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Moses Mendelssohn - Biography

Moses Mendelssohn was born September 6, 1729 in Dessau, Germany and died in Berlin, Germany on January 4, 1786. He is considered to be one of the most important Jewish philosophers and theorists of the German Enlightenment.

The son of a poor Torah scribe, Mendelssohn was educated by his father and also studied with the rabbi of Dessau, David Fraenkel, whom he would then follow to Berlin at the young age of fourteen. Despite his predetermined path to become a rabbi, Mendelssohn was highly motivated and diverse, self-educating himself not only in German literature and languages such as French, English, Latin and Greek, but also in a variety of other subjects such as mathematics and philosophy. Among others, he took an interest in the works of masters like John Locke and Gottfried Willhelm Leibniz.

In 1750 Moses Mendelssohn became a tutor to the children of Isaac Bernhard. Bernhard was the owner of a silk factory and eventually made Mendelssohn his business partner. And it was in fact as a merchant that Mendelssohn earned his living throughout his life. Soon after beginning his merchant lifestyle, Mendelssohn met and befriended Kant and Lessing. The latter based the protagonist of his work, Nathan the Wise, on the young Mendelssohn and also worked to help him publish his own philosophical essays. Consequently, Mendelssohn first published in 1755, anonymously. Entitled Philosophische Gespräche (Philosophical Conversations), this first treatise focused mainly on the work of Leibniz. In the same year he also published the Briefe über die Empfindungen (Letters on Sentiments) and, together with Lessing, the satire Pope ein Metaphysiker! (Pope a Metaphysician!). Moses Mendelssohn also collaborated with the bookseller Friedrich Nicolai, serving as an editor for a radical magazine called Literaturbriefe (Letters on Literature), which gained him certain prominence.

In 1763 Mendelssohn (defeating Kant) won a prize by the Berlin Academy for his essay “On Evidence in the Metaphysical Sciences,” where he argues that metaphysics, as mathematics, pursues its subject by applying conceptual analysis. While there are contextual differences, there are at the same time many similarities between the two disciplines, though progress in metaphysics remains behind that in mathematics. As a result of this prize, Mendelssohn was granted the “privilege” of Schutzjude (protected Jew) by King Friedrich II, which allowed him, unlike most Jews at his time, unlimited residency.

Generally known for his works in the philosophy of religion, Moses Mendelssohn frequently published on aesthetics as well. Next to his Betrachtungen über das Erhabene und Naive in den schönen Wissenschaften (1758) his most notable work is Über die Hauptgrundsätze der schönen Künste und Wissenschaften (On the Main Principles of the Fine Arts and Sciences, 1757), where he distinguishes between natural signs and artificial signs, that is, between fine arts, which he considered to be things like music or painting and fine science, where he situated poetry. In Rhapsodie, oder Zusätze zu den Briefen über die Empfindungen (Rhapsody or additions to the Letter on sentiments, 1761), which is based on his earlier work written in 1755, Mendelssohn expands his notion of “mixed sentiments.”

His most famous and main philosophical work was published in 1767 under the title, Phädon oder über die Unsterblichkeit der Seele (Phädon or On the Immortality of Souls). The work is considered to be an allusion to Plato. It was an immediate bestseller and widely successful, so much so that it was soon translated into all the main European languages. The text defined the thinker and made him one of the leading proponents of the German Enlightenment. Contrasting with the dominant materialist conceptions, the book is to be seen as a defence of the immortality and indestructibility of the soul.

Two years later following publication Mendelssohn was overtly provoked by a pastor from Zurich, John Lavater. Lavater translated an essay by the Pietist theologian Charles Bonnet and prompted Mendelssohn in the preface of the text to come forward and either refute Bonnet, which would mean essentially to refute Christianity, or to thus convert to Christianity. Mendelssohn maintained his defence by publishing a response in which he proudly affirmed his loyalty to Judaism. And in fact the “Lavater affair” led him to question the mitigated acceptance of Jews in German society in general and motivated him to focus more on specifically Jewish concerns. As a result of the contentious and heated discussions on the issue, Mendelssohn suffered from a nervous breakdown.

After his recovery from additional health issues (a life-long suffering from the curvature of his spine since he was a child), Mendelssohn decided to dedicate all of his energy to integrate Jews in German society and bring them closer to “German culture.” Subsequently, Mendelssohn translated parts of the Bible from Hebrew in order for the mainly Yiddish-speaking German Jews to learn High German. Furthermore, he promoted reformations for Jewish education, which led to the opening of the first Jewish Free School Berlin in 1781, and continued to consistently improve the Jewish situation in Germany overall.

For all his work, a difficult dispute arose around the improvement of Jews. Ironically prompted by Mendelssohn, Christian Wilhelm von Dohm published Über die bürgerliche Verbesserung der Juden (On the Civil Improvement of the Jews, 1781), which proposed that synagogues should be able to maintain the right to excommunicate any of its members. Of course, the book caused a notable scandal. As a result, Mendelssohn not only rejected excommunication as such, but also started to write Jerusalem, oder über religiöse Macht und Judentum (Jerusalem or on religious power and Judaism, 1783), which was highly praised by Kant. In this work Mendelssohn, most probably being the first one to do so, postulated the separation of religion and state, entrusting them different functions: “Both state and church have as their object actions as well as convictions, the former insofar as they are based on the relations between man and nature, the latter insofar as they are based on the relations between nature and God.” Likewise, Mendelssohn affirms the necessity of multiple religions and also states that Judaism is a religion without revealed truths: "Judaism boasts of no exclusive revelation of eternal truths that are indispensable to salvation, of no revealed religion in the sense in which that term is usually understood.”

Soon after this intensive and radical debate, Mendelssohn faced yet another controversy known as the so-called Pantheismusstreit (Pantheism controversy). After the death of Lessing in 1781, Mendelssohn had attempted to write a book about his great friend’s work. Having heard of this plan, the philosopher Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi accused Lessing of being a “Spinozist” (which, at the time, was synonymous to “atheist”) and led to a contentious exchange of letters between Jacobi and Mendelssohn. The latter chose to write a series of treatises to defend Lessing, among them Morgenstunden oder Vorlesungen über das Dasein Gottes (Morning hours or lectures about God's existence), in which he explained his understanding of Spinoza and attempted to produce evidence of Lessing's reformed pantheism.

Just one month before the Morgenstunden appeared, Jacobi published extracts of their correspondence as Über die Lehre des Spinoza in Briefen an den Herrn Moses Mendelssohn (Teaching of Spinoza in Letters to Mr. Moses Mendelssohn), accusing Lessing of being a "pantheist" in the sense of an "atheist". Immediately Mendelssohn faced serious attacks, including those from former colleagues and friends such as Herder and Hamann, to whom he addressed the reply An die Freunde Lessings: Ein Anhang zu Herrn Jacobi's Briefwechsel über die Lehre des Spinoza (To the Friends of Lessing: An Appendix to Mr. Jacobi's Correspondence on the Teaching of Spinoza).

Given all of the conflict surrounding the interpretation of Lessing, Jacobi is often tied to Mendelssohn’s death in January of 1786. It is noted that, while hurriedly delivering his manuscript to the publishing house, Mendelssohn forgot his coat and died of a severe cold a couple days later. Albeit quite famous during his lifetime, after his death Mendelssohn’s fame and influence receded and his presence sank into relative oblivion, due at least in part to the gaining rise of Kant.

Moses Mendelssohn was a German Jewish Philosopher. (September 6, 1729 – January 4, 1786)