What was written, audiences today, or a general

What message does Lessing convey concerning religious toleration, and
how convincingly does he convey it?


The Enlightenment, or Die Aufklärung, in Europe signalled a
change in thinking concerning religion, and a framework was constructed which
encouraged rational thinking about philosophical issues. Lessing is one of the
faces of German Enlightenment, as his ideas affected the epoch, and his influence
has reached far beyond the seventeenth century.

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Two of Lessing’s plays
stand out when thinking about religious toleration: Die Juden (1749), and Nathan
der Weise (1779). When taken at face value, both plays seem to plea for
religious tolerance; the lens through which they are normally read is as a
‘Toleranzstück’. If this is the lens though which we should read the plays,
what exactly is the message concerning tolerance that Lessing is trying to
convey, and furthermore, is it convincing? Or, is there another lens through
which the plays should be read, and is this lens any more convincing than the
first? Besides, when
asking how convincingly Lessing conveys his message, we must also consider his
audience; are we asking how convincingly he conveys it to audiences at the time
it was written, audiences today, or a general ‘audience’?


Before these questions
are assessed, it is important to somewhat understand Lessing’s personal beliefs
regarding religion and philosophy. Brought up in the Age of the Enlightenment,
he believed in the ‘Christianity of Reason’; in his writings he defended the
Christian’s right to freedom of thought, but argued against the belief in
revelation, as well as against the literal interpretation of the Bible. In 1777
Lessing began to publish fragments from a book by H.S. Reimarus, creating what
is known as the ‘Wolfenbüttel Fragmente’, a work which explained the origins of
Christianity from a purely naturalistic standpoint, and claimed that Jesus’s
disciples invented the story of his resurrection. These fragments provoked much
criticism, to which Lessing responded with three polemical essays in 1778. This
led to a controversy between Lessing and Pastor J.M. Goeze, which resulted in
Lessing being silenced and forbidden to publish any further theological works
in such a manner. Thus, in order to convey his beliefs that the ‘truths of
religion cannot be demonstrated by reason, that diversity of religious opinion
must therefore be tolerated, and that morality in any case is more important
than religious orthodoxy, good deeds more important than doctrinal correctness’1, Lessing
decided to move back into a different sphere in order to express his own
convictions: the sphere of drama.


His first play exploring
the theme of religious tolerance was written 28 years prior to the publication
of the Wolfenbüttel Fragmente. Die Juden is seen as prelude to Nathan der Weise, and tells the story of
a Baron who is robbed by two men he believes to be Jews, but turn out to be his
own Christian servants. The Baron offers the man who saved him, Der Reisender,
his daughter’s hand in marriage, but then retracts when he finds out that Der Reisender
is Jewish. This ‘hidden identity’ is a technique Lessing employs both in Die Juden and in Nathan der Weise. It highlights the prejudices the characters have,
and in doing so perhaps also reflect those of the audience. This technique is a
form of conveying religious toleration to his audience, and encouraging people
to not judge or make presuppositions about people based on their religion.


This theme is continued,
when thirty years later Lessing published Nathan
der Weise. Taking the main moral of religious tolerance from Die Juden, Lessing ran with this and
wrote a five-act play developing his ideas concerning religion. The drama is
set in Jerusalem in the twelfth century and revolves around Nathan, a wise Jew,
who adopted a Christian girl called Recha. From the outset, Nathan is presented
as a tolerant character, because Recha’s religion did not matter to him;
instead of being concerned about religious affiliation, he acted in the
interest of humanity and adopted her as his own daughter. Recha, like Der
Reisender in Die Juden, also has a
hidden identity that Nathan feels compelled to conceal when a suitor comes into


The Ring Parable may well
serve one the best (or most obvious) examples of the message Lessing is trying
to convey in Nathan der Weise, as the
message of the parable is that religions are of equal worth, and that moral and
practical intuition transcend any religious doctrine. Instead of trying to work
out which religion is the true religion, we should vie each other with good
deeds, and thus people should be judged by their good doing rather than the
truth or falsehood of their religion.   In addition to this, the fact that all the
characters find out at the end of the play that, with the exception of Nathan,
they are related to each other reinforces how familial relations transcend the
strife and animosity brought about by religious differences.


But how convincingly does
Lessing convey his message concerning religious toleration in Die Juden and Nathan der Weise? Firstly, the dramatic form of the plays allows
Lessing to engage in a way that is different to simply writing an essay on
religious tolerance, for example. His ideas and philosophies can come to life
through characters and action and the moral of the plays is arguably brought
home in a manner more striking than could be done in other forms. The plot of Die Juden is simple, allowing Lessing’s didactic
aim to override any action. The moral is also strongly reinforced by
dialogue, for example, in the sixth act Der Reisender says ”Ich bin kein
Freund allgemeiner Urteile über ganze Völker … ich sollte glauben, dass es
unter allen Nationen gute und böse Seelen geben könnte’. This philosophy is not only the Reisender’s, but Lessing’s also.
However, on the other hand, the lack of character development could be said to
hinder Lessing’s message of religious toleration in Die Juden, as the only character who is developed in any depth is
Der Reisender, resulting in a feeling of not much ‘flesh’ put on the ‘bones’ of
the play. In Lessing and the Drama,
Lamport (1981) argues that Lessing is ‘attempting a critical examination of controversial issues of the day –
issues, that is, upon which the members of his audience might well be expected
to have differing views, and issues which were very dear to his own heart and
mind’. This implies that although Lessing’s moral message is one of religious
toleration, on a wider scale Lessing is simply taking an issue that was controversial
at the time. The same could be said about his play, Der Freigeist, which explores the conflict between a sceptic and an
orthodox cleric, that is to say, Lessing critically examines the idea of
atheism, which was becoming increasingly popular in the Age of the


Concerning Nathan der Weise, critics such as
Lamport argue that ‘alone of Lessing’s dramas it was written because Lessing
had a particular message to convey, rather than because he wanted … to write
a particular type of play’2.  He states that form is determined by content,
rather than content determined by form, and that the ‘personal urgency of its
thematic content brings us closer to Lessing the man than any of his other
dramatic works, and in the freedom of its form the practical is no longer
compromised by the theoretical conservative’. Thus, alongside Lamport, one
could argue that Lessing is very convincing in the way he conveys the message
of religious intolerance, in that he prioritises the didacticism over
substance, that is to say depth of character and plot. However, the conclusion
of the play does encapsulate his primarily didactic aim, and the plot itself is
vital to this, thus it is difficult to argue, like some critics have, that the
plot is void of any significance.  Lessing
uses distancing devices in order to reduce (but not completely eliminate)
emotional involvement, and the use of an exotic setting (Palestine during the
Crusades) somewhat distances the audience from a setting to which they would
have been familiar. In addition, the use of blank verse is a break from the traditional
verse style, and we might say that this formal shift reflects Lessing’s
progressive, even revolutionary socio-theological ideals. All of these
techniques contribute to a strong sense of moral didacticism.


Contrary to this, Goetschel argues in
Spinoza’s Modernity that to reduce Nathan der Weise to a ‘plea for
tolerance and religion3’ would be to entirely
trivialise crucial moments in the play, and to overlook the ‘farther reaching
implications of the metaphorical-philosophical connections it stages’. It seems
as though those who argue that Nathan der
Weise should be read as a Toleranzstück
imply that the play ‘unequivocally argues for tolerance’, that is to say, the
play might argue for something else. When Recha claims that an angel rescued
her from the fire, Nathan encourages Recha to abandon such a pious delusion,
and that she would be better off seeking natural rather than supernatural
explanations for unusual events. Furthermore, Der Klosterbruder says in Act 4
Scene 7, that ‘Kinder brauchen Liebe … in solchen Jahren mehr als Christentum’4, suggesting that love is a
universal value which isn’t necessarily unique, in its truest sense, to
Christianity. In a letter to his brother, Lessing wrote “Genug, wenn er
Nathan der Weise sich mit Interesse
nur lieset, und unter tausend Lesern nur Einer daraus an der Evidenz und
Allgemeinheit seiner Religion zweifelt lernt’5. Therefore critics who
argue that Lessing is trying to encourage readers and audiences to abandon
respective religion in favour of secular humanism may be correct.


Lessing’s final work Die Erziehung des Menschengeschlechts,
written a year after Nathan der Weise,
encapsulates his beliefs and his strong conviction that the human race can be
perfected. Lessing had seen a development in moral awareness amongst the
world’s religions, and believed that eventually it might reach the peak of
universal brotherhood, and a moral freedom that would be able to go beyond any
dogmas or religious doctrines.


Thus, it cannot be denied
that Lessing does advocate unequivocal and unconditional cross-religious
toleration in his works Die Juden and
Nathan der Weise. How convincingly he
conveys this message, however, is open to debate. Furthermore, we must be
careful in our exploration of the aesthetics of his moral and philosophical
musings not to reduce the plot and characters to a one-dimensional view which
accords with a simplistic didactic message, however contrived these may seem.




1 Lamport, F.J. (1981) Lessing and the Drama. Oxford: Clarendon Press. p 12

2 Lamport, F.J. (1981) Lessing and the Drama. Oxford: Clarendon Press. p13

3 Goetschel, W. (2004) Spinoza’s modernity: Mendelssohn, Lessing and Heine. Wisconsin: The
University of Wisconsin Press. p231

4 Lessing, G.E. Nathan
der Weise. Stuttgard: Reclam. p119

5 Nisbet, H. B., Lessing, Nathan der Weise: A landmark in the history of tolerance, in Hutchinson, P. (ed.) (2002), Landmarks in German Drama. Bern. p18