Continually present in Gotthold Lessing?s play, Nathan the Wise, is the pursuit for truth. In particular, a truth that goes beyond religion, one that reaches to the depths of humanity: human nature?s freedom. In his play, Lessing reveals the freedom of human nature among mankind through the bonds of friendship. Furthermore, Lessing conveys an optimistic view of human nature in such a way that left to its own devices, human nature will seek the goodness of mankind and fraternity. Friendship in its purest form is not bound to the confines of religious differences, social status, or selfishness. Without religion or society imposing its ideals, human nature is free to pursue truth and seek the goodness in mankind while bonding in friendship.
A selfless act is good but good is not an act done for recognition. To Nathan, part of friendship is giving of oneself without receiving. The Templar shows his selflessness when Nathan offers the Templar riches for rescuing his daughter from a fire, but the Templar declines any praise with anti-Semitic insults, "Permit what, Jew?" (211). The Templar?s refusal, although harsh, seemed to affirm the goodness Nathan saw in the young man, "A modest greatness would hide behind the monstrous, merely to escape admiration" (212). The lengths the Templar went to in order to save a life is a testament in itself of his goodness, far more powerful than his insults, “I find it strange that such an ugly spot [on Templar?s robe], soiled by the fire, bears better witness than a man?s own lips" (212).
For Nathan, friends do not concern themselves with social status, religious beliefs, or titles; but rather, they can distinguish between the man and the facade. In Nathan?s words, “are Jew and Christian, Jew and Christian first and human beings second?” (214). In Act II, Scene IV, Nathan makes an attempt to thank the Templar for fleeing Temptation on behalf of his daughter. In which the Templar replies, "You know how the Templars ought to think." Seemingly shocked, Nathan says, "Templars alone? and merely ought?. . .I know how good men think; I know as well that all lands bear good men" (213). Nathan is not concerned with the Templar?s position which is a mere robe but with the man behind the guise. A Templar is one of many, but a man is one alone both individual and unique.
Human nature is not bound by the mind but is shown through the heart in friendship. In Act I, Scene III, Nathan speaks to his friend, the dervish, who is surprised on Nathan?s indifference toward his position, "Why, could I not have come to be a fellow in the State whose friendship you?d not want?" To which Nathan replies, "No, if your heart is dervish still, I?ll risk it. For your office of State is but a robe" (186). In other words, there is no reason why a position or title should impose upon the goodness of the dervish?s nature on which their friendship is based. Moreover, Nathan revealed to us his concern for the nature of his friend, the dervish, "You back into your desert. For I fear that being among men you might forget to be a man" (189). Being among men in a society, Nathan recognizes how easy it is to lose oneself and become clouded by the attractiveness of status, corruption of wealth, or religious intolerance.
Earlier in the play, it was said by Nathan, "No man needs must" (186); however, seems to contradict himself later in the play when he insists to the Templar, "We must, we must become good friends" (214). In the first statement, Nathan is claiming that men?s actions are not obligatory; men should be free to act upon their nature. For instance, the Templar selflessly risked his life to save Nathan?s daughter, Rachel, who was caught in a fire. The Templar acted upon his intuition for he knew not that the girl was Jewish nor was this a question when he performed this noble deed. Later, the Templar could not admit that he acted upon his human nature and instead, he used religious intolerance to veil the innate goodness within him. However, Nathan, who sought the truth within this man, was by no means fooled by the Templar?s guise of anti-Semitic prejudice, "Only the shell is bitter, and the core is sweet and good" (211). Therefore, in this instance, according to Nathan?s statement, the Templar mustn?t conceal his goodness with a guise of anti-Semitism for he is acting against the goodness of his human nature.
It is the second statement, "We must, we must become good friends" that illustrates the freedom generated from the truth of the Templar?s goodness. It is the truth that bestowed a freedom upon the Templar, Saladin, and other actors to look beyond their convictions and into their own basic nature to unite them in fraternity. Thus, the greatest sense of freedom is found in a friendship based on truth. For within the narrow-mindedness of prejudice, they were not free to reach the truth; thus, the play would have never concluded with the truth of the Templar?s relation to Saladin, the Templar?s love for Rachel, and later, the kinship between the Templar and Rachel. Friendship is the freedom of mankind to look beyond differences in each other and seek the goodness that is inherent in each of us. Thus, the two statements are not contradictory but simply mean that no man is obligated to act against his nature and by binding in friendship, Nathan and the Templar uphold this statement by following their human nature.
The friendship that bonded the Templar and Nathan is an example of how truth gave them the freedom to unite in fraternity. At one point, Nathan tested the Templar?s loyalty who opened his heart to Nathan in these poignant lines, "Not son? I beg you, Nathan! Conjure the foremost bonds of nature!. . . Suffice it just to be a man" (239). At this point in the play, the Templar has been freed from the confines of prejudice and confesses his love for Rachel and his loyalty to Nathan. Thus, it was not obligatory that the Templar and Nathan become friends. It was, however, natural and a "must" for the men to act upon their nature and become friends after Nathan unearthed the inherent goodness within the Templar.
More importantly, the Templar argues a point that Nathan has been insinuating from the beginning: suffice it to be a man. For in the end, the only truth that we grasp universally is that we are all men? "to us human folk, a man is always dearer than an angel" (180). The three rings of religion are identical and indisputable. Human beings must tolerate different faiths, until the truth is found in some remote age. In the meantime, we should best demonstrate what we believe to be the truth of our own faith by behaving in such a way as to deserve the love and devotion of God. From Nathan the Wise resonates a plea to search within human nature for its goodness and reflect it in ourselves. Mankind will always be free to bond in friendship as long as the impurities of religious prejudice, the corruption of social status, and selfishness does not conceal God?s greatest gift, our human nature.