Deep Background by Murray Frost

Lessing's Nathan the Wise

One of the earliest pieces of literature celebrating religious tolerance is Gotthold Lessing's play Nathan the Wise, first published in 1779. A 1979 stamp (Scott #1999) issued by what was then the German Democratic Republic (better known outside the Iron Curtain as East Germany) depicts Lessing and the title page of the play. Lessing was previously honored by GDR (Scott #205).

The main character in this didactic drama is a Jew modeled after Moses Mendelssohn. The two--Lessing and Mendelssohn--were close friends from 1754 until Lessing's death in 1781. Another "Jewish connection" to the play and the stamp derives from the fact that it was a Jew, Moses Wessely, who lent money to Lessing when his poverty became too burdensome.

Gotthold Ephraim Lessing was born in 1729 to a clergyman in Camenz in Upper Lusatia. Although he began his university training as a theology student in 1746, he soon turned towards literature and received his Master of Arts in 1752. His reputation as a free-thinker began early in his life; letters to his parents while he was at the University proclaimed that one's religion should not merely be inherited blindly. He soon was challenging the nation's literary, social and theological assumptions. He tried to liberate Germany's literature from its reliance upon the French; its people from their prejudice and superstition; and its theology from uncritical worship of the letter of the law.

Lessing's favorable portrayal of a Jew in Nathan the Wise resulted in attacks similar to those that greeted his earlier play, The Jew, which was written in 1747. In that play, the Jew was portrayed as having personal integrity and without guile--in contrast to most of the Christians depicted in the play. When one of the Christians in the play proclaims, "O how estimable would be the Jews, if they all resembled you," the Jew replies, "And how estimable would be the Christians, if they all had your fine qualities." The favorable portrayal of Jews and Judaism in literature was unheard of at the time and evoked great debate and attack.

Lessing completed the first rough draft of the play in November 1778. He then began putting it into verse--he was the first in Germany to use iambic pentameter. The play was published in May 1779, but did not receive its first public performance until April 1783, two years after Lessing's death.

In the play's plot, Nathan is a rich merchant in Jerusalem. An infant girl (Recha) is placed into his custody by a monk. The secret of the child's identity is known only by Nathan, the monk, and Nathan's Christian servant (Daya). Nathan raises her to respect God, but without teaching her the trappings of any religion. While Nathan is away on a business trip, Recha is rescued from death by a German knight who had come to Jerusalem as part of the Crusades. She falls in love with him. Nathan returns and when he tries to thank the knight, he is spurned because the knight disdains friendship with a Jew. But the knight yields to Nathan's pleas and visits Recha, with whom he falls in love.

The servant informs the knight that Recha was born a Christian. Obsessed by a sense of sacred duty he turns to the Christian Patriarch of Jerusalem for advice. He is repelled by the latter's self-righteousness and inhumanity (the character is drawn quite negatively). The knight then visits the Sultan, Saladin. When he denounces Nathan, he is rebuked by the Sultan who tells him not to be a Christian at the expense or injury of Jews or Moslems. Nevertheless, the Sultan pledges to bring the lovers together. But the play ends with the revelations that Recha and the knight are really sister and brother and that their father was tire Sultan's brother.

Recha's transformation from "Jew" to "Christian" to "Moslem" within minutes as each secret unfolds is only one of Lessing's messages on religious tolerance. A stronger lesson unfolds in the play when the Sultan summons Nathan and asks him, What human faith, what theologic law Hath struck you as the truest and best? Nathan, suspecting a snare (if he says Judaism he offends Moslem ruler and if he says Mohammedanism he risks being forced to convert or being accused of lying), invents the parable of The Three Rings.

In Lessing's (translated) words, Nathan responds:

  ... In hoar antiquity there dwelt
In eastern lands a man who had received
From a loved hand a ring of priceless worth.
An opal was the stone it bore, which shot
A hundred fair and varied hues around,
And had the mystic power to render dear
Alike to God and man whoever wore
The ring with perfect faith. What wonder, then,
That eastern man would never lay it off,
And further made a fixed and firm resolve
That it should bide for ever with his race.
For this he left it to his dearest son,
Adding a stringent clause that he in turn
Should leave it to the son he loved the most,
And that in every age the dearest son,
Without respect to seniority,
By virtue of the ring alone should be
The lord of all the race ...
And thus the ring came down from sire to son,
Until it reached a father of three sons
Each equally obedient to his will,
And whom accordingly he was constrained
To love alike. And yet from time to time,
Whene'er the one or other chanced to be
Alone with him, and his overflowing heart
Was not divided by the other two,
The one who stood beside him still would seem
Most worthy of the ring; and thus it chanced
That he by kindly weakness had been led
To promise it in turn to each of them.
This state of matters lasted while it could,
But by-and-by he had to think of death,
And then this worthy sire was sore perplexed.
He could not brook the thought of breaking faith
With two dear sons whom he'd pledged his word;
What now was to be done? He straightway sends
In secret for a skilled artificer,
And charges him to make two other rings
Precisely like the first, at any cost.
This the artificer contrives to do.
And when at last he brings him all three rings
Even the father can't say which is which.
With joyful heart he summons then his sons,
But singly and apart, bestows on each
His special blessing, and his ring--and dies ...
Scarce was the father dead, each several son
Comes with his ring and claims to be the lord
Of all his kindred. They investigate,
Recriminate, and wrangle--all in vain--
Which was the true original genuine ring
Was undemonstrable--
              Almost as much
As now by us is undemonstrable
The one true faith....How could I presume
E'er to pronounce distinction 'tween the rings
The father purposely designed to be
Quite indistinguishable?
[There are differences of dress, food and drink]
But not by fundamental difference.
Are they not founded all on history,
Traditional or written? History
Must still be taken upon trust alone;
And who are they who best may claim our trust?
Surely our people, of whose blood we are;
Who from our infancy have proved their love,
And never have deceived us, save, perchance,
When kindly guile was wholesomer for us
Than truth itself. Why should I less rely
Upon my ancestors than you on yours;
Or can I ask of you to give the lie
To your forefathers, merely to agree
With mine?--and all that I have said applies
To Christians as well...
...Let us now return
Once more unto our rings. As I have said,
The sons now sued each other; each of them
Swore to the judge he had received his ring
Straight from his father's hand--as was the fact--
And that, too, after he had long enjoyed
His father's promise to bequeath the ring
To him alone--which also was the truth;
Each vowed the father never could have proved
So false to him; and rather than believe
A thing like this of such a loving aire,
He was constrained--however loath he was
To think unkindly of his brethren--
To charge them both with some nefarious trick,
And now he would unmask their treachery
And be avenged for such a cruel wrong.
... The Judge pronounced--Unless you bring your sire,
And place him here before the judgment-seat,
I must dismiss your suit. Think you I'm here
For solving riddles?--or perhaps you wait
Until the genuine ring declares itself.
Yet stay--you said the genuine ring contains
The magic power to make its wearer loved
More than all else, in sight of God and man;
This must decide the case--the spurious ring
Will not do this--say, which of you is he
The other two most love?--what, no reply?
Your rings would seem to work reflexively,
Not on external objects; since it seems
Each is enamored of himself alone.
Oh, then, all three of you have been deceived,
And are deceivers too; and all three rings
Are spurious alike--the genuine ring
Was lost, most likely, and to hide its loss,
And to supply its place, your father caused
These three to be made up instead of it.
... And then the Judge resumed--
Belike ye would not relish my advice
More than the judgment I have now pronounced;
In that case, go--but my advice is this:
Accept the case precisely as it stands;
If each of you in truth received his ring
Straight from his father's hand, let each believe
His own to be the true and genuine ring.
Perhaps you father wished to terminate
The tyranny of that special ring
'Mid his posterity. Of this be sure,
He loved you all, and loved you all alike,
Since he was loath to injure two of you
That he might favor one alone; well, then,
Let each now rival his unbiased love,
His love so free from every prejudice;
Vie with each other in the generous strife
To prove the virtues of the rings you wear;
And to this end let mild humility,
Hearty forbearance, true benevolence,
And resignation to the will of God,
Come to your aid,--and if, in distant times,
The virtues of the genuine gem be found
Amid your children's children, they shall then,
When many a thousand years have rolled away,
Be called once more before this judgment-seat,
Whereon a wiser man than I shall sit
And give his verdict--now, begone.
Thus spake That sapient Judge.

Lessing admitted borrowing this parable from Boccaccio's Decameron, which may have in turn borrowed it from Busone (1280-1350) or from a collection of Italian tales composed in the 13th or 14th centuries. Other versions can be found with Christian coloring (the one true ring symbolizing Christianity), in Arabian tales, and in Jewish sources. The latter includes a version by Solomon Ibn Verga in Shebet Yehudah, which was first printed in 1550 but dates to the beginning of the 12th century.

Lessing's portrayal of a Jew as noble as Nathan the Wise merits the inclusion of the stamps honoring his achievements in a Judaica collection. Since this character was a likely reflection of his friend Moses Mendelssohn (1729-1786) -- whose last work was a defense of Lessing entitled To the Friends of Lessing -- its inclusion is doubly warranted.

[The republication of this article is dedicated to the memory of Dr. Frost's father-in-law, Nathan Willis, who passed away on January 31, 2002. During his 92 years on this planet, Nathan Willis demonstrated courage and wisdom worthy of his namesake in Lessing's play.]


© 2002, Estate of Murray Frost. All Rights Reserved.