Spinoza: A novel/Chapter 24

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AN innumerable crowd lined the streets, praying with folded hands to the Lord that he would protect the undertaking of their liberator. In front rode the Imperial herald with the eagle, and the soldier of God's Word followed, accompanied by travellers the same way in shining steel and gorgeous accoutrements. And when he entered the assembly, his admirers climbed on the roofs, and filled the streets and windows, for each one esteemed himself highly favored who caught sight of him. And when he had boldly and manfully fought the battle, he was borne home in triumph, and a voice was heard to cry, "Blessed are the hands that bear him." Thus, in the year 1521, Martin Luther went to Worms, the bold champion of the freedom of the Divine Word.

It is hard to sustain a conflict with power and custom at any time; it is painful to support it publicly; but the thousand upturned sympathetic faces are like a glory round the head of the champion, and raise his strength to be the strength of thousands. And if he finds himself overcome, he has felt the blessings of innumerable hearts in whom his ideas will live. How very different it is to gird for a conflict without victory in mute obscurity!

In the year 1657 Benedict Spinoza went alone to the House of Jacob Synagogue in Amsterdam, accompanied by no one, greeted by no one. The people who knew him avoided this man, who was the firmest champion of the freedom of religious thought. He had no old written law to conquer for the world anew; he appeared as if he would deprive it of its strongest fortress, since he would have naught but the good old right of free thought.

In the synagogue the ten Judges sat in their seats, the president being Rabbi Isaak Aboab. Near him sat Rabbi Saul Morteira. Spinoza stood four paces distant from him. Rabbi Isaak Aboab rose and said:

"With the help of God we are here assembled to declare judgment and law on thee, Baruch ben Benjamin Spinoza. Swear to us in the name of the Almighty God that thou wilt neither deny nor conceal anything from us, and that thou wilt submit to the sentence which the Lord shall make known by our mouths."

"Deceit I know not, and lies are far from me," answered Spinoza; "I will submit to your judgment, if you judge me according to the Divine Word, and not according to the inclinations of your own hearts and the interpretations of the Rabbis."

A murmur rose in the assembly, but it could be heard that the almost universal opinion was that the accused, by thus demurring to recognize their authority unconditionally, ought to be laid under the greater excommunication without further trial. Rabbi Saul Morteira called for silence.

"Let us see," he said, "how far the corruption of his heart goes. Say, renegade, hast thou not sinned against God in the enjoyment of forbidden meat and drink, and by laboring on the Sabbath? Hast thou not deserted the assembly of the faithful, and defamed the sacred name of God and His laws? And it is written, 'He who profaneth the name of God in secret shall be punished openly.'"

A pause ensued. Spinoza looked down, then looking up he replied in a calm voice:

"I cannot do miracles and signs, or call upon nature to stand by and witness for me. In me alone must be shown the power which proves the presence of God in every human heart. That I stand here before you, accused by you who believe another manner of life well pleasing to God, that I do not tremble and accuse myself of aught, accept as a sign of my love to God, which I consider my highest good. I defend myself only on the accusation of Sabbath-breaking, because this may appear an offence against the sacred law of God in nature. It is well and advantageous to oppressed men that they should have one day in seven for rest. And it is wise, for the privilege of humanity consists in free regulation of its powers; but who gives you the right to punish a man for a sin which he commits against himself?"

Those assembled all rose from their seats and cried out that they wowld no longer listen to such blasphemy; but Rabbi Isaak Aboab said:

"Let him speak. From every word he speaks a demon rises that will cling round his soul in his extremity; and when he dies the death of a sinner, they will hang on to him, and drag him down to the pit of hell. It is our duty to hear his whole guilt. Step forward and speak, witnesses."

Chisdai and Ephraim advanced; the one proudly looking up, the other looking down ashamed.

"He has blasphemed God and the prophets in our hearing, denied the angels, and mocked at the miracles; and that he has done all this I swear before the face of the eternal God."

"I swear, too, that Chisdai has spoken the truth," said Ephraim in a low voice.

"What answer do you make?" asked Morteira; and Spinoza replied:

"I have not blasphemed the prophets. Indeed I honor them better than those who wreathe their heads with the false glory of infallibility; who rob them of the divine majesty of human greatness, and degrade them to idols. Go forth and see, did the sun stand still in Gibeon? I have denied the angels? Has not Rabbi Joseph Albo already said openly, that belief in the existence of angels was immaterial and unnecessary? I have mocked at the miracles? What do you accuse me of? Open at the passage where Balaam's ass speaks, and look what Ebn Esra says there. I have blasphemed God? I pity thee that thou knowest not that no human intellect which follows its innate laws can escape him."

"Have you not said," interrupted Chisdai—"woe is me that I must speak it after you!—have you not said that in the Holy Scriptures many imperfect and false ideas of the nature of God are to be found?"

"I think I honor God more than you by that. Is not God called 'great' in the Bible, and is there a 'greatness' without limited extension in space? It is true the Bible can only be explained by itself. It carries the ground of its truths in itself. It will not be measured by the laws of intellect; but neither will it overrule them. The reason God has given us, therefore, is no less divine, and can and must create its ideal of God for itself, and find in itself what is necessary to the leading of a godly life. The Bible itself recognizes this sacred right of our Reason, in recognizing a godly war of life in the men who lived before the revelation on Sinai, while it detracts from the truth in the law-giving of Moses as a merely temporal revelation, by saying: 'It is not in heaven, that thou shouldest say, Who shall go for us to heaven, and bring it unto us, that we may hear it, and do it ? But the word is very nigh unto thee, in thy mouth, and in thy heart, that thou mayest do it.' In our reason, on the height of pure religious thought, there is our Sinai. I will faithfully and openly explain to you my views of higher things; if you refute me by reason, "I will submit to you."

"You have appealed to the Holy Scriptures," cried Morteira. "Woe! that thy tongue was not burned to ashes, that thou venturedst to take its holy words thereon; what would you have with your Baal, Reason?"

"Destroy him if you can," replied Spinoza.

Rabbi Isaak Aboab had till now quietly listened to the discussion; now he rose and cried:

"The measure is full; you are all agreed with me that this epicurean has deserved the extremest chastisement of Gehinom."

All present answered with an audible "Amen," and Aboab continued:

"Now I ask of thee, Baruch ben Benjamin Spinoza, wilt thou recant thy blasphemous words, and submit thee to the penance that is due on that account, or wilt thou that the highest curse of excommunication be passed on thee?"

"Refute me by Reason and I will recant! You will not hear me. I would answer you from the Scriptures. If you cannot hear me in this obscure synagogue, and will not try the Truth on its just grounds, I will speak my thoughts to the whole world, where no ban reaches. I have only come to your tribunal to show you that I oppose no association that thinks it possesses the truth in its creed; but freedom of thought has its own inviolable domains. If you, as you have here accepted me, now reject me—a new day will break—"

"False prophet, be silent!" thundered Rabbi Aboab. "I ask for the second time, I ask for the third time, will you recant?"

The stillness of the grave reigned for a second in the hall; then Spinoza looked up, and answered in a firm voice:

"I cannot, but neither can you do otherwise; I curse you not."

Rabbi Isaak Aboab tore his mantle, and Rabbi Saul Morteira took the Schofar that lay covered before him, and blew it three times, so that it echoed on all sides of the dome; the sacred ark was opened, all present arose, and Rabbi Isaak Aboab read from a parchment:

In the Name of the Lord of lords
Art thou, Baruch, son of Benjamin,
Laid under the greater ban.
Be thou under the ban of both laws.
Heavenly and earthly:
Be banned by the saints above.
Be banned by the Seraphim,
Be banned by the Ophanim.

Shut out from all communities.
From the great and from the small.
On thee be great and heavy plagues.
Painful and horrible sickness;
Thy house be a dragon's den,
And thy star vanish from above.
Be thou the pest and horror of men,
And thy carcass the food of snakes.
Be thou a sport unto thine enemies,
And the goods that thou mayest possess
Be the portion of strangers.
Before the doors of thine enemies
May thy children wail,
And because of thy life's tortures
Be thy children's children struck with horror.
Be accursed by all spirits


Michael and Gabriel,
Raphael and Mescharthel.
Be accursed of the Great God.
By the seventy Spirits' names,
Subjects to the Great King,
By the great seal Zartok,
Go to Hell like Korah's band,
And with trembling and quivering
Thy soul go out of thee.
God's terrors slay thee.
Overthrown like Achitophel
In the snares of thy plots.
Gehazi's leprosy be thine,
And from thy fall mayst thou never arise;
Where Israel's graves lie
Be thy grave never dug.
Given away to the stranger

Be thy wife; in thine hour of death
May others defile her.—
This ban, and this curse
On Baruch, son of Benjamin.
But on all Israel
And on me rest the peace of God
And his blessing eternally."

On this the Rabbi took the Thora from the sacred ark, unrolled it and read (Deut. xxix. 19, etc.): "And it come to pass, when he heareth the words of this curse, that he bless himself in his heart, saying, I shall have peace, though I walk in the imagination of mine heart, to add drunkenness to thirst: the Lord will not spare him. But then the anger of the Lord and his jealousy shall smoke against that man, and all the curses that are written in this book shall lie upon him, and the Lord shall blot out his name from under heaven." The Thora was returned to the sacred ark, the Schofar was again blown, and all those present said, turning towards Spinoza,

"Cursed be thy coming in, and cursed be thy going out."

All spat towards him, and recoiled four paces, as with unbroken firmness he left the synagogue. Would this exit from the accustomed sanctuary be entrance to another, or would he never more enter a temple of stone, and outwardly prove that a free man is the temple of God?

Before the synagogue he met Oldenburg, Meyer, and de Vries, who waited for him; they had heard of the proceedings, and waited here to protect him from the violence of the Rabbis. The friends had never yet seen Spinoza's countenance so animated as now. They went silently away with him; Oldenburg grasped his hand and pressed it.

As Spinoza passed his father's house he heard the lamentations of his sisters; he knew they now bewailed him more bitterly than if he were dead.

Now that he had not renounced it of his own free will, now that it was torn from him, he felt doubly what it is to be cut off in youth from all that is dear and familiar in it; cutting all threads of memory, and so dismembering life, that it has no longer a connection with the past.

The saddest consciousness in the casting off of any tender relation of life lies in this, that on both sides a piece of life is extinguished and destroyed, whose involuntary reawakening often fills us with supernatural horror, and makes us hasten our flight to oblivion.

"So they sat down with him .... and none spake a word unto him, for they saw that his grief was very great."

So it says in Job. Here, too, the three friends sat and said nothing, for they saw that his grief was very great. Oldenburg quietly laid his hand on Spinoza's shoulder, as if he could support him thus and lend him some of his own strength. He felt what must agitate the heart of his friend, for, though long absent from the congregation of the synagogue, he must feel this rough rupture like a fatal fall come at last. Even if expected and known of for long beforehand, when death is at last brought decisively face to face the pain is quite new—quite different.

No sound was heard. Once only Oldenburg softly and with warning movement spoke a few words to Meyer when the latter had whispered something in his ear, for Meyer was inclined to treat the whole affair as hardly worth speaking of, or to make a jest of it.

Spinoza sat sunk in his own thoughts, his brow and eyes covered with his hands. The friends looked at him in silence, waiting the first word that he would say. At last he looked up, and as if answering an appeal he said:

"No, no! they shall not oblige me to oppose them in bitterness, hatred and injustice. This curse, too, is love. They would leave none to go wrong; they would frighten and chastise him who would renounce their association. And this horrible, elaborate curse! If praise has its allotted forms cursing must, have them also. They cannot convert my thoughts. If I act in opposition to them it is I no longer who live and act. No, I will live out my own life; the world shall not be my master!"

"The world?" Meyer could contain himself no longer. "What have a set of rabbis in an obscure synagogue to do with the world? They send you into exile; into a world that is much more beautiful and greater than the one from which they banish you."

"You maybe right; but remember I received there my deepest awakenings of pleasure and pain. There was a time when honor and dishonor there were to me the honor and dishonor of the whole world. That is past."

"Now, my friend!" cried Oldenburg, "you will go out into the real world, into the wide, great world, and you will go with me. I must leave Amsterdam in a few days."

"You, and just now?"

"I am sent by my native town on an embassy to London. Come with me."

"What should I do there with you?"

" A great scientific society is to be founded in London. I am appointed a member, and you shall work with me."

In bright, attractive colors Oldenburg drew a picture of the great world. Honor, renown, pleasure and enjoyment sparkled in unknown splendor, and Spinoza's countenance became suddenly brighter and happier. He saw himself in the midst of the great striving crowd, and amidst it all played a scene of domestic happiness in which Olympia ruled.

Meyer and de Vries added their persuasions. Their words were hardly necessary, for what he now heard outwardly Spinoza said to himself inwardly. He tremblingly seized Oldenburg's hand, but arrested himself hastily and said:

"Excuse me; I must now be alone for a time."

He was left alone and the conflict raged within him.

"But why did the friends say nothing of Olympia? Was I mistaken in thinking I perceived a certain shyness, a certain strangeness in them? To her—to her; under her eyes the new life must begin."