Salomon Maimon.

Solomon Maimon : an autobiography online

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enjoy his riches, — showed him my letter of introduction
from Mendelssohn, and represented to him the urgency
of my present circumstances. He read Mendelssohn's
letter carefully through, called for pen and ink, and,
without speaking a word to me, wrote at the foot : — " I
also hereby certify that what Herr Mendelssohn writes
in praise of Herr Solomon is perfectly correct." And
with this he dismissed me.

An Auiohiop-aphy. j?^



I return to Hamburg— A Lutheran Pastor pronounces me to be a
scabby Sheep, and unworthy of Admission into the Christian
Fold— I enter the Gymnasium, and frighten the Chicl Rabbi
out of his Wits.

I MADE a prosperous journey back to Hamburg, but here
I fell into circumstances of the deepest distress. I lodu'cd
in a miserable house, had nothing to eat, and did not
know what to do. I had received too much education
to return to Poland, to spend my life in misery without
rational occupation or society, and to sink back into the
darkness of superstition and ignorance, from which I had
hardly delivered rnyself with so much labour. On the
other hand, to succeed in Germany was a result on which
I could not calculate, owing to my ignorance of the
language, as well as of the manners and customs of the
people, to which I had never yet been able to adapt my-
self properly. I had learnt no particular profession, I
had not distinguished myself in any special science, I
was not even master of any language in which I could
make myself perfectly intelligible. It occurred to me,
therefore, that for me there was no alternative left, but
to embrace the Christian religion, and get myself baptised

2 54 Solomon Maifnon :

in Hamburg. Accordingly I resolved to go to the first
clergyman I should come upon, and inform him of my
resolution, as well as of my motives for it, without any
hypocrisy, in a truthful and honest fashion. But as I
could not express myself well orally, I put my thoughts
into writing in German with Hebrew characters, went to
a schoolmaster, and got him to copy it in German
characters. The purport of my letter was in brief as
follows : —

"I am a native of Poland, belonging to the Jewish
nation, destined by my education and studies to be a
rabbi ; but in the thickest darkness I have perceived
some light. This induced me to search further after
light and truth, and to free myself completely from the
darkness of superstition and ignorance. In order to this
end, which could not be attained in my native place, I
came to Berlin, where by the support of some enlightened
men of our nation I studied for some years — not indeed
after any plan, but merely to satisfy my thirst for know-
ledge. But as our nation is unable to use, not only such
planless studies, but even those conducted on the most
perfect plan, it cannot be blamed for becoming tired of
them, and pronouncing their encouragement to be use-
less. I have therefore resolved, in order to secure tem-
poral as well as eternal happiness, which depends on the
attainment of perfection, and in order to become useful
to myself as well as others, to embrace the Christian re-
ligion. The Jewish religion, it is true, comes, in its ar-

Afi Autobiography. jee

tides of faith, nearer to reason than Christianity. But
in practical use the latter has an advantage over the for-
mer ; and since morality, which consists not in opinions
but in actions, is the aim of all religion in general, clearly
the latter comes nearer than the former to this aim.
Moreover, I hold the mysteries of the Christian religion
for that which they are, that is, allegorical representations
of the truths that are most important for man. By this
means I make my faith in them harmonise with reason,
but I cannot believe them according to their common
meaning. I beg therefore most respectfully an answer
to the question, whether after this confession I am
worthy of the Christian religion or not. In the former
case I am ready to carry my proposal into effect ; but in
the latter, I must give up all claim to a religion which
enjoins me to lie, that is, to deliver a confession of faith
which contradicts my reason."

The schoolmaster, to whom I dictated this, fell into
astonishment at my audacity ; never before had he
listened to such a confession of faith. He shook his
head with much concern, interrupted the writing several
times, and became doubtful, whether the mere copying
was not itself a sin. With great reluctance he copied it
out, merely to get rid of the thing. I went then to a
prominent clergyman, delivered my letter, and begged
for a reply. He read it with great attention, fell likewise
into astonishment, and on finishing entered into conver-
sation with me.

256 Solomon Maimon :

"So," he said, "I see your intention is to embrace
the Christian religion, merely in order to improve your
temporal circumstances."

" Excuse me, Herr Pastor," I replied, " I think I have
made it clear enough in my letter, that my object is the
attainment of perfection. To this, it is true, the removal
of all hindrances and the improvement of my external
circumstances form an indispensable condition. But this
condition is not the chief end."

" But," said the pastor, " do you not feel any inclina-
tion of the soul to the Christian religion without reference
to any external motives ? "

" I should be telling a lie, if I were to give you an
affirmative answer."

" You are too much of a philosopher," replied the
pastor, " to be able to become a Christian. Reason has
taken the upper hand with you, and faith must accom-
modate itself to reason. You hold the mysteries of the
Christian religion to be mere fables, and its commands
to be mere laws of reason. For the present I cannot be
satisfied with your confession of faith. You should there-
fore pray to God, that He may enlighten you with His
grace, and endow you with the spirit of true Christianity;
and then come to me again."

" If that is the case," I said, " then I must confess,
Herr Pastor, that I am not qualified for Christianity.
Whatever light I may receive, I shall always make it
luminous with the light of reason. I shall never believe

An Autobiography. jr^

that I have fallen upon new truths, if it is impossible to
see their connection with the truths already known to
me. I must therefore remain what I am, — a stifTneckcd
Jew. My religion enjoins me to bcliri'c nothing, but to
think the truth and to practise goodness. If I find any
hindrance in this from external circumstances, it is not
my fault. I do all that lies in my power."

With this I bade the pastor goodbye.

The hardships of my journey, coupled with poor food,
brought on an ague. I lay on a straw-bed in a garret,
and suffered the want of all conveniences and refresh-
ments. ]My landlord, who took pity on me, called a
Jewish physician, who prescribed an emetic which soon
cured me of my fever. The doctor found that I was no
common man, stayed to converse with me for some
hours, and begged me, as soon as I recovered, to visit

Meanwhile, however, a young man, who had known
me in Berlin, heard of my arrival. He called on me to

say that Herr W , who had seen me in Berlin, was

now residing in Hamburg, and that I might very pro-
perly call upon him. I did so, and Herr W , who

was a very clever, honourable man, of a benevolent dis-
position naturally, asked me what I intended to do. I
represented to him my whole circumstances, and begged
for his advice. He said that in his opinion the un-
fortunate position of my affairs arose from the fact,
that I had devoted myself with zeal merely to the ac-

25 S Solomon Maimon:

quisition of scientific knowledge, but had neglected the
study of language, and therefore I was unable to com-
municate my knowledge to others, or make any use of it.
Meanwhile, he thought, nothing had been lost by delay ;
and if I was still willing to accommodate myself to the
circumstances, I could attain my object in the gymnasium
at Altona, where his son was studying, while he would
provide for my support.

I accepted this offer with many thanks, and went home

with a joyful heart. Meanwhile Herr W spoke to

the professors of the gymnasium, as well as to the prin-
cipal, but more particularly to the syndic, Herr G ,

a man who cannot be sufficiently praised. He repre-
sented to them, that I was a man of uncommon talents,
who wanted merely some further knowledge of language
to distinguish himself in the world, and who hoped to
obtain that knowledge by a short residence in the gym-
nasium. They acceded to his request. I was matricu-
lated, and had a room assigned to me, in the institution.

Here I lived for two years in peace and contentment.
But the pupils in such a gymnasium, as may be easily
supposed, make very slow progress ; and it was therefore
natural that I, who had already made considerable attain-
ments in science, should find the lessons at times some-
what tedious. Consequently I did not attend them all,
but made a selection to suit my taste. The Director
Dusch I esteemed very highly on account of his profound
scholarship and his excellent character. I therefore at-

An Autobio^aphy. jjq

tended the most of his lectures. It is true, the philoso-
phy of Ernesti, on which he lectured, could not give me
much satisfaction, and just as little did I receive from
his lectures on Segner's Mathematical Compendium.
But I derived great benefit from his instructions in the

English language. The Rector H , a cheerful old

man, though somewhat pedantic, was not altogether
pleased with me, because I would not perform his Latin
exercises, and would not learn Greek at all. The Pro-
fessor of History began his lectures ab ovo with Adam,
and at the end of the year with a great deal of efTort
reached as far down as the building of the Tower of Ba-
bel. The teacher of French used for translation Fenelon's
Siir Vexistence de Dieu^ — a work for which I conceived
the greatest dislike, because the author, while appearing
to declaim against Spinozism, in reality argues in its

During the whole period of my residence in the gym-
nasium the professors were unable to form any correct
idea of me, because they never had an opportunity of
forming my acquaintance. By the end of the first year
I thought I had attained my object, and laid a good
foundation in languages. I had also become tired of
this inactive life, and therefore resolved to quit the gym-
nasium. But Director Dusch ; who began by and by to
become acquainted with me, begged me to stay at least
another year, and, as I wanted for nothing, I consented

It was about this time that the following incident in

2 6o Solomon Mawwfi :

my life took place. My wife had sent a polish Jew in
search of me, and he heard of my residence in Hamburg.
Accordingly he came and called on me at the gymnasium.
He had been commissioned by my wife to demand, that
I should either return home without delay, or send
through him a bill of divorce. At that time I was un-
able to do either the one or the other. I was not
inclined to be divorced from my wife without any cause ;
and to return at once to Poland, where I had not yet the
slightest prospect of getting on in the world or of leading
a rational life, was to me impossible. I represented all
this to the gentleman who had undertaken the com-
mission, and added that it was my intention to leave the
gymnasium soon and go to Berlin, that my Berlin friends
would, as I hoped, give me both their advice and assist-
ance in carrying out this intention. He would not be
satisfied with this answer, which he took for a mere
evasion. When he thus found that he could do nothing
with me, he went to the chief rabbi, and entered a
complaint against me. A messenger was accordingly
sent to summon me before the tribunal of the chief
rabbi ; but I took my stand, that at present I was not
under his jurisdiction, inasmuch as the gymnasium had
a jurisdiction of its own, by which my case would require
to be decided. The chief rabbi made every effort
through the Government to make me submit to his
wishes, but all his efforts were in vain. When he saw
that he could not accomplish his purpose in this way, he

A 71 Autobiography. 261

sent me an invitation a second time on the pretext that
he wished merely to speak with mc. To this I willingly
consented, and went to him at once.

He received me with much respect ; and wiicn 1 m.nic
known to him my birthplace and family in Poland, he
began to lament and wring his hands. " Alas! " said he,
" you are the son of the famous Rabbi Joshua ? I know
your father well ; he is a pious and learned man. You
also are not unknown to me ; I have examined you as a
boy several times, and formed high expectations of you.
Oh ! is it possible that you have altered so?" (Here he
pointed to my shaven beard). To this I replied, that I
also had the honour of knowing him, and that I still
remembered his examinations well. My conduct hither-
to, I told him, was as little opposed to religion properly
understood, as it was to reason. " But," he interrupted
" you do not wear a beard, you do not go to the syna-
gogue : is that not contrary to religion ? " " No ! " I
replied, and I proved to him from the Talmud that,
under the circumstances in which I was placed, all this
was allowed. On this point we entered into a lengthy
dispute, in which each maintained his right. As he
could effect nothing with me by such disputation, he
adopted the style of mere sermonising ; but when this
also was of no avail, he began to cry aloud, " Shophar !
Shophar!'' This is the name of the horn which is
blown on New- Year's day as a summons to repentance,
and at which it is supposed that Satan is horribly afraid

262 Solomon Maimon:

While the chief rabbi called out the word, he pointed to
a Shophar that lay before him on the table, and asked
me, "Do you know what that is?" I replied quite
boldly, " Oh yes ! it is a ram's horn." At these words
the chief rabbi fell back upon his chair, and began to
lament over my lost soul. I left him to lament as long
as he liked, and bade him goodbye.

At the end of my second year I began to reflect, that
it would be an advantage in view of my future success,
as well as fair to the gymnasium, that I should make my-
self more intimately acquainted with the professors.
Accordingly I went to Director Dusch, announced to
him that I was soon to leave, and told him that, as I
wished a certificate from him, it would be well for him
to examine me on the progress I had made, so that his
certificate might be as nearly as possible in accordance
with the truth. To this end he made me translate some
passages from Latin and English works in prose as well
as in verse, and was very well pleased with the translation.
Afterwards he entered into conversation with me on some
subjects in philosophy, but found me so well versed in
these, that for his own safety he was obliged to back out.
At last he asked me, " But how is it with your mathe-
matics ? " I begged him to examine me in this also.
*' In our mathematical lessons," he began, " we had
advanced to somewhere about the subject of mathema-
tical bodies. Will you work out yourself a proposition
not yet taken up in the lessons, for example, that about

An Autobiography, 263

the relation of the cylinder, the sphere and the cone to
one another? You may take some days to do ii. I
replied that this was unnecessary, and offered to perform
the task on the spot. I then demonstrated, not only the
proposition prescribed, but several other propositions out
of Segner's Geometry. The Director was very much
surprised at this, called all the pupils in the gymnasium,
and represented to them that the extraordinary progress
I had made should make them ashamed of themselves.
The most of them did not know what to say to this; but
some replied, " Do not suppose, Herr Director, that
Maimon made this progress in mathematics here. He
has seldom attended the mathematical lessons, and even
when he was there he paid no attention to them." They
were going to say more, but the Director commanded
silence, and gave me an honourable certificate, from
which I cannot avoid quoting a few sentences. They
became to me afterwards a constant spur to higher at-
tainments, and I hope it will not be considered vainglory
in me to cite the opinion of this esteemed man.

"His capacity," says he, "for learning all that is
beautiful, good and useful in general, but in particular
those sciences which require severe exertion of the men-
tal powers, abstract and profound thought, is, 1 might al-
most say, extraordinary. All those sorts of knowledge,
which demand in the highest degree one's own mental
efforts, appear to him the most agreeable ; and intellec-
tual occupations seem to be his chief, if not his sole, en-

264 Solo?7ion Maimon :

joyment. His favourite studies hitherto have been phi-
losophy and mathematics, in which his progress has ex-
cited my astonishment, (S:c."

I now bade good-bye to the teachers and officers of
the gymnasium, who unanimously paid me the compli-
ment, that I had done honour to their institution. I
then set out once more for Berlin.

An Autobiography. 265


Third Journey to Berlin — Frustrated Plan of Hebrew Authorship —
Journey to Breslau — Divorce.

On my arrival in Berlin I called upon Mendelssohn, as
well as some other old friends, and begged them, as I
had now acquired some knowledge of languages, to em-
ploy me in some occupation suited to my capacity. They
hit upon the suggestion, that, in order to enlighten the
Polish Jews still living in darkness, I should prepare in
Hebrew, as the only language intelligible to them, some
scientific works, which these philanthropists were to print
at their own expense, and distribute among the people.
His proposal I accepted with delight. But now the
question arose, with what sort of works a beginning
should be made. On this point my excellent friends
were divided in their opinions. One of them thought
that the history of the Jewish nation would be most ser-
viceable for this purpose, inasmuch as the people would
discover in it the origin of their religious doctrines and
of the subsequent corruption which these had undergone,
while they would thus also gain an insight into the fact,
that the fall of the Jewish state, as well as all the subse-
quent persecution and oppression which they had suf-

2 66 Solo ?f ion Mai??ion :

fered, had arisen from their own ignorance and opposi-
tion to all rational arrangements. Accordingly this
gentleman recommended that I should translate from
French Basnage's History of the Jeivs ; he gave me the
work for this purpose, and asked me to furnish a copy
of my translation. The specimen gave satisfaction to
them all, even to Mendelssohn, and I was ready to take
the work in hand ; but one of our friends thought that
we ought to begin with something on natural religion and
rational morals, inasmuch as this is the object of all en-
lightenment. Accordingly he recommended that for
this purpose I should translate the Natural Religmi of
Reimarus. Mendelssohn withheld his opinion, because
he believed that whatever was undertaken in this line,
though it would do no harm, would also be of little use.
I myself undertook these works, not from any conviction
of my own, but at the request of my friends.

I was too well acquainted with the rabbinical despot-
ism, which by the power of superstition has established
its throne for many centuries in Poland, and which for
its own security seeks in every possible way to prevent
the spread of light and truth. I knew how closely the
Jewish theocracy is connected with the national existence,
so that the abolition of the former must inevitably bring
with it the annihilation of the latter. I saw therefore
clearly that my labours in this direction would be fruit-
less ; but I undertook this commission, because, as al-
ready stated, my friends would have it so, and because I

An Autobiography. 267

could think of no other means of subsistence. Accord-
ingly without fixing anything definite about the plan of
my labours, my friends resolved to send me to Dessau,
where I could carry on my work at leisure.

I reached Dessau in the hope, that after a few days
my friends in Berlin would resolve upon something defi-
nite about my work : but in this I was deceived ; for, as
soon as I turned my back on Berlin, nothing further was
thought of the plan. I waited about a fortnight ; but
when during that period I received no communication,
I wrote to Berlin in the following terms: — "If my
friends cannot unite upon a plan, they might leave the
settlement of it to my own judgment. For my part I
believe that, to enlighten the Jewish nation, we must be-
gin neither with history nor with natural theology and
morals. One of my reasons for thinking so is, that these
subjects, being easily intelligible, would not be able to
instil any regard for science in general among the more
learned Jews, who are accustomed to respect only those
studies which involve a strain upon the highest intellec-
tual powers. But a second reason is, that, as those sub-
jects would frequently come into collision with religious
prejudices, they would never be admitted. Besides,
sooth to say, there is no proper history of the Jewish
nation : for they have scarcely ever stood in political re-
lation with other civilised nations ; and, with the excep-
tion of the Old Testament and Josephus and a few frag-
ments on the persecutions of the Jews in the middle

268 Soloffion Mai?7ion:

ages, nothing is to be found recorded on the subject. I
beHeve, therefore, that it would be best to make a begin-
ning with some science which, besides being most favour-
able for the development of the mind, is also self-evident,
and stands in no connection with any religious opinions.
Of this sort are the mathematical sciences ; and therefore
with this object in view I am willing to write a mathema-
tical text-book in Hebrew."

To this I received the answer, that I might follow my
plan. Accordingly I applied myself with all diligence to
the preparation of this text-book, using the Latin work
on mathematics by Wolff as its basis ; and in two months
it was finished. I then returned to Berlin, to give an
account of my work, but received immediately from one
of the gentlemen interested the disappointing information,
that, as the work was very voluminous, and as it would
entail heavy expenditure especially on account of the
copper-plates required, he could not undertake the publi-
cation at his own expense, and I might therefore do with
my manuscript whatever I chose. I complained of this
to Mendelssohn ; and he thought, that certainly it was
unreasonable to let my work go without remuneration,
but that I could not require my friends to undertake the
publication of a work which could not calculate on any
good result in consequence of that aversion to all science,
which I myself knew to be prevalent among the Jewish
nation. His advice therefore was, that I should get the
book printed by subscription ; and of course I was

An Autobiography. 269

obliged to content myself with this. Mendelssohn and
the other enlightened Jews in Berlin subscribed, and I
received for my work merely my manuscript and the list
of subscriptions. The whole plan, however, was thought
of no more.

On this I fell out again with my friends in Berlin.
Being a man with little knowledge of the world, who
supposed that human actions must always be determined
by the laws of justice, I pressed for the fulfilment of the
bargain made. My friends, on the other hand, began,
though too late, to see, that their ill-considered project
must of necessity collapse, because they had no assurance
of a market for such voluminous and expensive works.
From the religious, moral and political condition of the
Jews up to this time it was easy to foresee that the few
enlightened men among them would certainly give them-
selves no trouble to study the sciences in the Hebrew
language, which is very ill-adapted for the exposition of
such subjects ; they will prefer to seek science in its
original sources. The unenlightened, on the other hand,
— and these form the majority, — are so swayed by
rabbinical prejudices, that they regard the study of the
sciences, even in Hebrew, as forbidden fruit, and per-
sistently occupy themselves only with the Talmud and
the enormous number of its commentaries.

All this I understood very well, and therefore I never
thought of demanding that the work I had prcpred

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