In 1779, the German playwright Gotthold Ephraim Lessing published his last play, Nathan the Wise. A towering figure of the German Enlightenment, Lessing meant the piece to be a mighty stroke for religious tolerance. He drew inspiration from the German Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelssohn, expecting him to embrace the work. Unfortunately, Mendelssohn most certainly did not.
While Lessing intended the piece to speak out against religious intolerance, in some ways, it seems to oppose the religious impulse itself. Mendelssohn had risen to fame with his book Phaedo, modeled after Plato's dialogue of the same name. Mendelssohn's book (like Plato's) argued for the immortality of the soul. Such notions of the spiritual realm are absent from Lessing's play, which leads the audience to embrace the physical world rather than religious miracles.
For instance, when Nathan's daughter in the play believes a man who saved her was an angel, he rebukes her. Nathan argues:
Now to an angel, what great services
Have ye the power to do? To sing his praise--
Melt in transporting contemplation o'er him--
Fast on his holiday--and squander alms--
What nothingness of use! To me at least
It seems your neighbor gains much more than he
By all this pious glow. Not by your fasting
Is he made fat; not by your squandering, rich;
Nor by your transports is his glory exalted;
Nor by your faith, his might. But to a man--
Nathan's point is that we owe our thanks to human beings rather than to the supernatural. We should thank men for our good fortune, not some invisible inhabitant of another world. Moreover, he reprimands his daughter for traditional religious observances, such as fasting and almsgiving. Nathan's ultra-rational view of the world sees even the distribution of alms as "squandering" rather than a religious duty that might make the world a better place. Whether or not he is right, his arguments are not merely against intolerance, but against some of the basic tenants of the three great monotheistic religions.
The play represents all three of those religions. Nathan is Jewish, while his best friend Al-Hafi is Muslim, and the mysterious stranger who saved his daughter is a Christian knight of the Templar order. Far from being a Christian zealot, though, the Templar is suspicious of any religion that sees itself as better than another faith. Nathan is delighted, and says to him:
We must, we will be friends. Despise my nation--
We did not choose a nation for ourselves.
Are we our nations? What's a nation then?
Were Jews and Christians such, e'er they were men?
And I have found in thee one more, to whom
It is enough to be a man.
Interestingly enough, it is the men in the play who primarily exalt reason, while the women are more likely to hold "childish" notions about religion. Nathan's daughter Recha naively believes the Templar to be an angel, and Daya, a Christian woman in Nathan's service, secretly works against her master. Recha parrots back her father's teaching that "our devotion to the God of all / Depends not on our notions about God." One might wonder if the concept of God has any meaning, then, if all notions about God are irrelevant. Daya tries a different tact, however. She tells the Templar a secret: Recha is not Nathan's biological child at all, but adopted, and born a Christian!
This revelation throws the characters into chaos, but Lessing's play revels in the fluidness of religious identity. At one point, a kindly friar exclaims, "Nathan, you are Christian!" to which the protagonist responds, "What makes me to you a Christian / Makes you to me a Jew." This interchangeability of religious names is in keeping with a parable Nathan tells about three brothers who each receive what they believe to be a special ring passed down from their father. When the brothers realize all three have what they believe to be the true ring, each brother is forced to act with the greatest uprightness possible, in hopes of proving his own ring to be the one that has been blessed.
The parable is lovely, but Lessing's play takes its lesson to the point of absurdity. The Templar is in love with Recha, who was raised as Jewish, but revealed by Daya to have been born to a Christian family. That would seem to be convenient, since it allows the two to marry without having a "mixed" marriage. Instead of having them marry, however, Lessing reveals that they are actually brother and sister. Not only that, the Templar turns out to be the nephew of the Muslim sultan, the great Saladin! What are the lovers now? Jewish? Christian? Muslim? Does it even make a difference anymore?
More importantly, how are they supposed to deal with the romantic love they have for one another now that they turn out to be brother and sister? Saladin revels in the strong bond of blood kinship, declaring to the (former?) Templar, "Now, proud boy, thou shalt love me, thou must love me." In the Enlightenment view of the play, love is compulsory. Our duties come not from religious faith, but from the dictates of our birth, and each of us are bound to follow the dictates of birth just as each of the three brothers in the parable is bound to honor his own ring, even if it turns out to be a forgery.
Is it any wonder Mendelssohn reacted so strongly against the play? Lessing claims that the Jews are not a chosen people, and even if they are, it scarcely matters since all religious identities are interchangeable, and we are bound not by choice or faith, but by the accident of birth. A woman raised on the Torah is supposed to just blithely start going to Mass because her parents were Christian, and a Templar sworn to fight Islam is supposed to switch sides as soon as he finds out that the sultan is his uncle.
What is most disturbing about the play's ending, though, is its sublimation of the sexual and romantic energy between the lovers into the familial love of a sibling relationship. Lessing glosses over this, having the two perfectly satisfied with how things turn out, and not at all troubled by their incestuous longings. The sexual element of the play is effectively neutered.
Lessing could have ended the play differently, but he chose to make the lovers brother and sister. Why? The neutering of their relationship, which is so bound up with their religious zeal (after all, she first thought he was an angel) in effect becomes a neutering of religion itself. Now we see why the "rational" men in the play eschew religious faith while the "irrational" women are likely to mistake men for angels. Lessing's goal is to make reason manly, while religion appears as a girlish pursuit unbecoming of a true man. He even gives the one male character associated with the irrational nature of religion--the Patriarch of Jerusalem--feminine characteristics, having him strut around in his stately garments even when he is just out visiting the sick.
The play offers an asexual and aromantic rationality as the "cure" for religion's extremism. In removing all that was irrational from religion, however, Lessing also eliminates what gave it power. The eroticism that bound together the Templar and Recha disappears, and with it, much of the irrational, faith-based passion that makes religion attractive to many people. Lessing intended the play as a plea for religious tolerance, but one can't help wondering: Did Lessing understand religion at all?