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Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, The Education of the Human Race (1777)

The renowned playwright and philosopher Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1729-81) shifted German intellectual life away from the optimistic (and frequently abstract and deductivist) rationalism of his predecessors Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz and Christian Wolff. Though embedded in the Christian theological tradition, Lessing embraced Enlightenment Deism ever more firmly, and after his death charges of pantheistic/atheistic Spinozism arose against him. In this celebrated and influential text, Lessing makes an important contribution to emergent German historicism, that is, to the explanation and interpretation of the world in terms of historically unfolding processes. He argues that the universally rational core of religious truth becomes evident to humanity in the course of history, and in the form of historically evolving religious understandings, to which cultural traditions apart from Judaism and Christianity also contribute their share. Controversial, but also persuasive to many educated Germans, was Lessing’s view that orthodox Christianity would eventually be superseded by higher forms of religious understanding that were compatible with universal reason.

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The Education of the Human Race

Gotthold Ephraim Lessing

§ 1: What education is to the individual, revelation is to the human race as a whole.

§ 2: Education is revelation that affects the individual; and revelation is education which has affected, and still affects, the human race.

§ 3: I shall not inquire here as to whether it would be of value to pedagogy to consider education from this point of view. But in theology, the conception of revelation as an education of the human race may certainly be of great value and may serve to remove many difficulties.

§ 4: Education gives man nothing that he could not acquire by himself, but it gives him what he could acquire by himself more quickly and less arduously. Similarly, revelation gives the human race nothing that unaided human reason could not attain by itself; but revelation has bestowed, and still bestows, the most important of these things somewhat sooner.

§ 5: And just as education is not indifferent to the order in which it develops man’s faculties, and just as it cannot impart everything to man all at once, God, too, has had to maintain a certain order, a certain measure, in his revelation.

§ 6: Even if the first man was immediately endowed with a concept of the one and only God, this concept, imparted and not acquired by independent thought, could not possibly maintain its integrity for long. As soon as human reason, left to its own devices, began to work upon it, it broke up the one Immeasurable into many Measurables and assigned each a separate designation.

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