Spinoza: A novel/Chapter 9

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A NEW reflection that now occurred to Baruch did not, however, alter his ordinary way of life. We bid adieu to many things, and the separation is hard, for in their absence the knowledge of how dear and true they were receives renewed force.

On the last day of Atonement Baruch had prayed with a contrite spirit, "Lord God! let me die rather than be a sinner, or one of the godless!" He yet lived, but had lost his truest friend, who had stood by him in need.

Three times a day in the synagogue and elsewhere, when he drank a glass of water or ate an apple or piece of bread, when he began or ended his studies, on every occasion of enjoyment, on every event of life, he had repeated the appointed prayers; and at night, as he lay alone in bed, he repeated the alphabetical list of sins, and at each word struck himself remorsefully on the breast; then slept peacefully and pleasantly till morning.

Now, however, in the stillness of the night, doubt approached him with soft footfalls, and whispered in his ear, "Why do you strike your breast for things that trouble you not? Have you ever robbed, stolen, wilfully sinned, given false counsel to any one, as it is here laid down in this cauldron of Hell?" He replied, "This prayer is not for me alone; I pray for the whole of Israel, for all mankind, indeed, that their sins may be forgiven them."

"What other will be benefited by thy word who has transgressed by deed?" was the reply. He broke off in the midst of the prayer and slept quietly.

"If thou prayest, doubt not," said wise Jesus Sirach; but how can a man command his doubts? And when Baruch stood in the synagogue, and the morning prayer lay before him, the tempter came to him and said, "Art thou here again at the sound of the bell? How canst thou take in thy mouth the words of David and other men spoken in their great need? Should thine own religious feelings be first awakened by the mighty words of strangers?" He resolved henceforth to pray only in forms chosen by himself, and at the times in which he felt so inclined. This did not happen for a long time, and when it did he felt that, from long disuse, he had fallen far from his Creator; he did not find him as readily as formerly. Of what use are words? he then said to himself; thought must suffice. If God is omniscient ... if he is. Alas! he no longer knew how to pray.

He felt this yet more distressingly as he sat side the sick bed of his moaning father; deep sighs rose from his laden breast; tears burnt in his eyes; he could no longer weep.

"Compose yourself, my son," said his father; "trust in the Almighty; he will help thee." He knew not what a two-edged dagger these words seemed to the heart of his son. No longer capable of thought, he sat cold and mute. The surgeon politician, Flyns, in the next chamber whistled the air of "Wilhelm von Nassawe" and spread plasters; the father held his son's hand and groaned perpetually. The Orange partisan outside suddenly was silent; Miriam opened the door, and Salomon de Silva, accompanied by a stranger, entered the room; the surgeon followed them with plasters and a case of instruments.

"I cannot undertake it alone," began Silva, "so I have asked my respected colleague. Dr. Van den Ende, to perform the operation with me. Are you now strong enough, and are you ready?"

"I am," said the sick man; "my life is in God's hand." A slight smile hovered round the corners of the newly arrived physician's mouth. Baruch had been watching him attentively, and thought he read in this smile the certain intelligence of his father's death. He was mistaken. Van den Ende asked in Latin whether they might converse in that language in presence of the son. Silva answered in the affirmative, as Baruch knew but little Latin. The two physicians then conversed for a considerable time. Van den Ende had a strange mocking expression, and spoke eagerly. Long Flyns listened to the medical consultation with wide open eyes, and nodded to first one and then the other, as if he understood it all, while in fact he did not understand a word; and to Baruch's ears it was only a word here and there that was borne as if by the wind; nevertheless he gazed anxiously at the stranger physician. In the ways and appearance of this little man there lay such a rare serenity and peace of mind that Baruch, in the mood he was then in, was fascinated by him. His hands, which were covered nearly to the fingers with his crimped cuffs, were crossed on the gold head of his Spanish cane; he leaned comfortably over the cushioned back of his chair; his plump round figure seemed almost too extensive to be supported by feet so small and neat, ornamented as they were with buckles and ribbons; but attention was soon attracted again from them to his head; from out the curled folds of his peruke, which flowed to his shoulders, his round face looked good-naturedly at the world, and no one would have thought he had seen more than fifty winters, but for some wrinkles that nestled round his eyes when he smiled, and, like the dark red on his nose and its neighborhood, were evidences of a more advanced age. The deep-set grey eyes moved incessantly, but the outward quietude of the little man was a contrast to the violent gesticulations of Silva, who sometimes seized his colleague unconsciously by the cloak, sometimes tapped him on the arm, sometimes on the shoulder, to exact proper attention to his words. As Baruch watched the stranger he could have envied him the rapid stream of Latin converse that flowed from his lips if he had dared to think of his studies beside his father's sick bed.

The operation was successful beyond all expectation. Van den Ende visited the convalescent nearly every day, and conversed principally with Baruch; the restlessness and active mind of the youth did not long remain hidden from his penetrating sight. The grateful father willingly granted his request that he might instruct Baruch in classical learning.

Baruch accompanied the physician to his dwelling at the end of Warmoes Street, not far from St. Olave's Church, and the chapel built on the model of the Temple of Jerusalem. Baruch had once passed there with Chisdai. Chisdai spat at it three times; Baruch merely remarked that the builder had departed very much from the original, but that it could not be otherwise, for even those learned in the Talmud could not have a perfect idea of the outward and inward appearance of the Temple of Jerusalem, since the real original was in Heaven itself. Now, however, he troubled himself but little about the architecture of the Temple in heaven, or on earth, as he entered the house of the physician. Here he found himself in a wholly novel atmosphere. Joyous singing in a young girl's voice, accompanied by an organ, reached his ears even on the ground floor. The physician led his pupil into a large room, and left him alone for a while. Bright colored pictures looked down on him from all sides, wantonly attracting remark: here a Leda rising from her bath, an oil painting in fresh, alluring tints; there a Venus, as she arose in all her glorious perfection from the foam; near her a Semele on whom a cloud was sinking; on the opposite wall hung Flemish still-life, fruit and flowers, landscapes inimitable in truth of coloring. Little statuettes of white and tinted marble stood on the inlaid stands. Canaries in gilt cages repeated their well-studied songs, and between whiles interposed their powerful native wood-notes. Roses, tulips, carnations, lilies, and anemones bloomed round the windows in ornamental pots, and drew attention there. The physician returned, aud explained the beauties of the pictures to Baruch; some he took down, and dusted them with a sponge for a better view. Especially long he lingered over a picture of natural solitude by his contemporary, Jacob Ruysdael, and a rich landscape by his rival Nicolaus Berghem, then still alive. He then led Baruch into another room, that created even greater astonishment. The walls were hung with anatomical drawings, one above another; glass cases, in which butterflies and beetles were well arranged, hung between; stuffed birds sat on little twigs fixed into the book-cases. At one end of the room stood phials and retorts; in one corner lay a large heap of grey papers, from which emerged the stems and leaves of dried plants; there also stood a large skeleton in whose bony fingers was placed a gilt paper sceptre. Above the green-covered writing-table stood a marble bust, the acute Greek face crowned with a laurel wreath.

Baruch took note of his surroundings, in which, in spite of the superabundance, a certain order was visible. Life could be filled with other things than biblical rules, commentaries, and religious ceremonies; here was quite another world, thus he assured himself, and the physician did not disturb his thoughts, for he was seeking through his shelves for a book. At last he chose Cicero de Officiis, and required Baruch to construe it. The tutor shook his head often reflectively; not that Baruch knew no Latin; that could not be accurately said of him; it was that with his characteristic quickness of mind he burst the grammatical forms with a wonderful comprehension of the author whom he read. If but a few words were clear that gave an idea of the progress of the narrative, or indicated the aim of the train of thought, he would rapidly, and often correctly, connect the sense of the whole. More frequently, however, in following the train of the author's ideas, he would spring over them to his own much more widely extended combinations. Van den Ende saw that in this case a wholly different mode of instruction must be carried out; here was a well-grown tree that had seen the flowers and fruit of many seasons fall, and which must now be transplanted to another soil.

The progress that succeeded was not, however, as great as might have been expected, the lessons being nearly always interrupted by discussions on wholly different subjects. Baruch had gained confidence in his teacher, and told him once in a confidential tone how he had lost the power to pray. The physician laughed so heartily that he was obliged to hold his sides; but he perceived how seriously this annoyed his pupil.

"Excuse me!" he said. "I am not laughing at you; ha! ha! ha! We had, in the lunatic asylum at Milan, an excellent example of a theological-philosophical Narcissus. He covered his face with a cloth, and remained the whole day on his knees, praying, 'Holy St. Christopher stand by me, and forgive me my sins.' Ha! ha! ha! and if he were asked, 'Who and where is the holy St. Christopher?' he stood up, and lifted the cloth from his face, crying in a majestic tone, 'Do you not see the glory round my brow? Kneel down and pray. I am the holy Christopher.' Ha! ha! ha! If one only thinks about it awhile, there lay much method in his madness. What is the use of prayer? To influence God? Half a fool could see that it would be a contradiction if God allowed himself to be disturbed by us. The proverb says 'ora et labora;' it all comes to this, then, that it raises and tranquillizes our so-called souls, which are oppressed and perplexed by our sorrows and pains; if I could do it by an anecdote, or a chapter on logic and physic, it would be just as good; so don't trouble yourself because you have become independent; don't hang your head, but be merry and good-humored. I am so, and for more than twenty years have never thought of prayer. If one could only bring up the young without wasting the fairest time of life in useless fiddle-faddle!" So said the physician, and his little grey eyes twinkled. Baruch could not oppose his exposition, but from that time he was more reserved with him; he diligently studied the works on mathematics and natural science that he received from him, questioned him on any difficulty therein, but carefully avoided any reference to his own condition of mind. The physician, however, knew how to awaken confidence by his insinuating frankness.

"I was once as hampered by doubts as you," he once said to Baruch. "And I know what the effect of such bondage is; even now when I think I have freed myself I catch myself in that exclusiveness that proceeds from the fancied possession of the one true creed. I am not come like you from the Bible itself to the way of freedom. It was a peculiar and in itself weaker impulse that led me into it. I was sent as a pious Catholic to the University of Leyden. One Ascension Eve I had studied so long that my lamp burned out; as I lay quietly in bed the thought passed like lightning through my mind, 'Where is that illuminating power now? The fire has annihilated its fuel and flowed into the Universe. What if it should be so with our souls also?' My teacher had impressed on me the once wide-spread theory that life was a process of burning. It can be called so without explaining much thereby; what we call soul, thought, and sensation is nothing but a combination of matter that has its nourishment from matter, palpable or impalpable, and will again become such. One man digests with difficulty, another with ease, one with comfort, another with discomfort."

"In what then lies our superiority to the brutes?"

"Who told you that such must exist? But we are indeed superior, only in so far, however, that we are more richly gifted and composed of finer material, therefore the so-called immaterial essences of color, sound, and language act more powerfully on us. The brain of a man outweighs a fiftieth of his whole body, therefore he has more of what is called reason and intellect. In an ox, for example, the brain amounts to hardly an eight-hundredth part of its weight, therefore it is stupid; the elephant is ponderous but sagacious, because he has a proportionately large brain. Injure your brain and you become an idiot; why then do you talk of your future life and your eternal existence?"

"Our destiny then should be to make our life-work, or our existence, as you call it, as agreeable as possible."


"I did not think you were so selfish," replied Baruch.

"I am not selfish," retorted the physician, "I would joyfully give fortune and life for the good of the community, for the State, but not for religion and faith; I would not pull a hair from my wig for them. The surest and highest good of mankind lies in the well-being of the State, and to care for that is the destined work of man; in all else we but mount from one cloud to another."

"Your endeavors for the good of your fatherland and mankind were in the end then nothing more than to make it possible for this or that individual, or, if you prefer it, the community at large, to eat, drink, and take their pleasure with more ease and comfort; in your extension of this you obtain nothing higher, only something wider."

"I will talk with you openly," added the physician, coming nearer to his scholar with a rare earnestness in his manner "Each one must go through the crisis in which you are now. I too was enthusiastic at your age about the higher or spiritual needs of mankind, and thought they ought never to be dissevered from their strivings towards the good of the community. I was in that sense a zealous Catholic, but only in that sense. It was the time when

"Gomar and Arminius with rage and grief
Strove which ought to be the best belief."

I saw the Advocate mount the scaffold, because he defended himself from the old Jewish creed by which, through election, they would make Christians into a body-guard of God; there, leaning on his staff, the septuagenarian Oldenbarnaveldt stood on the scaffold.

"'O God!' he cried; 'what will become of mankind?' And all around stood the brainless crowd, heads beyond heads, and gloated over it, and shouted as that noblest head of all was severed from the body. There and then I learned to despise the multitude; there I gained the knowledge that before all things it is necessary to reject all influence from what the crowd calls religion. Superstition is a hollow tooth; it leaves you long in peace, but a harder morsel, or a colder whiff of air, and you are maddened by it. Try to draw it out, the patient strikes you in the face, you leave a splinter in and cannot extract it except with the danger of tearing the gum, or destroying a nerve. Whoever would really help says he would but look at it, then fixes the pincers in the jaws, then back! out with it; but it is better not to help him who has not the courage to let himself be helped."

"You make the endeavor after possession and increase of the ideal attainments of mankind an intellectual luxury."

"Yes, it has no practical aim; I don't grudge it to you Jews, if you like to erect a heavenly kingdom, since you have no earthly one. Why do you laugh? Am I not right?"

"The Talmud says that the best of the physicians go to hell; the professors of healing then had evidently the same ideas as you have now."

"What does your Talmud matter to me? Your Moses was a great statesman, but wise Solomon is the man for me; he understood life, that is why he says in Ecclesiastes, 'Then I commended mirth, because a man hath no better thing under the sun than to eat, and to drink, and to be merry.'"

"Then the brutes best fulfil their destiny, and the mollusks who consist of a stomach are the most perfect of creations."

"No; I grant you a brute can be merry, but man is superior in this, not that he walks upright, can read and write, and thereby know what happened before him and therefore may happen to him; no, but men alone can laugh. Democritus and Lucian were the two most sagacious men in Greece, the others have mostly thrashed empty straw. I am an old practitioner, believe me, no pleasure in the world is so permanent as laughter, and in the enjoyment of it men remain normally fresh and healthy."

"It is odd that you are again in agreement with the Talmud, for it says there, 'that laughter is the prerogative of mankind.'"

"Truly? Then there is some wisdom in that heavy book, but I go still further, and say, it is a prerogative of men above gods, for he whom nothing surprises cannot laugh."

"Let us remain among men," interrupted Baruch. "What in your view of things becomes of the poor who moisten their crusts with tears, the old, the sick, and the sorrowful, who find nothing to enjoy, and nothing to laugh at? Where are comfort and joy for them?"

"Such should believe and be merry in their godly faith."

"But if they come to a fuller knowledge, and all is overturned?"

"There is no fear of that, it will never happen; in all times there are but few clear-sighted ones; the rabble will always believe: it must be so, because they are wanting in cultivation and judgment; otherwise they would never be kept within bounds."

"These are they who count themselves free; even infidelity has its elect!" Such were Baruch's thoughts as he went away.

On yet another occasion the books lay open before them, and teacher and learner spoke of other things than what was written therein.

"Believe me," said the physician, and he blinked with his grey eyes, like one who has penetrated the deepest secrets; "believe me, I often looked behind the curtains; I know the matrimonial history of what men call matter and spirit, and have coupled with a religious blessing."

"Yet every one desires to be believed," answered the pupil. "But if I had wished it I should have remained among the Rabbis; perhaps I might have succeeded in building yet another story to that Tower of Babel, the Talmud, which at last may reach to Heaven; but I wish for knowledge, certainty."

"That you will only find in matter; of all other things I can prove to you as readily that they exist as that they do not exist."

"In the combination of my own unbroken succession of impressions, feelings, and thoughts I know myself to be a spiritual unit, independent of, and unconnected with, the body. Suicide, ever much it is to be deprecated, does it not prove an authority of the human mind over the body, which extends even to the annihilation thereof?"

"The arrogance of humanity!" answered the physician; "that is the original sin that adheres to us all. What you speak of may just as well be the result of physical causes, what men call instinct in animals without reason. For example, a marten or a rat which is caught by one foot in a trap will bite off that foot with its own teeth and run away. A yet more striking example: in my travels in lower Italy I often saw the peasants enjoy a cruel pleasure in throwing a scorpion into the centre of a pretty large circle of glowing cinders. The poor animal tried to fly, and shot from one side to the other, but was everywhere stopped by the glowing ring; it raised its head as if entreating the mercy of the bystanders, but all laughed and cheered, and no one offered it means of exit; then it shot into the circle in a rage, hunted by anxiety and despair, and tried to force the glowing cinders with its claws, but quickly retreated and writhed through its whole body. When it no longer saw means of escape, it crouched in the middle of the circle far away from the flames. Without motion it lay as if dead, but suddenly putting out the sting of its tail, it reared itself with all its might, stabbed itself through, and was dead. Tell me, did the scorpion feel its independent spiritual individuality?"

Baruch would have conceded this, and allowed spiritual powers to the whole of nature's created beings; but he felt that he could not lay his own reflections in the scale against so rich a treasure of experience, where continual novelties were displayed before his eyes which he could not judge of in a moment. An inner voice opposed the views thus offered to him, but he did not know on what to ground his opposition. He was silent. His teacher did not doubt that he had won a proselyte, and invited Baruch to come the following evening, when he would reveal the secrets of a doctrine that would extort his astonishment and wonder.

Baruch appeared at the appointed hour. Van den Ende led him into his study and bolted the door behind them, closed the window-shutters, and listened to hear that no one was near the room. Baruch almost laughed at the comically serious manner of the physician as he placed a lighted candle in the fingers of the skeleton.

"Do you know the legend of the prior of St. Dominic at Tiel?" inquired the physician, as he sought for something in a chest.

"No!" answered Baruch.

"Listen," continued his companion. "The pious prior was once visited by the devil while he was engaged in reading a holy book. The devil wanted to distract the pious man's attention from his occupation; he jumped on the table and played all manner of antics before him; but the prior obliged him to hold the candle for him until it was burned down, when he graciously let him go. Look at the Domine there, he shall light us while we read the devil's testament. Ah! there is the key. Look at that bony frame a little again; the whole scaffolding was once filled up with fat; that was a belly that licked up many a scrap from the table of Prince Maurice of Orange, those cheek and forehead bones had a carbuncle red covering; in those holes sat obsequious eyes, which often practised the human prerogative of looking heavenward; before those teeth was a pair of lips that railed much at the Remonstrance, and exercised abstinence in the sipping of costly Rhine wine. That was once the fat Domine who abused the noble Oldenbarnaveldt most, and led him on to the scaffold. He was predestined to be stolen by me for a body to cut up. I was in danger of death for the deed. It is a pretty history; I will tell it you another time. Holy Laurentius! here is another disciple who makes a pilgrimage to you to get wisdom from your white head. Rejoice, for the crowd shall soon be as the sands of the sea, or the stars in the firmament." At these words the physician crossed his arms on his breast, and bowed three times to the skeleton.

"Ha, ha, ha!" he interrupted himself, "it is too good. I am getting quite biblical, but I will not make any more nonsense for you." He then mounted on a stool, opened the upper part of the skull with a key, took a manuscript out, and said as he descended:

"As long as he was living he harbored nothing so clever there as I have given him in charge. Swear that you will not tell any one that you have seen this book in my care; my citizenship would be endangered."

"How shall I swear it ?" asked Baruch, while he resolved to learn nothing rather than take such another oath as the Cabbalist had imposed.

The physician misunderstood him.

"You are right," he said; "if you would swear you could not understand this. Look at this round, well-formed, legible writing; so fairly men write in the devil's offices. The book is inherited from a Dominican friar, who brought it from Augsburg; a German emperor, Frederick the Second of Hohenstaufen, was the author. The title you will easily understand, it is called De Tribus Impostoribus; there are only nine and twenty paragraphs of it. Sit there and I will read it to you in Dutch."

Baruch shuddered at the utter infidelity and cold-blooded dissection of all faith here presented to his mind's eye; and when he heard the twenty-first paragraph, where it says, "Quid enim Deus sit, in revelatione qualicunque obscurius longe est quam antea, it seemed as if his whole religious belief were being torn out with red hot tongs.

"Young friend, when you know a little more of life," said the physician as he rose, "you will see that the morality which is bartered in the market of life was not created out of ink-pots. Your Judaism and our Judaism are worth nothing now; your Judaism was a mummy long ago, and a puff of air will scatter it in dust; ours, to the beginning of the last century, was pure barbarism; it has imbibed a classic spirit and this spirit will explode it. Enter the bright halls of classic wisdom; you will there learn to enjoy, to jest, and to be silent."

"A horrible labyrinth!" said Baruch in his heart as he went away; "but I feel that a clue will be found."