Birthplace: Dessau, Anhalt, Germany
Location of death: Berlin, Germany
Cause of death: unspecified
Remains: Buried, Alter Jüdischer Friedhof, Berlin, Germany
Race or Ethnicity: White
Sexual orientation: Straight
Executive summary: Brilliant German-Jewish philosopher
Jewish philosopher, born in Dessau in 1729. His fathers name was Mendel, and he was later on surnamed Mendelssohn. He was the foremost Jewish figure of the 18th century, and to him is attributable the renaissance of the House of Israel. With this third Moses (the other two being the Biblical lawgiver and Moses Maimonides) a new era opens in the history of the Jewish people. Mendel Dessau was a poor scribe -- a writer of scrolls -- and his son Moses in his boyhood developed curvature of the spine. His early education was cared for by his father and by the local rabbi, David Fränkel. The latter, besides teaching him the Bible and Talmud, introduced to him the philosophy of Maimonides. Fränkel received a call to Berlin in 1743. Not many months later a weakly lad knocked at one of the gates of Berlin. He was admitted after an altercation, and found a warm welcome at the hands of his former teacher. His life at this period was a struggle against crushing poverty, but his scholarly ambition was never relaxed. A refugee Pole, Zamosz, taught him mathematics, and a young Jewish physician was his tutor in Latin. He was, however, mainly self-taught. "He learned to spell and to philosophize at the same time" (Graetz). With his scanty earnings he bought a Latin copy of John Locke's Essay Concerning the Human Understanding, and mastered it with the aid of a Latin dictionary. He then made the acquaintance of Aaron Solomon Gumperz, who taught him the elements of French and English. In 1750 he was appointed by a wealthy silk-merchant, Isaac Bernhard, as teacher to his children. Mendelssohn soon won the confidence of Bernhard, who made the young student successively his book-keeper and his partner.
Gumperz or Hess rendered a conspicuous service to Mendelssohn and to the cause of enlightenment in 1754 by introducing him to Gotthold Ephraim Lessing. Just as the latter afterwards makes Nathan the Wise and Saladin meet over the chess board, so did Lessing and Mendelssohn actually come together as lovers of the game. The Berlin of the day -- the day of Frederick the Great -- was in a moral and intellectual ferment. Lessing was the great liberator of the German mind. He had already begun his work of toleration, for he had recently produced a drama (Die Juden, 1749), the motive of which was to prove that a Jew can be possessed of nobility of character. This notion was being generally ridiculed as untrue, when Lessing found in Mendelssohn the realization of his dream. Within a few months of the same age, the two became brothers in intellectual and artistic cameraderie. Mendelssohn owed his first introduction to the public to Lessing's admiration. The former had written in lucid German an attack on the national neglect of native philosophers (principally Gottfried Leibniz), and lent the manuscript to Lessing. Without consulting the author, Lessing published anonymously Mendelssohn's Philosophical Conversations (Philosophische Gespräche) in 1755. In the same year there appeared in Danzig an anonymous satire, Pope a Metaphysician (Pope ein Metaphysiker), the authorship of which soon transpired. It was the joint work of Lessing and Mendelssohn. From this time Mendelssohn's career was one of ever-increasing brilliance. He became (1756-59) the leading spirit of Nicolai's important literary undertakings, the Bibliothek and the Literaturbriefe, and ran some risk (which Frederick's good nature obviated) by somewhat freely criticizing the poems of the King of Prussia. In 1762 he married. His wife was Fromet Gugenheirn, who survived him by twenty-six years. In the year following his marriage Mendelssohn won the prize offered by the Berlin Academy for an essay on the application of mathematical proofs to metaphysics, although among the competitors were Abbt and Immanuel Kant. In October 1763 the king granted Mendelssohn the privilege of Protected Jew (Schutz-Jude) -- which assured his right to undisturbed residence in Berlin.
As a result of his correspondence with Abbt, Mendelssohn resolved to write on the Immortality of the Soul. Materialistic views were at the time rampant and fashionable, and faith in immortality was at a low ebb. At this favorable juncture appeared the Phädon (1767). Modelled on Plato's dialogue of the same name, Mendelssohn's work possessed some of the charm of its Greek exemplar. What most impressed the German world was its beauty and lucidity of style -- features to which Mendelssohn still owes his popularity as a writer. The Phädon was an immediate success, and besides being often reprinted in German was speedily translated into nearly all the European languages, including English. The author was hailed as the "German Plato", or the "German Socrates"; royal and other aristocratic friends showered attentions on him, and it is no exaggeration to assert with Kayserling that "no stranger who came to Berlin failed to pay his personal respects to the German Socrates."
So far, Mendelssohn had devoted his talents to philosophy and criticism; now, however, an incident turned the current, of his life in the direction of the cause of Judaism. Lavater was one of the most ardent admirers of Mendelssohn. He described him as "a companionable, brilliant soul, with piercing eyes, the body of an Aesop -- a man of keen insight, exquisite taste and wide erudition... frank and open-hearted." Lavater was fired with the ambition to convert his friend to Christianity. In the preface to a German translation of Charles Bonnet's essay on Christian Evidences, Lavater publicly challenged Mendelssohn to refute Bonnet or if he could not then to "do what wisdom, the love of truth and honesty must bid him, what a Socrates would have done if he had read the book and found it unanswerable." This appeal produced a painful impression. Bonnet resented Lavater's action, but Mendelssohn was bound to reply, though opposed to religious controversy. As he put it: "Suppose there were living among my contemporaries a Confucius or a Solon, I could, according to the principles of my faith, love and admire the great man without falling into the ridiculous idea that I must convert a Solon or a Confucius."
Here we see the germs of Mendelssohn's Pragmatism, to use the now current term. He shared this with Lessing; in this case, at all events, it is probable that the latter was indebted to Mendelssohn. But before discussing this matter, we must follow out the consequences of Lavater's intrusion into Mendelssohn's affairs. The latter resolved to devote the rest of his life to the emancipation of the Jews. Among them secular studies had been neglected, and Mendelssohn saw that he could best remedy the defect by attacking it on the religious side. A great chapter in the history of culture is filled by the influence of translations of the Bible. Mendelssohn added a new section to this chapter by his German translation of the Pentateuch and other parts of the Bible. This work (1783) constituted Mendelssohn the Luther of the German Jews. From it, the Jews learned the German language; from it they imbibed culture; with it there was born a new desire for German nationality; as a result of its popularity was inaugurated a new system of Jewish education. Some of the conservatives among the Jews opposed these innovations, but the current of progress was too strong for them. Mendelssohn was the first great champion of Jewish emancipation in the 18th century. He it was who induced C. W. Dohm to publish in 1781 his epoch-making work, On the Civil Amelioration of the Condition of the Jews, a memorial which played a great part in the triumph of tolerance. Mendelssohn himself published a German translation of the Vindiciae Judaeorum by Menasseh ben Israel. The excitement caused by these proceedings led Mendelssohn to publish his most important contribution to the problems connected with the position of Judaism in relation to the general life.
This work was the Jerusalem (1783; Eng. trans. 1838 and 1852). It is a forcible plea for freedom of conscience. Kant described it as "an irrefutable book." Its basic idea is that the state had no right to interfere with the religion of its citizens. As Kant put it, this was "the proclamation of a great reform, which, however, will be slow in manifestation and in progress, and which will affect not only your people but others as well." Mendelssohn asserted the pragmatic principle of the possible plurality of truths: that just as various nations need different constitutions -- to one a monarchy, to another a republic, may be the most congenial to the national genius -- so individuals may need different religions. The test of religion is its effect on conduct. This is the moral of Lessing's Nathan the Wise, the hero of which is undoubtedly Mendelssohn. The parable of the three rings is the epitome of the pragmatic position. One direct result of this pragmatism was unexpected. Having been taught that there is no absolutely true religion, Mendelssohn's own descendants -- a brilliant circle, of which the musician Felix was the most noted -- left the Synagogue for the Church. But despite this, Mendelssohn's theory was found to be a strengthening bond in Judaism. For he maintained that Judaism was less a "divine need, than a revealed life." In the first part of the 19th century, the criticism of Jewish dogmas and traditions was associated with a firm adhesion to the older Jewish mode of living. Reason was applied to beliefs, the historic consciousness to life. Modern reform in Judaism is parting to some extent from this conception, but it still holds good even among the liberals.
Of Mendelssohn's remaining years it must suffice to say that he progressed in fame numbering among his friends more and more of the greatest men of the age. His Morgenstunden appeared in 1785, and he died as the result of a cold contracted while carrying to his publishers in 1786 the manuscript of a vindication of his friend Lessing, who had predeceased him by five years.
Mendelssohn had six children. His sons were: Joseph (founder of the Mendelssohn banking house, and a friend and benefactor of Alexander Humboldt), whose son Alexander (d. 1871) was the last Jewish descendant of the philosopher; Abraham (who married Leah Bartholdy and was the father of Fanny Hensel and the composer Felix Mendelssohn); and Nathan (a mechanical engineer of considerable repute). His daughters were Dorothea, Recha and Henriette, all brilliantly gifted women.
Wife: Fromet Guggenheim (m. 1762)
Son: Joseph (banker)
Son: Nathan (mechanical engineer)
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