Salomon Maimon.

Solomon Maimon : an autobiography online

. (page 14 of 21)
Online LibrarySalomon MaimonSolomon Maimon : an autobiography → online text (page 14 of 21)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

never seen Adelung's Grammar, did not allow myself to
be at all disconcerted on this account.! My pupil was

* These names are taken from Maimoniana, p. 1 08. — Trans.
t The method, in which, as before explained, I had learnt to

An Autohio^aphy. tl9

obliged to read Adelung bit by bit, while I not only ex-
pounded it, but added glosses of my own. In particular
I found a good deal to take exception to in Adelung's
philosophical explanation of the parts of speech ; and I
drew up an explanation of my own, which I communi-
cated to my intelligent pupil, by whom it is still

As a man altogether without experience I carried my
frankness at times a little too far, and brought upon my-
self many vexations in consequence. I was reading
Spinoza. His profound thought and his love of truth
pleased me uncommonly ; and as his system had already
been suggested to me by the Cabbalistic writings, I began
to reflect upon it anew, and became so convinced of its
truth, that all the efforts of Mendelssohn to change my
opinion were unavailing. I answered all the objections
brought against it by the Wolfians, brought objections
against their system myself, and showed, that, if the nom-
inal definitions of the Wolfian Ontology are converted
into real definitions, conclusions the very opposite of
theirs are the result. Moreover, I could not explain the
persistency of Mendelssohn and the Wolfians generally
in adhering to their system, except as a political dodge

read and to understand books without any preparatory studies, and
to which I had been driven in Poland by the want of books, grew
to such an expertness, that I felt certain beforehand of being able
to understand anything.

2 20 Solomon Mat7?ion :

and a piece of hypocrisy, by which they studiously en-
deavoured to descend to the mode of thinking common
in the popular mind ; and this conviction I expressed
openly and without reserve. My friends and well-wishers,
who for the most part had never themselves speculated
on philosophical subjects, but blindly adopted the results
of the systems prevailing at the time as if they were
established truths, did not understand me, and therefore
also were unable to follow me in my opinions.

Mendelssohn, whose usual course was to tack, did not
wish to oppose my love of inquiry, secretly even took
pleasure in it, and said, that at present indeed I was not
on the right road, but that the course of my thoughts
must not be checked, because, as Descartes rightly re-
>^^ marked, doubt is the beginning of thorough philosophical

An Autobiography.



Mendelssohn— A chapter devoted to the memory of a worthy friend.

Quis desiderio sit pu dor aui modus tarn cari capitis 1

The name of Mendelssohn is too well known to the
world, to make it necessary for me here to dwell long on
the portraiture of the great intellectual and moral qualities
of this celebrated man of our nation. I shall sketch
merely those prominent features of his portrait, which
have made the strongest impression upon me. He was
a good Talmudist, and a pupil of the celebrated Rabbi
Israel, or, as he is otherwise named after the title of a
Talmudic work which he wrote, Nezach Israel (the
strength of Israel), — a Polish rabbi who was denounced
for heresy by his countrymen. This rabbi had, besides
his great Talmudic capabilities and acquirements, a good
deal of scientific talent, especially in mathematics, with
which he had attained a thorough acquaintance, even in
Poland, from the few Hebrew writings on this science,
as may be seen in the above-mentioned work. In this
work there are introduced solutions of many important
mathematical problems, which are applied either to the

2 2 2 Solomon Maiinon :

explanation of some obscure passages in the Talmud, or
to the determination of a law. Rabbi Israel of course
was more interested in the extension of useful knowledge
among his countrymen than in the determination of a
law, which he used merely as a vehicle for the other.
He showed, for example, that it is not right for the Jews
in our part of the world to turn exactly to the East at
prayer ; for the Talmudic law requires them to turn to
Jerusalem, and, as our part of the world lies north-west
from Jerusalem, they ought to turn to the south-east.
He shows also how, by means of spherical trigonometry,
the required direction may be determined with the utmost
exactness in all parts of the world, and many other truths
of a similar kind. Along with the celebrated Chief
Rabbi Frankel, he contributed much to develop the great
abilities of Mendelssohn.

Mendelssohn possessed a thorough acquaintance with
mathematics ; and this science he valued, not only for its
self-evidence, but also as the best exercise in profound
reasoning. That he was a great philosopher, is well
enough known. He was not indeed an originator of new
systems ; he had however amended the old systems,
especially the Leibnitio-Wolfian, and had apphed it with
success to many subjects in philosophy.

It is hard to say whether Mendelssohn was endowed
with more acuteness or with depth of intellect. Both
faculties were found united in him in a very high degree.
His exactness in definition and classification, and his fine

An Autobiography. 223

distinctions, are evidences of the former talent, while his
profound philosophical treatises afford proofs of the latter.

In his character, as he himself confessed, he was by
nature a man of strong passions, but by long exercise in
Stoical morality he had learnt to keep them under
control. A young man, under the impression that
Mendelssohn had done him a wrong, came one day to
upbraid him, and indulged in one impertinence after
another. Mendelssohn stood leaning on a chair, never
turned his eye from his visitor, and listened to all his
impertinences with the utmost Stoical patience. After
the young man had vented all his passion, Mendelssohn
went to him and said, " Go ! You see that you fail to
reach your object here; you can't make me angry."
Still on such occasions Mendelssohn could not conceal
his sorrow at the weakness of human nature. Not infre-
quently I was myself overheated in my disputes with him,
and violated the respect due to such a man, — a fact on
which I still reflect with remorse.

Mendelssohn possessed deep knowledge of human
nature, — a knowledge which consists not so much in
seizing some unconnected features of a character, and
representing them in theatrical fashion, as in discovering
those essential features of a character, from which all the
others may be explained, and in some measure predicted.
He was able to describe accurately all the springs of
action and the entire moral wheelwork of a man, and
understood thoroughly the mechanism of the soul. This

2 24 Solomon Mai?non :

gave a character, not only to his intercourse and other
dealings with men, but also to his literary labours.

Mendelssohn understood the useful and agreeable art
of throwing himself into another person's mode of
thought. He could thus supply whatever was deficient,
and fill up the gaps in the thoughts of another. Jews
newly arrived from Poland, whose thoughts are for the
most part confused, and whose language is an unin-
telligible jargon, Mendelssohn could understand perfectly.
In his conversations with them he adopted their
expressions and forms of speech, sought to bring down
his mode of thinking to theirs, and thus to raise theirs to
his own.

He understood also the art of finding out the good
side of every man and of every event. Not infrequently,
therefore, he found entertainment in people whose
intercourse, owing to the eccentric use of their powers,
is by others avoided ; and only downright stupidity and
dullness were offensive to him, though they were so in
the highest degree. I was once an eye-witness of the
manner in which he entertained himself with a man ot
the most eccentric style of thinking and the most extra-
vagant behaviour. I lost all patience on the occasion,
and after the man was gone I asked Mendelssohn in
wonder, " How could you have anything to do with this
fellow ? " " We examine attentively," he said, " a
machine whose construction is unknown to us, and we
seek to make intelligible its mode of working. Should

An Autobiography, 225

not this man claim a like attention ? should wc not seek
in the same way to render intelligible his odd utterances,
since he certainly has his springs of action and his
wheel-work as well as any machine ? "

In discussion with a reasoner who held stubbornly to
a system once adopted Mendelssohn was stubborn him-
self, and took advantage of the slightest inaccuracy in
his opponent's way of thinking. On the other hand,
with a more accommodating thinker he was accommo-
dating also, and used commonly to close the discussion
with the words, "We must hold fast, not to mere words,
but to the things they signify."

Nothing was so offensive to him as an esprit de
bagatelle or affectation ; with anything of this sort he

could not conceal his displeasure. H once invited

a party, in which Mendelssohn was the principal guest,
and he entertained them the whole time with talk about
some hobby of his, which was not exactly of the choicest
kind. Mendelssohn showed his displeasure by never
deigning to give the slightest attention to the worthless

creature. Madam was a lady who affected an

excess of sensibility, and as is customary with such
characters, used to reproach herself in order to extort
praise from others. Mendelssohn sought to bring her to
reason by showing her impressively how exceptionable
her conduct was and how she ought to think seriously
about improvement.

In a disconnected conversation he took little part him-

2 2 6 Solomon Maimon :

self ; he acted rather as observer then, and took pleasure
in watching the conduct of the rest of the company. If,
on the other hand, the conversation was coherent, he
took the warmest interest in it himself, and, by a skilful
turn, he could, without interrupting the conversation,
give it a useful direction.

Mendelssohn could never take up his mind with trifles;
matters of the greatest moment kept him in restless
activity, such as the principles of Morals and of Natural
Theology, the immortality of the soul, etc. In all these
branches of inquiry, in which humanity is so deeply
interested, he has also, as I hold, done as much as can
be done on the principles of the Leibnitio-Wolfian philo-
sophy. Perfection was the compass which he had con-
stantly before his eyes, and which directed his course, in
all these investigations. His God is the Ideal of the
highest perfection, and the idea of the highest perfection
lies at the basis of his Ethics. The principle of his
i^sthetics is sensuous perfection.

My discussion with him on our first acquaintance
referred mainly to the following points. I was a faithful
adherent of Maimonides before I became acquainted
with modern philosophy ; and, as such, I insisted on the
negation * of all positive attributes to God, inasmuch as
these can be represented by us only as finite. Accord-

* Here there seems in the original an evident misprint of Vercini-
gung for Verncinimg. — Trans.

A /I Autobiography. 227

ingly I proposed the following dilemma : Either God is
Ttot the absolutely perfect being, in which case his attri-
butes may by us be not only conceived, but also knaivn,
that is, represented as realities belonging to an object ;
or He is the absolutely perfect being, and then the idea
of God is conceived by us, but its reality is merely
assumed as problematic. Mendelssohn, on the other
hand, insisted on the affirmation, with regard to God, of
all realities, — a position which goes very well with the
Leibnitio-Wolfian philosophy, because it requires, in order
to prove the reality of an idea, nothing more than that it
is thinkable, that is, fulfils the law of Non-Contradic-

My moral theory was then genuine Stoicism. It aimed
at the attainment of free will and the ascendency of
reason over the feelings and passions. It made the
highest destination of man to be the maintenance of his
differentia specifica, the knowledge of the truth ; and all
other impulses, common to us with the irrational animals,
were to be put in operation merely as means to this chief
end. The knowledge of the good was not distinguished
by me from the knowledge of the true ; for, following
Maimonides, I held the knowledge of the truth to be the
highest good of man. Mendelssohn, on the other hand,
maintained that the idea of perfection, which lies at the
basis of Ethics, is of much wider extent than the mere
knowledge of the truth. All natural impulses, capacities
and powers, as something good in themselves (not merely

2 28 Solomon Maivion :

as means to something good), were to be brought into
exercise as reahties. The highest perfection was the idea
of the maximum, or the greatest sum, of these realities.

The immortality of the soul, for me, following
Maimonides, consisted in the union with the Universal
Spirit of that part of the faculty of knowledge which has
been brought into exercise, in proportion to the degree
of that exercise ; and in accordance with this doctrine I
held those only to be partakers of this immortality, who
occupy themselves with the knowledge of eternal truths,
and in the degree in which they do so. The soul, there-
fore, must, with the attainment of this high immortality,
lose its individuality. That Mendelssohn, in accordance
with modern philosophy, thought differently on this sub-
ject, every one will readily believe.

His sentiments in reference to revealed or positive
religion I can give here, not as something made known
to me by himself, but merely in so far as I have been
able to infer them from his utterances on the subject in
his writings with the assistance of my own reflections.
For at that time, as an incipient freethinker, I explained
all revealed religion as in itself false, and its use, so far
as the writings of Mendelssohn had enabled me to
understand it, as merely temporary. Moreover, being a
man without experience, I thought it an easy matter to
convince others in opposition to their firmly rooted
habits and long-cherished prejudices, while I assumed
the usefulness of such a reformation to be undoubted.

An Autohio^aphy. 229

Mendelssohn therefore was unable to hold any convcrsa
tion with me on the subject, since he could not but fear
lest, as has happened, and happens still, in the case of
several others, I should pronounce his arguments in
reply to be mere pieces of sophistry, and should attribute
motives to him on that account. From his utterances,
however, in the preface to his Majiasseh ben Israel as well
as in his Jerusalem, it is clear that, though he did not
consider any revealed doctrines to be eternal truths, yet
he accepted revealed laws of religion as such, and that
he held the laws of the Jewish religion, as the funda-
mental laws of a theocratic constitution, to be immutable
as far as circumstances allow.

So far as I am concerned, I am led to assent entirely
to Mendelssohn's reasoning by my own reflections on the
fundamental laws of the religion of my fathers. The
fundamental laws of the Jewish religion are at the same
time the fundamental laws of the Jewish state. They
must therefore be obeyed by all who acknowledge them-
selves to be members of this state, and who wish to
enjoy the rights granted to them under condition of their
obedience. But, on the other hand, any man who
separates himself from this state, who desires to be
considered no longer a member of it, and to renounce
all his rights as such, whether he enters another state or
betakes himself to solitude, is also in his conscience no
longer bound to obey those laws. I assent moreover to
Mendelssohn's remark, that a Jew cannot, by simply

230 Solomon Maimon:

passing over to the Christian religion, free himself from
the laws of his own religion, because Jesus of Nazareth
observed these laws himself and commanded his
followers to observe them. But how, if a Jew wishes to
be no longer a member of this theocratic state, and goes
over to the heathen religion, or to the philosophical,
which is nothing more than pure natural religion ? How^,
if, merely as a member of a political state, he submits to
its laws, and demands from it his rights in return, with-
out making any declaration whatever about his religion,
since the state is reasonable enough not to require from
him a declaration with which it has nothing to do ? I
do not believe Mendelssohn would maintain that even in
this case a Jew is bound in conscience to observe the
laws of his fathers' religion merely because it is the
religion of his fathers. As far as is known, Mendelssohn
lived in accordance with the laws of his religion.
Presumably, therefore, he always regarded himself as still
a member of the theocratic state of his fathers, and
consequently acted up to his duty in this respect. But
any man who abandons this state is acting just as little
in violation of his duty.

On the other hand I consider it wrong in Jews, who
from family attachments and interests profess the Jewish
religion, to transgress its laws, where, according to their
own opinion, these do not stand in the way of those
motives. I cannot therefore understand the conduct of
Mendelssohn in reference to a Jew of Hamburg who

An Aittohio^aphy. jy

openly transgressed the laws of his religion, and who was
on that account excommunicated by the chief rabbi.
Mendelssohn wanted to cancel the excommunication on
the ground that the church has no rights in civil matters.
But how can he then maintain the perpetuity of the
Jewish ecclesiastical state ? P'or what is a state without
rights, and wherein consists, according to Mendelssohn,
the rights of this ecclesiastical state ? " How," says
Mendelssohn, (in the preface to Matiasseh ben Israel, p.
48), " can a state allow one of its useful and respected
citizens to suffer misfortune through its laws ? " Surely
not, I reply ; but the Hamburg Jew suffers no mis-
fortune by virtue of the excommunication. He required
only to say or do nothing which legally leads to this
result, and he would then have avoided the sentence.
For excommunication is merely tantamount to saying : —
" So long as you put yourself in opposition to the laws
of our communion, you are excluded from it ; and you
m.ust therefore make up your mind whether this open
disobedience or the privileges of our communion can
most advance your blessedness." This surely cannot
have escaped a mind like Mendelssohn's, and I leave it
to others to decide how far a man may be inconsistent
for the sake of human welfare.

Mendelssohn had to endure many an injustice at the
hands of otherwise estimable men, from whom such
treatment might least have been expected. I^vater's
officiousness is well enough known, and disapproved by


Solomon Maimon

all right-thinking men* The profound Jacobi had a
predilection for Spinozisnn, with which surely no inde-
pendent thinker can find fault, and wanted to make out
Mendelssohn, as well as his friend Lessing, to be
Spinozists, in spite of themselves. With this view he
published a correspondence on the subject, which was
never intended to appear in print, and be subjected to
public inspection. What was the use of this ? If
Spinozism is true, it is so without Mendelssohn's assent.
Eternal truths have nothing to do with the majority of
votes, and least of all where, as I hold, the truth is of
such a nature, that it leaves all expression behind.

Such an injustice must have given Mendelssohn much
annoyance. A celebrated physician maintained even.

* The incident referred to was the following. Lavater had
translated into German a work, which had a great reputation in its
day, by the eminent Swiss scientific writer, Bonnet, on the evidences
of Christianity. Out of respect for Mendelssohn, Lavater dedicated
the translation to him, requiring him, however, either to refute the
work, or to do " what policy, love of truth, and probity demand, —
what Socrates would doubtless have done, had he read the work,
and found it unanswerable." Mendelssohn was thus placed in an
awkward dilemma. He could not well let the challenge pass un-
acknowledged ; and yet, owing to the disabilities under which the
Jews laboured all over the world, he would have seriously imperilled
their interests by appearing even to impugn the evidences of
Christianity. He had, moreover, resolved never to enter into
religious controversy. Under the circumstances his reply was
masterly as it was dignified and candid. Lavater saw his mistake ;
and it is but due to him to say, that he publicly apologised for it in
the fullest and frankest manner. — Trans,

An Autobiography. 23 j

that it caused his death ; but, though I am not a
physician, I venture to gainsay the assertion. Mendels-
sohn's conduct in relation to Jacobi, as well as to Lavater,
was that of a hero. No, no ! this hero died in the fifth

The acute preacher, Jacob, in Halle published, after
Mendelssohn's death, a book entitled. Examination of
Mendelssohn^ s Morgenstunden, in which he shows that,
according to the Critique of Pure Reason^ all meta-
physical doctrines are to be rejected as baseless. But
why does this concern Mendelssohn more than any other
metaphysician ? Mendelssohn did nothing but develop
to greater completeness the Leibnitio-Wolfian philosophy,
apply it to many important subjects of human inquiry,
and clothe it in an attractive garb. It is just as if any one
were to attack Maimonides, who has written an excellent
astronomical treatise on Ptolemaic principles, by writing
a book with the title, Exa??iination of the Hilchoth
Kidush Hakodesh of Maimonides^ in which he should
seek to refute his author on Newtonian principles ! But
enough of this.

234 Solomon Maimon


My aversion at first for belles lettres, and my subsequent conversion
— Departure from Berlin — Sojourn in Hamburg — I drown
myself in the same way as a bad actor shoots himself — An old
fool of a woman falls in love with me, but her addresses are

For belles lettres I discovered not the slightest inclina-
tion ; I could not even conceive how any man was
to form a science of what pleases or displeases — a matter
which, according to my opinion at the time, could have
merely a subjective ground. One day when I was
taking a walk with Mendelssohn, our conversation fell
upon the subject of the poets, whom he recommended
me to read. " No," I replied, " I am going to read
none of the poets. What is a poet but a har?"
Mendelssohn smiled at this and said, " You agree in this
with Plato, who banished all poets from his Republic.
But I hope that with time you will think differently on
the subject. And so it happened soon.

Longinus' On the Sublime fell into my hand. The
examples of the sublime which he adduces from Homer,
and particularly the celebrated passage of Sappho, made
a deep impression on my mind. I thought to myself,
these are but foolish trifles, it is true, but the imagery

An Autobiography.


and descriptions are really very beautiful. After that i
read Homer himself, and was forced to laugh heartily at
the foolish fellow. What a serious air, I said to myself,
over such childless stories ! By and by, however I
found a great deal of pleasure in the reading. Ossian,
on the other hand, whom I got to read afterwards (of
course only in German translations) produced on me a
peculiarly awe-inspiring effect. The pomp of his style,
the impressive brevity of his descriptions, the purity of
his sentiments, the simplicity of the objects described
by him, and lastly, the similarity of his poetry to that of
the Hebrews, charmed me uncommonly. Thus I found
also a great deal of gratification in Gessner's Idylls.

My friend, the Pole of whom I spoke in the preceding
chapter, who occupied himself mainly with belles lettres^
was greatly delighted at my conversion. I used to dis-
pute with him the utility of these studies ; and once,
when he was reading to me as a model of vigour in ex-
pression a passage of the Psalms, in which King David
shows himself a master in cursing, I interrupted him
with the words, " What sort of an art is this ? Why, my
mother-in-law — God bless her ! — when she was squab-
bling with a neighbour woman, used to curse much more
wildly than that ! "

Now, however, he had his triumph over me. Men-
delssohn also and my other friends were uncommonly

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 14 16 17 18 19 20 21

Online LibrarySalomon MaimonSolomon Maimon : an autobiography → online text (page 14 of 21)