Spinoza: A novel/Chapter 12

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CHAPTER XII.

DISCIPLES OF DESCARTES.

SPINOZA and Oldenburg stood laughing at Meyer, who was playing with a ridiculously impish figure of glass in a long phial; it jumped up and down, and twisted about, as Meyer pressed the india-rubber stopper and declaimed magic incantations. He soon, however, ended the jest by remarking:

"Is philosophy from beginning to end anything more than this hollow imprisoned idea, the glass imp in the phial?" No one answered, and he continued, addressing Spinoza in particular: "What do you think of Descartes' imp? Two thousand years ago the creator of such a wonder might have been the founder of a religion; his praise would have been chanted in hymns to the furthest corners of the earth, and all mankind would have entreated his aid."

"That is very doubtful," was the reply. "Without some new world-stirring idea no mere worker of miracles has made his name immortal. Descartes' imp is nothing to the miracles the Jewish Cabbalists are said to have performed."

"Tell us them," said Meyer, while Oldenburg made a wry face as Spinoza began:

"In my father's house we have an old servant named Chaje. She is German, and is full of the legends and superstitions of the German Jews. She once explained to me why at Prague on Friday evening they sing the hymn twice over by which Israel is united in mystic bonds of matrimony to the Sabbath. Once upon a time a great Cabbalist lived in Prague, called the Rabbi Low. He made a human figure of clay, and left a small aperture in the lesser brain in which he laid a parchment with the unutterable name of God written on it. The clod immediately arose and was a man; he performed all the duties of a servant for his creator, he fetched water, and hewed wood. All through the Jews' quarter he was known as the Golem of the great Rabbi Low. Every Friday evening the Rabbi took the parchment out of his head, and he was clay until Sunday morning. Once the Rabbi forgot this duty. All were in the synagogue, the Sabbath hymn was begun, when all the women and children in the assembly started and screamed out, 'The Golem! the Golem is destroying everything!' The Rabbi ordered the precentor to pause at the end of the prayer. It was yet possible to save all, but later naught would avail, the whole world would be destroyed. He hastened home, and saw the Golem already seizing the joists of his house to tear down the building; he sprang forward, took the parchment out, and dead clay again lay at his feet. From that day they sang the Sabbath bridal song twice over in Prague. The great Rabbi Low certainly never thought of Descartes, and yet his Golem had as much life as any man, if we are to accept the new view, that the union between soul and body is so slight that at any moment it can be disjoined, and again reunited."

Meyer did not seem to notice the argumentative conclusion, for he said:

"When I publish my correspondence between Adam and Eve, your Golem shall have an honorable position therein."

With evident displeasure Oldenburg turned to Spinoza.

"Meyer is perpetually hunting after strange stories, which he arranges and classifies like his beetles and butterflies. To my taste your legend savors of Jewish spleen. To let a destroyer of the world, the creation of a Cabbalist, loose on the Jews' quarter! If, after the free manner of the popular legends, he had a love affair with a maiden, who every Sabbath awaited him in vain, or had he been a grand vizier, or advanced to be some other great minister, whom his master could reduce to dust, and raise again at will, there would at least be either poetry or satire in the thing; as it is the Golem of our lord and master pleases me much better. Look, his bows are so graceful that no dame of the court of Louis XIV. could excel them."

"Lord and master!" replied Spinoza; "that is too strong. I am neither his servant nor his pupil."

"What do I hear?" asked Meyer in astonishment. "How long is it since you began to study his system with me, and you already go beyond him, while I am only glad if I can understand him?"

"I fear for our friendship," interrupted Oldenburg. "You have so often said that a similarity of intellectual power must exist between friends, and I have never once been able to grasp the system. It was principally the astonishing externals that attracted me first to the new teaching of Descartes; I investigated the entrails of a calf with him willingly; he called it his library, and found surprising evidences therein; but to the vital principle of his philosophical system I never could attain. I bolted my door, I curtained my window, I sat down in a corner alone, and concentrated my mind on the book; for two or three sentences, for half an hour, even an hour, I followed him completely; then arose, without my knowing it, some strange thought between the lines: a former experience, a wish, above all, the memory of a girl whom I once fervently loved, intervened between the propositions, axioms, corollaries, and I saw at last that I wished to penetrate to the foundation of things, and yet could not distract myself from every-day life. I laid the book down and took another, or went out and dissipated my vexation and my cares."

"How is it then that you pass for so enthusiastic a disciple of Descartes, and sometimes are really such?"

"I must go rather far back for that. In the first place I am mostly a Cartesian, because I have gone through much the same career of doubt as the founder of the school. My father was pastor of the place where I was born; from childhood I sat in his library and read everything. Witch legends, history, anatomy, alchemy and theology, all came alike to me if I had something to read. When I was older, this miscellaneous knowledge mixed and fermented in my brain; religious doubts intervened; in nothing and in no occupation could I find any real pleasure. After my father's death, to the great scandal of the worthy citizens of my native town, I led a somewhat loose life, but that did not amuse me long. I tied up my bundle and followed the banners of Gustavus Adolphus as a volunteer. I was employed as commissioner to raise the contributions demanded by the Swedish host from my native town, and so gained considerable importance among my fellow citizens. The trade of war, for it was nothing more, soon wearied me. In camp and on the march doubts of all the faiths, for whose differences men fought so bloodily, overtook me. It was continual murder for no one knows what. The most superstitious of all popular ideas, that of bravery, alone made its value felt on its own merits. As Hugo Grotius says, towns and countries became as corpses, that men might no longer grieve for the fate of individuals. I long doubted whether I did right or not; a trivial circumstance at last decided me. I took my leave and went to the University of Utrecht. The students and professors there were divided into two parties; you can imagine that I did not hesitate long in ranking myself against the pious pastor, Gisbert Vötius, and on the side of Regius. He taught the new philosophy of Descartes. I was then twenty-one years of age, full of arrogance and restless energy, and as I had made something of a name as a swordsman I soon won a certain amount of authority among the students."

"Yes, I can assure you," interrupted Meyer, "I have faithfully seconded Oldenburg when he enforced the belief on the Vötiusians that they were predestined to have circumflex accents and all other marks of Cain written on their brows by us."

"What a much more active youth you had than I," sighed Spinoza.

"That is the question," answered Meyer, and Oldenburg resumed his narration.

"As Regius became more and more bitterly persecuted by Vötius the father and son, without the spirit, we went one evening to the house of his Excellency and set up some cat's music there. I was expelled as a ringleader; Meyer slipped through with a whole head; so I was a martyr for a doctrine which, as I saw later, Regius himself did not rightly understand. I wandered about Holland and stayed for some months with Descartes himself. I know nearly every sentence of his doctrine, but I never could acquire the penetrative contemplativeness necessary to follow this germ through all its trellis work of development to the lattice of mathematical certainty."

"It is often so with me too," said Meyer; "I returned from my philosophical pilgrimage, on which I would conquer the Holy Sepulchre, wrong-side up, or, as our proverb says, 'feet foremost.'"

"Oldenburg has described the struggle better as one for contemplative power," replied Spinoza. "Look around; here, there and everywhere you see illusion and error. What assurance have you that all you see, all you know by experience, and feel in your heart is aught else than illusion and deception? What is so firmly and deeply founded that it cannot be torn up by doubts? So you close your eyes, cut loose from all your surroundings, and then, thus isolated, the whole visible world is cast into nonentity; you yourself perhaps a nonentity too? How do you know that you really exist? Here you are at the end of doubt, and here a still, small voice cries to you, 'I, I am, for I think, I doubt my being; I, the thought, the doubt within me, I exist, even if all around me disappear in illusion and shadow.' Begin with doubt and you can stop at no arbitrary resting-place. Why doubt only the higher spiritual things? Has the physical world greater certainty because it is apparent to the senses? Are the deceptions of our senses more numerous than the illusions of our hearts and imaginations? Can you not imagine yourself a purely spiritual being. Can you not lay aside as prejudice all that hitherto appeared certainty, for example, the existence of your body? If not, you will strive in vain after incontrovertible truth. Can you do it, however. Then, if you have penetrated the central point of your self-consciousness, then forward! Open your eyes; let everything come before them that was hitherto confined to your thoughts; let nothing remain unexamined. You have a measure of the truth and existence of everything: what seems to you as incontrovertible as your knowledge of your own self, that alone is truth."

"I understand you," said Meyer. "You arrive at the fundamental axiom of the ancients, 'Man is the measure of all things.' The inner man as well as the outer man is a foot-rule, as we place the figures of men in pictures to show dimensions by contrast. Man is the ideal, universally accepted yard measure for the world."

"But if any spoke with further skepticism," interrupted Oldenburg. "I have no perfect assurance of that fundamental truth which should serve me as a rule, and I still do not know whether any inner intelligence dwells in me or not?"

"Either such an one would speak against his own consciousness, or we must believe that there are men who, by birth or prejudice, that is, through outward circumstances, are spiritually blind. For such do not think about themselves; whether they agree with or doubt anything, they do not know what they do; they say they do not know, and then even do not know that they do not know. They do not say it absolutely, for they are afraid to recognize their existence as know-nothings, so they must remain silent if they will not recognize anything that yet comprises a truth. In short, with such it is impossible to speak of knowledge, for in daily life and intercourse they are obliged to recognize of necessity that they exist, that they use their judgment, and witness on oath in favor of one and against another. But if anything is proved to them, they do not know whether the proof is there; deny, agree with, or dispute, they know naught of it; they are soulless automatons. For reasonable men, however, proof lies in the spiritual eyes. We can see the unseen things, which are but the objects of our thoughts, with no other eyes than with these proofs."

"You are becoming quite enthusiastic," said Meyer, "Lucian disposed of the whole in a jest by making a radical doubter be sold as a slave, and still doubt under the lash of slavery."

"But what does Descartes mean," asked Oldenburg, "by his unprofitable dicing with quadrangles, triangles, and the devil knows what angles?"

"Mathematical proof," answered Meyer, "is alone admissible. The definitions are the exact representations of an object described with its name and attributes; the postulates and axioms by which the proposition is proved are such truisms that whoever knows the alphabet must see them."

"You must come yet nearer, and be yet more definite," interposed Spinoza. "Definitions merely affirm the essence of a thing; attributes cannot be learned by definitions, they must be learned by experience. By mathematical laws alone can we understand and follow up all things, all processes of both the external and internal world. Everything is the necessary and inevitable result of its primal cause. Mathematical truths alone have the same inherent necessity and external evidence as our consciousness of ourselves. By the same means that I know certainly that I am, I also know that the three angles of a triangle are equal to two right angles. The intricacies of higher mathematical problems make no difference, for they all rest on the same simple and incontrovertible principles, and every link of their necessary progress is as incontrovertible as the principle itself. A number, as such, is the earliest definite idea; it is without regard to the characteristics of things, and merely, includes their existence. Apples, trees, men and beasts are all included. Larger growth does not increase the number, but draws from the first abstract idea a second, and letters are set in the place of numbers. The individual objects now lie far apart, but at all times we must be prepared to retrace their origin. To the building up of the whole intelligence, however, this would be a hindrance; here we have only to deal with pure thought—"

"And he who gets dizzy over it let him remain on the ground," jestingly interrupted Meyer. And Oldenburg inquired:

"Do you believe in the possibility of mathematical psychology?"

"Call it so if you like," continued Spinoza; "the conditions and laws of action of our intelligence and sensations have as definite rules as anything in nature; they are as ascertainable, they must be so; all that prevents us from being so to ourselves is—"

"And custom and passion put a stroke through the calculation," interposed Meyer. "In you Descartes is a second time Renatus.[1] If the master called the inside of a calf his library, you have a much better. You have learned the weapons of both sides in the enemy's camp. The Jesuit school educated and inspired Descartes—the Talmud school you. What wonderful ways hath history! But you will go further yet. I see you with a broom at the mast-head, like our Admiral Tromp, sailing the ocean, as a sign that you have cleared the elements of life of arbitrary prejudices."

Spinoza entered into the jesting humor of his friend, only so far pursuing his object as to explain that even this stroke through the calculation must be an effect of the same cause; that the passions must not be regarded as exceptional, but recognized as natural laws. Meyer tried in all ways to analyze Spinoza's intellectual method, and bent on this study he came again to talk with him.

"I have been thinking," he said to him one day, "of what you once said to me about the study of the Talmud, and think I understand how it is that you Jews can clamber up and down such intellectual ladders; if you jump over two or three rounds you do not miss your footing. It all comes by studying the Talmud, which accustoms you so early to free intellectual gymnastics. We, however—I can only use myself for an example—we were very differently trained. If one of us bring a thought into the world the midwives of the catechism come, and in accordance with immemorial custom and manipulation, the embryo is brought to light, then it is wrapped in cotton-wool and tied into a pillow that it may not freeze, and when it is older goes in leading strings."

"I know your methods of education too little," replied Spinoza, "and so cannot rightly understand how a religion with a dogmatic-historic basis can be developed in a Socratic manner; but what you say of the Jews may be true enough. It has often happened that, like David, they have overthrown a champion well armed and practised in rules of fence with a well-directed pebble; but this want of discipline destroys all true, well-founded learning among the Jews. My endeavor is to withdraw myself from that vagabond intellectual life, and follow the progress of a study from point to point. Herein Descartes is my surest leader."

How wonderful it is that the thousand buds on a tree open at once! They are but one flower-cup, and the innumerable trees but one blooming tree, but to the eyes of men they are thousands. So bloom the flowers in the heart of man. It is but one force that awakens our intelligence, will, benevolence and love; we, however, can only see them individually.

The kingdom of knowledge and the joys of friendship awoke in Spinoza together; indeed, they were but one; for knowledge is the joyful recognition of external laws, the endeavor after, and consciousness of agreement with them; and friendship is the living practice of them in more defined form, impelling us by the same forces.

Yet a third powerful influence worked on Spinoza which he dared not name to himself.

  1. Descartes' Christian name was Renatus, and this pun is in a poem prefixed to the first work of Spinoza, which was edited and prefaced by Ludwig Meyer.