Nathan the Wise

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  • Topic: Nathan the Wise, Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, Moses Mendelssohn
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  • Published : October 16, 2012
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Different But Equal

Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1729-1781) published Nathan der Weise in 1779. Written during the Enlightenment period, Lessing aims to capture the religious intolerance of his time and refers to this theme as the “scourge of his age”. The story, written as a play, is a fanatical plea for religious tolerance. The church forbade the performance of the play during Lessing’s lifetime; it was first performed in Berlin, 1783. Nathan The Wise is set in Jerusalem at the end of the twelfth century in the midst of the Crusades, which stresses a time period of anti-Jewish sentiment that embodies this premise of religious prejudice. Lessing’s view was we may all be different from each other but we are all created equal and should have respect and love for all people.

Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716) who is often considered the founder of the German Enlightenment and is particularly famous for his theodicy, or “justification of God” was particularly influential on Lessing. Leibniz’s philosophy of optimism claimed that everything occurring in the universe was for the best because everything was part of God’s perfect plan.” This also exemplifies the idea of Perspectivalism, which says that truth looks different depending on one’s perspective. This supported Lessing’s belief that even contradictory religions could nevertheless be equally true; and therefore religious diversity was not a problem but itself evidence of the divine plan. Lessing believed that God had accommodated people by showing them the world according to their ability to perceive it. For example, Recha turns to religion for an explanation to try and satisfy her understanding through divinity, just as all humans try to understand life with religion. This notion is also vividly illustrated in Nathan’s parable of the rings. Lessing wrote:

“If God held all truth in his right hand and the sole everlasting urge for truth in his left, with the result that I should be determined to be...
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