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Home | 2016

Nathan's rings

Posted by Richard on UTC 2016-01-18 16:14.

Yesterday a gruesome 'religious' TV discussion on the subject: can all religions be right?

This question was answered in some style by the German writer Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1729-1781) nearly two and a half centuries ago.

The answer came in Lessing's play Nathan der Weise ('Nathan the Wise', 1779). The play became one of the landmarks of the progress of the Enlightenment in Europe.

Nathan the Wise

Nathan is a rich Jew living in Jerusalem at the time of the Third Crusade (1189-1192). During a ceasefire we find Jews, Christians and Muslims coexisting uneasily in the city. The play contains many themes of religious and social coexistence, but one of these has become particularly famous.

Saladin (1132-1193), the feared Muslim warrior, infamous to this day for his ruthless brutality, takes Nathan to one side and requires him to answer a question: of the three religions, which one is correct – they can't all be right, surely? Saladin, generous as ever, gives Nathan a short while to think of the answer.

Of course, Nathan cannot say the true religion is Islam, because then Saladin would say: 'Why are you still a Jew, then?'. Choosing either Judaism or Christianity would be more than unwise.

Nathan answers Saladin's question with a story that is now known as the 'Ring Parable'. Here is the parable, paraphrased from the original. [1]

The Ring Parable

A long time ago a man living in the East had been given a ring of inestimable value. The stone was an opal that shimmered with a hundred beautiful colours and had the power to make its wearer loved by God and by men as long as he wore it in the confidence of its power. [2] The man wanted this wonderful ring to stay in his family forever and decreed that it should always pass to the most loved son.

In the course of generations the ring finally arrived in the possession of a father with three sons, all three of whom he loved equally. From time to time he favoured the one or the other and in moments of weakeness he told each of them in turn that the ring would be theirs. When the father's death drew close he realized the difficulty he was in. It pained him to think of the hurt he was going to cause to two of his sons.

He sent for an artist and ordered at great cost two exact copies of the ring to be made. Even the father could not tell the rings apart. One at a time he called his sons and gave each one his special blessing and a ring. Then he died. After much argument between the sons as to who had the true ring they laid their case before a judge. Each one of them swore that he had obtained the ring direct from his dying father's hand.

The judge ruled as follows:

If you can't produce your father to testify I will have to reject your complaints. Are you waiting until the true ring opens its mouth? I hear that the true ring has the power to make its bearer loved by God and by men. At the moment you each seem to love yourselves more than anyone else. Perhaps all the rings are a fake, perhaps the true ring was lost and your father just made three copies. If you just want my judgement: go away!

If you want my advice: accept the matter as it is. Since each of you has received a ring from your father you believe that you alone have received the true ring. It is possible that your father couldn't stand the tyranny of the one ring in his house.

Each of you is straining to display the power of the stone in his ring! This power will come to your aid with meekness, with heartfelt tolerance, with good works, with the sincerest devotion to God. Perhaps the power of the stone may only express itself to your grandchildren and their descendents.

Resolution of the parable

In sum: we should behave as though our own religion is the true one, doing our best to abide by its principles, which in itself can only be a good thing. The fact that one of the other religions may turn out to be the true one forbids bigotry, intolerance and persecution. In time all will be revealed.

Lessing's Nathan shows us the way out of the religious intolerance and bigotry which was the most important goal of the Enlightenment in the eighteenth century, which is why it was held to be such a seminal text.

The Enlightenment and the Protestant Ethic

It may surprise us that Nathan's solution in the Ring Parable echoes in many ways the Calvinist approach to deliverance. This hard doctrine says that only a number of souls will be taken up into Heaven. Are you one of them? You cannot know; it is not your part to interrogate the Almighty. All you can do is to assume that you are one of the selected and live your life accordingly.

Success in that life may give you some encouragement that you belong amongst the selected, although you can never be sure. The good works you do in this life and the virtues you show will never be wrong.

The German sociologist Max Weber (1864-1920) in his seminal work The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905/1920) [3] saw the source of the industrious lives of the early capitalists in this belief.


  1. ^ Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, Nathan der Weise, 1779. The modern version used here is that of Reclam, 2015 (UB3 and XL19156).
    The encounter between Nathan and Saladin is Act 3, Scene 7, p. 76-83, l. 1840-2060; the Ring Parable itself is Act 3, Scene 7, p. 78-83, l. 1911-2060.
    The text is also available online at
    The Ring Parable had a long literary history before Lessing got hold of it.
  2. ^ The importance of faith is being emphasised here, for example in the Bible, Luke 8:50: But when Jesus heard it, he answered him, saying, Fear not: believe only, and she shall be made whole. A lot could be written on this subject of faith, but I'll leave that up to the reader!
  3. ^ The German original text: Max Weber, 'Die protestantische Ethik und der Geist des Kapitalismus' in Gesammelte Aufsätze zur Religionssoziologie. Band 1, Tübingen 1986, S. 17. is available online at
    Weber's essay is available in English as The Protestant Ethic And The Spirit Of Capitalism, tr. by Talcott Parsons, George Allen and Unwin, London, 1930.