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  • One True Ring or Many?Religious Pluralism in Lessing's Nathan the Wise
  • Christopher Adamo

In the Central Scene of Nathan the Wise, Nathan responds to Saladin's pointed question pertaining to the "true religion" with the famous parable of the three rings.1 As John Pizer notes, Lessing deliberately crafts ambiguous fables to cultivate the reader's capacity for autonomous exercise of hermeneutic skill.2 That Gotthold Ephraim Lessing's Nathan the Wise evokes a wide variety of interpretations, therefore, should be no surprise.3 However, for Pizer, Lessing's use of fable additionally represents a "key to his Enlightenment ideals, the inculcation of the idea that individuals are responsible for their own actions and for their own maturation as social beings, as later articulated by Kant" (Pizer, p. 101). If the genre of fable itself, for Lessing, serves as a pedagogic tool to cultivate in his readers the rational autonomy as envisioned by Kant in the opening lines of "What is Enlightenment?," then might that suggest Lessing's ring-parable is best read as an Enlightenment-humanist response to the theological and political problem of the plurality of revealed religions?

Several recent Lessing scholars have taken this line. In his study Lessing's Philosophy of Religion and the German Enlightenment, Toshimasa Yasukata approvingly reads the parable of the rings as illustrative of Lessing's view of a "true religion" that "transcends all of the historical religions and yet underlies the truth of each. . . . [A] religion based on real and universal humanity."4 Astrid Oesmann, in her article "Nathan der Weise: Suffering Lessing's 'Erziehung,'" develops a similar interpretation but then, based upon it, turns a critical eye toward such a project as it requires Nathan to suppress his Judaic identity—not merely in his confrontation with Saladin but additionally by suppressing his suffering [End Page 139] at the hands of a Crusader pogrom that took the lives of his wife and seven children.5 For both these commentators, Lessing's Nathan the Wise champions a vision of a universal religion based on reason alone, for good or for ill.

With this interpretation of Lessing's Nathan in the background, I intend to highlight moments in Lessing's Nathan that invite a more pluralistic reading. Both readings above interpret the ambiguous ending of the parable in light of the teleological history of revealed religion constructed by Lessing in "The Education of the Human Race" thus, implying there remains a singular, genuine, ring, i.e., a "true" religion that even may be identifiable with one of the three in question. The reading developed here interprets the ambiguous ending of the ring parable in light of the final scenes of Nathan, focusing on Recha's rich genealogical origins and her universal regard among persons of diverse faiths. The question as to which is the correct [recht] ring gives way to the question of which bearer(s) possesses a genuine [echt] ring, a significant shift in focus and reflective of Lessing's "primacy of ethics" over explanation in an approach to the plurality of revealed religions.6 Second, though both an Enlightenment reading and the present reading move the focus of religion away from orthodoxy towards a primacy of ethics, the present reading would be better equipped to respond to a charge like Oesmann's that defusing inter-religious tensions in a multicultural polity can come only by the sacrifice of one's cultural and historical particularity as Jewish, Muslim, Christian.


Nathan the Wise is set in Jerusalem during the close of the Third Crusade (1189–1192). A cease-fire has just been breached by the Knights Templar. Each side prepares to resume the hostilities. Previous acts of internecine violence reverberate throughout the play. Several of the play's characters suffer from (Nathan) and perpetrate (the Templar, the Sultan) sectarian violence. We discover in the first act that Saladin has just executed nineteen prisoners of war, sparing only one Templar. We discover in the fourth act that Nathan's entire family had been murdered by Crusaders roughly eighteen years previous. The political, pragmatic peace between rival parties is unraveling.

The action begins when Nathan, a wealthy Jewish merchant, returns from his...


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pp. 139-149
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