III. THE PHILOSOPHER

In May, 1670, shortly after publication of the Tractatus, Spinoza moved to The Hague, perhaps to be nearer to de Witt and other influential friends. For a year he stayed in the house of the Widow van Velen; then he passed to the home of Hendrik van der Spyck on the Pavilioensgracht; this building was bought in 1927 by an international committee, and is preserved as the Domus Spinozana. There he remained to the end of his life. He occupied one room on the top floor, and slept in a bed that during the day could be folded into the wall. 44 He “was sometimes three whole months without stepping out of doors,” Bayle tells; perhaps his consumptive lungs made him fearful of the winter damp. But he had many visitors, and (again according to Bayle) he occasionally “visited persons of importance . . . to discourse of state affairs,” which “he understood well.” 45 He continued to polish lenses; Christian Huygens commented on their excellence. 46 He kept an account of his expenditures; we learn therefrom that he lived on four and a half sous per day. His friends insisted on helping him, for they must have seen that his confinement to the house, and the dust from his lens polishing, were aggravating his constitutional ailment.

The protection that he received from Jan de Witt ended when a mob assassinated both the de Witt brothers in the streets of The Hague (August 20, 1672). Hearing of the murder, Spinoza wished to go out and denounce the crowd to its face as ultiri barbarorum, the lowest barbarians, but his host locked the door and prevented him from leaving the house. 47 Jan de Witt’s will left Spinoza an annuity of two hundred francs. 48* After the death of de Witt the civil power fell to Prince William Henry, who needed the support of the Calvinist clergy. When a second edition of the Tractatus theologico-politicus appeared in 1674, the Prince and the Council of Holland issued a decree prohibiting the sale of the book; and in 1675 the Calvinist consistory of The Hague published a proclamation bidding all citizens to report at once any attempt to print any writing by Spinoza. 49 Between 1650 and 1680 there were some fifty edicts, by church authorities, against the reading or circulation of the philosopher’s works. 50

Perhaps such prohibitions shared in spreading his fame into Germany, England, and France. On February 16, 1673, Johann Fabritius, professor in the University of Heidelberg, wrote “to the very acute and renowned Philosopher Benedictus de Spinoza” in the name of the liberal Elector of the Palatinate, Prince Charles Louis:

His Serene Highness . . . has commanded me to write to you . . . and ask whether you are willing to accept an ordinary professorship of philosophy in his illustrious university. You will be paid the annual salary which the ordinary professors enjoy today. You will not find elsewhere a prince more favorable to distinguished geniuses, among whom he reckons you. You will have the utmost freedom of philosophizing, which he believes you will not misuse to disturb the publicly established religion. . .

Spinoza replied on March 30:

MOST HONORABLE SIR:

If I had ever experienced a wish to take on a professorship in any faculty, I could have desired no other than that which is offered me through you by his Serene Highness the Elector Palatine. . . . Since, however, it was never my intention to give public instruction, I cannot be induced to embrace this glorious opportunity . . . For first, I think that if I want to find time for instructing youth, then I must desist from developing my philosophy. Secondly, . . . I do not know within what limits that freedom of philosophizing ought to be confined in order to avoid the appearance of wishing to disturb the publicly established religion. For schisms arise not so much from an ardent love of religion as from men’s various dispositions, or the love of contradiction. . . . I have already experienced these things while leading a private and solitary life; much more then are they to be feared after I shall have risen to this degree of dignity. Thus you see, Most Honored Sir, that I am not holding back in the hope of some better fortune, but from love of peace. 51

Spinoza was fortunate in his refusal, for in the following year Turenne devastated the Palatinate, and the university was closed.

In May, 1673, amid the invasion of the United Provinces by a French army, an invitation came to Spinoza from a colonel in that army to visit the Great Condé at Utrecht. Spinoza consulted the Dutch authorities, who may have seen in the invitation an opportunity to open negotiations for a desperately needed truce. Both sides gave him safe-conducts, and the philosopher made his way to Utrecht. Meanwhile Condé had been sent elsewhere by Louis XIV; he sent word (according to Lucas 52) asking Spinoza to wait for him; but after several weeks another message said that he was indefinitely delayed. It was apparently at this time that Maréchal de Luxembourg advised Spinoza to dedicate a book to Louis, assuring him of a liberal response from the King. 53 Nothing came of the proposal. Spinoza returned to The Hague, to find that many citizens suspected him of treason. A hostile crowd gathered about his house, shouting insults and throwing stones. “Do not be troubled,” he told his landlord; “I am innocent, and there are many . . . in high places who well know why I went to Utrecht. As soon as you hear any disturbance at your door I will go out to the people, even if they should treat me as they treated the good de Witt. I am an honest republican, and the welfare of the Republic is my aim.” 54 His host would not let him go, and the crowd dispersed.

He was now forty-one. A portrait in the Domus Spinozana at The Hague shows him as a fine type of Sephardic Jew, with flowing black hair, heavy eyebrows, black, bright, and slightly somber eyes, a long straight nose, altogether a rather handsome face, if only in comparison with Hals’s Descartes. “He was extremely neat in his appearance,” reported Lucas, “and never left his house without wearing clothes that distinguished the gentleman from the pedant.” 55 His manners were grave but amiable. Oldenburg noted his “solid learning combined with humanity and refinement.” 56 “Those who have been acquainted with Spinoza,” wrote Bayle, “. . . all say that he was sociable, affable, honest, friendly, and a good moral man.” 57 To his neighbors he spoke no heresy; on the contrary, he encouraged them to continue their church attendance, and occasionally he accompanied them to hear a sermon. 58 More than any other modern philosopher he achieved a tranquillity born of self-control. He rarely replied to criticism; he dealt with ideas rather than personalities. Despite his determinism, his uprooting from his people, and his illness, he was far from being a pessimist. “Act well,” he said, “and rejoice.” 59 To know the worst and believe the best might have been the motto of his thought.

Friends and admirers made a path to his door. Walter von Tschirnhaus persuaded him to let him see the manuscript of the Ethics. “I beg you,” wrote the mathematician-physicist, “to help me with your usual courtesy wherever I do not rightly grasp your meaning.”60 Probably through this eager student Leibniz won access to Spinoza (1676), and presumably to the still unpublished masterpiece. The surviving members of Dr. Meyer’s circle in Amsterdam came to see him, or were among his correspondents. His letters to and from European scholars shed unexpected light upon the intellectual climate of the time. Hugo Boxel repeatedly urged him to admit the reality of ghosts. In 1675 the anatomist Steno sent from Florence a touching appeal for Spinoza’s conversion to Catholicism:

If you wish, I shall willingly take upon myself the task of showing you . . . wherein your teachings are behind ours, although I should wish that you . . . would offer to God a refutation of your own errors . . . in order that if your first writings have turned aside a thousand souls from the true knowledge of God, the recantation of them, reinforced by your own example, may lead back to him a thousand thousand with you as with another Augustine. I pray with all my heart that this grace may be yours. Farewell. 61

The fascination of Catholicism captured also Albert Burgh, son of Spinoza’s friend Conraad Burgh, treasurer general of the United Provinces. Albert, like Steno, had become a convert while traveling in Italy. In September, 1675, he wrote to Spinoza not so much soliciting as challenging him to accept the Roman Catholic faith:

How do you know that your philosophy is the best among all those which have ever been taught in the world, or are actually taught now, or ever will be taught in the future? . . . Have you examined all those philosophies, ancient as well as modern, which are taught here and in India and everywhere throughout the world? And even if you have duly examined them, how do you know that you have chosen the best? . . .

If, however, you do not believe in Christ, you are more wretched than I can say. But the remedy is easy: return from your sins, and realize the fatal arrogance of your wretched and insane reasoning. . . . Will you, you wretched little man, vile worm of the earth,. . . dare, in your unspeakable blasphemy, to put yourself above the Incarnate, Infinite Wisdom? . . .

From your principles you will not explain thoroughly even one of those things which are accomplished in witchcraft . . . , nor will you be able to explain any of the stupendous phenomena among those who are possessed by demons, of all of which I have myself seen various instances, and I have heard most certain evidence. 62

Spinoza, in part, replied (December, 1675):

What I could scarcely believe when it was related me by others, I at last understand from your letter; that is, that not only have you become a member of the Roman Church . . . but that you are a very keen champion of it, and have already learned to curse and rage petulantly against your opponents. I had not intended to reply to your letter, . . . but certain friends who with me had formed great hopes for you from your natural talent, earnestly prayed me not to fail in the duty of a friend, and to think rather of what you recently were than of what you now are. . . . I have been induced by these arguments to write to you these words, earnestly begging you to be kind enough to read them with a calm mind.

I will not here recount the vices of priests and popes to turn you away from them, as the opponents of the Roman Church are wont to do. For they usually publish these things from ill-feeling, and . . . in order to annoy rather than instruct. Indeed, I will admit that there are found more men of great learning, and of an upright life, in the Roman than in any other Christian Church; for since there are more . . . members of this Church, there will also be found in it more men of every condition. . . . In every Church there are many very honest men who worship God with justice and charity . . . For justice and charity are the surest sign of the true Catholic faith . . . , and wherever these are found, there Christ really is, and where they are lacking, there Christ also is not. For by the spirit of Christ alone can we be led to the love of justice and charity. If you had been willing duly to ponder these facts within yourself, you would not have been lost, nor would you have caused bitter sorrow to your parents. . . .

Your asked me, how I know that my philosophy is the best among all those which have ever been taught in the world, or are taught now, or will be taught in the future. This, indeed, I can ask you with far better right. For I do not presume that I have found the best philosophy, but I know that I think [it] the true one. . . . But you who presume that you have at last found the best religion, or rather the best men, to whom you have given over your credulity, how do you know that they are the best among all those who have taught other religions, or are teaching them now, or will teach them in the future? Have you examined all those religions, both ancient and modern, which are taught here and in India, and everywhere throughout the world? And even if you have duly examined them, how do you know that you have chosen the best? . . .

Do you regard it as arrogance and pride because I use my reason, and acquiesce in that true Word of God which is in the mind and can never be depraved or corrupted? Away with this deadly superstition; acknowledge the reason which God has given you, and cultivate it, if you would not be numbered among the brutes. . . . If you will . . . examine the histories of the Church (of which I see you are most ignorant), in order to see how false are many of the Pontifical traditions, and by what. . . arts the Roman Pontiff, six hundred years after the birth of Christ, obtained sovereignty over the Church, I doubt not that you will at last come to your senses. That this may be so, I wish you from my heart. Farewell. 63

Burgh joined the Franciscan order, and died in a monastery in Rome.

Most of Spinoza’s extant correspondence was with Oldenburg. We are surprised to find that much of it deals with science, that Spinoza carried on experiments in physics and chemistry, and that his letters are illustrated with many diagrams. This correspondence was interrupted in 1665. Oldenburg was arrested in 1667, and was held in the Tower of London on suspicion of dealing with a foreign power. On his release he turned to religion, and when he resumed correspondence with Spinoza (1675) he joined in the effort to win him back to some form of orthodox Christianity. He begged him to take the story of Christ’s resurrection not allegorically but literally. “The whole Christian religion and its truth,” he thought, “rests on this article of the Resurrection; and if it is taken away, the mission of Christ and his heavenly teaching collapse.” 64 He finally gave up Spinoza as a lost soul, and discontinued the correspondence (1677).

All through the years from 1662 Spinoza had been working on the Ethics. As early as April, 1662, he wrote to Oldenburg that he was thinking of publishing it, but “I am naturally afraid lest the theologians . . . take offense, and with their usual hatred attack me, who utterly loathe quarrels.” 65 Oldenburg urged him to publish, “however much the theological quacks may growl,” 66 but Spinoza still hesitated. He allowed some friends to read parts of the manuscript, and probably profited from their comments, for he repeatedly revised the treatise. The clamor aroused by the Tractatus theologico-politicus justified his caution. The murder of the de Witts, and the suspicions directed against him after his visit to the French army, further troubled him; and it was not till 1675 that he made another move to put the Ethics into print. He reported the results to Oldenburg:

At the time when I received your letter of 22 July, I was setting out for Amsterdam with the intention of getting printed the work about which I have written to you. While I was engaged in this matter a rumor was spread everywhere that a book of mine about God was in the press, and that in it I endeavored to show that there is no God. This rumor was believed by many. Therefore certain theologians . . . seized the opportunity of bringing complaints against me before the Prince and the magistrates. . . . When I heard all this . . . I decided to postpone the publication I was preparing. 67

He put the manuscript away, and turned to writing a treatise on the state, Tractatus politicus, but death came upon him before he could finish it.

On February 6, 1677, Georg Hermann Schuller, a young physician, wrote to Leibniz: “I fear that Mr. Benedictus Spinoza will soon leave us, as the consumption . . . seems to grow worse every day.” 68 Two weeks later, while the rest of the household were absent, the philosopher entered upon his final suffering. Schuller alone (not Meyer, as formerly supposed) was with him at the time. Spinoza left instructions that his modest belongings be sold to pay his debts, and that such manuscripts as he had not burned be published anonymously. He died on February 20, 1677, without any religious ministrations. 69 He was buried in a cemetery of the New Church of The Hague, near the tomb of Jan de Witt. The manuscripts—chiefly the Ethics, the Tractatus politicus, and the treatise On the Improvement of the Intellect—were prepared for the press by Meyer, Schuller, and others, and were printed at Amsterdam toward the end of 1677.

And so we come at last to the book into which Spinoza had poured his life and solitary soul.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!