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Mendelssohn on Natural Law

Mendelssohn on Natural Law

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Published by: pruzhaner on Dec 14, 2011
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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
true revelation
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.
essay,” in which he had argued that moral principles can be deduced in the same manner asgeometric principles, to the very end of his life, in his defense of his friend Lessing which hecompleted days before he died: Now it seems to me that the evidence of natural religion is as clear and obvious, asirrefutably certain to uncorrupted common sense that has not been misled, as is anytheorem in geometry. At any station of life, at any level of enlightenment, one hasenough information and ability, enough opportunity and power, to convince himself of the truths of rational religion.
For Mendelssohn, “uncorrupted common sense,” which leads man to “natural religionissufficient to bring man to eternity. Judaism, according to Mendelssohn, recognizes the concept of “natural religion” in its idea of the seven Noahide laws. Mendelssohn maintained, contraMaimonides, that the Noahide commandments lead to salvation on the basis of reason alone.Maimonides' opinion, according to which the Noahide must fulfill his commandments on the basis of revelation, was a subject of much consternation to Mendelssohn, to which we willreturn.For Mendelssohn the concept of revelation is troubling because revelation which occursat a given point in history is by its nature exclusive. If revelation is a necessary precondition for salvation, only those who are recipients of the revelation or who have received this tradition canmerit eternity. As a man of the Enlightenment, Mendelssohn could not accept that the universalGod would reveal Himself to a particular people in a way which would exclude the rest of humanity from eternity. Here, Mendelssohn was influenced by John Locke, who likewisecriticized the Christian doctrine of salvation, which requires belief in a particular individual,namely Jesus:What shall become of all the rest of mankind, who having never heard of the promise or news of a Savior, not a word of a Messiah to be sent, or that was come, have had no
To Lessing's Friends,
qtd. in Michah Gottlieb,
 Faith and Freedom: MosesMendelssohn's Theological-Political Thought,
(New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), p
thought or belief concerning him? To this I answer that God will require of every manaccording to what a man hath and not according to what he hath not. He will not expectthe Improvement of Ten Talents where he gave but One nor require any one should believe a Promise of which he has never heard.
 This “universalist” impulse was the source of the appeal of eighteenth century Deism, whichdenied revelation in favor of a God who did not interfere in the affairs of mankind. Thisambivalent attitude toward revelation was well articulated by Mendelssohn's contemporary whowas to be the second president of the United States, John Adams:My friend, again! the question before mankind is,—how shall I state it? It is, whether authority is from nature and reason, or from miraculous revelation; from the revelationfrom God, by the human understanding, or from the revelation to Moses and toConstantine, and the Council of Nice. Whether it resides in men or in offices. Whether offices, spiritual and temporal, are instituted by men, or whether they are self-created andinstituted themselves. Whether they were or were not brought down from Heaven in a phial of holy oil, sent by the Holy Ghost, by an angel incarnated in a dove, to anoint thehead of Clovis, a more cruel tyrant than Frederic or Napoleon. Are the original principlesof authority in human nature, or in stars, garters, crosses, golden fleeces, crowns,sceptres, and thrones? These profound and important questions have been agitated anddiscussed, before that vast democratical congregation, mankind, for more than fivehundred years. How many crusades, how many Hussite wars, how many powder plots,St. Bartholomew’s days, Irish massacres, Albigensian massacres, and battles of Marengohave intervened!
Sub judice lis est.
Will Zinzendorf, Swedenborg, Whitefield, or Wesley prevail? Or will St. Ignatius Loyola inquisitionize and jesuitize them all? Alas, poor human nature! Thou art responsible to thy Maker and to thyself for an impartial verdictand judgment.
John Locke,
The Reasonableness of Christianity,
qtd. in Alexander Altmann's introduction to
(note 1 above), p. 21.
John Adams,
The Works of John Adams, Second President of the United States
, Volume10 (Little, Brown and Co., 1856), p. 170. The significance of the example of the fledglingAmerican democracy should not be overlooked in discussion of Mendelssohn's views onreligious toleration. “There is good reason to assume that Mendelssohn was emboldened toadvance his strikingly progressive ideas because the principle of religious equality was justthen being implemented in the wake of the American Revolution. That he closely followed theevents across the Atlantic is obvious from a footnote at the end of Jerusalem: 'Alas, now eventhe Congress in America rehashes the old slogan and speaks of a dominant religion.' Thisremark clearly shows that until this latest news reached him he had been greatly encouraged by the American example” (A. Altmann, “The Philosophical Roots of Mendelssohn's Plea for Emancipation,”
 Jewish Social Studies,
Vol. 36, No. 3/4 (Jul. - Oct., 1974),
 p. 200.)Likewise, Allan Arkush notes the reception of Mendelssohn's
in the newly foundednation: “In the course of the nineteenth century, Jerusalem became a popular book in certain places, particularly in Thomas Jefferson’s country. Already in 1838, when there were fewer than 50,000 Jews in the United States, the first leader of American Orthodox Jewry, Isaac

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