Wednesday, December 09, 2009

The Parable of the Three Rings

Gotthold Ephraim Lessing

An uneasy peace ruled in Jerusalem. Saladin's victory against the Crusaders had cost the Muslims dearly, both in the loss of troops and in the depletion of the royal treasury. Saladin was resolved to rule with civilized humanity as far as possible. But it was an uneasy peace, with Jews, Christians, and the newly victorious Muslims all suspicious of one another.

Thus when Saladin requested an audience with Nathan, a leading Jewish merchant, the latter was very apprehensive about the Sultan's motivation. Nathan was known far and wide not only for his successes in commerce, but also for his skills in diplomacy and negotiation. Jews, Christians, and Muslims alike called him Nathan the Wise.

Nathan's suspicions were well founded, for Saladin was indeed looking to replenish his exhausted coffers with a loan or a gift from his wealthy Jewish subject. Too civil to openly demand such a tribute from the peace-loving Nathan, the Sultan instead masked his request in the form of a theological question.

"Your reputation for wisdom is great," said the Sultan. "You must have studied the great religions. Tell me, which is the best, Judaism, Islam, or Christianity?"

"Sultan, I am a Jew," replied Nathan.

"And I a Muslim," interrupted Saladin, "and between us stands the Christian. But the three faiths contradict one another. They cannot all be true. Tell me the results of your own wise deliberations. Which religion is best?"

Nathan recognized the trap at once. Any answer except "Islam" would offend Saladin the Muslim, whereas any answer except "Judaism" would place his own integrity under question. Thus, instead of giving a direct answer, Nathan responded by relating a parable to Saladin:

In the Orient in ancient times there lived a man who possessed a ring of inestimable worth. Its stone was an opal that emitted a hundred colors, but its real value lay in its ability to make its wearer beloved of God and man. The ring passed from father to most favored son for many generations, until finally its owner was a father with three sons, all equally deserving. Unable to decide which of the three sons was most worthy, the father commissioned a master artisan to make two exact copies of the ring, then gave each son a ring, and each son believed that he alone had inherited the original and true ring.

But instead of harmony, the father's plan brought only discord to his heirs. Shortly after the father died, each of the sons claimed to be the sole ruler of the father's house, each basing his claim to authority on the ring given to him by the father. The discord grew even stronger and more hateful when a close examination of the rings failed to disclose any differences.

"But wait," interrupted Saladin, "surely you do not mean to tell me that there are no differences between Islam, Judaism, and Christianity!"

"You are right, Sultan," replied Nathan. "Their teachings and practices differ in ways that can be seen by all. However, in each case, the teachings and practices are based on beliefs and faith, beliefs and faith that at their roots are the same. Which of us can prove that our beliefs and our faith are more reliable than those of others?"

"I understand," said Saladin. "Now continue with your tale."

"The story is nearly at its end," replied Nathan.

The dispute among the brothers grew until their case was finally brought before a judge. After hearing the history of the original ring and its miraculous powers, the judge pronounced his conclusion: "The authentic ring," he said, "had the power to make its owner beloved of God and man, but each of your rings has brought only hatred and strife. None of you is loved by others; each loves only himself. Therefore I must conclude that none of you has the original ring. Your father must have lost it, then attempted to hide his loss by having three counterfeit rings made, and these are the rings that cause you so much grief."

The judge continued: "Or it may be that your father, weary of the tyranny of a single ring, made duplicates, which he gave to you. Let each of you demonstrate his belief in the power of his ring by conducting his life in such a manner that he fully merits -- as anciently promised -- the love of God and man.

"Marvelous! Marvelous!" exclaimed Saladin. "Your tale has set my mind at rest. You may go."

"Sultan, was there nothing else you wished from me?" asked Nathan.

"No. Nothing."

"Then may I take the liberty to make a request of you. My trade of late has brought me unexpected wealth, and in these uncertain times I need a secure repository. Would you be willing to accept my recent earnings as loan or deposit?"

The Sultan gladly acceded to Nathan's wish.

And thus Saladin gained from his wise Jewish subject both material and spiritual benefit, and Nathan the Wise found a safe haven for his wealth and earned the respect of the Islamic Sultan.


  • Source: Abstracted from Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, Nathan der Weise, a drama in five acts (1779). Events leading up to Nathan's telling of the parable are depicted in act 3, scenes 4-7. The parable itself is contained in act 3, scene 7.

  • © 1999 by D. L. Ashliman.

  • Link to the text of the entire play (in German): Nathan der Weise.

  • Note that in Lessing's version of the three-ring parable, unlike its precedents, all three rings are deemed to be false.

  • Saladin (born 1137 or 1138, died 1193), Sultan of Egypt, Syria, Yemen, and Palestine, was the greatest Muslim hero of the middle ages.

  • Return to the table of contents.

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