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SPINOZA: 1677 AND 1877.
ADDRESS DELIVERED AT THE UNVEILING OF THE MONUMENT AT THE HAGUE
ON 21ST FEBRUARY.
this same hour, there lay dying at the age of forty-three, on the quiet quay of the Pavilioengragt a few paces hence, a poor man, whose life had been so profoundly silent that his last sigh was scarcely heard. He had occupied a retired room in the house of a worthy pair, who, without understanding him, felt for him an instinctive veneration. On the morning of his last day he had gone down as usual to join his hosts; there had been religious services that morning; the gentle philosopher conversed with the good folk about what the minister had said, much approved it, and advised them to conform themselves thereto. The host and hostess (let us name them, their honest sincerity entitles them to a place in this beautiful Idyl of the Hague related by Colerus), the Van der Spycks, husband and wife, went back to their devotions. On their return home, their peaceful lodger was dead. The funeral on the 25th of February was conducted like that of a Christian believer in the new church on the Spuy. All the inhabitants of the district greatly regretted the disappearance of the sage who had lived amongst them as one of themselves. His hosts preserved his memory like a religion, and none who had approached him ever spoke of him without calling him, according to custom, “the blessed Spinoza."
About the same time, however, any one able to track the current of opinion setting in among the professedly enlightened circles of the Pharisaism of that day, would have seen, in singular contrast, the much-loved philosopher of the simple and single-hearted become the bugbear of the narrow orthodoxy which pretended to a monopoly of the truth. A wretch, a pestilence, an imp of
hell, the most wicked atheist that ever lived, a man steeped in crime — this was what the solitary of the Pavilioengragt grew to be in the opinion of right-thinking theologians and philosophers !
Portraits were spread abroad exhibiting bim as “ bearing on his face the signs of reprobation.” A distinguished philosopher, bold as he, but less consistent and less completely sincere, called him “a wretch.” But justice was to have her day. The human mind, attaining, in Germany especially, towards the end of the eighteenth century to a more enlightened theology and a wider philosophy, recognized in Spinoza the precursor of a new gospel. Jacobi took the public into his confidence as to a conversation he had held with Lessing. He had gone to Lessing in hopes of enlisting his aid against Spinoza. What was his astonishment on finding in Lessing an avowed Spinozist! "Ev kaì râv, said Lessing to nim—this is the whole of philosophy. Him whom a whole century had declared an atheist, Novalis pronounced a “God-intoxicated man.” His forgotten works were published, and eagerly sought after. Schleiermacher, Goethe, Hegel, Schelling, all with one voice proclaim Spinoza the father of modern thought. Perhaps there may have been some exaggeration in this first outburst of tardy reparation; but time, which sets everything in its place, has substantially ratified Lessing's judgment, and in the present day there is no enlightened mind that does not acknowledge Spinoza as the man who possessed the highest God-consciousness of his day. It is this conviction that has made you decree that his pure and lowly tomb should have its anniversary. It is the common assertion of a free faith in the Infinite, that on this day gathers together, in the spot that witnessed so much virtue, the most select assembly that a man of genius could group round him after his death. A sovereign, as distinguished by intellectual as by moral gifts, is among us in spirit. A prince who can justly appreciate merit of every kind, by distinguishing this solemnity with his presence, desires to testify that of the glories of Holland not one is alien to him, and that no lofty thinking escapes his enlightened judgment, and his philosophic admiration.
The illustrious Baruch de Spinoza was born at Amsterdam at the time when your Republic was attaining its highest degree of glory and power. He belonged to that great race, which by the influence it has exerted and the services it has rendered, occupies so exceptional a place in the history of civilization. Miraculous in its own way, the development of the Jewish people ranks side by side with that other miracle, the development of the Greek mind;
for if Greece, from the first, realized the ideal of poetry, of science, of philosophy, of art, of profane life, if I may so speak, the Jewish people has made the religion of humanity. Its prophets inaugurated in the world the idea of righteousness, the revindication of the rights of the weak--a revindication so much the more violent that, all idea of future recompense being unknown to them, they dreamed of the realization of the ideal upon this earth and at no distant period. It was a Jew, Isaiah, who, seven hundred and fifty years before Jesus Christ, dared affirm that sacrifices are of little importance, and that one thing only is needful, purity of heart and hands. Then, when earthly events seemed irremediably to contradict such bright Utopias, Israel can change front in a way unparalleled.
Transporting into the domain of pure idealism that kingdom of God with which earth proves incompatible, one moiety of its children founds Christianity, the other carries on, through the tortures of the middle ages, that imperturbable protest : “ Hear, O Israel, the Lord thy God is one; holy is his name.” This potent tradition of idealism and hope against all hope--this religion, able to obtain from its adherents the most heroic sacrifices, though it be not of its essence to promise them any certainty beyond this life—this was the healthy and bracing medium in which Spinoza developed himself. His education was at first entirely Hebraic; the great literature of Israel was his earliest, and, in point of fact, his perpetual instructress—was the meditation of all his life.
As generally happens, Hebrew literature, in assuming the character of a sacred book, had become the subject of a conventional exegesis, much less intent upon explaining the old texts according to the meaning in their authors' minds than on finding in them aliment for the moral and religious wants of the day. The penetrating mind of the young Spinoza soon discerned all the defects of the exegesis of the Synagogue; the Bible, as taught him, was disfigured by the accumulated perversions of more than two thousand years. He determined to pierce beyond these. He was, indeed, essentially at one with the true fathers of Judaism, and especially with that great Maimonides who found a way of introducing into Judaism the most daring speculations of philosophy. He foresaw with wondrous sagacity the great results of the critical exegesis destined a hundred and twenty-five years later to afford the true meaning of the noblest productions of Hebrew genius. Was this to destroy the Bible ? Has that admirable literature lost by being understood in its real aspect rather than relegated outside of the common laws of humanity ? Certainly not. The truths revealed by science invariably surpass the dreams that science dispels. The world of Laplace exceeds in beauty I imagine, that of a Cosmas Indicopleustes, who pictured the universe to himself as a casket on the lid of which the stars glide along in grooves at a few leagues from us. In the same way the Bible is more beautiful when we have learnt to see therein-ranged in order on a canvas of a thousand years—each aspiration, each sigh, each prayer of the most exalted religious consciousness that ever existed, than when we force ourselves to view it as a book unlike any other, composed, preserved, interpreted in direct opposition to all the ordinary rules of the human intellect.
But the persecutions of the middle ages had produced on Judaism the usual effect of all persecution; they had rendered minds narrow and timid. A few years previously, at Amsterdam, the unfortunate Uriel Acosta had cruelly expiated certain doubts that fanaticism finds as culpable as avowed incredulity. The boldness of the young Spinoza was still worse received; he was anathematized, and had to submit to an excommunication that he had not courted. A very old history this! Religious communions, beneficent cradles of so much earnestness and so much virtue, do not allow of any refusal to be shut up exclusively within their embrace; they claim to imprison for ever the life that had its beginnings within them; they brand as apostasy the lawful emancipation of the mind that seeks to take its flight alone. It is as though the egg should reproach, as ungrateful, the bird that had escaped therefrom: the egg was necessary in its time,—when it became a bondage it had to be broken. A great marvel truly that Erasmus of Rotterdam should feel himself cramped in his cell, that Luther should not prefer his monkish vows to that far holier vow which man by the very fact of his being contracts with truth. Had Erasmus persisted in his monastic routine, or Luther gone on distributing indulgences, they would have been apostates indeed. Spinoza was the greatest of modern Jews, and Judaism exiled him: nothing more simple; it must have been so, it must be so ever. Finite symbols, prisons of the infinite spirit, will eternally protest against the effort of Idealism to enlarge them. The spirit on its side struggles eternally for more air and more light. Eighteen hundred and fifty years ago the Synagogue denounced as a seducer the one who was to raise the maxims of the Synagogue to unequalled glory. And the Christian Church, how often has she not driven from her breast those who should have been her chiefest honour! In cases like these our duty is fulfilled if we retain a pious memory of the education our childhood received. Let the old Churches be free to brand with criminality those who quit them; they shall not succeed in obtaining from us any but grateful feelings, since, after all, the harm they are able to do us is as nothing compared to the good they have done.
Here then we have the excommunicated of the synagogue of Amsterdam forced to create for himself a spiritual abode outside of the home which rejected him. He had great sympathy with Christianity, but he dreaded all chains,—he did not embrace it. Descartes had just renewed philosophy by his firm and sober rationalism. Descartes was his master; Spinoza took up the problems where they had been left by that great mind, but saw that through fear of the Sorbonne his theology had always remained somewhat arid. Oldenburg asking him one day what fault he could find with the philosophy of Descartes and of Bacon, Spinoza replied that their chief fault lay in not sufficiently occupying themselves with the First Cause. Perhaps his reminiscences of Jewish theology, that ancient wisdom of the Hebrews before which he often bows, suggested to him higher views, and more sublime aspirations in this matter. Not only the ideas held by the vulgar, but those even of thinkers on Divinity, appeared to him inadequate. He saw plainly that there is no assigning a limited part to the Infinite, that Divinity is all, or is nothing; that if the Divine be a reality it must pervade all. For twenty years he meditated on these problems without for a moment averting his thoughts. Our distaste nowadays for system and abstract formula no longer permits us to accept absolutely the propositions within which he had thought to confine the secrets of the Infinite. For Spinoza, as for Descartes, the universe was only extension and thought; chemistry and physiology were lacking to that great school, which was too exclusively geometrical and mechanical. A stranger to the idea of life, and those notions as to the constitution of bodies that chemistry was destined to reveal—too much attached still to the scholastic expressions of substance and attribute-Spinoza did not attain to that living and fertile Infinite shown us by the science of nature and of history as presiding in space unbounded, over a development more and more intense; but, making allowance for a certain dryness in expression, what grandeur there is in that inflexible geometrical deduction leading up to the supreme proposition : “It is of the nature of the Substance to develop itself necessarily by an infinity of infinite attributes infinitely modified!" God is thus absolute thought, universal consciousness. The ideal exists, nay, it is the true existence; all else is mere appearance and frivolity. Bodies and souls are mere modes of which God is the substance; it is only the modes that fall within duration, the substance is all in eternity. Thus, God does not prove himself, his existence results from his sole idea ; everything supposes and contains him. God is the condition of all existence, all thought. If God did not