The last metaphysician

230 years after their publication, the Morning hours by Mendelssohn, who was both the first German Jewish philosopher and the last of the classical metaphysicians: another aspect of the German Enlightenment.

The excellent translation of Morning Hours. Lessons on the existence of God fills a double gap. The first concerns Mose Mendelssohn, an emblematic name of the greatness of the Judo-Berlin symbiosis.; the second concernsAufklrung, German Enlightenment quite different from the French Enlightenment. A very beautiful exhibition this summer at the Jewish Museum in Berlin with a superb catalog paid tribute to this founder of modern Judaism, and a permanent vocation of Mendelssohn Discount (Jgerstrasse) in the very premises of the eponymous bank honors the family and its posterity.

The first German Jewish philosopher

Mose Mendelssohn was the first German Jewish philosopher and not only a prose writer and critic, but also a recognized philosopher, the translator of the Bible into high German (in Hebrew characters, with a commentary in Hebrew), the initiator of a new way of being Jewish and citizen of the world, notably through his Jerusalem. Not everyone can write like Mendelssohn said Kant with a touch of jealousy, describing him as a thinker subtle even rewarding him with an unconvincing refutation in the second edition of the Critique of pure reason.

This text was written in the evening of a too-short life which took him from Dessau to Anhalt where he was born in 1729 (the same year as Lessing who immortalized him in Nathan the Wise in 1779) Berlin in Prussia where he died in 1786 a few months before Frdric II (philosopher king and yet judophobe) and who made a little self-taught provincial Jew from a traditionalist family one of the most widely read philosophers in Europe in the XVIIIe century as well as by the tenors of German idealism. A tutor in a rich family, he was director of a silk factory. Moshe Mendel's son as we will call him for a long time to come, he will become Moses Mendelssohn, the German Plato, the Socrates of Berlin! He is the grandfather of the musician Felix Mendelssohn and the first born of a prestigious family that still exists today across the planet.

As soon as he arrived in Berlin, through the Halle Gate in 1743, he climbed the ladder of intellectual recognition. It must be said that the capital transformed from a garrison town into an intellectual metropolis thanks to two communities, the Jews tolerated again since 1671 (expelled from Vienna) and the Huguenots since 1685 (expelled from France). Frédric will also demand a new edict of Nantes, as lawyers, bankers and professors play an important role in the birth of modern Prussia. With local Lutherans, Calvinists, Bohemian migrants and all those banished from Europe, including the Jesuits, this city quickly rose to the level of its rivals in London and Paris. A city without a university, but with a prestigious academy founded by Leibniz in 1700, one of its originalities is its class of speculative philosophy which will grant its first Mendelssohn prize in 1763 with its Trait on the evidence, a young teacher from Knigsberg, Emmanuel Kant, will have to be content with access. Then it will be a Phdon (1767) which will ensure him European glory with his attempt to reformulate the proofs of the immortality of the soul. Jerusalem, or Religious Power and Judasm (1783) founded the charter of modern Judaism, showing how one could be faithful to a dual intellectual tradition. Here again Kant did not spare his admiration:

Mr. Friedlnder (a disciple of Mendelssohn, student of Kant) will tell you how much, by reading your Jerusalem, I admired its penetration, subtlety and intelligence. I consider this book as the proclamation of a great reform, albeit slow in its establishment and progress, which will not only concern your nation, but others as well. You have been able to reconcile your religion with a freedom of conscience such as would never have been thought possible on his part, and of which no one else can boast. You have at the same time exposed the need for unlimited freedom of conscience with regard to all religion, in such a thorough and clear manner that on our side also the Church will finally have to ask itself how to purify its religion of everything that can oppress the conscience or weigh on She; which cannot fail to ultimately unite men with regard to the essential points of religion. (Kant Mendelssohn, August 16, 1783).

The last part of his thought was therefore a very ephemeral theory of metaphysical knowledge, since it was broken into pieces by Kant, whom Mendelssohn called the universal destroyer.

A great metaphysical synthesis

This work, dating from 1785, offers a true philosophical itinerary that is as accessible as it is well translated. Mendelssohn himself already knew it was outdated because of the Kantian revolution which was still little felt, but wanted to present a theory of truth accessible to all which did not endanger faith. He had two goals: to present a thought in the wake of that of Leibniz, taking into account its variations (notably in Christian Wolff and Alexander Baumgarten), and to defend his friend Lessing, accused after his death in 1781 of Spinozism by Johann Heinrich Jacobi ( 1783-1815).

The scholarly edition of this mature text had been attributed to a young wolf of Jewish science of the time who would soon be talked about, Leo Strauss (1899-1973) since this publication came from the Academy for the Science of Judaism in Berlin. Completed in 1937 when the utopia of an integration of the Jews, embodied by Moses Mendelssohn, was in the process of sinking, the manuscript of this critical edition on the basis of the translation presented here, preciously preserved by Strauss during his exile, was not published until 1974.

The philosopher, whose mother tongue was not German, had to fight on several fronts, the ideology of Frederick's court and rabbinical orthodoxy. Her Phdon (1767) having assured him European recognition, the Morning hours is presented as private lessons delivered to his son Joseph, founder of the Mendelssohn bank, and his son-in-law Simon Veit, first husband of Dorothea Schlegel, renowned salon maker. Fourteen lessons introducing and explaining the metaphysics of time show that reason is a common good that must be deployed for all, in accordance with the popular philosophy preached by Helvtius in France, and often misunderstood, mocked and belittled. Then three lessons concern the famous Pantheism quarrel, a debate over a hypothetical Spinozism of Lessing. But for Mendelssohn, since his first work the Philosophical dialogues (1755), Spinoza also served to show that it was possible to be a philosopher of great quality, for example like Leibniz, without being a Christian.

With the Morning hours it was about evoking the existence of God and showing that all Enlightenment did not lead to materialism, no matter how enchanted he was.! It was necessary to deal first with truth (I), then with reason (II) and different types of knowledge (III). How to discern truth from illusion (IV) and analyze the different modes of existence (waking, dreaming, rapture, V) and finally deal with the eternal debate between idealists (VI) and dualists (VII). Then, a second part could then move on to scientific notions of the existence of God by first analyzing the importance of this research (VIII), the different kinds of evidence, that of mathematics (pure and applied) and that of the existence of God (IX). It was then necessary to deal with the relationship between reason and common sense (X), without forgetting the Epicurean challenge (XI) then think about space and time (XII). The following three lessons dealt with the question of Lessing's Spinozism, constructing the hypothesis of a moderate Spinozism (XIIIXV) before returning a new proof of the existence of God starting from the completion of self-knowledge (XVI) to conclude on Foundations a priori of the proof of the existence of the necessary, independent and most perfect being ((XVII). The very didactic text can still be read without difficulty, showing the Enlightenment very different from those of Paris and Potsdam.

This itinerary, despite its unfinished and composite character, is first of all striking for its educational aspect. As we cannot oppose faith to reason, we must unfold the latter, from the simple search for the truth common to all to the proofs of the existence of God, after dealing with the immortality of the soul. The work brings together his previous thoughts and foresees a sequel which will not come because of the death of Mendelssohn pressed by his defense of Lessing. Modifying, thanks to English empiricism, the propositions of Leibniz and Wolff, he wants to clarify the differences between pure philosophical speculation and common sense: we must be wary of the irrational as well as atheism while showing that this metaphysics is compatible with revelation. . In addition to Christian philosophy, his mastery of Jewish thought also appears clearly. Let us remember that eternal truths remain in particular history (of Jews and/or Christians) and not in philosophy itself; the certainty of the latter will remain less obvious than that of mathematics. Contingent truths are either temporal or eternal; reason knows how to limit itself. A new proof of the existence of God is proposed thanks to the incompleteness of our knowledge of ourselves, the incompleteness of self-knowledge:

It is therefore necessary that there be a single thinking being, a single intelligence, which represents not only me, with all the traits that characterize and distinguish me, but also the set of all possibilities as possibilities, the set of all the realities in a word, the set and connection of all truths in the most developed way possible and in the clearest, most complete and most precise form. There is therefore an infinite understanding (p. 267-270).

Mendelssohn was a man of double loyalty: to German thought and to Judaism, two orthodoxies which make for originality. It can be found, for example, in Hermann Cohen, Franz Rosenzweig and Martin Buber. let us listen again to Kant who throughout his life considered qualifying the Morning hours:

We can consider this work both as the last heritage of a dogmatic metaphysics and as its most perfect product, both from the point of view of its coherence and from the point of view of its exceptional clarity.; and also as an eternal monument of the penetration of a man who knows and perfectly masters the mode of knowledge with which he deals, a monument on which therefore a critique of reason which contests that such a way of proceeding can ever achieve its goal, finds an example permanent to put its principles to the test in order to confirm or reject them. (Letter Christian Gottfried Schtz, end of November 1785)