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In Our Time newsletter: Moses Mendelssohn

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Melvyn Bragg Melvyn Bragg 09:30, Friday, 23 March 2012

Editor's note: In Thursday's programme Melvyn Bragg and his guests discussed Moses Mendelssohn. As always the programme is available to listen to online or to download and keep - EMcN.

Moses Mendelssohn


I think that the reason I enjoyed this programme so much was that it brought into clear focus the splicing and the contradiction and the internal opposition on nature of great religion and the Enlightenment in the eighteenth century.

I've always thought it was completely simplistic to think that the Enlightenment came and wiped the slate clean of all previous knowledge. That the great knowledge systems built up by people every bit as clever as those in the Enlightenment were suddenly not fit for purpose and we had a new dawn. It seems to me that we carry the past with us wherever we go and there are few clean changes, and if so, they are brutal and short-lived and the pendulum then swings back. It's evolution and merging that brings about the eventual big changes.

Religion had a great deal to offer the Enlightenment, as enlightened people in the Royal Society, for instance, from Newton through to Priestley and Clerk Maxwell, were well aware of. In the person of Moses Mendelssohn we had a supreme example of a religious scholar and a believer in one of the great world faiths, who was also entranced by, and became part of, the Enlightenment; led, as it seemed then, solely by reason.

Of course it gets more complicated. Mendelssohn also read the work of the Scottish Enlightenment, where reason is not by any means the only instrument available to pick through the complexity of thought. In fact, it arrives second to the forces of sensation, according to the great philosopher Hume, and it is in that cauldron of sensations that love, spirituality, honest doubt, uncertainty, inexplicability, surprise by joy, and all that we shall never know but of which we have perhaps intimations, dwell. I think that Moses Mendelssohn was aware of that, but his scholarship from the commentaries on the Jewish Bible had led him into a way of thinking which had a great deal in common with the scholarship of the Enlightenment. It was fascinating - even in the short time I had - to read of the way he took on the Christian ideas, the Spinozan ideas, and the ideas of the later Enlightenment, and returned them in full measure, as well as cleaving obstinately and intellectually to his roots.

The contributors were exhilarating, I thought. It was non-stop, full throttle intellectual engagement. It was also a recording, as you may have guessed. We'd done Vitruvius about an hour beforehand. So I said I went to the office and roamed around a little. I chose one of the hottest days of spring to buy a coat in a sale. Quite a heavy coat. So that hotted things up even further. What else? Well, as I write this, I'm about to go to Australia to give a lecture on the impact of the King James Bible. When you get this, I will (I hope) have come back from Australia, having given the lecture, and be ready to get on with the history of the measurement of time.

I'll have experienced quite a bit of time on those flights. You can tell the batteries have run down by that last sentence so I'll stop now!

Best wishes

Melvyn Bragg


  • Comment number 1.

    This was an extremely interesting area and complements your programme on Maimonides.Mendelssohn won the prize offered by the Berlin Academy for an essay on the application of mathematical proofs to metaphysics, On Evidence in the Metaphysical Sciences; among the competitors was Immanuel Kant (who came second).Kant recognized his worth as a philosopher by his marvellous book,Jerusalem,on the need for tolerance of all faiths.

    The challenges to Mendelssohn as a ‘philosophical Jew’ by someGermans and the restrictions on property rights and the trades they were allowed to practice and their periods of stay show the massive anti-Semitism under which they were tolerated even in the Age of Enlightenment.The example of Spinoza being expelled in Amsterdam is given because he equated God with Nature,which was seen as atheism: denied by Mendelssohn,who saw it as pantheism.Of course any mention of atheism was anathema.His work Phaedon about the immortality of the soul in Socratic dialogue form counters the materialism of the age.

    His attempt to merge the spirit of rational enquiry with fundamental religious beliefs gets him into some dangerous areas eg with Lavater about what he thought about Christianity, on how the position of even as distinguished a Jew as himself was still precarious. Lavater wants nothing more than the mass conversion of the Jews through their most iconic representative.Jews had no desire to convert Christians but Christians were always trying to convert Jews, but Mendelssohn saw different monotheistic paths to redemption.

    The enlightenment of Jewish thought known as Haskolah was uniting Maimonides and an openness to science in the age of Newton,who himself studied Hebrew and the Torah.Mendelssohn’s translation of the Pentateuch into German showed that the commentary taught that the essence of the Bible is ethical rather than ritual or scholastic. The objections which some rabbis had to the book was not so much to the commentary as to the fact that the translation was printed side by side with the sacred text, and to the fear that readers would devote more time to the translation than to the original.He fought too, as your
    commentators said, for Jewish civic emancipation.He was driven by many challenges to explain how a religiously observant Jew could integrate with enlightenment philosophy.He posits the natural truths through reason of Judaism as against the dogmas of Christianity. Jews have a set of practices,laws which help Jews live a good and moral
    life.This is a plea for toleration too.It seems that many Germans could not accept him and played games by un

  • Comment number 2.

    (missing piece)by undermining him,were dishonest to him(Lessing?) or
    published his correspondence to them without his permission.He was a noble Jew as that depicted in Lessing's play,an idea that was ridiculed
    and attacked.The fact that only two of his children practised as Jews
    and the others became Christian testifies to the pressures they lived
    under and also vindicates his philosophy.In our own day we have had scientists who were Christians and philosophers who were Christians

  • Comment number 3.

    I thoroughly enjoyed the programme. Someone who beat Kant in an essay writing competition clearly had a lot of the little grey cells.

  • Comment number 4.

    Fantastic programme. Could you explore Prion proteins in a future programme please - fascinating things, Prions...

  • Comment number 5.

    Really interesting to have such detailed discussion about Felix and Fanny Mendelssohn's grandfather, which complemented a weekend course I attended last year about Felix's music.

    On possible subjects for future programmes: could we have one about the rise of the Hittite empire? Last night's BBC4 programme was very informative in its own way - especailly with illustrations - but it was marred, as so many of these TV programmes on historical subjects are, by portentous and superfluous background music and generic and misleading reconstructions. A discussion on IOT would give us so much more.

    And could you expand to an hour? The excellent programme on the Measurement of Time ran out of time … as so many of them do.

  • Comment number 6.

    As always, an interesting discussion on the Measurement of Time. Melvyn tried (and failed) to get a simple explanation of the Babylonian's adoption of a Sexagesimal counting system. He seemed very interested in this point. One theory goes like this:

    The Babylonians got their base-60 number system from the Sumerians-a folk whose origins we know little about. The Sumerian culture started about 4000 BC in Mesopotamia (what is now southern Iraq).

    The most commonly accepted theory holds that two earlier peoples merged and formed the Sumerians. Supposedly, one group based their number system on 5 and the other on 12. When the two groups traded together, they evolved a system based on 60 so both could understand it.

    No doubt, a base-5 system came from counting the fingers of one hand. But how does one count by 12s? Maybe using the finger parts of four fingers? Read on for an idea from J.J. O'Connor and E.F. Robertson of the University of St. Andrew's in Scotland.

    Their theory says: the Sumerians counted to 60 using both hands like we do but with a difference. They used finger parts instead of whole fingers.

    Consider the four fingers of your left hand: ignoring the thumb. The joints divide each finger into three parts. So, we can count finger parts to reach 12. Here's the trick: I use the fingers and thumb on my right hand to point. Using my right thumb, I point at each finger part on my left index finger. That gets me to 3. I continue pointing with my right thumb at all the other finger parts on my left hand. That's how I can count to 12.

    Next, I point at each left-hand finger part with my right index finger to raise the count to 24. I've got 5 digits on my right hand and five 12s are 60. That's how I count to 60.

    Thanks to April Holladay on WonderQuest.com


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