Salomon Maimon.

Solomon Maimon : an autobiography online

. (page 18 of 21)
Online LibrarySalomon MaimonSolomon Maimon : an autobiography → online text (page 18 of 21)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

first commentary of Rabbi Solomon Isaac*

The productions of the mind are valued by them, not
in proportion to their utility, but in proportion to the
talent which they imply. A man who understands
Hebrew, who is well versed in the Holy Scriptures, who
even carries in his head the whole of the Jewish Corpus
Juris^ — and that is no trifle, — is by them but slightly



See above, p. 41 — Trans,



A /I Autobiography. jgy

esteemed. The greatest praise that they give to such a
man is Chamor Nose Sepharim, that is, An ass loaded
with books. But if a man is able, by his own ingenuity,
to deduce new laws from those already known, to draw
fine distinctions, and to detect hidden contradictions, he
is almost idolised. And to tell the truth, this judgment
is well founded, so far as it concerns the treatment of
subjects that have no ulterior end in view.

It may therefore be easily imagined, that people of this
sort will scarcely accord a hearing to an institute which
aims merely at the cultivation of taste, the study of
language, or any similar object, which to them appears
mere trifling. Yet these are not the few educated men,
scattered here and there, — the steersmen of this ship
which is driven about in all seas. All men of enlightened
minds, it does not matter how much taste or knowledge
they possess, are treated by them as imbeciles. And
why ? Simply because they have not studied the Talmud
to that extent, and in the manner, which they require.
Mendelssohn was in some measure esteemed by them on
this account, because in point of fact he was a good
Talmudist.

I was therefore neither for, nor against, this monthly
periodical ; I even contributed to it at times Hebrew
articles. Among these I will mention merely one, — an
exposition of an obscure passage in the commeniar)- of
Maimonides on the Mishnah, which I interpreted by the
Kantian philosophy. The article was afterwards uans-



2 88 Solofnon Mai??ion :

lated into German, and inserted in the Berlinische Monats-
schrift.

Some time after this I received from this society, which
now calls itself the Society for the Pro?fiotion of all that is
Noble and Good, a commission to write a Hebrew
commentary on the celebrated work of Maimonides,
Moreh Nebhochim. This commission I undertook with
pleasure, and the work was soon done. So far, however,
only a part of the commentary has as yet appeared. The
preface to the work may be considered as a brief history
of philosophy.

I had been an adherent of all philosophical systems in
succession, Peripatetic, Spinozist, Leibnitzian, Kantian,
and finally Sceptic ; and I was always devoted to that
system, which for the time I regarded as alone true. At
last I observed that all these systems contain something
true, and are in certain respects equally useful. But, as
the difference of philosophical systems depends on the
ideas which lie at their foundation in regard to the objects
of nature, their properties and modifications, which
cannot, like the ideas of mathematics, be defined in the
same way by all men, and presented a priori, I determined
to publish for my own use, as well as for the advantage
of others, a philosophical dictionary, in which all philo-
sophical ideas should be defined in a somewhat free
method, that is, without attachment to any particular
system, but either by an explanation common to all, or
by several explanations from the point of view of each.



An Autobiography. 289

Of this work also only the first part has as yet ap-
peared.

In the popular German monthly already mentioned,
the Berlinische Monatsschrift^ various articles of mine
were inserted, on Deceit, on the Power of Foreseeing, on
Theodicy, and other subjects. On Empirical Psycho-
logy also I contributed various articles, and at last
became associated wuth Herr Hofrath Moritz in the
editorship of the perodical*

So much with regard to the events which have
occurred in my life, and the communication of which, I
thought, might be not without use. I have not yet
reached the haven of rest ; but —

" Quo fata trahunt retrahuntque sequamur."



* The last few pages have been condensed from the original ; in
which the author gives detailed information, which seems no longer
of any special interest, about the articles he contributed to periodi-
cals. — Trans,



290 Solomon Mainion :



CONCLUDING CHAPTER.

The closing words of the Autobiography themselves
awaken the desire to know the sequel of the author's
life, and it seems therefore appropriate to finish the
narrative by the sketch of a few facts derived mainly
from the little volume of Maimoniana^ to which reference
has been made in the preface.

It is perhaps scarcely necessary to state that Maimon's
life to the very end continued to retain the stamp it bore
throughout the whole period described in the preceding
chapters. That stamp had apparently been impressed
on it even before he left Poland; and the Western
influences, under which he came in Germany, never
altered essentially the character he brought with him
from home.

Even in its external features his life enjoyed no
permanent improvement. Fate had indeed been some-
what liard upon a man of so much genuine culture and
sensibility. Still the chronic poverty, which filled the
largest cup of suffering in his life, was due not wholly to
circumstances : it was partly his own nature or habits
that kept him a pauper. This is all the more remarkable,
that there is perhaps no work of moral or religious



An Autobiography. 291

instruction which attaches more importance than the
Tahiiud to industrial pursuits.* Saturated as his mind
was with Talmudic lore, and disciplined as his early
years had been by Talmudic training, Maimon could
not be ignorant of the advantage which the spiritual life
derives from financial independence on others ; and it
might therefore have been expected of him that, like
many of the great rabbis, and Spinoza and Mendelssohn
too, he would have devoted himself to some remunera-
tive occupation, however humble. This would not have



* By the kindness of my friend, the Rev. Meldola de Sola, of
the Portuguese Synagogue in Montreal, I am enabled to make an
interesting note on this subject. Among the Talmudic passages
enjoining industry are the following : — " Rather skin a carcase for
pay in the public streets, than be idly dependent on charity,"
"Rather perform the meanest labour than beg." As a further
evidence of the estimation in which labour was held by the sages of
the Talmud, it may be mentioned that Hillel, before being
admitted to the Great College, earned his livelihood as a wood-
cutter ; that Rabbi Joshua was a pinmaker ; Rabbi Nehcmiah
Halsador, a potter ; Rabbi Judah, a tailor ; Rabbi Joshua Hasandler,
a shoemaker; and Rabbi Judah Hanechtan, a baker. "Of all
things," says Mr. Deutsch, "the most hated were idleness and
asceticism ; piety and learning themselves only received their
proper estimation when joined to healthy, bodily work. 'It is
well to add a trade to your studies ; you will then be free from sin,'
' The tradesman at his work need not rise before the greatest
doctor,' 'Greater is he who derives his livelihood from work than
he who fears God ' — are some of the most common dicta of the
period." ^Literary Remaifis, p. 25, where there are some striking
stories in condemnation of asceticism). Mr. Deutsch elsewhere
quotes, " Rather live on your Sabbath as you would on a wcck-day
than be dependent on others," (Ibid., p. yi).— Trans.



2 2 Solotfwn Maiinon :

been impossible even in Poland, where the Jews were
subject to no disability excluding them from the
common industries of the country ; and from the Auto-
biography it appears that, even at an early period of his
life, he was more than half aware that his poverty was
due, not wholly to the imperious demands of a higher
culture, but to a somewhat selfish indolence.* In
Germany, with its more advanced civiUsation, it would
have been much less difficult for him to make a tolerable
living at some employment. The Autobiography shows
that he was very generously received by a large circle of
influential friends, who took a great deal of pains to
secure for him a position of independence, and that they
abandoned their effort only when they found it in vain.
From the Maimotiiaiia also it appears that some of the
most eminent men of his time continued to tender their
friendly services. Among others, Plattner, Schultze
(Aenesidemus), and even Goethe, made advances
towards Maimon in a way that was not only very flatter-
ing, but might have been very helpful, if he had so
chosen, t But he never got rid of the habit, which he
had acquired in Poland, of depending on others ; and
the low standard of comfort, to which he had accustomed
himself, left him without sufficient stimulus to seek an
escape from his pauperised condition.



* See above, pp. 140-1.

\ Alai/noniana, pp. 196-200.



Am Autobiography. 393

His condition, therefore, never improved, lie mn-
tinued during his later years to work at various literary
employments ; but the remuneration he obtained for
these was never sufficient for his subsistence. His works
appealed to a very limited public. He hadconscfiucnlly
often to go a-begging for a publisher, and to content
himself with what slight honorarium the reluctant
publishers chose to give.* The literary hack-work, of
which he was obliged to do a good deal, brought him no
better return. That sort of labour was probably as poorly
paid in Berlin at the time as in the Grub Street of last
century. He was therefore at times reduced to utter
beggary. Many of his earlier friends, as appears from
the Autobiography, had lost patience with him ; and
some, who had helped him before, when he was forced
by sheer starvation to apply to them afterwards, treated
him as a common beggar, dismissing him with a copper
in charity {Zehrpfennig)^ and at times with unnecessarily
cold, even insulting language.! If we add to this the
fact, that his irregular habits often made him the victim
of unscrupulous men,:J: it will not seem surprising that he
sometimes fell into a bitter tone and harsh judgments
about his friends, § or that he was apt occasionally to
burst out into pretty strong language of general mis-
anthropy. II



* Ibid. -p. ?>o. t/^/t/. pp. 80, 83-4. ://^/./., p. 95. tioic.

%Ibtd., pp. 82-3. \JbU., pp. 154, 157.



2 94 Solomon Maimon :

Perhaps Maimon might have risen out of the chronic
destitution, to which he seemed doomed, if he had
cultivated in any degree the virtue of thrift. But
thriftlessness, as the Autobiography shows, had been an
hereditary vice in his family, at least for two generations
before him; and though he gives vivid pictures of its
pitiable results in the households of his grandfather and
father, he never made any effort to rise above it himself.
Whenever he obtained any remuneration for his work,
instead of husbanding it economically till he obtained
more, he usually squandered it at once in extravagancies,
often of a useless, sometimes of a reprehensible kind.*
He points out in his first chapter, that his grandfather
might have been a rich man if he had kept accounts of
income and expenditure. But his friend Wolff, has to
confess that, good mathematician as Maimon was, he
never seemed to think of the difference between plus
and 77iinus in money-matters, f With such a character
one of Maimon's friends was not far from the truth, when
on a fresh application for assistance, he dismissed him,
too harshly perhaps, with the blunt remark, "People like
you there is no use in trying to help." % Certainly help
was not to be found in Maimon himself, and it is difficult
to see how he could have avoided the chance of a miserable
death by actual starvation, had it not been that a generous



* Ibid., pp. 80, 95, 104. + Ibid., p. 84. Xlbid., p. 105.



An Autobio^aphy, jqc

home was at last opened to him, where he closed hu d.i)-*
in comfort and peace.

A character like that of Maimon implied a general
irregularity of life,— an absence of that regulation by fixed
rules of conduct, which is essential to wellbcing. He
was not indeed unaware of the importance of such
regularity. " I require of every man of sound mind," he
said one day, " that he should lay out for himself a plan
of action." No wonder that this requirement leads his
friend to remark, that it seemed to him as if Maimon's
only plan of life had been to live without any plan at all.*

The irregularity of his habits is strikingly seen in his
want of method even at his literary work. Nothwiih-
standing the technical culture he gave himself in early
life in drawing, he seems never to have reached any
degree of muscular expertness. Wolff remarked his
awkwardness in handling his pen, and his inability lo
fold a letter with tolerable neatness.! In other respects
also he was careless about those mechanical conveni-
ences by which mental work is usually facilitated. He
was commonly to be seen working at a very unsteady
desk, one leg of which was supported by a folio volume. ^
He did not even confine himself to any particular place
for work. Apparently he spent more of his day in public
taverns than in his private lodging, and he might often



Ibid., p. 159. \ Ibid., pp. 231-2. X /*'<'•. P- ¥>'



296 Solomon Maimon:

be seen amid the distraction of such surroundings writing
or revising proofs, while, as a consequence, his papers
sometimes were mislaid and lost, and his work had all
to be done over again. It was said of the Autobio-
graphy itself that it had been written on an alehouse
bench."* He could never understand how any man
could do intellectual work by rule; and therefore,
though he had to make his living as best he could by
literature, he never formed the habit of reserving one
part of the day for work. He commonly worked in the
morning, at least in his morning, and that, his friend
acknowledges, was not very early ;f but this itself was
evidently no fixed rule. Probably for the same reason
he never adopted the plan, which authors find so service-
able, of first sketching an outline of a work before it is
written out in detail. " I have," he said one day, "given
up, with good result, the habit of making a draught
beforehand. You are not, by a long way, so careful
about your work when you know that you are going to
write it over again ; you neglect many a thought, do not
write it down, because you believe that it will occur to
you again in copying out, which frequently does not
happen." \ It is clear, however, that, his opinion to the
contrary notwithstanding, his writings suffered from his
unmethodical habits. "The fact," says the most
competent of judges on this subject, "that Maimon is

* Ibid., p. 140, 'Mbid., p. 96. Xlhid., p. 97.



An Autobiography, 201

far from having attained the recognition which his
importance deserves, may be accounted for by the
defective condition of his writings. His extraordinary
acuteness was designed, but was not sufficiently cuhivatcd,
to give to his investigations the hght and the force of
methodical exposition. He wrote with most pleasure in
his Talmudic fashion, commenting and disputing, with-
out proper sifting and arrangement of his materials. To
these defects must be added the faults of his style. It
is surprising that he learned to write German as he did.
In his writings there are passages in which the thought
bursts out with really resplendent power, and actually
forces the language, even plays with it, in turns of
expression that take you by surprise. But a German
author he never became ; and as a philosophical author
he wanted a certain sense of order that is indispensable
for exposition. He can sometimes formulate ver)- well,
but cannot systematise, and hence his most important
opinions, in which the whole meaning of his position
rests, are often in the course of his writings found in
passages the least lucid and the least prominent." *

It is perhaps only saying the same thing of Maimon in
another form, that he had no mechanical memory, that
consequently he was apt to forget the names of persons
and of places, sometimes could not remember the name
of the street where he lived, or the day or even the



* Fischer's Geschichte der neuern Philosophie, vol. v., pp. 133-4-

U



298 Solomon Maimon :

month ; and it is not therefore surprising that he often
injured himself by neglecting all sort of engagements.*
It may be readily inferred that he was particularly
negligent about all engagements and regulations bearing
upon the mere externals of life. That a man of his
condition and character must have been unusually care-
less about his personal appearance, follows as a matter
of course, and therefore we may pass over the references
of Wolff to peculiarities of Maimon's dress. He was
usually to be seen out of doors clad in an overcoat which
had evidently not been made for himself, and which, we
may suspect, was intended as a convenient covering for
the defects of under-garments, his boots bearing the
weather-stains of many days, and his beard often show-
ing that for a good while he had forgotten his engage-
ment with his barber. In the latter years of his life he
abandoned the use of a wig, as well as of powder in his
hair, at a time when these changes must have been
regarded as rather daring innovations on prevalent
fashion. But in all his surroundings he showed what,
for a man of his intellectual attainments, seems a most
astonishing disregard of sanitary cleanliness and the
comfortable decencies of life. The state of his lodging
must have raised a shudder in any one sensitive to
disorder or uncleanliness. He acknowledged that he
was constantly at war with the housemaid on this subject,

* Maimoniana^ pp. 190-6.



An Autobiography. joo

as he could never bear to have his room swept and
dusted, and he complained of the perpetual annoyance
to which he was exposed in Amsterdam from the exces-
sive scruples of the people in regard to tidiness. • It
may fairly be suspected that the annoyance was consider-
ably greater, as it was more justifiable, on the other side.
His habits in this respect clung to him to the last, and it
was evidently difficult to keep his surroundings tolerable
even in the comparatively sumptuous home in which he
closed his days.

The frank confessions of the Autobiography reveal the
fact, that the irregularity, which characterised the life of
Maimon, sometimes led to a breach of the weightier
matters of the law. The habit, which he began in Poland,
of seeking relief from external discomfort and internal
wretchedness in alcoholic stimulation, grew upon him
afterwards ; and as his health began to fail, he used to
treat his various complaints by a liberal allowance of
various wines and beers which he supposed adapted to
their cure.f The liberal allowance was very apt, espe-
cially in the evenings, to exceed all reasonable moderation;
and the sleepy inhabitants of Berlin were not infrequently
disturbed by the half-tipsy philosopher, as he wended
his way unsteadily homewards at unseasonable hours,
discoursing on all sorts of speculative themes in disagree-



Ibid., pp. 90-1. \ Ibid., pp. 183-8.



300 Solomon Maimon:

ably loud tones that were occasionally interrupted by the
expostulations of a night-watchman.*

The peculiarly undisciplined manners of Maimon were
occasionally shown in violent outbursts of various feelings.
Too frequently it was an irritable temper that gave way.
The slightest provocation, even the loss of a game at
chess, t was apt to cause a painful explosion; and then
his language was certainly far from being restrained by
those usages which are found essential to the pleasantness
of social intercourse. I The uncontrollable violence of
these outbursts was amusingly exhibited in the fact, that
sometimes he could not command the intellectual calm
requisite for thinking and expressing himself in his
acquired German, and, even though it might be a Gentile
with whom he quarrelled, he fell back on his Judaeo-Pohsh
mother tongue, which came to him as if by natural instinct.§
It is but fair, however, to add that these outbursts were
often merely the unusually forcible, but not altogether
unjustifiable, utterances of an honest indignation at
wrong. II

For this strangely educated man, who in his outward
manners seemed to remain a somewhat rude child of
nature, was after all ready to yield, not only to an unkindly
irritability, but also to the more genial emotions. It is



* Ibid.^ pp. 10 1 -4. '\ Ihid.^ p. 217.

Xlbid., pp. 109-II2, 208, 212-3.
%Ibid., p. 87. II Ibid., p. 213.



An Autobiography. ^oi

pleasing, for example, to know that he had a particular
fondness for animals ; and his pets were allowed in his
lodging liberties which, however objectionable to a lidy
house-maid, showed at least the essential gentleness of
his heart. Tutored as he was himself in the severest
school of poverty, it is also pleasing to know that he
cherished a kindly sympathy for the poor, and was ever
ready to help them as he could, sometimes at the cost of
no small sacrifice to himself.* The finer sensibilities of
his nature were also easily touched by music. Though
he had no musical culture, and used to regret that he had
had none, an old Hebrew melody, long after he had broken
off all connection with the Jews, could move him so
deeply that he was obliged, even in company, to seek
relief in tears, f For in the uncontrolled simplicity of his
nature he allowed his feelings to find their natural vent
without much restraint from circumstances; and therefore
he was seen at times in the theatre excited to loud sobbing
by a tragedy, or to boisterous laughter over a comedy. J
Nor is it to be regarded as an unpleasant feature of his
character, but rather as an indication of a wholesome
check on the general irregularity of his life, that, even
after he had thrown off all the peculiar restraints of his
national religion, he clung with evident fondness to many
of those rabbinical habits which he had cultivated in his



* Ibid., p. 249. ilbid., p. ^.

Xlbid., p. 230.



302 Solomon Mai7non:

earlier years. From Fischer's account of the style of
Maimon's works we have seen how his intellectual work
was affected by his Talmudic studies. The criticism is
evidently just. Maimon himself had met with it, and
acknowledged its justice. He protested indeed that it
did not affect the truth of his speculations, though he
evidently felt its disadvantages, and laboured at times to
acquire a more methodical style.*

The rabbinical habits of Maimon, however, were
most quaintly seen in peculiarities of outward manner.
Gesticulations customary in the study of the Talmud he
was seen to adopt not infrequently when he forgot him-
self in the earnestness of conversation, or when in a
company he fell into a brown study, or even in the
studies of his retirement. Thus in reading Euler's
mathematical works or any other book which required
great attention, he would fall into the Talmudic sing-
song and rhythmical swing of the body.f

It is noteworthy also, that, with all the unrestrained
rudeness which often characterised his manners, Maimon
was not without a certain dignified courtesy ; and when
the occasion demanded it, he could turn a polite phrase
as prettily as the most accomplished gentleman. J There
was, moreover, in Maimon an intrinsic shyness which
must have gone a long way to soften the less amiable



*/<5iV., pp. 86-7. ■Mbid.,^.%^.

tSee, for example, Ibid., pp. 112, 115, 209, 250-1.



yi» Autohioi^raphy.



303



side of his social character.* Then it is evident that his
conversation, in his better moods at least, had a chaim
which made him a welcome guest in any company.
Thus, amid all that may have been repulsive at times,
there must have been in Maimon's character a good deal
to attract the friendly companionship of others. The
Autobiography itself, as well as Wolffs little book, shows
that Maimon enjoyed as much as he desired of the
cultured society of his time. Being naturally shy, indeed,
he rather shrank from company in which intercourse is
regulated by a somewhat rigid social code ; and the
desire of freedom from such restriction often drove him
into company of a much more objectionable kind. He
also seems to have entertained a strong dislike to any
excessively demonstrative affection. lie himself was
rather curt in his expressions of courtesy or friendliness
towards others, contenting himself generally, on meeting
them, with a familiar nod. The lifting of the hat
appeared to him meaningless, and a deliberate embrace


1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 18 20 21

Online LibrarySalomon MaimonSolomon Maimon : an autobiography → online text (page 18 of 21)