The Parable of the Ring
In 1779, Gotthold Lessing, poet of the enlightenment, published the play “Nathan the Wise.” Wikipedia notes it as a fervent plea for religious tolerance. Such as the religious atmosphere at the time forbade religious tolerance, performance of the play was forbidden by “the church” and later, the Nazis. I recommend the book to everyone, but provide a translation of the parable of the ring, and invite insightful, respectful comments. The translation started from project Gutenberg linked at Wiki, and has been repaired somewhat by myself. The setting is the court of the muslim Sultan, Saladin, with the wealthy and wise Jewish merchant Nathan. Saladin has just asked Nathan which of the world’s three great religions are correct.
The Parable of the Ring, from Nathan the Wise, NATHAN SALADIN.
A long time ago, far-off in the east, A man received a ring of endless worth from a valued hand. The ring’s jewel was an opal, with an iridescent sheen. The ring’s true hidden value, however, was to make him who wore the ring beloved by man and God, if they wore it for this purpose. Curiously, the eastern man never took it off his finger. Instead, he devised how he could ensure it always stayed in his family. To this end, he bequeathed the ring only to the most beloved of his sons, and commanded him to give the ring further to his most beloved son. This choice should ignore birth order, and should only be the favorite son. The possesor of the ring would be the leader of the house. Got it so far, Sultan?
Yeah, go on.
From father to son the ring continue until the ring fell to a man, a father with three sons. The three sons were equally obedient to the man, and therefore he loved them equally. Sometimes, the man thought that one, then the other, or the last should be his most believed and receive the ring. Therefore, with only worthy intentions yet weak resolve, he promised the ring to each of his sons unknown to the others. As the man aged, and knew his passing was near, the man became embarrased to disappoint any of his children. “What shall I do?” he asks himself. He commisions a jeweler to produce 2 copies of the ring. No expense or effort is spared to make them like unto the true ring. Even the father could not distinguish between the model and the copies. Happily, he individually calls his sons, and gives to each his blessing and “his” ring, and then dies. You got it?
Yeah, I got it. Are you done yet?
I’m done, Sultan. You can guess the rest. The father is barely in the ground when each of his sons comes with his ring and claims to the leader of the house. Eternal questioning, striving, complaining starts, because the true ring could no longer be distinguished than the true faith now can be.
How on earth does that answer my question?
It doesn’t. It’s merely my excuse that I have no answer. If I can’t choose between rings that were made to look exactly similar, that they can’t be distinguished…
Religions aren’t rings!–Don’t trifle with me, Nathan. The three religions I named can be distinguished, down to their very clothing, food and drink!
They aren’t only different in their reason of evidence. They also have history: oral and written. History can only be received by trust, right? Whom are we likeliest to trust? Certainly in “our own” people; in them whose blood we are. In them, who have proven their love from our childhood, and who’ve never deceived us, unless it was better to be deceived. How could I believe less in my forefathers than you in yours? How can I ask you to believe your ancesters lied to you in order to give my ancesters the praise of truth? The same is true of the Christians.
By the living God, the man is in the right, I must be silent.
Let’s return to the story of the rings. As I said, the sons complained. Each son swore to the judge that he had received the ring from his father’s hand, and it was true. Each assumed that their father couldn’t have deceived them, but had enough charitably to accuse their brothers of treacherous forgery and was bold enough to accuse them. And the judge…
I’m eager now to hear what you’ll have him say. Go on, go on.
The judge said, if you can’t bring the father before my seat, I cannot give a sentence. Am I to guess the answer of an enigma? Or do you all expect that the true ring will speak and proclaim it’s truthfulness itself! Wait a minute: you all tell me that the real ring has the power to make the wearer beloved of God and man. Let that decide. Which of you do two brothers love the best? You’re silent!!! Do these love-exciting rings act inwardly only, and not on the outside? Does each love only himself! You are all deceived deceivers! None of your rings is true. Perhaps the real ring is gone, and to hide its loss, your father had three copies made!
O charming, charming!
And (the judge continued) If you will take advice in lieu of sentence, this is my counsel to you. Begin where you are all now. Each of you has had a ring presented to him by his father. Let each believe his own is the real ring. It is possible the father chose to no longer tolerate the tyranny of a single ring. And certainly, as much as he loved you all equally, it wouldn’t please him to favor one to make him the oppressor of the other two. Therefore, let each feel himself honored by this free affection, without prejudice. Let each endeavor to vie with his brothers in displaying the virtue of the ring he bears. Let him increase the power of the ring with his own gentleness, benevelonce, forbearance, with inward resignation to God. If the virtues of the ring continue to be present among your children’s children, and in a thousand, thousand years, return to this judgement seat-and a greater one than I shall sit upon it, and decide. So spake the modest judge.
Saladin, Do you think yourself wiser than this promised man?
I…I am dust, I am nothing, Oh God! [Saladin precipitates himself upon Nathan, and takes hold of his hand, which he does not quit the remainder of the scene.]
What’s wrong Sultan?
Nathan, my dearest Nathan, The judge’s thousand thousand years are not yet past. His judgment-seat is not mine. Go, Nathan, but love me.
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