Nathan the Wise

by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing

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What is the context of Nathan the Wise by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing and who inspired the character of Nathan?

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Gotthold Ephraim Lessing was born on 22 January 1729 in Kamenz, Saxony in Germany where his father was a Lutheran minister. He died on 15 February 1781. He is known primarily as a playwright, philosopher, and art critic. Initially he trained for the ministry, and did undergraduate work at University of Leipzig and obtained a master's degree from Wittenberg in 1752. However, his initial success first in translating French plays into German and then in his own critical writing led him to pursue a career in theater, and he actually was the first person to hold the position of a dramaturge, serving in that role in Germany's first national theater, the Hamburg National Theatre. 

Lessing was a lifelong friend of Moses Mendelssohn (1729 - 1786), a German Jewish philosopher and the model for the character of Nathan. When challenged by Christians to articulate his views on the historical Jesus, Mendelssohn articulated a viewpoint that in many ways crystallized the religious ideals of the Enlightenment, saying that he considered Jesus a great and admirable sage, like Solon and Confucius, but felt no more need to convert to Christianity than to Greek paganism or Confucianism. The philosophy that people can respect and learn from a wide range of beliefs and should tolerate and respect others' religious traditions is at the center of Lessing's play.

The play was written in the context of these discussions about religious tolerance.

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