What J.M. Goeze, which resulted in Lessing being

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 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, the
‘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. Recha, like Der Reisender in Die Juden, also has a hidden identity that he feels compelled to
conceal when a suitor comes into question.


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. In Lessing and the Drama, Lamport 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.

In contrary to this,
Goetschel argues in Spinoza’s Modernity that to reduce Nathan der Weise to a ‘plea
for tolerance and religion3’ would
be entirely trivialising crucial moments in the play, and screen out the ‘farther
reaching implications of the metaphorical-philosophical connections it stages’.
It seems like those that argue that Nathan der Weise should be read as a
Toleranzstück imply that the play unequivocally argues for tolerance.

1 NIsbet p 12

2 Lamport p13

3 Spinoza’s Modernity p231