Page:Littell's Living Age - Volume 133.djvu/137

This page has been proofread, but needs to be validated.
From The Contemporary Review.



The 21st of February, 1877, has been consecrated to the celebration of the bicentenary anniversary of the death of a very great man; of a man so great indeed, that humanity had to move a distance of considerably more than a century before reaching the perspective point from which his greatness could be measured. To all but an insignificant few of his contemporaries, Spinoza was either unknown, or, if known, was an object of aversion and of superstitious dread: the nineteenth century raises a statue to him. If the monument destined to be so tardily erected at the Hague had been unveiled just thirty years ago, it would have been impossible to detect, in the mind of any person capable of judging, the faintest whisper of a doubt that the tribute was justly paid, not alone to lofty genius and splendid zeal for truth and liberty, but to unblemished nobleness and purity of private life as well. To-day, such singleness of belief is less easy. Of late years, historical research has brought to light new facts and new traditions concerning Spinoza's life; and it has become necessary, in order to a solid appreciation of his character, to re-examine the history of his life.

Baruch de Spinoza was born at Amsterdam on the 24th November, 1632. Of the social rank into which he was born, it must be said, that the knowledge we possess is neither precise nor certain. His principal biographer, Colerus, tells us that the representation which gives him out as being born of poor parents and of low extraction is untrue; and that his parents, Portuguese Jews, merchants at Amsterdam, were respectable people and well-to-do ("honnêtes gens et à leur aise"), living in a good house ("dans une assez belle maison"), on the Burgwal. A later account[1] expressly contradicts the last detail, and states that the philosopher was born in a house on the Houtgracht. According to another contemporary biographer, Lucas, it was because his father did not possess the means of launching him in a commercial career that he resolved to have him taught the Hebrew humanities. Such is the dearth, not only of facts, but of hearsay and even of imagination, concerning his early childhood, that we are almost grateful to Lucas for the following anecdote. He relates that Spinoza's father,

being a man of common sense, used to teach him not to confound superstition with solid piety; and being desirous to put his son to the proof, charged him, when he was yet but ten years old, to receive for him certain moneys due to the father from an old woman of Amsterdam. When he had come into her house, where he found her reading the Bible, the old woman motioned him to wait until she had finished her devotions. Which being done, the child told her of his errand, and the good old woman, having counted out the money on the table for him, said, "Here is what I owe your father. May you be one day as pious a man as he is; he has never gone astray from the law of Moses; and heaven will bless you only so far as you shall resemble him." And as she finished speaking she took up the money to place it in the child's purse; but he, discerning in this woman the marks of that false piety against which his father had warned him, omitted not to count it after her, in spite of her resistance, and finding that there were wanting two ducats that the pious old woman had let fall into a drawer through a slit made to that end in the table, he was confirmed in his suspicion.

So far, if there is nothing very interesting in the story, neither is there anything very improbable in it. Unfortunately Lucas, who throughout his biography is too little mindful of the maxim, "Qui dit trop ne dit rien" [Who says too much does not say anything], goes on to say that,

puffed up with the success of this adventure, and with the applause of his father, he set himself to observe this sort of people more closely than before; passing upon them judgment of so fine a sarcasm that all persons were astonished.

A kind of conduct that would stand in incredible contradiction with all that we know of Spinoza's social habits and modes of thought.

It may be taken as fairly certain that Spinoza had the advantage of a by no means despicable education. He was

  1. See Van Vloten, Ad Benedicti de Spinoza opera quæ supersunt omnia Supplementum, p. 289.