Moses Mendelssohn plays a central role in the genesis of modern German literary criticism. Destined to become a rabbi and trained in Talmudic scholarship, Mendelssohn arrived as a young student in Berlin. Introduced to the arts and sciences, he soon became involved in the enlightened circles of Berlin’s young literati. There he met Lessing, whose friendship became a lifelong inspiration. Forced to support himself and later his family, he began as a tutor, but was soon made manager and eventually partner of the silk factory of his students’ father. Mendelssohn’s extramural education, his autodidactic genius, and the conversational tone of intellectual life may all have contributed to the essayistic and refined fashion of his writing.
Defining his own discursive terrain, he began as author of Philosophische Gespräche (1755; Philosophical dialogues), Briefe über die Empfindungen (1755; Letters on sensations), and its sequel “Rhapsodie” (1761). These philosophical essays introduce a new, civil tone to metaphysics. Conceived as dialogues, they not only bring fresh air to the stuffy quarters of philosophy but are accessible to a larger public. Mendelssohn thus transformed philosophy into a concern shared by all which, therefore, must transcend the narrow confines of academia and address itself to the public. The prevailing view is to see Mendelssohn as nothing more than a representative of popular philosophy, occupied more with disseminating knowledge than with rethinking it. Yet such a view ignores the deeper implications the choice of the essay as a literary genre entails for philosophy itself. In staging philosophical arguments as dialogues, the discourse of philosophy changes its format, but also its priorities, interests, and concerns. Paradoxically, it seems that Mendelssohn was engaged in a philosophically more challenging enterprise when he chose to compose essays. Reformulating philosophical arguments in the form of dialogues was a matter of recontextualized philosophy, allowing the validity of its own presuppositions to be examined in an unassuming manner. The essay genre—Hume and Shaftesbury were his most prominent models—allowed Mendelssohn to engage in intellectual debate at the social and institutional margins without falling prey to the mechanisms of exclusion. It also provided the means to reformulate philosophy as a discourse outside the exclusive framework of Christian theology, in which the Leibniz-Wolffian school of philosophy of 18th-century Germany was still deeply imbedded.
With his innovative essay form Mendelssohn emerged as Germany’s leading literary critic. As coeditor, consultant, and single most prolific contributor to the review journals his friend Friedrich Nicolai published—Bibliothek der schönen Wissenschaften und der freyen Künste (1757–59; Library of the humanities and the liberal arts), Briefe die neueste Literatur betreffend (1758–61; Letters on contemporary literature), and Allgemeine deutsche Bibliothek (1765–84; Universal German library)—he was instrumental in forging German literary criticism into a powerful participant in the public sphere.
Departing from the practice of assessing literature, poetry, and drama according to preconceived standards, Mendelssohn’s reviews acknowledged the poetics of each work within its own cultural and poetological setting, appreciating each on its own specific terms. According to Mendelssohn, the critic’s task does not consist of applying fixed rules and standards so much as it consists of presenting, as a public advocate, each case to the public, which in turn is expected to serve as judge. As facilitator of this process, the
literary critic’s essays aim at transparency, attempting to trace the most subtle sensations, reflections, emotions, and feelings in experiencing literature and fine arts. In so doing the critic creates the necessary forum for discussing aesthetic experience. This makes it possible for the public to realize its task as the ultimate judge in art and literature.
Mendelssohn was one of the most sophisticated comparatists of the 18th century, thoroughly versed in biblical literature, Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, French and German literature, and equipped with a rare sensibility for aesthetic quality and philosophical reasoning; his reviews established the standards that served as frames of reference to aesthetic theorists like Kant, Herder, Goethe, Karl Philipp Moritz, and Schiller.
In Jerusalem, oder über religiöse Macht und Judentum (1783; Jerusalem, or, On Religious Power and Judaism), Mendelssohn presents the question of Jewish emancipation as a central issue for modern culture; the plea for equal rights and social acceptance are expressed in a style and rhetoric typical of Mendelssohn. These essayistic strengths make Jerusalem stand out from the literary landscape of its era as a uniquely powerful work.
The “German Socrates”—as Mendelssohn was called after the rewriting of Plato’s Phädon (1767) brought him international fame—redefined the philosophical essay and the review as new forms in which conflicting interests could be expressed and the demand for aesthetic autonomy justified. Mendelssohn’s writing was celebrated for its fluidity, precision, civility, and stylistic beauty, and it assumed paradigmatic importance for critics and poets alike. Mendelssohn’s aesthetic theory introduced its themes in an aesthetically pleasing form: versatile enough both to respond to aesthetic expectations and to adhere to the disipline that informs the discourse of philosophy. Mendelssohn participated in the Enlightenment debate in the 1780s with a series of pieces addressing the role of Enlightenment. They are short and concise interventions, programmatic essays forcefully arguing for the collaborative search for truth and the best for society.
Born 6 September 1729 in Dessau. Studied the Bible and the Talmud under Rabbi David Fränkel, following him to Berlin, 1743, and studying at his Talmud Academy. Private tutor, from 1750. Met and became friends with Lessing, 1753. Accountant, then assistant to a silk merchant, from 1754, and part owner of the factory on his death, from 1768.
Founder, with Friedrich Nicolai, Bibliothek der schönen Wissenschaften und der freyen Künste, 1757, and with Nicolai and Lessing, Briefe die neueste Literatur betreffend, 1758. Married Fromet Gugenheim, 1762.: five children, one of whom was the father of Felix Mendelssohn (two others died).
Awards: Prussian Academy Prize, 1763.
Died in Berlin, 4 January 1786.
Essays and Related Prose
Briefe über die Empfindungen, 1755
Philosophische Gespräche, 1755
Philosophische Schriften, 1761; revised edition, 1771, 1777
Abhandlung über die Evidenz in metaphysischen Wissenschaften, 1764
Phädon, oder über die Unsterblichkeit der Seele, 1767; edited by Dominique Bourel, 1979; as Phædon; or, The Death of Socrates, translated by Charles Cullen, 1789
Schreiben an den Herrn Diaconus Lavater zu Zürich, 1770; as Letter of Moses Mendelssohn, to Deacon Lavater, translated by Frederick Henry Hedge, 1821, and in Memoirs of Moses Mendelssohn, 1825
Jerusalem, oder über religiöse Macht und Judentum, 1783; as Jerusalem: A Treatise on Ecclesiastical Authority and Judaism, translated by M.Samuels, 1838; as Jerusalem: A Treatise on Religious Power and Judaism, translated by Isaac Leeser, 1852; as Jerusalem, or, On Religious Power and Judaism, edited by Alexander Altmann, translated by Allan Arkush, 1983
Morgenstunden; oder, Vorlesungen über das Daseyn Gottes, 1785; edited by Dominique Bourel, 1979
Abhandlung von der Unkörperlichkeit der menschlicben Seele, 1785
Moses Mendelssohn an die Freunde Lessings, edited by Johann Jakob Engel, 1786
Abhandlungen über das Kommerz zwischen Seele und Körper, 1788
Kleine philosophische Schriften, 1789
Aufsätze über jüdische Gebete und festfeier aus archivalischen Akten, edited by L.E.Borowski, 1791
Jerusalem, and Other Jewish Writings, edited and translated by Alfred Jospe, 1969
Moses Mendelssohn: Selections from His Writings, edited and translated by Eva Jospe, 1975
Schriften über Religion und Aufklärung, edited by Martin Thom, 1989
Other writings: books on Judaism, and correspondence. Also translated Rousseau, and with others translated the Torah.
Collected works editions: Sämmtliche Werke, 12 vols., 1819–25; Gesammelte Schriften, edited by Ismar Elbogen, Julius Guttmann, Eugen Mittwoch, and others, 22 vols., 1974– (in progress).
Albrecht, Michael, “Moses Mendelssohn: Ein Forschungsbericht, 1965–1980,” Deutsche Vierteljahrsschrift für Literaturwissenschaft 57 (March 1983): 64–159
Meyer, Hermann M.Z., Moses Mendelssohn Bibliographie, Berlin: de Gruyter, 1965
Albrecht, Michael, Eva J.Engel, and Norbert Hinske, editors, Moses Mendelssohn und die Kreise seiner Wirksamkeit, Tübingen: Niemeyer, 1994
Altmann, Alexander, Moses Mendelssohn: A Biographical Study, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, and Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1973
Altmann, Alexander, Die trostvolle Aufklärung: Studien zur Metaphysik und politischen Theorie Moses Mendelssohns, Stuttgart and Bad Cannstatt: Frommann-Holzboog, 1982
Arkush, Allen, Moses Mendelssohn and the Enligbtenment, Albany: State University of New York Press, 1994
Engel, Eva J., “Moses Mendelssohn: His Importance as a Literary Critic,” Lessing Yearbook supplement (1982): 259–73
Goetschel, Willi, “Moses Mendelssohn und das Projekt der Aufklarung,” Germanic Review 71 (1996): 163–75
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