I had wanted to use just one passage from Lessing's short essay in an article I am supposed to be writing on the way our moral commitments, or lack of them, towards animals flow from an ungrounded folk-ontology that equates kinds with individuals. I ended up translating the entire essay, and in doing so I've both stalled and complicated my own project. It was Lessing's final point, the one he arrives at through his 'sensibility' rather than through logical conclusions, with which I disagreed most, and wanted to use as a foil. But the middle paragraphs, with the various substitutions of, e.g., 'Nero', 'wolf', and 'priest', I think are very interesting, and do not leave much to object to. Anyway, the article is still to come. Here is Lessing's essay.
The great majority of fables feature animals, and still lesser creatures, as acting persons. What is to be learned from this? Is it an essential feature of fables, that the animals in them are elevated to the status of moral beings? Is this a device that shortens and eases the author’s intended point? Is it a usage that in fact has no real purpose, but that has been conserved in honor of the person who first invented it, if only because it is funny—quod risum movet? Or what is it?
In brief: that animals and other lesser creatures have language and reason is presupposed in fables. It is assumed, and should not at all be understand as miraculous. When I read in scripture, “Then the Lord opened the donkey’s mouth, and she said to Balaam…” etc. (Numbers 22:28), I am reading something miraculous. But when I read in Aesop, “Back in the days when animals still spoke, the sheep said to its shepherd….,” it is quite evident that the fabulist does not wish to relate anything miraculous; but much more, rather, something that he supposes, with the permission of his reader, to have been perfectly in accordance with the common course of nature at that time.
And this is so easy to understand, I mean, that I should be ashamed to say anything more on the subject. I shall come rather at once to the true reason --or which I take to be true, anyway-- why the fabulist often finds animals more convenient than humans for his purposes. I place it in the widely known constancy of their characters. I suppose that it would also be easy to find an example in history in which this or that moral truth makes itself known. [But] will it be able to be recognized in the example by everyone, without exception, even by those who are unfamiliar with the cahracters of the people of interest here? Impossible! And how many people are so widely known in history that they need only to be mentioned so that at once the notion of the way of thinking that is particular to them, as well as of their other properties, is immediately awakened in everyone? In order thus to avoid circumstantial characterization, in which it is never more than doubtful whether it calls forth the same ideas in everyone, it was necessary to confine oneself to the reduced sphere of those beings about which we reliably know that even for the most ignorant people this [or that] idea corresponds to the mention of them, and no other. And since these creatures are in their nature completely unable to take on the role of free beings for themselves, we preferred to expand the boundaries of their nature, and made them able [to take on the roles of free beings], under certain presumptions of probability.
We hear ‘Britannicus and Nero’. How many of us know what we are hearing? Who was this one? Who the other? In what relations do they stand to one another? But then we hear: ‘the wolf and the lamb’, at once we all know what we are hearing, and we know in what relation the one stands to the other. These words, which straightaway awaken within us their particular images, convey the perceptual knowledge that is prevented by those names [Britannicus and Nero], through which even those to whom they are not unfamiliar nonetheless certainly do not think exactly the same thing. If here the fabulist is not able to rustle up any rational individuals who portray themselves in our faculty of imagination through the mere naming of them, it is still permitted to him, and he has recourse and right, to seek out their equivalents among the animals or among lesser creatures still. If in the fable of the wolf and the lamb we were to place Nero in place of the wolf, and Britannicus in place of the lamb, the fable at once would lose what had made it a fable for the entire human race. But if we put the giant and the troll in place of the lamb and the wolf, it already loses somewhat less, for the giant and the troll are also individuals whose characters are alreadly largely explained without further additions by their being mentioned. Or we can even transform it into the following human fable (2 Samuel 12): “A priest came to the poor man of the prophet and said: ‘Bring your white lamb before the altar, for the gods require a sacrifice’. The poor man replied: ‘my neighbor has a great herd, and I have only this one lamb’. ‘But you made a vow to the gods’, the priest replied, ‘for they blessed your fields’. ‘I have no field’, was the answer. ‘But that’s how it was before, when they healed your son of his illness’. ‘O,’ the poor man replied, ‘the gods took my son himself as a sacrifice!’ ‘You godless man!,’ the priest scolded, ‘You blaspheme!’ And he tore the lamb from his arms…” etc. And if in this transfomation the fable has lost still less, this arises simply from the fact that the character of avarice is unfortunately even more quickly associated with the word ‘priest’ than the character of blood-thirstiness with the word ‘giant’; and through the poor man of the prophet the idea of oppressed innocence is more easily awoken than through the troll.
Indeed, I would like to venture to ascribe yet another purpose to animals and other lesser creatures in fables, to which perhaps I never would have come through [logical] conclusions, if my sensibility had not brought me to it. The fable has as its aim our clear and vital recognition of a moral principle. Nothing obscures our recognition more than the passions. Consequently, the fabulist must avoid the excitation of the passions as much as possible. But how else can he avoid, for example, the arousal of sympathy, than by making the objects of it less perfect, and by putting animals or lesser creatures in place of men? Let us recall again the fable of the wolf and the lamb, as it was transformed above into the fable of the priest and the poor man of the prophet. We sympathize with the lamb, but this sympathy is so weak that it has no noticeable impact upon our intuitive knowledge of the moral principle. How is it by contrast with the poor man? Does it only seem so to me, or is it really true, that we have so much sympathy with him, and we feel much too much indignation against the priest, for the intuitive knowledge of the moral principle to be able to be nearly as clear as it is in the other case?