Gotthold Ephraim Lessing: ‘Nathan The Wise’

by richardhutton

From Nathan The Wise

Once in the East there lived a man who owned a ring of unimaginable worth.
It bore a jewel in which a thousand colours played; and the ring had the power to make the wearer loved by all people, and by God. It was no wonder that this man would never let the ring leave his finger, or that he resolved that it should never leave his family.

The man bequeathed the ring to his favourite son, and with it the instruction that he in turn should pass it to his favourite son, and that henceforth – ignoring all priority of birth – the favourite son should be master of the house by virtue of the power of the ring…

From favourite son to favourite son the ring passed down through the ages until it came to a father who had three sons. All sons were equally obedient, all equally attentive, and all equally loved by their father. And so, according to which son pleased him most, at the end of a long day spent riding or talking, and with the embers dying in the grate, one by one the father pledged the ring to each of his sons.

However, death approached the father, and left him dismayed. He could not bear to think that two of his sons had trusted him, and now must be denied. So the father sent in secret for a masterful jeweller, and commissioned him to make two copies of the ring – sparing neither cost nor effort until they were identical with the original. The jeweller obeyed; and when the rings were brought before the father, even he could not tell which was genuine and which the replicas. Joyfully the father summoned his sons one by one and gave to each his blessing and his own ring. And so the father died…

What happened next is predictable: the father had scarcely breathed his last before each brother came forth with his ring and claimed to be master of the house. They haggled, they argued, and they fought. All in vain. No brother could prove which was the true ring.

The brothers finally brought their case before a learned judge. Each made their statements, swearing that they had received their ring directly from the father’s hand; and that the father had given each his personal blessing. All three brothers declared that their father could not possible have deceived them, and each contended that – much as they may love one another – their brethren must therefore be at fault. Thus each brother vowed to expose his siblings’ treachery, and then exact their revenge.

To this the judge replied: ‘The dispute will only be resolved if you can bring your father to the witness stand – which you cannot; or if the true ring makes a statement – which is most unlikely. Failing that, I must dismiss the case. However, I have heard that the true ring has the power to make its wearer loved by God, and by all people. Perhaps that is your sign. A false ring could not do this. So think carefully: which brother is loved most? Does each brother only love himself? If the latter, then all three of you are deceived, and all of your rings are false. Perhaps the true one has been mislaid, and your father had these three copies made as a replacement?’.

The Judge had not finished, however. He continued: ‘Thus, if you desire a verdict you must go elsewhere. But if you will take counsel, I advise the following: accept the situation as it is. Each of you has been given a ring by your father. Have faith that it is the true one. Maybe this was your father’s plan after all: to end the tyranny of the single ring. It is clear he loved you all, and loved you equally: why would he disadvantage two by favouring one?

You could do worse than follow his example. Strive towards such unprejudiced affection in your own right. Instead of fighting amongst yourselves, vie with each other to prove the power of your own ring through gentleness, patience, charity and a deep humility before the love of God. And if after a thousand years the power of your ring still shines amongst your children’s children’s children, then I will summon you again before this judgement seat. A wiser man than I shall then preside, and he will give his verdict’

by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (based on the translation by Edward Kemp)

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