Saturday, September 16, 2017

ET: Almanac

But Baruch Spinoza, perhaps the most remarkable thinker who ever lived, went much further still. In a history of philosophy he would have to be dealt with after Descartes, on whom he builds; but in the present connexion it is not the system but the world-outlook that matters, and even this only in so far as it has been effective as the formative principle of representative personalities or the great currents of an age: it does not, therefore, seem essential here to adopt a lecture-room arrangement conforming to the conceptual development.. In his private life Spinoza was neither a saint, as the sentimental eighteenth century asserted, nor a reprobate, as the fanatical seventeenth saw him. He neither put up a fight against the persecutions to which he was exposed, nor endured them like a martyr: he simply evaded them in a cool and collected fashion. His father was a Portuguese Jew who, while quite young, had fled the inquisition to Amsterdam, where numerous fellow-believers had found asylum. But hardly had the Jewish communities found their liberty in the "New Jerusalem," as they called it, before they began to develop with renewed energy that detestable intolerance which has always been characteristic of their religion, and which unhappily the Christian Church inherited in some degree. The spirit of Caiaphas, which determined the whole history of the people of Israel as long as they had national independence, frequently lost its potency in later times owing to external conditions, but it always came to life again when Jews attained to power. And so it was on this occasion. The case of Uriel de Costa, who, for his free religious views, was sent to his death by the venemous persecution of the Amsterdam Synagogue, is a tragic instance. Spinoza was then eight years old. Half a generation later he was engaged in a similar conflict himself. His philosophical interests and activities became known and attempts were made, first to convert him, then to bring him back to orthodoxy by threats. When both methods failed, bribery was tried: he was offered a salary of a thousand gulden if he would remain true to Judaism. Since he was not to be moved even by this, a member of the community felt that murder was indicated. But the attack failed. And now there was no course left to the Synagogue but to excommunicate him. Before the assembled congregation thesolemn ban was pronounced, the concluding words being: "Curse him by day and curse him by night! Curse him sleeping and curse him waking! Curse his comings-in and curse his goings out! May the Lord never forgive him! He will burn with hardness and wrath against this man who is laden with all the curses that are written in the Book of the Law. He will blot out his name from under the heavens!" Thus did Jewry treat a man whose whole offence was that he led a more serious, peace-loving, and unworldly life than his fellow-Jews. But, as it had always been a good old Jewish tradition to stone the prophets, there is nothing extraordinary in this, particularly as Spinoza does not seem to us one of the greatest among the sons of Israel who suffered this fate; for we can only regard him as a curiosity--though a monumental and unique one.

Spinoza himself, through all the screaming of the Rabbis, never lost his calm. Thenceforward he lived in complete retirement, buried in his studies, entirely disinterested and without pretence, and avoiding all contact with worldly pleasures and honours, diversions and disturbances.

Egon Friedell: A Cultural History of the Modern Age

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