In today’s American society we often take for granted the benefits of religious tolerance: the concept that though we claim to different faiths, or hold no particular faith at all, we can appreciate and cooperate peacefully with respect to each other as individuals. This concept which is intrinsic in today’s society, was shunned in 18th century European society. It was within this societal environment that Gotthold Ephraim Lessing wrote his play, Nathan the Wise (1779). In the third act of Lessing’s play we find the Parable of the Three Rings. In this paper I argue that Lessing created the parable to publicly illustrate his belief in religious tolerance and the foreseen benefits this belief would impart to 18th century Germany. To do so I will relate Lessing’s story, clarify what ideas lie veiled within it, and explain how Lessing’s work contributed to the enlightenment.
In Gottgold Lessing’s Nathan the Wise (1779) the story introduces two characters; Saladin, the Muslim Sultan of Jerusalem, and Nathan, a Jewish man renowned for his wisdom. By request of the Sultan, Nathan explains which of the three great religions of Jerusalem, is best through The Parable of the Three Rings. In the parable a man owned a magic ring which made its wearer beloved of God and man. The ring was passed down till it came to the father of three sons, all worthy of inheriting the ring. The father had two identical copies of the ring crafted, and hoping to prevent discord, he gave each son a ring. Each son believed that he had inherited the magical ring. After the Father died, each of the sons claimed authority over their father’s house, each basing their right to rule on the ring given to them by their father. The sons were at odds with each other because they couldn’t distinguish which ring was the original.
The three brothers brought the problem before a judge, and the judge carefully examined the case and then came to two conclusions. He said that the true ring bore the power to make its owner loved my God and man, but these rings has only brought malice, envy, and selfishness. The judge concluded that none of the rings were real, and that the father had lost the original ring, then created counterfeits to satisfy his sons. His alternative conclusion was that the father was tired of the tyranny brought by the one ring, so he decided to make three. Therefore each son should demonstrate his belief in the power of his ring by going about his life in a way that earns the love of God and man. With this Nathan concludes his story and the Sultan is enlightened.
In the parable we see many metaphors to explain the author’s viewpoint. The three rings in the story symbolize the three religions of this region, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The idea conveyed in the story is that there is one true religion from which the others stem. Unfortunately no one can be sure which religion is the true one, so each religion is in conflict with the others, quarreling over whose religion is the truth. The judge in the story symbolizes reason, and through reason we conclude that all religions are fake and the true religion is lost in time. Under this premise we may abandon religion altogether, a counterfeit of the truth, and live our lives apart from religion and live instead, by our own determination. Alternatively we could postulate that one religion really is the truth, but which one is indiscernible; therefore it is best that all live according to their religions by doing what is good, and by doing so “win the favor of both God and man.”
Following these two premises Lessing creates two pillars of religious tolerance. First that all are people are equal, whether they claim to a religion or none at all. Second that the earthly goal of religion, is to do good and to hold faith in the beliefs of that religion. Therefore all religions share a common goal, and instead of animosity each religious person should respect one another as individuals pursuing their own path to God.
This concept was looked upon with disdain in 18th century Europe, in which time religion was centralized in such a way that each country followed a certain religion and the citizens of the country were expected to follow. Lessing was a free thinker, and rather than except the religion of the land he questioned it-and all other religions well known at that time. Lessing perpetuated many theories about religion, such as the theory that one true God exists, but man has taken the truth and fractured it overtime so that we now have many religions. He presents this speculation in his final book The Education of the Human Race when he says, “As soon as the human reason left to itself began to elaborate it broke up the one immeasurable into many measurables and gave a note or sign of mark to every one of these parts.” Lessing wrote many books on his controversial theories, many of which were censored. This is part of the reason why he wrote Nathan the Wise and other plays, because he could educate the masses without being censored. Lessing was important to this time period because he himself was religiously tolerant, and despite growing up in a Protestant country he encountered other sects of Christianity such as Catholicism and Judaism, one of which whom he befriended. This Jewish friend named Moses Mendelssohn later inspired the main character “Nathan” in Lessing’s play. Lessing’s views on religious tolerance and other matters are especially important to U.S. citizens, because they lay the ground work for what shaped the aspirations of our nation’s founding fathers that created the equality of man, free speech, freedom of religion, and many other civil liberties.
Through this parable we have seen Lessing’s embracement of religious tolerance. Writings like this were crucial to the emergence of “The Enlightenment” movement, which brought about a public dialogue of religion and life in general.bThrough the symbolic perseverance of a common goal, followed by the Jew, Christian, and Muslim brothers seen in this story, Lessing conveyed an argument foundational to religious tolerance, and forwarded the movement that led to the enlightened society we enjoy today.
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