Aufklärung: German Enlightenment
Amid Prussia’s efforts to become a great power, cultural and intellectual life within Germany was undergoing a change. Beginning in the late 17th century, the Enlightenment, an intellectual movement marked by its efforts to reform society by applying the power of reason, had spread to Germany from France and Britain. The German Enlightenment, known as the Aufklärung, started with the work of a pair of contempo-raneous intellectuals.
The ﬁrst, Christian Thomasius (1655–1728), became a professor of law at the university of Leipzig in 1681 and, with the support of the Prussian elector Friedrich III, helped found the university of Halle in 1694. Throughout his career as a jurist and academic, Thomasius always emphasized the capability of human reason. Eager to apply his principles to social reform, Thomasius was instrumental in ending witchcraft prosecution in Germany, using rational arguments to expose the dubious foundations of such fantastic beliefs.
Working at roughly the same time as Thomasius, the German phi-losopher and mathematician Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz (1646–1716) was also instrumental in spreading the spirit of the Aufklärung throughout Germany. An innovative thinker, Leibniz left his mark in mathematics and is credited alongside Newton with inventing inﬁ ni-tesimal calculus.
In philosophy, he developed the approach known as optimism, the idea that the universe, created by an omniscient God, is the best possible one. Although this philosophical position was savagely ridiculed by the French philosopher Voltaire (1694–1778) in Candide, in his day, Leibniz was considered to be among the giants of rationalism, along with French philosopher and scholar René Descartes (1596–1650) and Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza (1632–77).
The next generation of German Enlightenment thinkers was domi-nated by three intellectual giants, Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1729–81), Moses Mendelssohn (1729–86), and Immanuel Kant (1724–1804).The ﬁ rst of these, the writer, dramatist, philosopher, and critic, Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, was born in Saxony in 1729, the son of a pastor. Instrumental in the development of a distinctively German theater, Lessing’s most inﬂ uential critical writings explored aesthetics, and his most important philosophical works advocated the freedom of thought.
A true Enlightenment thinker, in matters of religion, Lessing relied upon the power of reason and boldly called for the toleration of other religious faiths within Christian society, a stance that drew strident protests from prominent clergymen and prompted the censorship of his works.Prevented from publishing further philosophical works advocating tolerance, Lessing used the stage to express his views, penning his most famous work, the play Nathan the Wise.
The play, published in 1779 and set in medieval Jerusalem, illustrates the themes of religious toleration, cross-cultural understanding, and moral relativism through the story of a Muslim sultan, a Christian knight, and a Jewish merchant who come to mutual understanding during a dispute over a priceless ring.
Nathan the Wise was suppressed by German religious censors during Lessing’s lifetime and by the Nazis long after his death. The title char-acter, the pious and prudent Jew Nathan the Wise, was based upon the playwright’s friend, the brilliant philosopher Moses Mendelssohn.
Moses Mendelssohn, born in 1729 in Saxony like his friend Lessing, became a leading ﬁ gure in the German Aufklärung in his own right. Raised in poverty, the young Mendelssohn was educated by a local rabbi and by learned Jews within his community, eventually moving to Berlin and acquiring knowledge of Latin, French, and English.
Mendelssohn was exposed to the Enlightenment writings of British political phi-losopher John Locke (1632–1704) and in 1754 met Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, forging a lifelong friendship with the philosopher and play-wright.
Lessing, whose works arguing that Jews could have the same moral character as Christians met with derision and scorn in 1750s Berlin, admired Mendelssohn and encouraged him to publish several early writings anonymously. Gradually, Mendelssohn emerged as one of the great intellects of the German Enlightenment, even edging out the famous philosopher Immanuel Kant for the coveted Berlin Prize in a 1763 literary competition.
In the same year, the Prussian monarch, Friedrich the Great, no friend of Prussia’s Jews, rewarded Mendelssohn by granting him unrestricted permission to reside in Berlin unmolested as a “protected Jew”; the fact that the celebrated thinker needed such royal protection is an indication of the precarious position of Jews in Prussia at the time. In 1767, Mendelssohn published an important phil-osophical treatise on the immortality of souls, and its success cemented his place in the German Aufklärung.
Having made his name as a philosopher, the celebrated thinker soon became embroiled in a controversy that caused him to confront the sta-tus of Germany’s Jewish community. In October 1769, a zealous young Swiss theologian named Johann Kaspar Lavater (1741–1801) sent Mendelssohn, whose brilliance and moral stature he admired, a book by the Christian metaphysician Charles Bonnet (1720–93), demanding that he either refute the book’s premises in public or convert to the Christian faith.
The renowned Jewish intellectual responded with an open letter to Lavater, arguing that it was possible to admire the moral-ity of worthy men without converting to their religion (or, by exten-sion, demanding that they convert to one’s own). While Mendelssohn won the support of many of Germany’s leading thinkers, the stress of the public confrontation taxed his health.
Despite his ﬂ agging health, in the wake of the Lavater controversy, Mendelssohn began to use his considerable inﬂ uence to improve the condition of Prussia’s Jews, who suffered under the crushing weight of ofﬁ cial restrictions and special taxes. In 1783, the great intellectual contributed a new German trans-lation of the Pentateuch, the Jewish Scriptures, hoping to encourage Jews to use High German.
For Mendelssohn, mastery of the German language, rather than the German-Jewish dialect known as Yiddish, was essential to the assimilation of the Jews into German culture and their eventual emancipation. Meanwhile, Mendelssohn promoted and pub-lished works advocating religious tolerance within Germany and calling for the emancipation of Germany’s Jews by lifting the array of discrimi-natory laws that barred them from full participation in society.
These Prussian government edicts, enforced throughout the reign of Friedrich II and similar to anti-Semitic measures issued by other European mon-archs at the time, prohibited Jews from settling in certain cities, barred them from practicing certain restricted trades, and required them to pay exorbitant fees and exactions to the state. Regardless of his efforts, Mendelssohn’s religiosity remained controversial within his homeland, and when he died in 1786, he was engaged in a bitter dispute with detractors who had accused him of atheism.
Without question, one of the greatest and most inﬂ uential minds of the Aufklärung was the eminent German philosopher Immanuel Kant, who was a rough contemporary of Lessing and Mendelssohn born in the Prussian city of Königsberg in 1724. Pushing the Enlightenment to its very limits, Kant’s monumental work, the Critique of Pure Reason, challenged traditional epistemology, the branch of philosophy con-cerned with the nature and grounds of knowledge, especially regarding its limits and validity, by investigating the limits and meaning of reason itself.
In his philosophical works, Kant sought a compromise between empiricists, who believed all knowledge to be derived from experience, and rationalists, who thought it was always the product of human rea-son. He posited that both experience and reason are essential to arrive at knowledge that is both valid and objective. Kantian thought was tremendously inﬂ uential in German intellectual circles in his own day and has continued to inﬂ uence philosophic thought in the centuries since his death.
The spread of the Aufklärung in Germany was a reﬂ ection of the growing power of the bourgeoisie in the empire, the educated class of civil servants, jurists, and businessmen who formed a ready audience for the progressive ideas of philosophers like Thomasius and Kant.The growing wealth and inﬂ uence of the middle classes, becoming more apparent in the 18th century, helped foster the spread of the cult of reason in Germany, along with strident calls for reform of the empire’s increasingly anachronistic institutions.
In German coffeehouses and on the pages of enlightened gazettes, the reading public eagerly consumed progressive notions of social reform. Inﬂ uenced by Enlightenment ide-als, the educated bureaucrats and technocrats who staffed the admin-istrations of the German states constantly pressured their aristocratic rulers to enact enlightened reforms.