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Nathan The Wise
by [?]

NATHAN THE WISE. [1]

[Footnote 1:
Nathan the Wise: A Dramatic Poem, by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing. Translated by Ellen Frothingham. Preceded by a brief account of the poet and his works, and followed by an essay on the poem by Kuno Fischer. Second edition. New York: Leypoldt & Holt. 1868.]

Le Christianisme Moderne, etude sur Lessing. Par Ernest Fontanes. Paris: Bailliere. 1867.

The fame of Lessing is steadily growing. Year by year he is valued more highly, and valued by a greater number of people. And he is destined, like his master and forerunner Spinoza, to receive a yet larger share of men’s reverence and gratitude when the philosophic spirit which he lived to illustrate shall have become in some measure the general possession of the civilized part of mankind. In his own day, Lessing, though widely known and greatly admired, was little understood or appreciated. He was known to be a learned antiquarian, a terrible controversialist, and an incomparable writer. He was regarded as a brilliant ornament to Germany; and a paltry Duke of Brunswick thought a few hundred thalers well spent in securing the glory of having such a man to reside at his provincial court. But the majority of Lessing’s contemporaries understood him as little perhaps as did the Duke of Brunswick. If anything were needed to prove this, it would be the uproar which was made over the publication of the “Wolfenbuttel Fragments,” and the curious exegesis which was applied to the poem of “Nathan” on its first appearance. In order to understand the true character of this great poem, and of Lessing’s religious opinions as embodied in it, it will be necessary first to consider the memorable theological controversy which preceded it.

During Lessing’s residence at Hamburg, he had come into possession of a most important manuscript, written by Hermann Samuel Reimarus, a professor of Oriental languages, and bearing the title of an “Apology for the Rational Worshippers of God.” Struck with the rigorous logic displayed in its arguments, and with the quiet dignity of its style, while yet unable to accept its most general conclusions, Lessing resolved to publish the manuscript, accompanying it with his own comments and strictures. Accordingly in 1774, availing himself of the freedom from censorship enjoyed by publications drawn from manuscripts deposited in the Ducal Library at Wolfenbuttel, of which he was librarian, Lessing published the first portion of this work, under the title of “Fragments drawn from the Papers of an Anonymous Writer.” This first Fragment, on the “Toleration of Deists,” awakened but little opposition; for the eighteenth century, though intolerant enough, did not parade its bigotry, but rather saw fit to disclaim it. A hundred years before, Rutherford, in his “Free Disputation,” had declared “toleration of alle religions to bee not farre removed from blasphemie.” Intolerance was then a thing to be proud of, but in Lessing’s time some progress had been achieved, and men began to think it a good thing to seem tolerant. The succeeding Fragments were to test this liberality and reveal the flimsiness of the stuff of which it was made. When the unknown disputant began to declare “the impossibility of a revelation upon which all men can rest a solid faith,” and when he began to criticize the evidences of Christ’s resurrection, such a storm burst out in the theological world of Germany as had not been witnessed since the time of Luther. The recent Colenso controversy in England was but a gentle breeze compared to it. Press and pulpit swarmed with “refutations,” in which weakness of argument and scantiness of erudition were compensated by strength of acrimony and unscrupulousness of slander. Pamphlets and sermons, says M. Fontanes, “were multiplied, to denounce the impious blasphemer, who, destitute alike of shame and of courage, had sheltered himself behind a paltry fiction, in order to let loose upon society an evil spirit of unbelief.” But Lessing’s artifice had been intended to screen the memory of Reimarus, rather than his own reputation. He was not the man to quail before any amount of human opposition; and it was when the tempest of invective was just at its height that he published the last and boldest Fragment of all,–on “the Designs of Jesus and his Disciples.”