Reading the Enlightenment: Nathan the Wise and imagining religious interconnectedness

courtesy the New York Times
courtesy the New York Times

Friends – Last week I shared some thoughts about Jonathan Swift’s autobiographical poem and the connection of some its ideas to the attitudes expressed by the Founding Fathers and indeed to one of the sentiments expressed in the Declaration of Independence.

This week, I want to share some insights about a play written in 1779, in Germany by a writer who is still quite famous in Europe, although he is not so well known here. That person is Gotthold Ephraim Lessing.

When Americans think about the 18th Century, we don’t usually think much about Germany. The authors most well educated Americans know – Voltaire , Rousseau Swift, Defoe, Jefferson, Franklin – come from France, England, and the colonial US, and when we think about the Age of Enlightenment, unless we’ve studied Philosophy, we don’t think or know much about German writers.

But the fact is, there is a lot of intellectual and artistic ferment going on in the German lands. There is, of course, no “Germany” yet, but rather the more or less independent duchies that comprise what is left of the Holy Roman Empire. This is part of the reason, we don’t have a unified sense of a “German Enlightenment.” But that’s not to say there’s not a lot going on. But it’s decentralized. Berlin has not yet become the equivalent of London, and in fact John Quincy Adams writes a very disparaging letter about Berlin as a superficial and “dissipated” city in 1799!

You can read it here:

One reason that our founding fathers don’t have more of a connection to the German Enlightenment is because of the language difficulties. John Quincy refers to these in the above letter, so I’ll take this opportunity to share that the influence of German literature will make itself felt in the United States in the 19th century rather than in the 18th. Feminist critic and journalist Margaret Fuller read Lessing, as well as Schiller (yay! [I’m a Schiller fan {more on that in another post}]).

But the fact remains that Lessing is a hugely important exponent, of what one might call the Christian Enlightenment. Not everyone in Enlightenment thought was a deist. Some writers and thinkers were believers. Lessing appears to have been one of them.

But the fact is that even this son of a Lutheran pastor was a passionate advocate of religious tolerance. Although he would not agree with Voltaire’s general assessment of organized religion as a bad idea, he was concerned about the ways in which Christianity tended to bad-mouth its older sister and younger brother monotheisms.

So he wrote a play about it….

Nathan the Wise takes place during an extremely violent period of European history – namely during the Crusades. And it takes place in the still hotly disputed territory of Jerusalem. A Jewish merchant, Nathan, comes back from Babylon to learn that his house has burned, and that his adopted daughter was saved by – believe it or not – a Templar. Nathan’s daughter Recha thinks an angel rescued her, and is slightly disappointed when she learns that it was just a regular person who saved her so miraculously. But therein lies the miracle of it, in her adopted father’s view. Here’s what he says, and I’m showing you a bit of the German first so you can get a sense of what the words look like. Note that “Wunder” (in other words “wonder”) also means “miracle” in German:

Wie? weil
Es ganz natürlich, ganz alltäglich klänge,
Wenn dich ein eigentlicher Tempelherr
Gerettet hätte: sollt’ es darum weniger
Ein Wunder sein?—Der Wunder höchstes ist,
Daß uns die wahren, echten Wunder so
Alltäglich werden können, werden sollen.
Ohn’ dieses allgemeine Wunder, hätte
Ein Denkender wohl schwerlich Wunder je
Genannt, was Kindern bloß so heißen mußte,
Die gaffend nur das Ungewöhnlichste,
Das Neuste nur verfolgen

(you can read the play in the original German here)

now here’s the English:

And yet though it might sound but natural,

An every-day and ordinary thing,

That a mere Templar had delivered you,

Would it be any less a miracle?

To me the greatest miracle is this, That many a veritable miracle

By use and wont grows stale and commonplace.

But for this universal miracle,

A thinking man had ne’er confined the name

To those reputed miracles alone

Which startle children, ay, and older fools,

Ever agape for what is strange and new,

And out of nature’s course.

(Nathan the Wise, 1,7 )

You can tell from the way that he talks that Nathan is meant to incarnate the quintessential Enlightenment man – a person who does not operate from magical thinking (aka superstition about angels) —  but calls Recha’s and the audience’s attention to the miraculous quality of human beings themselves in their capacity to do a good thing. Of course the Good Samaritan idea springs to mind here.

You might like to know that the character of Nathan is based on a real person: Lessing’s Jewish friend Moses Mendelssohn, who was, one of the founding forces for Jewish assimilation into German society and who is credited as being an important factor in the eventual creation of Reform Judaism. His daughter Brendel will become an important writer and literary figure. German scholars know her as Dorothea Schlegel, the wife of Friedrich Schlegel. Dorothea was an important novelist, translator, and salon-holder.

Back to the play.

In this heroic portrayal of a Jewish character, we see that Nathan the merchant is anything but Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice. He’s generous, kind, thoughtful, and open-minded and most emphatically NOT obsessed with money.

Next, we meet someone very different: the historical figure Saladin, who isn’t conquering or praying but is rather playing a highly civilized game of chess with his sister, Sittah.

Photo: NATHAN THE WISE By GOTTHOLD EPHRAIM LESSING Adapted by EDWARD KEMP Directed by BRIAN KULICK with F. MURRAY ABRAHAM, GEORGE ABUD, AUSTIN DURANT, JOHN CHRISTOPHER JONES, SHIVA KALAISELVAN, CAROLINE LAGERFELT, ERIN NEUFER, STARK SANDS; presented by Classic Stage Company dress rehearsal photographed: Friday, January 15, 2016; 2:00 PM at Classic Stage Company, New York; Photograph: © 2016 Richard Termine PHOTO CREDIT - Richard Termine
Adapted by EDWARD KEMP
Directed by BRIAN KULICK
dress rehearsal photographed: Friday, January 15, 2016; 2:00 PM at Classic Stage Company, New York; Photograph: © 2016 Richard Termine
PHOTO CREDIT – Richard Termine

Christian audiences in the 18th Century and now are pretty used to thinking about Saladin as an invader, so it’s a great move on Lessing’s part to show him playing a game (a war game to be sure) and having a philosophical conversation.

This is what Saladin’s sister Sittah has to say about Christians:

You know not, will not know, what Christians  

are;   Their pride is to be Christians, never men ;

Ay, even that which since their Founder’s time

Hath tinged their superstition with a touch

Of pure humanity, is prized by them Never because ’tis human, but because

Twas preached and practiced by their Jesus Christ.  

Tis well for them he was so rare a man ;

Well that they take his virtues upon trust;

But what to them the virtues of their Christ?

Twas not his virtues, but his name alone

They seek to spread, that it may dominate

And cloud the names of other noble men ;

Ay, ’tis the name, the name of Christ alone

Your “Christian” cares about.

Friends – just IMAGINE these lines being spoken in a theater to a Christian audience by an Arab character….. Wow.

Note how Sittah describes Christianity as a kind of personality cult, devoid of actual practice.


But the religious critique is not just reserved for Christianity.

When the Templar and Nathan finally meet – in Act 2, scene 5, which is so fabulous you should read it for yourself – the Templar makes a powerful observation:

yet you must know the folk  

Which slandered first of all their fellow men ;

Know you not, Nathan, who the people are

Who first pronounced themselves “The Chosen Race”?  

How if I hated not that race indeed,

And yet could not refrain from scorning them

For arrogance like this, bequeathed by them

To Christian and to Mussulman alike,

Who too must boast their God alone as true,

You start to hear a Templar speak like this;

A Christian and a Templar ; but I ask

When, ay and where, has this fond dream of   theirs

That they alone possess the one true God;

This pious rage to force on all the world

This better God of theirs as best of all ;

Where has it shown itself in blacker form

Than here, and now 3 since here and now the  scales  

Still blind their eyes ?

It’s a great moment in the play. The Templar says the equivalent of “who started this whole “’my god is the one true god’ thing? – you guys! You Jewish guys started it! and now look at the mess we’re in!”

And what is Nathan’s response?

You do not know

How much more close I now must cling to you ;

We must be friends, we must, despise my race

As much as e’er you please we did not choose

Our races for ourselves. Do you and I

Make up our races ? what is race forsooth ?

Isn’t it interesting how these questions about racial difference are being interrogated as problematic in 1779?

Another confrontation awaits of course, and it’s the confrontation between Nathan and Saladin himself.

Saladin asks the merchant a crucial question: Which religion is best?

How would you answer an all-powerful Muslim ruler?

Nathan answers with a famous story: the story of 3 rings. This story is a kind of fairy tale. Once upon a time there was a man who loved his son and had a special ring made for him to pass down to his son. The ring in question is an opal – a seemingly white stone that glints many different colors – a great choice.

The ring is magic – it bestows upon the wearer the love of God, and immense blessings.

The ring is passed down from father to son (thanks a lot patriarchy), until there is a father with 3 sons, whom he loves equally.

What does he do?

The dad has 2 more rings fabricated, which are identical to the first one.

See where this is going? (also – Tolkien MUST have read this play).

The 3 sons wrangle and fight about which one of them has the REAL ring, and finally they sue each other and go to court.

Here’s a piece of what the judge says:

Let each now rival his unbiased love,  

His love so free from every prejudice;  

Vie with each other in the generous strife  

To prove the virtues of the rings you wear;  

And to this end let mild humility,  

Hearty forbearance, true benevolence,

And resignation to the will of God,   Come to your aid...

In other words, the judge in Nathan’s story says “let each son compete to prove the authenticity of his ring through his virtue.”

That’s a good judgment.

Appropriately (spoiler), the end of the play reveals, that the Christian Templar is actually Saladin’s nephew, and Recha the Jew is his sister.

We are, Lessing is telling us, all part of the same, complicated, multicultural, multi-linguistic, multi-religious, and multi-racial family.

We are going to have to find a way to get along as a family.

And we can.

In April 2016, Nathan the Wise was staged in NYC and Nathan were played by F. Murray Abraham. I’d like to have seen that production. My friend Robert tells me that the play is put on alot in Germany — which makes sense given the presence of Christians, Muslims, and yes, Jews in contemporary Germany.

During the holiday season and during the upcoming year, let us all compete hard to prove the authenticity of our ring. There are more than 3 of course. There’s an atheist’s ring too.

Happy holidays: Merry Christmas, Happy Chanukah, Happy Solstice, Happy Kwanzaa and a joyous 2017.



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