The Parable of the Three Rings

When I am feeling thoughtful and imprecise, I like to say that philosophers embrace disagreement and pluralism because we are not, ultimately, ‘friends  of wisdom’: we are practitioners of an ancient art of ‘wise friendship’ in which our disagreements and disputes are understood as a part of a larger project of amicability or relation. We obsess over metaphysical minutiae because these are source of the distinction by which our friendships flourish. Because of this, I was grateful to see my friend Leigh Johnson, Dr. J, ‘go meta’ on our dispute over moral realism in her latest discussion of Aristotelian friendship. To be counted among her friends is a very great distinction.

In his play Nathan the Wise, Gotthold Lessing responds to a challenge levied at his friend Moses Mendelssohn with a parable about three rings. Mendelssohn, a Jew, had been publically challenged to refute the Pietist theology of Charles Bonnet, or else convert to Christianity. Lessing represented this challenge with a scenario in which Nathan, a Jewish merchant living in Jerusalem under the sultanate of Saladin, is asked to judge which of the three monotheisms is true: Judaism, Christianity, or Islam. The Sultan’s goal is to trick Nathan into taking a position with which he can blackmail him, so that he can force Nathan to finance his administration.

Instead of responding to the question directly, Nathan begins a story of a man who owned a ring which rendered its wearer “pleasing in both the sight of God and man.”

The man has three sons, to each of whom he promises both the ring and the inheritance of the family’s estates and titles. Before his death, he has counterfeits made and gives each son a copy. In the ensuing controversy, a judge determines that none of the sons can be granted an undivided claim on the inheritance, as none of the rings appears more authentic than the others. Instead, he decrees that the three should compete to

“demonstrate the magic virtue vested in his ring and help that power to grow with gentleness, with heartfelt tolerance, with charity and deep submission to the will of God!”

Their competition in tolerance might someday reveal the bearer of the true ring, since the only evidence available for judgment is the display of these ‘pleasing virtues.’

Of course, the story can be read as a set of truth conditions for determining the true religion. We see this in the work of Roger Scruton, for instance, who has argued that Christianity’s ascendency and devotion to the freedom of religion makes it superior to Islam, which “wishes to exterminate it.”

Arguing that Christianity tolerates religious differences but cannot tolerate challenges to its political ascendency, he concludes:

“Freedom of association can be granted only to associations which… [do not] entertain rival legislative ambitions.”

This is a version of the old cliché: toleration cannot tolerate intolerance, and communities of faith ought to be judged by their most intolerant dogmas.

In contrast, Hannah Arendt interpreted the story as a paean to continuing dialogue and tolerance:

“[Lessing] was glad that… [truth] if it ever existed, had been lost; he was glad for the sake of the infinite number of opinions that arise when men discuss the affairs of the world.”

She suggests that Lessing would always trade certainty for friendship and debate. The plurality of religious dogmas provides an opportunity to encounter others, rather than a set of differences which must be managed or equalized. If Arendt is right, then Scruton’s liberal tolerance is worthless, a mere modus vivendi for putting up with each other. The measure of tolerance is the friendships that are possible despite disagreements or rivalries. Thus she repeats Nathan’s refrain:

“We must, we must be friends.”

Between Arendt’s account of plurality as the fundamental prerequisite for friendship, and Scruton’s use of contradiction as a condition to be analyzed, falsified, and suppressed, we can see the difference between the Enlightenment’s quest for ‘truth’ and the scientific demand for accuracy or ‘being right.’

“[T]he question of truth was in Lessing’s time still a question of philosophy and of religion, whereas our problem of being right arises within the framework of science and is always decided by a mode of thought oriented toward science.”

Where philosophy concerns itself with the various ultimates: God, immortaliy, and freedom, science attempts to settle these questions the same way it settles the specific gravity of milk or the load-bearing capacities of a bridge. Arendt argues that the loss of this distinction comes at the expense of friendship, and ultimately threatens the foundations of political life as well.

As philosophers we often find ourselves at odds with the ‘common sense’, in part because we venture into questions where common sense fears to tread. Where the common sense abandons inquiry in the name of prudence, convenience, tradition, or respect, it is not unusual for philosophers to proceed, to question foundational assumptions or hubristically interrogate the gods. The image on the Thracian maid, giggling at the sight of Thales tripping into a well because his gaze was skyward, captures this view well. Philosophers aspire to be unworldly: our attentions turned inward or upward as we stumble through the physical world. We spend our days speculating, staring, obsessively observing minutia and scribbling unsettling conclusions; sometimes we are indistinguishable from madmen. Our  investigations end best when our insights simply draw the mockery and derision of our fellow citizens, because the alternative is that the philosopher will find herself persecuted, exiled or executed for the unsettling direction of her results.

Even when we retreat to our armchairs for solitary thought, we are not alone: we are drawn to each other because we share a commitment to these inquiries no matter where they may lead, and because we need the support of a community of fellow inquirers. The corrollary is that, among philosophers, it is considered honorable to take on the position of devil’s advocate in order to introduce needed pluralism and distinction into a discussion. Among us, holding unfashionable views is needed and strangely satisfying. When we find ourselves at odds, when we begin to take what Dr. J calls ‘friendly fire,’ it is a reason to rejoice: our friends have arrived!