This essay examines Lessing's activities and position within a number of contexts of the European and German Enlightenment. It is designed to capture the rich interplay and exchange of ideas between the intersecting cultures of Germany and the rest of Europe.
The Enlightenment did not constitute a fixed set of ideas that were agreed upon by all enlightened philosophes. In general, historians have favored the French Enlightenment, followed by its English counterpart. The German Enlightenment receives far less attention. As long as one regards the Aufklärung as a “latebloomer,” as does Peter Gay, German writers will not be regarded as major players within the European Enlightenment. Yet, ironically, almost all historians begin their accounts of the Enlightenment with Immanuel Kant's famous definition in “Beantwortung der Frage: Was ist Aufklärung?” (Answering the Question: What is Enlightenment?, 1784). Two vital elements of the epoch are, however, often not mentioned: Lessing's concept of perpetual striving for the truth in Eine Duplik (A Rejoinder, 1778) and Moses Mendelssohn's, “Über die Frage: was heißt aufklären?” (On the Question: What is the Meaning of to Enlighten, 1784). Significantly, Mendelssohn (1729–86) subsumed within the word Bildung both Kultur (the practical) and Aufklärung (the theoretical). For the vast majority of writers, Enlightenment in Germany concerned, most essentially, the education and moral development of the individual, first, within society, second, as a representative of humankind, and third, in history. Mendelssohn's distinction between the enlightenment of the Bürger, the citizen of a particular society and that of the Mensch, a member of humankind, is of special interest, as it envisions that both society and humanity may be improved. Mendelssohn's experience as a Jew among Christians surely sharpened his sense of the disparity between social reality and humane ideals.
Among German Aufklärer, both Lessing and Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) knew that the rationalistic social movement in which they were participating was but one, albeit critical, episode in the history of humankind. They did not hope for a quasi-chiliastic fulfillment of history at any specific time, let alone their own. Rather, each sought to inculcate and actualize the new values and ideals of enlightenment in present society, and over time. Whereas Kant was the greater theoretician, Lessing was the greater practical enlightener. Both held that the moral development of the individual was of paramount importance for human progress. In his own way, Mendelssohn was of the same conviction.