The very fact that we can relate to ancient friends, learning from them as from our contemporaries, offers frustrating evidence of the limits of progress. It suggests that certain kinds of human problems are permanent, so that the challenges that bedevilled men and women centuries ago still confront us now, however far we might imagine our societies have come. “What has been is what shall be, what is done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun.”
And yet, some of the ancient friends from whom I learn the most are those who have struggled with the fact that some things actually are new under the sun. The challenge of contending with change has sent me looking for their help. That challenge often involves a tension between the good that progress makes possible and the danger it poses to the good we have inherited or are called to perpetuate. We can never resolve that tension, but we also must not let it blind us to either kind of good, or let it turn us against one another. And friendship itself actually turns out to be a crucial ingredient in this complicated balancing act.
One ancient friend in particular might help us see how. The help he can offer is not straightforward or simple: He is hardly a model of how to settle these tensions. But he can show us how to treat them seriously, to wrestle with them, and to keep them from hardening our hearts against our neighbours.
This ancient friend is Moses Mendelssohn: a pivotal figure in the German Enlightenment and in what has been called the Jewish Enlightenment (or “Haskalah”) of the eighteenth century. Mendelssohn’s exceptional life story helps endear him as an ancient friend. It is the tale of a rise from obscurity and disadvantage to astonishing prominence achieved somehow without becoming uprooted. He was born in September 1729 in the German city of Dessau to a relatively poor and undistinguished Jewish family. In 1743, when Mendelssohn was fourteen, the local rabbi who was his teacher left for a position in Berlin, and Mendelssohn’s father made the fateful decision to allow young Moses to follow him there and continue his Jewish education. In a much more cosmopolitan environment, in the explosive intellectual atmosphere of the mid-eighteenth century, this teenager reached far beyond his traditional studies. Without any instructor to lead him through this secular terrain, he devoured the works of the English and French Enlightenment philosophers, reached back to the Greeks and Romans, and engaged (in time face to face) with the emerging German thinkers of his time.