Friedrich Nietzsche & Moses Mendelssohn (Not So Naive)

nietzsche mendelssohn

I hadn’t thought it possible to square or at least complement Nietzsche and Moses Mendelssohn, two philosophers who mean a great deal to me. It was a contradiction that I was always happy to let stand, like the one between Nietzsche and Martin Buber. But this little bit by Nietzsche in the Birth of Tragedy does a lot for me in shedding some light on Mendelssohn, whose philosophical world view was more naïve, more gentle and genial than Nietzsche’s ever could be.

Ascribing the concept’s introduction to Schiller Nietzsche writes, “Where we encounter the “naïve” in art, we should recognize the highest effect of Apollinian culture –which always must first overthrow an empire of Titans and slay monsters, and which must have triumphed over an abysmal and terrifying view of the world and the keenest susceptibility to suffering through recourse to the most forceful and pleasurable illusions.” (Birth of Tragedy, section 3, Kaufmann transl. p.43

No matter that Nietzsche did not know that Mendelssohn coined the term before Schiller. It’s there in the Philosophische Schriften (translated by Dahlstrom as the Philosophical Writings), where it stands as the canny form of representation in which the simple only pretends to be simple. I would assuredly not picture poor old forgotten Moses Mendelssohn as a slayer of Titan-monsters. That’s a bit much. But I would couple that combination of the naïve style in Mendelssohn with that “keenest susceptibility to suffering” as well as the creation of “forceful and pleasurable illusions.” It makes sense to me to consider that there was a terror and sadness to the Leibnizian world-view developed by Mendelssohn.

This to me is how Nietzsche allows us to get something right about Mendelssohn, to read Mendelssohn more critically, and more sympathetically. There are depths of pain undergirding the surface that neoclassical thinkers like Mendelssohn, Schiller, and Winkelmann presented to their readers. It’s my own estimation that these “depths” do not so much refute or falsify in any way the truth or power of the illusion as much as to make it more complex. I’m pretty sure that this is Nietzsche’s point also. Nietzsche understands something of the pathos by which I’d like to read Mendelssohn. All of a sudden, what presents itself to be simple is no longer so simple as the illusion that maintains that surface impression, and that too is perhaps a hallmark of the naive style in Mendelssohn, to which I am drawn precisely because it’s beautiful.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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2 Responses to Friedrich Nietzsche & Moses Mendelssohn (Not So Naive)

  1. efmooney says:

    Nietzsche claimed that only art could ‘justify’ existence, and the rationalist aestheticians like Mendelssohn agreed, by and large. The rational mind can perceive saving, beautiful ideas. (Nietzsche thought only the irrational mind could do this).

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