The Unseen World and Other Essays
By John Fiske

Presented by

Public Domain Books


[28] Nathan the Wise: A Dramatic Poem, by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing. Translated by Ellen Frothingham. Preceded by a brief account of the poet and his works, and followed by an essay on the poem by Kuno Fischer. Second edition. New York: Leypoldt & Holt. 1868.

Le Christianisme Moderne. etude sur Lessing. Par Ernest Fontanes. Paris: Bailliere. 1867.

The fame of Lessing is steadily growing. Year by year he is valued more highly, and valued by a greater number of people. And he is destined, like his master and forerunner Spinoza, to receive a yet larger share of men’s reverence and gratitude when the philosophic spirit which he lived to illustrate shall have become in some measure the general possession of the civilized part of mankind. In his own day, Lessing, though widely known and greatly admired, was little understood or appreciated. He was known to be a learned antiquarian, a terrible controversialist, and an incomparable writer. He was regarded as a brilliant ornament to Germany; and a paltry Duke of Brunswick thought a few hundred thalers well spent in securing the glory of having such a man to reside at his provincial court. But the majority of Lessing’s contemporaries understood him as little perhaps as did the Duke of Brunswick. If anything were needed to prove this, it would he the uproar which was made over the publication of the “Wolfenbuttel Fragments,” and the curious exegesis which was applied to the poem of “Nathan” on its first appearance. In order to understand the true character of this great poem, and of Lessing’s religious opinions as embodied in it, it will be necessary first to consider the memorable theological controversy which preceded it.

During Lessing’s residence at Hamburg, he had come into possession of a most important manuscript, written by Hermann Samuel Reimarus, a professor of Oriental languages, and bearing the title of an “Apology for the Rational Worshippers of God." Struck with the rigorous logic displayed in its arguments, and with the quiet dignity of its style, while yet unable to accept its most general conclusions, Lessing resolved to publish the manuscript, accompanying it with his own comments and strictures. Accordingly in 1774, availing himself of the freedom from censorship enjoyed by publications drawn from manuscripts deposited in the Ducal Library at Wolfenbuttel, of which he was librarian, Lessing published the first portion of this work, under the title of “Fragments drawn from the Papers of an Anonymous Writer.” This first Fragment, on the “Toleration of Deists,” awakened but little opposition; for the eighteenth century, though intolerant enough, did not parade its bigotry, but rather saw fit to disclaim it. A hundred years before, Rutherford, in his “Free Disputation,” had declared “toleration of alle religions to bee not farre removed from blasphemie." Intolerance was then a thing to be proud of, but in Lessing’s time some progress had been achieved, and men began to think it a good thing to seem tolerant. The succeeding Fragments were to test this liberality and reveal the flimsiness of the stuff of which it was made. When the unknown disputant began to declare “the impossibility of a revelation upon which all men can rest a solid faith,” and when he began to criticize the evidences of Christ’s resurrection, such a storm burst out in the theological world of Germany as had not been witnessed since the time of Luther. The recent Colenso controversy in England was but a gentle breeze compared to it. Press and pulpit swarmed with “refutations,” in which weakness of argument and scantiness of erudition were compensated by strength of acrimony and unscrupulousness of slander. Pamphlets and sermons, says M. Fontanes, “were multiplied, to denounce the impious blasphemer, who, destitute alike of shame and of courage, had sheltered himself behind a paltry fiction, in order to let loose upon society an evil spirit of unbelief.” But Lessing’s artifice had been intended to screen the memory of Reimarus, rather than his own reputation. He was not the man to quail before any amount of human opposition; and it was when the tempest of invective was just at its height that he published the last and boldest Fragment of all,—on “the Designs of Jesus and his Disciples.”

The publication of these Fragments led to a mighty controversy. The most eminent, both for uncompromising zeal and for worldly position, of those who had attacked Lessing, was Melchior Goetze, “pastor primarius” at the Hamburg Cathedral. Though his name is now remembered only because of his connection with Lessing, Goetze was not destitute of learning and ability. He was a collector of rare books, an amateur in numismatics, and an antiquarian of the narrow-minded sort. Lessing had known him while at Hamburg, and had visited him so constantly as to draw forth from his friends malicious insinuations as to the excellence of the pastor’s white wine. Doubtless Lessing, as a wise man, was not insensible to the attractions of good Moselle; but that which he chiefly liked in this theologian was his logical and rigorously consistent turn of mind. “He always,” says M. Fontanes, “cherished a holy horror of loose, inconsequent thinkers; and the man of the past, the inexorable guardian of tradition, appeared to him far more worthy of respect than the heterodox innovator who stops in mid-course, and is faithful neither to reason nor to faith.”

But when Lessing published these unhallowed Fragments, the hour of conflict had sounded, and Goetze cast himself into the arena with a boldness and impetuosity which Lessing, in his artistic capacity, could not fail to admire. He spared no possible means of reducing his enemy to submission. He aroused against him all the constituted authorities, the consistories, and even the Aulic Council of the Empire, and he even succeeded in drawing along with him the chief of contemporary rationalists, Semler, who so far forgot himself as to declare that Lessing, for what he had done, deserved to be sent to the madhouse. But with all Goetze’s orthodox valour, he was no match for the antagonist whom he had excited to activity. The great critic replied with pamphlet after pamphlet, invincible in logic and erudition, sparkling with wit, and irritating in their utter coolness. Such pamphlets had not been seen since Pascal published the “Provincial Letters.” Goetze found that he had taken up arms against a master in the arts of controversy, and before long he became well aware that he was worsted. Having brought the case before the Aulic Council, which consisted in great part of Catholics, the stout pastor, forgetting that judgment had not yet been rendered, allowed himself to proclaim that all who do not recognize the Bible as the only source of Christianity are not fit to be called Christians at all. Lessing was not slow to profit by this unlucky declaration. Questioned, with all manner of ferocious vituperation, by Goetze, as to what sort of Christianity might have existed prior to and independently of the New Testament canon, Lessing imperturbably answered: “By the Christian religion I mean all the confessions of faith contained in the collection of creeds of the first four centuries of the Christian Church, including, if you wish it, the so-called creed of the apostles, as well as the creed of Athanasius. The content of these confessions is called by the earlier Fathers the regula fidei, or rule of faith. This rule of faith is not drawn from the writings of the New Testament. It existed before any of the books in the New Testament were written. It sufficed not only for the first Christians of the age of the apostles, but for their descendants during four centuries. And it is, therefore, the veritable foundation upon which the Church of Christ is built; a foundation not based upon Scripture.” Thus, by a master-stroke, Lessing secured the adherence of the Catholics constituting a majority of the Aulic Council of the Empire. Like Paul before him, he divided the Sanhedrim. So that Goetze, foiled in his attempts at using violence, and disconcerted by the patristic learning of one whom he had taken to be a mere connoisseur in art and writer of plays for the theatre, concluded that discretion was the surest kind of valour, and desisted from further attacks.

Lessing’s triumph came opportunely; for already the ministry of Brunswick had not only confiscated the Fragments, but had prohibited him from publishing anything more on the subject without first obtaining express authority to do so. His last replies to Goetze were published at Hamburg; and as he held himself in readiness to depart from Wolfenbuttel, he wrote to several friends that he had conceived the design of a drama, with which he would tear the theologians in pieces more than with a dozen Fragments. “I will try and see,” said he, “if they will let me preach in peace from my old pulpit, the theatre.” In this way originated “Nathan the Wise.” But it in no way answered to the expectations either of Lessing’s friends or of his enemies. Both the one and the other expected to see the controversy with Goetze carried on, developed, and generalized in the poem. They looked for a satirical comedy, in which orthodoxy should be held up for scathing ridicule, or at least for a direful tragedy, the moral of which, like that of the great poem of Lucretius, should be

     “Tantum religio potuit suadere malorum.”

Had Lessing produced such a poem, he would doubtless have gratified his free-thinking friends and wreaked due literary vengeance upon his theological persecutors. He would, perhaps, have given articulate expression to the radicalism of his own time, and, like Voltaire, might have constituted himself the leader of the age, the incarnation of its most conspicuous tendencies. But Lessing did nothing of the kind; and the expectations formed of him by friends and enemies alike show how little he was understood by either. “Nathan the Wise” was, as we shall see, in the eighteenth century an entirely new phenomenon; and its author was the pioneer of a quite new religious philosophy.

Reimarus, the able author of the Fragments, in his attack upon the evidences of revealed religion, had taken the same ground as Voltaire and the old English deists. And when we have said this, we have sufficiently defined his position, for the tenets of the deists are at the present day pretty well known, and are, moreover, of very little vital importance, having long since been supplanted by a more just and comprehensive philosophy. Reimarus accepted neither miracles nor revelation; but in accordance with the rudimentary state of criticism in his time, he admitted the historical character of the earliest Christian records, and was thus driven to the conclusion that those writings must have been fraudulently composed. How such a set of impostors as the apostles must on this hypothesis have been, should have succeeded in inspiring large numbers of their contemporaries with higher and grander religious notions than had ever before been conceived; how they should have laid the foundations of a theological system destined to hold together the most enlightened and progressive portion of human society for seventeen or eighteen centuries,—does not seem to have entered his mind. Against such attacks as this, orthodoxy was comparatively safe; for whatever doubt might be thrown upon some of its leading dogmas, the system as a whole was more consistent and rational than any of the theories which were endeavouring to supplant it. And the fact that nearly all the great thinkers of the eighteenth century adopted this deistic hypothesis, shows, more than anything else, the crudeness of their psychological knowledge, and their utter lack of what is called “the historical sense.”

Lessing at once saw the weak point in Reimarus’s argument, but his method of disposing of it differed signally from that adopted by his orthodox contemporaries. The more advanced German theologians of that day, while accepting the New Testament records as literally historical, were disposed to rationalize the accounts of miracles contained in them, in such a way as to get rid of any presumed infractions of the laws of nature. This method of exegesis, which reached its perfection in Paulus, is too well known to need describing. Its unsatisfactory character was clearly shown, thirty years ago, by Strauss, and it is now generally abandoned, though some traces of it may still be seen in the recent works of Renan. Lessing steadily avoided this method of interpretation. He had studied Spinoza to some purpose, and the outlines of Biblical criticism laid down by that remarkable thinker Lessing developed into a system wonderfully like that now adopted by the Tubingen school. The cardinal results which Baur has reached within the past generation were nearly all hinted at by Lessing, in his commentaries on the Fragments. The distinction between the first three, or synoptic gospels, and the fourth, the later age of the fourth, and the method of composition of the first three, from earlier documents and from oral tradition, are all clearly laid down by him. The distinct points of view from which the four accounts were composed, are also indicated,—the Judaizing disposition of “Matthew,” the Pauline sympathies of “Luke,” the compromising or Petrine tendencies of “Mark,” and the advanced Hellenic character of “John.” Those best acquainted with the results of modern criticism in Germany will perhaps be most surprised at finding such speculations in a book written many years before either Strauss or Baur were born.

But such results, as might have been expected, did not satisfy the pastor Goetze or the public which sympathized with him. The valiant pastor unhesitatingly declared that he read the objections which Lessing opposed to the Fragmentist with more horror and disgust than the Fragments themselves; and in the teeth of the printed comments he declared that the editor was craftily upholding his author in his deistical assault upon Christian theology. The accusation was unjust, because untrue. There could be no genuine cooperation between a mere iconoclast like Reimarus, and a constructive critic like Lessing. But the confusion was not an unnatural one on Goetze’s part, and I cannot agree with M. Fontanes in taking it as convincing proof of the pastor’s wrong-headed perversity. It appears to me that Goetze interpreted Lessing’s position quite as accurately as M. Fontanes. The latter writer thinks that Lessing was a Christian of the liberal school since represented by Theodore Parker in this country and by M. Reville in France; that his real object was to defend and strengthen the Christian religion by relieving it of those peculiar doctrines which to the freethinkers of his time were a stumbling-block and an offence. And, in spite of Lessing’s own declarations, he endeavours to show that he was an ordinary theist,—a follower of Leibnitz rather than of Spinoza. But I do not think he has made out his case. Lessing’s own confession to Jacobi is unequivocal enough, and cannot well be argued away. In that remarkable conversation, held toward the close of his life, he indicates clearly enough that his faith was neither that of the ordinary theist, the atheist, nor the pantheist, but that his religious theory of the universe was identical with that suggested by Spinoza, adopted by Goethe, and recently elaborated in the first part of the “First Principles" of Mr. Herbert Spencer. Moreover, while Lessing cannot be considered an antagonist of Christianity, neither did he assume the attitude of a defender. He remained outside the theological arena; looking at theological questions from the point of view of a layman, or rather, as M. Cherbuliez has happily expressed it, of a Pagan. His mind was of decidedly antique structure. He had the virtues of paganism: its sanity, its calmness, and its probity; but of the tenderness of Christianity, and its quenchless aspirations after an indefinable ideal, of that feeling which has incarnated itself in Gothic cathedrals, masses and oratorios, he exhibited but scanty traces. His intellect was above all things self-consistent and incorruptible. He had that imperial good-sense which might have formed the ideal alike of Horace and of Epictetus. No clandestine preference for certain conclusions could make his reason swerve from the straight paths of logic. And he examined and rejected the conclusions of Reimarus in the same imperturbable spirit with which he examined and rejected the current theories of the French classic drama.

Such a man can have had but little in common with a preacher like Theodore Parker, or with a writer like M. Fontanes, whose whole book is a noble specimen of lofty Christian eloquence. His attribute was light, not warmth. He scrutinized, but did not attack or defend. He recognized the transcendent merits of the Christian faith, but made no attempt to reinstate it where it had seemed to suffer shock. It was therefore with the surest of instincts, with that same instinct of self-preservation which had once led the Church to anathematize Galileo, that Goetze. proclaimed Lessing a more dangerous foe to orthodoxy than the deists who had preceded him. Controversy, he doubtless thought, may be kept up indefinitely, and blows given and returned forever; but before the steady gaze of that scrutinizing eye which one of us shall find himself able to stand erect? It has become fashionable to heap blame and ridicule upon those who violently defend an antiquated order of things; and Goetze has received at the hands of posterity his full share of abuse. His wrath contrasted unfavourably with Lessing’s calmness; and it was his misfortune to have taken up arms against an opponent who always knew how to keep the laugh upon his own side. For my own part I am constrained to admire the militant pastor, as Lessing himself admired him. From an artistic point of view he is not an uninteresting figure to contemplate. And although his attempts to awaken persecution were reprehensible, yet his ardour in defending what he believed to be vital truth is none the less to be respected. He had the acuteness to see that Lessing’s refutation of deism did not make him a Christian, while the new views proposed as a substitute for those of Reimarus were such as Goetze and his age could in no wise comprehend.

Lessing’s own views of dogmatic religion are to be found in his work entitled, “The Education of the Human Race.” These views have since so far become the veriest commonplaces of criticism, that one can hardly realize that, only ninety years ago, they should have been regarded as dangerous paradoxes. They may be summed up in the statement that all great religions are good in their time and place; that, “as there is a soul of goodness in things evil, so also there is a soul of truth in things erroneous.” According to Lessing, the successive phases of religious belief constitute epochs in the mental evolution of the human race. So that the crudest forms of theology, even fetishism, now to all appearance so utterly revolting, and polytheism, so completely inadequate, have once been the best, the natural and inevitable results of man’s reasoning powers and appliances for attaining truth. The mere fact that a system of religious thought has received the willing allegiance of large masses of men shows that it must have supplied some consciously felt want, some moral or intellectual craving. And the mere fact that knowledge and morality are progressive implies that each successive system may in due course of time be essentially modified or finally supplanted. The absence of any reference to a future state of retribution, in the Pentateuch and generally in the sacred writings of the Jews, and the continual appeal to hopes and fears of a worldly character, have been pronounced by deists an irremediable defect in the Jewish religion. It is precisely this, however, says Lessing, which constitutes one of its signal excellences. “That thy days may be long in the land which Jehovah thy God giveth thee,” was an appeal which the uncivilized Jew could understand, and which could arouse him to action; while the need of a future world, to rectify the injustices of this, not yet being felt, the doctrine would have been of but little service. But in later Hebrew literature, many magnificent passages revealed the despair felt by prophet and thinker over the insoluble problem presented by the evil fate of the good and the triumphant success of the wicked; and a solution was sought in the doctrine of a Messianic kingdom, until Christianity with its proclamation of a future life set the question entirely aside. By its appeal to what has been aptly termed “other-worldliness,” Christianity immeasurably intensified human responsibility, besides rendering clearer its nature and limits. But according to Lessing, yet another step remains to be taken; and here we come upon the gulf which separates him from men of the stamp of Theodore Parker. For, says Lessing, the appeal to unearthly rewards and punishments is after all an appeal to our lower feelings; other-worldliness is but a refined selfishness; and we are to cherish virtue for its own sake not because it will lead us to heaven. Here is the grand principle of Stoicism. Lessing believed, with Mr. Mill, that the less we think about getting rewarded either on earth or in heaven the better. He was cast in the same heroic mould as Muhamad Efendi, who when led to the stake exclaimed: “Though I have no hope of recompense hereafter, yet the love of truth constraineth me to die in its defence!”

With the truth or completeness of these views of Lessing we are not here concerned; our business being not to expound our own opinions, but to indicate as clearly as possible Lessing’s position. Those who are familiar with the general philosophical spirit of the present age, as represented by writers otherwise so different as Littre and Sainte-Beuve, will best appreciate the power and originality of these speculations. Coming in the last century, amid the crudities of deism, they made a well-defined epoch. They inaugurated the historical method of criticism, and they robbed the spirit of intolerance of its only philosophical excuse for existing. Hitherto the orthodox had been intolerant toward the philosophers because they considered them heretics; and the philosophers had been intolerant toward the orthodox because they considered them fools. To Voltaire it naturally seemed that a man who could believe in the reality of miracles must be what in French is expressively termed a sot. But henceforth, to the disciple of Lessing, men of all shade of opinion were but the representatives and exponents of different phases in the general evolution of human intelligence, not necessarily to be disliked or despised if they did not happen to represent the maturest phase.

Religion, therefore, from this point of view, becomes clearly demarcated from theology. It consists no longer in the mental assent to certain prescribed formulas, but in the moral obedience to the great rule of life; the great commandment laid down and illustrated by the Founder of the Christian religion, and concerning which the profoundest modern philosophy informs us that the extent to which a society has learned to conform to it is the test and gauge of the progress in civilization which that society has achieved. The command “to love one another,” to check the barbarous impulses inherited from the pre-social state, while giving free play to the beneficent impulses needful for the ultimate attainment of social equilibrium,—or as Tennyson phrases it, to “move upward, working out the beast, and letting the ape and tiger die,"—was, in Lessing’s view, the task set before us by religion. The true religious feeling was thus, in his opinion, what the author of “Ecce Homo” has finely termed “the enthusiasm of humanity.” And we shall find no better language than that of the writer just mentioned, in which to describe Lessing’s conception of faith:—

“He who, when goodness is impressively put before him, exhibits an instinctive loyalty to it, starts forward to take its side, trusts himself to it, such a man has faith, and the root of the matter is in such a man. He may have habits of vice, but the loyal and faithful instinct in him will place him above many that practice virtue. He may be rude in thought and character, but he will unconsciously gravitate toward what is right. Other virtues can scarcely thrive without a fine natural organization and a happy training. But the most neglected and ungifted of men may make a beginning with faith. Other virtues want civilization, a certain amount of knowledge, a few books; but in half-brutal countenances faith will light up a glimmer of nobleness. The savage, who can do little else, can wonder and worship and enthusiastically obey. He who cannot know what is right can know that some one else knows; he who has no law may still have a master; he who is incapable of justice may be capable of fidelity; he who understands little may have his sins forgiven because he loves much.”

Such was Lessing’s religion, so far as it can be ascertained from the fragmentary writings which he has left on the subject. Undoubtedly it lacked completeness. The opinions which we have here set down, though constituting something more than a mere theory of morality, certainly do not constitute a complete theory of religion. Our valiant knight has examined but one side of the shield,—the bright side, turned toward us, whose marvellous inscriptions the human reason can by dint of unwearied effort decipher. But the dark side, looking out upon infinity, and covered with hieroglyphics the meaning of which we can never know, he has quite forgotten to consider. Yet it is this side which genuine religious feeling ever seeks to contemplate. It is the consciousness that there is about us an omnipresent Power, in which we live and move and have our being, eternally manifesting itself throughout the whole range of natural phenomena, which has ever disposed men to be religious, and lured them on in the vain effort to construct adequate theological systems. We may, getting rid of the last traces of fetishism, eliminate arbitrary volition as much as we will or can. But there still remains the consciousness of a divine Life in the universe, of a Power which is beyond and above our comprehension, whose goings out and comings in no man can follow. The more we know, the more we reach out for that which we cannot know. And who can realize this so vividly as the scientific philosopher? For our knowledge being, according to the familiar comparison, like a brilliant sphere, the more we increase it the greater becomes the number of peripheral points at which we are confronted by the impenetrable darkness beyond. I believe that this restless yearning,—vague enough in the description, yet recognizable by all who, communing with themselves or with nature, have felt it,—this constant seeking for what cannot be found, this persistent knocking at gates which, when opened, but reveal others yet to be passed, constitutes an element which no adequate theory of religion can overlook. But of this we find nothing in Lessing. With him all is sunny, serene, and pagan. Not the dim aisle of a vast cathedral, but the symmetrical portico of an antique temple, is the worshipping-place into which he would lead us.

But if Lessing’s theology must be considered imperfect, it is none the less admirable as far as it goes. With its peculiar doctrines of love and faith, it teaches a morality far higher than any that Puritanism ever dreamed of. And with its theory of development it cuts away every possible logical basis for intolerance. It is this theology to which Lessing has given concrete expression in his immortal poem of “Nathan.”

The central idea of “Nathan” was suggested to Lessing by Boccaccio’s story of “The Three Rings,” which is supposed to have had a Jewish origin. Saladin, pretending to be inspired by a sudden, imperious whim, such as is “not unbecoming in a Sultan," demands that Nathan shall answer him on the spur of the moment which of the three great religions then known—Judaism, Mohammedanism, Christianity—is adjudged by reason to be the true one. For a moment the philosopher is in a quandary. If he does not pronounce in favour of his own religion, Judaism, he stultifies himself; but if he does not award the precedence to Mohammedanism, he will apparently insult his sovereign. With true Oriental tact he escapes from the dilemma by means of a parable. There was once a man, says Nathan, who possessed a ring of inestimable value. Not only was the stone which it contained incomparably fine, but it possessed the marvellous property of rendering its owner agreeable both to God and to men. The old man bequeathed this ring to that one of his sons whom he loved the most; and the son, in turn, made a similar disposition of it. So that, passing from hand to hand, the ring finally came into the possession of a father who loved his three sons equally well. Unto which one should he leave it? To get rid of the perplexity, he had two other rings made by a jeweller, exactly like the original, and to each of his three sons he bequeathed one. Each then thinking that he had obtained the true talisman, they began violently to quarrel, and after long contention agreed to carry their dispute before the judge. But the judge said: “Quarrelsome fellows! You are all three of you cheated cheats. Your three rings are alike counterfeit. For the genuine ring is lost, and to conceal the loss, your father had made these three substitutes." At this unexpected denouement the Sultan breaks out in exclamations of delight; and it is interesting to learn that when the play was brought upon the stage at Constantinople a few years ago, the Turkish audience was similarly affected. There is in the story that quiet, stealthy humour which is characteristic of many mediaeval apologues, and in which Lessing himself loved to deal. It is humour of the kind which hits the mark, and reveals the truth. In a note upon this passage, Lessing himself said: “The opinion of Nathan upon all positive religions has for a long time been my own.” Let him who has the genuine ring show it by making himself loved of God and man. This is the central idea of the poem. It is wholly unlike the iconoclasm of the deists, and, coming in the eighteenth century, it was like a veritable evangel.

“Nathan” was not brought out until three years after Lessing’s death, and it kept possession of the stage for but a short time. In a dramatic point of view, it has hardly any merits. Whatever plot there is in it is weak and improbable. The decisive incidents seem to be brought in like the deus ex machina of the later Greek drama. There is no movement, no action, no development. The characters are poetically but not dramatically conceived. Considered as a tragedy, “Nathan” would be weak; considered as a comedy, it would be heavy. With full knowledge of these circumstances, Lessing called it not a drama, but a dramatic poem; and he might have called it still more accurately a didactic poem, for the only feature which it has in common with the drama is that the personages use the oratio directa.

“Nathan” is a didactic poem: it is not a mere philosophic treatise written in verse, like the fragments of Xenophanes. Its lessons are conveyed concretely and not abstractly; and its characters are not mere lay figures, but living poetical conceptions. Considered as a poem among classic German poems, it must rank next to, though immeasurably below, Goethe’s “Faust.”

There are two contrasted kinds of genius, the poetical and the philosophical; or, to speak yet more generally, the artistic and the critical. The former is distinguished by a concrete, the latter by an abstract, imagination. The former sees things synthetically, in all their natural complexity; the latter pulls things to pieces analytically, and scrutinizes their relations. The former sees a tree in all its glory, where the latter sees an exogen with a pair of cotyledons. The former sees wholes, where the latter sees aggregates.

Corresponding with these two kinds of genius there are two classes of artistic productions. When the critical genius writes a poem or a novel, he constructs his plot and his characters in conformity to some prearranged theory, or with a view to illustrate some favourite doctrine. When he paints a picture, he first thinks how certain persons would look under certain given circumstances, and paints them accordingly. When he writes a piece of music, he first decides that this phrase expresses joy, and that phrase disappointment, and the other phrase disgust, and he composes accordingly. We therefore say ordinarily that he does not create, but only constructs and combines. It is far different with the artistic genius, who, without stopping to think, sees the picture and hears the symphony with the eyes and ears of imagination, and paints and plays merely what he has seen and heard. When Dante, in imagination, arrived at the lowest circle of hell, where traitors like Judas and Brutus are punished, he came upon a terrible frozen lake, which, he says,—

   “Ever makes me shudder at the sight of frozen pools.”

I have always considered this line a marvellous instance of the intensity of Dante’s imagination. It shows, too, how Dante composed his poem. He did not take counsel of himself and say: “Go to, let us describe the traitors frozen up to their necks in a dismal lake, for that will be most terrible.” But the picture of the lake, in all its iciness, with the haggard faces staring out from its glassy crust, came unbidden before his mind with such intense reality that, for the rest of his life, he could not look at a frozen pool without a shudder of horror. He described it exactly as he saw it; and his description makes us shudder who read it after all the centuries that have intervened. So Michael Angelo, a kindred genius, did not keep cutting and chipping away, thinking how Moses ought to look, and what sort of a nose he ought to have, and in what position his head might best rest upon his shoulders. But, he looked at the rectangular block of Carrara marble, and beholding Moses grand and lifelike within it, knocked away the environing stone, that others also might see the mighty figure. And so Beethoven, an artist of the same colossal order, wrote out for us those mysterious harmonies which his ear had for the first time heard; and which, in his mournful old age, it heard none the less plainly because of its complete physical deafness. And in this way Shakespeare wrote his “Othello"; spinning out no abstract thoughts about jealousy and its fearful effects upon a proud and ardent nature, but revealing to us the living concrete man, as his imperial imagination had spontaneously fashioned him.

Modern psychology has demonstrated that this is the way in which the creative artistic imagination proceeds. It has proved that a vast portion of all our thinking goes on unconsciously; and that the results may arise into consciousness piecemeal and gradually, checking each other as they come; or that they may come all at once, with all the completeness and definiteness of perceptions presented from without. The former is the case with the critical, and the latter with the artistic intellect. And this we recognize imperfectly when we talk of a genius being “inspired.” All of us probably have these two kinds of imagination to a certain extent. It is only given to a few supremely endowed persons like Goethe to possess them both to an eminent degree. Perhaps of no other man can it be said that he was a poet of the first order, and as great a critic as poet.

It is therefore apt to be a barren criticism which studies the works of creative geniuses in order to ascertain what theory lies beneath them. How many systems of philosophy, how many subtle speculations, have we not seen fathered upon Dante, Cervantes, Shakespeare, and Goethe! Yet their works are, in a certain sense, greater than any systems. They partake of the infinite complexity and variety of nature, and no more than nature itself can they be narrowed down to the limits of a precise formula.

Lessing was wont to disclaim the title of poet; but, as Goethe said, his immortal works refute him. He had not only poetical, but dramatic genius; and his “Emilia Galotti” has kept the stage until to-day. Nevertheless, he knew well what he meant when he said that he was more of a critic than a poet. His genius was mainly of the critical order; and his great work, “Nathan the Wise,” was certainly constructed rather than created. It was intended to convey a doctrine, and was carefully shaped for the purpose. And when we have pronounced it the greatest of all poems that have been written for a set purpose, and admit of being expressed in a definite formula, we have classified it with sufficient accuracy.

For an analysis of the characters in the poem, nothing can be better than the essay by Kuno Fischer, appended to the present volume. The work of translation has been admirably done; and thanks are due to Miss Frothingham for her reproduction of this beautiful poem.

  June, 1868.



[Buy at Amazon]
The unseen world, and other essays, by John Fiske.
By Michigan Historical Reprint Series
At Amazon