The poet Lessing, in one of his great dramatic works entitled "Nathan the Wise," gives a noteworthy lesson in the real spirit of religious understanding, so rarely met with today. This particular incident is not widely known, but it would seem of sufficient interest in these times to warrant its retelling.
In the reign of Saladin, Sultan of Egypt, who was so beloved by his subjects as a benevolent ruler and reformer, there lived Nathan, a Jewish merchant. Through thrift, prudence and honesty, Nathan had amassed great wealth, but notwithstanding this, he had also gained the goodwill and love of his fellowmen. Nathan was a profound student and philosopher, and was soon dubbed 'The Wise,' enjoying great popularity in the surrounding country. Although the royal household was counted among the great patrons of Nathan, yet the Sultan had never met the merchant in person, since all business transactions were carried on in general by Sittah, Saladin's sister.
Taking the occasion of the first meeting of the Sultan and of Nathan, the poet depicts Nathan's character, his wisdom, simplicity, and sincerity. On being summoned before the great Saladin, Nathan's modesty leaves him altogether unconscious of the latter's purpose to discuss with him deep religious and philosophical subjects. He rather imagines that the Sultan desires certain information pertaining to supplies for the royal household. In consequence he is taken by surprise when Saladin addresses him:
"Nathan, tell me what belief or law has mostly impressed you."
Nathan answers: "Sultan, I am a Jew."
Saladin replies: "And I am a Mussulman. The Christian stands between us, and one of the three religions must be the true one."
The dialog is hereupon suddenly interrupted by the presence of a courtier who desires to obtain some necessary information, and Nathan, considering how to answer Saladin's question without arousing antagonism, decides to narrate a tale by which he may obtain his benevolent purpose. The tale is as follows:
Many years ago there lived in the far East a man who was the possessor of a priceless ring, given to him by a dearly loved friend. The stone was an opal reflecting many beautiful colors, and had the inherent power of charming everybody with whom the wearer came in touch. It was, therefore, no wonder that he never permitted it to leave his finger, and he legally provided that it should always remain in the family, and in such a way that the ring should invariably become the inheritance of the most beloved son in each generation without regard to age or station, and that its possession should make him the ruling head of the house.
After many generations, the ring finally came into the possession of a father with three sons, all of them obedient and beloved by him. In consequence thereof the man was sorely tried in endeavoring to make his decision as to which one of his sons he should leave the ring. Whenever he found himself alone with any one of his three beloved sons, it caused him great pain because each seemed entitled to the dignity as head of the house and the ownership of the ring. In his perplexity, and not wishing to disappoint any one of them, he sent for a goldsmith in secret, and gave him the order to make two more rings exactly like the original. When the artist returned the three rings, the father was greatly pleased with the result of the craftsman's labor, but he himself was unable to detect the original from the two copies. He then called each of his sons separately to him, gave him his blessing and a ring, and died.
In order to observe the effect of his tale upon Saladin, Nathan paused here, as though resting a moment or two; but being urged to continue to the end of his tale, he replied: "The rest was quite natural. Scarcely was the father dead, when each son came forward with his ring and claimed to be the head of the house. Disputes and quarrels arose, but the right ring was not distinguishable — almost as indistinguishable as is the true religion to us."
"How!" replied Saladin. "Is this the answer to my question?"
"I merely wish to excuse myself. As the rings the father had intended to be not distinguishable, I do not trust myself to distinguish."
"The rings!" exclaimed the Sultan. "Do not play with me. I thought the religions I named ought to be distinguished in themselves, and barring questions of clothing, food, and drink."
Nathan's reply was as follows: "The basis of the three is the same; all are founded on history transmitted by tradition or writing, and history must be accepted on faith and belief. Is this not so? Whose faith and belief do we doubt the least? Our own people's, of whose blood we are, and who in our youth never lacked in their love for us and never deceived us. Can I trust my forefathers less than you yours? Or vice versa? The same holds good with the Christian."
Saladin murmured to himself: "The man is right; I must be silent."
Nathan continued: "But let us return to our rings. As said before, the three sons went to law, and each swore before the judge that he had received his ring directly from his father's own hand, as was perfectly true; and, said they, before believing in wrong-doing by then-venerated father each one of them must rather accuse the others of false play.
"The judge somewhat impatiently replied to the contestants as follows:
I am not here to solve riddles, and the right ring will not open its mouth. But wait! I hear that the genuine ring possesses the power of making its possessor amiable before God and men. This must decide the matter, as the false rings cannot do this. Now, then, which of you loves his two brothers the most? — You are silent. You all, I doubt not, are deceived; your rings are not genuine. The right one likely was lost and to replace the loss the father had three others made. My advice is this: Leave the matter precisely as it now is. As each of you had a ring from his father, let him believe it to be the genuine one. No doubt your father loved you all alike, and did not wish to favor one and disappoint two of you. Therefore, let each one strive to live in accordance with his heart's noblest love without prejudice to anyone, and endeavor to bring into action the powers of the ring. Do this with forbearance, patience, compassion, and devotion to God and mankind. Then when the powers of the stones shall have manifested themselves in your children's children, I invite you in a thousand years from now again to come before this tribunal, and a wiser man than I will occupy this seat and will speak. Go in peace.
"Thus spake that wise judge."
Saladin, much affected, pressed Nathan's hands, saying to him: "The 'thousand years' of your judge are not yet completed. His seat is not mine. Go in peace, and be forever my friend."
(From Sunrise magazine, February 1954; copyright © 1954 Theosophical University Press)