Mendelssohn and the Question of Social and Intellectual Guardianship

Mendelssohn's Tree, Barbican, London

Mendelssohn’s Tree, Barbican, London (Photo credit: mira66)

Where does Mendelssohn stand on this question of social and intellectual guardianship? Is he largely critical of those institutions that attempt to manage a society’s social and intellectual emancipation, or not?

According to Mendelssohn, an individual’s duties and rights are determined by his status and vocation (54). As a result, each individual requires “different theoretical insights and different skills to attain them – a different degree of enlightenment” (54 – 55). The enlightenment of the nation depends on four elements: the amount of knowledge that the nation processes, the importance of the knowledge in relationship to the destiny of man and of citizen, the dissemination of knowledge throughout different estates and its accord with the people’s vocations (55). Mendelssohn is not largely critical of social and intellectual guardianship. Instead, he is critical of the state that creates a tension between the essential destiny of man as man and the essential destiny of man as citizen. He notes that “the enlightenment of man as a citizen changes according to status and vocation” while “the enlightenment that is concerned with man as man is universal.” But it is the destiny and enlightenment of man as man that Mendelssohn considers as the most important measure and goal “of these efforts” (55).

Mendelssohn, Moses. “On the Question: What is Englitenment?” (1784). Trans. James Schmidt. 53-57.

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