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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
The Education of the Human Race
By Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1729–1781)
1. WHAT education is to the individual, revelation is to the whole human race.  1
  2. Education is revelation which is given to the individual; revelation is education which has been and is still given to the human race.  2
  3. Whether education, regarded from this point of view, can be of any use in pedagogics, I will not discuss here; but in theology it can surely be of very great use and remove many difficulties, if revelation can be conceived of as an education of the human race.  3
  4. Education does not give to man anything which he could not acquire of himself, but only gives it to him more quickly and more easily. So too revelation does not give anything to the human race which human reason, if left to itself, would not attain; but it has given and still gives the most important of these things earlier.  4
  5. As in education it is not a matter of indifference in what order the powers of the individual are developed, and as it cannot impart to him everything at once, so God in his revelation must observe a certain order and due moderation.  5
  6. If the first man were immediately provided with the conception of one God, it would be impossible for the conception thus communicated and not acquired to preserve its original purity. As soon as human reason left to itself began to act upon it, it would divide the one infinite into several finites and give to each a designation.  6
  7. It was thus that polytheism and idolatry naturally arose. And who knows how many millions of years human reason might have wandered in these erring ways, although some individuals in all lands and at all times knew them to be erring ways, if it had not pleased God by a new impulse to give it a better direction?  7
  8. But since God could not or would not reveal himself any longer to each single individual, he chose a single people for special education, the rudest and most uncivilized, in order to train it from the very beginning.
          [Paragraphs 9 to 52 show how monotheism, or the doctrine of one God, was revealed to the Jews, and this moral education promoted by a system of temporal rewards and punishments, according as they obeyed or transgressed the commands of the Almighty. But when the Hebrew Bible, as an elementary hornbook, became gradually unsuited to the growing intellect of the children of Israel, their teachers the Rabbins resorted to mystical and allegorical interpretations, and forced new ideas into the text wholly foreign to their original meaning. This course of instruction warped the mind of the pupil, making him petty, crafty, captious, fond of subtleties and sophistries, and incapable of seeing things in their true light—in short, cabalistic and superstitious.]
  53. It was therefore necessary for a better teacher to come and snatch the obsolete primer from the hands of the child. Christ came.
          [In paragraphs 54–77, Lessing discusses the tenets of this new teacher and his disciples, the doctrine of the immortality of the soul, and the dogmas of the Trinity, of Original Sin, and of the Atonement; and arrives at the conclusion that “the development of real truths into truths of the reason is absolutely necessary if they are to be of any help to the human race.”]
  78. It is not true that speculations concerning these things have ever wrought mischief or been hurtful to civil society. This reproach should be made, not to the speculations themselves, but to the folly and tyranny that would hinder these speculations and grudge to men the free exercise of their thoughts.  10
  79. On the contrary, such speculations, however they may result in individual cases, are incontestably the fittest exercises of the human mind, so long as the human heart is at most only capable of loving virtue for the sake of its consequences in conferring eternal happiness.  11
  80. For since this selfishness of the human heart exists, the desire to exercise the mind exclusively on that which concerns our physical necessities would tend rather to dull it than to sharpen it. The mind must in sooth be exercised on intellectual objects, if it is to attain its full illumination and produce that purity of heart which makes us capable of loving virtue for its own sake.  12
  81. Or shall the human race never attain this highest degree of enlightenment and purity? Never?  13
  82. Never? Let me not be guilty of such blasphemy even in my thoughts, All-gracious One! Education has its purpose in the race not less than in the individual. What is educated, is educated for something.  14
  83. The flattering prospects which are offered to the youth, the honor and prosperity which are pictured to him,—what are these but means of training him up to be a man who will be able to do his duty, even when these prospects of honor and prosperity fail!  15
  84. This is the aim of human education, and may not divine education attain as much? What art succeeds in doing with the individual, shall not nature succeed in doing with the whole? Blasphemy! Blasphemy! [In other words, it is blasphemy to doubt this.]  16
  85. No! it will come, it will surely come, the time of perfect development: when man, the more firmly he feels convinced of an ever better future, will have less need of borrowing from this future the motives of his actions; when he will do good because it is good, not because he expects arbitrary rewards, which were formerly designed merely to fix and strengthen his inconstant recognition of the inner and better rewards of virtue.  17
  86. It will surely come, the time of a new, eternal gospel, which is promised us even in the elementary books of the New Covenant.  18
  94. Why may not each individual have already existed once in this world?  19
  95. Is this hypothesis so absurd because it is the oldest, or because the human mind hit upon it before the mental powers had been dissipated and weakened by the sophistry of the schools?  20
  96. Why may not I already have taken all the steps towards perfection which mere temporal rewards and punishments can induce man to take?  21
  97. And why not again all those which the prospects of eternal reward so strongly aid us to perform?  22
  98. Why should I not return as often as I am fitted to acquire new knowledge and new capacities? Do I take away with me so much at once that it is perhaps not worth the while to come again?  23
  99. Or because I forget that I have been here? Well for me that I forget it! The remembrance of my former state would permit me to make only a poor use of the present. And what I must forget now, have I forgotten it forever?  24
  100. Or because too much time would thereby be lost to me? Lost? What have I then to lose? Is not all eternity mine?  25

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