Someone wiser than all of us
Most of us have probably never heard of Gotthold Ephraim
Lessing. Lessing, however, is along with Goethe and Schiller, one of the
most often read or analyzed German authors of the 18th century. If Goethe
is the Shakespeare of German literature, then perhaps Lessing parallels
Christopher Marlowe in that Goethe mimicked Lessing's style.
I hadn't heard of him until I began a German Literature
class this semester and became overwhelmed by the modern lessons in his
classic Nathan Der Weise, or "Nathan the Wise"(remember English
is a Germanic language). It could be argued that it is one of the most
meaningful works of dramatic literature at this moment in time. The lessons
in it apply not only to the Middle East today, but of course to UN delegates
at the Durban Conference, and to us here at Bowdoin as we work to combat
discrimination and overcome the horrific tragedies in New York, Washington,
Lessing's classic play is set in Jerusalem in the 12th century.
Nathan is a wise, wealthy Jewish merchant whom others try to trick into
giving them money. One of the most famous and most explicated passages
in all of German literature is where a Muslim Saladin tries to manipulate
Nathan into giving him money. Saladin bets Nathan that he is not wise
enough to figure out which of the three major religions in Jerusalem?Christianity,
Judaism, and Islam?is the most divinely inspired Lessing uses and slightly
alters "The Parable of the Rings", borrowed from Decameron,
by Italian renaissance author Giovanni Boccacia, to explain his protagonist's
For those of us who are not familiar with Lessing's version
of this parable, it is one that is profound in its simplicity. The story
is about a man whose father gives him a ring, to give to his son, as a
family heirloom. It is meant to be given to the most worthy son as an
example that he is the "true heir." However, generations later,
the man with the ring has three sons who are all worthy to receive the
heirloom. Instead of choosing one, the father has a good jeweler copy
the original ring twice and gives all of his sons "the ring."
Of course the sons soon realized what the father had done and quarreled
among each other over who was the worthy recipient of the ring. Consequently,
they take the matter to court.
The true message of the story is found in the wisdom which
Lessing's judge imparts on the three brothers: "live as if you are
the true heir and then return to me in a thousand years and we'll see
who earns the right to wear the ring." Obviously we can see that
in nearly a thousand years since the setting of this play, little has
changed in the Middle East or the world. Last week four explosions went
off in Israel, taking the lives of seven innocent Israelis. And it is
speculated that the attacks in the United States were orchestrated by
a religious fundamentalist group. The threat of terrorism is now tragically
more real to us here in America than it ever had been previously in our
Earlier this week, pundits have thrown different thoughts across the airwaves as the best response to this cowardly attack on our American soul. Here again I seek Lessing's prescience for guidance. At the end of his play, many of the characters realize they are related to each other. Though they feel happy, it is not clear that their prejudices have changed much. Again, one cannot help but think not only of the Middle East and the World Trade Center, but of the recently concluded UN conference on racism in Durban, South Africa. There, the delegates used lofty language condemning racism and using the genome project as a demonstration of our bond as a human family.
However, I doubt that the world's problems with hate can
be seriously ameliorated by one overrated conference. It will take leadership
on the part of the world's nations to teach their people that radical
and violent factions within faiths do not represent entire religions.
This week's tragedy and Lessing's play challenge us to learn that it is
not necessarily best to be the winner, it is rather best to be the wiser.