Moses Mendelssohn: the Model for Nathan the Wise

Moses Mendelssohn, Philosophische Schriften.

Karlsruhe (undated; 1780).


Portrait of Moses Mendelssohn, painted by Anton Graff in 1771. Possession of the University of Leipzig.

When Moses Mendelssohn set foot in Berlin in 1743, he had to answer uncomfortable questions at the city gate and – what’s more – pay a special toll called ‘Leibzoll’. This was a particularly humiliating tax which Jewish people had to pay when entering a city in many German states. It put Jews on equal footing with cattle, for which farmers also had to pay a toll when they drove them into town to be slaughtered.

At that time, Moses Mendelssohn was about 14 years old and used to poverty and the harassment by the Christian majority since early childhood. The Enlightenment, however, had broadened the view of the educated elite a little and made them realize that Christianity might not be the only source of truth. Bourgeois society opened up – at least a little – to its Jewish members. And this is why the gifted Moses, who knew Hebrew, German, English, French, Greek and Latin in addition to his mother tongue Yiddish, quickly found patrons who took him along as an attraction to the bourgeois salons that were so popular at the time. The eloquent, well-read and well-behaved young man excelled in a society that loved to be entertained by wordplays of the educated.

Thanks to his outstanding intelligence and his education, young Moses got a job as a tutor with the Jewish silk entrepreneur Isaak Bernhard. Bernhard soon made him his accountant, then factory manager and finally partner, which is how Moses Mendelssohn became part of the bourgeoisie himself and could afford to run an open house where not only Jews but also Christians were welcome.

Lessing and Lavater visiting the house of Moses Mendelssohn. Painting by Moritz Daniel Oppenheim from 1856. Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life. Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 Uported.

A Friendship for Life and an Entrance Ticket to the Literary World

By then, Moses Mendelssohn was already a recognised philosopher and author. This was thanks to his friend, Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, who was of the same age. The two had met in 1754 and shared a preference for tolerance and the Enlightenment, while retaining their faith in God and the rituals of their ancestors. One day, Mendelssohn lent his friend Lessing a manuscript, a philosophical dialogue, which excited Lessing to the point that he had it published without consulting his friend. Anonymously. The many letters that Moses Mendelssohn wrote for the project called ‘letters relating to the latest literature’, which Lessing supported, also remained anonymous. In these letters, Mendelssohn sharply criticised the status quo, and his opinions met with much approval.

This might have given him the courage to publish his Philosophical Writings under his own name in 1661. It is very likely that only a few copies of this work were published. For even great libraries find themselves in the same situation as the MoneyMuseum: they don’t have a first edition of this important work, only a copy that was issued much later. After all, a large number of copies of Mendelssohn’s writings were not printed until the educated world got to know him as one of the most important German-speaking thinkers.

Moses Mendelssohn being checked at the city gate of Potsdam. Note that the official finds it necessary to take his hat off to the Jew – this wasn’t usual at the time.


An Impressive Career

Moses Mendelssohn proved all the widespread prejudices about Jews wrong. In 1763, his essay won him the First Prize of the Royal Academy of Berlin, placing him ahead of Immanuel Kant, who was then still living in Königsberg as an unknown and poorly paid private lecturer. In the same year, King Frederick II granted Mendelssohn the privilege of being a ‘protected Jew’ (Schutzjude). This meant that Mendelssohn had made his way to the top of Prussia’s Jewish society. The first of the six legal categories Prussia had created for Jews included the right to settle and – not a matter of course at the time – this did not only apply to the specific ‘protected Jew’ but also to their children and Jewish servants living in their household.

In 1767, Moses Mendelssohn published what is probably his most famous work – Phaedo
which became one of the most widely-read books in the German-speaking area. We will dedicate a separate article to this book. It gained Moses Mendelssohn renown in Germany and all other European countries. The Jew from Berlin was celebrated by the educated society as a German Plato or German Socrates.

When Lessing’s immortal drama Nathan the Wise premiered in 1779 and the text was published in book form in the same year, people readily recognised his friend Moses Mendelssohn as the model for the main character.



Mendelssohn Becomes a Profitable Business

In 1780, i.e. one year after the premiere of Nathan the Wise, the Karlsruhe publisher Christian Gottlieb Schmieder published the two volumes of the Philosophical Writings from 1761. Schmieder produced what we would call a pirated edition today. He hadn’t consulted with the original copyright holder. Schmieder was notorious for such actions. He had somehow obtained an imperial privilege that allowed him to publish a ‘Collection of the best prosaic writers and poets’. And he used this privilege as a legal pretext to steal all the texts that seemed to be good business. In 1780, this included the work by Moses Mendelssohn. Schmieder was not bothered by the fact that the Berlin publishing house held a printing privilege from the Prussian King for the work; but his sovereign, the Margrave of Baden, considered this to be a problem. In 1780, he forbade Schmieder to reprint books that had been published in Berlin with Prussian printing privileges. But Schmieder couldn’t be bothered. He simply switched to printing books from Leipzig that had been published with Saxon printing privileges.

Can You Show a Suicide on Stage?

Why were Mendelssohn’s Philosophical Writings of so much interest to his contemporaries? The answer is quite simple: in his first essay On Sensations – which was a must-read at the time for anyone frequenting a salon – dealt with the question of what could be presented for the purpose of entertainment and what couldn’t. That was quite a topical question. Mendelssohn specifically dealt with suicide on stage. After all, according to ecclesiastical law, suicide was still considered a mortal sin in the 18th century. Those who died by their own hand were buried outside the cemetery, without a funeral service. So, is it acceptable to end a theatre drama with a suicide for aesthetic reasons, i.e. to create a gripping and coherent plot? In this context, Mendelssohn first distinguished between the aesthetics and the ethics of a work of art and discussed the question of whether it could be permissible to aesthetically exploit actions that were frowned upon on stage.

Mendelssohn’s answer was in line with his friend Lessing, who had his work Emilia Galotti end with a semi-suicide in 1772 – she forces her father to kill her. About ten years later, Schiller – in Intrigue and Love – was to have his hero commit murder and suicide quite naturally, obviously only for highly noble motives.

You see, Mendelssohn had created a kind of consensus on this issue: Although suicide was obviously morally indefensible, it could be shown on stage to arouse strong feelings among the public, inspiring them to behave in a better, more enlightened way.

Honoured by Many, But Still an Outsider

Moses Mendelssohn died on 4 January 1786 as a highly honoured patriarch of a large family. Despite his advocacy for tolerance, despite the assurance of the educated elite that it was not their faith but the human being itself that was important, despite the French Revolution and the Code Civile – not even his family shared his hope that there would be state and social equality for Jews. Four of his six surviving children were baptized. Thus, his most famous descendant, Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy, grew up according to the Protestant faith. But even his baptism did not spare him from anti-Semites belittling his achievements.

Other Things You Might Be Interested in:

The Jewish Museum Berlin currently hosts an exhibition about Moses Mendelssohn and created an excellent website.

You can find a digitised version of Mendelssohn’s Philosophical Writings (in German) on e-rara.

Regarding English drama, Shylock naturally comes to mind when we think about Jewish males on the theatre stage – can Lessing’s Nathan be understood as an antithesis of Shakespeare’s character? The Folger Shakespeare Library discussed the question in detail.

And if you want to know what Nathan the Wise is about and what the drama meant for Jewish history, we recommend this YouTube clip.

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