Spinoza: A novel/Chapter 11

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FROM the bright friendly circle where he was named Benedict he must return to the monotonous and uncongenial surroundings where he was called Baruch, and think and act as such.

Why was the name Benedict more harmonious than the name Baruch? It was only the prejudice of a Gentile, to whom the sacred language was unfamiliar and harsh. But yet is not this naming anew a sign that he was henceforth to live and think like the whole intellectual world in word and deed? Is there not a deeper meaning in the fact that the patriarchs Abraham and Jacob altered their names on receiving a new covenant? Darest thou create precedents for thyself from the Bible? And always the Bible? ...

Pondering thus Spinoza left the Van den Ende's house. His family name remained unaltered, and with it the indissoluble connection between his past and future; within these limits and depending on these associations to no one is granted the power of freely following out a train of thought. The crown he had once received in the title of Rabbi had passed from his brow; a fair consecrating hand had rested on his head, and given him another name.

He went straight from Olympia to the School of the Crown of the Law. It struck him as irony that here, in this unrelieved monotony, men should crown themselves. It all seemed so dull and depressing, even more so than it really was. The gay jests and pleasant voice of Olympia still rang in his memory, the Litany of the scholars sitting here and there at the tables sounded discordantly in his ears. He sat down in a corner to follow his own thoughts undisturbed ever an open book, when Chisdai came to him and asked him the meaning of a difficult passage in the Talmud. Baruch did not spend long over it.

"I always said," began Chisdai, "that you would be a perfect Samson in intellect and learning. If people will not let you in and out, you take the door, locks and bolts and all, on your back, and carry them off; but for God's sake, and your hopes of his mercy, do not let yourself be allured by the Delilah to whom you are now straying. I have never seen her myself—God forbid!—but from what I hear from others she is no longer young and should not be fair."

"I do not know what you mean; let me alone," said Baruch crossly.

"What I mean?" replied the other. "How you pretend! The physician's daughter, I mean; what is her name? Oh, Olympia van den Ende, who is so clever that she speaks seven languages. I entreat you, follow my advice; if those over there really mean well by you, they will have you out and out; act like a Samson, catch the foxes, bind their tails, set fire to them, and send them into the ripe cornfields of the Philistines. You understand what I mean; but I fear, I fear, they will—God forbid!—put out your eyes; they will take away thy strength, and make thee a jest."

"It is a pity," replied Baruch, "you have not kept this new application of Samson's history to religious controversy for your morning's sermon. But, to add the conclusion to it, I will tell you, that if they could or would do what you mean, I too have the courage to cry with Samson, 'Let me die with the Philistines!' and act accordingly."

It pained him like sacrilege to have Olympia's name spoken by Chisdai, and to see her graceful figure dragged into that dismal place. His dislike to Chisdai increased more and more, for he saw clearly how he watched every turn of his mind, and spied into its workings; he must have some special object in it, for Chisdai was not to be kept at a distance by even the most marked rudeness. On that Sabbath Chisdai had given the first public evidence of his oratorical powers. The attempt was an utter failure.

"I was not wholly unfavorably disposed towards Chisdai's suit for your sister Miriam," said his father as he left the synagogue with Baruch.

"Chisdai has some fortune, and will some day have a fair addition to it; he is not so very plain, and I cannot understand what has come to Miriam, that she says she feels such an unconquerable aversion for him. I see now, however, that he will never be the remarkable man we thought he would be; and if I am not to have the pleasure of seeing my daughter the wife of a celebrated and learned author, I would rather give her to Samuel Casseres." Baruch assented.

"I think it is time," continued his father, "that you should make yourself heard; it will give honor to your whole family. I should like to see you up there with my old eyes. Who knows how long I may be here to have the pleasure?"

Baruch made no reply; he thought a horrible dizziness would seize him if he stood up there like the others who spoke with such unhesitating decision, as if they had seen the Lord God shuffle the cards, and knew exactly why he played this or that trump, and what he would or ought to play out in the future.

"Why are you so thoughtful?" began his father again. "I verily believe you are shy; shame on you! you were so bold once. Do you remember how you once thought it would be the greatest happiness to stand up there, and pour forth the living word of the Spirit of God for the whole congregation?"

"I am ill, I have almost always palpitation of the heart. You know not long ago I spat blood."

"Pooh, pooh, excuses! I have already spoken to our Chacham Aboab; he is willing to let you preach this day fortnight. I will speak to Silva, our doctor; if he allows it you must fulfil my wishes, or I will not forgive you it on my death-bed."

What could he reply to this? Silva gave permission, and Baruch must prepare to preach. Who can imagine the conflicting feelings that were aroused by the composition of this sermon? Who can calculate the mocking thoughts that followed him when he went to Olympia, and read with her the pictures of the gay, pleasurable life of the heathens; when he enjoyed the worldly jests of Oldenburg, and then returned to the working out of his sermon?

The young preacher had many books open before him in which to search for examples, similes and questions. His hand rested on an open volume of Maimonides, and his eyes wandered to the rows of books in shelves against the wall. There rested the words and thoughts of vanished minds. They too struggled, doubted, sorrowed and at last found peace. Is it not presumption to turn their life and learning to folly? Thousands were wiser than thou art. Bow thy proud spirit in humility, and thou wilt again enter into peace; thou art heir of the blessedness which made happy those of old times. Thou wilt and thou canst, thou must. How wilt thou find the strength for a lonely road in which no one will follow thee but thine own consciousness? The spirits of thy forefathers rise and bless thee, enclosing thee in their circle. ...

Such is the traditional consolation which upholds the wavering powers as if with supernatural aid; long vanished capabilities return to help and support.

A radiant ecstasy shone from the eyes of the gazer, and his left hand was laid on his breast as the new peace possessed it. Will this traditional consolation and resignation, which now pacifies the stormy struggle, always bring the same calm? Or will the yearnings again awake in the soul that can only receive satisfaction from itself?

The appointed Sabbath came; the silence of expectation reigned in the synagogue as Baruch mounted the altar steps. What devil brought the image of Olympia at that moment before his mind so clearly that he heard her mocking tones, "Rabbi Baruch! Rabbi Baruch!" He summoned his resolution to banish all traces of the vision from his mind in such a time and place. He stood up as pale as a corpse, and dried the cold perspiration from his brow. All eyes were upon him. He began in a trembling voice:

"The Lord is nigh unto all them that call upon him, to all that call upon him in truth." Ps. cxlv. 18. He represented in vivid colors the fate of the infidel, who had no God in Heaven, and none in his heart. He had come to the second part of his sermon, where he extolled the blessedness of the faith common to all men; he described the felicity of being even in life gathered to his fathers, united in the acceptation and building up of what was grounded by them; in this rests the strength of their earthly existence. His eloquence was fiery, his voice echoed powerfully, when he felt a violent choking sensation; he stopped, and blood flowed from his mouth into the damp handkerchief.

The stillness of a graveyard pervaded the whole assembly; the people looked at one another, and then pitifully at the fainting youth. The father had already opened his mouth to tell his son to come down, when Baruch stood up again and closed the service with a short prayer. As with one mouth the whole congregation cried out, "Jejasher Koach!" (the Lord strengthen thee) the usual applause in the synagogue.

Baruch and his father left the synagogue immediately. As they passed Chisdai's seat, he asked kindly if he might accompany them. Baruch thanked him. In all quarters the Sabbath talk was of Baruch's misfortune; old women and the wiseacres prophesied melancholy things. Only Chisdai, usually not slow in his judgments, shrugged his shoulders when questioned. He had his reasons for not speaking out.

In three days Baruch again left his bed. He wished to go to Olympia.

"You shall never mention that house to me again," said his father in evident displeasure. "Fine tales I have heard of the little doctor. He is said to be the incarnation of Satan himself. The son of the indigo merchant, Grönhof, who died a week ago, confessed before his death that till then he had had no faith; the doctor had brought him to that pass. He has founded a whole sect. I did know the name; what is it called? But whether or no, you shall never cross his threshold again."

Baruch tried to dissuade his father, but he only went on: "The daughter is said to be worse than the father; she can talk the devil's ear off in seven different languages. I don't attend usually to common talk, but this lady is surrounded by a swarm of learned flatterers. Believe me, I know the world better than you; there all is jesting, laughter and song, witty dispute, rich fanciful ideas, in finely expressed trifling. A pure mind like yours sees nothing in it but the laudable freedom and gayety of the classic world. I have heard it called so too; but, properly looked at, it is frivolous mummery, that recognizes neither law nor limit. Have your parents left their fair native land for this— resigning all glory and honor to endure mere sufferance—that now their children may fall into frivolous trifling with all that is most sacred? You know the writings of our religion better than I, but I have more experience of the world. Let me not have it in vain. Believe me, you will find dust and ashes if you give yourself up to the allurements of the world. Remain in the quiet sanctuary of sacred learning, and rejoice that you can live there undisturbed, as you proclaimed this day yourself."

The father's voice was deeply moved. Who knows how much lay behind these hastily uttered words? Transplanted to a strange soil he had aged rapidly. It seemed as if sorrow still oppressed him, that the fair native land, with its proud pleasures, had vanished forever for him. Perhaps for that reason he clung all the more to heavenly joys, and strove to bind his son to such alone.

The father's existence was twofold. The rapturous sensations that had filled his soul when Baruch received rabbinical honors were a combination of religious exaltation and worldly pride. On that Sabbath he was another man than on the days of work. He had still to struggle against memories of the past, all the more since his wife had been torn from him; he strove continually, more than was apparently requisite, to live in the present, and external cares and sorrows oppressed him deeply. He was an exile; his own heart was never free from the painful recollections of his home. He had left it for the sake of his faith and to ensure to his children freedom of worship. As it must be so, all the more zealously was he determined to watch over his son, that the peace of his life also might not be disturbed by strange reminiscences. The youth, whom the physician had warned against all violent speaking, tried, in a soft voice and carefully guarded language, to teach his father to think otherwise of Olympia and her friends. There was a knock at the door, and Oldenburg entered, accompanied by a friend. Oldenburg advanced and held out his hand to Baruch.

"That is well," he said; "you have not yet signed yourself a candidate for the lower world. We were anxious, because you gave us no information. Jufrow Olympia sends you her compliments; she remarked some time ago that you must be ill. So on her bidding I ventured to make my first call on you, and because I thought you must be seriously ill, I brought my friend Dr. Ludwig Meyer with me, who, moreover, has long wished to make your acquaintance."

"Yes, I was very anxious about my son," said his father, and Oldenburg bowed to the speaker.

"So you are the father of our young philosopher? Did you not come to me a short time ago about a claim on the house of Trost?"


"Excuse me for being so short then; I was engaged with pressing business. I was very sorry I did not tell you so. Your affair was not forgotten, however. I wrote to Bremen concerning it, and received answer that if you were not paid within four weeks an execution would be put in."

"I am much obliged for your trouble, and for the honor you have done my house by this visit."

Oldenburg then talked earnestly with the father, who felt himself, to his surprise, much taken with Oldenburg's open-hearted manner. It might be said that Oldenburg's whole behavior in tone and character was expressed in his voice, full, tranquil and trustworthy. He told the father that Baruch was the first Jew whom he had learned to know intimately. He was not only astonished at his powers of mind, and in love with his noble spirit; he was under obligations to him for having removed prejudices engrafted by early education and custom. Oldenburg's sincere and extraordinary affection for Baruch, never shown to him in words, was now revealed to his father, and made his countenance brighten with pleasure. The heart of the old Spaniard was stirred by the chivalric appearance of Oldenburg, whose grace was as a memory of his youth.

Meyer meanwhile conversed with Baruch on his breakdown of the previous Sabbath.

"You should have followed the example of our rough-spoken, brave old Dr. Luther," said the young physician with the dark complexion and flashing black eyes.

"What did he do?" inquired Baruch.

"He once said: 'When I mount the pulpit I look at the human beings, but regard them as mere blocks standing before me, and speak out God's word.' In a certain sense—in which sense, however, he did not mean it—I agree with him entirely. You must study the man; he has a certain proportion of faith which is wanting in me, but he was thoroughly honest. I am much interested in him."

"I am glad you too are a theologian."

"I lead a sort of amphibious life between theology and medicine."

"Yes, Herr von Spinoza," said Oldenburg joining in the conversation. "Meyer has medicine for a wife, and theology for a mistress. You can dispute with him; he knows the Bible by heart." The father accompanied Oldenburg and Meyer to the door on their departure, and was not displeased that the passers-by should see who had visited him. His face was still bright when he returned to his son, and he said:

"Herr Oldenburg thinks very highly of you. I know the difference well enough between mere patronage and real sincerity. You may congratulate yourself on having such a gallant, upright man for a friend,"

"And yet I must avoid him and his associates?" asked Baruch.

"I warned you," concluded his father, "against underhand work; you are sharp-sighted enough now to see through such. I have nothing against your being with Oldenburg."

Spinoza continued his visits to Olympia unhindered. He became more and more intimate with Oldenburg, while with Meyer their intellectual intercourse led, through their common zeal for study, to the same kind of intimacy which is brought about by travelling companionship, where, in the contemplation of the new and strange, they knew themselves to be in dear and trusted company. Meyer was, though in some respects shallow, well informed in modern speculation. The history of nations, the study of physical science, then followed with newly awakened zeal, above all, the Cartesian philosophy opened new fields of study with which Spinoza now made himself familiar. The "Letters" and the "Treatise on Mankind," which had appeared posthumously, Descartes being then but lately dead, made his doctrine, just because of the light thrown on one so lately gone from life, all the more impressive, for traces of the breath of that life yet lay therein, and even philosophy, which should remain independent of all contemporary influences, has an inexplicably special power in the presence of its origin. The treatise of Descartes on "Method" especially gave our young thinker more immediate insight, for Descartes here unites to the history of his own development the foundations of thought in general, and of his own system of philosophy in particular. Just this support from the individual facilitated his progress to the universal.

The studies and investigations of our young friend had hitherto merely been extended to the limits of what had been done, showing the limit of the territory illuminated by extinguished emotional life. His mind was turned to the movements that agitated the world around him. Human nature and its peculiarities, and the wide kingdom of the manifold forms of nature around us here, with its governing laws, must now be learned. Is it impossible? Must it not be possible to ascertain the movements of immutable human nature as well as under similarly fixed laws we understand the natural life around us? Is our knowledge merely a knowledge of the dead, of the dead around us and behind us? Is it not a knowledge of life alone? ...

These were the questions to which his new studies led our young friend; a presentiment arose in him that he would be one of the first to fix the science of life. His friends were astonished by his affirming once in this sense that they who were aroused to real and conscious life must draw everything from the living principle within them and around them, and that therein lay the meaning of the enigmatical expression of Christ (Mat. viii. 22), "Let the dead bury their dead." In thought and expression the expositions of Spinoza had something sacred and biblical, and this is exactly the spirit which, penetrates to the origin of all life; the eternal word is his also, if even it arises in a new form and with a partially new signification. Oldenburg, as well as Meyer, was often surprised at Spinoza's "philosophical naïveté," as the former called it, while Meyer designated it "an intellectually clean tongue." There seemed to be a contradiction in speaking of "philosophical naïveté," and yet this formed the original foundation of free thought as defined by Spinoza. In nothing could he accept the ordinary or traditional point of view; his individual perceptions remained uninfluenced by the doctrines set before him. He grasped the things of the material as well as the ideal world in a wholly original and unbiassed manner as though they were originated in him; as if he were the first to comprehend this given external world as well as the inner life of intellect.