Volume 31, Issue 3, 2021
Do We Need a New Enlightenment for the Twenty-First Century? Part II
Do We Need a New Nathan the Wise?
Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s “dramatic poem” Nathan the Wise (1779) stood out at the time because it showed a Jew, Nathan, in a good light—a better light than the average Christian. Nathan is presented as a figure of wisdom largely on account of his approach to religious difference, especially among the religions represented by the three main protagonists: the Sultan Saladin (Islam), the Knight Templar (Christianity) and Nathan himself (Judaism). In the context of the conflicts of early modern Europe, his message—on the nature of religious difference and the need for toleration—might well seem to earn him the epithet “wise.” This message, which is also the message of the play as a whole, is reinforced by the fact that it is a Jew who delivers it. But, on closer examination, is he the person that at first sight he appears to be? Furthermore, if he were teleported to the here and now, would his take on difference and toleration have enough heft? The essay interrogates the figure of Nathan and answers both questions in the negative. It argues that we need a new Nathan for our globalised, post-colonial, post-Shoah world: a Nathan who is wise in a different fashion.