Sunday, September 07, 2008

Sunday: The Parable of the Rings

The central message of Lessing's Nathan der Weise is embodied by the famous Parable, which Nathan recounts to Saladin, who has asked him which is the true religion. In summary:
A man of the east possesses an opal ring whose quality it is to make the bearer agreeable to God and to man. This ring is passed down to his most dearly beloved son, independent of order of birth, etc., and so on down the generations. Eventually there is a father who loves all three of his sons equally, and has promised his ring to all three of them. So he asks an artist to make two identical rings. Then, when he is on his deathbed, he gives each of them a ring and a blessing, and then dies. Afterward his sons squabble over who received the true ring, but it is never discovered.
But this tale is not without holes in its logic. In some indignation, Saladin asks Nathan whether this is the answer to his question, and Nathan humbly replies, "Shall I ask forgiveness if I do not trust myself to choose among the rings, which our Father made in the intention that they bear no difference?" Saladin counters that the religions are different, so much so that even the food and drink diverge. But, says Nathan, the origins of these religions are the same, and these religions are histories that all describe the same thing. He then explains why he chooses to be Jewish if other religions are equally valid. The traditions of Judaism have been transmitted to him by his parents, and is it not natural that we would prefer, and trust in, a history that has been recounted to us by persons who have proven over and over again that they love us, and that they would not lie to us?

Another flaw is that all three of the sons are behaving quite disagreeably, which should not be the case if one of them had the ring. And this apparent plot-hole is addressed in the second part of the parable:
The brothers take their complaints to a judge. He asks if two of the brothers love the third more. They evidently do not, and the judge, waxing wroth, says that they only love themselves, and that none of the rings is the right one. This one ring has presumably been lost, and three replacements made. Even if the ring hadn't been lost, the father would not have wanted one of the sons to be favoured at the expense of the other two, or to endure the tyranny of the one ring any longer. So the judge, in a fine oration, exhorts the sons to find the true ring by practicing its virtues:

Es strebe von euch jeder um die Wette,
Die Kraft des Steins in seinem Ring' an Tag
Zu legen! komme dieser Kraft mit Sanftmut,
Mit herzlicher Verträglichkeit, mit Wohltun,
Mit innigster Ergebenheit in Gott
Zu Hilf'! Und wenn sich dann der Steine Kräfte
Bei euern Kindes-Kindern äussern:
So lad ich über tausend Jahre
Sie wiederum vor diesen Stuhl. Da wird
Ein weisrer Mann auf diesem Stuhle sitzen
Als ich; und sprechen.
In other words, "Let each of you contend to show the power of the stone in his ring! Come to the aid of this power with a mild spirit, with hearty concord, with beneficence, with the most profound submission to God. And if, then, the powers of the stones should become apparent in your children's children, I invite you again before this chair in a thousand years' time. Then a wiser man than I shall sit in this chair, and speak."

So, I suppose I should be commenting on this, but I prefer to leave the parable as is, and let the reader make up his own mind about it. I will only say that religious strife, in my view, has much more to do with the pursuit of power than with the pursuit of truth.

* * *

Tale in the Decameron (First Day, Novel III):
English, Italian

No comments: