Spinoza: A novel/Chapter 14

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Chapter XIV.

HANDICRAFT.

WHILE Spinoza was absorbed in consideration of the actual existence of things, the inherent cause of their existence, their necessary and accidental destinies, and the appropriate mathematical demonstrations of Descartes, his father had also been considering the sufficient cause of actual existence, and his demonstrations were not less founded on ciphers and numbers than the philosopher's.

"Are you still resolved not to be a Rabbi?" he said one day to his son. "Have you thought over all the consequences to both you and me? I, alas! see my greatest joy sink before me into the grave."

"In the sayings of the Fathers it is written," answered Baruch in a low voice, "that Rabbi Zadok said, 'Make not a crown of glory of thy knowledge of the sacred law to pride thyself thereon, neither make a spade thereof wherewith to dig.' It always goes ill with a religion if its expounders earn wages thereby."

"Good, I am of Rabbi Zadok's opinion; but what if a man hath no other spade? Listen to me; I will be open with you. Our Miriam is now the betrothed of Samuel Casseres; he wishes, with Rebecca's husband, to enlarge the diamond mill; he has fresh secrets. My daughters are now, with God's help, taken care of; you alone remain. Should I have concealments from you? My lawsuit is going against me, and what I have to leave you at my death is so little that you could not live on it. May God preserve my children and my children's children from saying with sorrow in their daily prayers, 'Lord, let us not be bounden to them of flesh and blood for alms!' So tell me what is to be done?"

"Must I go into trade?"

"No, I should never agree to that; from childhood up you have had no inclination for trade. Now, indeed, there are new channels for commerce, and we need not be so confined as we are in Holland here, where each one snaps the opportunity from before the other's face. There is no use in going to Batavia, for it goes so ill with those that are there that many wish to return; but there is a report that Rabbi Manasseh Ben Israel, who is treating with the Lord Protector, may probably obtain leave for the Jews to go to England again."

"I heard of it," answered Baruch. "Rabbi Manasseh won most votes by saying that the true coming of the Messiah could not be until the fulfilment of the prophecy that the Jews would be scattered through all lands. It was a sophistical trick."

"That may be," said his father, "the greater proportion of people cannot be treated any other way than by being duped, so we do them that favor. But that is not what concerns us. Consider how you are to ensure a livelihood in the future."

"Rabbi Gamaliel teaches that 'Study of the law united with a trade is good; diligence in both causes us to forget sin; study without work is idleness, and leads to sin.'" Baruch then gave several examples of fathers of the synagogue who were handicraftsmen, and concluded with the words, "I should like to learn a handicraft."

"You need not quote the Talmud so much for it; I have nothing against your learning an honorable craft."

Spinoza was glad that his father was not merely moved by his examples to agree to his purpose, for he had in a measure thereby lent himself to wellknown "pious deceptions." He was firmly resolved never to join in the usual routine, and sell his knowledge and convictions for daily bread. If he could earn his livelihood by the labor of his hands, his convictions would remain free from the necessities and constraints of every-day life. Or even to minds of the first order does that vague, unsatisfied longing occur, which so often comes over us if we are fated always and always to drive the pen, to inspire dead words, and dig out and chisel new thoughts and feelings? Do they feel that irresistible need for physical exercise to restore the overstrained nerve power?

Our young friend found plentiful consideration in the decision as to what handicraft he would devote himself to. He now remembered how often he had stood near the diamond mill, and watched the horses in the lower story as they turned the wheel that set in motion the machinery in the mill above. The polishing and cutting of diamonds was the secret of his co-religionists, an attraction for the boy, as well as the knowledge, freely entrusted to him, that diamonds could only be cut and polished with diamond dust. How often, on his way to the Talmud school, or Magister Nigritius, had he stood in self-forgetfulness at the open doors or windows of the workshops while the men inside pursued their trade. The boy's eyes had been fascinated by this handicraft, and a longing for similar work possessed his mind. Now for the first time the knowledge flashed upon him that what we call a free decision is really only the result of past influences, often generating again its own scarcely perceptible results. He paused but little to consider this fleeting thought, for his imagination dwelt on the numerous workshops wherein the powers of man build up and mould the results of nature into new shapes. Only he who reforms and controls the materials of life has received true life. What a thousandfold blessing lies in work itself, as well as in its results. One hand clasps the other, and one thought runs into another in the imagination of its effects. The whole activity of man forms one immense fraternal workshop. Here, too, however, one individual has forcibly separated from another, and as the churches had done in the kingdom of thought and feeling, so had the guilds in the handicrafts of their chosen companies. There was no legal prohibition excluding the Jews from any trade, but custom and convenience made the guild-masters exclusive and reluctant.

Again it was Descartes from whom Spinoza received the decisive impulse towards his object. Spinoza was studying the "Dioptrika" of Descartes, and there learned for the first time the law of refraction, and the first correct explanation of the rainbow. The objection raised by Huyghens, and universally shared, that Descartes had taken the law from the manuscript of Snellius, then widely circulated through Holland, and had learned the explanation of the rainbow from Antonio de Dominis and Kepler, without acknowledging either, all this appeared trivial to our young inquirer; but it disturbed him to think that deception should exist even in the domain of intellect. The otherwise enigmatical saying of the Talmud, "Whoever reveals a word or thought in the name of its author, he brings salvation to the world," now appeared to him a law of truth.

This proceeding of Descartes, if inexcusable, was still explicable in that he was accustomed as a courtier to find himself with easy adaptability among the strange and objective, and to regard it easily as his own and subjective.

It was with pure enthusiasm that the determination took firm hold of Spinoza to owe his livelihood solely to his own activity; to owe it to no inheritance, and in the same manner to find the truth by his own intellect.

One day Spinoza explained to his father that he wished to learn the art of making optical glasses.

"But that is a trade that barely feeds a man," replied his father; "how can you support a family on it? Or do you intend our honorable name to die out with you?"

Spinoza did not answer this remonstrance immediately; perhaps he hoped and expected to perpetuate the name in another manner. He had touched a painful chord in his father's mind, and while explaining his inclination for independence he remarked that a Rabbi, by his salary as well as by grateful offerings, was but a servant of individuals. Mingled melancholy and pride was on the face of the father at this statement; he nodded assentingly. The old Spaniard recognized in his son the same proud spirit which was not yet dead in himself. If a man cannot win from society respect and power, it is as well to avoid it, and in seclusion lose all care for it. So it seemed to the father; and again we see the loosened foundations and singular mixture of circumstances that awoke the powers of Spinoza to their full bloom.

"As far as I am concerned," the father agreed at last, "having thought over all the trades, I can think of none better if one has no great capital."

Father and son went to the skilful and well-known master. Christian Huyghens, an uncle of the mathematical scholar of that name, but who seemed to have neither the poetical genius of his brother, nor that of his nephew.

Spinoza explained to the master, in the course of conversation, that he already knew the laws of optics, and had also considerable acquaintance with mathematics; he then inquired if it were possible to learn the handiwork in half a year. The master, who, till then, had listened quietly to all remarks, sprang up at this so violently that his spectacles dropped from his nose.

"The deuce you can! May I turn Catholic, what maggots the youth of this day have In their heads!" he cried. "I have been seven and forty years in the business, and I may say I understand it, and can teach it to others; but I have people in the workshop who have already been five and seven years at it, and if I lay a microscope down there may I eat it as it stands if any one of them can put it together as it ought to be. You think you can learn everything out of books. I would not give a snap for all your histories; paper is patient, and lets you print what you like on it. I once tried to make a microscope after a description as it stood in the book, but it was good for nothing. Whoever is not in the business himself will never know as long as he lives how to bring the right focus into the glass. Go away with your learned disquisitions!" The master's wife came in; she had the pincers in her hand, and flourished the instrument violently.

"Yes," she cried; "If they could only learn how in a trice, every ignoramus would come here and turn optician in less than no time."

It was no little trouble to pacify the good folks again.

"I am a man like a lamb," then said the master; "if you cannot get on with me you will never get on with any one in this world."

"Yes, he is only too good to the people," interrupted his wife, "and what he wastes on other people I have to make up for."

"Never mind," said the master; "you take good care of yourself; but I will be honest with you, you shall not have it to say later that I kept anything back from you. In the first place, it is an unhealthy trade. Look at me, see what I am; I have already swallowed more than three hundredweight: of glass. I know I shall not last much longer. God's will be done!"

"Don't belie yourself, Christian," interrupted his wife; "if one is as strong as that in the sixties, and for three years has not paid the doctor or the apothecary a farthing, I think one may thank God. You must not believe all he says."

"Let me speak, I know what I am saying," retorted the master, trying to give himself an air of importance. He first clasped his little finger round the ring-finger of his left hand, then said, "Secondly, it is a poor trade; you get nothing by it."

"Yes, yes, he is right there," commented his wife. "When we began business we and the late Greenwond, who lived by the Town Hall that is burned down, were the only two, and there are twenty-three in the town now; we hardly earn water enough for soup, and the worst of it is we cannot for shame give up the business. We are two old people and do not need much; with scraping and saving we manage to pull through, so that at the end of the year we still keep our things together. I don't know how folks get on with a house full of children, living on scanty wages."

His father, moved by these representations, would have retracted his consent, but Spinoza stood firm; so they came to an agreement with the master that, for a moderate premium, Spinoza should learn as long from him as he pleased.

Such was the wholly new atmosphere, one filled with the smell of pitch and glass dust, into which Spinoza now entered. Henceforward he spent the greater part of the day in the workshop. He learned to handle the sharp diamond set in one leg of a compass, to cut pieces of a certain size out of panes, the pieces still keeping their crystal facets when split. Spinoza then entered on the first grade of the honorable art of polishing. The cut piece was fixed on a vise with pitch, this fixed to a lever, and a wheel worked with the right foot. A strap was fastened round this and to a roller, on which was fixed a perfectly smooth plate of lead. The plate turned, and with the left hand the fragment of glass was pressed against it, thus inscribing successive circles on it until the glass received the required form. Wet sand must be continually scattered over it to avoid setting the hard material on fire by friction, and to increase the roughness of the lead. The first stage was then finished. Spinoza would have preferred a less troublesome and, above all, a cleaner handicraft; but it was just these additions to his work which became his intellectual means to further penetration of the laws of existence. Men are much inclined to regard apparently rough and repulsive labors as inferior. Spinoza accustomed himself to regard the circumstances of life, not according to their popular estimation, but on the essential grounds of their existence. The work is but unclean from one point of view; while engaged in it the workman is covered with dust and sand, but its aim is the highest degree of purity and cleanliness. At the second stage it was decided whether the smooth glass was to receive a concave or a convex form, and a concave or convex brass plate accordingly fixed on the cylinder; a screw was fixed alternately on either glass with pitch, and this by means of a peg turned round on the brass plate, on which the same movement as in the first stage was employed. Meanwhile the fine sand, now ground to polishing dust, must be spread on the plate by means of a brush, and water from the tin can near spurted out of the mouth on to the plate. After the two sides were so prepared the third stage was proceeded to; the brass plate was made hot, a drilled hole on the wrong side smeared with cement, covered on the right side with so-called caput mortuum (oxyd of iron), water being still sprinkled continually on it, and the glass thus polished. The glass having passed through the three stages of cutting, smoothing and polishing, so that neither crack nor flaw was discoverable, was perfect.

Spinoza soon mastered the mechanical difficulties, and the first glass that he perfected without extraneous aid from its roughest state to the satisfaction of the master made his eyes light up with pleasure. The sight of the perfected work was a double gratification, gratification that the raw material was perfected to its end, and gratification to the mind of the workman that the raw material bore the impress of his will.

He understood the mathematical calculation of the glasses and their combination sooner than the master had expected. The books must have contained something more than mere nonsense.

While Spinoza chipped glasses for the short and weak-sighted, to bring the distant near, and the near nearer, he worked out in his mind the finest optical problems to clear and strengthen the mind's eyes of his contemporaries and successors. He was glad that the continual whirring allowed but short intervals of intercourse with his comrades; he could thus follow his own thoughts undisturbed.

There was one merry fellow in the workshop, with finely cut, handsome features, and rough, curly brown hair; he always sang and laughed as he pushed the door open, for he went on crutches, having club feet. While he placed his crutches near, and, rolling his shirt-sleeves up, put his lathe in order—he worked it in a way of his own with his knees—he regularly treated his fellow-workmen to a speech. Once he said: "Am I not better off than King Nebuchadnezzar? He, I believe, had earthen feet, and could never have stumbled over our bad pavements. I have pulled the arms out of a tree and made myself feet thereof; the next time an eagle flies between my legs I will pull his wings out and sew them on me. I have a right to ask wings from our Lord God. Why has he given me feet I cannot use? Brethren, it would be all up then; you might keep St. Monday five days in the week; you would want no more telescopes. Does any learned gentleman want to know what a star looks like? Here I am, Mr. Peter Blyning, at your service; for a good tip I will fly up and spy it all out for you. Perhaps I might stay up there and come down no more. If a pretty moon maiden would marry me I should be quite willing; down here I must die a bachelor."

A peal of laughter always followed his words, and he took every opportunity of treating them to his oratory.

"After all, as things are, we are all crutch makers; what our Lord and God has bungled over we have to set to rights. If he had stuck better eyes in the folks we need have no telescopes and no spectacles. May God forgive me! but I am often right down angry with him. What have I done to him that he should send me into the world half made? If he does not give me better feet up there he may keep his eternal life to himself. I'll none of it."

They all stared at him with blank faces when he spoke like this. Spinoza alone tried to show him that physical pains and imperfections are not real evils; and that it is a man's highest vocation to lead well the life God has allotted to him, and not to pine for powers denied to us by nature, for in so doing we shall never attain to true peace of mind.

"Yes, you have spoken well," said Peter, and his voice had a melancholy tremble in its tones; "you have spoken well, but do I demand more than belongs to me by right as a man? Look here; if but for once in my life I could dance I swear I should be ready to go to my grave in peace. When I hear dance-music, nay, even now, this moment, when I only think of it, I think I could jump out of my skin with rage; I could tear my eyes out; and shame on me! but I have drunk myself often enough blind drunk, because I was afraid the people all the while might see me crying."

Spinoza strove to soothe Peter; he won his good will, so that he was occasionally shown how to handle his work by him; but our philosopher, in the midst of his discourse, was often aware how infinitely difficult it is to descend from the heights of ideal generalities to daily needs and the questions of ordinary men.

The rumor spread through the workshop that Spinoza was a great scholar. His companions were proud of their apprentice, and boasted of him in the ale-house; but in their behavior to Spinoza himself they gave him plainly to understand that he was only a Jew, and took certain airs of superior birth and familiar condescension with regard to him. Conquering all sensitiveness, Spinoza only noticed the latter, and his gentle yet self-possessed manner turned off all rudeness; his companions soon acquired a certain half unwilling respect for Spinoza. A short, impressive sentence spoken by him often worked long in the minds of those who heard it. Master Huyghens, and his wife too, soon became fond of the modest, quiet young man. These were not shepherds and fishermen, not men of simple life in continual intercourse with eternal nature, with whom he could live like the wise of old, enriching and widening his own intelligence. It was a world whose activity lay far from aboriginal simplicity; whose inhabitants spent their days in every imaginable noise; on whose minds even on holidays it was difficult to impress a word. But by the rushing brook or the whirring wheel the souls of men are as alike as the winds that carry the different waves of sound, and the priesthood that serves the eternal laws must be perpetually renewed. As in nature each plant shoots upward, it lives for itself alone, and yet to the minds of men it seems to open and close with the greatest uniformity; so the activity of mankind is divided into different callings, each man being devoted to one in particular, and striving to fulfil it; but to the thinking mind all are united in the working of one great machine. Spinoza felt especially glad to stand in the ranks of those who earn their daily bread by the labor of their hands. For all thus engaged quietly fulfil the requirements of the law of their nature. Work is the attribute of man; he fulfils the law in employing himself of his own free will; and it is a great and glorious chorus that comprises all the teaching and writing, the hammering and digging, the drilling and boiling in the individual workshops of the universe, and what results there-from. The quiet life of nature is mere existence; intelligence is thought; work is existence and thought united.

Spinoza was sociable, gay and contented.

Not so Olympia when he described his new way of life to her.

"I am glad we agree in one thing," she said; "that to spend the livelong day in brooding over the thought of others is either too much or too little work; so much so that it becomes tiresome to me, and I am glad to count my stitches again. When I am sewing my best thoughts come. Do you see that garland of roses? Legends as foolish and extravagant as those of the Gesta Romanorum are imprisoned in those stitches. Ah! how glad I was then that I knew some handicraft."

"But I do not work merely to do something with my hands, but to give my teeth something to chew."

"I have noticed for a long time," replied Olympia, "that reading Tacitus has made you quite humorous."

"I was not aware of it, but I am in sober earnest, that, for the future, I must earn my own livelihood."

"What did you acquire so much learning for then? Not for mere vanity, I hope? My father will enlarge his Institute, and you shall be a headmaster in it; will you not be my colleague?"

"I am sorry to say, No. You may call it egotism, but my first duties are to myself, and I must first be clear of these; then, if I can teach anything that would be of service to mankind I will think of it; but neither now, nor ever, will I sell the smallest of my convictions for material good."

"You always appear like a Deus ex machina," said Olympia to Oldenburg, as he entered. "Do you know that your god-child is preparing to be a master-craftsman?"

"An apostle to all lands, rather, you would say," replied Oldenburg.

"If it were only some pursuit," continued Olympia, "such as the learned men and statesmen of old times followed, like agriculture, I should not have minded so much; there was something great in making extremes meet, and doing with the most cultivated minds the work of the rudest aborigines; even fishing and carpentering have something poetical in them; but to polish glass in an obscure room cramps and stupefies body and soul. It sets my teeth on edge to think of glass polishing. The hand of a philosopher turning the wheel of a machine, and employed in stupid manufacture; it is too repulsive a thought!"

"Do not abuse handicraft," replied Spinoza earnestly, "it is a privilege of humanity. The beasts have only their instinctive faculties of work, to build their nests, obtain their nourishment, to attack and to defend. Mankind has made the external productions of nature his limbs. If he wants the flight of birds, the speed of deer, arrow and ball will overtake either. His hands can with, difficulty dig up the earth; he melts iron and points it as hatchet or plough, yokes the strength of beasts to it, and carves and shapes both wood and stone. The peaceful crafts of shaping and building are the noblest inheritance of mankind, are sacred traditions. Whoever leaves an improved tool to posterity gives a helping hand, and here a thousand immortal minds work on in obscurity. If I could in thought or deed invent something that would serve men after me in the enlightenment and beautifying of life, I should be happy; but never must we forget that all that is so handed down is but a tool for our own formation."

"That is all very fine and witty," said Olympia, womanlike seizing one thought out of the whole to reply to; "every one can think that, without being an artisan himself. Why should you work with sacred axes, sacred hatchets, and sacred files?"

"Because, to answer in your own way, I am cumbered with a sacred body, that requires food; and with the handicraft I have chosen I will demonstrate the whole theory of dialectics to you: Two concave glasses laid on one another show the object at which you look through them upside down, the reflecting glass between brings it again into its right position."

"When were you born?" interrupted Oldenburg.

"A strange question. Sir Godfather," replied Spinoza, "if you do not yet know, in November of the year 1632."

"That is excellent," continued Oldenburg; "did you never hear of the Görlitz Apostle who raved in perpetual apostolic ecstasies? On November, '24, he departed this life. He was by trade an honorable shoemaker, and I will show you from the Apocalypse that, seven years after his death, a new philosopher must be born, also a handicraftsman."

"Your comparison limps," said Olympia, "for your Jacob Böhme was a shoemaker, and became a philosopher, while our Maledict, from a philosopher became a handicraftsman."

"Excuse me," said Spinoza; "the jest does not limp, but has a leg too many, for there are eight years between 24 and 32."

"That does not matter," answered Oldenburg, "if you amputate a year. But in truth and earnest, you offend your friends by the aim to which you are devoting your life; the case is so clear to me that I can not only speak before our friend, but before every one. Have you not declared to me yourself that among friends everything is in common? Are we so ethereal that we can only exchange words and feelings, and not clinking gold?"

"I know your generous heart, and you know I thereby thank you," replied Spinoza; "but I have already told you that I will never receive a gift from a friend, as long as I can work for my living with my hands."

Spinoza was not to be dissuaded from diligently following his trade.