Nathan the Wise or the Age of Enlightenment and Jews

Max Wundt

Translated from the German by
Charles E. Weber, Ph.D.

Lessing and Johann Kaspar Lavater as guests in the home of Moses Mendelssohn. Painting by Moritz Daniel Oppenheim 1856.

Translator’s Introduction

Three articles translated from the series, Forschungen zur Judenfrage (1937 ff.) (Studies on the Jewish Problem), have now appeared in the Liberty Bell, viz., the issues of August-September, 1983, August, 1984 and September, 1984. All three of these articles were concerned with the racial and biological aspects of the Jewish question. In the following article from Volume I of the Forschungen zur Judenfrage (1937) by the philosopher Max Wundt we now turn our attention to another aspect of the Jewish question, the influence of Jews on European literature, an influence that became considerable during the course of the eighteenth century. Max Wundt (1879-1963) held academic positions in Marburg, Jena and Tübingen.

One of the best-known of the German dramas of the eighteenth century is Nathan der Weise (Nathan the Wise) by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1729-1781). Lessing lived in an age in which traditional religion was being questioned and independent human reason was being considered ever more strongly to be the appropriate basis of wisdom and morality. Lessing’s adherence to the ideals of the Age of Enlightenment is reflected in his essay, Die Erziehung des Menschengeschlechts (The Education of the Human Race), published in 1780, in which Lessing examines the motivations for morality during the development of mankind, from an earlier fear of divine punishment (New Testament) and finally to a morality based on independent human reason. Like other Rationalists of his day, Lessing was attracted to the fable as a means of teaching morality. Three volumes containing Lessing’s fables and his commentary on this genre appeared in 1759.

The parable of the three rings as symbols of the Jewish, Islamic and Christian faiths was used by Lessing as the central didactic part of his drama, Nathan der Weise, which was published in 1779. The parable is told by Nathan to Saladin, an historical person who was sultan of Egypt and Syria and who lived 1138-1193. In this parable, a father who had three sons whom he loved equally has to decide to which son he will leave a ring that had been passed down through generations of his family and which had the magic power of making its owner endearing to God and man. The father has indistinguishable copies made of the ring. After his death, the three sons, who have inherited the rings, go to a judge, who forgoes making a decision as to which ring is the original one and says that only the passage of time will determine that.

Lessing’s Nathan der Weise, with its polemical plea for tolerance of Jews, has doubtless proved to be the most influential of his rather many dramas. During the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries the legal emancipation of Jews progressed rapidly in many German-speaking states.1

One of Lessing’s earliest dramas was a short comedy, Die Juden, published in 1749, in which mistaken identities form a basis for a plea for tolerance of Jews. In later years, Lessing was a friend of the popular Jewish philosopher, Moses Mendelsohn (1729-1786), the grandfather of the composer Felix Mendelsohn-Bartholdy.2 Although Lessing was the son of a prominent Protestant pastor in Saxony, his portrayal of the representatives of Christianity in Nathan der Weise is generally unsympathetic, while the hero of the drama, a wealthy Jewish merchant, is portrayed as wise and generous. The setting of the play is the time of the Crusades in the Near East, where Islamic, Jewish and Christian groups come into contact with each other. The immediate origin of the ring parable is one of the novelle of Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375), the Florentine poet and Humanist. In the following article, however, Max Wundt traces its origins back to an event of the earlier Middle Ages which some students of Jewish history claim to have had an important effect on the racial makeup of European Jews.3

Shakespeare’s central Jewish figure in his Merchant of Venice forms a stark contrast to Lessing’s Nathan. Shakespeare’s play depicting a greedy, merciless, Aryan-hating, wealthy Jew was written around 1596. England had expelled its Jews in 1290 and few Jews were present in the England of Shakespeare’s time. Shakespeare thus chose an Italian setting for his play rather than his own country, although it is conjectured that Shakespeare wrote the Merchant of Venice while influenced by a popular hatred of Jews intensified by a plot to poison Queen Elizabeth I by her Jewish physician, Roderigo Lopez, who was hanged in 1594 after his plot was discovered.4

Lessing’s Nathan der Weise was written nearly two centuries later than The Merchant of Venice and typifies a changed, much more tolerant attitude toward Jews that had come about during the Age of Enlightenment. This much more tolerant attitude toward Jews paved the way for the great power which Jews have subsequently amassed in Europe and later in the United States.

Nathan the Wise
or the Age of Enlightenment
and Jews

Those who do research on the race question tell us that, although the influence of Jewish blood in Germany was certainly the strongest during the past one-hundred years, in some cases it goes back much further, since individual Jews, in fact, attained a high respect as early as the Age of Absolutism and even as early as the Middle Ages and were then in the position to mix their blood with Germanic blood. A similar situation prevails as far as intellectual influence was concerned. It, too, certainly grew to the enormous extent which it reached only during the past hundred years and especially the last fifty years. However, in some ways this influence already manifested itself much earlier and these earlier influences are indeed not unimportant for the understanding of the development of the German intellect in its relation to Jews.

Such an early streak in the tissue not only of the German intellect, but also of the European intellect in general, will be pointed out in this short report.

From Lessing’s Nathan the Wise we are all familiar with the question about the value of the various religions and the story of the three rings. Lessing himself gave his source for it, a novella by Boccaccio (I,3). But at most this story has the purpose of admonishing people to be modest so that they do not presume themselves capable of any final judgement concerning the truth of religion and so that they might come together on a certain ground of general humanity beyond the limits of different religions. On the other hand, in spite of the Jewish speaker, not a word is mentioned to the effect that this humanity finds its purest expression just in Jews. However, this feature is most familiar to us in Lessing’s Nathan; the Jew is quite in the foreground, he is the noblest human being, the wise man, and for that reason most capable of propagating the teachings of pure humanity.

This favoring of Judaism in the comparison of the religions is no accident. After all, the idea of contrasting their representatives and having them discuss the advantages of their faiths goes back to an old tradition which has its origins in Jewish circles. In medieval Spain, where Christianity, Islam and Jewry collided, such a comparison must have imposed itself especially readily, and in particular on the Jew who, being dispersed amongst the others, could compare himself with them everywhere, saw himself hated and scorned and yet felt himself to be the member of a chosen race. Here the theme of such a comparison confronts us for the first time, and to be specific in the form of a defence of Judaism with the intention, of course, of presenting the Jewish religion as the best and true one.

The Castilian Jew and religious poet Judah Halevi [ca. 1085-1141] introduced this theme into literature in his al-Khazari, a work composed around 1140. He proceeds from an historical event which took place in the eighth century in the Khazar Kingdom on the Caspian Sea. There the king had converted to Judaism, and indeed after he had requested a Christian, a Mohammedan and a Jew to discuss the value of their faiths, as the legend went. When none could convince the other, the king sent them home, but then questioned the Christian and the Moslem in secret as to what religion they would prefer other than their own. Both declared in favor of the Jewish religion. The king thus believed that the advantage of the Jewish religion was proved and converted to it.

Judah Halevi shapes this story in his work. However, while he has a Christian and a Moslem, to whom he adds a philosopher as a representative of heathendom, present their religions only briefly, there follows an extensive presentation of the Jewish religion. It is supposed to be proved the best one, which is revealed most directly by God to his chosen people. It is supposedly the “core and jewel” of the human race and after it essentially nothing new has been added.

No one will reproach the old Jew for defending his faith with such eloquent words and we would not need to become further excited about these tales of the distant past if the book, al-Khazari, had not influenced the intellect of the European nations at an important point of their development.

The frightful and so often cruel battles which were fought as early as the Middle Ages between Christianity and Islam and then among Christian nations themselves in the wake of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation awakened at an early time a longing for a common religion in which the enemies could unite. It was not the worst minds of these centuries that struggled for this objective. They believed that it would have to be possible to find a so-called “natural religion” that would extend beyond all limits of the specific doctrinal structures, that God had placed naturally in the hearts of men and that was therefore common to all. From such a spirit arose, for example, the beautiful writing of the man to whom is often attributed the beginning of truly German philosophy, the writing of Nikolaus von Kues concerning peace or agreement in faith (De pace seu concordantia fidei, composed between 1453 and 1464). He, too, depicts a religious conversation in which, however, divine wisdom itself instructs the representatives of the various nations. In this connection Nikolaus speaks on the basis of German feeling inasmuch as he seeks to prove that Platonic-Christian mysticism to be true which he took over from Master Eckhardt and which indeed was destined to form the basis of the Weltanschauung for the Germanic nations. In this work not the slightest value was placed on agreement with the Jews; on the contrary, in a number of passages a distinct distance is taken from them.

However, the idea of a natural religion did not gain acceptance in this form, but rather in a quite different one. The striving of the nations for peace and agreement in religion is certainly not peculiar. However, the fact that the Jewish religion offered itself as such as common ground, on which even the Christian denominations in particular could unite, may certainly be designated as peculiar.

In fact, the shape of the natural religion which was destined to gain recognition we first find in the work by Jean Bodin [ca. 1529-1596], which was composed soon after 1590, the Colloquium heptaplomeres. The author, a politician and famous writer, played a somewhat vacillating role in the complexities of the Huguenot Wars. In his works he displayed a decided preference for Jewry and a precise knowledge of Jewish literature, which he can have obtained only in close association with Jewish scholars.5 For that reason he was considered a half-Jew, even at an early time: a conjecture which, however, is not confirmed by the latest investigation of his family (E. Pasquier, Revue d’histoire de l’église de France, Volume 19, 1933, pp. 457-462). He had the highest respect for the Jewish intellect. After all, he declares expressly that he prefers by far Moses authority over all the writings and opinions of all philosophers (Methodus cap. 8, p. 324: “Ac tanti est apud me Mosis unius auctoritas, ut omnibus omnium philosophorum scriptis ac sententiis longe anteponam”).

The Colloquium heptaplomeres, the sevenfold conversation, so-called because there are seven participants, takes up Judah Halevi’s old theme once more. Representatives of the various religions converse in Venice about the value of their faiths. There are seven, in contrast to the four in Halevi, because the Christian faith is represented by three speakers, a Catholic, a Lutheran and a Calvinist; in addition to the philosopher a special representative of the heathen religion is introduced, while there are also the Jew and the Moslem.

Details of the conversation cannot be discussed here. For our purposes the following features should be pointed out. The representative of Judaism, Solomon, is placed very much in the foreground. He is the intellectual head of the gathering and advocates his faith with a decisive superiority in contrast to the others. Christianity is unfavorably treated in the case of all its representatives; its characteristic doctrines are subjected to sharp criticism, in the case of which the Jew usually has the last word. The participants attempt to find the best religion to which they can all adhere because it is not confined to any specific doctrines. The philosopher Toralba praises it as the religion of nature which God imparted to human beings at the time of their origin and next to which all positive confessions of faith are supposedly useless. For that reason the oldest religion must be the best one. The Jewish religion must, supposedly, be closest to this oldest religion not only as a matter of time but also of essence. For that reason Solomon vividly agrees with Toralba and attempts successfully to demonstrate the agreement of the Jewish religion. The later religions have supposedly only added useless or false elements. In fact, the content of this actual religion, as it is understood here, simply turns out to be the basic ideas of the Jewish religion; strict monotheism, honoring God by adherence to his laws and retribution in the present life and afterlife. It is in keeping with this that the gathering breaks up accompanied by the sounds of a Jewish psalm.

The author of the Heptaplomeres was too cautious to have his work printed. It did not appear in print until the middle of the nineteenth century. However, it was distributed in numerous manuscripts and its frequent mention by later authors proves that it was known to everyone and caused a tremendous excitement. Hence, it is no wonder that the views put forth in it had a strong effect in the subsequent period and finally during the Age of Enlightenment became almost the common property of the educated people in the form of deism, natural religion or rational Christianity. These educated people were longing to get away from the quarrels of the theologians which were unproductive and so disastrous in their consequences. Many were aware that this deism was connected with Jewry. A Prussian plan of reformation of 1790 provided for calling the Jews deists and Hippel [East-Prussian author; 1741-1796] occasionally differentiates between strict Jews and “nice Jews or deists”6. Heine [Jewish poet; 1797-1856], who certainly was in a position to know, declares in his salon that the deists are all Jews in the final analysis.

From time immemorial Germanic faith sought the inner bliss of the God-filled life. Deism, like the Jewish religion, knows only the superficially legal relation between man and God. God appears as the ruler of the world who demands obedience to His laws and hands out punishments and reward here and in the life hereafter. He keeps account of all men’s activities in order, finally, to close their accounts with a credit or debit.7

Moses Mendelsohn, who was one of the chief representatives of deism in Germany, Lessing’s friend and the prototype of Nathan the Wise, belongs in this context. To anyone who judges Mendelsohn simply on the basis of his moral-philosophical and aesthetic writings he seems to belong almost totally to the spirit of the philosophy of that time, which in most cases likewise discussed individual problems closely related to man in an enlightened manner. Moreover, in his proofs of the basic tenets of deism, the existence of God and the immortality of the soul he conforms completely to this world of ideas. However, one gets a rather different picture when one reads his writings concerning Judaism. Then one sees that he by no means simply had the philanthropical intention of protecting the nations from the wrath of bellicose theologians but that he was also pursuing quite differently and definitely Jewish objectives with his deism. His work, Jerusalem, oder über religiöse Macht und Judentum [Jerusalem, or Concerning Religous Power and Jewry] (1783), in particular, can be recommended for reading.

Here Mendelsohn makes no pretense whatsoever that the natural religion which he advocates is essentially in keeping with the Jewish religion (especially Vol. II, pp. 30 ff.). The articles of faith of the Jewish catechism, he states expressly, are rather in keeping with those of Herbert of Cherbury, the well-known English advocate of rational religion. In this connection, the fact that the content of the Jewish religion, as he says himself, is not actually doctrine but mainly law, serves a good purpose for him. Thus, he gains for the Jews a quite advantageous position which they have subsequently frequently taken. He demands freedom of thought and designates with some scorn all the more profound teachings which are not immediately obvious from simple reasoning as superstition. But such free thought that he demands from others he is by no means inclined to tolerate with regard to his own religion. Whoever is born as a Jew should adhere to the law to its full extent; only contemplation, not action, is permitted (pp. 127 ff.). From the outset thus, the Jewish religion is secured against all attacks of the Age of Enlightenment. The Jewish religion allegedly contains nothing in the way of doctrines to which natural logic would not lead. However, thinking must not disturb the prescriptions for action which certainly go far beyond the bounds of that which is comprehensible by reason in Jewish law.

Thus, the Jew becomes intolerant as soon as things touch on his faith. He demands tolerance but does not reciprocate it. Government should exclude from its borders not only atheism but also superstition and fanaticism (pp. 68 ff.). That which Mendelsohn subsumes under superstition in this connection can be more or less imagined; it might be rather broad areas of the Christian religion recognized by the state. Moreover, at the same time it is hinted with modesty (pp. 69 ff.) that the state should “favor with a wise moderation” only those doctrines “on which its true happiness is based,” namely the doctrines about God, Providence and life in the hereafter, thus those to which he also adheres as a Jew. Thus, that position for the Jewish religion is sought with which we have now become sufficiently well acquainted and in keeping with which this religion, amongst all others, is the only one which is protected from any attack.

Obviously it would be prematureand this should be emphasized in conclusionto consider the whole Age of Enlightenment simply to be the invention of Jews on account of this Jewish influence on the shaping of deism. In the period which we call the Age of Enlightenment there were also very healthy and truly German forces in action for which we shall again have complete understanding today. In natural law ideas of German law were revived; in the longing for a common faith, by which religious dissention could be overcome, we shall likewise not fail to see the nationalistic motivation. It must indeed be pointed out that this German Age of Enlightenment, which was not a simple appendage of the European Age of Enlightenment, but in many ways an independent intellectual force, is still quite unrecognized as a result of the prevailing orientation of our writing on the history of philosophy.

But the nemesis of German intellectual history did not remain absent: the Jewish influence. It forced the German movement away from its healthy orientation and brought about effects which were, in the final analysis, not a blessing but a curse for us. This is the case because this influence prevented the peculiarly German element from coming into its own and increased the uncertainty of the Germans about their own nature.


1  For details of this development, see the article by Erich Botzenhart in the third volume of the Forschungen zur Judenfrage, “Der politische Aufstieg des Judentums von der Emanzipation bis zur Revolution von 1848,” pp. 61-104.

2  Cf. Hans Behrens, “Moses Mendelsohn und die Aufklärung” in Volume IV of Forschungen zur Judenfrage.

3  Forschungen zur Judenfrage, Volume II, page 218.

4  Cf. the article by Heinrich Heerwagen, “Das Bild des Juden in der englischen Literatur,” in Forschungen zur Judenfrage, Volume V, pp. 160-176.

5  Cp. J. Gutmann, Jean Bodin in seinen Beziehungen zum Judentum, 1906. [Jean Bodin in his Relations to Jewry.]

6  L. Geiger, Geschichte der Juden in Berlin [History of the Jews in Berlin], 1871, Vol. I, p. 135 and Vol. II, p. 177.

7  Cp. Sombart, Die Juden und das Wirtschaftsleben [Jews and Economic Life], p. 244.

SOURCE: The Liberty BellNovember 1984

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