Durant 1926: Retirement and Death (Spinoza)

Reference: The Story of Philosophy

This paper presents Chapter IV Section 1.4 from the book THE STORY OF PHILOSOPHY by WILL DURANT. The contents are from the 1933 reprint of this book by TIME INCORPORATED by arrangement with Simon and Schuster, Inc.

The paragraphs of the original material (in black) are accompanied by brief comments (in color) based on the present understanding.  Feedback on these comments is appreciated.

The heading below is linked to the original materials.


I.4 Retirement and Death

He took the excommunication with quiet courage, saying: “It compels me to nothing which I should not have done in any case.” But this was whistling in the dark; in truth the young student now found himself bitterly and pitilessly alone. Nothing is so terrible as solitude; and few forms of it so difficult as the isolation of a Jew from all his people. Spinoza had already suffered in the loss of his old faith; to so uproot the contents of one’s mind is a major operation, and leaves many wounds. Had Spinoza entered another fold, embraced another of the orthodoxies in which men were grouped like kine huddling together for warmth, he might have found in the role of distinguished convert some of the life which he had lost by being utterly outcast from his family and his race. But he joined no other sect, and lived his life alone. His father, who had looked forward to his son’s pre-eminence in Hebrew learning, sent him away; his sister tried to cheat him of a small inheritance;* his former friends shunned him. No wonder there is little humor in Spinoza! And no wonder he breaks out with some bitterness occasionally when he thinks of the Keepers of the Law. 

*He contested the case in court; won it; and then turned over the bequest to the sister. 

After his excommunication, Spinoza joined no other sect, and lived his life alone. 

Those who wish to seek out the causes of miracles, and to understand the things of nature as philosophers, and not to stare at them in astonishment like fools, are soon considered heretical and impious, and proclaimed as such by those whom the mob adore as the interpreters of nature and the gods. For these men know that once ignorance is put aside, that wonderment would be taken away which is the only means by which their authority is preserved.

Spinoza breaks out with some bitterness occasionally when he thinks of the Keepers of the Law.

The culminating experience came shortly after the excommunication. One night as Spinoza was walking through the streets, a pious ruffian bent on demonstrating his theology by murder, attacked the young student with drawn dagger. Spinoza, turning quickly, escaped with a slight wound on the neck. Concluding that there are few places in this world where it is safe to be a philosopher, he went to live in a quiet attic room on the Outerdek road outside of Amsterdam. It was now, probably, that he changed his name from Baruch to Benedict. His host and hostess were Christians of the Mennonite sect, and could in some measure understand a heretic. They liked his sadly kind face (those who have suffered much become very bitter or very gentle), and were delighted when, occasionally, he would come down of an evening, smoke his pipe with them, and tune his talk to their simple strain. He made his living at first by teaching children in Van den Ende’s school, and then by polishing lenses, as if he had an inclination for dealing with refractory material. He had learned the optical trade while living in the Jewish community; it was in accord With Hebrew canon that every student should acquire some manual art; not only because study and honest teaching can seldom make a livelihood, but, as Gamaliel had said, work keeps one virtuous, whereas “every learned man who fails to acquire a trade will at last turn out a rogue.”

Spinoza was attacked in the Jewish community with a drawn dagger. So he went to live in a quiet attic room on the Outerdek road outside of Amsterdam. He made his living at first by teaching children, and then by polishing lenses. 

Five years later (1660) his host moved to Rhynsburg, near Leyden; and Spinoza moved with him. The house still stands, and the road bears the philosopher’s name. These were years of plain living and high thinking. Many times he stayed in his room for two or three days together, seeing nobody, and having his modest meals brought up to him. The lenses were well done, but not so continuously as to earn for Spinoza more than merely enough; he loved wisdom too much to be a “successful” man. Colerus, who followed Spinoza in these lodgings, and wrote a short life of the philosopher from the reports of those who had known him, says, “He was very careful to cast up his accounts every quarter; which he did that he might spend neither more nor less than what, he had to spend for each year. And he would say sometimes, to the people of the house, that he was like the serpent who forms a circle with his tail in his mouth; to denote that he had nothing left at the year’s end.” But in his modest way he was. happy. To one who advised him to trust in revelation rather than in reason, he answered: “Though I were at times to find the fruit unreal which I gather by my natural understanding, yet this would not make me otherwise than content; because in the gathering I am happy, and pass my days not in sighing and sorrow, but in peace, serenity and joy.” “If Napoleon had been as intelligent as Spinoza,” says a great sage, ”he would have lived in a garret and written four books.” 

Spinoza lived frugally with the little he earned. These were years of plain living and high thinking.

To the portraits of Spinoza which have come down to us we may add a word of description from Colerus. “He was of a middle size. He had good features in his face, the skin somewhat black, the hair dark and curly, the eyebrows long and black, so that one might easily know by his looks that he was descended from Portuguese Jews. As for his clothes, he was very careless of them, and they were not better than those of the meanest citizen. One of the most eminent councillors of state went to see him, and found him in a very untidy morning-gown; whereupon the councillor reproached him for it, and offered him another. Spinoza answered that a man was never the better for having a fine gown, and added, ‘It is unreasonable to wrap up things of little or no value in a precious cover.'”  Spinoza’s sartorial philosophy was not always so ascetic. “It is not a disorderly or slovenly carriage that makes us sages,” he Writes; “for affected indifference to personal appearance is rather evidence of a poor spirit in which true wisdom could find no worthy dwelling-place, and science could only meet with disorder and disarray.” 

Spinoza was of gentle bearing with pleasant features. He dressed in what he could afford. He didn’t accept any favors.

It was during this five years’ stay at Rhynsburg that Spinoza wrote the little fragment “On the Improvement of the Intellect” (De lntellectus Emendatione), and the Ethics Geometrically Demonstrated (Ethica More Geometrico Demonstrata). The latter was finished in 1665; but for ten years Spinoza made no effort to publish it. In 1668 Adrian Koerbagh, for printing opinions similar to Spinoza’s, was sent to jail for ten years; and died there after serving eighteen months of his sentence. When, in 1675, Spinoza went to Amsterdam trusting that he might now safely publish his chef-d’oeuvre, “a rumor was spread about,” as he writes to his friend Oldenburg, “that a book of mine was soon to appear, in which I endeavored to prove that there is no God. This report, I regret to add, was by many received as true. Certain theologians (who probably were themselves the author of the rumor) took occasion upon this to lodge a complaint against me with the prince and the magistrates. … Having received a hint of this state of things from some trustworthy friends, who assured me, further, that the theologians were everywhere lying in wait for me, I determined to put off my attempted publication until such time as I should. see what turn affairs would take.”  

Spinoza started to write his thoughts and philosophy. He put off the publication because he was rumored to deny God. The state of things were not in favor of rational thinking. 

Only after Spinoza’s death did the Ethics appear (1677), along with an unfinished treatise on politics (Tractatus Politicus) and a Treatise on the Rainbow. All these works were in Latin, as the universal language of European philosophy and science in the seventeenth century. A Short Treatise on God and Man, written in Dutch, was discovered by Van Vloten in 1852; it was apparently a preparatory sketch for the Ethics. The only books published by Spinoza in his lifetime were The Principles of the Cartesian Philosophy (1663), and A Treatise on Religion and the State (Tractatus Theologico-Politicus), which appeared anonymously in 1670. It was at once honored with a place in the Index Expurgatorius, and its sale was prohibited by the civil authorities; with this assistance it attained to a considerable circulation under cover of title-pages which disguised it as a medical treatise or an historical narrative. Countless volumes were written to refute it; one called Spinoza “the most impious atheist that ever lived upon the face of the earth”; Colerus speaks of another refutation as “a treasure of infinite value, which shall never perish” ; —only this notice remains of it. In addition to such public chastisement Spinoza received a number of letters intended to reform him; that of a former pupil, Albert Burgh, who had been converted to Catholicism, may be taken as a sample: 

Spinoza’s writings that were published in his lifetime were very controversial.

You assume that you have at last found the true philosophy. How do you know that your philosophy is the best of all those which have ever been taught in the world, are now taught, or shall be taught hereafter? To say nothing of what may be devised in the future, have you examined all those philosophies, both ancient and modern, which are taught here, in India, and all the world over? And even supposing that you have duly examined them, how do you know that you have chosen the best? … How dare you set yourself up above all the patriarchs, prophets, apostles, martyrs, doctors, and confessors of the Church? Miserable man and worm upon the earth that you are, yea, ashes and food for worms, how can you confront the eternal wisdom with your unspeakable blasphemy? What foundation have you for this rash, insane, deplorable, accursed doctrine? What devilish pride puffs you up to pass judgment on mysteries which Catholics themselves declare to be incomprehensible? Etc., etc. 

He was publicly chastised by traditional Catholic mindset.

To which Spinoza replied: 

You who assume that you have at last found the best. religion, or rather the best teachers, and fixed your credulity upon them, how do you know that they are the best among those who have taught religions, or now teach, or shall hereafter teach them? Have you examined all those religions, ancient and modern, which are taught here, and in India, and all the world over? And even supposing that you have duly examined them, how do you know that you have chosen the best?

Apparently the gentle philosopher could be firm enough when occasion called for it. 

Spinoza pointed back to their lack of deep understanding.

Not all the letters were of this uncomfortable kind. Many of them were from men of mature culture and high position. Most prominent of these correspondents were Henry Oldenburg, secretary of the recently established Royal Society of England; Von Tschirnhaus, a young German inventor and nobleman; Huygens, the Dutch scientist; Leibnitz the philosopher, who visited Spinoza in 1676; Louis Meyer, a physician of the Hague; and Simon De Vries, a rich merchant of Amsterdam. The latter so admired Spinoza that he begged him to accept a gift of $1000. Spinoza refused; and later, when De Vries, making his will, proposed to leave his entire fortune to him, Spinoza persuaded De Vries instead to bequeath his wealth to his brother. When the merchant died it was found that his will required that an annuity of $250 should be paid to Spinoza out of the income of the property. Spinoza wished again to refuse saying, “Nature is satisfied with little; and if she is, I am also”; but he was at last prevailed upon to accept $150 a year. Another friend, Jan de Witt, chief magistrate of the Dutch republic, gave him a state annuity of $50. Finally, the Grand Monarch himself, Louis XIV, offered him a substantial pension, with the implied condition that Spinoza should dedicate his next book to the King. Spinoza courteously declined.

Spinoza got recognition and approval from men of mature culture and high position. But he refused all favors.

To please his friends and correspondents, Spinoza moved to Voorburg, a suburb of the Hague, in 1665; and in 1670 to the Hague itself. During these later years he developed an affectionate intimacy with Jan de Witt; and when De Witt and his brother were murdered in the streets by a mob which believed them responsible for the defeat of the Dutch troops by the French, in 1672, Spinoza, on being apprised of the infamy, burst into tears, and but for the force which was used to restrain him, would have sallied forth, a second Antony, to denounce the crime on the spot where it had been committed. Not long afterward, the Prince de Condé, head of the invading French army, invited Spinoza, to his headquarters, to convey to him the offer of a royal pension from France and to introduce certain admirers of Spinoza who were with the Prince. Spinoza, who seems to have been rather a “good European” than a nationalist, thought it nothing strange for him to cross the lines and go to Condé’s camp. When he returned to the Hague the news of his visit spread about, and there were angry murmurs among the people. Spinoza’s host; Van den Spyck, was in fear of an attack upon his House; but Spinoza calmed him, saying: “I can easily clear myself of all suspicion of treason; … but should the people show the slightest disposition to molest you, should they even assemble and make a noise before your house, I will go down to them, though they should serve me as they did poor De Witt.” But when the crowd learned that Spinoza was merely a philosopher they concluded that he must be harmless ; and the commotion quieted down.

Spinoza was a “good European” than a nationalist.

Spinoza’s life, as we see it in these little incidents, was not as impoverished and secluded as it has been traditionally pictured. He had some degree of economic security, he had influential and congenial friends, he took an interest in the political issues of his time, and he was not without adventures that came close to being matters of life and death. That he had made his way, despite excommunication and interdict, into the respect of his contemporaries, appears from the offer which came to him, in 1673, of the chair of philosophy at the University of Heidelberg; an offer couched in the most complimentary terms, and promising “the most perfect. freedom in philosophizing, which His Highness feels assured you would not abuse by calling in question the established religion of the state.” Spinoza replied characteristically: 

Honored sir: Had it ever been my wish to undertake the duties of a professor in any faculty, my desires would have been amply gratified in accepting the position which his Serene Highness the Prince Palatine does me the honor to offer me through you. The offer, too, is much enhanced in value in my eyes by the freedom of philosophizing attached to it. … But I do not know within what precise limits that the same liberty of philosophizing would have to be restrained, so that I would not seem to interfere with the established religion of the principality. … You see, therefore, honored sir, that I do not look for any higher worldly position than that which I now enjoy; and that for love of the quiet which I think I cannot otherwise secure, ‘I must abstain from entering upon the career of a public teacher. …

Spinoza had some degree of economic security. He had influential and congenial friends. He took an interest in the political issues of his time.

The closing chapter came in 1677. Spinoza was now only forty-four, but his friends knew that he had not many years left to him. He had come of consumptive parentage; and the comparative confinement in which he had lived, as well as the dust-laden atmosphere in which he had labored, were not calculated to correct this initial disadvantage. More and more he suffered from difficulty in breathing; year by year his sensitive lungs decayed. He reconciled himself to an early end, and feared only that the book which he had not dared to publish during his lifetime would be lost or destroyed after his death. He placed the MS. in a small writing desk, locked it, and gave the key to his host, asking him to transmit desk and key to Jan Rieuwertz, the Amsterdam publisher, when the inevitable should come. 

At forty-four Spinoza was not in good health and he knew his end was near.

On Sunday, February 20, the family With whom Spinoza lived went to church after receiving his assurance that he was not unusually ill. Dr. Meyer alone remained with him. When they returned they found the philosopher lying dead in the arms of his friend. Many mourned him; for the simple folk had loved him as much for his gentleness as the learned had honored him for his wisdom. Philosophers and magistrates joined the people in following him to his final rest; and men of varied faiths met at his grave. 

When Spinoza passed away he was loved and honored for his gentleness and wisdom.

Nietzsche says somewhere that the last Christian died upon the cross. He had forgotten Spinoza. 


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