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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

From ‘Nathan the Wise’

By Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1729–1781)

SALADIN—Draw nearer, Jew! Still nearer! Close to me,

And have no fear!
Nathan—Let that be for thy foe!

Saladin—Thy name is Nathan.
Saladin—Nathan the Wise?

Saladin—Well! if not by thee thyself so called,

The people call thee so.
Nathan—Maybe, the people.

Saladin—Thou dost not think, forsooth, that I

The people’s voice do scornfully disdain?

Indeed, I have long wished to know the man

The people call the Wise.
Nathan—What if they mean

By wise that he is only shrewd, and knows

His own advantage craftily to gain?

Saladin—His true advantage meanest thou thereby?

Nathan—Then the most selfish were the shrewdest too;

Then were indeed “crafty” and “wise” the same.

Saladin—I hear thee prove what thou wouldst contradict.

Man’s truest gain, which people do not know,

Thou knowest or at least hast sought to know;

This thou hast pondered, and ’tis this alone

That makes man wise.
Nathan—And which each deems himself

To be.
Saladin—And now of modesty enough!

To hear it evermore, where one expects

Dry reason, sickens.[He springs up.]To the matter now!

But be honest, yes, be honest!

It surely is my wish to serve thee so,

That worthy of thy further custom I

May still remain.
Saladin—To serve me? how?
Nathan—The best

Of all shalt thou receive, and have it at

The fairest price.
Saladin—What dost thou speak of, Jew?

Not of thy wares! The chafferer with thee

Shall be my sister.[Aside: That for the eavesdropper.]

With thee as merchant have I naught to do.

Nathan—Then doubtless thou thyself would’st know what I

Have on my journey, of the foe, who seems

To stir again, observed or happened on?

If plainly I—
Saladin—That too is not my drift

With thee. Of that I know already what

I require.—In short—
Nathan—Command me, Sultan.

Saladin—In something else that’s wholly different

I now desire thy teaching.—Since thou art

So wise, pray tell me once what faith, what law

Has seemed to thee most genuine.

I am a Jew.
Saladin—And I a Mussulman.

Between us is the Christian. Of these three

Religions, one alone can be the true.

A man like thee remains not standing there,

Where merely chance of birth has cast his lot;

Or if he there remain, then he remains

Through insight, reason, or through better choice.

Come now, impart to me thy insight, let

Me hear the reasons which I’ve lacked the time

Minutely to examine. Let me know—

Of course in strictest confidence—the grounds

That have availed to fix thy final choice,

That I may make it mine. How? Thou dost stare?

Dost weigh me with thy eye? It may well be

That I’m the first of Sultans who e’er had

A whim like this, which yet methinks is not

Unworthy of a Sultan.—Is’t not so?

Give answer! Speak! Or wishest thou to have

A moment to reflect? I give it thee.

Reflect, quickly reflect. I shall return

Without delay.

[Retires to an adjoining room.]
Nathan—Hm! hm! How very strange!

How dazed I am! What does the Sultan want?

What? I thought ’twas money, and he wishes—Truth.

And wishes it cash down and unalloyed,

As though ’twere coin—yes, ancient coin—that’s weighed.

And that perhaps might do; but coin so new,

Which by the stamp alone is made to pass,

And may be counted out upon the board,—

That it is surely not. Can truth be put

Into the head like coin into a bag?

Who then is here the Jew? Is’t I or he?

How then? If he in truth demand the truth?

For the distrust that he employs the truth

But as a trap, would be too mean! Too mean?

And what then for a magnate is too mean?

He rushed into the house and burst the door,

’Tis true—people should knock and listen first,

If they approach as friends. I must proceed

With care. But how? To be a downright Jew

Will never do. And not to be at all

A Jew, will do still less. If I’m no Jew,

Might he then ask why not a Mussulman?

That’s it! That can save me! Not children only

Are fed with tales.—He comes. Well, let him come.

Saladin returns
Saladin—[Aside—Here then the field is clear.] I’ve not returned

Too soon for thee? Are thy reflections ended?

If so, speak out. There’s none that hears us here.

Nathan—Would the whole world might hear us.
Saladin—Is Nathan

So certain of his cause? Ha! that I call

A wise man! never to conceal the truth!

For it to hazard all—body and life,

Estate and blood!
Nathan—If it be needful, yes!

Or be of use.
Saladin—Henceforth then I may hope

That I rightly bear one of my titles:

“Reformer of the world and of the law.”

Nathan—Faith, ’tis a splendid title; yet before,

O Sultan, I may quite confide in thee,

Permit me to relate a tale.
Saladin—Why not?

I’m always fond of tales if they’re well told.

Nathan—To tell them well is not my strongest point.

Saladin—Again so proudly modest? Make haste! the tale!

Nathan—In olden times a man lived in the East,

Who from a loving hand possessed a ring

Of priceless worth. An opal was the stone,

In which a hundred brilliant colors played,

And which the hidden virtue also had

Of making him who wore it, in this trust,

Pleasing to God and well beloved by man.

What wonder then that this man in the East

The ring upon his finger always kept,

And so disposed that it should be for aye

An heirloom in his house? He left the ring

Bequeathed unto the dearest of his sons,

Ordaining that he too the ring should leave

To that one of his sons whom he most loved,

And that this dearest one, without regard

To birth, by virtue of the ring alone

Should ever be the house’s head and prince.

Thou understandest, Sultan?
Saladin—Yes; go on!

Nathan—Thus the ring came, from son to son, at last

To one who was the father of three sons,

Who all alike were dutiful to him,

And all of whom he therefore could not help

But love alike. Only from time to time

Now this one, now the other, now the third—

As each might chance to be alone with him,

And his effusive heart the other two

Did not divide—seemed worthier of the ring,

Which through fond weakness he’d to each of them

Promised in turn. Thus it went on as long

As it would do. But when he neared his death,

The kindly father was most sore perplexed.

It gave him pain to grieve two of his sons,

Who on his word relied. What should he do?

In secret to a jeweler he sends,

And orders him to make two other rings

According to the pattern of the first.

And bids him spare nor cost nor toil, that they

May prove to be alike and just like it.

The jeweler in this succeeds so well,

That when he brings the rings, the model ring

Not e’en the father longer can discern.

With joy he calls his sons, each one apart,

And gives to each his blessing and his ring—

And dies. Thou hear’st me, Sultan?
Saladin[who has turned away astonished]—Yes, I hear!

Make haste and bring thy story to an end.

Will it be—
Nathan—Already I have ended;

For what is still to follow, comes of course.

Scarce was the father dead, when each son comes

And brings his ring, and each would of the house

Be lord. They search, they quarrel, they accuse:

In vain; the right ring could not now be proved,—[After a pause, in which he awaits the Sultan’s answer]

Almost as little as to us can be

The right belief.
Saladin—How so? And that shall be

The answer to my question?
Nathan—It shall serve

Merely as my excuse, if I presume

Not to discriminate between the rings

The father ordered made with the intent

That they should indiscriminate remain.

Saladin—The rings! Sport not with me! I should have thought

That the religions, which I named to thee,

Were easy to distinguish, e’en to dress

And e’en to meat and drink.
Nathan—But only not

As to the grounds on which they’re thought to rest.

For are they not all based on history,

Traditional or written? And history

Must be received on trust—is it not so?

In whom now are we likeliest to trust?

In our own people, surely; in those men

Whose blood we are, and who from infancy

Have proved their love and never us deceived,

Unless ’twere wholesomer to be deceived.

How can I my forefathers less believe

Than thou dost thine? Or on the other hand,

Can ask of thee to say thy fathers lied,

In order not to contradict my own?

The same is true of Christians—is it not?

Saladin[aside]—Now by the living God, the man is right,

And I’m struck dumb.
Nathan—Now to our rings let us

Return. As I have said, the sons brought suit

Against each other, and before the judge

Each truly swore that he’d received the ring

Directly from his father’s hand, and swore—

Not the less true—that also long before

He had by him been solemnly assured

That he one day the ring’s prerogative

Should certainly enjoy. And each declared

The father ne’er could have been false to him.

Ere such a loving father he’d suspect,

He’d sooner charge his brothers with foul play,

Though hitherto of them the very best

He always had been ready to believe;

And now he wished to find the traitors out,

That he might on them be avenged.
Saladin—And now

The judge? I long to hear what thou wilt make

The judge reply. Relate!
Nathan—The judge spoke thus:—

“If you the father cannot soon produce,

Then I dismiss you from my judgment-seat.

Think you that to solve riddles I sit here?

Or wait you till the right ring opes its mouth?

Yet stay! I hear the right ring doth possess

The magic power of making one beloved,

To God and man well pleasing. That alone

Must now decide. For surely the false rings

Will fail in that. Now whom love two of you

The most? Make haste and speak! Why are you mute?

Is’t only inward that the rings do work,

Not outward? Does each one love himself the most?

Deceived deceivers are you then all three!

And of your rings all three are not the true.

Presumably the true ring being lost,

The father to conceal or to repair

The loss had three rings made for one.”
Saladin—Grand! grand!

Nathan—And thereupon the judge went on to say:—

“If you’ll, instead of sentence, take advice,

This is my counsel: Let the matter rest

Just as it lies. If each of you has had

A ring presented by his father, then

Let each believe his own the genuine ring.

’Tis possible the father did not wish

To suffer any longer in his house

The one ring’s tyranny! And certainly,

As he all three did love, and all alike,

He would not willingly oppress the two

To favor one. Well, then! Let each one strive

To imitate that love, so pure and free

From prejudice! Let each one vie with each

In showing forth the virtue of the stone

That’s in his ring! Let him assist its might

With gentleness, forbearance, love of peace,

And with sincere submission to his God!

And if the virtues of the stones remain,

And in your children’s children prove their power,

After a thousand years have passed

Let them appear again before this seat.

A wiser man than I will then sit here

And speak. Depart!” Thus said the modest judge.