Nathan the Wise and Lessings Ideal of Humanity

1. Friedrich Schlegel, "Über Lessing," in Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, Wege der Forschung, vol. 211, edited by Gerhard and Sibylle Bauer (Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1968), 34.

2. Wilhelm Dilthey, Das Erlebnis und die Dichtung: Lessing-Goethe-Novalis-Hölderlin, 16th ed. (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1985), 90.

4. Ernst Troeltsch, "Der deutsche Idealismus," in Gesammelte Schriften, vol. 4, Aufsätze zur Geistesgeschichte und Religionssoziologie, edited by Hans Baron (Tübingen: J. C. B. Mohr, 1925; reprint, Aalen: Scientia Verlag, 1966), 550, 552.

5. LM 21, 224 (Letter from Duke Karl of Brunswick of 17 August 1778); B 12, 187 (no. 1390).

6. LM 18, 285-86 (Letter to Karl Lessing of 11 August 1778); B 12, 186 (no. 1389).

7. LM 21, 225 (Letter from Karl Lessing of 18 August 1778); B 12, 188 (no. 1392).

8. LM 21, 226 (Letter from Karl Lessing of 25 August 1778); B 12, 189 (no. 1393).

9. LM 21, 215 (Letter from Karl Lessing of July 1778); B 12, 165 (no. 1369).

10. LM 21, 226 (Letter from Karl Lessing of 25 August 1778); B 12, 189 (no. 1393).

11. LM 18, 289-90 (Letter to Karl Lessing of 20 October 1778); B 12, 200 (no. 1405).

12. LM 18, 287 (Letter to Elise Reimarus of 6 September 1778); B 12, 193 (no. 1398).

13. In a letter of 7 November 1778 to his brother Karl, Lessing says: "My Nathan, as Professors Schmid and Eschenburg can attest, is a piece for which, as early as three years ago, shortly after my return from a trip [to Italy], I wanted to complete a fair copy and have it printed. I have now sought it out again only because it suddenly occurred to me that by making just a few small changes in the plan, I can from a different angle make a flank attack on the enemy. I am now finished with these changes, and the work is as ready as any of my pieces has ever been when I began sending it to the press. All the same, I want to revise and polish it further until Christmas. By Christmastime I want to start writing out the entire manuscript in a final copy and have it printed little by little so that I can appear with it at the Easter fair without fail. I do not want to appear with it any earlier; for you will remember that in my Christmas announcement I asked to be informed in advance as to the number of subscribers." LM 18, 191 (Letter to Karl Lessing of 7 November 1778); B 12, 207 (no. 1410).

14. LM 18, 323 (Letter to Tobias Philipp Freiherrn von Gebler of 13 August 1779); B 12, 270 (no. 1492).

15. LM 18, 319 (Letter to Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi of 18 May 1779); B 12, 256 (no. 1474).

16. LM 16, 444 (Vorrede und Abhandlungen zu Nathan dem Weisen); cf. G 2, 748.

17. From early on, attempts have been made to see Nathan the Wise as "a noble, Mendelssohnian character" (ein edler Mendelssohnischer Charakter). Cf. LM 21, 261 (Letter from Elise Reimarus of 3 June 1779). Some scholars, however, oppose such a view. For example, G. E. Guhrauer asserts that "Nathan—this is Lessing himself—is not, as people always say, his Jewish friend Mendelssohn." Th. W. Danzel and G. E. Guhrauer, Gotthold Ephraim Lessing: Sein Leben und seine Werke, 2d ed., vol. 2 [of 2] (Berlin: Verlag von Theodor Hofmann, 1881), 465-66. In Guhrauer's view, "Nathan is almost an idealistic figure, anything but a copy" of Moses Mendelssohn or anyone else (465).

18. A biography of Saladin has recently been published in Japanese. The comparison between Lessing's dramatic depiction in Nathan the Wise and the historian's objective description based on historical sources is very instructive. See Tsugitaka Sato, lsuramu no 'Eiyu" Saradin: Jujigun to Tatakatta Otoko (Saladin the hero of Islam: A man who fought against the crusades) (Tokyo: Kodansha, 1996).

19. See Danzel and Guhrauer, Gotthold Ephraim Lessing vol. 2, 465-66.

20. Gottfried Fittbogen, Die Religion Lessings (Leipzig: Mayer & Müller, 1923; reprint, New York: Johnson Reprint Corporation, 1967), 161.

21. H. A. Korff, Geist der Goethezeit: Versuch einer ideellen Entwicklung der klassisch-romantischen Literaturgeschichte, part 2, Klassik, 2d ed. (Leipzig: Koehler & Amelang, 1955), 147. Korff holds that it was through Nathan the Wise that Lessing freed himself completely of the Enlightenment and stepped into "the sphere of classicism" (die klassische Sphäre) (154).

22. Dilthey, Das Erlebnis und die Dichtung, 98.

24. An important difference from Boccaccio's work is that in the original novel, the ring is described merely as an "exceptionally beautiful and priceless" ring, whereas in Lessing's parable, the ring has, in addition to such attributes, "the magic power that he who [wears] it,/Trusting its strength, [is] loved of God and men" (LM 3, 90; G 2, 276 [Nathan der Weise, 3/7]). As a result, Lessing's parable, because it amalgamates human subjective elements with objective truth, impels us to ceaseless striving and praxis, while Boccaccio's suggests that the truth claims of historical religions are hard to ascertain, thus leading to religious relativism or indifference.

Cesare Cases's suggestion that "Protestantism and the Enlightenment stand between Boccaccio and Lessing" must be asserted in a more fundamental sense than he seems to imply (Cesare Cases, "Lessings >Nathan der Weise<," in Klaus Bohnen, ed., Lessings >Nathan der Weise< [Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1984], 333). For the novel idea that Lessing has introduced into Boccaccio's original parable of the three rings is nothing other than the main idea of modern Protestantism, namely, that the truth is validated through inwardness and praxis. We have already learned that Lessing takes "Luther's spirit" as signifying that "no man may be prevented from advancing in the knowledge of truth according to his own judgment." We have also learned of his famous dictum, "The worth of a man does not consist in the truth he possesses, or thinks he possesses, but in the pains he has taken to attain that truth. . . . Absolute truth is for thee [that is, for God] alone." Lessing's parable of the three rings has to be construed against the background of these words. Only when we read it against the background of his theological, or religious-philosophical, thought can we really understand how significantly the central thought of "the founder of modern Protestantism" is expressed in this parable.

25. LM 3, 90-95; G 2, 276-80 (Nathan der Weise, 3/7). Most English translations for Nathan der Weise are borrowed from the slightly abridged version published in Lessing's Nathan the Wise, Minna von Barnhelm, and Other Plays and Writings., translated by Bayard Quincy Morgan (New York: Continuum Publishing Co., 1991). A few citations, however, have been borrowed from the unabridged version published under the title Nathan the Wise: A Dramatic Poem in Five Acts, translated by Bayard Quincy Morgan (New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1955). Citations from the latter are identified in the notes.

26. Stuart Atkins, "The Parable of the Rings in Lessing's Nathan der Weise," Germanic Review 26 (1951): 259.

28. LM 3, 87-88; G 2, 273-74 (Nathan der Weise, 3/5).

30. LM 3, 88-89; G 2, 274-75 (Nathan der Weise, 3/6).

34. LM 13, 5; G 8, 12 (Beweis des Geistes und der Kraft).

35. This seems to have some connection with the fact that in the fragments controversy, Lessing consistently emphasizes the "inner truth of a religion."

36. Cf. Benno von Wiese, Lessing: Dichtung, Aesthetik, Philosophie (Leipzig: Verlag Quelle & Meyer, 1931), 66-67; Fittbogen, Die Religion Lessings, 163.

43. LM 3, 123; G 2, 304 (Nathan der Weise, 4/4); Nathan the Wise: A Dramatic Poem in Five Acts, translated by Bayard Quincy Morgan (New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1955), p. 103.

45. The templar compares Rachel to "The artist's [creation], who in that abandoned block / Thought out the form divine which he portrayed." LM 3, 148; G 2, 324 (Nathan der Weise, 5/3).

46. Cf. Fittbogen, Die Religion Lessings, 160-61.

49. LM 3, 140; G 2, 317-18 (Nathan der Weise, 4/7); Nathan the Wise: A Dramatic Poem in Five Acts, translated by Bayard Quincy Morgan (New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1955), p. 119.

50. Fittbogen, Die Religion Lessings, 161.

55. Nathan's adoptive daughter Rachel's words are instructive: "Yes, I do. My father loves, you see, too little / That cold book-learning, which impresses on / The mind just lifeless symbols" (LM 3, 161; G 2, 334-35 [Nathan der Weise, 5/6]; Nathan the Wise: A Dramatic Poem in Five Acts [New York: Frederick Ungar, 1955, p. 137]). Nathan's wisdom is undoubtedly the opposite of such "cold book-learning." In another place, Lessing makes an observation that seems apropos in this connection: "The wealth of other people's experience obtained from books is called erudition. One's own experience is wisdom. The smallest chapter of the latter is worth more than millions of the former" (LM 16, 535; G 5, 788 [Selbstbetrachtung und Einfälle]).

56. LM 3, 86-87; G 2, 272-73 (Nathan der Weise, 3/5).

58. LM 3, 139; G 2, 316-17 (Nathan der Weise, 4/7).

60. That the calamities which befell Nathan and his family should remind us of Job's hardships is quite natural. A comparison of Job and Nathan the Wise is therefore a worthy topic of investigation. For such a comparison, see Ingrid Strohschneider-Kohrs, Vernunft als Weisheit: Studien zum späten Lessing (Tübingen: Max Niemeyer Verlag, 1991).

62. "Autotheonomy" Autotheonomie) is a term borrowed from Ernst Troeltsch. As he puts it, "Christian autonomy is at the same time theonomf (italics in original). He coined the term "autotheonomy" to make this point clear. See Ernst Troeltsch, Glaubenslehre, edited by Gertrud von le Fort (Munich and Leipzig: Verlag von Duncker & Humblot, 1925), 201-202.

In this connection, Troeltsch elsewhere expresses the remarkable view that "autonomy and theonomy are not opposites if the divine origin of moral law is traced back not to externally revealed, statutory law, but to the compulsion of moral reason itself"; "theonomy is only an emphasizing of the religious presuppositions contained in the idea of autonomy itself." See his "Praktische christliche Ethik: Diktate zur Vorlesung im Wintersemester 1911/12. Aus dem Nachlaß Gertrud le Forts herausgegeben von Elenore von la Chevallerie und Friedrich Wilhelm Graf," in Mitteilungen der Ernst-Troeltsch-Gesellschaft, vol. 6 (Augsburg, 1991), 143.

63. In these words one may discern the idea of Deus operans operari, an idea traceable to Philippians 2:13: "0£Ö£ YapeCTTiv 6 ¿vepYwv ¿v üpiv Kai to 0£Äeiv Kai to ¿vepYeiv unep Tf|£ euöoxia^" (RSV: "for God is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure"). For more discussion of this idea, see Wataru Mizugaki, Shükyö teki Tankyü no Mondai (The problem of religious quest) (Tokyo: Söbunsha, 1984), chapter 10.

At any rate, the words "I will! / If Thou wilt, then I will!" (Ich will! / Willst du nur, daß ich will!) strike me as highly significant. Günter Rohrmoser likewise calls attention to this point. He says:

The organ with which Nathan carries out his hearkening to God is reason, and no appeal is made to the historical figure of Founder, Redeemer, or Savior. What is heard is, in a word, acceptance of one's fate as divine providence. This occurs in the remarkable statement, "I will! / If Thou wilt, then I will!" His turning to God bears, therefore, the character of personal address. But God is not addressed on behalf of anyone or anything. Instead, Nathan subjects himself to God with the humble request that his sacrifice may be found acceptable. Nathan's self-negation as unconditional yielding of the self to God may be taken as Lessing's real opinion as to what constitutes the problem of religions.

See Günter Rohrmoser, "Aufklärung und Offenbarungsglaube (Lessing-Kant)," in Emanzipation und Freiheit (Munich: Wilhelm Goldmann Verlag, 1970), 50; cf. Arno Schilson, Lessings Christentum (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1980), 39-40.

64. Johannes von Lüpke, Wege der Weisheit: Studien zu Lessings Theologiekritik (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1989), 123.

65. Otto Mann, Lessing: Sein und Leistung (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1965), 319.

66. Cf. Hans Michael Baumgartner, "Wandlungen des Vernunftbegriffs in der Geschichte des europäischen Denkens," in Grenfragen, vol. 16, Rationalität: Ihre Entwicklung und ihre Grenzen (Freiburg & Munich, 1989), 167-203.

67. See Strohschneider-Kohrs, Vernunft als Weisheit.

69. John van den Hengel seems to be right, therefore, when he maintains that "for him reason has limits" ("Reason and Revelation in Lessing's Enlightenment," Église et Théologie 17 [1986]: 192). Indeed, Lessing himself suggests "the limits of reason" when he says that reason is ready to submit itself to revelation so long as it is guaranteed by "the reality of revelation." LM 12, 433; G 7, 463 (Gegensätze des Herausgebers).

71. LM 18, 358 (Letter to Elise Reimarus of 28 November 1780); B 12, 360-61 (no. 1602).

72. It is very significant, therefore, that in the epigraph to The Testament of John Lessing cited Jerome's words, "qui in pectus Domini recubuit et de purissimo fonte hausit rivulum doctrinarum." Cf. LM 13, 9; G 8, 15 (Das Testament Johannis).

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