Moses Mendelssohn: The First English Biography and Translations (review)
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Journal of the History of Philosophy 42.1 (2004) 112-113

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Moses Mendelssohn: The First English Biography and Translations. Introduction by James Schmidt. Vol. 1: M. Samuels [sic]. Memoirs of Moses Mendelsohn [sic]. Pp. xxi + 178. Vol. 2: Writings Related to Mendelssohn's Jerusalem. Translated by M. Samuel. Pp. ix + 329. Vol. 3: Mendelssohn's Jerusalem. Translated by M. Samuel. Pp. 371. Bristol, England: Thoemmes Press, 2002. Cloth, $295.00.

In 1827, the Scottish historian, Thomas Carlyle, who believed history was an impressive gallery of great men, wrote that the life of the Jewish philosopher from Berlin, Moses Mendelssohn, was "full of encouragement for all lovers of self improvement." This was just one more stone in the edifice of the Mendelssohnian myth, whose foundations had already been laid during Mendelssohn's lifetime, and which continued to grow after his death, until he became an icon of culture. For the Jews Mendelssohn was a source of pride, proof that Jews could become integrated into the life of liberal Europe and contribute to its culture without assimilating.

Moses Samuel (1795-1860), the Jewish scholar from Bristol who earned his living as a watchmaker and silversmith, was undoubtedly one of Mendelssohn's most fervent admirers. Like others before him, who were inspired by the fact that Mendelssohn had the same first name as the biblical Moses, Samuel depicted him as a giant with a redemptive mission in Jewish history, deserving of credit for the entrance of Jews into the modern age: "Like his prototype and namesake Moses, Mendelssohn delivered his people from the bondage of their benighted taskmasters; like him, he led them forty years through the desert of ignorance and superstition, during which he sustained them with the manna of his wisdom" (vol. 1, 112-13). The biography Samuel published in London in 1825 was the first book on Mendelssohn written in English. Making no attempt to conceal his intent to depict an illustrious, exemplary personality, he even omitted facts that might have flawed the perfection of the Mendelssohnian myth. But this in no way detracts from the value of that interesting and comprehensive cultural work that Samuel created in England of the 1820s and '30s, which has now been printed in its entirety in an attractive, three-volume edition, edited by James Schmidt.

Far more than a biography intended to expand the camp of Mendelssohn's admirers, it was a scholarly attempt, accompanied by notes and detailed explanations, to acquaint English readers with the Jewish philosopher through some of his major works on Judaism. The first volume contains the biography along with important appendices, including a list of all of Mendelssohn's writings in Hebrew and German, Samuel's scholarly notes and biographical sketches of some of the key figures in Mendelssohn's life, such as Thomas Abbt, Johann Caspar Lavater, and Gotthold Ephraim Lessing. The second and third volumes contain a selection of the writings that Samuel saw fit to translate, and these were published in 1838. This was not a random selection. Mendelssohn, the philosopher who made a contribution to the contemporary German Enlightenment and regarded Leibnitz and Wolf as his main mentors, was not the figure Samuel wanted to present to his readers. Instead he wanted to present Mendelssohn's position on Judaism and Christianity. Consequently, [End Page 112] in the second volume he included a translation of texts connected with Mendelssohn's polemic against Lavater (who publicly challenged Mendelssohn in 1769 to explain his commitment to Judaism or to convert) and his 1783 preface to Menasseh ben Israel's Vindiciae Judaeorum, in which he expressed his opposition to religious discipline and excommunication. The third volume contains the complete translation of Jerusalem (1783), Mendelssohn's best known work, in which he declared his firm adherence to the Jewish religion, defined by him as a religion of the revealed law, along with two hundred pages of the translator's notes that make the book the first work of commentary of its kind.

The critical reader, familiar with the wealth of highly developed research that in recent...