So far, we have focused exclusively on the parable of the three rings. But in order to grasp the cardinal point of the religious thought that finds poetic expression in Nathan the Wise, it is necessary to take into consideration not only the parable of the three rings but also the entire work at the center of which the parable stands. A rough sketch of the play as a whole will be of some help here.
The setting for the play is Jerusalem at the time of the Crusades. Each character in the play represents, in one way or another, Judaism, Christianity, or Islam. A fire breaks out in the house of the Jewish merchant Nathan while he is away on business. His daughter, Rachel, narrowly escapes being burned to death, but is rescued thanks to a young Christian templar who happened by. This templar had originally been sent from Europe as a crusader. Arrested by Islamic troops, he had been condemned to the scaffold, but his life had been spared by a special pardon from the Sultan Saladin because the templar closely resembled Saladin's missing brother, Assad. Since then, he had been staying in Jerusalem as a free prisoner of war. Influenced by Daya, Nathan's fanatic Christian housemaid, Rachel at first yearns for the young man in a white mantle who had rescued her from the fire as if he were an angel sent from heaven. But her fantastic dreams are corrected by Nathan when he returns home. To the young man who had saved his beloved daughter, Nathan expresses his hearty thanks. The templar, for his part, though at first taking a somewhat contemptuous attitude toward Nathan, is deeply impressed by the noble personality and deep insight of the Jewish merchant. At the same time, his hitherto suppressed feeling for Rachel suddenly turns into burning love.
About this time Saladin, faced with a financial crisis in the national treasury, succumbs to his sister Sittah's idea of summoning the rich and wise Nathan to the palace as part of a trick. At his sister's suggestion, he reluctantly stoops to asking Nathan a question that will be almost impossible for a Jew to answer, thus hoping to frighten him into paying money so as to be pardoned for not answering Saladin's question. Nathan shrewdly evades the trap by telling the Sultan the parable of the three rings. Deeply moved by Nathan's virtuous and wise character, Saladin humbly bows to him and begs his pardon for the insipid wiles he had attempted. Nathan and Saladin thus become comrades, bound together by trust and friendship.
Meanwhile, the tale-telling Daya informs the templar that Rachel is not Nathan's real daughter but an adopted daughter who, having been born into a Christian family, had been baptized into Christianity at birth. Angry at the news that Nathan had reared a baptized Christian child as a Jewess, the templar grows distrustful of her foster father Nathan. In deep distress and fury, the templar consults with the Patriarch of Jerusalem. The matter is thus on the verge of developing into a major religious scandal.
The Patriarch, who takes pride in being the protector of Christianity, embarks on a personal investigation of Nathan with a view to bringing this unforgivable Jew to the Inquisition and burning him at the stake. But the ways of heaven are inscrutable. As the drama evolves, all the curtains covering the back of the stage are removed one by one until hidden truths eventually reveal themselves all at once. It turns out that the templar is the son of Saladin's younger brother, Assad, and the elder brother of Nathan's adopted daughter, Rachel. The drama has a happy ending with mutual embraces and kisses on the part of the Jew, the Christians, and the Muslims.
The governing idea central to the plot is, as most scholars agree, the idea of "humanity" (Humanität,, Menschlichkeit). Each character in the play has a status and temperament that correspond to the degree or manner in which he or she embodies this idea.36 The central character is, of course, Nathan the Wise. He is "the figure who embodies this humanity in the most comprehensive, most serene, and purest form."37 His mind is free of prejudice, his heart "open unto every virtue, / With every beauty perfectly attuned."38 He treats every individual as a person and of his own accord does away with every kind of prejudice caused by religious and racial differences. Thus "Nathan's greatness lies in his humanity."39 This fair and upright quality is reflected in his words: "I know as well / That all lands bear good men."40 Again, "What is a folk? / Are Jew and Christian sooner Jew and Christian / Than man? How good, if I have found in you / One more who is content to bear the name / Of man!"41 In the play, Nathan plays the role of an "educator" (Erzieher) who, himself embodying the highest idea of humanity, teaches this idea to others through his noble personality and conduct.
The Sultan Saladin is a stalwart and large-minded man who embodies nearly as noble a humanity as Nathan does, though as yet he is not completely free from arrogance and whim.42 This nobility appears clearly in his words to the templar: "Would you remain with me? Here at my side?—/ As Christian, Musselman, all one! In cloak / Of white, in Moslem robe; in turban, or / In Christian cowl: just as you will. All one! / I never have required the selfsame bark / To grow on every tree."43 Thus Saladin has already reached a high stage of humanity, a stage only once removed from Nathan. Through personal encounter with the Jewish wise man, he is to be raised to the highest level of humanity.
Other characters in the play, with the exception of Daya and the Patriarch of Jerusalem, all have something to do, in varying degrees, with the ideal of humanity. The templar, with his youthful impetuosity and one-track mind, is sometimes driven by his passions to extremes. But he also has it in him to take a more universally human stance, ridding himself of the Christian prejudices imbued in him since birth.
"The Templar loves indeed—the Christian loves / The Jewish maid indeed.—Well! What of that?—/ In this the Land of Promise—hence to me / Of Promise likewise to eternity!—I've rid myself of many a prejudice.—/ What would my Order have? As Templar, I / Am dead; was from that moment dead to it, / Which made me prisoner to Saladin. / That head which he gave back, was it my own?—/ No, it's a new one, ignorant of all / That was impressed on that one, bound it fast.—/ And better, too, for my paternal heaven / More suitable. I feel that now. . .
As the above quotation shows, the templar is quite ready to be raised to a higher humanity by Nathan and Saladin.
Nathan's adopted daughter, Rachel, is, so to speak, his artistic masterpiece45 and an excellent product of his education.46 Nathan sowed in her soul "the seeds of reason" (Samen der Vernunftf1 and "taught this child not more or less of God / Than reason would require."48 In Nathan's words, Rachel "was born / And reared to be of any faith and house / The ornament."49 According to Fittbogen, Rachel is "already a step beyond Nathan" because "Nathan had to work out his way for himself, only gradually growing beyond his old faith, whereas Rachel stands 'beyond' every positive religion" from the outset. In this sense, she is said to be "the first female representative of the new humanity, completely unhindered from the restraints of any positive religion."50
The dervish Al-Hafi and the Christian friar, playing supporting roles, are not opposed to the genuine idea of humanity but stand in somewhat different relationships to it. "Al-Hafi embodies inwardness without its moral purification into humanity."51 The friar, or lay brother, by contrast, is "an ironic figure, [ironic] in his mixture of shrewdness and simplicity, and in his dependence on external authority, on the one hand, and on simple moral conscience, on the other. "52 These two subordinate characters, though embodying the idea of humanity to some extent, still lack the moral purification essential to genuine humanity.
Finally, some mention must be made of the two characters who stand far removed from, or completely outside, the idea of humanity. The fanatically Christian housemaid Daya is an example of misguided humanity. She is still far from living by this ideal. Nevertheless, it is not yet utterly hopeless to guide her toward a better direction through education and irony. The Patriarch of Jerusalem, on the contrary, exists completely outside the idea of humanity. He is an incarnation of authoritarian faith and intolerance, qualities diametrically opposed to the idea of humanity. Nathan's efforts to teach him real humanity will be of no avail.53
On the basis of the preceding analysis, we have to ask, finally, what constitutes the real substance of the idea of humanity that the characters in the play embody in varying degrees. To be succinct, what is humanity anyway?
According to the formulation by Benno von Wiese, humanity is "first, emancipation from its historical existence; second, elevation to spiritual personality;
third, optimism as to worldview and view of life." Moreover, "in these three characteristics are embodied the three basic ideas of the Enlightenment: suprahistorical validity, autonomous reason, and a harmonious picture of the world. "54 In itself, Wiese's characterization of humanity is correct, to be sure. But this alone is not enough to express the Lessingian idea of humanity. The depth of Lessing's idea can hardly be comprehended by such a general characterization. We need to clarify, therefore, the salient features of the reason exemplified by the wise Nathan. Our next task, then, is to explain the essence of Nathanian reason.
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