The company is so surprised by the clerical generosity in Elissa’s tale that Panfilo must interrupt their conversation so Filostrato can tell his tale. He proposes to outdo Elissa with the story of a man’s generosity towards someone who actually wanted to kill him.
The brigata’s astonishment to hear a story about a generous clergyman contributes to the book’s anticlerical satire, since the habitual greediness of clerics is legendary. To compete with this wonder, Filostrato must up the ante considerably by invoking murder.
In Cathay (according to the Genoese), there is an extremely noble and extremely wealthy man named Nathan. Because his property lies along a major East-West route, he builds and furnishes a splendid palace to host passing travelers “in a most festive and agreeable manner.” When he is already old, another wealthy noble named Mithridanes resolves to “nullify or darken” Nathan’s reputation by making a “display of greater liberality.” He builds his own palace and hosts travelers as well.
This tale has an unusual, word-of-mouth origin because it probably comes indirectly from Marco Polo’s description of Kublai Khan. But since Polo was a Venetian (and thus a rival in terms of Florentine hometown pride), Giovanni Boccaccio worked to obscure the source. Nathan epitomizes the idea of “noblesse oblige” because he shelters and protects vulnerable travelers out of the goodness of his heart. But while Nathan is generous, Mithridanes performs acts of generosity, but is not generous, because he is only trying to enhance his own reputation. In this way, he is like Melissus, who sought advice from Solomon on how to be loved and was told that he had to love others himself in IX, 9.
One day, a woman enters the palace several times, through different gates, begging for alms each time. After her twelfth entry, Mithridanes comments on her persistence as he gives her alms. She compares his stinginess to Nathan’s generosity: she entered all 32 gates to beg, and no one ever called her out for it. Mithridanes, taking this as a comment on the limits of his own generosity, flies into a rage and decides that if he can’t compete with Nathan, he will have to kill him.
The beggar woman tests the limits of Mithridanes’s generosity and shows its opportunism. Nathan, a truly generous man, doesn’t care how his money is being used as long as he is giving it away. In contrast, because he cares about performing acts of generosity to enhance his own reputation for nobility (but because he isn’t yet motivated by true generosity), Mithridanes cares that the woman seems to be taking advantage of him. It’s a further indication of his immaturity that he decides the best way to enhance his own reputation is to take out the competition, rather than to reorient his giving to be truly generous.
Mithridanes travels to Nathan’s palace. When he encounters his rival, he doesn’t recognize him. Nathan is plainly dressed and all alone. He offers to take Mithridanes to the palace and tells him entertaining tales on the way. When they arrive, Nathan secretly tells his servants not to reveal his identity. Then he himself installs Mithridanes in a fine room, and they spend a pleasant evening talking together. When Mithridanes asks who he is, Nathan replies that he’s a servant. And when Mithridanes reveals himself and his plan to kill Nathan, he maintains his facade.
Mithridanes’s inability to recognize Nathan illustrates his own disordered approach to generosity. Mithridanes expects Nathan to be grand since he himself engages in generosity for the sake of increasing his reputation. But Nathan looks like a humble (or even poor) man. And Nathan’s generous nature means that helping and talking with the younger man comes naturally to him. But Nathan isn’t just generous, he’s also self-possessed, able to maintain his composure even after discovering Mithridanes’s murderous plan. If Mithridanes’s jealousy and anger represent excess, they are about to be brought back into balance by the power of Nathan’s equanimity and restraint.
Although Mithridanes’s murderous intentions unsettle Nathan, he is courageous and appreciative of the younger man’s envy, since it inspires generosity. He tells Mithridanes that Nathan can be found every morning alone in a wood a little way off. Mithridanes will be able to find and kill him there easily. He even explains the escape route Mithridanes should take.
Nathan’s generosity allows him to turn even Mithridanes’s excessive jealousy and competitiveness into a good thing. This tale is beginning to push seriously on the boundaries of believability, but thanks to the competition among the brigata, this is only the beginning. It also displays Giovanni Boccaccio’s mastery of his craft as he expertly ratchets up the dramatic tension and leaves unanswered the question of what Nathan is planning to do to save himself.
In the morning, while Nathan walks in the wood, Mithridanes rushes on him. When he exclaims that the hour of his death has come, Nathan answers that he has only himself to blame. Hearing his voice and drawing close enough to see his face, Mithridanes recognizes him as his companion from the previous evening. He drops his sword, and he throws himself at Nathan’s feet in tears, acknowledging the older man’s unsurpassable generosity, since it extends to giving up his very life freely. His eyes have been opened to the vileness of his murderous intent.
Nathan’s equanimity and calm in the moment that Mithridanes attacks him is super-human. In a book that considers moderation one of the highest social virtues, Nathan is an outstanding example. And while in the confines of the tale, his moderation tames Mithridanes’s chaos and rage, the very extremity of the situation also suggests that moderation is more difficult to achieve within the chaos of real life than in the artificial world the tales reproduce.
Nathan embraces Mithridanes and says that he loves him for spending his wealth generously. He even forgives the planned murder since it’s common—kings and emperors often kill thousands just to enhance their fame or extend their territory. Although Mithridanes is still surprised that Nathan would sacrifice his life willingly, Nathan had reasons for that, too. His aim in living a life of generosity was to give whatever he could to his guests. When Mithridanes asked for his life, Nathan didn’t want him to be the first guest he had failed. He’s also very old. The remaining years of his life don’t have much value, and the longer he lives, the more their value decreases.
Nathan’s willingness to forgive Mithridanes for his murderous plot—and even to die willingly in the name of generosity—is a munificent deed according to the day’s theme. But it is also excessive and must be brought back within the bounds of the moderation and balance that allow for a well-running society. Thus, Nathan’s apparently suicidal behavior is tempered by his age and nearness to death anyway. And Mithridanes is already starting to learn the tale’s lesson and turn towards true generosity.
But instead of murdering him, Mithridanes now wishes he could add years to Nathan’s life. Nathan, always the giver, would refuse this gift. Instead, he suggests that Mithridanes could assume his identity, and he, Nathan, could become Mithridanes. But Mithridanes refuses, certain that his imperfect generosity could only tarnish Nathan’s reputation. Mithridanes returns home a few days later, understanding that Nathan’s generosity can never be outdone.
Mithridanes’s newfound concern to protect the reputation of his former rival—a reputation he initially set out to tarnish—proves that he is a changed man. The gift that Nathan offered his young guest was much better than money or reputation: it was the understanding of true generosity and the taming of the young man’s intemperate and excessive emotions.