The Essence of Nathans Reason

The depth dimension in the idea of humanity that Lessing wanted to express in this play seems implied by the last two words of its title, Nathan the Wise. The wise man, understood literally, is the man who possesses wisdom (Weisheit). What, then, is wisdom? What is Nathan's wisdom like? Why do people call him "the wise man"?55

In order to think about these questions, it will be helpful to examine some interesting material provided in a dialogue between Nathan and Saladin in Act 3, Scene 5.

Saladin: You say you're Nathan? Nathan: Yes. Saladin: Wise Nathan? Nathan: No.

Saladin: If you don't say it, yet the people do. Nathan: May be; the people! Saladin: Yet you don't suppose

That I am scornful of the people's voice? —

I long have had a wish to know the man

Whom they call wise.

Nathan: And if it were in scorn

They called him so? If to the people "wise"

Were nothing more than "shrewd"? and shrewd were he

Who knew his interest well?

Saladin: Of course you mean His genuine interest?

Nathan: Why then indeed

Most selfish were most shrewd. And shrewd and wise Were one.

Saladin: I hear you prove what you'd deny. — Mankind's true interests, to the folk unknown,

Are known to you; at least you've tried to know them;

You've pondered them; and that alone produces The wise man.

Nathan: As each thinker thinks he is.

Saladin: Enough of modesty! For when one longs

To hear dry reason, constant modesty

Is sickening. (He jumps up.) Let's come to business, Jew. But with sincerity!56

The foregoing dialogue shows that Nathan does not think of himself as a wise man. According to him, it is only that the people call him so, and among the people, reputation is often expressed ironically. One may well discern a trace of cynicism in Nathan's utterance. The extreme humility that provokes Saladin's antipathy might seem to come from this cynicism.

In my view, however, Nathan's humility springs from a deeper source. In the conversation between Nathan and the friar in Act 4, Scene 7, the secret source of Nathan's existence becomes manifest. "[To] you alone I'll tell it. / To simple piety alone I'll tell it. / Since that alone can understand the deeds / God-fearing man can force himself to do."57 With this introductory remark, Nathan begins to disclose to the friar a secret that he has never before spoken of to anyone.

According to Nathan's confession, his wife and seven sons were burned to death by Christians a few days before he made up his mind to adopt and nurture Rachel. Three days and nights he lay in dust and ashes, weeping bitter tears. He argued with God, stormed, became enraged, and cursed himself and the entire world. He swore that he hated all Christians, that he would never be reconciled with them. But in the midst of his despair and fury, he gradually regained his reason and became calm enough to obey what he wisely discerned as God's decree. In his own words:

"But bit by bit my reason found return. / With gentle voice it spoke: 'And yet God is! That too was God's decree! Up then, and come! Now practice what you long have understood; / And what is scarcely harder to perform / Than just to comprehend, if you but will. / Arise!'—I stood and cried to God: I will! / If Thou wilt, then I will!—Then you dismounted / And handed me the child, wrapped in your cloak."58

What Nathan the Jew had long understood in his head was nothing other than the supreme commandment of Christianity, the command to "Love thine enemy!" The way he put it into practice was to adopt an orphan baby of Christian parents and bring her up with genuine love and abundance of heart. That orphan child was, of course, Rachel. This action by the pious Jew accounts for the friar's exclamation: "O Nathan, Nathan! You're a Christian soul! / By God, a better Christian never lived!"59

Nathan had been visited by calamities that may well remind us of the tragic difficulties that befell the "blameless and upright" man in the Book of Job.60 But gradually learning to cope, he regained his originally "cool, quiet reason" (kalte, ruhige Vernunft).61 The gentle voice of his reason said to him, "And yet God is!" Of the tragic event that seemed so absurd and nonsensical in human eyes, his reason said, "That too was God's decree!" It then encouraged him to practice what he had long understood intellectually, what a later age would speak of as Good Samaritanism. He obediently followed his inner voice and determined to take his first step as a new self. From that moment, however, his volition is no longer merely autonomous volition. It is a volition that wishes to hearken to God's antecedent volition and conform to it. Nathan's words, "I will! / If Thou wilt, then I will!" (Ich will! / Willst du nur, daß ich will.) suggest that he, having lost everything and having wandered in the depths of despair, becomes a new, "theonomous" self, or more precisely, an "autotheonomous" self.62

From these considerations it is clear that Nathan, contrary to the generally held view, is not an autonomous person of the modern type. By the same token, his reason is not mere autonomous reason in the modern sense. The starting point of everything for Nathan as a wise man consists in the duplex or multiplex structure of volition, a structure implied in his words, "I will! / If Thou wilt, then I will!"63 This may also be called a structure of autonomy buttressed by theonomy, a structure in which the divine volition is hidden behind the human but precedes and underlies it. Borrowing Troeltsch's term, we propose to call this the "autotheonomous" structure of volition.

In any case, Nathan's reason is, first and foremost, "hearkening reason" (eine vernehmende Vernunftt).64 It signifies "the ability to hearken to, and immediately become aware of, what is given by God."65 Accordingly, it is not a self-centered reason that turns its back on God and shuts itself up within itself. Instead, it is "believing reason" (glaubende Vernunft) that opens itself to God and hearkens to admonitions from above. To borrow Hans Baumgartners term but use it in a somewhat different way, it is "boundary reason" (Grenzyernunfi) that is fully aware of its own limitations.66 This kind of reason is what Ingrid Strohschneider-Kohrs calls "reason as wisdom" (Vernunft als Weisheit).61 Johannes von Lüpke asserts that "Nathan's wisdom is based on reason that has become aware of its own limitations."68 It appears, therefore, that Nathan's reason is not only fully aware of its own limitations but also conforms to the decrees of the deity who transcends his reason. Yet Nathan's reason is at the same time Lessing's. It seems indisputable, therefore, that this kind of "reason as wisdom" forms the essential core of Lessingian reason.69

Be that as it may, it is quite natural that a wise man like Nathan, possessing this "reason as wisdom," must admonish himself against "overstepping the limits" (Grenzüberschreitungen^).10 Though his modest and humble attitude irritated Saladin, for Nathan as a man of wisdom this attitude was perfectly natural. In this connection, it may be helpful to call attention to the fact that the judge in the parable of the three rings, through whom Lessing expresses his own opinion, is called "the modest judge" (der bescheidne Richtet). As we have already seen, this judge too is a very wise man. Nevertheless, he does not venture to solve riddles by himself but leaves the final solution to the discretion of a wiser judge (ein weisrer Mann). This enables us to glimpse the Nathanian, and therefore Lessingian, understanding of existence.

So far we have observed, from our own viewpoint, Lessing's idea of humanity as it finds poetic and literary expression in Nathan the Wise. Though limited in scope, our observation demonstrated that Lessing's idea of humanity as "a new ideal of life" is suffused with deep piety. Far from being a bare affirmation of and praise for human nature as it stands, his new ideal of life constitutes a new form of Christian piety that sees life oriented to humanity as a correlate of life oriented to God. Distancing himself from the traditional Christianity that Goeze represented, Lessing, considering himself a "beloved bastard of a noble, gracious lord" (lieber Bastard eines großen, gnädigen Herrn),71 strove to go back to the wellspring of Christianity and draw fresh water from it.72 Nathan the Wise is undoubtedly the most brilliant literary product of, or better, an authentic monument to, such striving. And what glitters most brilliantly in this monumental work is the idea of humanity.

But Lessing did not stop short with this immortal work. He also wanted to give philosophical expression to what he had expressed poetically. This led him to produce his theological and religious-philosophical manifesto, The Education of the Human Race. Our next task, therefore, will be to explicate this book as clearly as possible on the basis of the results attained in this chapter.

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