Spinoza: A novel/Chapter 26

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THE Jewish Church wished to follow up its excommunication with civic consequences, and petitioned the magistrates to banish the "Blasphemer" from the city. The affair was laid before the synod of the reformed ministry for decision, and the quiet thinker often found himself distracted from his investigations by citations and writs. With profound reflections on the regulation of the commonwealth, and the consumption of human material required by it, he often wandered through the long passages of the law courts, or sat waiting in the ante-rooms. The martyrdom of the modern world is composed of a long array of thousands of trifling annoyances, and our philosopher had yet more to experience.

His friends pressed him to leave his native land of his own free will; he, however, maintained that for justice' sake he must submit himself to the judgment of the laws appealed to. It was Oldenburg's last act of friendship, when sent to England as the envoy of the Lower Saxon Union, to free his friend from these annoyances. He repeatedly entreated Spinoza to follow him, but Spinoza wished to remain in his quiet seclusion in his native land. But he now prepared to leave Amsterdam, for, though he was free from all anger, he could not always suppress the sudden emotion which often agitated him so painfully at seeing himself surrounded by dislike and avoidance in his native place. It was more painful to him innocently to raise this feeling in others than to bear its consequences himself.

The peculiarities of the friends showed themselves in these discussions in a characteristic manner. Meyer found extreme pleasure in lashing the transgressions, the narrowness, the stupidity of men with his sharp satire. Oldenburg declined this means, because any violent opposition, all hand to hand conflict with the common herd, appeared to him unlovely and unclean; and thus Spinoza and Oldenburg often agreed. What the other totally avoided from a certain feeling for harmony Spinoza reasoned out for himself on a foundation of knowledge.

"The investigation of the incongruities and failings of mankind," he said, "can only serve to teach us not to be carried away by controversy, but rather to quietly work out our own laws of action, and conquer the violence of our tempers in the shortest possible time. It is an illusion if men think to make themselves free and happy by finding out the deficiencies and deformities of others and variously remarking thereon. The recognition of virtue and its causes alone makes us satisfied and happy; in that alone can our hearts rejoice. The ambitious man speaks most willingly of the false reputations and base means of others; the avaricious spendthrift, of the misuse of money and the vices of the rich. He who loves truth does not dwell long on lies and obduracy; he combats them to the best of his ability, rejoices in his own acquired knowledge, and admits that those in error also act according to the necessities of their nature."

"Happiness always lies on the other shore," added Oldenburg, "but on the other shore of conquered hate, in the serene peace of knowledge."

Meyer was nevertheless not so easily converted, and with the self-congratulation of having prophesied aright he asked:

"In Olympia you have probably seen the want of character and merely receptive capacity of woman's nature, and will give this variety of humankind its suitable place in your system."

"I know," replied Spinoza, "that he who is crossed in love thinks of nothing but the untrustworthiness, the falsity and all the other oft-repeated defects of women; and all this he as quickly consigns to oblivion when he is again taken into favor by the beloved one. But whoever tries to regulate his sensations and desires only by his love of freedom will endeavor to acquaint himself with their virtues and the causes thereof as thoroughly as possible, and to fill his mind with the joy which only springs from true knowledge. Whoever observes this diligently—for it is not difficult—and then practises it, will best regulate his actions according to the law of reason."

Thus the friends raised and animated each other in their penetration of the nature of intellect and investigation of its laws of action, and Spinoza had in his own life proof sufficient of the theory, which he maintained with irrefutable reasoning, that the passions alone disturb the universal well-being and the internal harmony of the individual; but reason reconciles them.

This pleasant, lively intercourse was interrupted by Oldenburg's departure for England. Spinoza, Meyer and de Vries accompanied him to Schreyerstoren (the weeping gate), which takes its name from the tears of the deserted for the departure of their friends. With a heavy heart Spinoza tore himself from his friend's arms, and watched him sadly as the waves bore him away. Meyer and de Vries yet remained to him; but the one was too young to be wholly his friend, their age and experience were too unequal; the other was married. A hundred relations and circumstances make it impossible for a husband and father to devote himself to a friend with the same undivided attention. In Oldenburg he had lost his most faithful friend.

As he returned alone over the Amstel bridge he met a funeral procession. Among the mourners he recognized his former master and fellow-workmen. One of them beckoned him to go with them; he joined the train and learned that they were bearing Peter Blyning to the grave. On the last harvest-home he had been at a dance with his comrades. His companions in jest sent all the girls to him, one after the other, to ask him to dance. He could hardly contain himself for rage and mortification; he poured wine and gin into a glass one after the other and drank them off. Then weeping bitterly he took his crutches and went out. Suddenly a terrific shriek was heard and they all hastened out. Peter having fallen down the steps and fractured his skull, lay there in his last agony.

Spinoza followed the procession much moved. On the way he encountered Chisdai. When he came near him he saw Chisdai spit towards him three times and say the Hebrew words, "But thou shalt utterly detest it, and thou shalt utterly abhor it, for it is a cursed thing" (Deut. vii. 26). Spinoza took no notice, and, sunk in his own thoughts, accompanied the corpse of the unhappy man to its last resting-place.

That evening he received another agitating visit. Closely wrapped in his mantle de Silva came to him, and in a stern voice began without other greeting:

"It is not as the Jew that I come to you. He knows you no more. The physician stands before you; his calling is to help all, to advise without question whomsoever it may be. I counsel you, leave your native town; danger menaces you. Your heart is sick as long as you are here. No man can bear to wander among his own people, thrust forth from them like a corpse by those with whom he once lived in fellowship. I know you do not mean to insult those who take your continued stay as an insult. And one thing more. Ephraim Cardoso has joined another party of emigrants for Brazil. Chisdai wished to join them, but they refused him. No one will associate with him, he is avoided like one plague-stricken. No one will forgive him for being your accuser."

"But I forgive him."

"That does not help him, nor does it help you. I am afraid he broods over a dreadful deed, for he seldom leaves home in the daytime, but sneaks out at night. Let me warn you; I do it in kindness to you. Ay, I will recall my words, and say I come to you as a Jew. You have not scoffed at our religion before the Sanhedrim, you have spoken as beseemed a thinker. I myself will have naught to do with thought that is not founded on faith; but a Jew appeals to you; be just to us, as to others. You are more pious than you let yourself appear, than your reason permits you to confess."

"Is faith then the only form of piety?"

"I know, I know," continued Silva hastily. "I am not come to dispute with you. You may attribute it to pride that I still ascribe piety to you. But when you left the synagogue forever you must have seen beside a seat of prayer, where once your father stood, a child, and that child prayed fervently, and that child was yourself. Forget it not. And you may know and keep it in remembrance that a Jew, with sorrow in his heart, sees you set forth on your lonely way. Farewell!"

Spinoza stretched out his hand to de Silva, but the latter only grasped that of the heretic with a mantle-covered hand, and went quickly away.

This new circumstance deeply agitated Spinoza. It was news from a life that he had lost. He could not be forgotten yet.

Soon, however, news of a death roused sincere sorrow in Spinoza's heart. It was the news that his teacher. Van den Ende, was executed in Paris. The always good-natured physician, who prized laughter as the highest good, had in action shown a devotion to his fatherland that no one would have expected from him. In order to prevent Louis XIV. from levying war on the United Provinces by a popular rising at home, he, with the Duc de Rohan and others, had plotted an insurrection in Normandy. He paid for it with a death on the gallows.

All the inhabitants of Amsterdam, indeed of the United Netherlands, gave a tender, and in some cases, remorseful thought to the departed. Many indeed maintained that the doctor wished to enjoy his greatest good wholesale; he wanted to laugh in chorus with all Europe at Louis XIV. driven hither and thither over the world's stage. But the undertaking of Van den Ende, and his self-sacrificing death, were too grave and impressive not to cut short such an explanation.

Spinoza tried to explain to himself this astonishing turn in his teacher's life. That a lightly living nature might also be a lightly dying one is easily admissible; and even this neck-risking setting of his formerly squandered life on a single cast might be traceable to Van den Ende's character and theories. Still something remained inexplicable. Spinoza had mentally to excuse himself to his teacher; he had not expected so much from him.

He felt obliged to offer Olympia his condolences. In the expression of his grief and recognition of the bold deed must lie his reparation.

He examined himself severely, and felt he could say that only pure participation in the grief of his former love moved him to it; and in the evening he took the once familiar way to Van den Ende's dwelling. The house was silent and deserted, and he learned from a neighbor that Olympia had accompanied her husband to Hamburg. As he passed the church of St. Olave's on his return, there, where he had once passed the night on the steps, and gazed at Olympia's window, some one rushed at him, seized him by the arm, and stabbing him in the breast with a dagger, ran swiftly away, saying, "The ass hath horns." Spinoza had luckily escaped the stroke. Only his mantle was pierced. He thought he recognized the assassin. It was Chisdai.

When the first involuntary shock and its immediate effects on his mind had passed, Spinoza only reflected that fanaticism is nothing but a return to a primeval law of nature, which is apparently founded on laws of mind and on the sacredness of law. The confused, hot-headed zeal which makes the internal law an external watchword has in all times cursed, crucified, burnt at the stake, and stabbed its enemies. It is worth while to reveal their innate laws to mankind, and lead them to love, and joy, and felicity. ...

He kept the torn mantle as a reminder to do it.

Can we take this as a metaphor, that hatred and want of judgment only pierce the clothes of the wise, but cannot reach their inner self?

Spinoza did not hear that on the morning after the attempted crime a body was dragged from the Amstel. It was Chisdai's. He was buried unmourned, as a suicide, like Uriel Acosta, whose grave he had insulted.

No news of the Jewish congregation reached Spinoza, and now he was prostrated by sickness.

Thy free thought hath raised thee aloft into the infinite; above isolated appearance thou dost hover in the knowledge of universal laws, then suddenly thou art overthrown in an obscure chamber, dead to the world, the mind shattered, extinguished the streaming light from the law of the universe. No dagger stroke of the hand of man had reached Spinoza's heart, and yet he felt inexpressible pain in his breast, and blood flowed from his mouth.

Was it the result of so many agitating events following one after the other, and that infirmity which had already attacked him in early youth, and recurred on the occasion of his preaching in the synagogue?

Spinoza lay in sore sickness.

Now it was that Ludwig Meyer showed himself the faithful, helpful friend through day and night. And with his own gay humor he told his friend in quiet hours:

"Now you are what you ought to be; indeed, more. You are a banished Jew and a bachelor. A bachelor can return again to that innocence of Paradise before woman was created. He stands alone and free. My original sin—you may laugh away—you will help me by it. Is it not of deep significance that as soon as a second being speaks to Adam he is no longer alone? He no longer acts merely for himself. He must accommodate his actions to another's. Indeed, in the end he follows another's will. That is the fall; he did not act for himself, but for another. But the bachelor is like Adam in Paradise. You must remain the Adam of the mind."

Spinoza smiled at his friend, and explained that man is not really free in solitude, but only in society. Ludwig Meyer often stood as if in prayer beside the bed of the philosopher, who in painless moments looked upon his illness as a circumstance foreign to his real being. Only once he spoke of the trials he had gone through, and extended an idea he had expressed before:

"The heaviest burden that men can lay upon us is not that they persecute us with their own hatred, ingratitude and scorn; no, it is by planting hatred and scorn in our souls. That is what does not let us breathe freely nor see clearly. It is vanity and self-destruction to hate a man. We must only try to make the wrong action unavailing, and thus again obtain the love of God, in which the world is so peaceful and happy, and which fills us at all times with joy."

He rose ever higher towards that serene height of contemplation, so that he might say of himself:

"I have ever carefully striven with myself neither to despise, nor to blame, nor to detest human actions, but to understand them. And likewise the human sensations of love, hatred, envy, avarice and pity, and the other motive powers of the soul to regard them not as faults but as qualities of human nature, which belong to it as much as air, heat, cold, storm, thunder and the like are in the nature of the atmosphere, and which, if they are uncongenial, are yet necessary, and have their ascertained causes through which we try to apprehend their nature, and in whose contemplation the mind is as much entertained as in apprehending the things that are agreeable to the imagination."

Meyer could not abstain from plainly telling this investigator of truth his serious situation. For a short time, as if he already felt the sleep of death, Spinoza closed his eyes, while Meyer explained to him that his symptoms were unmistakably those of consumption, and only careful and regular supervision of his life could lengthen his years. Silence reigned for a time, and Meyer watched the unmoved countenance of his friend, who still kept his eyes closed. Then the sick man arose, his eyes shone brightly, no sound of pain, no complaint parted his lips. With the peace of perfected wisdom he decided on the rule of life which he would henceforward follow. And he stood erect while he declared that now, in reflection and self-knowledge alone should his life be ordered, in self-control should his existence be maintained, and in peace of mind it should be fulfilled.

He kept his word.

When full of years to contemplate death, to leave the world of sight and sensation, this is hard, and yet we may comfort ourselves in that we have run through our allotted space. But in the bloom of years, before the midday of life, to feel the seed of death within us, to fight it day by day, to watch each evidence of life, to miss the habitual quiet conviction that life will go on of itself, with careful forethought to keep the duty of existence at all times before our eyes, and thus to rejoice gayly and innocently in the sunny day, to work vigorously, aroused by no appeal from without, to find in his own thoughts the sacredness of life and its, joys—that man alone is capable of this to whom freedom and necessity, mortality and eternity, are one, who in wisdom has mounted the highest peak of existence. For wisdom is recognized harmony with nature's laws, the fulfilment of duty, which, in recognition of and obedience to these, becomes inclination.

Such wisdom was Spinoza's.

The world, with its thousand contradictions and inconsistencies in individual manifestations, was in his mind dissolved into harmony. He had thrown off all selfishness, all measurement of things in their influence on individuals; his own life and its trials were lost in the whole. And in enjoyment of the knowledge of divine truth he lived the life eternal.

"He was the free man who can dare to say:

"I forbear from evil, or strive to forbear from it, because it is in direct opposition to my special nature, and would divide me from the love and knowledge of God, which is the highest good."

In everlasting, unalterable harmony, as the legend says of the gods, and as nature around is unchangeable, lived Benedict Spinoza. What he had attained to by knowledge became to him blissful habit. And as he had once planned life in his thoughts, his thoughts now gave him life.