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Leo Strauss on Moses Mendelssohn

Leo Strauss on Moses Mendelssohn


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Moses Mendelssohn (1729-86) was the leading Jewish thinker of the German Enlightenment and the founder of modern Jewish philosophy. His writings, especially his attempt during the Pantheism Controversy to defend the philosophical legacies of Spinoza and Leibniz against F. H. Jacobi’s philosophy of faith, captured the attention of a young Leo Strauss and played a critical role in the development of his thought on one of the fundamental themes of his life’s work: the conflicting demands of reason and revelation.

Leo Strauss on Moses Mendelssohn
is a superbly annotated translation of ten introductions written by Strauss to a multi-volume critical edition of Mendelssohn’s work. Commissioned in Weimar Germany in the 1920s, the project was suppressed and nearly destroyed during Nazi rule and was not revived until the 1960s. In addition to Strauss’s introductions, Martin D. Yaffe has translated Strauss’s editorial remarks on each of the passages he annotates in Mendelssohn’s texts and brings those together with the introductions themselves. Yaffe has also contributed an extensive interpretive essay that both analyzes the introductions on their own terms and discusses what Strauss writes elsewhere about the broader themes broached in his Mendelssohn studies.

Strauss’s critique of Mendelssohn represents one of the largest bodies of work by the young Strauss on a single thinker to be made available in English. It illuminates not only a formerly obscure phase in the emergence of his thought but also a critical moment in the history of the German Enlightenment.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226922782
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 12/11/2012
Pages: 360
Product dimensions: 6.30(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Leo Strauss (1899-1973) was one of the preeminent political philosophers of the twentieth century. He is the author of many books, among them The Political Philosophy of Hobbes, Natural Right and History, and Spinoza’s Critique of Religion, all published by the University of Chicago Press. Martin D. Yaffe is professor of philosophy and religion studies at the University of North Texas and the author or editor of several books, including Shylock and the Jewish Question.

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ISBN: 978-0-226-92278-2

Chapter One

Introduction to Mendelssohn's [1931] Pope a Metaphysician!

The pamphlet Pope a Metaphysician! was composed by Lessing and Mendelssohn jointly. The occasion for its emergence was the Berlin Academy's prize competition, set in 1753 for 1755, which called for the comparison of the Popeian principle "All is good" with the (Leibnizian) system of Optimism and for the examination of the "Popeian system" for its soundness. To the end—the entries had to be sent in by January 1, 1755—the authors intended to participate in the call for entries; that is probably why the working out of the writing was completed by and large at the end of 1754. Even before Mendelssohn's "refusal to add his name to it," however, Lessing determined that they would forgo submitting the writing as an entry and would publish it as a pamphlet. It is not to be ruled out that Lessing, once he had so decided, added to the writing a few scathing statements against the Academy, which would have been out of place in an entry. The writing appeared anonymously in the late autumn of 1755. Nothing was known initially of Mendelssohn's collaboration: Lessing passed as the sole {xvi} author.

While the prize question itself does not have a prehistory, Lessing Mendelssohn's response to it has the following one. An Essay on Man, the didactic poem of Alexander Pope in which the principle posed for discussion by the Academy, "All is right," is articulated and justified, had been attacked right after its appearance—it appeared in 1733–34—by the mathematician and philosopher Jean Pierre de Crousaz of Lausanne on account of the "dangerous" doctrines stated in it, above all on account of the Determinism purportedly taken over from Leibniz. The Pope interpreter William Warburton defended the poet against this attack by, among other things, contesting any dependence of Pope's on Leibniz. The recollection of this controversy had no influence, so it appears, on the setting up of the prize competition; Prémontval, at least, gives assurances that he had been made aware of Crousaz's polemic against Pope and Leibniz only by Gottsched's pamphlet directed against the prize competition. On the other hand, Lessing and Mendelssohn, perhaps first alerted to the earlier controversy by Gottsched as well, saw themselves prompted to take their stance. They could not pass up Gottsched's own thesis either. This Leibnizian had made the assertion—patent in light of the Academy's hostility toward Leibniz, accepted by our authors, and today generally recognized as correct—that with its prize competition the Academy wanted to promote a contesting of the Leibniz-Wolffian philosophy. A presupposition for this assertion was that Pope's doctrine is essentially identical with Leibniz's doctrine, or at least could be considered by the Berlin Academy as being identical with it. In fact, the Leibnizian Gottsched doubted this identity as little as did the anti-Leibnizian Crousaz. But Warburton's polemic against Crousaz showed that the identity was not self-evident. That is why the first task for Lessing and Mendelssohn was the investigation of the relationship of Pope and Leibniz. In this way, Pope a Metaphysician! is already distinguished from {xvii} all other statements prompted by the prize competition for 1755—if one disregards the few remarks of Kant's on this point, which do not go beyond suggestions occasioned by the prize question that are found in his unpublished writings: Lessing and Mendelssohn see in the relationship of Pope's doctrine to Leibniz's a problem. Whereas for all the others it was just a matter of whether "Optimism" (the doctrine that the actual world is the best of all possible worlds) is true or false, and whereas the adherents as well as the opponents of Leibniz who participated in the controversy had no doubt about the identity of the two doctrines, Lessing and Mendelssohn put that very identity into question. Still, this did not amount to a substantive criticism of the Berlin Academy's prize competition; for, in the first place, the prize competition explicitly called for the assessment of the relationship and the distinction between the Popeian and the Leibnizian doctrines, and, in the second place, Maupertuis was in any case actually convinced that an essential distinction did exist between these two doctrines. The authors are not satisfied with indicating particular distinctions as regards the content, however; nor do they limit themselves—as the Leibnizians that they are—to defending Leibniz by attempting to demonstrate that those principles of Pope's that supposedly or actually disagree with his system are untenable; in all this, they would respond to the Academy's question and thereby accept it as meaningful. Nonetheless, the real aim of their writing is to reject the Academy's question as fundamentally flawed. The pointing out of particular distinctions between the two doctrines is guided by the fundamental insight into the necessity of such distinctions. The doctrines of both men necessarily differ because Leibniz is a philosopher and Pope is a poet: what makes a philosophical doctrine a philosophical doctrine, namely, its systematic form, precludes its poetic, i.e., sensuous presentation, and vice versa. Since that is so, Pope's and Leibniz's doctrines are not only necessarily distinct, but also fundamentally not comparable; and so the Academy's prize competition is fundamentally flawed. Careful attention must be paid to the limit of Lessing-Mendelssohn's assertion, {xviii} lest one find in the Pope writing, in obvious contradiction to the explicit opinion of the authors, who recognize Pope as a "philosophical poet" through and through, a "peremptory rule of the separation of the philosopher from the poet." In truth, the authors deny only the compatibility of philosophy as a "system of metaphysical truths" with poetry; they do not deny, instead they assert, the compatibility of doctrine in general with poetry; not only do they not deny the possibility of didactic poetry in general, they show instead how didactic poetry is possible: didactic poetry is possible insofar as there are doctrines that are convincing not just by force of their systematic justification; of such a type are the "specific moral principles" on whose recognition "all philosophers agree, however distinct their fundamental principles may also be." And Pope meant his Essay on Man to be a moral poem: it "was to be no unfruitful association of truths." That is why he sought "a lively impression rather than a deep conviction"; that is why he wrote in verse, not in prose. The distinction between poetry as sensuous language and philosophy as a system of abstract principles does not convey its real sense in itself; it points back to the distinction between theoretical and practical, between demonstrative and living, between clear and effective knowledge—and, therefore, doctrine—, between knowledge and "the knowledge's life," therefore to a distinction without which Mendelssohn's Treatise on Evidence and Lessing's Treatise on Fables would be unintelligible. About the significance this distinction has for Mendelssohn, the "Introduction to the Treatise on Evidence" has more to say. What significance it has for the aforementioned treatise of Lessing's results from the principles that come to the fore in it: that anyone "who lets himself succumb to presenting anything other than an ethical doctrine in" the fable "abuses it"; that "fable has as its aim our clear and living knowledge of a moral principle"; that he (Lessing) in his own fables "always [had]" his "focus only on this or that ethical doctrine, which {xix} I was eager to examine in specific cases mostly for my own edification."

The most important presupposition of the Pope writing is therefore common to Lessing and Mendelssohn. Judged by its initial purpose, however, the writing seems to belong to Mendelssohn rather than to Lessing. For this purpose is manifestly the defense of Leibniz against an attack by the Berlin Academy, the same purpose, therefore, to which a part of the Philosophical Dialogues is devoted. In any case, the aim of defending Leibnizian philosophy was less important to Lessing than to Mendelssohn. Meanwhile, both authors were at one in the protest against the national arrogance of the countries to the west, which they believed they recognized in the overrating of Pope by the English and the underrating of Leibniz by the French; and besides, the author of several "Vindications" had a more general reason for protesting against an unjust and veiled attack. So Pope a Metaphysician! is well classified as both Lessing's and Mendelssohn's writing equally. If one now attempts to determine the share of each of the two authors in working out the writing, then in the absence of direct attestations one must proceed, so it seems offhand, from the general impression that can be gained of Lessing's and Mendelssohn's style, interests, and expertises from their other writings in this period of their literary activity. With the support of this impression, it is generally asserted that the real investigation (the establishing of Pope's doctrine, the comparing of this doctrine with the doctrine of Leibniz's, the critique of particular principles of Pope's) goes back to Mendelssohn, whereas the introduction (the "Preamble" and the "Precursory Investigation of Whether a Poet as Poet could Have a System"), the conclusion and the editing of the whole are ascribed to Lessing. Closer investigation confirms the dominant view. On the one hand, it is shown that the "Preamble" agrees with Lessing's letter to Mendelssohn of February 18, 1755, and the "Precursory Investigation" agrees with corresponding passages from Lessing's "Vindications of Horace" (1754), that therefore these parts of the Pope writing agree, in part literally, with approximately contemporaneous statements of Lessing's. On the other hand, the thesis that characterizes the Pope investigation {xx} and Pope critique is, in substance, contradicted most incisively by Lessing in his fragment "The Christianity of Reason" (1753), which is also only a little older than the Pope writing: especially in §17 of this fragment, Lessing appropriates the doctrine of the hierarchical ordering of being, which in the Pope writing is oddly contested as the un-Leibnizian and absurd doctrine of Pope's. It is very unlikely that the author of "Christianity of Reason" wrote the Pope critique in Pope a Metaphysician!; and in view of the central passage that takes up the aforementioned critique in the context of the investigation concerning Pope and Leibniz, the received assigning of this investigation to Mendelssohn is thereby justified. It can be objected that Lessing "was put off at once" from the theses of "Christianity of Reason" right after writing it by Mendelssohn's critique. Nevertheless, as comes out in Mendelssohn's letter to Lessing of February 1, 1774, this critique is directed only against Lessing's speculations about the Trinity that are found in the aforementioned fragment; and besides, "being put off" means only that Lessing gave up his preoccupation with the theses of the fragment for the time being—in §73 of "The Education of the Human Race" he again takes up his thoughts on the Trinity—, it does not mean that he would have rejected these theses as absurd on the basis of Mendelssohn's critique and would have asserted their contrary, even if only initially.

Chapter Two

Introduction to Mendelssohn's "Epistle to [1931] Mr. Lessing in Leipzig"

The "Epistle to Mr. Lessing in Leipzig," which Mendelssohn wrote in the last months of 1755 and at the beginning of 1756 as an appendix to his translation of Rousseau's Discours sur cette question proposée par l'Académie de Dijon: Quelle est l'origine de l'inégalité parmi les hommes, et si elle est autorisée par la loi naturelle (1753), also owes its emergence to the friendly {xxi} association with Lessing, as the title already indicates. On July 10, 1755, announcing Rousseau's Discours, Lessing gave notice of the German translation of this work in the Berlinische priviligierte Zeitung with the following words:

It is a man of insight and taste who has undertaken it [the translation], and we are certain that he will show both, in a line of work in which most are apt to show only expertise in languages.

Before Lessing's departure for Leipzig, Mendelssohn had "promised" him to "put into German" Rousseau's Discours and to append "to the translation my thoughts about the strange opinion of this philosopher." Like other writings of this early period, the "Epistle" also preserves traces of oral controversies with Lessing; at the beginning of the discussion about the origin of languages, Mendelssohn says explicitly: "We have talked very often about these difficult matters, and I believe that it would not be unpleasant for you to read everything written here that we have dealt with orally in our talks about it."

The "Epistle" sets for itself the task of challenging Rousseau's paradoxical thesis: man became evil in that he became social; the state of unsocial life, of savagery, is the happiest. In a few passages, one discerns the indignation with which Mendelssohn responded to Rousseau's doctrine at first acquaintance with the Discours: this doctrine seemed to him "to run diametrically against all morality." His concluding judgment shows how much he valued Rousseau nevertheless, how much and on what ground he felt himself in accord with him:

I can be at odds with Rousseau in very few places; and nothing can annoy me more than if I see being proved in a philosophical account of politics that everything has had to be according to reason as it is among us. If only Rousseau had not refused morality to civilized man! This is what gets me so exercised.

Mendelssohn therefore saw the nerve of the Rousseauian writing in the critique of society in the narrower sense, in the critique of "how it is among us," of the state of present society; and this critique he makes entirely his own: he approves of Rousseau's critique as a critique of "certain abuses that have crept into our political constitution." {xxii} He declines to follow him further in that direction; he contests the view° that the obvious evils that are given with social life give a right to the rejection of sociality as such. In his opinion, Rousseau commits the mistake of all those "odd minds" who, "if they have brought to light only a single truth," would "rather erect a whole strange system than present this truth naked"—the mistake of exaggerating and of "not presenting" the truth "cautiously enough." Truth is not paradoxical, and every philosophers' quarrel ultimately goes back to a quarrel over words, to a difference in "presentation"—this is established from the beginning for the later philosopher of sound commonsense. —Mendelssohn contests the "strange opinion" of Rousseau's that sociality is not natural to man, that it is connected with a corruption of human nature, by above all exposing the contradictions of which Rousseau can be accused. Thus he indicates that, in ascribing "perfectibilité" to natural man as his specific difference vis-à-vis the animals, Rousseau thereby accepts that the perfecting of the natural faculties, i.e., social, moral life, is grounded in nature. Thus he asks: if Rousseau "believes he sees all his schwärmerisch wishes fulfilled in our world in the republic of Geneva, what right does he have to keep complaining about the state of sociality?" He thereby points to the difficulties that characterize Rousseau's position. For all that, however, the point of contention escapes him: he does not know why Rousseau casts doubt on sociality as such, holds the state of savagery, of unsocial life, to be the best. Rousseau says it clearly enough:

... le sauvage vit en lui-même; l'homme sociable, toujours hors de lui, ne sait que vivre dans l'opinion des autres, et c'est pour ainsi dire de leur seul jugement qu'il tire le sentiment de sa propre existence.

The struggle against the passions, which is grounded in the will to freedom, to autarchy, becomes the struggle against sociality as the element of all passions: only on the ground of sociality is comparing oneself with another, measuring oneself by another, is interest in rank and privilege, is vanity, possible. That Rousseau sees passion essentially in vanity and not, say, in sensuality—this {xxiii} is grounded in his concept of man: he contests the view° that the understanding is man's specific difference; the specific difference of man is freedom:

Ce n'est donc pas tant l'entendement qui fait parmi les animaux la distinction spécifique de l'homme que sa qualité d'agent libre.


Excerpted from LEO STRAUSS ON MOSES MENDELSSOHN Copyright © 2012 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Translator's Preface xi

Chronology of Writings Mentioned in Strauss's Introductions xxi

Abbreviations xxvii

Part I Leo Strauss's Introductions to Ten Writings of Moses Mendelssohn

Preliminary Remark Alexander Altmann 3

1 Introduction to Pope a Metaphysician! 7

2 Introduction to "Epistle to Mr. Lessing in Leipzig" 14

3 Introduction to Commentary on Moses Maimonides' "Logical Terms" 18

4 Introduction to Treatise on Evidence in Metaphysical Sciences 19

5 Introduction to Phädon 29

6 Introduction to Treatise on the Incorporeality of the Human Soul 50

7 Introduction to "On a Handwritten Essay of Mr. de Luc's" 55

8 Introduction to The Soul 57

9 Introduction to Morning Hours and To the Friends of Lessing 59

10 Introduction to God's Cause, or Providence Vindicated 146

Appendix 1 Strauss, Preliminary Remark to A Reminder of Lessing 162

Appendix 2 Supplements to Translator's Notes in Strauss's Introductions 163

Appendix 3 From Mendelssohn's "Epistle to Mr. Lessing in Leipzig" (Passage cited in Strauss, Natural Right and History, p. 275, n. 41) 213

Appendix 4 From Lessing's "The Education of the Human Race" (§§70-73) 214

Part II An Interpretive Essay

Strauss on Mendelssohn: An Interpretive Essay Martin D. Yaffe 219

Index of Proper Names 319

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