Spoiler alert – this book is currently only available in German.
This book on the not-so-well-known story of a great friendship that developed between Moses Mendelssohn and Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, two giants of the Enlightenment period, had a great impact on me. Beyond their fascinating correspondences and meetings, their very connection and lives themselves symbolise the values of the enlightenment period like almost no other. This two-people-biography gives a sense of the hope their lives were filled with – hope for a better world against all odds; hope for the same rights for all citizens and a modern, secular state as well as universal education. In a way, many of these hopes are still unfulfilled, which shows how radical their thoughts must have seemed to most people over 250 years ago. Many of the ideals that these two luminaries developed and lived by are fundamental to my own way of life and worldview.
The story starts off with Moses Mendelssohn who was born in Dessau in 1729 as ‘Moses Ben Mendel Dessau’ to his father Mendel – an impoverished writer of Torah scrolls. From an early age on he excelled at mathematics, philosophy and latin, mostly an autodidact, but also taught by the local Rabbi Frankel, who introduced him to the philosophy of Maimonides.
Maybe due to the vast number of books he consumed from an early age on, Moses developed a curvature of the spine in boyhood. This only added to the many disadvantages he faced early on. It started much earlier though, when he was born, as being Jewish did not give him citizen rights in the Principality of Anhalt. Indeed, when he decided to follow his teacher to Berlin at the age of about 14, the gatekeepers of Berlin made him enter with a load of pigs and he had to pay customs on himself as he entred the city gates. This was an unlikely start in life for someone who would later become the “German Socrates”. Mendelssohn continued living in Berlin without any rights to speak of under constant threat of exile but his genius startet to get noticed among Berlin’s intellectual elite. In cafés and later salon evenings, he continually impressed everyone around him with his sharp thinking and loving character. The Swiss poet Lavater described him as
“[…] a companionable, brilliant soul, with piercing eyes, the body of an Aesop [who was traditionally considered ugly]—a man of keen insight, exquisite taste and wide erudition […] frank and open-hearted.” – Johann Kaspar Lavater
In 1763, Mendelssohn won the prize offered by the Berlin Academy for his work on the application of mathematical proofs to metaphysics On Evidence in the Metaphysical Sciences. He competed against no other than Immanuel Kant, who came second. This award ultimately led the king to granting Mendelssohn, but not his family, the privileges of a Protected Jew, which allowed him to live undisturbed in Berlin.
In line with the Zeitgeist and Mendelssohn’s own writings, the educated elite started to look beyond prejudice and racism and saw him for the brilliant man that he was. It was a triumph of the mind over the superficial and therefore symbolises the enlightenment and what his works were all about – advocating reform to reach a better world in which thought, art, science and the freedom of expression, especially with regard to religion, are the highest goods.
All of these were completely radical ideas at the time. Ultimately, Moses Mendelssohn gained influence as a respected thought leader and used this for the good of the wider community whenever possible. On one such occasion, in 1775, the Swiss-German Jews were facing the threat of expulsion until Mendelssohn intervened by turing to his friend Lavater who, after receiving his letter, secured their stay. Moses was also the father of one of Germany’s greatest dynasties with his six children all reaching the very heights of their fields. Joseph became the founder of the Mendelssohn banking house and a friend and benefactor of Alexander von Humboldt, Abraham was the father of Fanny and Felix Mendelssohn, Nathan became a mechanical engineer of considerable repute and his daughters Dorothea, wife of Friedrich von Schlegel and mother of Philipp Veit, Recha and Henriette were all gifted women. The vast number of great minds the Mendelssohn family produced is simply astonishing.
This finally brings us to Lessing. The book does a good job at contrasting the two protagonists’ origins, which is important to understand as a background to their later correspondences. Gotthold Ephraim Lessing was born in Saxony (also in 1729) to a Lutheran minister. He attended one of the best schools in the country and subsequently studied theology, medicine, philosophy, and philology at the University of Leipzig. In short, he had all the advantages as a child that his later friend Moses lacked and yet none of that played a role in their intellectual connection. Both had an open worldview (see my post on Carlo Strenger’s book), that was not driven by prejudice and dogma but rather by respect and curiosity. They were eager to learn from one another as equals – each admiring the talents of the other. Nothing else mattered. This was probably something they reinforced in one another ever since they met in Berlin at the introduction of Aaron Solomon Gumperz. But even before knowing Mendelssohn Lessing wrote, breaking with stereotypes and to great controversy at the time, a play in which a Jew was one of the main characters and was portayed as noble and wise. It is widely believed that his later play “Nathan the Wise”, which features a similar character, is in fact portraying and dedicated to his friend Moses.
Vera Forester, the author, adds ample excerpts of diligently researched letters and correspondences throughout the book. It brings the whole story to life and makes this a very different, much more personal, take on the enlightenment period compared to many other books. Reading through the pages feels as if one was there and I was struck by how closesly Lessing’s and Mendelssohn’s correspondences reflect my worldview and values today, more than 250 years later. Having grown up very internationally among multiple citizenships in my geographically (but not emotionally) spread-out family, I was often asked where I feel most at home. This book, together with Stefan Zweig’s autobiography “The World of Yesterday” (review to follow), brings me firmly to the conclusion: In European culture and the enlightenment period, thinking of the Lessing-Mendelssohn dialogues (as well as, principally, Voltaire’s wrtitings). This is, of course, not a place but an idea, which is why I see it like Stefan Zweig that this renders my “portable home” that “travels with you in your head whereever you go or live” – in the end, however, it remains emotionally inseperable from Europe and that is partly what this book captures so well.