Salomon Maimon.

Solomon Maimon : an autobiography online

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pleased at this change. They wished ine to devote my-
self regularly to the humaniora^ as without these a man

236 Solomon Mai?non :

can scarcely make his own intellectual productions useful
to the world. It was very difficult, however, to convince
me of this. I was always in haste to enjoy the present,
without thinking that, by due preparation, I could make
this enjoyment greater and more lasting.

I now found gratification, not only in the study of the
sciences, but generally in everything good and beautiful,
with which I became acquainted ; and I carried this out
with an enthusiasm which passed all limits. The hither-
to suppressed inclination to the pleasures of sense also
asserted its claims. The first occasion of this was the
following. For many years some men, who were occu-
pied in various kinds of teaching, had insinuated them-
selves into the most prominent and wealthy families of
the Jewish nation. They devoted themselves especially
to the French language (which was then regarded as the
highest point of enlightenment), to geography, arithmetic,
bookkeeping, and similar studies. They had also made
themselves familiar with some phrases and imperfectly
understood results of the more profound sciences and
philosophical systems, while their intercourse with the
fair sex was marked by studious gallantry. As a result
of all this, they were great favourites in the families
where they visited, and were regarded as clever fellows.
Now, they began to observe that my reputation was al-
ways on the increase, and that the respect for my attain-
ments and talents went so far, that they were being
thrown wholly into the shade. Accordingly they thought

An Autobiography. ajy

of a stratagem, by which they might he able to ward off
the threatened evil.

They resolved to draw me into their company, to show
me every demonstration of friendship, and to render me
every possible service. By this means they hoped, in the
first place, as a result of our intercourse, to win for them-
selves some of the respect which was shown to me, and,
in the second place, to obtain, from my frank and com-
municative spirit, some additional knowledge of those
sciences which as yet they knew only in name. But, in
the third place, as they knew my enthusiasm for every-
thing which I once recognised as good, they expected to
intoxicate me with the allurements of sensual pleasure,
and to cool in some measure my ardour in the study of
science, which would at the same time alienate my
friends, my intimacy with whom made them so jealous.

Accordingly they invited me into their society, testified
their friendship and esteem for me, and begged the
honour of my company. Suspecting no harm, I received
their advances with pleasure, especially as I reflected
that Mendelssohn and my other friends were too grand
for everyday intercourse with me. It became therefore
a very desirable object with me, to find some friends of
a middle class, with whom I could associate sans fafon^
and enjoy the charms of familiarity. My new friends
took me into gay society, to taverns, on pleasure excur-
sions, at last also to ; * and all this at their own

* This •' hiatus haud valde deflendus " is in the original.— Trans.

238 Solomon Maimon :

expense. I, on my side, in my happy humour,
opened up to them in return all the mysteries of
philosophy, explained to them in detail all the peculiar
systems, and corrected their ideas on various subjects of
human knowledge. But as things of this sort cannot be
poured into a man's head, and as these gentlemen had
no special capacity for them, of course they were not
able to make any great progress by this kind of instruc-
tion. When I observed this, I began to express some
sort of contempt for them, and made no attempt to
conceal the fact, that it was mainly the roast and the
wine that gave me pleasure in their company. This did
not please them particularly ; and as they were unable to
reach their object with me completely, they tried to
reach it at least in part. They told tales to my grand
friends behind my back about the most trifling incidents
and expressions. For instance, they asserted that I
charged Mendelssohn with being a philosophical hypo-
crite, that I declared others to be endowed with but
shallow pates, that I was seeking to spread dangerous
systems, and that I was wholly abandoned to Epi-
cureanism. (As if they were genuine Stoics !) They even
began at last openly to manifest their enmity.

All this of course had its effect ; and to add to the
impression, my friends observed that in my studies I
followed no fixed plan, but merely my inclination. Ac-
cordingly they proposed to me that I should study
medicine, but could not induce me to do it. I observed

An Autobiography. 239

that the theory of medicine contains many departmcnls
as auxiliary sciences, each of which requires a specialist
for its thorough mastery, while the practice of medicine
implies a peculiar genius and faculty of judgment, that
are seldom to be met with. I observed at the same time,
that the most of physicians take advantage of the ignor-
ance of the public. In accordance with established
usage they spend some years at the universities, where
they have an opportunity indeed of attending all the
lectures, but in point of fact attend very few. At the
close of their course, by means of money and fair words,
they get a dissertation written for them \ and thus, after
a very simple fashion, become medical practitioners.

As already mentioned, I had a great liking for paint-
ing ; but I was advised against this, because I was already
well advanced in years, and consequently might not have
sufficient patience for the minute exercises required for
this art. At last the proposal was made to me, to learn
pharmacy ; and as I had already obtained some acquain-
tance with physics as well as chemistry, I consented.
My object in this, however, was not to make any
practical use of my attainments, but merely to acquire
theoretical knowledge. Accordingly, instead of setting
to with my own hands, and thereby acquiring expertness
in this art, at important chemical processes I played the
part of a mere spectator. In this way I learnt pharmacy,
yet without being in the position of becoming an apothe-
cary. After the lapse of a three years' apprenticeship,

240 Solomon Maimon :

Madame Rosen, in whose shop I was apprenticed, was
duly paid by H. J. D. the promised fee of sixty thalers.
I received a certificate, that 1 had perfectly mastered the
art of pharmacy ; and this ended the whole matter.

This, however, contributed not a little to alienate my
friends. At last Mendelssohn asked me to come and
see him, when he informed me of this alienation, and
pointed out to me its causes. They complained, (i)
that I had not made up my mind to any plan of life, and
had thereby rendered fruitless all their exertions in my
behalf; (2) that I was trying to spread dangerous
opinions and systems; and (3) that, according to general
rumour, I was leading a rather loose life, and was very
much addicted to sensual pleasures.

The first of these complaints I endeavoured to answer
by referring to the fact, which I had mentioned to my
friends at the very first, that, in consequence of my pe-
culiar training, I was indisposed for any kind of business,
and adapted merely for a quiet speculative life, by which
I could not only satisfy my natural inclination, but also,
by teaching and similar means, provide for my support
in a certain fashion. " As to the second point/' I pro-
ceeded, *' the opinions and systems referred to are either
true or false. If the former, then I do not see how the
knowledge of the truth can do any harm. If the latter,
then let them be refuted. Moreover, I have explained
these opinions and systems only to gentlemen who desire
to be enlightened, and to rise above all prejudices. But


An Autobiography. 241

the truth is, that it is not the mischievous nature of the
opinions, it is the incapacity of those gentlemen to com-
prehend them, coupled with their reluctance to make
such a humiliating confession, that sets them in arms
against me. In reference to the third reproach, however,
I must say with downright honesty, Herr Mendelssohn,
we are all Epicureans. The moralists can prescribe to
us merely rules of prudence ; that is to say, they can
prescribe the use of means for the attainment of given
ends, but not the ends themselves. But," I added, " I
see clearly that I must quit Berlin ; whither, is a matter
of indifference." With this I bade Mendelssohn fare-
well. He gave me a very favourable testimonial of my
capabilities and talents, and wished me a prosperous

To my other friends also I bade farewell, and in briei
but emphatic terms thanked them for the favours they
had shown. One of my friends was taken aback, when
I bade him goodbye, at my using the brief form, "I hope
you will enjoy good health, my dear friend ; and I thank
you for all the favours you have bestowed upon me.'' It
seemed to this excellent, but prosaically poetical man, as
if the form were too curt and dry for all his friendliness
towards me. So he replied with evident displeasure, " Is
this all that you have learnt in Berlin?" I made no
answer, however, but went away, booked by the Ham-
burg post, and departed from Berlin.

242 Solomon Maimon :

On leaving I received from Samuel Levi* a letter of
introduction to one of his correspondents. When I
arrived in Hamburg, I went to the merchant to whom
this letter was addressed, and delivered it. He received
me well, and invited me to his table during my stay in
the city. But as he knew nothing except how to make
money, and took no particular interest in scholarship or
science, he evidently entertained me merely on account
of my letter of introduction, because he had to do some-
thing to gratify his correspondent. As I knew nothing
of trade, however, and besides made no very presentable
figure, he endeavoured to get rid of me as soon as
possible, and with a view to that asked me where I
meant to go when I left Hamburg. When I replied
that I was going to Holland, he gave me the well-meant
advice to hasten my departure, as this was the best
season of the year for travelling.

Accordingly I took out a passage on a Hamburg
vessel that was to sail for Holland in two or three weeks.
For travelling companions I had two barbers, a tailor,
and a shoemaker. These fellows made themselves
merry, caroused bravely, and sang all sorts of songs. In
this joviality I could not take a part ; in fact they scarcely
understood my language, and teased me on that account
in a thousand ways, though I bore it all with patience.
The vessel glided pleasantly down the Elbe to a village

* This name is taken from Maimoniana, —Trans,

/in Autobio^S^raphy. 343

at the mouth of the river some miles below Hamburg.
Here we were obliged to lie about six weeks, prevented
by contrary winds from putting out to sea. The ship's
crew, along with the other passengers, went to the village
tavern, where they drank and played. For me, however,
the time became very dreary, and I was besides so sick,
that I nearly despaired of my recovery.

At last we got a favourable wind, the vessel stood out
to sea, and on the third day after our departure we
arrived before Amsterdam. A boat came out to the ship
to take the passengers into the city. At first I would not
trust myself to the Dutch boatman, because I was afraid
of falling into the hands of the crimps, against whom I
had been warned in Hamburg ; but the captain of our
ship assured me that he knew the boatman well, and that
I might trust myself to him without any anxiety. Accord-
ingly I came into the city; but as I had no acquaintances
here, and as I knew that at the Hague there was a
gentleman belonging to a prominent Berlin family, and
that he had obtained from Berlin a tutor with whom I
was acquainted, I set out for that place in a drag-boat.

Here I took lodgings at the house of a poor Jewish
woman ; but before I had time to rest from my journey,
a man of tall, spare figure, in untidy clothing, and with
a pipe in his mouth, came in, and, without observing
me, commenced to speak with my landlady. At last she

said to him, " Herr H , here is a stranger from

Berlin; pray, speak to him." The man thereupon

244 Solomon Maimon :

turned to me, and asked me who I was. With my usual
instinctive frankness and love of truth, I told him that I
was born in Poland, that my love of the sciences had
induced me to spend some years in Berlin, and that now
I had come to Holland with the intention of entering
some situation, if an opportunity offered itself. When
he heard that I was a man of learning, he began to
speak with me on various subjects in philosophy, and
especially in mathematics, in which he had done a good
deal. He found in me a man after his own heart, and
we formed at once a bond of friendship with one another.
I now went to seek the tutor from Berlin, to whom I
referred before. He introduced me to his employer as
a man of high talent, who had made a great figure in
Berlin, and had brought letters of introduction from that
city. This gentleman, who made much of his tutor, as
well as of everything that came from Berlin, invited me
to dinner. As my external appearance did not appear
to promise much, and I was besides thoroughly exhausted
and depressed by m.y sea-voyage, I made a comical figure
at table, and our host evidently did not know what to
think of me. But as he put great confidence in the
written recommendation of Mendelssohn and the oral
recommendation of his tutor, he suppressed his astonish-
ment, and invited me to his table as long as I chose to
remain here. In the evening he invited his brothers-in-
law to meet me. They were children of B , cele-
brated for his wealth as well as his beneficence ; and as


An Autobiography. 2^r

they were men of learning themselves, they were exix;rtcd
to sound me. They conversed with me on various sub-
jects in the Talmud, and even in the Cabbalah. As I
showed myself thoroughly initiated into the mysteries of
this sort of learning, even explained to them passages
which they regarded as inexplicable, and untied the most
complicated knots of argument, their admiration was ex-
cited, and they believed they had come upon a great

It was not long, however, before their admiration
turned to hatred. The occasion of this was the follow-
ing. In connection with the Cabbalah they told me of
a godly man, who had now for many years been a resident
of London, and who was able to perform miracles by
means of the Cabbalah. I expressed some doubts on
the subject, but they assured me they had been present
at performances of the kind during this man's residence
at the Hague. To this I replied as a philosopher, that
I did not indeed question the truth of their statement,
but that perhaps they had not duly investigated the mat-
ter themselves, and gave out their pre-conceived opinions
as facts. Moreover, I declared that I must regard with
scepticism the effect of the Cabbalah in general, until it
is shown that that effect is of such a kind as cannot be
explained in accordance with the known laws of Nature.
This declaration they held to be heresy.

At the end of the meal the wine-cup was passed to
me, that I might, in accordance with the usual custom,

246 Solomon Mainion:

pronounce the blessing over it. This however I declined
with the explanation, that I did so not from any false
shame of speaking before a number of men, because in
Poland I had been a rabbi, and had very often held dis-
putations and delivered sermons before large assemblies,
and, in order to prove this, was now willing to deliver
public lectures every day. It was merely, I explained
further, the love of truth and the reluctance to do any-
thing inconsistent, that made it impossible for me, with-
out manifest aversion, to say prayers which I regarded as
a result of an anthropomorphic system of theology.

At this their patience was completely exhausted ; they
reviled me as a damnable heretic, and declared it would
be a deadly sin to tolerate me in a Jewish house. Our
host, who was no philosopher indeed, but a reasonable
and enlightened man, did not mind much what they
said ; my humble talents were of more value in his eyes
than my piety. Accordingly they broke up immediately
after dinner, and left the house in deep displeasure ; but
all their subsequent efforts to drive me from their
brother-in-law's house were fruitless. I remained in it
about nine months, lived at perfect freedom, but very re-
tired, without any occupation or any rational society.

Here I cannot pass over in silence an event which
was remarkable both in a psychological and in a moral
point of view. In Holland I wanted nothing but an
occupation suited to my powers, and naturally, therefore,
I became hypochondriac. From feelings of satiety, not

An Autobiography. 247

infrequently I fell upon the idea of making' away with
myself, and of thus putting an end to an existence which
had become a burden to me. But no sooner did I come
to action, than the love of life always assumed the upper
hand again. Once, at the Feast of Haman, in accord-
ance with the custom of the Jews, I had banquetted very
heartily in the house where I took my meals. After the
feast, about midnight I returned to my lodging ; and as
I had to pass along one of the canals that are laid out
everywhere in Holland, it occurred to me that this was
a very convenient opportunity for carrying out the design
which I had often formed. I thought to myself, " My
life is a burden. At present, indeed, I have no wants ;
but how wnll it be with me in the future, and by what
means shall I preserve my life, since I am of no use fur
anything in the world? I have already resolved, on
cool reflection at different times, to put an end to my
life, and nothing but my cowardice has restrained me
hitherto. Now, when I am pretty drunk, on the brink
of a deep canal, the thing may be done in a moment
without any difficulty." Already I had bent my body
over the canal, in order to plunge in; but only the upper
part of the body obeyed the command of the mind,
trusting that the lower part would certainly refuse
its services for such a purpose. So I stood for a
good while with half the body bent over the water,
and propped myself carefully with my legs firmly
planted on the ground, so that a spectator might

2^8 Solomon Maimon:

have fancied I was merely making my bow to the
water. This hesitation destroyed my whole plan. I
felt like a man who is going to take medicine, but, want-
ing the resolution required, raises the cup time after time
to his mouth, and sets it down again. I began at last to
laugh at myself, as I reflected that my sole motive for
suicide was a real superfluity for the present and an
imaginary want for the future.* I therefore let the
project drop for the time being, went home, and thus
brought the serio-comic scene to an end.

Still another comical scene must be mentioned here.
At the Hague there lived at that time a woman of about
forty-five, who was said to have been very pretty in youth,
and supported herself by giving lessons in French. One
day she called upon me at my lodging, introduced her-
self, and expressed an irresistible desire for scientific
conversation. She declared therefore that she would

* The love of life, that is, the instinct of self-preservation, seems
rather to increase than to decrease with the diminution or un-
certainty of the means of living, inasmuch as man is thereby spurred
to greater activity, which developes a stronger consciousness of life.
Only this want must not have reached its maximum ; for the neces-
sary resuh of that is despair, that is a conviction of the impossibility
of preserving life, and consequently a desire to put an end to it.
Thus every passion, and therefore also the love of life, is increased
by the obstacles which come in the way of its gratification : only
these obstacles must not make the gratification of the passions im-
possible, else despair is the result.

An Autobiography. 249

visit me frequently in my lodging, and requested the
honour of a visit from me in return.

This advance I met with great pleasure, reluiiKu .ur
visits several times ; and thus our intercourse became
more and more intimate. We conversed usually on
subjects in philosophy and belles lettres. As 1 was still
at that time a married man, and, except for her
enthusiasm in learning, Madam had little attraction for
me, I thought of nothing beyond mere entertainment.
The lady, however, who had been a widow now for a
pretty long while, and had, according to her own story,
conceived an affection for me, began to express this by
looks and words in a romantic manner, which struck me
as very comical. I could never believe, that a lady could
fall in love with me in earnest. Her expressions of affec-
tion therefore I took for mere airs of affectation. She,
on the other hand, showed herself more and more in
earnest, became at times thoughtful in the midst of our
conversation, and burst into tears.

It was during a conversation of this sort, that we fell
upon the subject of love. I told her frankly, that I could
not love a woman except for the sake of womanly excel-
lences, such as beauty, grace, agreeableness, etc., and
that any other excellences she might possess, such as
talents or learning, could excite in me only esteem, but
by no means love. The lady adduced against me argu-
ments a priori as well as instances from experience,
especially from French novels, and tried to correct my


250 Solomon Maimon:

notions of love. I could not, however, be so easily con-
vinced ; and as the lady was carrying her airs to an
absurd length, I rose and took my leave. She accom-
panied me to the very door, grasped me by the hand,
and would not let me go. I asked her somewhat sharply,
" What's the matter with you, madam ?" With trembling
voice and tearful eyes she replied, " I love you."

When I heard this laconic declaration of love, I began
to laugh immoderately, tore myself from her grasp, and
rushed away. Some time afterwards she sent me the
following billet doux : —

" Sir,

I have been greatly mistaken in your character.

I took you for a man of noble thoughts and exalted feel-
ings ; but I see now that you are a genuine Epicurean.
You seek nothing but pleasure. A woman can please
you only on account of her beauty. A Madame Dacier,
for example, who has studied thoroughly all the Greek
and Latin authors, translated them into her native
language, and enriched them with learned annotations,
could not please you. Why ? Because she is not
pretty. Sir, you, who are otherwise so enlightened,
ought to be ashamed to cherish such pernicious prin-
ciples ; and if you will not repent, then tremble before
the revenge of the injured love of

Yours, etc."

To this I returned the following reply : —

An Autobiogra/>hy. t^X

" Madam,

That you have been mistaken, is shown
by the result. You say that I am a genuine Epicurean.
In this you do me a great honour. Much as I abhor the
title of an epicure, on the other hand I feel proud of the
title of genuine Epicurean. Certainly it is beauty alone
that pleases me in a woman ; but as this can be height-
ened by other qualities, these must also be pleasing as
means towards the chief end. On the other hand, I can
merely estee?n such a woman on account of her talents ;
love her I cannot, as I have already explained in conver-
sation. For the learning of Madame Dacier I have all
respect : she could at all events fall in love with the
Greek heroes who were at the siege of Troy, and expect
in return the love of their manes that were constantly
hovering around her ; but nothing more. For the rest.
Madam, as far as your revenge is concerned, I do not
fear it, since Time, which destroys all things, has shat-
tered your weapons, that is, your teeth and nails.

Yours, etc."

Thus ended this strange love-affair.

I discovered that in Holland there was nothing for mc
to do, inasmuch as the main desire of the Dutch Jews is
to make money, and they manifest no particular liking
for the sciences. Besides, in consequence of not know-
ing the Dutch language, I was unable to give instructions
in any science. I determined therefore to return to

252 Solomon Mahnon :

Berlin by Hamburg, but found an opportunity of travel-
ling to Hanover by land. In Hanover I went to a
wealthy Jew, — a man who does not deserve even to

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