In preparing for our Foundation Course this fall I am reading (for the first time, I confess) Nietsche’s On Truth and Lie in the Extra-Moral Sense. In it he makes the comment that intellect was given so to the “most delicate, most evanescent beings in order to hold them for a minute in existence, from which otherwise, without this gift, they would have every reason to flee as quickly as Lessing’s son.” I had not heard of “Lessing’s son” and so set out on a quick search. My oh my. From the very interesting blog “Figures of Speech” I found this summary.
At the end of December 1777, Lessing replied to a letter of condolence (now lost) that his friend Johann Joachim Eschenburg (1743-1820), the great Shakespeare translator, had sent him.
My joy was only too brief. And I lost him so unwillingly, this son! Because he had so much understanding! so much understanding! — Do not imagine that the few hours of my fatherhood have turned me into such a demented fool of a father! I know what I am saying. — Was it not understanding, that he had to be dragged with iron forceps into this world having so quickly noticed so much folly here? — Was it not understanding that caused him to seize the first opportunity to flee? —And the little hothead is even taking the mother with him!— For there is little hope that I will be able to keep her. —I just wanted things to be good, just like other people. But it has gone badly for me.
So this son, Traugott, remained so briefly in this world because he “so quickly noticed so much folly here.” Apparently it is suggested that Lessing is using satire, I would suggest “sarcasm” is the best English word for this. But I understand the sentiment and feeling. As the site’s author notes, “Strong men read this and turn pale, gentler natures well up.” Indeed.