Spinoza: A novel/Chapter 19

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CHAPTER XIX.

STILL LIFE.

SPINOZA was walking thoughtfully down the Kalverstraat, when some one said, "Ha, ha! how proud we are!"

Spinoza turned round; it was Frau Gertrui Ufmsand who was looking out of her ground floor window.

"How are you?" she said. "You look as sour as vinegar. I have only seen you once in this street since Magister Nigritius died, and that was a fortnight ago. You passed with Olympia van den Ende. I said 'Good evening' twice, but you were better employed, neither of you either heard or saw me. Those were fine times, were they not, when you came every day to the Magister? But you have grown twenty years older since those days. Ah! we have gone through a deal with our apartments since then. First we had a painter, who went to vespers in the church where clinking glasses are the bells, then he would come home a full fool and awake us out of our beauty sleep. Then we had a widow who would have skinned a flint, and looked so sharply after us all day we could hardly breathe before her. It was my husband—he is a queer fellow—who at last gave her notice. I never said anything to her, but said to my Klaas, 'She is a widow, we must excuse her.' The beautiful little room has now stood empty for half a year, and we. have just had it fresh painted; it is all fresh done up, and looks like a little chapel. I never like to go up the stairs to it."

"Geert, be so good as to shut the window, the bits all fly in my eyes. If you want to talk to the gentleman, go out and let him in," cried a gruff voice from inside the room.

"Come in for a bit," said Gertrui shutting the window. Spinoza went in and said he should be glad to take the room, as, to do his work, he must either be in an open place or high up for a good light. The good people thought at first he was jesting, and were greatly rejoiced when they found he was in earnest. Gertrui showed him the little room, on whose floor the fine sand was artistically sprinkled like a lace pattern. The little bed in a recess, like the berth of a ship, was empty.

"Look," said the woman, "that is the old Magister's armchair; I washed and dusted everything; there is not a speck on it now. I can find you everything but a bed; I use all my beds for the apprentices. Here the Magister kept his books; you can put your books there now. Have you the same bad habit as the blessed Magister of laying all your books in sight on the tables, chairs and stools, and not letting any of them be moved without a regular storm? Did you never see that beautiful white Amaryllis that the blessed Magister was so fond of? It disappeared from the day of his death, though such animals generally stick to a house, not to the people in it. I would give a good deal to see it back again; I should be sorry from my heart if anything happened to it. Ay, and it was so knowing, it could tell to a minute when the raw meat was brought, and we were never bothered with mice."

Spinoza regretted he had nowhere seen the cat.

If we have again given too much space to the chatter of an old woman, we may bear with her loquacity a little in consideration of the motherly care which she took of our philosopher.

Spinoza, whose two brothers-in-law found themselves deceived in their expectations, was obliged to take legal means for the division of his father's inheritance. When he had obtained his legal rights he voluntarily gave up his share, keeping only a single bed with its necessary hangings, which he had taken with his work-bench and his few books and clothes to the house' of Klaas Ufmsand. Here at last he was permitted to order his outer life in perfect conformity with the requirements of his spiritual nature. The serene equanimity derived from conviction, which opposes tranquil deliberation to the stormy excitement of the decisive moments of existence, as well as to the annoyances and the restless struggles of every-day life; that self-dependence, won by cheerful renunciation of the intoxications of empty, exhausting pleasures; that exaltation and satisfaction in the kingdom of intellect, a peace of mind won after hot conflict, a clear penetration of the world, whose enigmas were solved, and eternal laws discovered; these were the benefits which he made ever more plainly and firmly his own in solitude.

From early morning he sat working at his bench. As he snipped a piece from his glass with the sharp diamond, he broke an idea off from the great system that lay complete though undeveloped in himself. When he worked the leaden plate and gave the glass its proper form the idea in him gained firmer shape, and so on through all the stages; ever more distinct the form, ever more transparent the material. Many splinters must fall, many rough places be smoothed, till at last the truth should be reflected in the mirror. When he had earned his bread by the day's handiwork, in the quiet night by his single lamp he placed his finely polished ideas before him, collected the dust which had fallen from them, and strewed it thereon, that they became opaque; then with a light hand wiped it off, and proved that it did not necessarily belong there, and that he had but hidden the light, not extinguished it. So worked, so philosophized Benedict de Spinoza.

Not long after his withdrawal from the busy world he had to break off some hours a day from his manual labor to lead a younger mind in the paths of philosophy. Meyer one day brought young Simon de Vries to him, who, since the short view we had of him before, had become the lucky heir of the rich results of his father's speculations in tea, and now gave himself up to quite other speculations. Spinoza took him through a course on the principles of Descartes' philosophy. In the same room where he had once learned to decline mensa, in the same chair in which his master had once sat to correct his exercises, he now sat to teach the philosophy of Descartes, and build yet higher on the same foundation, as the necessities of that method required. Honorable Dodimus de Vries, who had once been able to do quickly the most complicated mental arithmetic, had not only left his numerous and weighty ducats to his son Simon, but also his arithmetical readiness. This youthful talent for mathematics gave Spinoza much pleasure.

For two or three days at a time, and often much longer, he never left his room; he never willingly left the familiar solitude in which he felt so much at ease, in which the hours and days like quiet streams flowed refreshingly and animatingly past him.

Good Gertrui was very uneasy about her new lodger.

"I don't know," she said, "whether you mean to accustom yourself to do without food, or whether the ravens from Heaven come to feed you, like the prophet in the wilderness; you cannot possibly have enough with what you have from me. Yesterday you had nothing all day long but milk soup, some butter and a little draught of beer which with the water and turf I bought comes to 4½ stivers, and to-day you have been satisfied the whole day with oat-meal porridge, raisins and butter, which have cost exactly the same. I calculated that in a whole month you have only at the most drunk two half pints of wine. That is neither living nor dying."

Spinoza tried to make the good dame understand that his earnings would not suffice for greater expense, and that he was quite satisfied with his manner of living.

"Yes," she said, "one ought only to stretch one's self according to one's counterpane, that is upright and honest; but if one can make the cover longer, is it not stupid to lie doubled under it like a shut-up clasp-knife? The many rich and great gentlemen who come in and out every day, I know well enough, would be well pleased to give you more money. It would not be like taking a present; they disturb you so often over your work that they ought to make it good again. The servant of rich Simon de Vries has now been here three times to invite you to his house, and instead of going there to eat fresh pulpy crabs, that melt in your mouth like butter, you stay at home to your thin milk-soup. Yet for the rest you know all about everything; one can come and talk to you about anything. I can't think what has come to you that you pinch yourself so."

The good dame would not be convinced by any arguments.

"Learned folk have always some queer notion or another in their heads," said she, as she descended the stairs and told Oldenburg, whom she met there, the whole dispute with variations. Oldenburg, too, was much displeased with his friend's voluntary imprisonment in a cell. He was afraid that such seclusion from active life, such silent burial in the depths of his thoughts and feelings, would create a boundary within which each disturbing element would engender a sensitiveness of feeling which would reject all opposition, because it had withdrawn from it. He knew not that such weaknesses of tender and reserved souls are far removed from great and steadfast minds, who know no partiality, for they bear the whole world in their hearts, and cannot be surprised or hurt at the discords of the outer world, because they have penetrated them, and to themselves have reduced all to harmony. Other reasons also made the anxious friend think an alteration in Spinoza's way of life desirable. Among these stood first the fear that Spinoza's love for Olympia, which he had rightly guessed, might be so deeply rooted in his mind by solitude that it would become ineradicable. He still believed that, by prudent measures, he could enter into the life of an independent mind and direct it.

"Our age," he once said to Spinoza, "the age of humanity, new born from the classics and the self-revelations of reason, has its apostles, who travel through all lands and declare their new ideas like any others. When Christianity arose, and had not yet made itself accepted anywhere, pious men came forward and preached in all places, even at peril of their lives; and in our age we have seen enthusiastic men wander from town to town, and from land to land, making known the words revealed to them in all places. Think of Giordano Bruno; he has travelled through almost the whole civilized world to support his views on all sides. Unfortunately he made the incomprehensible mistake of going back to Italy to die at the stake as a martyr for philosophy. But this way of learning to know the world and its motives and connecting forces from personal inspection, and placing it before the intelligence in living words, not trying to found and rule it from a lonely garret, is the only right way for a true thinker. Our master, or, if you do not like to call him that, our teacher, Descartes, after a time of lonely seclusion, recognized that the truth must be extracted from the world if it would again pervade the world. He learned to know men in peace and war; he was even a soldier himself, and travelled much. And you must recognize this too as a revelation of our age, that it has been granted to our century first, in artistic recognition of silent nature, to open the mind's eye to landscape. You too must travel, and if you do not wish to teach the world you must at least learn to know it truly. You shall not want for money; de Vries and I will willingly give you all you need. You must not reject it, for it is not a present offered to a friend; we pay this tribute to science and mankind. You do more than we; you dedicate your life to it."

"If you please," answered Spinoza in a gentle voice, "if you do not intend to annoy me, let this be the last time that you make me offers of money. I explained to you and de Vries long ago that I could not accept it. Moreover, as far as I am concerned, I cannot endure this new sort of wandering philosophy which you so strongly recommend. I am no friend to disputation with this, that and the other man, and seldom see any advantage accrue from it; for what is opposed is usually not the expression of pure thoughts, but such personalities and wilful misinterpretations that it has more to do with Peter and Paul, and what they have become by habit and inclination, than with pure intellect."

"Just why you should learn to know Peter and Paul more intimately, to conquer their prejudices, and personal bias."

"I wish to explore and ascertain the laws of human existence and intelligence. I have often explained to you already that I do not set myself to discover the errors of others. If these are revealed by the revelation of the natural law so much the better. You, by your profession, must concern yourself for others; to me it is given to search in the book of history and the workings of my own life."

"That you should do," answered Oldenburg, "and to do so you should investigate the world in the whole, as well as in detail. Let me take your handiwork, these glasses, as a metaphor. Were our eyes microscopically arranged, we should look at only a single part, never at a whole; were our eyes only for a distant prospect, we should never know the peculiarities of things. Thus it is the prerogative of human intellect to accommodate by art both the microscopic and telescopic views of things to its own assigned natural mediocrity; and in conclusion by imagination, by thought, to recognize them in their conditions; but this the large and small views must precede. It is thus with our knowledge of human life. So travel and live for yourself."

"Leave me to my homely four walls," answered the philosopher. "The world of appearances is well enough investigated and described by others for us to follow its laws by quiet observation. I am ever myself in my cell here, and strive to collect around me all the spirits of truth. Believe me, it is a numerous and goodly company, and I am never alone or desolate; and if I am alone with myself, I can investigate more quietly and uninterruptedly the mingled elements and connecting links of the human mind. He who from the height of a bird's flight can take in with his eye how one stream flows into another, and at last all flow into the sea, can see no more than is offered to the quiet glance when it follows the inner cross currents of the mind. Yes, he who can live quietly alone with his own mind—with a mind that is controlled or influenced by nothing foreign to itself—he lives again in Paradise, happy in himself and in the universe."

Oldenburg's eyes had never yet sparkled as they did now; there was a thrill of reverence and ecstasy perceptible in his usually firm voice and in his whole deportment as he rose and said:

"O friend! what can we say to you who have all things in yourself? And yet perhaps a call from without may yet be a motive to you. See, it is not for naught that the legends of all people say that gods became men, allowing themselves to be confined by the limits and powers of human existence, in order to raise themselves freely from it, and raise others with them, even though it should be by a death of torture. You too must offer yourself as a sacrifice by following the call of the truth given to you. You will not take me for the dying thief on the cross, and I will only echo the words which the world may say of your life and thoughts: if you possess knowledge of the truth—they will say—and if you are its open and unreserved confessor, come forth from your quiet solitude, come forth into active life, declare, and suffer for it."

With his hands folded on his breast Spinoza answered:

"To die for a recognized truth is blessedness that knows no pain. What is a long life to that ecstasy which existence itself and the devotion of it to the witness of truth gives could it but convince others? But a martyr's death proves nothing to others. Men have gone joyfully to death for the most opposite convictions. I myself once knew what is called a believing Jew, who, in the midst of the flames, when men believed him already dead, chanted the Psalm 'Into Thy hands I commend my spirit,' and breathed out his soul in song. What could a life of every day returning duties, refinements and pleasures prevail against the one all-inclusive act of devotion? But if external pressure does not conquer the man standing firm for his knowledge of faith, neither does his death, which is after all only an external proof, convince others. If I, as I hope, may one day so far have cultivated myself as to be able to teach others, I shall have no laws to give them, no rounded sentences to inculcate; each one must find his laws in himself and in the world. The recognition of the laws innate in nature, that is the salvation of himself and of the world. The character, the conscious development of its natural laws, the appropriate direction of its actions, and free acceptance of the thus necessitated fate, this is the prerogative of humanity, which cannot be taught and cannot be transferred, which can only be attained by individual work in self."

After these words the two friends stood by each other in silent reflection, and on this elevation of thought they again felt the pleasure of regarding the world with one and the same view. Neither knew or wished to know who was giver, who receiver; they were one soul and one heart, and yet each saw himself reflected in the other. As Oldenburg went away he felt deeply the awe-inspiring power his friend's mind had over him. It seemed audacious in him to wish to control here; he could but give his hand, and lend outward support to the inner independent necessities. He felt blessed in the power for such masculine friendship, sprung from the foundation of pure intellect, that had made devotion to this another personal pleasure.

What can love offer more, and should the thinker, happy in himself, not be satisfied with friendship alone? Spinoza felt more and more at home in the peaceful serenity of his life, whose equable happiness can be called nothing else than blessedness. For the exercise of the intellect in solitude is the highest felicity of life—near to the eternal sun, above the tumult of the world, above the clouds which float in the atmosphere of the earth. In solitude life is explained; there no cry from without is possible, nothing to break the stream of the thinking existence. And what first appeared as will fortifies itself into self-sustaining endurance. Thoughts flow together like a chorus of saved spirits and carry the physically imprisoned soul with them. Set free and forgotten is the mortal self, and life becomes thought.

What disturbs in the present and in uncongenial contact wins a milder meaning, and awakens a gentle conciliation in the mind that is inspired by a love of truth and rectitude, and that no reproach can drag down. It was like an awakening from that unconscious life, which yet had moved in the immaterial paths of thought to the inner development of himself, and the consideration of himself, and his relation to the outer world.

When Spinoza so abstracted himself from all personal considerations in the pure exercise of thought he was often surprised at the recollection that it was some days since he had seen Olympia, even since he had thought of her, and yet he loved her with his whole heart. It was not stormy, demonstrative love with its overwhelming passions; it was the quietly growing inclination whose roots rest in conviction, and the clear knowledge of the necessity of the relationship. This love, however, had its surprises and enigmatical self-torments as well as any other which is torn by storms of passions. His heart throbbed and swelled with love afresh whenever he went to Olympia's house; and not seldom he left it with an agitated mind, which only recovered itself in his beloved solitude. Would he really conquer his love for Olympia, or would he merely go through a probation with it? He spoke more than ever of his Judaism, and in many other ways, indeed, he strove to place himself in an undesirable light; and yet he was pained again when he appeared to have gained his end, and Olympia—whether from coquetry or to exercise a right of retaliation—accorded all manner of trifling favors to the light-haired Kerkering, by which he felt in the highest degree honored, and became yet more settled in his conviction that Spinoza was only a man of straw put there to tease him. Since that eventful evening the two lovers had not conversed alone, otherwise misunderstandings and mistakes would easily have been explained; but even exposed to the eyes of the uninitiated observers they enjoyed the raptures of the inexpressible felicity of love. Often as their lips said the most indifferent things their eyes spoke all the feelings which they fostered in secret, hidden for one another.