The Parable of the Three Rings

The parable of the three rings, as Lessing himself frankly admits, is an adaptation of Boccaccio's Decameron, Giornata 1, Novella 3. Yet it is not simply a matter of making use of this portion of the work of the Italian humanist, for in a masterly way Lessing adapted and reworked it at several important points.24

Lessing's parable of the three rings contains important hints and allusions to his own religious thought. It is therefore worth citing in full. We shall omit only Saladin's words and some insignificant expressions Nathan utters in relation to what Saladin says.

In days of yore, there dwelt in eastern lands / A man who had a ring of priceless worth / Received from hands beloved. The stone it held, / An opal, shed a hundred colors fair, / And had the magic power that he who wore it, / Trusting its strength, was loved of God and men. / No wonder therefore that this eastern man / Would never cease to wear it; and took pains / To keep it in his household for all time. / He left the ring to that one of his sons / He loved the best; providing that in turn / That son bequeath to his most favorite son / The ring; and thus, regardless of his birth, / The dearest son, by virtue of the ring, / Should be the head, the prince of all his house . . . At last this ring, passed on from son to son, / Descended to a father of three sons; / All three of whom were duly dutiful, / All three of whom in consequence he needs / Must love alike. But yet from time to time, / Now this, now that one, now the third—as each / Might be with him alone, the other two / Not sharing then his overflowing heart—/ Seemed worthiest of the ring; and so to each / He promised it, in pious frailty. / This lasted while it might. —Then came the time / For dying, and the loving father finds / Himself embarrassed. It's a grief to him / To wound two of his sons, who have relied / Upon his word.—What's to be done?—He sends / In secret to a jeweler, of whom / He orders two more rings, in pattern like / His own, and bids him spare nor cost nor toil / To make them in all points identical. / The jeweler succeeds. And when he brings / The rings to him, the sire himself cannot / Distinguish them from the original. / In glee and joy he calls his sons to him, / Each by himself, confers on him his blessing—/ His ring as well—and dies . . .

Scarce is the father dead when all three sons / Appear, each with his ring, and each would be / The reigning prince. They seek the facts, they quarrel, / Accuse. In vain; the genuine ring was not / Demonstrable;—/ almost as little as / Today the genuine faith . . .

As we have said: the sons preferred complaint; / And each swore to the judge, he had received / The ring directly from his father's hand.—/ As was the truth!—And long before had had / His father's promise, one day to enjoy / The privilege of the ring.—No less than truth!—/ His father, each asserted, could not have / Been false to him; and sooner than suspect / This thing of him, of such a loving father: / He must accuse his brothers—howsoever / Inclined in other things to think the best / Of them—of some false play; and he the traitors / Would promptly ferret out; would take revenge . . .

Thus said the judge: unless you swiftly bring / Your father here to me, I'll bid you leave / My judgment seat. Think you that I am here / For solving riddles? Would you wait, perhaps, / Until the genuine ring should rise and speak?—/ But stop! I hear the genuine ring enjoys / The magic power to make its wearer loved, / Beloved of God and men. That must decide! / For spurious rings can surely not do that!—/ Whom then do two of you love most? Quick, speak! / You're mute? The rings' effect is only backward, / Not outward? Each one loves himself the most?—/ O then you are, all three, deceived deceivers! / Your rings are false, all three. The genuine ring / No doubt got lost. To hide the grievous loss / To make it good, the father caused three rings / To serve for one . . .

The judge went on, if you'll not have my counsel, / Instead of verdict, go! My counsel is: / Accept the matter wholly as it stands. / If each one from his father has his ring, / Then let each one believe his ring to be / The true one.—Possibly the father wished / To tolerate no longer in his house / The tyranny of just one ring!—And know: / That you, all three, he loved; and loved alike; / Since two of you he'd not humiliate / To favor one. —Well then! Let each aspire / To emulate his father's unbeguiled, / Unprejudiced affection! Let each strive / To match the rest in bringing to the fore / The magic of the opal in his ring! / Assist that power with all humility, / With benefaction, hearty peacefulness, / And with profound submission to God's will! / And when the magic powers of the stones / Reveal themselves in children's children's children: / I bid you, in a thousand thousand years, / To stand again before this seat. For then / A wiser man than I will sit as judge / Upon this bench, and speak. Depart!—So said / The modest judge.25

That is the full story of what is called the parable of the three rings. It is a story to be expressed on stage in the form of vivid dialogue between Nathan and Saladin. Accordingly, as Stuart Atkins cautions us, the parable is not to be treated as if it were "an independent text properly printed as such in anthologies of German verse." It is "actually a discontinuous text in a larger dramatic context."26 Hence, he says, to understand the parable of the rings properly, "both the occasion of its telling and the larger design of the drama in which it is told must be kept in mind."27

The immediate occasion for Nathan's telling this parable is a cunning trick that Saladin has played on him. Suffering from a shortage of funds because the national treasury is close to the end of its resources, the Sultan Saladin, who regards himself as the "Reformer of the world and of the law," is taken in by a scheme proposed by his sister, Sittah. At Sittah's suggestion, he stoops to "insipid wiles." The trick is to ask a question that is almost impossible for a Jew to answer and to extort money from the wealthy Jewish merchant in exchange for pardoning him for not answering. So Saladin calls Nathan to his palace and asks the following question: "Since you're accounted wise: / Then tell me, pray—what faith, or moral law, / Has most appeal for you?"28 On hearing Nathan answer "I am a Jew," Saladin immediately continues:

"And I a Mussulman. / The Christian stands between us.—Of these three / Religions only one can be the true one. —/ A man like you does not remain where chance / Of birth has cast him: if he so remains, / It's out of insight, reasons, better choice. / Well, then! such insight I would share with you. / Let me the reasons know, which I have had / No time to ponder out. Reveal to me / The choice determined by these reasons plain—/ Of course in confidence—that I as well / May make your choice my own . . . "29

Nathan is startled by this unexpected question since he had expected Saladin to ask him for money. Granted a moment to think it over, Nathan asks himself:

"H'm! h'm!—how strange!—I'm all confused.—What would / The Sultan have of me?—I thought of money; / And he wants—truth. Yes, truth! And wants it so—/ So bare and blank—as if the truth were coin!—/ And were it coin, which anciently was weighed!—/ That might be done! But coin from modern mints, / Which but the stamp creates, which you but count / Upon the counter—truth is not like that! As one puts money in his purse, just so / One puts truth in his head? Which here is Jew? / Which, I or he?—But stay!—Suppose in truth / He did not ask for truth!—I must admit, / Suspicion that he used the truth as trap / Would be too small by far.—Too small?—What is / Too small for one so great?—That's right, that's right: / He rushed into the house incontinent! / One knocks, one listens, surely, when one comes / As friend.—I must tread warily!—But how?—/ To be a Jew outright won't do at all.—/ But not to be a Jew will do still less. / For if no Jew, he might well ask, then why / Not Mussulman?—That's it! And that can save me! / Not only children can be quieted / With fables.—See, he comes. Well, let him come!"30

This monologue, presented immediately before the scene in which Nathan tells Saladin the parable of the three rings, shows that the parable is produced in order to evade Saladin's baffling question. Just as the father in the parable had a jeweler make two rings so indistinguishable from the original that "the genuine ring was not / Demonstrable," so too there is "almost as little" possibility of demonstrating today which of the three religions—Judaism, Christianity, or Islam—is "the genuine faith."31 This is what Nathan means to suggest by the parable.

Growing angry at Nathan's shrewd subterfuge, Saladin presses him for an answer: "You mean this as / The answer to my question? . . . / The rings!—Don't trifle with me!—I should think / That those religions which I named to you / Might be distinguished readily enough. / Down to their clothing; down to food and drink!"32

Nathan responds to Saladin's specious objection with this profound counterargument.

"In all respects except their basic grounds.—/ Are they not grounded all in history, / Or writ or handed down?—But history / Must be accepted wholly upon faith—/ Not so?—Well then, whose faith are we least like / To doubt? Our people's, surely? Those whose blood / We share? The ones who from our childhood gave / Us proofs of love? who never duped us, but / When it was for our good to be deceived?—/ How can I trust my fathers less than you / Trust yours? Or turn about.—Can I demand / That to your forebears you should give the lie / That mine be not gainsaid? Or turn about. / The same holds true of Christians. Am I right?"33

An important theological assertion is contained in these words, not to mention important implications for the content of the parable of the three rings. This assertion may be characterized as a thesis regarding the grounds for the truth claim of a historical religion and the demonstrability of this claim. Indeed, Saladin's inquiry, the occasion for the parable, implicitly calls into question the grounds for the truth claim of a historical religion: "Of these three / Religions only one can be the true one.—/ A man like you does not remain where chance / Of birth has cast him: if he so remains, / It's out of insight, reasons, better choice. / . . . such insight I would share with you. / Let me the reasons know. . . . Reveal to me / The choice determined by these reasons plain." But Nathan's answer is that all historical religions can be distinguished "in all respects except their basic grounds" because they are "grounded all in history." Just as the genuineness or spuriousness of the three rings is not objectively demonstrable, so there is no possibility of rational proof that any one of the three religions—Judaism, Christianity, or Islam—is the true one.

The sentence to be lifted up for special attention here is "A man like you does not remain where chance / Of birth has cast him." Of particular importance is the expression "where chance / Of birth has cast him" (wo der Zufall der Geburt / Ihn hingeworfen). The question Saladin asks is: from what insight (Einsicht), for what reasons (Gründen), and by what choice (Wahl) has Nathan come to have his own faith rather than remaining where the "chance of birth" had cast him. This is precisely the question of the relationship between the historically accidental and the rationally necessary. It is evident that Lessing's famous thesis that "accidental truths of history can never become the proof for necessary truths of reason"34 is implicitly suggested here.

Accordingly, we wish to examine Lessing's religious thought more closely, especially the idea of humanity that finds metaphorical expression in the parable of the three rings. As we do so, we intend to keep in mind his proposition as to "accidental truths of history" and "necessary truths of reason."

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  • corinna pagnotto
    What does the parable of the three rings mean?
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