Lessons from Nathan the Wise

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The question of tolerance once revolved around religions. That sounds quaint now. In the Middle Ages, rulers were depicted as summoning representatives of faiths to "dispute" and show which one was true.

In "The Kuzari," a Jew, a Christian and a Muslim walk into a pagan ruler's court to debate who's right. In that case the Jew wins because it was written by a Jew. People never seemed to wonder why everyone always took the side they were born into; it just so happened.

Everyone was decorous and respectful in those books. Jump to the age of Trump and Twitter, which may be nearer the reality of those days: demonizing and anathematizing the Other, though now about politics more than theology.

The European Enlightenment of the 1700s was a high point of religious toleration and G.E. Lessing, a German Protestant, one of its eminent voices. He was friends with "enlightened" Jewish thinker, Moses Mendelssohn, and wrote a play modelled on him: "Nathan the Wise," set in a medieval court. I saw it at Stratford and had a rare moment of catharsis -- as you're supposed to at plays.

The late Hannah Arendt described the "special place in modern European history of 'the Jew.'" Precisely because they were recognized as persecuted, they often held a revered status among humanistic intellectuals. A deep humanity, Arendt wrote, "is the great privilege of pariah peoples" though it has "never yet survived the hour of liberation" -- from their persecution -- "by so much as a minute." She was always frank and realistic.

Lessing prized his friendship with Mendelssohn ("Nathan"). But it wasn't friendship in our sense of shared intimacy. It was more political; it was about being able to discuss important issues. It's why for him friendship with "others" was the key to the public good. "Free speech" wasn't the right to say any idiotic thing and be taken seriously; it was about exchanging disagreements earnestly, listening and learning. It led to a respectful, humane society. The ability to discuss things that mattered, far outweighed any conclusions reached.

In his parable of "The Three Rings," Nathan describes the basis for tolerance:

A ruler had an exquisite ring with the power to make its wearer kind and loved by God and people. He gave it to his child and so on until a ruler had three equally beloved children. So he had two perfect copies made and told each they had the ring. Then he died and they fell to arguing whose was real. They went to a wise judge who couldn't tell, the rings were all so perfect. But he said they should all strive to be loved through moral behaviour and perhaps a thousand generations later, a wiser judge would discern the original. Or perhaps only God could ever know. So for practical purposes, each ring was real.

Arendt felt that Lessing (and Nathan) was glad the "real" ring had been lost because if it existed, it would mean an end to healthy disagreement, friendship, and even humanity. Everyone would suddenly subscribe to the one true view -- like a chorus of angels united in perfection. Yuck. The world as we know it (created, allegedly, by God) would be replaced by a heavenly alternative.

This isn't some wishy-washy, morally relativistic version of being nice to others. It's a hard-headed acknowledgment that our mental equipment isn't up to absolute truth. We're all enclosed in the echo-chambers of our limits and pasts. So make the best of it and don't pretend you know more than you can.

I can't think of anything more relevant at this repellent moment. Public discussion about the public realm, whether religious or political, mustn't cease, even though that can be tempting, because if we withdraw from it, we stop being, in Arendt's sense, fully human: participants in shaping our own reality.

It gives a profound basis to the argument that diversity is our strength, not only in ethnicity but in ideas. "Possession makes one passive, lazy and proud," wrote Lessing, about truth, though it also holds for wealth. If God offered him Truth in one hand and its pursuit in the other, he said he'd "in all humility" take the pursuit, because, "Father, pure truth is for You alone."

Rick Salutin is a Canadian novelist, playwright and critic. He is a strong advocate of left wing causes and writes a regular column in the Toronto Star. This column originally appeared there. Image: Joan/Flickr

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