"THE GREATEST JEWISH PHILOSOPHER OF THE 18TH CENTURY… THE 'JEWISH SOCRATES'": EXCEEDINGLY RARE FIRST EDITION IN ENGLISH OF MOSES MENDELSSOHN'S SEMINAL WORK, PHAEDON, 1789
(PLATO) MENDELSSOHN, Moses. Phaedon; Or, The Death of Socrates. London: Printed for the Author, by J. Cooper, 1789. Octavo, contemporary green calf, elaborately gilt-decorated spine, red spine label, marbled endpapers; pp. (i-v), vi-viii, (i), ii-lix, (1), 2-212. $9500.
First edition in English, preceded by the 1767 first German edition, of Mendelssohn's "classic of rational psychology" on the immortality of the human soul, a defining work by the preeminent philosopher "who launched the Jewish thinking of the modern age," his tribute to Socrates modeled on Plato's dialogue the Phaedo.
"A legend even during his own lifetime, Mendelssohn was regarded as the embodiment of the humanist ideal" (Encyclopedia Judaica). "Mendelssohn 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… he 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" (Stanford Encyclopedia).
As "the greatest Jewish philosopher of the 18th century… 'the Jewish Socrates'… Mendelssohn exerted a great influence not only upon his closest friends but upon his whole generation in Germany and upon Kant in particular." Author of other key works such as Jerusalem (1783), on the separation of church and state, and civic equality for Jews, he also achieved renown for his public dispute with Swiss clergyman Lavater, who "challenged him to prove the superiority of Judaism over Christianity" or agree to convert (Encyclopedia of Philosophy V:276-77). It was a challenge "Mendelssohn effectively disabled with a plea for tolerance and a series of reasons for refraining from such religious controversy" (Stanford Encyclopedia).
In 1767 Mendelssohn used Plato's famous dialogue the Phaedo as a model to publish Phädon oder über die Unsterblichkeit der Seele (Phaedo, or on the Immortality of the Soul). With this seminal work, "he reached the heights of fame" (Wigoder, Dictionary of Jewish Biography, 342). First published in English in this rare 1789 edition, the work unites Mendelssohn's "paean to Socrates with an elaboration of the dreadful personal, moral, and political implications if a person's life is her 'highest good'… This 'classic of rational psychology,' as Dilthey put it, also contains an argument for the simplicity and immortality of the human soul, explicitly singled out for criticism by Kant in the 2nd edition of the Critique of Pure Reason. Mendelssohn supports the notion that the soul is simple and thus indestructible by noting that certain features of the soul, namely, the unifying character of consciousness and the identity of self-consciousness, cannot be derived from anything composite, whether those composite parts be capable or not of thinking… As for the human soul's fate after death, Mendelssohn appeals to divine goodness and providence, which perhaps explains why, following the publication of the Phaedo, he finds himself needing to revisit the proofs for God's existence" (Stanford Encyclopedia).
A leading philosopher of the German Enlightenment (Haskalah), Mendelssohn "continues to challenge scholars of Jewish thought and history. In his lifetime he was already recognized as the man who launched the Jewish thinking of the modern age, and also as the founding father of Jewish modernism… particular emphasis has been placed on his historical role as the harbinger of the change in the status of the Jews in Europe—the liberation from discrimination and restrictions, the achievement of equality in civil rights—the emancipation" (Intellectual History Review). First edition, first printing: found with "lix" numbered (this copy) or unnumbered, no priority established. Translated from the German by Charles Cullen, with his dedication to Henry Dundas dated in print "July 12, 1789." With half title. ESTC N54707. Owner bookplate. Gilt-stamped owner name to front board.
Interior fine; joints and boards with expert restoration.