The great event of his life occurred in 1754, when he made the acquaintance of Lessing. The two young men became constant friends. Lessing, before he knew Mendelssohn, had written a drama, “The Jews,” in which, perhaps for the first time, a Jew was represented on the stage as a man of honor. In Mendelssohn, Lessing recognized a new Spinoza; in Lessing, Mendelssohn saw the perfect ideal of culture. The masterpiece of Lessing’s art, the drama “Nathan the Wise,” was the monument of this friendship. Mendelssohn was the hero of the drama, and the toleration which it breathes is clearly Mendelssohn’s. Mendelssohn held that there was no absolutely best religion any more than there was an absolutely best form of government. This was the leading idea of his last work, “Jerusalem”; it is also the central thought of “Nathan the Wise.” The best religion, according to both, is the religion which best brings out the individual’s noblest faculties. As Mendelssohn wrote, there are certain eternal truths which God implants in all men alike, but “Judaism boasts of no exclusive revelation of immutable truths indispensable to salvation.”
What has just been quoted is one of the last utterances of Mendelssohn. We must retrace our steps to the date of his first intimacy with Lessing. He devoted his attention to the perfecting of his German style, and succeeded so well that his writings have gained a place among the classics of German literature. In 1763, he won the Berlin prize for an essay on Mathematical Method in Philosophical Reasoning, and defeated Kant entirely on account of his lucid and attractive style. Mendelssohn’s most popular philosophical work, “Phaedo, or the Immortality of the Soul,” won extraordinary popularity in Berlin, as much for its attractive form as for its spiritual charms. The “German Plato,” the “Jewish Socrates,” were some of the epithets bestowed on him by multitudes of admirers. Indeed, the “Phaedo” of Mendelssohn is a work of rare beauty.
One of the results of Mendelssohn’s popularity was a curious correspondence with Lavater. The latter perceived in Mendelssohn’s toleration signs of weakness, and believed that he could convert the famous Jew to Christianity. Mendelssohn’s reply, like his “Jerusalem” and his admirable preface to a German translation of Manasseh ben Israel’s Vindiciae Judeorum, gave voice to that claim on personal liberty of thought and conscience for which the Jews, unconsciously, had been so long contending. Mendelssohn’s view was that all true religious aspirations are independent of religious forms. Mendelssohn did not ignore the value of forms, but he held that as there are often several means to the same end, so the various religious forms of the various creeds may all lead their respective adherents to salvation and to God.