The Background and Main Theme of Nathan the Wise

As noted in chapter 1 and again in chapter 3, the posthumously published work by Reimarus that Lessing, as editor, issued under the title Fragments from an Unnamed Author caused a sensation in Germany. It evoked harsh counterarguments not only from the camp of Lutheran orthodoxy but also from that of liberal theology. This marked the beginning of the fragments controversy.

With the intervention of Johann Melchior Goeze, "the Inquisitor of Hamburg," the fragments controversy became the "Lessing-Goeze controversy," said to have been the bitterest theological dispute since the Reformation. Trivial misunderstandings led to personal hatred, causing the controversy to degenerate into a grudge fight. Goeze, judging that a continuation of this quarrel would be detrimental to his career and reputation, appealed to the government of Brunswick to step in and bring the controversy to a halt.

The government's decree entailed a change in Lessing's civil status. The censorship from which he had been free was now enforced. Moreover, on 17 August 1778 the government of Brunswick issued a circular notice saying that "as regards religious matters, he [that is, Lessing] is no longer allowed to have anything printed, here or elsewhere, whether under his real name or under assumed names, without prior permission of the Ducal Counsel of the Ministry."5 Consequently Lessing had no prospect of continuing the theological battle. It was in this hopeless situation that he devised the idea of writing Nathan the Wise.

He first disclosed his plan in a letter of 11 August 1778 to his brother Karl:

As yet I do not know what the outcome of my quarrel will be. But I would like to be prepared for any outcome. You know well that nothing is better than to have as much money as one needs. Last night I had a crazy idea. Many years ago I outlined a drama on a subject that has a certain analogy to these present controversies, little dreamt of then. If you and Moses think well of it, I shall have it printed by subscription, and you can print and distribute the enclosed announcement as soon as possible. ... I do not wish to allow the real content of my announced piece to become known too early; but if you or Moses [Mendelssohn] want to know it, turn to Boccaccio's Decameron, Giornata 1, Novella 3: Melchizedek the Jew. I believe I have invented a very interesting episode for it, so the entire story should be a good read. And I certainly intend herewith to play a more wicked prank on theologians than if I were to write ten other fragments. If possible, answer me promptly. Gotthold6

In reply, Karl wrote: "Finish your Nathan! There will be no lack of subscribers. Our Moses, who has only today come back from a two-week trip, highly approves of your plan, I know; he has often found fault with you for not using your works in this way."7 A week later, he conveyed Moses Mendelssohn's more measured advice: "Moses thinks that if you produce a piece that ridicules the foolishness of the theologians, they would have you where they want you. 'It is a comedy,' they would say; 'he has a great gift for mockery and for making people laugh. He is a Voltaire.' But if you stick to the tone that you promised to take in your last reply to Goeze, they could not get away with this evasion, however much they lay it on. You must write a dramatic piece, therefore, that has no relationship whatever to this dispute."8 As this letter shows, Moses Mendelssohn feared that Lessing's overinvolvement in the barren theological controversy might lead to a waste of his literary talent.

Karl held a different opinion. In July 1778, when Lessing was deprived of his privilege of freedom from censorship, Karl encouraged him to write "a really funny epilogue" that would put an end to his quarrel with Goeze.9 Now, however, he urges him to continue the theological controversy by writing a "theological comedy."10 In the end, the wise elder brother, Gotthold, chose to follow not the inducement of his shallow-minded younger brother but the advice of his trusted friend.

This does not mean, however, that Lessing wanted to stop the controversy as such. It only means that he abandoned his earlier idea of presenting the theological controversy as a comedy. In a letter to his brother Karl dated 20 October 1778, Lessing indicated that what he wished to compose was to be not "a satirical piece, for the purpose of deserting the battlefield with scornful laughter" but "as touching a piece as I have ever created."11 In any event, he says in another letter, he has made up his mind "to see whether one will even allow me to preach without molestation in my old pulpit, in the theater at least."12

The plot had been largely decided well before he became involved in the theological controversy with Goeze.13 Nonetheless, the dramatic work thus produced was "more the fruit of the polemic than of genius."14 As we have seen, Lessing himself, speaking of himself in the third person, characterized the work in the words "Nathan is a son of his approaching old age, [a son] whom the polemic helped bring to birth."15

In a first draft for his preface to Nathan the Wise, Lessing wrote: "Nathan's attitude toward all positive religion has always been mine."16 This being the case, it is important that we consider the religious idea expressed in Nathan the Wise if we are to understand Lessing's idea of religion properly. It may be permissible, in this connection, to assume that Lessing's idea of religion is projected not only onto Nathan, the hero of the drama, but also onto various dramatis personae in one way or another. It may be that the Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelssohn was, as critics have often asserted, the real model for Nathan the Wise. This does not exclude the possibility, however, that Nathan is simultaneously a "Lessingian figure."17 The truth is that Lessing, using as a model his old friend of nearly thirty years, Moses Mendelssohn, created in

Nathan an ideal person and breathed into this fictitious hero his own "ideal of humanity." The same holds true for Saladin, the only character borrowed from reality,18 for the Patriarch of Jerusalem whose model is certainly Goeze, and for the dervish Al-Hafi, whose model is said to be Abraham Wulff, a merchant versed in mathematics who was a chess friend of Lessing.19 It also holds true for the young templar, whose model, though difficult to identify, is recognizably an offshoot of Lessing. Nathan's adopted daughter Rachel can be regarded, we will see later, as "the first female representative of the new humanity."20

In the characters, words, and deeds of the various dramatis personae, we have to sense, then, Lessing's idea of humanity. But what is the subject of this drama? What place does it occupy in the history of German literature? According to H. A. Korff, Lessing's Nathan the Wise is the very first example of the German "literature of humanity" H-umamtatsdichtung) and "a great anthem to human friendship and brotherhood."21 Dilthey seems to endorse this view of IKorffs when he says:

It was not this conflict [between free spirits and fanatically held orthodox faith] that constituted his theme, but rather how, in the midst of power struggles and fanatic religious opposition, free spirits emancipate themselves from the faith of their fathers. It is the theme of how they find themselves, discover within themselves an identical humanity, and form among themselves a spiritual solidarity.22

This being the case, our next task is to interpret, by a close analysis of the text, Lessing's idea of humanity and to inquire into its religious significance. The best and most appropriate way to achieve this purpose is to examine the parable of the three rings, which "was the starting point for the plot and stands at the center of the completed work."23

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