Two Tuesday Quotes a Day Late: Nagel and Mendelssohn


Thomas Nagel

If sub specie aeternitatis [from eternity’s point of view] there is no reason to believe that anything matters, then that does not matter either, and we can approach our absurd lives with irony instead of heroism or despair.

Moses Mendelssohn

The state has physical power and uses it when necessary; the power of religion is love and beneficence.

About Nagel:
American philosopher, born in Belgrade, Yugoslavia; from 1939 onward he lived in the USA, of which he became a naturalized citizen in 1944. After studying at Cornell and Oxford, he obtained his Ph.D. at Harvard in 1963, when he became an assistant professor at the University of California, Berkeley. He subsequently held a succession of posts at Princeton University before becoming Professor of Philosophy at New York University in 1980. Mortal Questions (1979) gained wide notice for its examination of a number of the central themes of human existence, including death, sexuality, and socio-political issues. Nagel’s quest for ‘a philosophical method that aims at personal as well as theoretical understanding’ was fulfilled by the book’s success in combining analytical rigour with a breadth of appeal to common experience. The humane orientation of his work was sustained in The View from Nowhere (1986), a compellingly lucid analysis of the tensions between the subjective and objective aspects of intellection and identity; the quasi-instinctual desire to achieve objectivity is seen as fundamental to the central preoccupations of philosophy in the course of the wide-ranging development towards a concluding treatment of major ethical problems. Nagel’s engagement of experientially urgent matters which have been obscured in the highly technical writings of many philosophers prompted Charles Taylor to recommend the book to ‘all … who are bored with or in despair about philosophy’. Other works by Nagel include What Does It All Mean (1987), a stimulating survey of nine essential topics for beginners in philosophy, and Equality and Partiality(1991), in which he discusses questions of justice. Source

About Mendelssohn:
Moses Mendelssohn (b. 1729, d. 1786) was a creative and eclectic thinker whose writings on metaphysics and aesthetics, political theory and theology, together with his Jewish heritage, placed him at the focal point of the German Enlightenment for over three decades. While Mendelssohn found himself at home with a metaphysics derived from writings of Leibniz, Wolff, and Baumgarten, he was also one of his age’s most accomplished literary critics. His highly regarded pieces on works of Homer and Aesop, Pope and Burke, Maupertuis and Rousseau — to cite only a fraction of his numerous critical essays — appeared in a series of journals that he co-edited with G. E. Lessing and Friedrich Nicolai. Dubbed “the Jewish Luther,” Mendelssohn also contributed significantly to the life of the Jewish community and letters in Germany, campaigning for Jews’ civil rights and translating the Pentateuch and the Psalms into German. Not surprisingly, as a Jew with an unwavering belief in the harmonizing effects of rational analysis and discourse, Mendelssohn rankled both institutional and self-appointed advocates of Christianity as well as Judaism. Thus, Johann Lavater infamously challenged him to refute the arguments of the Pietist theologian, Charles Bonnet, or convert to Christianity (a challenge that Mendelssohn effectively disabled with a plea for tolerance and a series of reasons for refraining from such religious controversy). Similarly, some Jewish thinkers took exception to Mendelssohn’s Jerusalem, or on Religious Power and Judaism and its argument for conceiving Judaism as a religion founded upon reason alone. In addition to the “Lavater affair” and his work as editor and critic, Mendelssohn was probably best known to his contemporaries for his penetrating accounts of the experience of the sublime, for lucid arguments for the soul’s immortality and God’s existence, for his close association with G. E. Lessing and, in the protracted “pantheism dispute” (Pantheismusstreit) with Jacobi during the 1780s, for his insistence that Lessing was not the Spinozist that Jacobi portrayed him to be. To posterity he is perhaps best known as the model for Nathan der Weise, the protagonist in Lessing’s famous play of the same name, championing religious tolerance. Source
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