Friend and opponent of Kant, friend and inspirer of Lessing, the grandfather of Felix Mendelssohn was one of the noblest figures of the eighteenth century. His father, Menahem Mendel, was a clerk and teacher in a Jewish school at Dessau. Born there on September 6, 1729, the “third Moses” grew up with such a passion for study that he suffered a lasting curvature of the spine. At fourteen he was sent to Berlin for further study of the Talmud; there he followed almost literally the Talmudic command “Eat bread with salt, drink water by measure, sleep on the hard earth, live a life of privations, and busy thyself with the Law.”45 For seven years he contented himself with a garret room, marked his weekly loaf of bread with lines for his daily allowance,46 and earned a pittance by copying documents in his elegant hand. In Berlin he pored over the works of Maimonides, found courage in the career of that “second Moses,” and learned from him and life to control his pride to modesty and cool his hot temper to gentleness and courtesy. His Berlin associates taught him Latin, mathematics, and logic; he read Locke in a Latin translation, passed on to Leibniz and Wolff, and was soon enamored of philosophy. He learned to write German with a smooth clarity rare in the literature of his country in his time.
His poverty ended when, aged twenty-one, he became tutor in the family of Isaac Bernhard, who owned a silk plant in Berlin. Four years later he was made bookkeeper, then a traveling agent of the firm, finally a partner. He kept this business relation actively to the end of his life, for he was resolved not to be dependent upon the popularity and monetary returns of his books. Probably in 1754 he met Lessing, apparently in a game of chess; so began a friendship that endured, despite philosophical differences, till Lessing’s death. On October 16, 1754, Lessing wrote to another friend: “Mendelssohn is a man of five-and-twenty, who, without any [university] education, has acquired great attainments in languages, mathematics, philosophy, and poetry. I foresee in him an honor to our nation if he is allowed to come to maturity by his co-religionists. … His candor and his philosophical spirit cause me to regard him, in anticipation, as a second Spinoza.”47 For his part Mendelssohn said that a friendly word or look from Lessing banished from his mind all grief or gloom.48
In 1755 Lessing arranged the publication of Mendelssohn’s Philosophische Gespräche, which expounded and defended both Spinoza and Leibniz. In the same year the two friends collaborated in an essay, Pope ein Metaphysiker!, in which they argued that the English poet had had no philosophy of his own, but had merely versified Liebniz. Also in 1755 Mendelssohn published Briefe über die Empfindungen (Letters on the Feelings) ; this anticipated Kant’s view that the sense of beauty is quite independent of desire. These publications won the young Jew full welcome into the not quite “serene brotherhood of philosophes” in Berlin. Through Lessing he met Friedrich Nikolai; he and Nikolai studied Greek together, and soon he was reading Plato in the original. He helped Nikolai to establish the Bibliothek der Schonen Wissenschaften und der Freien Künste (Library of Belles-Lettres and Fine Arts), and contributed to this and other periodicals articles that strongly influenced current ideas in the criticism of literature and art.
Mendelssohn now felt sufficiently secure to set up a home of his own. In 1762, thirty-three years old, he married Fromet Gugenheim, twenty-five. Both had reached the age of reason, and the union brought them much happiness. On their honeymoon he began work in competition for a prize offered by the Berlin Academy for the best essay on “Whether the Metaphysical Sciences Are Susceptible of Such Evidence as the Mathematical.” Among other contestants was Immanuel Kant. Mendelssohn’s contribution won (1763), bringing him fifty ducats and international renown.
One of the contestants was Thomas Abt, a professor in Frankfurt-am-Oder. In a long correspondence with Mendelssohn he expressed doubts as to the immortality of the soul, and mourned that the loss of that belief might undermine the moral code and deprive misfortune of its last consolation. Partly as a result of this exchange, Mendelssohn composed his most famous work: Phaidon, oder Über die Unsterblichkeit der Seele. Like its Platonic exemplar, it was cast in dialogue form and popular style. The soul of man (ran the argument) is clearly different from matter; we may therefore believe that it does not share the body’s fate; and if we believe in God we can hardly suppose that he would deceive us by implanting in our minds a hope without basis in truth. Moreover [as Kant was to hold] the soul has a natural drive toward self-perfection; this cannot be attained in our lifetime; God must surely allow the soul to survive the death of the body. “Without God, Providence, and immortality,” Mendelssohn felt, “all the goods of life would lose their worth in my eyes, and our earthly life would be … like wandering in wind and weather without the consoling prospect of finding cover and protection at night.”49 The demonstrations were fragile, but the style of the work delighted many readers; the charm of Plato’s dialogues seemed to have been recaptured; indeed, “the German Plato” became another name for Mendelssohn. The little book ran through fifteen editions, and was translated into nearly all European languages as well as Hebrew; it was, in its time, the most widely read nonfiction book in Germany. Herder and Goethe joined in its praise. Lavater visited the author, examined his head and face, and announced that every bump and line revealed the soul of Socrates.50
Christians of diverse sects applauded the eloquent Jew, and two Benedictine friars asked for his spiritual counsel. But in 1769 Lavater, who was as ardent a theologian as he was a phrenologist, caused a flurry by making a public appeal to Mendelssohn to become a Christian. Mendelssohn replied in Schreiben an den Herrn Diaconus Lavater (1770). He admitted defects in Judaism and Jewish life, but pointed out that such abuses develop in every religion in the course of its history; he asked Lavater to consider the hardships suffered by the Jews in Christendom, and added: “He who knows the state in which we now are, and has a humane heart, will understand more than I can express”; and he concluded: “Of the essentials of my faith I am so firmly … assured that I call God to witness that I will adhere to my fundamental creed as long as my soul does not assume another nature.”51 Lavater was moved, and humbly apologized for having issued his appeal.52 But a swarm of pamphleteers denounced Mendelssohn as an infidel, and some orthodox Jews condemned him for admitting that abuses had crept into Jewish religious usages.53 For a time the controversy generated more discussion than national politics or the decline of Frederick’s health.
Mendelssohn’s own health suffered from the turmoil; for several months in 1771 he had to refrain from all mental activity. On recovering his strength he devoted more of his time than before to the relief of his co-religionists. When some cantons in Switzerland were preparing further restrictions against the Jews he asked Lavater to interfere; Lavater did, with good effect. When the Dresden authorities planned to expel several hundred Jews Mendelssohn used his friendship with a local official to secure an accommodation.54 He began in 1778 to publish his German translation of the Pentateuch; issued in 1783, this aroused another storm. To write some of the commentaries on the text Mendelssohn had engaged Herz Homberg, who was associated with Berlin Jews quite estranged from the synagogue. Several rabbis banned the translation, but it found its way into the Jewish communities; young Jews learned German from it, and the next generation of Jews moved into active participation in German intellectual life. Meanwhile (1779) Lessing published his drama Nathan der Weise, which hundreds of readers interpreted as an exaltation of his Jewish friend.
Now at the height of his fame and influence Mendelssohn persuaded Marcus Herz to translate into German that Vindication of the Jews which Manasseh ben Israel had addressed to the English people in 1656. To the translation he added a preface on “The Salvation of the Jews” (1782), in which he pleaded with the rabbis to abandon their right of excommunication. He followed this in 1783 with an eloquent work called Jerusalem, oder Über religiöse Macht und Judenthum (On Religious Authority and Judaism),in which he reaffirmed his Judaic faith, called upon the Jews to come out of the ghetto and take their part in Western culture, urged the separation of church and state, condemned any compulsion of belief, and proposed that states be judged by the degree in which they relied on persuasion rather than force. Kant, now too at his zenith, wrote to the author a letter that deserves a place in the annals of friendship:
I consider this book the herald of a great reform, which will affect not alone your people but also others. You have succeeded in combining your religion with such a degree of freedom of conscience as was never imagined possible. … You have, at the same time, so clearly and thoroughly demonstrated the necessity of unlimited freedom of conscience in every religion, that ultimately our [Lutheran] Church will also be led to consider how to remove from its midst everything that disturbs or oppresses conscience.55
The book was attacked by orthodox leaders Christian or Jewish, but it contributed immensely to the liberation and Westernization of the Jews.
In 1783 Mendelssohn was only fifty-four, but he had always been frail in physique and health, and he felt that he had not much longer to live. In his final years he delivered to his children and some friends lectures defining his religious creed; these were published in 1785 as Morgenstunden, oder Vorlesungen über das Dasein Gottes (Morning Hours, or Lectures on the Existence of God). In his last year he was shocked to learn, from a book by Jacobi, that his dear friend Lessing, now dead, had long adhered to Spinoza’s pantheism. He could not believe it. He wrote a passionate defense of Lessing—An die Freunde Lessings. While taking the manuscript to the publishers he caught a cold; and in the course of that sickness he died of an apoplectic stroke, January 4, 1786. Christians joined with Jews in erecting a statue to him in Dessau, the city of his birth.
He was one of the most influential figures of his generation. Inspired by his writings and his successful crossing of religious frontiers, young Jews came out of the ghetto, and soon made their mark in literature, science, and philosophy. Marcus Herz went to the University of Königsberg as a medical student; he took several of Kant’s courses, and became the great epistemolog’s assistant and friend; it was he who, reading the Critique of Pure Reason in manuscript, stopped halfway for fear that if he continued he would go insane. Back in Berlin, he developed a large practice as a physician, and gave lectures in physics and philosophy to audiences of Christians and Jews. His wife, Henrietta, beautiful and accomplished, opened a salon which, at the turn of the century, was a leading rendezvous of intellectual Berlin; there came Wilhelm von Humboldt, Schleiermacher, Friedrich Schlegel, Mirabeau fils … The resultant mixture of ideas might not have pleased Mendelssohn. Several of his children became converts to Christianity. Two of his daughters joined Henrietta Herz and others in a “Tugenbund,” or Band of Virtue, which honored “elective affinities” above marital fidelity. Henrietta carried on a liaison with Schleiermacher; Dorothea Mendelssohn left her husband to be the mistress and then loyal wife of Friedrich Schlegel, and ended as a Roman Catholic; Henrietta Mendelssohn also accepted the Roman creed; and Abraham Mendelssohn caused his children, including Felix, to be baptized as Lutherans; the orthodox rabbis claimed that their fears had been justified. These were incidental results of the new freedom; the more lasting aspects of Mendelssohn’s influence appeared in the intellectual, social, and political liberation of the Jews.