Spinoza: A novel/Chapter 20

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THE Jews are sounding the alarm after you; they look upon you as a deserter, and want to bring you back to their standard," said Oldenburg to Spinoza as he entered the room with Meyer.

"Don't be afraid," said Meyer, "you have climbed so high above them that they will be out of breath before they catch you."

"How would it be," continued Oldenburg, "if, while they are in pursuit, you enlisted under another flag, and dressed yourself in another uniform?"

"But you once lauded Turenne for not doing so," answered Spinoza, "and I should not know what uniform to adopt."

"You are right there," said Meyer; "if I had a uniform to cut out for you I should use the whole heavens for the purpose, and hang the sun and moon on your breast for orders." They laughed, and Oldenburg began again:

"What is the use of skirmishing? We must take the thing by the throat. Meyer, from his hiatro-mathematical heights, always maintains that the efforts of reason should be directed towards the rooting out of all dogmatic creeds, and especially the authority of the Bible. Luther, he says, has overturned traditional creeds, but has set us down on the barren sand of mere verbal inspiration. He even quotes you, and says you think nothing of the prophets or sacred history."

"If he does he is wrong. I think the prophets, with their visions and inner revelations, which we may call direct divine gifts, may probably recognize the truth as plainly as the clearest judgments of reason. It is only because the former remains on the lowest step of perception that it is more exposed to error than pure reason. Theology and philosophy are not opposed to one another; they merely rest on different foundations. I am convinced of the eternal and inextinguishable utility of the so-called sacred histories for the common people. He who believes in them and rules his life in accordance has succeeded as heir to a great accumulation of truths proved by experience, to which the small body of men who cannot simply believe in them can only attain by their own unassisted powers of thought. Both are fortunate, the latter the most fortunate, because they themselves discover the collected laws of nature. The Bible cannot pretend to such universal application, and has never done so; it is a slowly accumulated work which includes much extraneous matter; its aims are not learning and thought, but faith and action; and that is why we ought first to comprehend how we can create anything as good, and yet more definite, by our own innate intellectual powers."

"Look there! There is my 'original sin' again," interrupted Meyer. "Firstly, they say, 'Human nature is originally and thoroughly bad, and cannot understand higher things.' Then they say that 'a supernatural revelation is necessary to save them from this situation.' They cut a leg off human nature and triumphantly exclaim, 'Look, it cannot walk or stand alone, so we must make a false leg, and look after its joints every Sunday, that mankind may run again with it for seven days.'"

"Meyer, you are always trying to enrich the inheritance of original sin," said Oldenburg. Then, turning to Spinoza he continued, "Tell me openly, are you not convinced that Judaism is obsolete and narrow?"

"You ask a great deal; but I must first repeat, that no creed offers us that true felicity which springs only from knowledge of the innate necessities of our natural laws. As things are now no man, whoever he may be, whether Christian, Turk, Jew, or heathen, is really recognized as such, but only judged according to his manners and customs, because he goes to this or that church, clings to this or that expression, or swears by the words of this or that master. The only decisive measure at last of all is individual character. That is why the professors of one and the same creed, ay, often the professors of one and the same philosophical system, incline to such different forms of individual and social life. As for Judaism now, it recognizes a godly life quite independent of the revelation of the law. Noah, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were all esteemed godly, though they lived long before the revelation on Sinai. Moses, by means of his sublime and divine gifts, gave the law to the people as a right, as a constitution. This is destroyed. The primeval right to found divine laws on individual recognition appears in Judaism too with universal application."

"The Jews always appear to me as a remarkable phenomenon of history," said Meyer. "The Jews must exist as long as there is a dogmatic religion in the world. The wonderful tenacity with which they have endured the most fearful blows of fate must prove that their mission is not yet fulfilled, and that in the course of history they will once more be a mighty lever."

"Such abnormal developments please you," said Oldenburg, and Spinoza replied:

"Nothing is abnormal; everything has its definite cause, from which it must arise necessarily and logically in its destined order. If the ordinances of their religion did not rob them of their manliness, I should unhesitatingly affirm that the Jews, as is quite possible in the whirling wheel of human affairs, would one day, when the opportunity occurred, again obtain their kingdom, and God would choose them anew. We have an example in the Chinese, who have again won their kingdom. But the mission of the Jews is fulfilled. There is nothing wonderful in their preservation; it is only the hatred of all nations that has preserved them, and they have set themselves apart from all nations by their customs. These customs may disappear like all other laws of ceremonial, which have only a local signification, and the hatred of the nations may change to love."

"I should be proud to be a Jew," said Meyer. "He is born in such decided opposition to all commonplace, and in himself represents exactly the schism which now rends the heart of humanity. The free Jew, who has cut loose from his own already torn traditions is the only unbiassed stranger in the world, armed with all the weapons of the masculine intellect, and yet with the unclouded eyes of childhood, capable of examining and surveying the world as given in history; a privilege and a freedom none other can attain to as easily. We others have too much share in the ruling of the world, and too much partiality for and familiarity with it. And already in the great current of history it is seen that the renewing of the whole world has not been done by the dominant nations. Neither a Greek nor a Roman produced the new world-saving doctrine; it came from the despised, oppressed people, who were shut out from the world's current. In ancient times men lived in perfect uniformity of faith; the religion was the constitution, the constitution was the religion. It was so in Rome and Athens, in Egypt and China, and most perfectly so in Palestine. With the destruction of the Jewish state and the entrance of Christianity originated religion as such, for it was then first cut loose from the state. There were henceforward two powers who took men in charge, and robbed them of uniformity, the State and the Church. Christianity has till now, by the papal power, endeavored to reunite the two; the power of the Pope is now broken, the old division is again there. Christianity does not assign the constitution."

"I think we have exchanged the rôles," replied Spinoza; "Christianity does not apply to nations and States, but to humanity, to all mankind, to make them internally free; it could never be an external law. By means of our recognition of our natural laws we can and must regulate State and Church; in both we must leave room for the investigating minds who bring everything in question, otherwise we again lay our freedom under the bonds of external laws. The religious and political additions made to Christianity from time to time have only been temporary. When Christ says, 'Whosoever shall smite thee on the right cheek, turn to him the other also' (a rule of behavior that is also given in the Lamentations of Jeremiah), it can only refer to a time of oppression and lawlessness; otherwise it is according to reason and duty to give him who giveth thee a blow two in return; or to bring him who would sue thee at the law to justice, that the rogues may not make a successful game of their roguery."

"With such views as these," said Oldenburg, "I should not long hesitate in acknowledging myself of the Christian religion; you need not do it from conviction of the dogmas. Therefore if I were you I should join the larger and more cultivated majority, who have moreover the greatest power of influencing the history of their time. It is not vanity in a man to have an ugly excrescence removed from his face; he only fulfils his duty to others and himself by removing everything detrimental."

"And I," said Meyer, "would neither respect nor value you from that day forward; you would be a traitor to yourself. But I hear you are in love with the saintly Olympia. What a universally tolerant young lady that is! First she had a Catholic, and then a Protestant, for lovers; now she has a Jew, and, I presume, in Kerkering a Lutheran, as co-admirers; if she has done with you both I will charter her a Turk."

"Jest and mockery are your original sins," replied Spinoza gravely; "but I request that you will speak with respect of Olympia."

"Ah! the learned Olympia!" laughed Meyer, "she can conjugate amo perfectly in the preterit; but I must be grave. First a painter, who lived for two months in these rooms, was bewitched by her. He was a very young man of great talent and overflowing vivacity. I used to go very often to the Van den Ende's house myself then, and confess that I had not a little to do with Van den Spyck's severing the connection. But if I had known beforehand what would result I would have had no hand in it, for Van den Spyck took to drinking, and sank lower and lower till he could stay here no longer, but now wanders unsteadily about the world. Both Van den Spyck and Olympia turned their anger on me, so I went no more to my old colleague's house. Olympia's second lover was her music-master; he swam perpetually in clear melody, and was never to be seen without a music-book under his arm, and wherever he went or stayed his fingers moved as if he were playing the organ. I believe he came into the world with a sheet of music under his arm, and that his first cry was in D major. Ah! he revelled with Olympia in the kingdom of tones. It was the bass voice of her father that drove him out of Paradise. Imagine the bathos! The man should at least have made a finale with a pistol-shot. Cruel ! not a week passed before the musical key opened another lock, and he was engaged to the daughter of the director of the concert hall. He succeeded to his father-in-law's post, and now lives a comfortable citizen 'andante' with his musical better half. I shall see now what will become of you."

Spinoza walked moodily up and down the room, with the same feelings as when Chisdai defiled the fair image of Olympia with such bigoted zeal.

"I can't understand you," said Oldenburg; "indeed you delude yourself if you think you love her. Your peace of mind and self-concentration in thoughts that have no reference to love would be impossible if the true fire of passion burned in your veins."

"Do you know all the peculiarities of love in different individuals, that you speak so decidedly on the subject?" asked Spinoza.

"I know love; and even if I were more passionate than many others, still I know its eternal origin, which is and must be the same with every one. My acquaintance with Olympia dates from my own love-story. Maria was a friend of Olympia's. No man ever loved more truly than I. I looked with pity and scorn on ordinary men, who from day to day could think of other things, follow a favorite profession, study physic, prepare enactments, or write commercial letters; and then, when the day's work was finished, or a Sunday stood in the calendar, take a walk with the beloved one. These excellent, self-contained souls, how narrow and cold they seemed to me, who thought no other thoughts, and felt no other feeling but love alone. I had won a new soul with an unalterable sameness, for the one perpetual thought was of her and of her alone. When I drew the sweet breath of Maria's presence, or remained in my distant home, her soul was always with me. Wherever I was I thought, Soon she will be here with thee; thou wilt call her thine own. I often trembled at the infinite, overwhelming magnitude of this happiness. It was too great; I could not have borne it. I was shamefully deceived in my love and in my better feelings. Love another! I cannot and dare not wish to. If it is denied me to pour out my soul in that first fiery passion, I despise any well-behaved citizen love. I am glad that I am too old to be exposed to such another temptation. I have found a sphere of usefulness, and peace is in that."

"Marriage is a sacred and eternal law of nature," replied Spinoza. "It is the fairest crown of humanity, if it is made from pure inclination recognized by reason."

"I will not attack matrimony," answered Oldenburg, "but the curse that rests on mankind the more it develops is that it is always more and more impossible to partake of the pleasure exactly when nature requires it. What are art, science and industry? May they all be destroyed if mankind is not to—"

"He can live according to nature," interrupted Spinoza, "who has early learned to master his passions, and to act in accordance with the eternal laws of reason. For this they should not appear as external and arbitrary, otherwise the power of the passions will often win in the conflict. But if, by our recognition of the law of reason, we have seen the worthlessness of all power and all indulgence of the passions, we shall lead such a life as our true nature exacts."

"It is not given to every man," answered Oldenburg, " to turn his back on the world, or rather to hover above it all in the heaven of his own consciousness. There are wild and stormy spirits who, by mere happy indifference, retain their enjoyment in this world of weighty trifles, of necessary tyranny, and can be kept from madness and despair."

In a mild tone Spinoza led the conversation to its source again by saying:

"I do not turn my back on the world as you think; I fully enjoy it in my own way."

"And you deceive yourself if you think you will enjoy it more with Olympia."

"Oldenburg, you have too high-flown notions of matrimony," remarked Meyer. "Believe me, I now have a second wife, and live in great contentment. Men are neither so happy in marriage as fancy hopes, nor so unhappy as it fears. I knew my second wife but little before our marriage. We learned to know each other and accommodate ourselves to one another afterwards. What men dream about harmony of minds is not practicable. My wife, for example, is truly pious, and yet we live united. Indeed, I should not like her not to be so. That quiet faith gives women a special charm. I have two fine, healthy boys, a well-ordered household, and may say that I live happily."

"You know I respect and honor Olympia," said Oldenburg, "but I must advise you against a union with her. I interfere in the affair most unwillingly, and would give it up now, if I did not know your enviable power of keeping yourself pure and uninfluenced by all opposition. Let yourself be dissuaded. It is not Olympia's first love affair. The first dew of heaven is gone, her lips have already kissed others, her heart has already throbbed for another, and—you must not be angry with me for saying it—what you feel for her is not true love; otherwise you could not possibly act with this peaceful equanimity."

"I must, however, repeat," replied Spinoza, "that there is nothing truly desirable which reasonable deliberation cannot comprehend as thoroughly and more permanently than enthusiasm and unrestrained passion."

"Something else occurs to me," said Meyer. "Would it be, to express it from a legal point of view, permissible for Jews and Christians to intermarry?"

"No Rabbi on earth could bring forward an absolute prohibition. Christians are, from a Jewish point of view, merely regarded as a Jewish sect. That their numerical power in the course of events has become greater makes no difference to the fact. We have sects among the Jews, even individual Talmudists, who consider faith in a Messiah as immaterial and not among the necessary laws of their religion. A union between Jews and Christians cannot be forbidden."

"As long as such intermarriages are unusual," resumed Meyer, "the detestation connected with the name of Jew will not be generally uprooted. I could almost be in favor of this union. It would seem so glorious to me to be the Jewish redeemer in this case. But no, you must not only be a Jew, you must remain a bachelor. It is only thus that you fulfil your mission. Whoever takes upon himself family ties and social obligations, his straightforward, strictly logical orderings of life and thought are split up and interrupted. Distraction and interruption enter of necessity, and I can already see in my own profession what it is to let my thoughts be turned hither and thither by the thousand changing chances of life. The steady, uninterrupted stream between the thinking mind and the one thought which you set before you is thus perpetually crossed and interrupted; the natural heat flows away, cools, and must perpetually be relighted. So congratulate yourself that you are born a Jew, and are a bachelor by fate and free-will."

For the first time Spinoza was glad when his two friends took leave. Of all the inclinations of man love of woman is the most like faith. Its true foundation is only in the individual personality, whose precise view of the case, known to no other, makes it sacrilege to interfere. Why should Spinoza be possessed by a love which was in such opposition to the world, and therefore gave every one, and especially his friends, a right to pry into it? A less steadfast and unworldly because less truth-loving nature would have had his softer sentiments destroyed by such encroachments, and have become bitter against his friends, or self-distrustful. Spinoza learned by his clear intelligence to acquire here too that devotion which men usually ascribe to the direct influence of sentiment.