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( Originally Published Early 1900's )
Baruch, or Benedict, Spinoza was born at Amster-dam on November 24, 1632. As a child he was very weak and sickly, and it was for this reason, perhaps, that he felt more inclined to thought and study than most of the young boys with whom he was bred in school. His parents were deeply religious Jews, who had left their native Portugal to take up their residence in the city of Amsterdam, where his father was successful as a merchant. Noting that their sickly boy was given to thought and to books, they sent him to the best masters of their faith in Holland.
The reader will have observed 'that all the great philosophers we have thus far considered, with one or two exceptions, dissented from the teachings of their religious sects or of their philosophical schools, and the reason for this will be readily seen in that it was the very fact of such dissension, necessary as it was for any degree of originality, wherein their greatness as philosophers was constituted. Spinoza was no exception to the rule. He was a Jew. The Jews have not been distinguished for their philosophers, and we may say without any fear of controversy that Spinoza was the greatest of all Jews as a speculative thinker. Spinoza's system is easy to understand, and his writings are quite short, but it is not in his philosophy that we shall find most of the interest which clings to his great name as much as in the human romance of his life.
His father, living in the most commercial of commercial nations, early designed that the young Benedict should succeed him in trade, but the avidity with which the pale boy read books and sought for knowledge of a kind that had little to do with the business affairs of life, changed the paternal intention from one of making the son an accumulator of wealth to one of making him a Rabbi of the Jewish religion. To this end he was placed in the hands of Morteira, the chief Rabbi of the Synagogue, who undertook to instruct the brilliant and intellectual boy in the mysteries of the Talmud, in the law, and in the prophets. So readily did Spinoza master matters which had taken years for other men to under-stand that the chief Rabbi and the other teachers of the child were amazed at his precocity and quickness. It is said that at fourteen Spinoza had become so versed in biblical knowledge and history and in the comprehension of the profound theology of the Synagogue, that his masters declared that he had no more to learn. At this tender age the pupil excited the jealousy and hate of the doctors who had been his teachers. These passions were heightened by the fact that Spinoza, not satisfied with equaling the Rabbis in their knowledge of the Scriptures, was prone to thrust the superiority of his intellect before them by asking them questions which they could not answer. He was particularly pressing upon them in the matter of the immortality of the soul. He asked them why it was that there was no mention of this mat-ter in the Old Testament. They had given him the Old Testament as the religious staple. He could find nothing in that book from which he could, either directly or indirectly, draw any conclusion but the one involved in the doctrine of the Sadducees, i. e., that when man's body was dead man no longer existed.
Besides this, Spinoza's questions to his masters disclosed a tendency toward opinions which were anything but orthodox from the Jewish theological standpoint. Taking the Bible for his text, the embryo philosopher confronted his elders with objections, difficulties, and dilemmas which they found it impossible for their wit or their sophistries to explain away. From these disputations young Benedict always emerged with the laurel of victory upon his pale brow. The Rabbis found that they had placed an intellectual weapon in the hands of their pupil with which he turned upon them and slew them. It was evident that something must be done to bring this young heretic to his reason or to his senses. When honeyed words, exhortations, appeals to his pride in the antiquity of his race and its ancient faith, and high-sounding hopes for the future of his sacerdotal career failed to make the least impression on his mind, but seemed only to spur his intellect to greater activity and more searching analysis, the learned doctors decided to try what could be done by fright and force. They threatened him with excommunication. They told him they would expel him from the Synagogue; cast him out from the congregation of the faithful. We can imagine the delicate boy confronting the fierce visages and the excited and angry gestures of his superiors with calm, unmoved face, unwavering eye, and intolerable scorn. By their cajoleries and flatteries he was as unmoved as a statue of marble. To their threats and imprecations his only answer was a placid smile.
What could be done with such an impious and unreasonable, even stubborn, subject as this? Remember that we are now dealing with the Synagogue of Amster-dam and not with the holy inquisition. Spinoza was a Jew. His heresies were to be dealt with by the Jews themselves; and the Jews themselves were by no means pleasing to the courts and powers in whose charge was the religious integrity of Europe. It was decided when all other means failed that Spinoza should be punished by excommunication. The chief Rabbi himself, finding that his persuasions had no more effect upon the young rebel than had those of the sub-doctors, told Spinoza to prepare himself for the awful ceremony that accompanied the casting out of the unfaithful one from the congregation. So coolly did Spinoza hear the terrible words which Morteira thundered above his head that the Rabbi left him in a rage.
But the boy philosopher was before with his persecutors. He withdrew from the Synagogue of his own accord and took up his residence with Dr. Francis Van den Ende, a learned Dutchman who maintained a high-class school in Amsterdam for the education of the sons of the wealthy Dutch. Before the terrible day of excommunication arrived the chief Rabbi sent emissaries to young Spinoza and made him an offer of an annual income consisting of a very large sum of money on condition that he would return to his people and become a Rabbi. This offer was rejected with such emphasis as only served to further embitter the hate that already swelled in the hearts of his enemies. The Synagogue had no power to burn the heretic at the stake, and the mere matter of excommunication, black as was the ceremonial, was in nowise calculated to satisfy the offense to the doctors, which was none less than mortal. One evening when Spinoza was returning to the house of his friend he was fallen upon by an assassin (no hired one, we may fancy), but he saw the glitter of the knife as it was descending toward his heart in time to grapple with his murderous assailant and thus escaped. The knife rent his coat, but did not otherwise harm him. In a few days the doctors assembled for the awful rite of the excommunication. With fierce curses, shrill anathemas, solemn opening and shutting of books, lighting and extinguishment of black wax candles, waving of hands, bowing of heads, loud trumpetings, dolorous chantations, and terrible amens, the lost one was forever cut off from the God of his fathers and the congregation of his people. Spinoza was now free.
The young Jew, who had been warmly welcomed by Dr. Van den Ende, now gave himself up to the study of Latin a study he pursued under the direction of his new master's daughter, a cultured Dutch girl. She was not a handsome woman, but that the pupil should have fallen in love with his teacher is not hard to imagine. He made rapid progress under her tuition, and repaid Dr. Van den Ende for his board and lodging by teaching in the doctor's academy. Although not informed in the classics, Spinoza was fluent in German, Hebrew, and Spanish, and as these were no mean graces, he amply repaid his patron and friend for the harbor that was found under his roof. His life while at the house of the Dutch educator was of unalloyed joy, broken only by another attempt of his enemies to kill him. If he had not to suffer from the persecutions of the Church it will thus be seen that he was not altogether exempt from the penalty which is paid by original minds at all times.
The romance of Spinoza's life had been complete had his love affair prospered, but his fair tutor was not to be blamed if she did not return his affection. It must be remembered that he was quite young and was not physically strong. Then, too, he had a powerful rival in a rich young German merchant. His teacher and sweet-heart married this man and her pupil determined to give himself up to philosophy, and to no longer hope to be as other men. He left the Van den Ende house determined to earn his own living, and to be independent of friends and patrons. He sought and found occupation as a grinder of glass lenses a trade at which his slight physical strength enabled him to work. His pay was small, but it was sufficient for his simple wants, and gave him the means to study philosophy.
In 1661 the enmity he had aroused among the Jews by his apostasy once more manifested itself in an alarming manner, and Spinoza left Amsterdam and removed to the village of Rhynsburg. There, for four years, he worked at his trade and read the philosophers, especially Giordano Bruno and Descartes. From these two men he derived his system, which is not, however, copied from either. As the system developed in his mind he disclosed it to a few prudent friends, who were struck with its beauty and its depth, and his fame began to spread. In 1664 Jan de Witt, the statesman, invited him to The Hague and gave him a small pension which enabled him to pursue his work and his studies with more assiduity. For a time he lived in a hotel kept by a widow in Voorburg, but soon took up his residence with the painter Van Spyck, with whom and whose wife he spent the remaining years of his life. He had already written his abridgement of the Meditations of Descartes with an appendix in which is found the germ of his own system. This book had made a fine impression, and its author was tendered the chair of philosophy at Heidelberg by Karl Ludwig. Had he accepted this generous offer he might have been at ease for the remainder of his days, but he was a most conscientious man, and plainly informed the university that he could not consistently teach there without permitting his views to clash with established opinions. He therefore declined the offer and continued to work alone. King Louis XIV offered him a liberal pension if he would dedicate his next work to that monarch. This offer the philosopher likewise declined on the ground that he had no intention or desire of seeking the favor of Kings.
These refusals of Spinoza to permit himself to be influenced in any manner by the patronage of royal personages were due more to principle than to the outward reasons he gave for them. He was never able to forget the treatment he had received as a boy in the Synagogue, and it was not his intention to place himself in the power of anyone thereafter. He held that government should not establish schools or interfere in any way with education or educators. He said that the only atmosphere in which genius and the sciences could flourish was one in which individuals should be perfectly free to think and to teach just what they thought right, and to take all the risks and perils upon themselves. He did not accept professorships or emoluments from the hands of the powerful. He rather labored with his own hands for his bread, and he also had the sweet consolation of knowing that no thought of dependence re-strained him from writing and teaching those things which he honestly believed to be the truth.
On February 21, 1677, Spinoza died at the house of his friend Van Spyck. He was forty-five years old, and was a victim of consumption, from which he had suffered from his childhood. After his death was found a ledger in which he kept his accounts. Herein were entries of three and four cents for expenses of the simplest character. In view of what he had suffered as a boy, of the persecutions that had followed his youth and his young manhood, and of the great work he had wrought out during those years of labor in the factory and in the study, that little ledger is the most pathetic document the imagination can well picture.
Of his personal disposition nothing has been said but good. He was as gentle as a woman, kind, tender, sympathetic, loving, holding in his weak body a courage that was undaunted even before the threats of a mob. He had no love of money whatever, and did not value it even for what it could buy for him, much as he felt the need of leisure and books for the working out of his beloved system. The one object which was ever before him was the finding out of truth, whatever it might be, and he was convinced that that inquiry could only be deterred by the acceptance of favors from persons with whose peculiar notions and beliefs his own discoveries or conclusions might not agree. It is possible that Spinoza erred in this. It is possible that heresies would be tolerated from him where they would plunge others into disaster. He was a Jew. He had been cast out and cursed by his people; and even though Christian doctors might not at all agree with his teachings they would hardly do more than amicably controvert them. This disposition was seen in the offer from Heidelberg. But Spinoza's mind was warped in this direction, and with good cause. One excommunication and several at-tempts at assassination were enough for him. Hence-forth he would be free to think as he pleased, and be accountable to no power higher than his own conscience.
It is amazing how few of the continental philosophers have escaped the odium theologicum. Almost all were accused of atheism. No one now charges Locke and Hobbes and Berkeley with atheism, and the worst that is now said of Spinoza is that he was a pantheist. But perhaps of all the philosophers not even excepting Bruno the Jew of Amsterdam has been most venomously abused for atheism, because, it may be, he deserved it least of all. In all the wide range of letters there is no more deeply religious writer than Spinoza. Religion with him he was Semite rose to a passion. He could see God in all things. He could conceive of no existence apart from God. If to say that God is All and that All is God be atheism, that word has come, then, to be an empty sound. It has been contended by some eminent Christian writers that Spinoza was not an atheist even in being what is vulgarly called a pantheist.
All that is, teaches Spinoza, exists only in and through itself. Substance is eternal; it exists from the sole necessity of its very nature, and acts from itself alone. It is infinite, unconditioned, one, and indivisible. By its attributes it becomes known. It is God. God is identical with Nature, and Nature is to God as is effect to cause, but Nature does not follow after God, for cause and effect 'coexist. Nature is identical with God be-cause Nature and all things are only modes or modifications of God.
"By substance," he says in his definitions, "I under-stand that which exists in itself, and is conceived per se; that is, the conception of which does not require the conception of anything else antecedent to it.
"By modes I understand the accidents (properties) of substance, or that which is in something else through which also it is conceived.
"By God I understand the Being absolutely infinite; that is, the substance' consisting of infinite attributes each of which expresses an infinite and eternal essence."
"By eternity I understand existence itself in as far as it is conceived necessarily to follow from the sole definition of an eternal thing."
Spinoza adopts the mathematical method of reasoning. After his "definitions" come "axioms" and then "propositions" which he proceeds to "demonstrate." Thus he constructs a "system" the machinery of which is totally useless for the purpose he seeks; for Spinoza seeks the same purpose as do all philosophers, namely, the demonstration of that which, in its very nature, can never be demonstrated. His philosophy, notwithstanding the formidable terms he uses, and in spite of the mathematical rigor he tries to throw around it, is, after all, only an emotional religion. He is at heart a poet, and his philosophy is the philosophy of Shelley, Words-worth, and Byron. Pope, in his Essay on Man, defines this poetic philosophy in the oft quoted lines concerning Nature as "body" and God as "soul," and numerous other poets have spontaneously uttered the same thought. Written into a poem, Spinoza's philosophy would find its most facile expression; and its practical value, if of practical value it can be said to possess any whatever, would be thereby immeasurably enhanced.