Spinoza: A novel/Chapter 21

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A HEART accustomed to suppress all stormy ebullitions, to gain the even pulsation and moderation of expression that is as far removed from dull stupidity as from extremes of joy and sorrow, in such a life we do not meet with dizzy heights or dark depths that fill the sympathetic spectator sometimes with painful horror at the threatened ruin, and sometimes with quiet satisfaction at the safety gained.

Our hero has not lost himself for love of a woman, but his better life is endangered by it. He has no one to fight with but with himself, with his natural and acquired relations. Such noiseless combat, however, excites the pulses of the internal powers all the more that it is wanting in the tangible opposition that rouses combativeness. No visible kingdom will be revolutionized by the rise and fall of our hero, but a kingdom of the mind, with wide-spreading influence, is brought into jeopardy. In the quiet, unadorned garret in the Kalverstraat, Amsterdam, the conflict will be decided.

Work and quiet contemplation alone are what we shall observe. By earliest dawn we find our philosopher awake at his bench. He has again, as Frau Gertrui expresses it, "taken the day in the eye;" he smiles at this remark, perhaps it means something else to him. If the wheel and the pencil are silent the room is as quiet as the grave, the world is shut out.

What raises expectation in his face to-day, and why does he look so often at the window corner?

He does not live so much alone as we supposed. He has a companion in a cell made by itself in a corner of his room, for whose daily bread he has to provide. Look, he has caught a fly; he takes his microscope, and going to the window throws the captured animal into the web. We too will look through the microscope; perhaps we shall be able thus to follow the observations of the philosopher.

Look how the lonely spider springs out of its den. In spite of its eight eyes its sense of sight must be imperfect, for it does not get out of the way, however near an object is placed to it; but it must have exceedingly fine sensation, for it feels the slightest movement of the net. Or, perhaps, the net still retains a living link with its spinner? Look how swiftly it throws itself on the struggling prey, surrounds it with long hairy legs, squeezes it and kisses it with the strong proboscis. "That is right, guard yourself, bravely done, but the web! The next crash it is through. There! the hind feet folded on the back and prepared for flight. Alas! the left wing is torn, it cannot get away, and the devouring enemy is again approaching; now it is seized and carried off to the den. It is all over; it pulls the feet out, and spins its fine web fast all round; it has broken the head from the trunk and sucks the inside out. What comfortable enjoyment! How it refreshes itself! Then it pauses, and then sets to again to gnaw, as if it knew that it was a higher providential power that sent the cooked pigeon flying into its mouth. The spider certainly thinks the whole race of flies was created for its benefit, and everything is good in so far as it is of the nature of fly, and fills the pouch of the spider. Now it looks as if it prayed to me. Or are the wind and the broom its idols, since it has experienced that they can lay its house in ruins? There, it is finished; the bare skeleton is all that is lying there; it creeps back still further into its corner; its work is ended, since it is satisfied."

The philosopher laid the microscope aside, took up the Bible lying before him, opened at Chap. xxx. of the Proverbs of Solomon and read: "Two things have I required of thee; deny me them not before I die: Remove far from me vanity and lies; give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with food convenient for me": ... "There be four things which are little upon the earth, but they are exceeding wise: The ants are a people not strong, yet they prepare their meat in the summer; the conies are but a feeble folk, yet make they their houses in the rocks; the locusts have no king, yet go they forth all of them by bands; the spider taketh hold with her hands and is in kings' palaces."

The Bible explains in its own way nature and her propensities, human history and its own wars of extermination. Everywhere an endless successive war of destruction. Force rules in nature, innocent of motive, and in the kingdom of nature might and right are one, and men have fixed laws to protect them from one another, and these laws again only derive their influence from their legitimate power; the divine privilege of man, however, is to be a law unto himself in conscious comprehension of his own nature, which prescribes him peace with himself and the world. In the name of these given laws, divine and human, thousands condemn and devour each other, and what should unite them divides them. Will it ever be possible to establish the power of the law on virtue and love?

Let us congratulate ourselves that to-day we are fortunate enough to find Spinoza undisturbed, for yesterday he had to sustain a sharp conflict. Frau Gertrui came to the door with a broom, just as he was laughing aloud at the fight of a fat bluebottle with the spider.

"Do the Jews too think the spiders bring luck?" she asked. "You are so orderly, just the opposite in that of the blessed Magister, of which I am truly glad. I will not kill the spider—God forbid—only drive it away. I am quite ashamed when the good gentlemen come to see you; what will they think? It must be a fine housekeeper that never brushes the spiders' webs away."

For a neat Dutchwoman, in her care for the blank cleanliness of her house, you cannot easily find a greater enemy than a spider. It was very unwillingly that Frau Gertrui set any limits to her zeal for scouring. It was no use the philosopher explaining how very clean spiders were; and she was not even pacified by Spinoza telling her he would explain to all his visitors that it was he who kept the webs there. She maintained, moreover, that he could not be a true Dutchman if he could live in a room with a spider's web.

Let us see, meanwhile, how he ends his day. Till night he worked and then jotted down his worked-out thoughts on paper. He had strained both head and hands this day and felt the need of speech. He took his lamp in his hand and went down to his landlord. When he entered the room Klaas and Gertrui were sitting at the table with folded hands; their grandson, Albert Burgh, was reading the evening prayers aloud. Spinoza sat down in a corner till the prayers were finished, then drew his chair to the table and conversed with the rest. Klaas complained that the new fashions ruined everything; the button-makers were gradually losing their livelihood because smaller and fewer buttons were worn. Spinoza had consolation for everything, and the people felt much comforted by his conversation.

"Tell me," asked Klaas, "how it is—you are not old in years and have not seen much of the world—how is it you know so well and so quickly what is in the hearts of common men? Before we had been a week here I felt as if we had eaten a bushel of salt together."

Spinoza explained that the human heart is the same in all circumstances, and that he who really knows himself can judge of and understand aright the movements of the hearts of other men in other circumstances.

"When you speak like that," said Frau Gertrui, "my mind feels as Sunday-like as if I were listening to a sermon; the blessed Domine Plancius used to preach just like you in the Oudekerk. Did he not, Klaas? I have often said so. Our dear Herr von Spinoza has such a Christian mind; he has nothing of the Jew about him; he is not a bit like the other Jews, and he is not a Jew."

"Geert, when your tongue is set going it chatters on whether it is wise or stupid," said Klaas. "You must not take it ill of her, sir; she does not mean ill."

"You know well enough how it is meant; I only say you are not what the Jews are; so—so—well, you know what I mean."

"Oh, yes; and I am not vexed at all."

"Each one stick to his creed," said Klaas, "and he who is brave and upright may be saved by any faith; all men are God's children."

"But you are a child of the devil," said little Albert, who had been listening quietly to Spinoza; "you have crucified our Saviour, and will go to hell."

Klaas stretched across the table and would have boxed the boy's ears; Frau Gertrui and Spinoza prevented him.

"Stupid child!" said the former; "this gentleman did not do it; others did it who have had their reward long ago."

Spinoza took the struggling boy on his knee and explained to him that it was no sin to be a Jew, since Christ and his apostles were Jews. The Jews had certainly not done right to slay Christ on the cross, but things had gone ill enough with them, and men cannot do penance forever for a fault.

"By your leave," said Klaas, "you have not quite the right view of it. Our Saviour was obliged to die on the cross because it was foreordained of God the Father, and he could only become our Saviour by so doing."

"Even according to this Calvinistic view," replied Spinoza, "the Jews were still more innocent. You must never believe, dear Albert, that God would damn a man forever."

On this last poiftt also he had to maintain a controversy with Klaas, and especially on the passage in the Bible, "The Son of Man goeth as it is written of him; but woe unto that man by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It had been good for that man if he had not been born!" (Matt. xxvi. 24). But the dispute ended quietly.

"Why have you not a great beard?" asked Albert shyly, stroking Spinoza's chin; "in your country all men have long beards."

"In my country? Where do you think I was born?"

"In Jerusalem, or do you come from Nazareth? Oh, tell me something about it; it must be so lovely there."

"I do not come from Canaan, my dear boy. I was born here in Amsterdam, as you were also."

"That is a lie; you are a Jew. Is he not, grandfather? The Jews all come from Canaan."

"Not for a long time now; they have been with us for longer than we can remember; and when the Saviour comes again and begins his thousand years' reign he will take all the Jews back to Palestine."

"Then I should like to be a Jew too. I want to go with him."

"Be glad you are not one, boy," said Spinoza; "we have long to wait for the millennium."

"What was your father called?"


"But he was not Jacob's youngest son. Jacob was a nice man. I should have been ashamed to have him for a grandfather; he deceived his brother Esau and his father-in-law Laban, and his descendants stole the Egyptians' gold and silver."

"Be so good as to give the boy a couple of sound slaps for me," said Klaas.

"Not I," answered Spinoza. "He is a little Bible hero. But don't forget, child, neither with Egyptian gold nor with Christ's crucifixion have the Jews anything more to do; and you must always remember that the apostles, too, were Jews."

"Geert, put the boy to bed, or else we shall never get rid of him." For once a highly reasonable speech of Klaas Ufmsand. Spinoza with difficulty obtained a hand from little Albert, but dare not kiss him for the world. For some time longer Spinoza sat talking with Master Klaas till he yawned more and more frequently and openly, then they separated.

"You have come to a capital punishment," said Spinoza one day at noon to Oldenburg, as he entered. "In that box I have been starving a folio edition of a garden spider for several days, and there is another empty wretch. I too have a talent for diplomacy, and mean to set a war of extermination going."

He half filled a bowl with water, unscrewed a flat plate from the work-bench, placed it in the vessel, and the two spiders on the leaden island. Each of the spectators armed himself with a microscope.

"Look," said Spinoza; "if there is a spirit wholly-independent of the world hovering over it it is thus that he would watch, as we are now doing, over the little conflicts on the earth."

"We must give the two sides names," said Oldenburg. "The garden spider shall be Alexander, the other Darius. Look! Alexander sends out his scouts far and wide; Darius flies, but it is of no use, the sea surrounds him. Both pause for a while, but Alexander arises and presses forward. Look, how he throws his arms round his adversary, but he defends himself vigorously; now they rise to the conflict. How they seize and squeeze each other, how their probosces tear at one another! If I could only see their eyes properly. Bravo! Alexander is down, but his long arms press powerfully against the scaly breast of his adversary. Now he has torn himself loose. Look how he rushes with fresh courage to choke his enemy! His fall was only a Parthian flight; now is the time. Oh, it is all over, they are letting each other go."

"Be quiet," said Spinoza. "That is only a truce, and if it were sworn to by all the gods, they would break it like men as soon as they had gathered strength for a new fight. Am I not right in asserting that everything depends on the standpoint and position of the pupil? The buffalo mangling the grim tiger with his horns till he lies crushed to death before him is not greater than this spider in fight. Nothing is in itself great, nothing in itself small, only, because it appears so to us, we would make it so. If men were not curbed by higher reason, and allowed themselves to be governed only by their ruling passions, they would destroy each other like these animals."

"Indeed this combat is as great as those of men. When in war a thousand fiery messengers send out death, when the ground trembles and the swords flash, drenching themselves in the blood of men, we feel so great in our scorn of death, so almighty in the exercise of strength, we think we could stir the world from its axis, and what is it? A little ant-hill's inhabitants fighting with grasshoppers—"

"The eternal peace has already come to its mortal end," interrupted Spinoza. "Look how they whet their weapons, now bravely at it again!"

The two friends watched the result of the combat without further conversation. Oldenburg had not given the parties their right names, for the garden spider after a short resistance was devoured by the other, head and hair and all. Darius was borne in triumph on the leaden island to where he had spun himself a royal tent.

"Ordinary life has many turns and twists of deep signification," said Oldenburg. "Of two people who pursue each other with inextinguishable hatred we say they are enemies like spiders."

"Your lord and master, Descartes," said Spinoza, "could have learned a great deal from these spiders. He would probably have then not brought forward a false proof of a true thing. He tries to prove the existence of God from the fact that we, who have an idea of him, exist. He takes two axioms to prove this. Firstly, 'That which can perform the greater and more difficult can also perform the lesser and less difficult.' Secondly, 'It is greater to create and preserve the substance than the attributes and qualities of the substance.' I do not know what he means by that. What does he call easy, what difficult? Nothing is absolutely easy or difficult in itself, but can only be called so with regard to its cause. We want no other example but this spider; with very little trouble it spins a web that men could not make without very great difficulty. On the other hand men do many things with ease that would perhaps be impossible to angels. What can be called absolutely easy or difficult? It would in this way be easily imaginable that men may exist without necessarily supposing the existence of God. But the existence of God, as we have said, follows necessarily and consequently on the idea of him."

Spinoza held a lengthier discussion with Oldenburg on the subject. We have remained long enough in the house of Klaas Ufmsand, and will pause until we can again conduct Benedict to Olympia. There our story is quite in another key.