern scheint diess oder jenes
Talent, diese oder jene Tugend ganz zu fehlen, wie manchen Menschen: aber man warte nur
Nietische and Lessing: Kindred thoughts 173

ändert sich noch — ist im Werden."63 For Nietzsche, however, progress can
relate only to the individual, and mankind should bring forth the great
Personalities who form its goal. Lessing is still a son of the Enlightenment
and sees all historical phases äs parts of the whole,64 but Nietzsche speculates
that humanity lives perhaps in cycles and the historical process may revert to
its beginnings to take the same path over and over again.6? Yet if one regards
the gliminering of a transmigration of souls in Paragraph 94 of the Erziehung,
is there truly such a chasm separatmg their thoughts? The question Lessing
poses: "Warum könnte jeder einzelne Mensch auch nicht mehr als einmal auf
dieser Welt sein?" is indeed not a far cry from Nietzsche's hypothesis that
even the most insignificant human being may return again.66

The Tradition of Nietzsche's Lessing Interpretation

In his Nietzsche book, Walter Kaufmann correctly identified the

religious emancipatory tendency of free thinking äs the central focus of
Nietzsche's Image of Lessing.67 Many critics, however, have failed to discern
that Nietzsche had carried on that German tradition of Lessing reception
initiated by Friedrich Schlegel and refined by Heine's Image of Lessing äs the
prophet of a new humanisuc pantheism, äs the progenitor of a revolutionary
Messianism.68 The early Romantics, particularly Friedrich Schlegel and
Novalis, saw their affinity to Lessing in his emphasis upon the renewal of

bis auf die Enkel und Enkelskinder, wenn man Zeit hat, zu warten, — sie bringen das Innere
ihrer Grossvater an die Sonne, jenes Innere, von dem die Grossväter selbst noch Nichts
wussten. Oft ist schon der Sohn der Verräther seines Vaters: dieser versteht sich selber besser,
seit er seinen Sohn hat. Wir haben Alle verborgene Gärten und Pflanzungen in uns; und, mit
einem ändern Gleichnisse, wir sind Alle wachsende Vulcane, die ihre Stunde der Eruption
haben werden: - wie nahe aber oder wie ferne diese ist, das freilich weiss Niemand, selbst der
liebe Gott nicht/*
** KGW VIII 10 [III]: "Z*r Rangordnung: Die Meisten stellen den Menschen als Stücke und
Einzelheiten dar: erst wenn man sie zusammenrechnet, so kommt ein Mensch heraus. Ganze
Zeiten, ganze Völker haben in diesem Sinne etwas Bruchstückhaftes; es gehört vielleicht zur
Ökonomie der Menschen-Entwicklung, daß der Mensch sich stückweise entwickelt. Deshalb
soll man durchaus nicht verkennen, daß es sich trotzdem nur um das Zustandekommen des
synthetischen Menschen handelt, [<.«}"
See also GA XIV, 167,
** LM, XIII, "Erziehung/* No. 92.
*5 KGW VII 2 (5): Das, was kommt. {.. .J Die Menschheit muß in Cydcn leben, einzige Dauer-
form. Nicht die Culntr möglichst lange, sondern möglichst kurz und hoch. ~ Wir im
Mittage: Epoche"
** LM, Xltl, No. 94. See also Za III» Der Genetende: "Ewig kehrt er wieder, der Mensch, dess
du müde bist, der kleine Mensch" -
" Friedrich Nwtzwhe. Phitotopher, Psychologin, Anuchritt (New York, 1956), p. 117f.
** Werke, Vol. 5, I, p. 229, See afco Werke, VoL 4, pp. 243-244.
174 Diana I. Behlcr

humanity through a metamorphosis of religion. They regarded Lessing äs

their philosophical forefather in their own speculations about the future of
mankind, their projected "new religion", and their pians for a new Bible, but
especially in their belief that it is man's destiny to surpass himself in historical
development. Schlegel's fragment "Es ist der Menschheit eigen, dass sie sich
über die Menschheit erheben muss"69, Novaiis' prophesy of a golden age of
poetic human harmony, and Zarathustra's "/CÄ lehre euch den Übermenschen.
Der Mensch ist Etwas, das überwunden werden soll"70 are but a few
examples of parallel suppositions. One must acknowledge, however, that in
the latter case, Zarathustra is only one of the many voices within Nietzsche
and thus has a hypothetical connotation, äs do most of Nietzsche's
projections. Furthermore, all three authors had the tendency to view their
own ages äs one of critical transition to a new era. Lessing and the Romantics
anticipated a better time to come, whereas Nietzsche projected both positive
and negative possibilities for the future. In a passage betraying his own
tentative optimism, however, Nietzsche .portrays the general feeling of the
age in which he lived:
Ein Zeitalter des Überganges: so heisst unsere Zeit bei jedermann, und
jedermann hat damit recht. Indessen nicht in dem Sinne, als ob unserem
Zeitalter dies Wort mehr zukomme als irgend einem anderen. Wo wir auch
in der Geschichte FUSS fassen, überall finden wir die Gärung, die alten
Begriffe im Kampf mit den neuen, und die Menschen der feinen Witterung,
die man ehemals Propheten nannte, die aber nur empfanden und sahen, was
an ihnen geschah .— wussten es und fürchteten sich gewöhnlich sehr. Geht
es so fort, fällt alles in Stücke, nun so muss die Welt untergehen. Aber sie
ist nicht untergegangen, die alten Stämme des Waldes zerbrachen, aber
immer wuchs ein neuer Wald wieder: zu jeder Zeit gab es eine verwesencfe
und eine werdende Welt.71
Here too, one. sees a similarity arnong these authors in their tendency to
Interpret history in typological fashion, to utilize the technique of
prefiguration. Novalis claims to detect certain läws guiding history and
admonishes us to study the analogies in history to determine its future
course, just äs Lessing had justified partial revelation by stressing evident
prefigurations of beliefs not yet fully realized — such äs immortality, the
trinity, original sin, and redemption.*2
One can indeed identify a Lessing traditiori which embraces a history.of
declarations of love and identifications with the free thinker and critic

Kritische Friedrich Schlegel Ausgabe, ed. Ernst Behler (München, Paderbprn, Wien), II,
"Ideen," p. 256ff. (In the following "KA")
Za, Vorrede, Aph. 3.
GA XI, 20.
Novalis Schriften, ed. Richard Samuel, 2d Edition, II, p. 518;, LM, XIII, Par. 72-75.
Nietische and Lessing: Kindred thoughts 175

Lessing. In the first sectkm of his pioneering essay on Lessing of 1797,

Friedrich Schlegel depicts that which Lessing is not, and chooses äs his motto
the well-known self-characterization of the Hamburgische Dramaturgie: " Ich
bin weder Schauspieler noch Dichter ... ich muss alles durch Druckwerk
und Röhren in mir heraufpressen/* Schlegel maintains that this is the key to
all that can be said about Lessing's poetry and characterizes Emilia Galotti äs
an example of "dramatic algebra", a masterpiece produced in "sweat and
pain". Nathan der Weise, however admired, should be better left to philo-
sophy73. For Schlegel, Lessing's "excellent achievement" resides in his
theological wrirings, which form his legacy to the desired romantic
revolution of a new religion of humanity: "Das ist es, das macht ihn mir so
wen: und wenn er nichts Bedeutendes gesagt hätte als dies eine Wort, so
müsste ich ihn schon darum ehren und lieben," Schlegel concluded in his
essay of 1801, recalling Lessing's prophesy of a third Gospel.74 In his later
and posthumous wrirings, Schlegel even speculated that Lessing might have
become the greatest German philosopher, and that German philosophy
would have enjoyed a more fortunate development had it followed his bold
and free spirit.75 Similarly, Heine was later to refer to Lessing äs the author
he loved the most in the entirety of German literary history, the "liberator"
who in destroying the old through his polemics, simultaneously created
something new and better.76 Nietzsche continued this particular tradition of
Germany's reception of Lessing by elevating Lessing's intellectual stature
"far above every one of his poeritc attempts". In Der Wanderer und sein
Schatten he even takes a rare ironic attitude towards him, saying: "Über den
,Lyriker* Lessing ist man jetzt einmüthig: über den Dramatiker wird man es
Nietzsche's Image of Lessing is not tarnished when he occasionally
chides him for having made French style a laughing stock in Germany and
when he mourns what has been lost forever to European cuiture through the

KA, H, pp. 113-114· H, p. 116. Horst Steinmetz has compiled documentation concerning
the reception of Lessing in Germany in: Lesting — ein unpoetischer Dichter, Dokumente aus
drei Jahrhunderten zur Wirkungsgescbicbte Leasings in Deutschland (Frankfurt am
Main/Bonn« 1969) and notes that one of the few German authors who truly loved Lessing
was Friedrich SchlcgeL Afthou^h Schlegel's fudgmem is marred by tnjustices and weaknesses»
his news result from an attitude towards Lcssing that embraces more than ^respektvolle
Würdigung/' (p. 15) He adds that perhaps one should refrain from critid?ing Schlegel's
competcnce in Lessing criticism^ since perhaps he is "den Deutschen ebenso unheimlich . . .
wie Lessing selbst."
KA. II, p. 398.
» KA, VIH, p. xxviif.
* Werkr, Vol. 4, pp. 229-230, Kaufmann »tatet in his Nietzsche Book that Nietzsche'* identi-
ficanon with Lessing itents from rcasons similar to those öl Heine (p. 127).
" GA XI, I09f. MA Il t WSf Aph. 103,
176 Diana I. Bchier

critical revolution initiated by Lessing and the early Romantics.78 This i$

Nietzsche's classical pose, assumed to mask the romantic side of bis nature.
He even went so far äs to identify himself with the principles of Neo-
classicism, adopting its condemnation of Shakespeare's wild genius and pre-
ferring Voitaire's Mabomet to this "great Barbarian".79 Here one should note
that in contrast to Lessing, Nietzsche's view of tragedy was decidedly anti-
Aristotelian. In Die Geburt der Tragödie he claimed to have been the only
one to grasp the essence of the genuinely tragic, defining it äs that which
instilled not pity and fear, but horror and bliss and evoked a jubilant
affirmation of the everlasting character of life, including all joy and all pain.80

Anti-Christ and Leasing

Although a detailed analysis of Nietzsche's Anti-Christ cannot be

attempted here, a glance at his supposedly shockingly radical Christ image
reveals that it is not really new at all. Christ was a man, he insists, whose
"glad tidings" were simply the negation of opposites, the message that there
is no above and below, but only the here and now. He was like the dionysian
"genius of the heart" and did not react or resist, whose very being signified
self-affirmation without any coercive Intention.81 In Nietzsche's image, the
apostles had distorted and coarsened the type for their own evangelical
purposes, imbued Christ with qualities of reäistance and transcendence.82

MA I, Aph. 221. '
EH, Warum ich so klug bin, Aph. 3; MA I, Aph. 221.
GT, chapter 4. See also chapter 5 for Nietzsche's aesthetic justification of existence and
chapter 9 for a discussion of tragedy depicting "Das Unheil im Wesen der Dinge," See also
chapter 21: "So entreisst uns das Apollinische der dionysischen Allgemeinheit und entzückt
uns für die Individuen; an diese fesselt es unsre Mitleidserregung, durch diese befriedigt es
den nach grossen und erhabenen Formen lechzenden Schönheitssinn."
AC, Aph. 34: „Wenn ich irgend Etwas von diesem grossen Symbolisten verstehe, so ist es
das, dass er nur innere Realitäten als Realitäten, als ,Wahrheiten* nahm, — dass er den Rest,
alles Natürliche, Zeitliche, Räumliche, Historische nur als Zeichen, als Gelegenheit zu
Gleichnissen verstand. Der Begriff ,des Menschen Sohn* ist nicht eine concrete Person, die in
die Geschichte gehört, irgend etwas Einzelnes, Einmaliges, sondern eine ,ewige* Thatsächlich-
kei.t, ein von dem Zeitbegriff erlöstes psychologisches Symbol. Dasselbe gilt noch einmal, und
im höchsten Sinne, von dem Gott dieses typischen Symbolikers, vom ,Reich Gottes*, vom
,Himmelreich', von der ,Kindschaft Gottes*. [. . .] Das ,Himmelreich* ist ein -Zustand des
Herzens - nicht Etwas, das ,über der Erde* oder ,nach dem Tode* kommt. [. . .] Das ,Reich
Gottes* ist nichts, das man erwartet; es hat kein Gestern und kein Übermorgen, es kommt
nicht in ,tausend Jahren* - es ist eine Erfahrung an einem Herzen; es ist überall da, es ist
nirdends da. . .** See also Aph. 35: „Dieser ,frohe Botschafter* starb wie er lebte, wie er
lehne — nicht um ,die Menschen zu erlösen*, sondern um zu zeigen, wie maiy zu leben hat.
[. . .] Er widersteht nicht, er vertheidigt nicht sein Recht, [. . .]*'. See also Aph. 32-33.
AC, Aph. 37-39. Aph. 39: „Das Wort schon »Christenthum* ist ein Missverständriiss -, im
Nietzsche and Lessing: Kindred thoughts 177

Although one can question whether Lessing would have subscribed to such a
view, he nevertheless spoke of Christi "inner purity of die heart" and
presented him äs a practical teacher. In his fragment "Die Religion Christi",
Lessing distinguished between the religion Christ practised and the religion
of Christianity and indicated the incompatibility of the two. It is also
significant that Lessing published the Reimarus fragments "Von dem Zwecke
Jesu und seiner Jünger, Noch ein Fragment des Wolfenbüttelschen Unge-
nannten" of 1778, depicting Christ äs a rational teacher whose message was
corrupted by the apostles in their desire to mold him according to their needs
for a Messiah and fulfillment of the Jewish scriptures.83 Reimarus saw
Christ's death on the Cross äs a symbol of disillusionment, his having
expected God to help him deliver the Jews from foreign domination. He
funhermore contends that not Christ, but the Church invented the doctrines
of atonement and judgment and brought about a Separation from Judaism
never intended by Christ. Basic to both Reimarus' and Nietzsche's views are
the immediacy of the distortion, the difficulty in removing the accretions of
history to glimpse the essence of the personality of Christ, and the fact that a
single step from the origin was a step towards error. Lessing of course
published the first 53 paragraphs of the Erziehung to refute Reimarus, to
indicate that the positive religions do not represent distortions, but rather the
progressive enlightenment of mankind through piecemeal revelation. He
nevertheless considered the fragments worthy of publication and open dis-
cussion.84 Whether Nietzsche actually had access to these specific publi-
cations remains open to question, but he certainiy must have had some
acquaintance with Lessing's religious views during his educational years.
Regardless of "dependencies", the similarities are indeed striking.

Grunde gab es nur Einen Christen, und der starb am Kreuz. Das ,Evangeliuin' starb am
See also Aph. 40: "Aber seine Junger waren ferne davon, diesen Tod zu verzeihen, -" and
Aph. 42 on St. Paul äs the "Gegentyp" of Christ: "... im Hass, in der Vision des Hasses, in
der unerbittlichen Logik des Hasses. Was hat dieser Dysangelist alles dem Hass zum Opfer
gebracht! Vor allem den Erlöser: er schlug ihn an sein Kreuz/9
» LM, XVI, p. 444.
** The inconsistencies of Lessing's idea of progrcssivity in history and his Deist views are not at
ksuc here. Leonard P. WesseÜ, Jr. has attempted to clarify the "Impasse in secondary
litcraturc*' (l^iüng Yearbook IV, p, 94) regarding the problem of his theology and agrces
with the bask contcntions of the three main schools of Lessing theological scholarship
(F. Loofs; H. TKielccke and O. Mann; j. Schneider and Georges Ports) in what they affirm,
condudmg that **thcrc are imeconcilabie contradicttons in Lessing's theological thougjht and,
that thcse contradtctions hovcr between Enlightenment, immanent, and monistic positions
and Christian, trarocendent* and dualistic posmons," (p. 96) He contends that there is
nevenbclcss a systeraatic unity tmderiytng l-cs«ngf$ thinlung; and in this avpect, one can
casiiy draw obvious analogtcs in Nietzsche** work and the difficultics theic have prcs-cntcd to
178 Diana I. Bchler

Lessing and the Death of God

Finally, Lessing represents an important milestone in that process of

human maturation Nietzsche sought to finalize with the Statement "God is
dead." Nietzsche obviously did not consider this his own proclamation or
deed, but viewed it äs a "fait accompli", the result of a development
promoted by many throughout centuries.85 Indeed, similar Statements con-
cerning God's death had been previously uttered by Heine and Romantics
such äs Jean Paul. In the aphorism of Die Fröhliche Wissenschaft where the
horrifying diagnosis of God's death is first made, Nietzsche comments: "Wir
haben ihn getödtet, — ihr und ich!"86 Heine had even detected predecessors
to this event, designating Kant's Kritik der reinen Vernunft äs the "sword"
that had slaughtered Deism.87
Nietzsche did not name the actual participants in this deed, but in the
symbolic language of Zarathustra described God äs hard and vengeful in his
youth, then old, soft, and mellow, until he eventually languished away.88
Upon closer analysis, this obituary is simply a new version of Heiners
depiction of the gradual demise of the idea of God — from the thundering
Jehovah, to the God of the "new Confederacy" devoid of human passion and
beyond national prejudices, to the spiritualized and whimpering "worid
benefactor" ("Weltbeglücker") of modern philanthropy.89
Nietzsche's definitive motif for the death of God, however, was the
quality he associated with Lessing's name ,— honesty, frankness, the
intellectual conscience:
Die Natur ansehn, als ob sie ein Beweis für die Güte und Obhut eines
Gottes sei; die Geschichte interpretiren zu Ehren einer göttlichen Vernunft,
als beständiges Zeugniss einer sittlichen Weltordnung und sittlicher Schluss-
absichten; die eigenen Erlebnisse auslegen, [.. .] als ob Alles Fügung, Alles
Wink, Alles dem Heil der Seele zu Liebe ausgemacht und geschickt sei: das
ist nunmehr vorbei, das hat das Gewissen gegen sich, das gilt allen feineren
Gewissen als unanständig, unehrlich, als Lügnerei, [. . .]90
Nietzsche regarded the death of God äs the final rung in a great historical
ladder of religious cruelty, äs he depicted it m Jenseits von Gut und Böse.91
This ladder of many rungs had three of particular significance for the history
of man and God. In the era of prehistoric religiqns ("Vorzeit-Religionen")

FW, Aph. 343.
FW, Aph. 125, "Der tolle Mensch."
v Werke, Vol. 4, III, p, 249.
Za IV, Ausser Dienst.
Werke, Vol. 4, II, p. 246.
FW, Aph. 357.
JGB, Aph. 55.
Nietzsche and Lessmg: Kindred thoughts 179

one sacrificed human beings to God, perhaps those one loved the best, such
äs the firstborn. In the second, the moral epoch, one sacrificed one's nature,
one's strengest insttncts, to God, and thus the religion of asceticism
flourished. Knally, there remained only one thing left to offer in sacrifice,
namely, all one's precious hopes for future bliss and justicq - all that was
comforting, holy, hopeful, and all beliefs in hidden harmony. Thus one had
to offer up God himself äs the ultimate sacrifice, an act stemming from
self-inflicted croeity which worships "den Stein, die Dummheit, die Schwere,
das Schicksal, das Nichts [...]". The incredibly paradoxical mystery of the
sacrifice of God for nothing, the culmination of the third important stage,
remains a task for the present generation, but Nietzsche and his followers
know of it aiready. This particular passage can be augmented by many others
regarding God's death which reveal Nietzsche's ambivalent attitude towards
this greatest of all historical phenomena* Whereas in Die Genealogie der
Moral he had depicted a tripart development of cruelty in the form of 1)
external revelry in inflicting pain upon others (Christians to the lions, public
hangings, etc.), 2) the internalization of suffering and the development of
conscience and finally, 3} the masochistic psychological self-flagellation of
bad conscience; he now designates man's sacrifice of his God and all that
God denoted — hope and future happiness — äs his most pernicious act of
seif-cruelty. The death of God is not only viewed äs an event long coming
and to be hailed, äs in Die Fröhliche Wissenschaf t92 > an event that will change
the world and permit the open seas of free inquiry, that will topple the
structures of church and society, morals and laws, but has its sadder
components äs well. Nietzsche alternates between a joyful expression of new
horizons beyond God's death, a new immanent humanity and rehabilitation
of the flesh, and the experience of aweful horror at the monumental and
unprecedented deed, for which man himself in his quest for knowledge must
bear the responsibility. Who can forctell the ultimate consequences of the
deed? What will fill the vacuum of empty space, mitigate the coldncss of
nothingness now that God has died?93
At first glance, it may appear that Lessing's ladder of human develop-
ment in the Erziehung is a contrary image, an opümistic projection of man's
desuned moral educadon towards responsibility and seif worth. But is there
not an underlying similarity to be detectcd in the third stage of each author's
dq>iction? God*s death is portrayed äs an almost physical act of violence in
Nietzsche** paragraph, our hands reek with the blood of the sacrifice with a
spoi a$ indcliblc äs Lady MacBeth*s. What, however, becomes of Lessing's

« FW, Apb, 323.

« FW. Aph. 125,
180 Diana L Behier

God at the culmination of the education of mankind? When man does good
for the sake of good itself, when morality has become completely inter-
nalized, what function remains to God? His role äs the avenging, jealous
God of the Old Testament, even Lutheran theology, becomes superfluous, äs
does the need for his forgiveness and mercy. Sin and forgiveness, crime and
punishment, cannot exist in Lessing's third stage; and so one could say diät
here too God has died, perhaps a more natural and predictable death.
Without the need for a God, Christ, Mary, the saints, and all other inter-
locutors and religious institutions cease to justify their existence äs well.
Thus, although the approaches taken d by each author are exceedingly
different, the logical outcomes are surprisingly akin with regard to the fate of
the Deity. The salient difference of course is that for Nietzsche all the
structures previously supported by God fall with his demise, whereas for
Lessing they have become self-sustaining and internalized. Nietzsche thinks
it "Naivität, als ob Moral übrigbliebe, wenn der sanktionierende Gott fehlt!
Das Jenseits* absolut notwendig, wenn der Glaube an Moral aufrechterhalten
werden soll."94
One final note of difference should be emphasized here äs well, and that
concerns a basic assumption by Lessing which is severely refuted by
Nietzsche. Lessing presupposes that human education is directed by the
guiding, often invisible hand of God, for he cannot imagine that God only
has a hand in error. Thus his ladder of human development is seen äs
reasonable and desirable. Nietzsche sharply denounces this optimistic belief
held by one he otherwise deems a "scharfer Geist."95 Paradoxically, the similar
outcomes stem from opposing assumptions about the nature of man
underlying both Lessing's Erziehung and Nietzsche's passage discussed.
Whereas Lessing presupposes the good in man and its final flowering,
Nietzsche postulates here that man's innate cruelty might outweigh his
dearest hopes. The question remains äs to the feasibility of a "golden age" of
humanity prophesied by the Romantics ör a world in which man has tran-
scended himself and transformed an external God into immanent
humaneness. The ultimate dispute then is not whether God dies in all of these
speculations, but what remains without him — human beings of internalized
morality and innate goodness, tortured human beings who have lost their
most precious possession through masochistic destruction of their God, or
individuals belonging to a higher history and having greater potential than
ever before because of their greater freedom.

SA III, p. 484.
JGB, Aph, 55.
Nietzsche and Lessing: Kindred thoughts 181

There are of course many other deep and obvious distinctions to be

made between Lessing and Nietfcsche. Whereas Lessing's humanism of a
maturing mankind not only concedes the Christian virtues of pity, goodness,
and love of mankind, and tolerates Christianity because of them, Nietzsche
wants to obliterate Christianity^ last residuals. In Feuerbach's language, not
only the "subject" of the Christian reiigion, God, should be negated, but
also its "predicates" of pity, kindness, and altruism. Or äs Marx phrased it,
when human alienation in its religious, holy form — God, has been over-
come, one should then destroy its unholy or wordly forms äs well.
According to Nietzsche, pursuant to the death of God, the battle against
God's remaining earthly shadows should be waged. Christian conscience
sublimated to the intellectual conscience now rebels against its origins by
questioning the ethics of the prevailing morality« Admittedly, this is no social
revolutionär/ event for Nietzsche, but radier an individual educational
process; and in this too he remains a successor to German classical
humanism. Despite Nietzsche's distinct departure from Lessing's Christian
humanism, however, it should be noted that both shared an intolerance of
intellectual intolerance, closed Systems, and all that prevented the free inquiry
of the human spirit.96
What this compressed survey evidences is the marked influence Lessing
has exerted upon the German mind, the ever continuing attempts by German
thinkers to identify with Lessing and to renew the spirit of his thought.
Among German classical authors, Lessing exhibits, more than any other, a
type of classicism which is far more influential and liveiy than the usual
classical model — diät classicism which serves äs a source of renewal and
rejuvenation, the kind Thomas Mann had in mind when in his "Rede über
Lessing** he joined it to the idea of myth, defining it äs an "Urtypus, in dem
späteres Leben sich wiedererkennen, in dessen Fußstapfen es wandeln

In his artkie "Zum Thema der Miwwihropic bei Lwing", Euphonon 68* Vol. 1, , -
12, Erich Heller pomtt out Lessing'* bmernes* towards his tot in life and his cominual
strugglei to ovcrcomc negative attaude* and adhere to feelsngs of irust and belkf.
Stockholmer Äu*%abt, Vol. 15, "Adel det Geistes/' p. 5.