The Ring Parable

By Gottfried Ephraim Lessing (1779)

A long time ago, there lived a man from the East who owned a ring of unimaginable value. The stone was an opal that refracted hundreds of beautiful colours and had a secret power to make the bearer adored by God and mankind. It is no wonder then that the man from the East never let the ring escape his finger and decided rather to keep it safely at home. And so it was, he said that he would leave his ring to his favourite of sons who he loved the most, irrespective of the order of his birth. The power of the ring would make this son the head of the home and ruler of the region.

All three of the father’s sons were equally obedient to him, and so he loved all three the same. From time to time, when the father found himself alone with one of his sons, his weak heart would gush with love, confiding in each of them the promise, shared only between them: “you alone are worthy of the ring.” This could only go so long. Soon the good father was on his deathbed and had a dilemma. It pained him to have deceived two of his son, betraying his own promise.

What was to be done? He secretly commissioned an artist to replicate two more copies of his ring, ordering him to spare neither money nor effort in making the replicas completely identical to the original. The artist succeeded. Once the rings were presented to the father, not even he could distinguish the original from the copies. Glad and joyful, the father called each son in private, special to him in their own way, blessing them and bestowing them with his ring before dying.

Barely had the father died, and each son came with their ring, wanting to be the head of the house. They studied; they squabbled; they complained. There was no way to prove which ring was the right ring – just like religion. So the sons went to court, swearing to the judge that their father gave each of them the ring – which, dear reader, is truly spoken. Likewise, they recalled the promise made to each of them: “you alone are worthy of the ring.” The father affirmed each of them and could not have possibly lied, right? Such foul play, the sons reasoned, was not in their father’s good nature.

“There must be a traitor among us.” They said, “and we must get revenge!”

The judge spoke: “If your father can’t stand trial, then leave my court! Do you think I am here to solve mysteries? Or are you hoping for the right ring to open its mouth?”

“BUT!” The brothers objected.

“Stop! I understand that the ring has supernatural powers to make the wielder adored by God and mankind. Correct? Then it is settled. Obviously, the fake rings would not be able to do that.”

The brothers fell silent. Each tried to use the ring’s power to influence the other brothers. The judge watched the charade before interrupting.

“Now, tell me, among yourselves, which of your two brothers do you love the most?”

The brothers looked at one another uncertain, hoping to have possible to charmed their sibling. Yet nothing changed, and they felt ashamed.

“Speak up!” … “Why the silence? Does the ring not react, or is the person you love most yourself? Oh, I see. So you three are all deceived crooks! Your rings are all fakes, and the original was lost. To cover up the loss, your father likely made three fake rings.” The judge said.

Bringing his court session to a close, he spoke his mind: “If you want my verdict instead of my advice, I’d say ‘get out’, but as for my advice, I’d say accept things as they are. Each of you has a ring from your father, so go on and believe it to be the real one. It may well be that your father didn’t want to tolerate the tyranny of the One Ring in his house any longer. Also, he loved each of you, all the same, not wanting to favour one over the other.”

“Come on, don’t be jealous of your father’s generous love. Each of you should strive to manifest the power of the stone in the ring – if this power comes with meekness, genuine agreeability, good deeds and deep devotion to God. And when the powers of these stones reach your children’s children, even thousands of thousands of years later, invite them to my courtroom. They will see a wise old man, sitting on this chair, telling them to ‘get out’ as this humble judge does now.”

Explanation Notes and Comments:

The parable is an anecdote for religious tolerance, specifically between the three Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam). The conflict between the three sons centers on the question of which ring is the true ring. In other words, which religion is the true religion. From the verdict given by the judge, he believes that it has been “lost” while the text suggests that there may well be one. However, that is not the moral of the story. Rather what the judge tries to get across to the sons is that the authenticity of the ring is not as important as the character of the one that wields it. In this light, Jew, Christian and Muslim ought to conduct themselves as if God the Father bestowed each of them with the true ring. In doing so, the power of the ring will be seen in acts of the bearer such as humility, good deeds and a deep devotion to God. So any fights over this matter are pointless.

I first came across this parable in my German literature class while at Studienkolleg. I found it so profound and timeless, for these disputes are still prevalent today , but not as bad as they were during the crusades. I’m very thankful for that! I think we all stand to learn something from each other if we decided to be a little more open-minded and live by the maxim of Aristotle — assuming to know nothing. In saying that I wish to take this thought a little further than what the text might allow. Maybe we can hold back on our firm opinions if the way we live reflects little of our ideals. In other words, ‘action speak louder than words’.

On a final note, for those who may have further interest in the story. It can be found in a play by Lessing called Nathan the Wise (Nathan der Weise). It is set during the crusades and explores this topic in much greater depth than this little article.

Disclaimer: This is my literal translation. I couldn’t find a decent English version. You can read the original German here.

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