Nathan the Wise is one of the best known plays by the German writer Gotthold Ephraim Lessing that touches upon the religious issues, the conflicts, which may happen on the religious field and during the discussion of Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, and the characters, who have to cope with different situations in order to prove their positions and their points of view.
This story is a kind of pursuit for the desirable truth; people are so bothered with the idea to find out whose standpoints are correct, and whose ideas have to be improved. In order to achieve success in life and help the other to follow your example, it is necessary to adopt your mind to current conditions and, at the same time, not to lose own peculiarity and uniqueness.
Nathan the Wise is regarded as the best representative of the Enlightenment, the movement of intellectual change, and deals with one of the brightest ideals of this movement, unalienable rights; these rights imply certain laws, which cannot be violated, religious tolerance that has to be supported, and the idea of being free in ideas, interests, religion, and words.
The age of Enlightenment is considered to be one of the most intellectual movements in our history: free from feudal obligations, scientifically developed, and attentive to human understanding of this world, the Enlightenment came in order to provide people with a chance to live in accordance with own demands and interests and be able to comprehend each of these demands.
Lessing’s Nathan the Wise should be regarded as a kind of enlightenment for each reader because it helps to open human eyes, explain them that unity is their power, and enlighten some new ideas to lead for changes. “None should omit to make use of the reasons/ Given him by God, in things where it belongs” (Lessing, 4:1, 39). This phrase by Patriarch proves that the described in the play times required thorough obedience to God’s wishes and following his hints from ordinary people’s side.
These lines underline the fact that not each person is eager to forget own interests and scarify own demands in order to follow God’s directions. This inability to create friendly society promotes the author to develop a new way that can unite people, show them the right way, and prove them that they are actually free, because for that period of time “Not all are free that can bemock their fetters” (Lessing , 4:2, 43).
Nowadays, the Enlightenment ideal of religious tolerance is taken for granted by many people: revolutions, which aim at proclaiming the separation of state and church, offering an agreement to divide people of believers and heretics in order to punish the latter and encourage the former.
“This sweet illusion yields to sweeter truth/ (For to a man a man is ever dearer/ Than any angel) you must not be angry/ To see our loved enthusiast exercised” (Lessing, 1:1, 4). Nathan’s dialogue with Daya shows the reader how Nathan treats to religion and how strong his faith in renunciation.
He cannot accept the idea that people are less important in comparison to God and angels and that religious truth cannot become an external possession. Religious tolerance becomes the central theme in this play and makes Nathan takes considerable steps in order to demonstrate own interests, own truth, and own faith. He is a Jew, and nothing and even no one can change this truth.
In spite of the fact that he never was and will be a traditional Jew, he cannot change his faith. This faith comes from his fathers, and to change or to forget about it is similar to renunciation of his past and his roots: “there dwelt in east a man/who from a valued hand received a ring/ of endless worth” (Lessing, 3:2, 32).
The Enlightenment ideal of unalienable rights under analysis speaks about the right of word and the right of thought as well as their freedom. However, Lessing himself creates numerous contradictions within his characters and demonstrates how miserable human rights and freedoms can be.
At the beginning, Nathan admits that “needs must – belongs to no man: and a devis” (Lessing, 1:1, 8), however, within a short period of time, he proves Templar that “we must, and will be friends. Despite my nation/We did not choose a nation for ourselves” (Lessing, 2:2, 23).
This change of mind may serve as a good characteristic that introduces the features of human enlightenment, possible revolution of mind, and comprehension of the situation. First, Nathan denies the idea of “must” for people. He cannot accept the truth that people’s actions are obligatory, and they have nothing but to follow the already established rules.
But still, one situation, when Templar saves the life of Nathan’s daughter, changes Nathan’s perception of this world and the duties, which are inherent to all people. On my opinion, our life is too short and full of unpredictable situations, and it turns out to be useless to proclaim something really serious and great in order to change the idea under other conditions.
The ideal of religious tolerance is perfectly described in the Nathan’s story about the ring, and the father’s duty to present this ring to one song only, he loves most of all. With time, two more rings were created: “nor cost nor pains to make them like/ Quite like the true one.
This the artist managed/ The rings were brought, and e’en the father’s eye/ Could not distinguish which had been the model” (Lessing, 3:2, 32). The point is that this ring serves as an analogy to religions, which exist in the world. People have the right to choose, but still, cannot decide which religion is more important and which one should be the ruling one – no one will answer this question, because “nor pains” are left.
Religious tolerance is not an easy concept to comprehend, however, Nathan’s story provides the reader with a chance to realize that it is useless to create boundaries, rules, and other obstacles in order to find out the truth, because the real truth is everywhere and nowhere at the same time.
Nathan the Wise opens a new vision of the ideal of religious tolerance, human rights, and freedom. People have all chances to behave in accordance with own principles and interests, however, they should be very careful, because such abilities usually confuse people and promote some hasty steps, words, and thoughts.
Usually, people want to be free in order to achieve truth and use it in their lives, but still, they have to comprehend that “dry truth is vexing” (Lessing, 3:2, 31), and real truth “has cost… tears of blood” (Lessing, 3:3, 38). This is why it is necessary to thing at first whether any kind of truth is worthy of human sacrifices and hopes.
Lessing, Gotthold, Ephraim. Nathan the Wise: A Dramatic Poem in Five Acts. Trans. By William Taylor of Norwich. Cassell & Company, 1893.