Nathan’s Story

What are we, as Masons, thinking of in this day and age which will give us a better way of life?

Do we challenge ourselves with thoughts which broaden our outlook of mankind and of ourselves, or are we stagnated with quests for greater attendance, letter perfect ritual, candidates for concordant bodies, or the cost of fuel oil?

Freemasonry of the 18th century was pregnant with ideas which underscored the history of that century. While Freemasonry even then had its share of candidates who were only curious and those who were status seekers, it provided a congenial atmosphere to bring men together to seek out the developing ideas of the century.

The German dramatist and critic, Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, born January 22, 1729, and died February 15, 1781, who has been called the Martin Luther of 18th century Germany, was drawn to Masonry by its profession in the universal brotherhood of man. It is a sad note that Lessing felt disillusioned in the Craft because of his initiation, and because of the actions of its members generally.

The Craft enjoyed a reputation which was not lived up to in practice.  Gotthold Lessing was known to the Masons of the second quarter of this century, for the grand lodge names in his honour, in Czechoslovakia. The Grand Lodge Lessing of the Three Rings was formed by thirty-one German speaking lodges in Czechoslovakia after the disintegration of the Hapsburg Monarchy following World War I.

This Grand Lodge went into darkness when it was crushed by Hitler’s Nazis following the appeasement which was supposed to bring peace to the world.

The purpose of this blog is to share with you a part of one of his writings which has been called perhaps on the of the noblest pleas for toleration ever written. The play, or rather dramatic poem “Nathan the Wise” was written in 1778-9, seven years after Lessing was made a Mason at the residence of Baron von Rosenberg in Hamburg, Germany.

“Nathan the Wise” is set in Jerusalem during the reign of Saladin, from 1187 to 1193. The three main characters are Nathan, a rich Jewish merchant of Jerusalem, the Sultan Saladin, and a young Templar whose life has been spared by Saladin after his capture during the fourth Crusade.

These three main characters represent the three great religions of the world – Jewish, Moslem and Christian.  Further, with Nathan and Saladin we have a confrontation between a man of wisdom and toleration of the ages, and a man whose temporal powers could be limited only by his death.

Lessing’s story of the three rings was not original with him, but rather was taken form the “Decameron,” written by the Italian Giovani Boccaccio, 1348 – 1353. The story briefly is that Saladin needs money for more wars, and he seeks to trick the Jewish merchant out of his great wealth. The Jew is called upon to tell which of the three great religions he considers the true one. If he names his own, he offends the Sultan; but if he names another, he denies his own. His response after due deliberation is the priceless story of three rings, the seeking of the difference between true and false religion.

Lessing’s pleas for toleration as expressed by the Judge in the story is but another term for brotherly love, the first tenet of the profession as Masons.

“By the exercise of Brotherly Love, we are taught to regard the whole human species as one family-the high and low, rich and poor who, as created by one Almighty parent, and inhabitants of the same planet, are to aid, support and protect each other. On this principle, Masonry unites men of every country, sect and opinion, and conciliates true friendship among those who might otherwise remain at a perpetual distance.”

Here we have the foundation on which Masonry can exist, bring together all men, and truly be a brotherhood of man!  The virtue of toleration, however, is not easily attainted. It must grow out of the successful resolution of conflicts. If we can have true brotherly love for those whose religious beliefs of existence and eternal salvation deny our own, then what other differences could be insurmountable?

I give you Nathan’s story as an oasis at which you may stop and rest from your daily toil. May its ideas be the waters which will refresh you. May you continue on to the east, using our gift of thought so that your way of life will make you a better man.  The prologue of the story shows Saladin trying to set a trap for Nathan.

SALADIN – Since so great your wisdom, I pray you tell me what belief, what law has most commended itself to you.

NATHAN – Sultan, I am a Jew.

SALADIN – And I a Mussulman. Between us is the Christian. Now, but one of all these three religions can be true. A man like you stands not where accident of birth has cast him. If he so remain, it is from judgment, reason, choice of best. Impart to me your judgment; let me hear the reasons I’ve no time to seek myself.

[Saladin then gives Nathan a few hurried moments to contemplate on this question along. After a soliloqhy by Nathan, Saladin returns to be told this story.]

NATHAN – In gray antiquity there lived a man in Eastern lands who had received a ring of priceless worth from a beloved hand. Its stone, an opal, flashed a hundred colors, and had the secret power of giving favor, in sight of Good and man, to him who wore it with a believing heart. What wonder then this Eastern man would never put the ring from off his finger, and should so provide that to his house it be preserved forever? Such was the case. Unto the best beloved among his sons he left the ring, enjoining that he in turn bequeath it to the son who should be dearest; and the dearest ever, in virtue of the ring, without regard to birth, be of the house the prince and head. You understand me, Sultan?

SALADIN – Yes; go on!

NATHAN – From son to son the ring descending, came to one, the sire of three; of whom all three were equally obedient; whom all three he therefore must with equal love regards. And yet from time to time now this, now that, and now the third, – as each alone was buy, the others not dividing his fond heart, appeared to him the worthiest of the ring; which then, with loving weakness, he would promise to each in turn. Thus it continued long. Be he must die; and then the loving father was sore perplexed. It grieved him thus to wound two faithful sons who trusted in his word; but what to do? In secrecy he calls an artist to him, and commands of him two other rings, the pattern of his own; and bids him neither cost nor pains to spare to make them like, precisely like to that. The artist’s skill succeeds. He brings the ring, and e’en the father cannot tell his own. Relieved and joyful, summons he his sons, each by himself; to each one by himself he gives his blessing, and his ring – and dies. You listen, Sultan?

SALADIN – (who, somewhat perplexed, has turned away) – Yes; I hear, I hear. But bring your story to an end.

NATHAN – ‘Tis ended; For what remains would tell itself. The father was scarely dead when each brings forth his ring, and claims the headship. Questioning ensues, strife, and appeal to law; but all in vain. The genuine ring was not to be distinguished; – (after a pause, in which he awaits the Sultan’s answer) As undistinguishable as with us the true religion.

SALADIN – That you answer to me?

NATHAN – But my apology for not presuming between the rings to judge, which with design the father ordered undistinguishable.

SALADIN – The rings? You trifle with me. The religions I named to you are plain to be distinguished – e’en in the dress, e’en in the food and drink.

NATHAN – In all except the grounds on which they rest. Are they not all founded on history, traditional or written? History can be accepted only upon trust. Whom now are we the least inclined to doubt? Not our own people – out own blood; not those who from our childhood up have proved their love; ne’er disappointed, save when disappointment was wholesome to us? Shall my ancestors receive less faith from me, than yours from you? Reverse it; Can I ask you to belie your fathers, and transfer your father to mine? Or yet, again, holds not the same as Christians?

SALADIN – (By heavens, the man is right! I’ve naught to answer.)

NATHAN – Return we to our rings. As I have said, the sons appealed to law, and each took oath before the judge that from his father’s hand he had the ring, – as we indeed the truth; and had received his promise long before, one day the ring, with all its privileges, should be his own, – as was not less the truth. The father could not have been false to him each one maintained; and rather than allow upon the memory of so dear a father such stain to rest, he must against his brothers, though gladly he would nothing but the best believe of them, bring charge of treachery; means would he find the traitors to expose, and be revenged on them.

SALADIN – And now the judge? I long to hear what words you give the judge. Go on!

NATHAN – Thus spoke the judge: Produce your father at once before me, else from my tribunal do I dismiss you. Think you I am hear to guess your riddles? Either would you wait until the genuine ring shall speak? – But hold! A magic power in the true ring resides, as I am told, to make its wearer loved – pleasing to God and man. Let that decide. For in the false can no such virtue lie. Which one among you, then, do two love best? Speak! Are you silent? Work the rings but backward, not outward? Loves each one himself the best?  Then cheated cheats are all of you! The rings all three are false.  The genuine ring was lost; and to conceal, supply the lost, the father made three in place of one.

SALADIN – Oh, excellent!

NATHAN – Go, therefore, said the judge, unless my counsel you’d have in place of sentence. IT were this: accept the case exactly as it stands. Had each his ring directly from his father, let each believe his own genuine. ‘Tis possible your father would no longer his house to one ring’s tyranny subject; and certain that all three of you he loved, loved equally, since two he would not humble, that one might be exalted. Let each one to his unbought, impartial love aspire; each with the others vie to bring to light the virtue of the stone within his ring; Let gentleness, a hearty love pf peace, benefiance, and perfect trust in God, come to its help. Then if the jewel’s power among your children’s children be revealed, I bid you in a thousand, thousand years again before this bar. A wise man than I shall occupy this seat, and speak. Go! – Thus the modest judge dismissed them.


NATHAN – If therefore, Saladin, you feel yourself that promised, wiser man –

SALADIN – (rushing to him, and seizing his hand, which he holds to the end). I? Dust! – I? Naught! Oh God!

NATHAN – What moves you, Sultan?

SALADIN – Nathan, Nathan! Not ended are the thousand, thousand years your judge foretold; not mine to claim his seat. Go, go! – But be my friend.

Brethren, so mote it be!

This essay was originally presented by Wor. Bro. Richard L. Rhoda at the March 16, 1981 meeting of the Maine Lodge of Research and served as his inspiration for the year long consideration of religious toleration by The Maine Lodge of Research through its several non-masonic guest speakers.

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