Mendelssohn on Reason and Revelation
As in medieval Jewish philosophy, the central question for Moses Mendelssohn is therelationship between reason and revelation. However, in addressing this question, Mendelssohn parts ways with his forebears. Whereas medieval philosophy sought to bring the teachings of revelation into accordance with reason, Mendelssohn sought to separate the two realms.Mendelssohn was more concerned that the “eternal truths” which are necessary for man'ssalvation should be accessible to all, and therefore demonstrable by common sense alone, than hewas interested in the rationality of revelation. This was a topic not only of philosophical interestto Mendelssohn, but of moral concern, which reflected his belief in and advocacy for religioustoleration. In his best known work,
, Mendelssohn lays out his case for reason as asufficient condition for salvation:I therefore do not believe that the powers of human reason are insufficient to persuademen of the eternal truths which are indispensable to human felicity, and that God had toreveal them in a supernatural manner. Those who hold this view detract from theomnipotence or the goodness of God, on the one hand, what they believe they are addingto his goodness on the other. He was in their opinion good enough to reveal to men thosetruths on which their felicity depends, but not omnipotent, or not good enough to grantthem the powers to discover these truths themselves. Moreover, by this assertion onemakes the necessity of a supernatural revelation more universal than revelation itself. If therefore, mankind must be corrupt and miserable without revelation, why has the far greater part of mankind lived without
from time immemorial? Why mustthe two Indies wait until it pleases the
Europeans to send them a few comforters to bringthem a message without which they can, according to this opinion, live neither virtuouslynor happily? To bring them a message which, in their circumstances and state of knowledge, they can neither rightly comprehend nor properly utilize?According to the concepts of true Judaism, all the inhabitants of the earth are destined tofelicity; and the means of attaining it are as widespread as mankind itself, as charitablydispensed as the means of warding off hunger and other natural needs.
Mendelssohn consistently repeated this position throughout his career, from his “Prize
Jerusalem: or On Religious Power and Judaism,
trans. Allan Arkush,introduction and commentary by Alexander Altmann, (Brandeis University Press, 1983), p.96.