Commentary Magazine


Spinoza and the Colonel

A few Summers ago a Jewish scholar was in Germany, doing research in the family papers of a former colonel in the Wehrmacht. When he was through, the scholar prepared to leave and thanked his host. “Not at all, Professor,” said the colonel, “not at all. But before you go, perhaps you would be kind enough to answer a question. Tell me, do Jews still pray in—what do you call them?—synagogues?”

The curiosity was understandable, in a descendant of Moses Mendelssohn.

No such story is possible about a descendant of Mendelssohn's rival for the title of father of Jewish modernity, Spinoza. Spinoza never married. That in itself gives Mendelssohn the better claim to fatherhood, for since the question is one of history—which is to say, the succession of generations—we naturally prefer the claimant who was also a father literally.

Always a Jew, never an ex-Jew, Mendelssohn was the leader of the Jewish community—defender and teacher of the Jews. Reform invokes and Orthodoxy still uses him: the Orthodox annotators of the Hertz Pentateuch frequently cite his Be'ur. In one degree or another, therefore, we are all his spiritual descendants. Is he responsible for his actual descendant having been a German army officer in 1939-45? Almost certainly not.

Almost—for if we judge Mendelssohn with a rigor suitable not to ourselves but only to the highest and best, we may ask whether for him that should have been altogether impossible to foresee. If Spinoza had lived in Germany rather than Holland, and if he had had children, and if one of our contemporaries were an Oberst von Spinoza, we would have less right to ask whether Spinoza should have been able to foresee that.

Mendelssohn wrote in German—the first memorable Jew to do so. (In those days the German Jews spoke Yiddish.) A century earlier Spinoza had written not in the language of his country, Dutch, but in Latin—the first memorable Jew, or ex-Jew who had not become a Christian, to do so. By the 18th century the national tongues had superseded Latin not only for literature but also, or as near as makes no difference, for scholarship, philosophy, and science. (In our time an introduction to a classical text may still be in Latin, and very rarely a work of Bible scholarship. The introductions to Nestle's New Testament and Rahlfs's Septuagint are in Latin but also in German and English, and to Kittel's Biblia Hebraica in Latin but also in German.) In the 17th century Bacon and Hobbes wrote in Latin and English, Descartes and Leibniz (a German) in Latin and French. Spinoza wrote in Latin.

Yet unlike the Gentile philosophers, Spinoza had not had a classical education and was not steeped in the Latin literary tradition: his Latin is serviceable rather than elegant, says his English translator. Not even the worldly Sephardim of his milieu gave their children a classical education. Instead the children were taught Jewish things, on the one hand, and things useful for commerce, on the other. (A few ambassadorial types, defenders and apologists of the Jews, wrote in Latin—which they had learned in Spain or Portugal while still outwardly Christian—for reasons like Cromwell's in appointing Milton to write Latin defenses of regicide England.) To the Jews of Christendom, Latin had been leshon kemarim, the language of the idolater-priests; and it has been said that in Spain the Jewish dislike of Latin contributed to the ascendancy of Spanish.

Spinoza's circumstances, outlook, and interests differed from those of the Jews, medieval or contemporary. For him the ecclesiastical character of Latin was less marked, if only because he lived after the Reformation and in a Protestant country, where the vernacular was also the church language. Latin was the language of the international republic of learning, and that was more important to him than to the Jews, then or earlier. He did not leave Judaism and the Jews to become a Christian, or even a Dutchman. He left to become a citizen of the world—the world of philosophy. Latin must have been more than merely useful to him, it must have been positively attractive. It was universal not local or particular, ecumenical not parochial. In good faith the ex-Jew could take Latin's universality as evidence that choosing to be a citizen of the world was neither illusion nor opportunism. After Latin had been abandoned, Schopenhauer was to be harsh about that chauvinist betrayal of the international republic. (Now some American medical journals publish abstracts of their articles in Interlingua, an artificial language largely based on Latin that has been devised for communication among scientists across linguistic borders. Normally not a very cheerful soul, Schopenhauer would nevertheless have appreciated the joke: first we abandon the millennial interlingua, then we have to invent Interlingua.)

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Two objections can be made against exculpating Spinoza on such grounds. The first is that an assertion of Latin's universality is itself provincial and chauvinist. What is or was Latin to the non-European, non-Western world? Even in Europe what is or was Latin to the peoples whose very alphabets are not Latin but Greek or derivatively Cyrillic? (Until a hundred years ago Rumanian, though a Romance language, was written in Cyrillic. The change to our alphabet was a Westernizing gesture.) This objection is anachronistic. In Spinoza's time, what was not West European hardly counted, intellectually.

A variant is that in Western Europe itself Latin was not evenly universal. After all, Latin is closer to Portuguese than to Danish. The language of an ode to Venice, of no great literary merit but of a daunting ingenuity, is both Latin and 17th-century Italian; and Gaston Paris used to begin his lectures on Old French at the College de France by declaring, “Notts parlous latin”—in speaking French, we speak Latin. True enough, but Latin seems to have been no less at home in the Germanic North than in the Romance South.

The second objection is that nothing in Latin from those days compares with the French writings of Ronsard and Racine or the English of Shakespeare and Milton—which is to say that if we think not of philosophy and scholarship narrowly but of culture broadly, then by Spinoza's day it should already have been obvious that Latin was declining and would soon fall. May it not have been some apprehension of this which persuaded Bacon and Descartes and Hobbes to write in their vernaculars things no less philosophical than the things they wrote in Latin?

If so, the apprehension was easier for a Christian or ex-Christian than for the ex-Jew. Spinoza assigned a much lower place to the imagination and the work of the imagination, poetry, than to reason. So did those other philosophers. (So did Plato and Maimonides.) Still, Spinoza was—he had to be, one may say—more single-minded and uncompromising about it than the Gentiles. For him, brought up a Jew, poetry was the Bible, and the Bible was contrary to reason. Because none but the few could lead lives guided by reason, the many needed the Bible—poetry, revealed religion's carrot of the hope of heaven and stick of the fear of hell—to keep them from murder and tumult. But the Bible, revealed religion, also bred sectarian war and the persecution of philosophers. Hence Spinoza's advocacy of the secular state, in which the citizen's adherence to one or another revealed religion must be a private matter, of no interest to the state provided the citizen also subscribed to the civil religion, which taught virtue and duty. (In the 18th century as well, freethinking philosophes like Voltaire would remain convinced that there could be no such thing as a polity of atheists and that the common people required a civil religion, complete with belief in an afterlife.) The philosopher and ex-Jew would not be safe, could not live in honorable security, would never cease to be an outsider, so long as reason and philosophy had not tamed the imagination and poetry.

For Christian or ex-Christian philosophers too the Bible might be, while necessary for the many, dangerous and merely imaginative and poetic; but it was not identical with poetry, nor was poetry intrinsically quite without value even for the few. Gentile philosophers also knew and might still enjoy Ovid and Arthurian romance and Petrarch. Besides, they knew and enjoyed Lucretius, from whose example they had learned that poetry need not be the certain enemy of reason and philosophy but could be a powerful ally. Nor would Christians or ex-Christians experience all the urgent intensity of the ex-Jew's desire to transcend the status of outsider.

Consequently, apart from any consideration of fluency, it is not to be wondered at that Spinoza abstained from writing in a vernacular, while those others did not. And he was consistent. He did nothing for which even a Spinoza, whom we have the right to hold to standards of the utmost rigor, must answer to us. His seeming preference, in the Tractatus theologico-politicus, for Christianity over Judaism? It is only a seeming preference. Philosophical eyes, which knew how to read a political philosopher, could see that Spinoza had little regard for either, and probably less for Christianity. He could hardly know that after him philosophy would value the imagination and poetry. He could hardly know that he was to be the last great philosopher, except his younger acquaintance Leibniz, to write in Latin. Some may say that he ought to have understood what was portended by such things as the Royal Society's publication of its Philosophical (= scientific) Transactions in English. However that may be, Spinoza could hardly have foreseen Romanticism.

To Mendelssohn, a hundred years later, the linguistic nationalisms of the learned might by themselves have sufficed to reveal how hollow was the internationalism of that famous international republic. Mendelssohn lived at the beginning of Romanticism, when it could no longer be taken for granted, even by those who earlier would have supported Spinoza and Hobbes, that reason was everything and poetic imagination almost nothing. (John Stuart Mill, sickening on a diet of Bentham, would recover by taking Wordsworth and Coleridge.)

With the change in the status of the imagination and poetry came a change in the status of the folk. The Romantic doctrine that das Volk dichtet, the folk is a poet, would neither have surprised Spinoza nor raised his estimate of the folk. He stood in the tradition that had long known the folk to be ruled by the imagination: it was ruled by the imagination because it was incapable of reason. In a Romantic age, das Volk dichtet meant an enhanced respect for the folk. That did not contradict Romanticism's exaltation of the solitary genius. The Romantic solitary genius was not Descartes, alone in his chamber and spinning thought from his unassisted intellect. The Romantic genius, though solitary, yet had an infinity of connections, subterranean and unconscious, with the folk which had borne and nurtured him. Though the genius's poetry and art were higher than folk poetry and art, his were connected with theirs undeniably, however obscurely. Somehow he represented them and spoke for them. Well into the 20th century, the Artist as a Young Man could say, “I go . . . to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.”

For ex-Jews this was to cause difficulties. Religion a private matter? At most, only if religion were understood narrowly. If understood to stand also for much else that is imaginative and poetic and traditional, how could it be private? How could it be kept distinct from culture and memory? In what country are the national literature and history not taught in the schools? If ex-Jews had to take the folk's imagination seriously, what were they to make of the Grimm brothers' tales, in which Jews are hateful, evil, uncanny, alien? How could ex-Jews honorably identify themselves with the folk whose spirit revealed itself in such tales? Could it be enough to say you were a Jew no longer? In Weimar Germany, both ex-Christians and ex-Jews could register as konfessionslos (of no formal religious affiliation), but the term was commonly understood to mean “ex-Jew.” (In the United States, when respondents check “none” in answer to a question about their religion, the proportion of Jews among them, or of would-be ex-Jews, exceeds the proportion of Jews in the population.) The folk was Christian. To be related to the folk, you had to be Christian, or at least ex-Christian.

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The ex-Jew Spinoza was never Christian, the ex-Jewish Mendelssohns were. Thirty and forty years ago German Mendelssohns whose families had been Christian for generations had some unpleasant moments—and, it is said, recourse to genealogies unflattering to the chastity of ancestresses—before they could be certified as Aryan, fit for service to the Third Reich. Long before Nuremberg there had been difficulties. Felix Mendelssohn, wrote Wagner in his Judentum in der Musik, was an estimable Christian gentleman of the highest musical gifts, but he was not a great German composer, or a great composer simply. He could not be. He had no roots in the folk. Of course Wagner, genius that he was, was also a disgusting man and a vile anti-Semite.

The German-speaking Jews were never more than one or two in a hundred of all German speakers. Toward the beginning of their history was Heine, perhaps the greatest 19th-century writer of German, who had a premonition of what was to come. Toward the end was Kafka, perhaps the greatest 20th-century writer of German. Kafka had questions about his relation to German. He asked himself whether it was fitting for a Jew to call his mother Mutter, in German, when the Yiddish is mamme. Yet he had heard German from his mother, not Yiddish. His situation was complicated by his belonging to the Jewish minority of the German-speaking minority in mostly Czech Prague, but if he worried about German it was less because of present Czech than past Yiddish. The Jews had left behind their own folk quality without being able—without having the right to be able—to enter into another. The problem was folk quality, not citizenship.

But that had to do with German culture, and of Western cultures the German was least modern, most linked to a medieval, folkish past. It was otherwise with French culture. Of the one, Barbarossa and the Grimms' tales and Wagner were emblematic; of the other, 1789 and the Declaration of the Rights of Man. Yet there is that passage in Sartre's Anti-Semite and Jew:

To the anti-Semite, intelligence is Jewish; he can thus disdain it in all tranquillity, like all the other virtues which the Jew possesses. They are so many ersatz attributes that the Jew cultivates in place of that balanced mediocrity which he will never have. The true Frenchman, rooted in his province, in his country, borne along by a tradition twenty centuries old, benefiting from ancestral wisdom, guided by tried customs, does not need intelligence. His virtue depends upon the assimilation of the qualities which the work of a hundred generations has lent to the objects which surround him. . . . To be sure, this sensibility ignores eternal truths or universal values: the universal is Jewish. . . . the principle underlying anti-Semitism is that the concrete possession of a particular object gives as if by magic the meaning of that object. Maurras said the same thing when he declared a Jew to be forever incapable of understanding this line of Racine: “Dans l'Orient désert, quel devint mon ennui”.

But the way is open to me, mediocre me, to understand. . . . Why? Because I possess Racine—Racine and my country and my soil. Perhaps the Jew speaks a purer French than I do, perhaps he knows syntax and grammar better, perhaps he is even a writer. No matter; he has spoken this language for only twenty years, and I for a thousand years. The correctness of his style is abstract, acquired; my faults of French are in conformity with the genius of the language. . . .

“The universal is Jewish.” Last year 1 noted here (“The Greeks, the Romans & Captain Dreyfus,” February 1973) that French Jews liked to think that the universal was French, and German Jews that it was German. The French Jews were somewhat less self-deluded, France having had the Revolution and the Declaration; but if most Frenchmen did not hate the universal so much as Sartre's anti-Semite, neither, surely, did they love it so much as the Jew. A Nazi said that when he heard the word “culture” he reached for his revolver. He did not necessarily mean that he scorned opera (especially Wagner) or even that he was waging war against Kulturbolschewismus. He may have meant that the word “culture” was a likely sign of a Jew speaking. Jews (and ex-Jews) did not want to recognize that for others, the words “culture” and “universal” may have been likely signs of a Jew (or ex-Jew) speaking.

Of course Nazis would take it as probable that a universalist was really a dirty Jew. Marxists could not—except that Soviet Russia is where “cosmopolitan,” together with synonyms like “passportless wanderers,” has officially been a bad word, meaning “dirty Jew.” The Little Russian Cossack hetman Bogdan Khmelnitsky massacred Jews (and Poles) in Spinoza's time. Soviet Russia thinks so well of him that a city and, if memory serves, a decoration have been named after him. Stalin canonized him.

For Jews and even for Spinozaic ex-Jews it is not much compensation that in Marxist teaching Spinoza figures as a precursor. It will still be hard for them to find room in Russia.

It ought to be less hard for Mendelssohnian ex-Jews. They have been pretty good at that sort of thing.

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