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ART. VII.-A SKETCH OF THE LIFE OF MOSES
MENDELSOHN, THE JEWISH PHILOSOPHER. Taken from the edition of his collected Works published at Vienna in 1838, as a National Tribute to the Memory of their Author.
Moses MENDELSOHN was born at Dessau on the 6th of September 1729. His father was master of a Jewish school; he was also a transcriber of the Pentateuch, an humble calling, which, however, did not prevent him from giving his son a good education for his situation in life. He taught him the Hebrew tongue, and the Elements of Jewish learning; and engaged a Rabbin to instruct him in the Talmud. Mendelsohn, at a very early age, evinced an insatiable thirst for knowledge. The sacred writings of the Old Testament became, after the Talmud, the source from which his mind received instruction, and his taste became cultivated. The bold and striking delineations of the Hebrew poets made a lively impression upon his imagination, and, in his tenth year, he composed some poems in the Hebrew language, of considerable elegance.
At this time the celebrated work of Maimonides, “ More Nebochim”—(the Guide of the Perplexed)—fell into his hands. This master-piece of modern Hebrew literature was exceedingly attractive to his young mind; and it was this work which first inspired him with an ardent desire after truth and freedom of thought.
His father was too poor to maintain him at home, and consequently, at the age of fourteen, Mendelsohn quitted the paternal roof, and travelled on foot to Berlin. Here he lived for several years in extreme poverty, often dispensing with the common necessaries of life; but these privations affected him little so long as he could command the means of satisfying his eager desire after knowledge. He soon found friends in Berlin willing to assist him in his literary pursuits; and a benevolent fellow countryman allowed him to occupy an attic chamber in his house, and gave him free board twice a-week. The Chief Rabbin Frankel, his former instructor at Dessau, now removed to Berlin, also befriended him. He not only employed him to transcribe his manuscripts, but afforded him the opportunity of gaining a thorough acquaintance with the Talmud, and with the Jewish theological jurisprudence and philosophy connected with that study. But this limited sphere of learning could not content the aspiring, opening mind of Mendelsohn, and he was happy in meeting with a man in Berlin, who was not only as poor as himself—(for in Mendelsohn's circumstances he would scarcely have had the courage to seek the friendship of one less indigent)—but who also, like himself, had, in the midst of trial and adversity, found his only consolation in that earnest devotion to truth which elevates the mind above all external circumstances, and ensures the blessedness of inward
This was Israel Moses, by birth a Polish Jew, from the small town of Stari-Zamose, situated between Cracow and Lemberg, in present Galicia. He had become an object of hatred to the Rabbins, on account of the freedom of his religious opinions. He was driven backwards and forwards to and from Poland, compelled for years to wander from place to place, helpless and destitute, till at length, worn out by the continual persecution and bitter animosity of the orthodox Talmudists, he became in his old age exhauted and dejected, and died a true martyr to his sincerity.
Israel Moses understood no language but the Hebrew, which, however, he wrote with unusual correctness and elegance. He was, as Mendelsohn in his riper years adjudged him, a profound reasoner and a great mathematician, having, from his own reflections, discovered several very important demonstrations. He was also possessed of considerable poetical genius. He, as well as Mendelsohn, had studied Maimonides with much earnestness, and he delighted to engage in argument with his young friend, according to the principles of that author. Moses Israel gave Mendelsohn a Hebrew copy of Euclid's Elements. He soon inspired him with a taste for Mathematics; and it was the pursuit of this science which first called forth his mental energies, and invigorated and improved his understanding :the invariable effect produced upon every young mind by this much-depreciated study.
Another friend of Mendelsohn, of the name of Kisch, a Jewish doctor and teacher of medicine, advised him to learn Latin; since the most valuable works would remain inaccessible to him without a knowledge of that language. Mendelsohn was so poor, that he was obliged to wait for a while before he could raise the trifling sum requisite for the purchase of a Latin grammar and second-hand dictionary. During six months Dr. Kisch aided him by giving him daily instruction for about a quarter of an hour, and in a short time, with indeed almost incredible assiduity, he had made sufficient progress to enable him to read a Latin translation of Locke's " Essay on the Human Understanding." In 1748 he also became acquainted with Dr. Aaron Solomon Gumperz, a young Jew, who was not only well-informed in medicine, mathematics and phi
losophy, but was conversant with several European languages, particularly the English and French. Mendelsohn did not fail to profit by this intimacy; encouraged and assisted by his friend, he next devoted himself to the acquirement of modern languages and the study of modern literature.
Thus did Mendelsohn employ his early years, living upon the pursuit of learning and science, with no other excitement than that supplied by his own mind, no other impulse than his own ardent love of knowledge ; satisfied with a scanty, and often uncertain subsistence, till at length a rich Jewish merchant of Berlin engaged him as a tutor to his sons, and took him into his house.
Herr Bernard soon discovered that Mendelsohn was not only a scholar, but a proficient in calligraphy, arithmetic, and bookkeeping-qualifications so rarely combined with high intellectual attainments : and he proposed to him to take him into his business. He was admitted, first as a clerk, afterwards as foreman, and eventually as a partner in the concern.
It was in the year 1754 that Mendelsohn was introduced to Lessing, to whom he had been mentioned as an excellent chessplayer. This introduction proved the most important event of his life. His friendship and intercourse with this distinguished philosopher led to the full development of his reasoning powers, and to the suitable application of his rare talents. It was Lessing who directed Mendelsohn's attention to the nature and advantages of modern language, and his work entitled, “Letters on the Feelings,"* his first publication in the German, was the result. About the same time, Mendelsohn became acquainted with Abbt, and Nicolai. The published correspondence between Abbt, Nicolai, and Mendelsohn, merit, as a monument of a truly philosophical friendship, to be classed with the most admired philosophical letters of antiquity. Mendelsohn likewise took a very important part in those letters on modern literature which had so large a share in the formation of the modern literature of Germany. For a while Mendelsohn opposed the suggestion of Nicolai to publish an Universal German Library, intimidated by the vastness of the undertaking, and the difficulties attending it; but when he found Nicolai resolved upon the execution of his design, he afforded him his most friendly and efficient assistance and support. Mendelsohn's work on the Feelings met with a very favourable reception, and he now, from time to time, appeared before the public in the character of an author, chiefly as a philosophical writer; and though his productions were neither many nor voluminous, they obtained for him a reputation which not only extended over Germany, but reached to England, France, and Holland.
* Briefe uber die Empfindungen.
It was whilst on a visit to Berlin, that Lavater met with Mendelsohn. He greatly honoured and esteemed him as a sincere and rational advocate and disciple of truth, and it became the darling wish of this enthusiastic philanthropist to win over the elevated and noble soul of this Hebrew sage to the Christian faith, and thus, by the conversion of the Choregus of a scattered but numerous people of a man recognized by Jew and Christian as an acute and philosophical reasoner,-to render, as he thought, an incalculable service to the cause of Christianity. The queries proposed by Lavater to Mendelsohn, or rather, should we say, the inquisitorial demands made by him, were indeed well intentioned, but they were characterized by all the rashness of an inconsiderate enthusiasm. Mendelsohn's conduct upon this occasion exhibited him no less as a clear-sighted man, conversant with the world and human nature, than as a philosopher. Mendelsohn took an early opportunity of giving to the public, in his work, “ Jerusalem,” a true representation of those religious notions which had been greatly misunderstood and distorted from their real signification, because they directly attacked forms which centuries had consecrated.
The first hours of the morning were employed by Mendelsohn in delivering lectures to his eldest son and some other promising youths of his own nation. He explained to them the leading principles of philosophy, and more especially instructed them in the knowledge of God and in those important truths based upon this doctrine, and the notions we form of him and of his attributes. He published the results of these studies in a work, called by him, in allusion to the circumstances from which it originated, “ Morning-hours.”*
Another unjustifiable attack was now made upon Mendelsohn, similar ini ts character to that of Lavater, but it affected his feelings far more deeply, since it had relation not so much to his own religious opinions, as to those of his revered and now departed friend, Lessing. Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi published a work, which he addressed to Mendelsohn. The subject was the doctrines of Spinoza, and its object was to exhibit Lessing as a disciple of that philosopher. Mendelsohn's affectionate and grateful friendship for the man to whom he owed so much in the cultivation of his own mind, forbad him to witness in silence this wanton desecration of the ashes of his friend. Neither his own much impaired health, nor his natural and often avowed repugnance to enter the lists of religious controversy, could now restrain him. He roused all his powers and concentrated all his energies, determined, if possible, to annihilate with one stroke the erroneous impression which Jacobi's accusation of Atheism might have produced. A powerful work, entitled “ Moses Mendelsohn to the friends of Lessing," was his last literary effort: to it he consecrated his remaining strength, at the sacrifice of his life; “ but he raised an imperishable monument to his departed friend." The agitation and excitement had a most injurious effect on his shattered frame, and it needed only the most trifling untoward accident to extinguish the flickering spark. A cold caught by him on going out in reference to the publication of his work, proved fatal: he died on the 4th of January 1786, in his fifty-seventh year.
** “Morgenstunden; oder Vorlesungen über das Daseyn Gottes.”
Mendelsohn was in figure short, slender, and deformed; his complexion was dark, and sickly; his hair black, and curly. His nose was aquiline; a gentle smile continually played around his mouth, of which the lips were slightly parted. His eye was brilliant and his look penetrating. His lofty forehead, and the entire cast of his features, bespoke a sound understanding and a noble heart; and in his countenance there beamed so bright an expression of goodness, modesty, and benevolence, that to see him was to love him. During his lifetime he resisted every kind of selfindulgence. It was almost difficult to believe that the small quantity of nourishment to which he restricted himself could suffice to sustain life. He was fond of society, and it was affecting to witness his cheerful and pressing solicitations to his friends to partake of refreshments which he dared not himself venture to taste. His mind was too active for his delicate frame, and he continually overtaxed his bodily powers; for it was impossible for one so intellectual to debar himself from thinking, from the mental enjoyment of reading, or from the still more attractive but exciting occupation of composition. He rose habitually between four and five, devoting the first hours of the morning to study.. At eight or nine he repaired to the countinghouse and spent the day in attending to the concerns of the business, emersed in occupations of a very different character from those which engaged his early hours; but he well understood how to reap advantage from this apparently unpleasant diversion from his more elevated and favourite employments: his reasoning powers had a season of comparative rest, and he returned refreshed and invigorated to his mental labours.