Biography by Johannes Colerus, The Life of Spinoza (1705)
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[Published 28 years after Spinoza’s death, this biography was written by a German Lutheran minister who took over a Lutheran congregation at The Hague, 16 years after the death of the famous philosopher. Colerus indeed lived in the same house as Spinoza had lodged in on the Veerkaay, and studied in the room where Spinoza’s bed once was. One can imagine how he felt Spinoza’s physical presence, as he wrote at his desk; it is reliant upon several eye-witness accounts, some of whom, like Spinoza’s Landlady, were members of Colerus’s parish. Colerus had access to many documents now lost, for instance Spinoza’s sketch book of portraits. I post this hard to find biography for the convenience of interested readers.]
SPINOSA, that Philosopher, whose name makes so great noise in the World, was originally a Jew. His parents, a little while after his birth, named him Baruch. But having afterwards forsaken Judaism, he changed his Name, and call’d himself Benedict in his Writings, and in the Letters which he subscrib’d. He was Born at Amsterdam the 24th of November, in the Year 1632. What is com
monly said, that he was Poor and of a very mean Extraction, is not true. His Father, a Portuguese Jew, was in very good Circumstances, and a Merchant at Amsterdam, where he lived upon the Burgwal, in
a good House near the Old Portuguese Synagogue. Besides, his civil and handsome behaviour, his Relations, who lived at ease, and what was left to him by his Father and Mother, prove that his Extraction, as well as his Education, was above that of the Common People. Samuel Carceris, a Portuguese Jew, married the Youngest of his two Sisters. The name of the Eldest was Rebeckah, and that of the Youngest Miriam, whose Son Daniel Carceris, Nephew to Benedict de Spinosa, declared himself one of his Heirs after his Decease: As it appears by an Act past before Libertus Loef, a Notary, the 30th of March 1677, in the form of a Procuration directed to Henry Vander Spyck, in whose House Spinosa Lodged when he died.
Spinosa’s first Studies.
Spinosa shewed from his Childhood, and in his younger years, that Nature had not been unkind to him. His quick fancy, and his ready and penetrating Wit were easily perceived. Because he had a great
Mind to learn the Latin Tongue, they gave him at first a German Master. But afterwards in order to perfect himself in that Language, he made use of the famous Francis Vanden Ende, who taught it then in
Amsterdam, and practis’d Physick at the same time: That Man taught with good Success and a great Reputation; so that the Richest Merchants of that City intrusted him with the instruction of their
Children, before they had found out that he taught his Scholars some thing else besides Latin. For it was discovered at last, that he sowed the first Seeds of Atheism in the Minds of those Young Boys. This is
a matter of fact, which I cou’d prove, if there was any necessity for it, by the Testimony of several honest Gentlemen, who are still living, and some of whom have been Elders of the Lutheran Church at
Amsterdam. Those good men bless every day the Memory of their Parents, who took care in due time to remove them from the School of so pernicious and so impious a Master.
Vanden Ende had an only Daughter, who understood the Latin Tongue, as well as Musick, so perfectly, that she was able to teach her Fathers Scholars in his absence. Spinosa having often occasion to see
and speak to her, grew in Love with her, and he has often confest that he design’d to marry her. She was none of the most Beautiful, but she had a great deal of Wit, a great Capacity and a jovial Humour,
which wrought upon the Heart of Spinosa, as well as upon another Scholar of Vanden Ende, whose name was Kerkering, a Native of Hamburgh. The latter did soon perceive that he had a Rival, and grew Jealous of him. This moved him to redouble his care, and his attendance upon his Mistress; which he did with good success: But a Neck-lace of Pearls, of the value of two or three hundred Pistoles, which he had before presented to that Young Woman, did without doubt contribute to win her Affection. She therefore promised to Marry him: Which she did faithfully perform, when the Sieur Kerkering had abjured the Lutheran Religion, which he profest, and embraced the Roman Catholick. See the preface of Kortholt de
tribus Impostoribus, of the 2nd Edition.
As for Vanden Ende, being too well known in Holland, to find any Employment there, he was obliged to look for it somewhere else. He went into France, where he had a Tragical end, after he had maintained
himself for some years with what he got by practising Physick. Some say that he was Condemn’d to be hanged, and Executed, for having attempted upon the Dauphin’s Life; but others, who knew him particu
larly in France, own indeed that he was hanged, but they give another reason for it. They say, that Vanden Ende endeavour’d to cause an Insurrection in one of the Provinces of France, the Inhabitants where of hoped by that means to be restored to their Ancient Priviledges; and that he designed thereby to free the United Provinces from the oppression they were under, by giving so much work to the King of
France in his own Country, as to oblige him to keep a great part of his Forces in that Kingdom. That in order to facilitate the Execution of that design, some Ships were fitted out, but that they arrived too late.
However it be, Vanden Ende was executed, but if he had attempted upon the Dauphin’s Life, ’tis likely that he wou’d have expiated his crime in another manner, and by a more rigorous Punishment.
He applies Himself to the Study of Divinity, and then to Natural Philosophy.
Spinosa having learn’d the Latin Tongue well, applied himself to the Study of Divinity for some years. In the mean time his Wit and Judgment encreased every day: So that finding himself more disposed
to enquire into Natural Causes, be gave over Divinity, and betook himself altogether to the Study of Natural Philosophy. He did for a long time deliberate about the choice he shou’d make of a Master,
whose Writing might serve him as a Guide in his design. At last, having — light upon the Works of Descartes, he read them greedily; and afterwards he often declared that he had all his Philosophical Know
ledge from him. He was charmed with that Maxim of Descartes, Which says, That nothing ought to be admitted as True, but what has been proved by good and solid Reasons. From whence he drew this Conse
quence that the ridiculous Doctrine and Principles of the Rabbins cou’d not be admitted by a Man of Sense; because they are only built upon the Authority of the Rabbins themselves, and because what
they teach, does not proceed from God, as they pretend without any ground for it, and without the least appearance of Reason. From that time he began to be very much reserved amongst the Jewish Doctors, whom he shunned as much as he cou’d: He was seldom seen in their Synagogues, whither he went only perfunctorily, which exasperated them against him to the highest degree; for they did not doubt but that he wou’d soon leave them, and make himself a Christian. Yet, to speak the truth, he never embraced Christianity, nor received the Holy Baptism: And tho he had frequent conversations with some learn’d Mennonites, as well as with the most eminent Divines of other Christian Sects, yet he never declared for, nor profest himself to be a Member of any of them.
Francis Halma says, in the Account of Spinosa, which he published in Dutch,1 that the Jews offered him a Pension a little while before his Desertion, to engage him to remain amongst ‘em, and to appear now and then in their Synagogues. This Spinosa himself affirmed several times to the Sieur Vander Spyck, his Landlord, and to some other Persons; adding, that the Pension, which the Rabbins design’d to give him, amounted to 1000 Florins. But he protested at the same time, that if they had offered him ten times as much, he wou’d not have accepted of it, nor frequented their Assemblies out of such a motive; because he was not a Hypocrite, and minded nothing but Truth. Monsieur Bayle tells us, That he happen’d one day to be assaulted by a Jew, as he was coming out of the Playhouse, who wounded him in the Face with a Knife, and that Spinosa knew that the Jew design’d to kill him, tho his wound was not dangerous. But
Spinosa’s Landlord and his Wife, who are still living, give me quite another account of it. They had it from Spinosa himself, who did often tell them, that one Evening as he was coming out of the Old Portuguese Synagogue, he saw a Man by him with a Dagger in his Hand; whereupon standing upon his guard, and going backwards, he avoided the blow, which reached no farther than his Cloaths. He kept still the Coat that was run thro’ with the Dagger, as a Memorial of that event. Afterwards, not thinking himself to be safe at Amsterdam, he resolved to retire somewhere else with the first opportunity. Besides, he was desirous to go on with his Studies and Physical Meditations in a quiet Retreat.
He was excommunicated by the Jews.
HE had no sooner left the Communion of the Jews, but they prosecuted him Juridically according to their Ecclesiastical Laws, and Excommunicated him. He himself did very often own that he was Excommunicated by them, and declared, that from that time he broke all Friendship and Correspondence with them. Some Jews of Amsterdam, who knew Spinosa very well, have also confirmed to me the truth
of that fact, adding, that the Sentence of Excommunication was publickly pronounced by the Old Man Chacham Abuabh, a Rabbin of great Reputation amongst ‘em. I have desired in vain the Sons of that
old Rabbin to communicate that Sentence to me; they answered me, that they could not find it amongst the Papers of their Father, but I cou’d easily perceive that they had no mind to impart it to me.
Spinosa learns a Trade or a Mechanical Art.
THE Law and the antient Jewish Doctors do expressly say, that it is not enough for a man to be learned, but that he ought besides to learn a Profession or a Mechanical Art, that it may be a help to him in case
of necessity, and that he may get wherewith to maintain himself. This Rabbin Gamaliel does positively say in the Treatise of the Talmuel Pirke avoth Chap. 2. where he teaches, that the study of the Law is a very desirable thing, when it is attended with a Profession or a Mechanical Art: For, says he, a continual application to those two exercises keeps a Man from doing Evil, and makes him forget it; and every Learned Man who neglects to learn a Profession, will at last turn a loose Man. And Rabbi Jehuda adds, that every Man, who does not take care that his children shou’d learn a Trade, does the same thing as if he taught them how to become High-way-men. Spinosa being well versed in the Study of the Law, and of the Customs of the Ancients, was not ignorant of those Maxims, and did not forget them, tho he was separated from the Jews, and excommunicated by them. Because they are wise and reasonable Maxims he
made a good use of ‘em, and learned a Mechanical Art before he embraced a quiet and a retir’d Life, as he was resolv’d to do. He learned therefore to make Glasses for Telescopes, and for some other
uses, and succeeded so well therein, that People came to him from all Parts to buy them; which did sufficiently afford him wherewith to live and maintain himself. A considerable number of those Glasses,
which he had polished, were found in his Cabinet after his death, and sold pretty dear, as it appears by the Register of the Publick Cryer, who was present at the Sale of his Goods.
After he had perfected himself in that Art, he apply’d himself to Drawing, which he learn’d of himself, and he cou’d draw a Head very well with Ink, or with a Coal. I have in my Hands a whole Book of such Draughts, amongst which there are some Heads of several considerable Persons, who were known to him, or who had occasion to visit him. Among those Draughts I find in the 4th Sheet a Fisherman having only his Shirt on, with a Net on his Right Shoulder, whose Attitude is very much like that of Massanello1 the famous Head of the Rebels of Naples, as it appears by History, and by his Cuts. Which gives me occasion to add, that Mr Vander Spyck, at whose House Spinosa lodged when he died, has assured me, that the Draught of that Fisherman did perfectly resemble Spinosa, and that he had certainly drawn himself. I need not mention the considerable Persons, whose Heads are likewise to be found in this Book, amongst his other Draughts.
Thus he was able to maintain himself with the work of his Hands,
and to mind his Study, as he design’d to do. So that having no
occasion to stay longer in Amsterdam, he left it, and took Lodgings in
the House of one of his Acquaintance, who lived upon the Road from
Amsterdam to Auwerkerke. He spent his time there in studying, and
working his Glasses. When they were polished, his Friends took care
to send for them, to sell ‘em, and to remit his Money to him.
He went to live at Rynsburg, afterwards at Voorburg, and at
last at the Hague.
IN the year 1664 Spinosa left that place, and retired to Rynsburg near
Leyden, where he spent all the Winter, and then he went to Voorburg,
a league from the Hague, as he himself says, in his 30th Letter written
to Peter Balling. He lived there, as I am informed, three or four
years; during which time, he got a great many Friends at the Hague,
who were all distinguisht by their Quality, or by Civil and Military
Employments. They were often in his Company, and took a great
delight in hearing him discourse. It was at their request that he
settl’d himself at the Hague at last, where he boarded at first upon the
Veerkaay, at a Widow’s whose Name was Van Velden, in the same
House where I lodge at present. The Room wherein I study, at the
further end of the House backward, two pair of Stairs, is the same
where he lay, and where he did work and study. He wou’d very often
have his Meat brought into that Room, where he kept sometimes
two or three days, without seeing any Body. But being sensible that
he spent a little too much for his Boarding, he took a Room upon the
Pavilioengracht, behind my House, at Mr. Henry Vander Spyck’s, whom
I have often mention’d, where he took care to furnish himself with
Meat and Drink, and where he lived a very retired Life, according to
He was very Sober, and very Frugal.
IT is scarce credible how sober and frugal he was all the time. Not
that he was reduced to so great a Poverty, as not to be able to spend
more, if he had been willing; he had Friends enough, who offered
him their Purses, and all manner of assistance: But he was naturally
very sober, and could be satisfied with little; and he did not care that
People shou’d think that he had lived, even but once, at the expence
of other Men. What I say about his Sobriety and good Husbandry,
may be prov’d by several small Reckonings, which have been found
amongst his Papers after his death. It appears by them, that he lived
a whole day upon a Milk-soop done with Butter, which amounted to
three pence, and upon a Pot of Beer of three half pence. Another
day he eat nothing but Gruel done with Raisins and Butter, and that
Dish cost him fourpence half penny. There are but two half pints of
Wine at most for one Month to be found amongst those Reckonings,
and tho he was often invited to cat with his Friends, he chose rather
to live upon what he had at home, tho it were never so little, than to
sit down at a good Table at the expence of another Man.
Thus he spent the remaining part of his Life in the House of his
last Landlord, which was somewhat above five years and a half. 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 could spend
every 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 years end. He
added, that he design’d to lay up no more Money than what would be
necessary for him to have a decent Burying; and that, as his Parents
had left him nothing, so his Heirs and Relations should not expect to
get much by his Death.
His Person, and his way of Dressing himself.
As for his Person, his Size, and the features of his Face, there are still
many people at the Hague, who saw and knew him particularly. He
was of a middle size, he had good features in his Face, the Skin some
what black, black curl’d Hair, long Eye-brows, and of the same Colour,
so that one might easily know by his Looks that he was descended
from Portuguese Jews. As for his Cloaths, he was very careless of
‘em, and they were not better than those of the meanest Citizen.
One of the most eminent Councellors of State went to see him, and
found him in a very slovenly Morning-Gown, whereupon the Coun
cellor blam’d him for it, and offer’d him another. Spinosa answer’d
him, that a Man was never the better for having a finer Gown. To
which he added, It is unreasonable to wrap up things of little or no value
in a precious Cover.
His Manners, his Conversation, and his Uninterestedness.
IF he was very frugal in his way of living, his Conversation was also
very sweet and easy. He knew admirably well how to be master of his
Passions: He was never seen very melancholy, nor very merry. He
had the command of his Anger, and if at any time he was uneasy in his
mind, it did not appear outwardly; or if he happen’d to express his
grief by some gestures, or by some words, he never fail’d to retire
immediately, for fear of doing an unbecoming thing. He was besides,
very courteous and obliging, he would very often discourse with his
Landlady, especially when she lay in, and with the people of the House,
whea they happen’d to be sick or afflicted; he never fail’d then to
confort ‘em, and exhort them to bear with Patience those Evils,
which God assigned to them as a Lot. He put the Children in mind
of going often to Church, and taught them to be obedient and dutiful
to their Parents. When the people of the House came from Church,
he wou’d often ask them what they had learn’d, and what they cou’d
remember of the Sermon. He had a great esteem for Dr. Cordes, my
Predecessor; who was a learned and good natured Man, and of an ex
emplary Life, which gave occasion to Spinosa to praise him very often.
Nay, he went sometimes to hear him preach, and he esteem’d particu
larly his learned way of explaining the Scripture, and the solid applica
tions he made of it. He advised at the same time his Landlord and
the People of the House, not to miss any Sermon of so excellent a
It happen’d one day, that his Landlady ask’d him whether he
believed, she cou’d be saved in the Religion she profest: He answered,
Your Religion is a good one, you need not look for another, nor doubt
that you may be saved in it, provided, whilst you apply your self to Piety,
you live at the same time a peaceable and quiet Life.
When he staid at home, he was troublesome to no Body; he spent
the greatest part of his time quietly in his own Chamber. When he
happen’d to be tired by having applyed himself too much to his Philo
sophical Meditations, he went down Stairs to refresh himself, and dis
coursed with the people of the House about any thing, that might
afford Matter for an ordinary Conversation, and even about trifles. He
also took Pleasure in smoaking a Pipe of Tobacco; or, when he had a
mind to divert himself somewhat longer, he look’d for some Spiders,
and made ‘em fight together, or he threw some Flies into the Cobweb,
and was so well pleased with that Battel, that he wou’d sometimes
break into Laughter. He observed also, with a Microscope, the
different parts of the smallest Insects, from whence he drew such
Consequences as seem’d to him to agree best with his Discoveries.
He was no lover of Money, as I have said, and he was very well
contented to live from Hand to Mouth. Simon de Vries of Amsterdam,
who expresses a great love for him, in the 26th Letter, and calls him
his most faithful Friend, Amice integerime, presented him one day,
with a summ of two thousand Florins, to enable him to live a more
casie Life; but Spinosa, in the presence of his Landlord, desired to be
excused from accepting that Money, under pretence that he wanted
nothing, and that if he received so much Money, it wou’d infallibly
divert him from his Studies and Occupations.
The same Simon de Vries being like to die, and having no Wife nor
Children, design’d to make him his general Heir; but Spinosa wou’d
never consent to it, and told him, that he shou’d not think to leave his
Estate to any Body but to his Brother, who lived at Schiedam, seeing
he was his nearest Relation, and natural Heir.
This was executed, as he proposed it; but it was upon condition,
that the Brother and Heir of Simon de Vries shou’d pay to Spinosa
a sufficient Annuity for his maintenance; and that Clause was like
wise faithfully executed. But that which is particular, is, that an
Annuity of 500 Florins was offered to Spinosa by virtue of that Clause,
which he would not accept, because he found it too considerable, so
that he reduc’d it to 300 Florins. That Annuity was regularly paid
him during his Life; and the same de Vries of Schiedam took care after
his death to pay to Mr. Vander Spyck what Spinosa owed him, as it
appears by the Letter of John Rieuwertz, Printer at Amsterdam, who
was employed in that Affair. It is dated the 6th of March, 1678,1 and
directed to Vander Spyck himself.
Another instance of the Uninterestedness of Spinosa, is what past
after the death of his Father. His Father’s Succession was to be
divided between him and his Sisters, to which they were condemned
in Law, tho they had left no Stone unturn’d to exclude him from it.
Yet instead of dividing that Succession, he gave them his share, and
kept only for himself a good Bed, with its furniture.
He was known to several Persons of great Consideration.
Spinosa had no sooner published some of his Works, but he grew
very famous in the World, amongst the most considerable Persons, who
look’d upon him as a Man of a noble Genius, and a great Philosopher.
Monsieur Stoupe, Lieutenant-Collonel of a Regiment of Swissers, in
the service of the King of France, commanded in the City of Utrecht in 1673;
he had been before Minister of the Walloon Church, in
London, during the Civil Wars of England in Cromwel’s time; he was
made afterwards a Brigadeer, and was killed at the Battel of Steenkirke.
Whilst he was at Utrecht, he, writ a Book entituled, The Religion of the
Durch, wherein he upbraids the Reformed Divines, amongst other
things, for neglecting to confute or answer a Book, which was published
under their Eyes, in the year 1670, entituled Tractatus Theologico
Politicus, whereof Spinosa owned himself to be the Author, in his
nineteenth Letter. This is what Monsieur Stoupe says. But the
famous Braunius, Professor of the University of Groningen, shewed the
contrary in his Answer to Monsieur Stoupe’s Book: And indeed so many
Books published against that abominable Treatise, do evidently shew
that Monsieur Stoupe was mistaken. At that very time he writ several
Letters to Spinosa, from whom he received several Answers; and at
last he desired him to repair to Utrecht at a certain time. Monsieur
Stoupe was so much the more desirous that he shou’d come thither,
because the Prince of Condè, who took then possession of the Govern
ment of Utrecht, had a great mind to discourse with Spinosa: And it
was confidently reported that his Highness was so well disposed to re
commend him to the King, that he hoped to obtain easily a Pension
for him, provided he wou’d be willing to dedicate one of his Books to
his Majesty. He received that Letter with a Passport, and set out
from the Hague a little while after he had received it. Francis Halma
says, in his Dutch Account of Spinosa, that he paid a Visit to the Prince of
Conde with whom he had several Conversations for several days, and
with some other Persons of note, particularly with Lieutenant Colonel
Stoupe. But Vander Spyck and his Wife, in whose House he did lodge,
and who are still living, have assured me, that he told them positively
at his return, that he cou’d not see the Prince of Conde, because he set
out from Utrecht some days before he arrived there. But that in the
discourse he had with Monsieur Stoupe, that Officer had assured him,
that, he wou’d willingly use his Interest for him, and that he should
not doubt to obtain a Pension † from the King’s Liberality, at his
recommendation. Spinosa added that, because he did not design to
dedicate any Book to the King of France, he had refused the offer that
was made him, with all the civility he was capable of.
After his return, the Mob at the Hague were extreamly incensed
against him, they look’d upon him as a Spy, and whispered in one
anothers Ears, that they ought to kill so dangerous a Man, who treated,
without doubt, of State affairs, keeping so publick a Correspondence
with the Enemies. Spinosa’s Landlord was alarm’d at it, and was
afraid, not without reason, that the Mob wou’d break into the House,
and perhaps plunder it, and then drag Spinosa out of it: But Spinosa
put him in heart again, and remov’d his fears as well as he could.
Fear nothing, said he to him, upon my account, I can easily justify my self:
There are People enough, and even some of the most considerable Persons of
the State, who know very well what put we upon that Journey. But how
ever, as soon as the Mob make the least noise at your Door, I’ll go and meet
‘em, tho’ they were to treat me, as they treated poor Messieurs de Wit. I
am a good Republican, and I always aimed at the Glory and Welfare of the
In that same year Charles Lewis, Elector Palatine, of glorious
Memory, being informed of the capacity of that great Philosopher,
was desirous that he shou’d come to Heydelberg to teach Philosophy
there, knowing nothing, without doubt, of the Venom concealed in his
Breast, and which was more openly manifested afterwards. His
Electoral Highness ordered the famous Dr. Fabritius, Professor of
Divinity, a good philosopher, and one of his Councellors, to propose it
to Spinosa. He offered him in the Prince’s Name, with that Professor
ship, a full Liberty of Reasoning according to his Principles, as he
shou’d think fit, cum amplissima Philosophandi libertate. But that Offer
was attended with a Condition, which Spinosa did not like at all. For
tho the Liberty granted to him was never so great, yet he was not
allowed in any manner whatsoever to make use of it, to the prejudice
of the Religion established by the Laws: As it appears by Dr.
Fabritius’s Letter dated from Heydelberg the 16th of February. See
Spinosa’s Opera Posthuma Epist. 53. pag. 561. He is honoured in that
Letter, with the Title of most Acute and most Famous Philosopher,
Philosophe acutissime ac celeberrime.
This was a Mine, to which he easily gave Vent, if I may be allowed
to use such an Expression: He perceived the difficulty, or rather the
impossibility of reasoning according to his Principles, without advanc
ing anything that shou’d be contrary to the Established Religion. He
return’d an Answer to Dr. Fabritius the 30th of March 1673, and
refused civilly the Professorship that was offered him. He told him
that The instruction of young Men wou’d prove an Obstacle to his own
Studies, and that he never had the thoughts of embracing such a Profession.
But this was a meet pretence, and he does plainly enough discover his
inward thoughts by the following words. “Besides, (says he to the
“Doctor) I consider that you don’t tell me within what bounds that
liberty of Philosophizing must be confined, that I may not publickly
disturb the established Religion. Cogito deinde me nescire quibus limiti
bus libertas illa Philosophandi intercludi debeat, ne videar publice Stabilitam
Relighmem perturbare velle. See his Posthumous Works, pag. 563
The Life of Spinoza, Colerus (1705) Part II