Moses Mendelssohn

The German philosopher Moses Mendelssohn (1729-1786) was a major figure of the German Enlightenment. An intellectually emancipated and cultured German as well as a faithful Jew, he was referred to as the "German Socrates" and as the "Jewish Socrates."

Moses Mendelssohn was born on Sept. 6, 1729, in Dessau. He suffered from curvature of the spine. His father was a Torah scribe. The young man followed traditional Talmudic studies under Rabbi David Frankel, who introduced him to the thought of the medieval Jewish thinker Maimonides. In 1743 Mendelssohn's teacher received an appointment to Berlin, and the young student accompanied him. During the next years Mendelssohn's intellectual training expanded to include Latin, French, and English as well as mathematics and science.

At 21, Mendelssohn began a chain of fortunate associations. He became a tutor to the family of Isaac Bernhard, and he rose successively to bookkeeper and partner in a silk manufacturing firm. This position made him financially independent and left him free to follow his studies. Bernhard also introduced him to Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, the writer and dramatist. Lessing and Mendelssohn began a lifelong friendship and active collaboration. The noble and enlightened Jew in Lessing's famous comedy Nathan the Wise is modeled after the philosopher. Lessing encouraged Mendelssohn in his writing and arranged for the publication of his first essays and his translation of Jean Jacques Rousseau's Discourse on Unequality (1756). With Friedrich Nicolai, Mendelssohn edited a radical and popular magazine, Letters on Literature, which made Mendelssohn well known. In 1762 Mendelssohn married, and he and his wife eventually became the parents of six children. Two of his sons established a famous banking house, and the world-renowned composer Felix Mendelssohn was the philosopher's grandson.

In 1764 Mendelssohn competed against Immanuel Kant and won the Berlin Academy prize with an essay, "Evidence of Metaphysical Science." His main philosophic reputation stemmed from his influential treatises on esthetics and on the philosophy of religion. In 1776 he published a work on immortality. The Phaedo was modeled on Plato's dialogue of the same name. This book became the most popular work in German philosophy. Mendelssohn's writing skill was also reflected in his translation of the Pentateuch from Hebrew into German (1778-1783) as well as in Morning Hours (1785), a volume dealing with the existence of God.

The remainder of Mendelssohn's important work stemmed from two specific controversies. He was challenged by Christian writers either to convert or to explain the compatibility of his philosophy with Judaism. In a response to the Swiss theologian J. K. Lavater (1769) and in Jerusalem (1783) Mendelssohn attempted to interpret Judaism as a religion of reason available to all enlightened humanitarians. After Lessing's death, Lessing was attacked as an atheist, and Mendelssohn produced a series of writings in defense of his friend. Mendelssohn died in Berlin on Jan. 4, 1786.

Further Reading on Moses Mendelssohn

The only work of Mendelssohn to appear recently in English translation is Jerusalem and Other Jewish Writings (1969). Secondary literature includes Hermann Walter, Moses Mendelssohn: Critic and Philosopher (1930), and a chapter on his philosophy in Jacob B. Agus, The Evolution of Jewish Thought: From Biblical Times to the Opening of the Modern Era (1959).

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