The Education of the Human Race

From The Libertarian Labyrinth
Jump to: navigation, search



Who does not know Lessing's little book, entitled "The Education of the Human Race?" It is a sublime book — a book of prophecy; one of those books interposed boldly at a solemn moment between the past and the future. It is pretended that when Paganism fell, the last oracle uttered these words, "The gods are departing," which the Christians interpreted by saying that the evil spirits, who, according to them, were those false gods, were yielding the world to Jesus Christ. At the close of the eighteenth century, it might well have been said, "the gods are departing." All religions were overthrown, all creeds dissipated. Christianity was on its way to rejoin the Mosaic dispensation in the tomb. But where was the new principle, destined to save the world, and before whom were the old gods fleeing? Lessing, the greatest thinker of Germany was, to pursue the comparison, one of those magi who went to see the new born in his manger, and announced him to the universe. How touching to hear this theological enthusiast for Christianity proclaim his perception of a new light! "I have placed myself upon an eminence where I can see beyond the road which my times have marked out. But I do not call on the weary traveller who is only anxious to reach his resting place quickly, to leave the beaten track. I do not pretend that the point of view which has delighted me, must equally delight all spectators. And so methinks I might well be left up here in ecstasy, where I have chosen to stop to indulge my ecstasy. And yet if I were coming from the immense distance which the soft evening twilight neither conceals nor entirely opens to my view, to announce a sign, the absence of which has so often disturbed me!"

And what was the sign he was declaring to that eighteenth century, which had heard the oracle re-echo, "the gods are departing?"

Madame de Stael says, "Lessing maintains in his essay on the education of the human race, that religious revelations have always been in proportion to the light which existed at the period when those revelations appeared. The Old Testament, the Gospel, and in many respects, the Reformation, were in their several periods entirely in harmony with the march of mind; and, perhaps, according to him, we are now on the eve of a development of Christianity, which will collect all the scattered rays into one focus, and will lead us to find in religion more than morality, more than happiness, more than philosophy, more than the sentiment of religion itself; because each of these will be multiplied by being united with the others." This summary of Madame de Stael's is a very imperfect expression of Lessing's book. His profound idea is precisely that which we are maintaining throughout the whole of this work, to wit: "Mankind is a collective being, animated with a life of its own, whose education God is conducting." And below this, and deeper still, we find in Lessing this other idea, which we are now trying to elucidate, to wit: that "Moses was right in not teaching the Jews the immortality of the soul, as the pagans generally understood it, as the vulgar in so many nations have received it, and as it is commonly received at this present time; for immortality so understood is an error and a chimera. Lastly, below this even, and deeper still, we find in Lessing the fundamental truth that we are proclaiming, to wit: that "the immortality of the souls of men is inseparably connected with the progress of our race ; that we who live are not only the children and posterity of those who have lived before, but at bottom and really those generations themselves; and that it is thus, and only thus, that we shall always live, and be immortal."

All these thoughts, I say, are in Lessing, very explicitly, although they are neither developed nor demonstrated. He comprehended them rather by the heart, than by the intellect; though he was so great a philosopher, that many judges in Germany, arid of the best1 too, declare him to be the prince of modern thinkers in that Germany, without excepting Kant, or anybody else.

But let us not anticipate what will find its proper place further on. We will quote as a part of our text, and almost entire, Lessing's short chef d'oeuvre. The reader will then judge if his testimony is entitled to the weight we give it. We confine ourselves, in this place, to the answer he has furnished to the problem why Moses and all the old dispensations did not avow the doctrine of a future life.

Lessing answers, "Because mankind is progressive, because religion is progressive, because revelation, in the bosom of which the mind of man lives and developes itself, is progressive."

To explain this progress, or successive development of religious truth or revelation, in connexion with the natural development of humanity, he begins by likening revelation to a sort of education, and lays down his ideas thus: "Revelation is to mankind what education is to the individual. Education is a revelation made to the individual, and revelation is an education which has been given, and is still given to mankind."

We here see in the outset the Christian theologian, who is not willing to renounce a special revelation, distinct from the development of human reason. But what matters it, since Leasing agrees that revelation, as he understands it, is nothing more than a particular mode of that human reason, that it is that reason more enlightened, more directly inspired from God? Wherever reason beams, God shines. Only in certain men, in certain nations, at certain periods, reason beams with a greater brilliancy, that is to say, God, wishing to form mankind, shines more in certain points of mankind than in others. This is what Leasing says positively, when he adds, "Education does not give a man anything which he could not as well have had from himself, only it gives it to him quicker and more easily. In a like manner, Revelation does not give mankind anything to which human reason could not also have attained if it had been left to itself; but the latter has only given and is still giving important truths more rapidly."

Religion, then, at any period is not absolute truth, but only relative truth, the truth such as men at that period could conceive it. It can never be falsehood, but it is not the whole truth, it contains the germ of future truth, but the germ only and well wrapped round with leaves. One essential requisite, indeed, is that religion should be comprehended, and to be comprehended that it should not be too superior to the human race that accepts it. Of what advantage, I ask, would it be to that race if there were not between them and it any relation, affinity, harmony? This view, which is so true and reasonable in itself, shows us what feeling we should have at this day for the religions of the past. "Why," says Lessing, "not rather see in all religions the necessary progress of the human mind in all times and places, in the past as well as in the future, than lavish our ridicule or anger on one of them. Nothing in the best of worlds should be thought worthy of our contempt or hatred, and shall religions only be excepted! Shall God have a part in everything, and shall he not have a part in our errors?"

Lessing lays it down, then, as beyond doubt, that Revelation to be true has necessarily been accommodated to human reason, and that as this reason is progressive, revelation has necessarily been equally progressive. "In the same way that the order in which education developes the faculties of man is not a matter of indifference, and as it cannot give man everything at once, so God must have observed a certain order, a certain measure in revelation."

It would be well to ask Lessing, on the ground of these very principles, to embrace in a broader acceptation t In: n he has yet done, this word Revelation. It would be well to tell him that Revelation is not to be confined to our West; that this western world itself, brought into being as it was, at a given period, had been brooded over in embryo in a former revelation; that it came at its appointed time, but had been preceded, prepared, and introduced; and that thus to limit revelation to the Jewish-Christian tradition, to Moses and to Jesus Christ, is to contract his scope of view most exceedingly, after having extended it so far. But let us not forget that he is a Christian theologian. It is only, therefore, in the Jewish Christian tradition, in the twofold Alliance, in Moses and Christ, that he sees the successive religious progress, the gradual development of revelation or true religion, and he explains this progress thus:—

"Though the first man may have been Immediately endowed with the idea of one God, still this idea being communicated and not self-acquired, could not long remain in its purity. As soon as human reason, left to itself, began to elaborate it, it divided this one immense Being into parts, and in still further measuring those parts, h gave each of them a distinction mark.

"Such is the natural origin of polytheism and idolatry. And who knows how many millions of years human reason might have wandered in this path of error, notwithstanding the individuals who everywhere and in all times knew that it was a path of error, if it had not pleased God by a fresh impulse to give man a truer direction! But not being able, and not wishing further to reveal himself specially to every individual, he selected a particular people specially to educate them, and with justice he selected the most rude and most depraved, that he might be able to make a complete beginning with them. Such were the Israelites. We do not know what was their worship in Egypt. Certainly slaves, as much despised as they were, never participated in the religious worship of the Egyptians, and as to the God of their fathers, they had lost all knowledge of him. Perhaps the Egyptians had expressly forbidden the Jews any God, the only God or any other, by impressing them with the belief that they had not either one or many gods, the right of having one or many being the exclusive privilege of men more worthy than they, such as the Egyptians, and this to give a greater appearance of justice to the tyranny with which they crushed this unhappy people. Is the conduct of Christians of this day towards their slaves very different?

"God first announced himself to this intractable people merely as the God of their fathers, only wishing in the beginning to teach them and make them familiar with the idea that they, too, had a protecting God. Immediately afterwards, by the miracles which brought them out of Egypt and established them in Canaan, he proved himself to be a more powerful God than any other. And continuing to manifest himself as the most powerful of Gods, an attribute which can belong but to one only, he insensibly habituated them to the idea of one Only God. But still how inferior was this idea to the true transcendental idea of Unity which reason conceived so late, and which can only be drawn with certainty from the idea of the Infinite!

"The Jewish nation, however, were far from being able to elevate themselves to the true conception of Unity, though the leading spirits among them approached it more or less; and the true, the only cause of the Jews so often abandoning their One God, was their believing that they found the One God, that is to say, the most powerful one, in the first God introduced by any other people. But what moral education could be given a people so rude, unaccustomed to abstract ideas, so perfectly in a state of infancy? None but such as is suited to infancy, education by immediate and material rewards and punishments. Here, again, we see Revelation and education concur. God could not give his people a religion, a law, without attaching to its observance or violation the hope or the fear of happiness, or unhappiness in this world. For the views of the Jews did not yet extend beyond this life, they knew nothing of the immortality of the soul, and desired no future life. To reveal to them these things, when their reason was so backward, would have been on God's part, would it not, to commit the fault of a vain-glorious pedagogue, who had rather exceed his pupils strength in order to make a show of him than educate him in a solid manner."

"But to what end, you will ask, educate a people so rude, whom God was obliged to commence with so entirely? I answer, to enable himself, in the course of time, to employ the more safely, individuals of this nation to conduct the education of all other nations. God raised up in this people the future teachers of humanity. It was the Jews, in fact, who continued, and greatly they did it, the education of the rest of men, and they could not be but Jews, men taken from the bosom of a people so educated.

"To resume our comparison; the child grew amid blows and caresses, and when he had come to years of discretion he was forced to quit at once his father's house. Then he appreciates also at once the pleasures he had enjoyed and slighted under the paternal roof.

"While God was passing his people through all the degrees of the education of children, other nations of the earth had marched by the light of reason. The greater number remained far behind the chosen people, some only had surpassed them. This is also what happens to children who are left to their own strength, most of them remain clowns, some accomplish themselves wonderfully. But as this small number of favored ones proves nothing against the utility and necessity of education, so the few pagan nations, who seemed to have taken the lead of the chosen people even in the knowledge of God, proves nothing against Revelation. The child of education begins by slow steps, but sure; he slowly overtakes many a child of nature more happily organized than he. But still he overtakes him, and without any power of the latter ever in his turn to overtake him again.

Likewise, too, and putting aside the doctrine of the Unity of God, which is found in the Old Testament, nothing is to be concluded against the divine origin of these books from the fact, that the doctrine of the immortality of the soul and that which is connected with it, of future rewards and punishments, are entirely passed over in silence. There is nothing in this to prevent the miracles and prophecies of the Old Testament from being altogether authentic. Let us, indeed, suppose that these doctrines are not only omitted there, but even that they are destitute of truth, that in this life everything is truly ended for man, would the existence of God be any less proved? Would it be any less allowable to God, or would it be any less good in him to interest himself personally in the temporal welfare of any people whatever taken from the bosom of this perishable race? The miracles which God wrought for the Jews, and the prophecies which he charged them to write, were not destined merely for the small number of Jewish mortals who were contemporary; God had in view the whole nation of Jews, all humanity, whose duration upon the earth will, perhaps, be eternal, though every Jew, every individual man should die forever. Once more, the absence of those doctrines from the Old Testament proves nothing against their divinity. Moses was commissioned by God, even though the sanction of his law extended only to this life. And why should it be extended beyond? He, was only sent to the Israelites, to the Israelites of that day, and his mission was altogether in consonance with the knowledge, the capacity, the disposition of the Israelites of that day, and with the destiny of the future Israelitish people."

Thus, I trust, is Lessings idea beginning to show itself. It is of little importance, according to him, that Moses gave the Hebrews of that day, the Israelitish people of that day, ideas incomplete, erroneous and false, not only in themselves, but by the interpretation the Hebrews made of them, provided these views wore conformable on the one hand to the capacity of the then Israelitish people, and on the other to the destiny of the future Israelitish people; or, further still, to the mission of this future Israelitish people in respect to the whole of humanity; that is, in short, provided these ideas were in accordance with the future development of humanity.

"One may doubt," he says, "whether God wished, at this period, to communicate the doctrine of the future life. But certainly he did not wish to render this truth more obscure. An elementary book may pass over in silence this or that point in the science the book is teaching; but it would be absurd if it contained anything to obstruct or embarrass children in the path to those important points. All access, on the contrary, should be carefully kept open ; and to turn children from even one of these approaches, or even simply to retard them in gaining these would be to change an incomplete book into an essentially defective one.

In like manner, the Old Testament having to serve as an elementary book to a people like the Jews, rude and young in the art of thinking, could not speak of the immortality of the soul and the rewards of a future life. But on no account could it contain anything likely to retard the people for whom it was written in the path to these truths."

In Lessing's eyes, then, the Bible contains, with respect to immortality and a future life, if not the truth, at least the relative truth. This he acknowledges, and in this sense he explains what he calls preparations, allusions, and indications with respect to future truth.

"I call," he says, "a preparation for the doctrine of the immortality of the soul the divine threat for example, of punishing the misdeeds of the father in the person of his children to the third and fourth generation. Fathers were thus habituated to live in thought with their most remote offspring, and to feel in advance the sufferings they would draw down on their innocent heads. I call an allusion that which had for its object merely to excite curiosity and to call forth questions, as, for example, the phrazc of being 'united to his fathers' so frequently used for death. An indication I call that which contains within itself any germ capable in developing itself, of disclosing a part of the truth which is yet kept secret. Such was the conclusion drawn by Jesus Christ from the designation of 'The God of Abraham, of Isaac and of Jacob.' It seems to me possible to change this indication into a very strong proof. Preparations, allusions, and indications of this kind make the positive perfection of a book of elements, as the quality above mentioned, of never embarrassing or obstructing the way to ulterior truths, constitutes its negative perfection."

Lessing forgot the most remarkable preparation, allusion, and indication furnished by the Bible to the true doctrine of immortality; it is the very doctrine of Humanity considered as forming a single collective being, a doctrine which is found expressly in the Bible, is found in every part of it, and which is not found in the same degree of clearness in any other monument of antiquity. I mean the Mythus of Adam. W. C. R.