Gotthold Ephraim Lessing loved a good argument, and in 1777 he found himself embroiled in the "hottest theological debate" of the century; Protestantism vs. the Enlightenment.
First a little history: Lessing is working as a librarian for Prince Karl Wilhelm Ferdinand. It’s 1769 and despite making a name for himself as one of Germany’s foremost writers, he is broke and in love and needs a job to provide for the woman he hopes to marry. Despite the fact that the Prince is a bit of a pecuniary despot, the arrangement seems to work. Lessing spends his time doing librarianish things and reading over a manuscript written by Professor Reimarus. The manuscript was given to Lessing by the professor’s son with the understanding that Lessing would not publish it.
Lessing is an artist, or art critic, and as such is impervious to social code and conduct. He doesn’t exactly publish the manuscript, instead he breaks it down into 5 chunks and publishes them in serial form as excerpts from an “unknown author.”
As expected, these “excerpts” are highly controversial. They attack everything from the historicity of the resurrection to the inerrancy of the scriptures and offer a plea for religious tolerance (particularly for Deists).
He begins sparring with Johann Melchior Goeze, a Lutheran clergyman with an allegedly radical viewpoint. As the debate is made in serial form, slowly over the course of two years, the attacks become more and more personal. Lessing has lost his infant son and wife and builds himself a cocoon of theological hatred and self preservation. The Goeze debate becomes the perfect catharsis for a man who has lost everything, attempting to patch up a broken heart through inexhaustible work. His quest for truth, unfettered from the oppression of the clergy becomes a clarion call for a man buried alive in grief and the only light at the end of a tunnel of despair.
Eventually Goeze is concerned for his reputation. Lessing has now focused his attack directly at Goeze in an 11 part publication entitled “Anti-Goeze,.” The debates had become too personal and gone too far and there was no foreseeable end in sight, so Goeze calls in the big guns. He asked the government to forbid any further publications from Lessing and revoke his freedom from censorship, which the government does, and for a singular moment, Lessing has been silenced.
But Lessing is a man of many talents and decides that if he can’t attack religion through periodicals, he will take his arguments to the theater and in 1779 writes “Nathan the Wise” as a distillation of his 2 year theological debate.
To set the stage for his attack against Christianity he picks inarguably one of the worst moments of the Christian faith: 12th century Jerusalem during the crusades. The play opens during the armistice between 1202-1204 and the tension of imposed peace is almost palpable.
The “basic” plot line is as follows:
Saladin, a Kurdish Sultan, has decided to let a templar live after he bears a striking resemblance to his brother.
(The actual Saladin was responsible for the capture of Jerusalem in 1193 and the subsequent near annihilation of the Crusaders- in Lessing’s version Saladin is less of a military strategist and more of a big softy).
This templar, wanders around Jerusalem with the guilt of an only survivor when he sees a house engulfed in flames and without thinking races in and saves the only occupant, Recha, the daughter of Nathan the Wise.
Nathan has been away collecting Middle Eastern gems and wealth etc. and when he returns he learns of his daughter’s near death and miraculous rescue. When he is about to go out and seek this Christian templar to proffer his thanksgiving, his daughter’s christian maid Daya says it’s of little use, she has tried to thank him but the templar seems to have multiple personalities; being heroic and valiant one moment, since the infamous rescue he has become a taunting racist, spitting out slurs against Jews.
Nathan is unperturbed. Very slowly and with many opportunities for soliloquizing the plot progresses as Daya makes her way to the palm grove in search of the templar.
Thirty pages in and Nathan is very obviously the poster child for the enlightenment espousing “Passion in the garb of Reason”, while the templar take his place as a foil for Christianity. As the templar has a short erratic discussion with a friar he says:
“A templars only calling is to fight,
And not to ferret out intelligence.”
In the context of the play he is turning down an opportunity to become a spy, but as the representative of the Christian faith he has distilled the crusade into it’s most basic element: men fighting for a cause they little care to question or understand.
When Daya finally finds the templar and asks him to visit Nathan so that he might show his thanks, the templar says:
“From this day forth good woman,
Do me at least the favor not to know me;
I beg it of you; and don’t send the father.
A Jew’s a Jew. and I am rude and bearish.
The image of the maid is quite erased
Out of my soul - if it was ever there-“
Eventually, to move the plot along the templar is finally persuaded to visit Nathan and Recha and immediately falls in love. Nathan is indebted to the templar for saving his daughter so how could he refuse him his daughter in marriage? But Nathan, like Saladin, feels like the templar marks a striking resemblance to an old friend and hesitates to give the youngsters his blessing until he can go on a fact finding mission. (Also…it’s way too soon!? Get to know each other? Go on a date that doesn’t involve buildings being on fire…)
Daya, a Christian, and as such a treacherous back stabber, secretly goes to the templar and tells him that Recha isn’t actually a Jew! Nathan maliciously adopted her as a child with perhaps the exclusive intent of keeping her soul in perdition. The templar is a mix of emotions; partly enraged that a Jew would do such a disgusting and immoral thing, but also partially hopeful, with the old miserly Jew out of the way he’ll have Recha all to himself, a perfect ending to a most perfect meet-cute.
The templar races off to ask a bunch of hypothetical questions to a priest such as: Hypothetically if a Jew captured a Christian child and forcibly adopted (her?) and then brought her up as a Jewess…how bad hypothetically would that be?
The templar with his heart ablaze and the hope of matrimonial bliss on the horizon has enough humanity to be shocked by the rabid ferocity that the priest sics on the hypothetical Jew. All scenarios end with the Jew being burned at the stake.
“To execute at once upon the Jew
The penal laws in such a case provided
By papal and imperial right, against
So foul a crime- such dire abomination…
How much more the Jew, who forcibly
Tears from the holy font a Christian child
And breaks the sacramental bond of baptism;
For all what’s done to children is by force-
I mean except what the church does to children…”
The templar begins to think this may not be the best plan and goes off to seek council from Saladin.
Meanwhile, Nathan has already been to visit Saladin to thank the sultan for saving the templar who in turn rescued his daughter. The sultan after exchanging a few pleasantries turns the discussion to ontology, and here we have the linchpin of the play: The story of the Three Rings, which is a retelling of Boccaccio’s Decameron.
In Boccaccio’s version, Melchizedek is sent for by Saladin who has devised an intriguing method of extortion: he will trap Melchizedek into debating theology at which point, after being successfully ensnared, Melchizedek will affront the Islamic faith and his wealth will be forcibly taken from him while he dies a horrible death etc.
In both versions Saladin asks which religion is the true religion? Christianity, Islam or Judaism? And in both versions Nathan and Melchizedek avoid the trap by telling a parable of three rings.
In Boccaccio’s version a father will bequeath to his son a ring that will allow the entitled heir to receive honor and “homage due to a superior”. Eventually a man has three sons and rather than give the ring to a favorite son, since he loves his sons equally and can find no favorite, he has two replicas made and upon his death bequeaths a ring to each son. Upon the morrow when the sons begin to discuss who was the favorite all produce identical rings and realize that in their father’s eyes they are all equal.
In Lessing’s version there are a few Enlightenment variations: Now the illustrious owner of the ring is not just entitled to honor but the ring has the “hidden virtue him to render of God and man beloved.” Eventually a father has three sons and is in the same predicament as Boccaccio’s version. He has two replicas made and upon his death the three sons are each given a ring.
“Scarce is the father dead, each with his ring
Appears and claims to be the lord o’ th’ house.
Comes questions, strife, complaint- all to no end;
For the true ring could no more be distinguished
Than now can- the true faith.”
Nathan further argues that religion is contextual. History and tradition must be passed down similarly to genetics and who are we to decide whose version is best?
“How can I less believe in my forefathers
Than thou thine. How can I ask of thee
To own that thy forefathers falsified
In order to yield mine the praise of truth.
The like of the Christians.”
Nathan then lays down his gauntlet: Let the true religion speak for itself in the actions of it’s adherents.
“The judge said, If ye summon not the father
Before my seat, I cannot give a sentence.
Am I to guess enigmas? Or expect ye
Am I to guess enigmas? Or expect ye
That the true ring should here unseal it’s lips?
But hold- you tell me that the real ring
Enjoys the hidden power to make the wearer
Of God and man beloved; let that decide.
Which of you do two brothers love best?
You’re silent. Do these love-exciting rings
Act inwardly only, not without? Does each
Love but himself? Ye’re all deceived deceivers,
None of your rings is true. The real ring
Perhaps is gone. To hide or to supply
It’s loss, your father ordered three for one.
Thesis: Truth is relative. If you believe your religion to be true act like it is and it will be. Treat humans as brothers in a global surge of magnanimity and grant that all men are equal and the true religion is arrived at by popular vote. (Paraphrase of the Freemason constitution of which Lessing was a part.)
Eventually all the players make their way to the court of Saladin all for various reasons when there is a big reveal: Recha and the templar are brother and sister being the children of Saladin’s late brother and good friend of Nathan. The templar is revealed as Guy of Filnek and Recha as Blanda of Filnek and they realize that in this motley crew of emotions and faith here stand the salt of the earth.
The only problem with this religious pluralism, is that all the religions being represented look an awful lot like Christianity. The reality of women’s roles in Islamic culture is softened by the relationship Saladin has with his sister. Saladin doesn’t keep a harem but instead in the only instance in literature or perhaps history, his sister does and in this presumed harem there is only musical endeavors and virtuous chivalry. As an embodiment of the Enlightenment Nathan has been forced to give up the Judaeo- part of this faith and what is left is “Christianity”, nowhere is the Torrah mentioned or anything even remotely Jewish. The premise of universal religion is that all religions will be inclusive of everyone else…but what if the bedrock of your religion is the promise of a chosen people?
In the end what Lessing offers is an exchange of religious sectarianism for secular nationalism.
And as Esther Cameron in her article “The Street of Nathan the Wise, or The Flawed Contract of Tolerance” says “To portray the ‘ideal’ Jew as one who has foregone all attempts to perpetuate either his lineage or his faith, is to offer tolerance on condition of extinction.”