Lessing’s Nathan the Wise implies a conception of a universal religion of reason which is typical of the enlightenment period. Even though, Lessing does not dismiss existing religions in his work, I will argue that his humanistic religion conflicts with the idea of identity that is necessary to define one’s humanity. Thus, Lessing’s understanding of religion is not feasible since it overlooks the basis of religion. First, I will state that the play refocuses our intention on manhood and humanity. Next, I will explain how Lessing tries to reconcile religious beliefs with his humanistic religion through reason and tolerance. Finally, I will demonstrate how such a reconciliation is not practicable and how Lessing’s conception of a universal religion of reason does not answer the questions at the basis of religion.
Nathan the Wise appears as a praising of humanity. Lessing insists on the grandeur of man and the scope of his actions. He critics men who associate heroic actions with divine miracles. Nathan is outraged by Recha’s perception of the Templar. Indeed, she compares the Templar to an angel and is thankful to God for saving her. Unlike Recha, Nathan insists on thanking the Templar only. According to him, there is no need to «call the angels into play» for it only results from human pride. Thus, Nathan is paralleling Nietzsche’s stance on genius. According to Nietzsche, attributing genius to others confirms our own vanity and pride. Indeed, it masks our incapacity to express such a talent by characterising it as abnormal. Likewise, to associate the Templar’s action to miracle disguises our own cowardice by connecting courage with divinity. Consequently, Lessing, through the character of Nathan, reaffirms human strength and redirects our focus on humanity since, as Nietzsche puts it: «Every human activity is amazingly complicated, not only that of the genius: but none is a ‘miracle.’» One has to praise man rather than God.
The play demonstrates that humanity goes beyond religion through individual encounters. Lessing, does not critic any particular religion, he focuses on personal relationships and their power in uniting people. The characters rise above their personal beliefs in favour of humanity. For example, the Templar saves Recha despite her Judaic ascendency, moreover, the Sultan spares the Templar’s life as this one reminds him of his defunct brother. Besides, evil is not embedded in religion but in the individual’s relation to it. Thus, the evil character is the patriarch whose actions are dictated by Christian doctrine only and who judges people on the basis of this doctrine. Therefore, it appears that there is a link between individuals that exists beyond any particular religion.
For Lessing, this link is humanity or reason. However, reason exists within religion. Indeed, Lessing does not dismiss religion as the latter is rational. According to him, religion emanates from humans’ need for answers, it provides a...