Salomon Maimon.

Solomon Maimon : an autobiography online

. (page 1 of 21)
Online LibrarySalomon MaimonSolomon Maimon : an autobiography → online text (page 1 of 21)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook




Translated from the German, with Additions
AND Notes,



Professor of Mental and Moral Philosophy, M'Gill College, Montreal.






Translator's Preface, - - - • ix.

Introduction.— State of Poland in last century, - I

Chapter —

I._My Grandfather's Housekeeping,- - 6

II. — First Reminiscences of Youth, - - I9

'HI.— Private Education and Independent Study,- 22

IV.— Jewish Schools— The Joy of being released from

them causes a Stiff Foot,- - - 32

v.— My Family is driven into Misery, and an old
Servant loses by his great Faithfulness a
Christian Burial, - - - 3^

VI. — New Abode, New Misery— The Talmudist, - 42

VII.— Joy endureth but a little while, - - 49

VIII.— The Pupil knows more than the Teacher— A theft
d la Rousseau, which is discovered — "The
ungodly provideth, and the righteous putteth
it on," . - • - 54

vi. Contents.

Chapter — page

IX. — Love Affairs and Matrimonial Proposals — The
Song of Solomon may be used in the service
of Matchmaking — A new Modus Lucrandi —
Smallpox, - - - - 59

X. — I become an object of Contention, get two Wives

at once, and am kidnapped at last, - - 65

KI. — My Marriage in my eleventh Year makes me the
Slave of my Wife, and procures for me
Cudgellings from my Mother-in-Law — A
Ghost of Flesh and Blood, - • 74

XII.— The Secrets of the Marriage State— Prince
Radzivil, or what is not all allowed in
Poland? - - - -79

XIII. — Endeavour after mental Culture amid ceaseless

Struggles with Misery of every Kind, - 89

XIV. — I study the Cabbalah, and become at last a

Physician, - - - 94

XV. — A brief Exposition of the Jewish Religion from

its Origin down to the most recent Times, 1 1 1

XVI. — Jewish Piety and Penances,- - - 132

XVII. — Friendship and Enthusiasm, - - 138

XVIIL— The Life of a Family Tutor, - - 145

XIX. — Also on a Secret Society, and therefore a Long

Chapter, - - - - 151

/ XX. — Continuation of the Former, and also Something

about Religious Mysteries, - - 176

Contents. viL

Chapter —


XXI. — Journeys to Konigsherg, Stettin, and Berlin, for
the purpose of extending my Knowledge of
Men, - - - . 187

XXII. — Deepest Stage of Misery, and Deliverance, - 197

XXIII. — Arrival in Berlin — Acquaintances — Mendelssohn
— Desperate Study of Metaphysics — Doubts —
Lectures on Locke and Adelung, - 210

XXIV. — Mendelssohn — A Chapter devoted to the Memory

of a worthy Friend, - - - 221

XXV. — 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 rejected, - 234

XXVI. — 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 Chief Rabbi out of his Wits, - - 253

XXVIL— Third journey to Berlin— Frustrated Plan of
Hebrew Authorship — ^Journey to Breslau —
Divorce, .... 265

XXVIII. — Fourth journey to Berlin — Unfortunate circum-
stances — Help — Study of Kant's Writings —
Characteristic of my own Works, - 279

Concluding Chapter, .... 290


One effect of Daniel Deronda was to make known to a
wide circle of readers the vitality of Judaism as a system
which still holds sway over the mental as well as the
external life of men. During the few years which have
passed since the publication of that great fiction, the in-
terest in modern Judaism has continued to grow. It is
but a short time since the Western world was startled by
the outbreak of an ancient feeling against the Jews,
which had been supposed to be long dead, at least in
some of the quarters where it was displayed. The popu-
lar literature of the day also seems to indicate that the
life of existing Jewish communities is attracting a large
share of attention in the reading world. The charming
pictures which Emil Franzos has drawn of Jewish life in
the villages of Eastern Galicia, are not only popular in
Germany, but some have been reproduced in a cheap
form in New York to meet the demand of German Am-
ericans, and some have also been translated into Eng-
lish. The interest of English readers in the same sub-
ject is further shown by the recent translation of Kom-
pert's Scenes fro?n the Ghetto, as well as by Mr. Cumber-


X. Translatof^s Preface.

land's still more recent and powerful romance of The
Rabbi's Spell. Among students of philosophical litera-
ture a fresh interest has been awakened in the history of
Jewish thought by the revival of the question in refer-
ence to the sources of Spinoza's philosophy. The affini-
ties of this system with the familiar tendencies of Carte-
sian speculation have led the historians of philosophy gen-
erally to represent the former as simply an inevitable
development of the latter, while the affinities of Spinoz-
ism with the unfamiliar speculations of earlier Jewish
thinkers have been almost entirely ignored.

In these circumstances a special interest may be felt
in the life of one of the most remarkable Jews of modern
times — a life which forms one of the most extraordinary
biographies in the history of literature.

Readers of Daniel Deronda may remember that, in
his search among the Jews of London for some one who
could throw light on the sad story of Mirah, the hero of
the novel was attracted one day to a second-hand book-
shop, where his eye fell on " that wonderful bit of auto-
biography — the life of the Polish Jew, Solomon Mai-
mon." There are few men so remarkable as Maimon
who have met with so little recognition in English litera-
ture. Milman, in his History of the Jeius^ refers once*
to the autobiography as " a curious and rare book," but
apparently he knew it only from some quotations in

* Vol. iii., p. 370, note.

Translator' s Preface. xi.

Franck's La Cahhak. Among English metaphysical
writers the only one who seems to have studied the
speculations of IMaimon is Dr. Hodgson.* Even the
new edition of the Eticyclopedia Briia?t?iica gives no
place to Maimon among its biographies. And yet he is
a prominent figure among the metaphysicians of the
Kantian period. Kuno Fischer, in his Geschichte der
Neueren Philosophie^\ devotes a whole chapter to the
life of Maimon, while the contemporary critics of Kant
are dismissed with little or no biographical notice.
Fischer's sketch is just sufficient to whet curiosity for
fuller details ; but, amid the dearth of rare literature in
Colonial libraries, I certainly never expected to come,
in a Canadian town, upon " a curious and rare book " of
last century, which was known even to the learned Mil-
man only through some quotations from a French
author. One day, however, in Toronto, in order to
while away an unoccupied hour, I was glancing, like
Daniel Deronda, over the shelves of a second-hand
bookseller, when I was attracted by a small volume, in
a good state of preservation, with "S. Maimon's Lebens-
geschichte " on the back ; and on taking it down I
found it to be the veritable autobiography which I had
been curious to see.

Some account of the work was given in an article in

* See the Preface to his PhilosopJiy of Reflection, pp. 16-1S.
t Vol. v., chap. 7.

xii. TranslatOT^s Preface.

the British Quarterly Review for July, 1885 ; but I
thought that a complete translation would probably be
welcomed by a considerable circle of English readers.
The book has many attractions. If the development of
the inner life of man can ever be characterised as a
romance, the biography of Maimon may, in the truest
sense, be said to be one of the most romantic stories
ever written. Perhaps no literature has preserved a
more interesting record of a spirit imprisoned within
almost insuperable barriers to culture, yet acquiring
strength to burst all these, and even to become an ap-
preciable power in directing the course of speculation.
The book, however, is much more than a biography ; it
possesses historical interest. It opens up what, to many
English readers, must be unknown efforts of human
thought, unknown wanderings of the religious life. The
light, which it throws upon Judaism especially, both in
its speculative and in its practical aspects, is probably,
in fact, unique. For the sketches, which the book con-
tains, of Jewish speculation and life were made at a time
when the author had severed all vital connection with
his own people and their creed ; and they are therefore
drawn from a point of view outside of Jewish prejudices:
but they are penned by one who had been brought up
to believe the divine mission of his people, as well as the
divine authority of their religion; and the criticism of
his old fliith is generally tempered by that kindly sym-
pathy, with which the heart is apt to be warmed on

Translato)^ s Preface. xiii.

lingering over the companionships and other associations
of earher years. Maimon's account of Jewish philosophy
and theology acquires an additional value from the fact,
that he was caught in the full tide of the Kantian move-
ment, and he was thus in a position to point out unex-
pected affinities between many an old effort of speculative
thought among the Jews and the philosophical tendencies
of modern Christendom.

Since writing the above-mentioned article for the
British Quarterly Review^ I learnt that a volume of
Maimoniana had been issued in 1813 by an old friend
of our philosopher, Dr. Wolff* ; and through the kind-
ness of a friend in Leipsic, I was enabled, after some
delay, to procure a copy. It is a small volume of 260
pages, and adds extremely little to our knowledge of
Maimon. Nearly one third is simply a condensation of
the autobiography ; and the remainder shows the author
with the opportunities indeed, but without the faculty,
of a Boswell. He has preserved but few of the felicities
of Maimon's conversation ; and what he has preserved
loses a good deal of its flavour from his want of the
lively memory by w^hich Boswell was able to reproduce
the peculiar mannerisms of Johnson's talk. Still I have

* The volume bears the somewhat quaint title in full : — Maun-
oniana, oder Rhapsodien Ziir Charakteristik Salomon Maimoti's.
Aus Seinem Privatleben gesammelt von Sabattia Joseph Wolff,
M.D. Berlin, gedruckt bei G. Ilayn, 181 3.

xiv. Translator's Preface.

culled from the little volume a few notes for illustration
of the autobiography, and I r.m indebted to it for most
of the materials of the concluding chapter. All my
additions arc indicated by " Trans" appended.

The translation gives the whole of the biographical
lX)rtion of the original. There are, however, ten chapters
which I have omitted, as they are occupied entirely with
a sketch of the great work of Maimonides, — the Moreh
Nebhochim, or Guide of the Perplexed. Owing to their
somewhat loose connection* with the rest, these chapters
excite just the faintest suspicion of " padding ; " and at
all events there is no demand for such a sketch in
English now, when our literature has been recently
enriched by Dr. Friedlandcr's careful translation of the
whole work.

In the performance of my task I have endeavoured to
render the original as literally as was consistent with

•The only lop^ical connection is the fact, that the writings of
Maimonidcs formed the most powerful influence in the intellectual
development of Maimon. In illustration of this he writes : — "My
reverence for this great teacher went so far, that I regarded him as
the ideal of a perfect man, and looked upon his teachings as if
they had been inspired with Divine Wisdom itself. This went so
far, thnt, when my passions began to grow, and I had sometimes
to fear lest they might seduce me to some action inconsistent with
those teachings, I used to employ, as a proved antidote, the abjura-
tion, * I swear, by the reverence which I owe my great teacher,
Kabbi Mo.scs ben Maimon, not to do this act.' And this vow, so
far as I can rememlxir, was always sufficient to restrain me."
Lebensgeschichtc, \o\. ii., pp. 3-4.

Tra?isIator's Preface. xv.

readable English. Only in one or two passages I have
toned down the expression slightly to suit the tastes of
our own time ; but even in these I have not been
unfaithful to the author's meaning.

In the spelling of Hebrew and other foreign words I
have never, without some good reason, interfered with
the original. But as Maimon is not always consistent
with himself in this respect, I have felt myself at liberty
to disregard his usage by adopting such forms as are
more familiar, or more likely to be intelligible, to an
English reader.





The inhabitants of Poland may be conveniently divided
into six classes or orders : — the superior nobility, the
inferior nobility, the half-noble, burghers, peasantry and

The superior nobility consist of the great landowners
and administrators of the high offices of government.
The inferior nobility also are allowed to own land and to
fill any political office ; but they are prevented from
doing so by their poverty. The half-noble can neither
own land, nor fill any high office in the State ; and by
this he is distinguished from the genuine noble. Here
and there, it is true, he owns land ; but for that he is in
some measure dependent on the lord of the soil, within
whose estate his property lies, inasmuch as he is required
to pay him a yearly tribute.

The burghers are the most wretched of all the orders.
They are not, 'tis true, in servitude to any man ; they
also enjoy certain privileges, and have a jurisdiction of

2 Introductioti.

their own. lUit as they seldom own any property of
value, or follow rightly any profession, they always
remain in a condition of pitiable poverty.

The last two orders, namely the peasantry and the
Jews, are the most useful in the country. The former
occupy themselves with agriculture, raising cattle, keep-
ing bees, — in short, with all the products of the soil.
The latter engage in trade, take up the professions and
handicrafts, become bakers, brewers, dealers in beer,
brandy, mead and other articles. They are also the
only persons who farm estates in towns and villages,
except in the case of ecclesiastical properties, where the
reverend gentlemen hold it a sin to put a Jew in a
position to make a living, and accordingly prefer to hand
over their farms to the peasants. For this they must
suffer by their farms going to ruin, as the peasantry have
no aptitude for this sort of employment : but of course
they choose rather to bear this with Christian resignation.

In consequence of the ignorance of most of the Polish
landlords, the oppression of the tenantry, and the utter
want of economy, most of the farms in Poland, at the
end of last century,* had fallen into such a state of
decay, that a farm, which now yields about a thousand
Polish gulden, was offered to a Jew for ten ; but in con-
sequence of still greater ignorance and laziness, with all
that advantage even he could not make a living off the

* That is, of course, the seventeenth. — Trans.

liitrodiictioii. 3

farm. An incident, however, occurred at this time,
which gave a new turn to affairs. Two brothers from
Gahcia, where the Jews are much shrewder than in
Lithuania, took, under the name oi Dersawzes or farmers-
general, a lease of all the estates of Prince Radzivil, and,
by means of a better industry as well as a better economy,
they not only raised the estates into a better condition,
but also enriched themselves in a short time.

Disrecrarding the clamour of their brethren, they in-
creased the rents, and enforced payment by the sub-
lessees with the utmost stringency. They themselves
exercised a direct oversight of the farms ; and wherever
they found a farmer who, instead of looking after his own
interests and those of his landlord in the improvement
of his farm by industry and economy, spent the whole
day in idleness, or lay drunk about the stove, they soon
brought him to his senses, and roused him out of his
indolence by a flogging. This procedure of course
acquired for the farmers-general, among their own people,
the name of tyrants.

All this, however, had a very good effect. The farmer,
who at the term had hitherto been unable to pay up his
ten gulden of rent without requiring to be sent to jail
about it, now came under such a strong inducement to
active exertion, that he was not only able to support a
family off his farm, but was also able to pay, instead of
ten, four or five hundred, and sometimes even a thousand

4 Introduction.

The Jews, again, may be divided into three classes : —
(i) the ilhtcrate workingpeople, (2) those who make
learning their profession, and (3) those who merely de-
vote themselves to learning without engaging in any re-
munerative occupation, being supported by the industrial
class. To the second class belong the chief rabbis,
preachers, judges, schoolmasters, and others of similar
profession. The third class consists of those who, by
their pre-eminent abilities and learning, attract the regard
of the unlearned, are taken by these into their families,
married to their daughters, and maintained for some
years with wife and children at their expense. Afterwards,
however, the wife is obliged to take upon herself the
maintenance of the saintly idler and the children (who
are usually very numerous) ; and for this, as is natural,
she thinks a good deal of herself.

There is perhaps no country besides Poland, where
religious freedom and religious enmity are to be met with
in equal degree. The Jews enjoy there a perfectly free
e.xercise of their religion and all other civil liberties ; they
have even a jurisdiction of their own. On the other
hand, however, religious hatred goes so far, that the name
of Jew has become an abomination ; and this abhorrence,
which had taken root in barbarous times, continued to
show its effects till about thirteen years ago. But this
apparent contradiction may be very easily removed, if it
is considered that the religious and civil liberty, conceded
to the Jews in Poland, has not its source in any respect

Introduction. 5

for the universal rights of mankind, while, on the other
hand, the religious hatred and persecution are by no
means the result of a wise policy which seeks to remove
out of the way whatever is injurious to morality and the
welfare of the State. Both phenomena are results of the
political ignorance and torpor prevalent in the country.
With all their defects the Jews are almost the only useful '^ ^
inhabitants of the country, and therefore the Polish people ^'^-^L

found themselves obliged, for the satisfaction of their "^j-^-zc^
own wants, to grant all possible liberties to the Jews ; ^^^-t^:-.-^ ^ j
but, on the other hand, their moral ignorance and stupor ^ A-^ A
could not fail to produce religious hatred and persecution.

Solomon Maimon :


My Grandfather's Housekeeping.

M\' grandfather, Heimann Joseph, was farmer of some
villages in the neighbourhood of the town of Mir, in the
territory of Prince Radzivil.* He selected for his
residence one of these villages on the river Niemen,
called Sukoviborg, where, besides a few peasants' plots,
there was a water-mill, a small harbour, and a warehouse
for the use of the vessels that come from Konigsberg, in
Prussia. All this, along with a ' bridge behind the
village, and on the other side a drawbridge on the river
Niemen, belonged to the farm, which was then worth
about a thousand gulden, and formed my grandfather's
Chazakah.\ This farm, on account of the warehouse
and the great traffic, was very lucrative. With sufficient
industry and economical skill, si inejis 7ion laeva fuisset^
my grandfather should have been able, not only to
support his family, but even to gather wealth. The bad

• Maimon himself nowhere mentions the date or place of his
birth ; but Wolff says that he was born at Nesvij, in Lithuania,
about the year 1754 (Maivtoniana, p. 10). Trans.

t Tills word is explained below, at the beginning of the next

An Autobiography. j

constitution of the country, however, and his own want
of all the acquirements necessary for utilising the land,
placed extraordinary obstacles in his way.

My grandfather settled his brothers as tenants under
him in the villages belonging to his farm. 'J'hese not
only lived continually with my grandfather under the
pretence of assisting him in his manifold occupations,
but in addition to this they would not pay their rents at
the end of the year.

The buildings, belonging to my grandfather's farm,
had fallen into decay from age, and required therefore to
be repaired. The harbour and the bridge also had
become dilapidated. In accordance with the terms of
the lease the landlord was to repair everything, and put
it in a condition fit for use. But, like all the Polish
magnates, he resided permanently in Warsaw, and could ^
therefore give no attention to the improvement of his
estates. His stewards had for their principal object the
improvement rather of their own condition than of their
landlord's property. They oppressed the farmers with
all sorts of exactions, they neglected the orders given for
the improvement of the farms, and the moneys intended
for this purpose they applied to their own use. My
grandfather indeed made representations on the subject
to the stewards day after day, and assured them that it
was impossible for him to pay his rent, if everything was
not put into proper condition according to the lease.
All this, however, was of no avail. He always received

8 Solomon Maimon :

promises indeed, but the promises were never fulfilled.
The result was not only the ruin of the farm, but several
other evils arising from that.

As already mentioned, there was a large traffic at this
place ; and as the bridges were in a bad state, it hap-
pened not infrequently that these broke down just when
a Polisli nobleman with his rich train was passing, and
horse and rider were plunged into the swamp. The
poor farmer was then dragged to the bridge, where he
was laid down and flogged till it was thought that suf-
ficient revenge had been taken.

My grandfather therefore did all in his power to guard
against this evil in the future. For this purpose he
stationed one of his people to keep watch at the bridge,
so that, if any noble were passing, and an accident of
this sort should happen, the sentinel m.ight bring word
to the house as quickly as possible, and the whole family
might thus have time to take refuge in the neighbouring
wood. Every one thereupon ran in terror out of the
house, and not infrequently they were all obliged to
remain the whole night in the open air, till one after
another ventured to approach the house.

This sort of life lasted for some generations. My father
used to tell of an incident of this sort, which happened
when he was still a boy of about eight years. The whole
family had fled to their usual retreat. But my father,
who knew nothing of what had happened, and was play-
ing at the back of the stove, stayed behind alone. When

A?i Autobiography. 9

the angry lord came into the house with his suite, and
found nobody on whom he could wreak his vengeance,
he ordered every corner of the house to be searched,
when my father was found at the back of the stove.
The nobleroan asked him if he would drink brandy, and,
on the boy refusing, shouted : " If you will not drink
brandy, you shall drink water." At the same time he
ordered a bucketful of water to be brought, and forced
my father, by lashes with his whip, to drink it out. Na-
turally this treatment brought on a quartan fever, which
lasted nearly a whole year, and completely undermined
his health.

A similar incident took place when I was a child of
three years. Every one ran out of the house ; and the
housemaid, who carried me in her arms, hurried forth.
But as the servants of the nobleman who had arrived ran
after her, she quickened her steps, and in her extreme
haste let me fall from her arms. There I lay whimpering
on the skirt of the wood, till fortunately a peasant passing
by lifted me up and took me home with him. It was

1 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21

Online LibrarySalomon MaimonSolomon Maimon : an autobiography → online text (page 1 of 21)