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How Long was Peter Balling’s Son Dead?

Within Reason: A LIfe of Spinoza

I have to say that reading Margaret Gullan-Whur’s biography of Spinoza is such a mixed experience. It is so well-researched, stuffed with details, and those details so creatively composed that I find that page after page I turn to the endnotes in the back to run through her sources, opening up new ways of seeing material that has long rested in a single frame of reference. And I don’t really mind her very speculative tendencies, something which no doubt has bothered many readers who want to keep their personal “Spinoza” intact, for it is her speculative that allows her to open up the new material. But I have to say, along with this speculation comes the quite evident fact that she plain does not like the man she had studied, or, if she does like him, she has irrepressible drive to “humanize” him, that is, to impress upon him every character flaw she can find hint of (or, if I was more reckless, perhaps make him in the image of some very memorable male figure in her own life). One need only look to her interpretation of Spinoza 26 to Oldenburg, which is pretty much plainly filled with glee and enthusiasm over a meeting with Huygens, to see how deeply she will insert values of arrogance and resentment into a historical Spinoza. I am all for remaking Spinoza for too often he becomes more like a Personage rather than a person, but Gullan-Whur seems strained to find a particular kind of person. Be that as it may, I have to recommend the wonderful biography to anyone serious about building a clearer picture of the man, his world and his life.

The Death of a Son

As an example of what I find fascinating is the way that Gullan-Whur is able to re-contextualize material that felt pretty well settled in my mind. I take for instance his letter to Peter Balling (letter 17). I had always, as had many, taken this letter to be prima facie a letter of consolation to a mourning father. Spinoza’s reported waking dream of the Brazilian and his thoughts on prophetic knowing and immortality that follow were to be seen in the light of Peter’s recent loss of a son, probably to the plague. I don’t know if the research or interpretation is original to her (she cites only official records, and no article), but challengingly Gullan-Whur points out that there is only one record of the death of a son of Peter Balling:

Peter Balling’s omens could have concerned things other than his little boy’s death (which may not have been recent: the only record of the burial of a “child Peter Balling” is for 16 October 1661), since one “Pieter Balling”, living on the Burghwal opposite the Swan Brewery was buried  on 23 December 1664, in an emergency graveyard in the grounds of an old monastery, fourteen guilders being paid for the beir and boat-cover used for his brief obsequies (152).

Of course the original, widespred interpretation of the Balling letter remains quite possible. Deaths were very frequent at this time, and Balling may have had several other children who died. The sense that Balling has been spooked by his auditory premonition of his son’s rasping still can be in order, as the plague was in full-bloom in July of 1664 when Spinoza writes to him, and Peter’s death just five months later becomes a kind of tragic fulfillment. But what this tidbit of historical evidence does is inspire a closer look at the letter, the possibility to see it in another light. Nowhere does Spinoza’s words specify a recent death, and if Balling is recalling a premonition and fulfillment he had three years before, Spinoza’s own inclusion of a past waking-dream perhaps makes more sense.

Could it be that when Spinoza writes,

“It caused me no little sorrow and anxiety, though that has much diminished when I reflect on the good sense and strength of character which enable you to scorn the adversaries of fortune, or what is thought of as such, at the very time when they are assailing you with their strongest weapons. Still, my anxiety increases day by day, and I therefore beg and beseech you not to regard it as burdensome to write me without stint”,

he is writing to a dear friend that is being assailed by something more or other than his son’s death? We do not have Balling’s initial letter so we cannot know, but Balling’s own Spiritual devotions (he is the author of the Colligiant work The Light Upon the Candlestick, and the possibility that he himself is sick at this point, suggest that perhaps his question as to prophetic experiences of the future are concerns for himself and the afterlife, part of which were born from a past premonition of the death of his son. To add to this, my own very loose thinking about the meaning of the Brazilian dream, and its possible reference to the leprous physician from the Canary Islands, comes into slightly a different light, if Spinoza somehow is invoking a shared experience (consciously or unconsciously) to a friend who has fallen sick, or is in some other pressing trouble.

I post below the full letter in the Elwes translation for the convenience of others:
LETTER XXX. (XVII.)
Spinoza to Peter Balling.1
[Concerning omens and phantoms. The mind may have a confused presentiment of the future.]

Beloved Friend,-
Your last letter, written, if I mistake not, on the 26th of last month, has duly reached me. It caused me no small sorrow and solicitude, though the feeling sensibly diminished when I reflected on the good sense and fortitude, with which you have known how to despise the evils of fortune, or rather of opinion, at a time when they most bitterly assailed you. Yet my anxiety increases daily; I therefore beg and implore you by the claims of our friendship, that you will rouse yourself to write me a long letter. With regard to Omens, of which you make mention in telling me that, while your child was still healthy and strong, you heard groans like those he uttered when he was ill and shortly afterwards died, I should judge that these were not real groans, but only the effect of your imagination; for you say that, when you got up and composed yourself to listen, you did not hear them so clearly either as before or as afterwards, when you had fallen asleep again. This, I think, shows that the groans were purely due to the imagination, which, when it was unfettered and free, could imagine groans more forcibly and vividly than when you sat up in order to listen in a particular direction. I think I can both illustrate and confirm what I say by another occurrence, which befell me at Rhijnsburg last winter. When one morning, after the day had dawned, I woke up from a very unpleasant dream, the images, which had presented themselves to me in sleep, remained before my eyes just as vividly as though the things had been real, especially the image of a certain black and leprous Brazilian whom I had never seen before. This image disappeared for the most part when, in order to divert my thoughts, I cast my eyes on a boot, or something else. But, as soon as I lifted my eyes again without fixing my attention on any particular object, the same image of this same negro appeared with the same vividness again and again, until the head of it gradually vanished. I say that the same thing, which occurred with regard to my inward sense of sight, occurred with your hearing; but as the causes were very different, your case was an omen and mine was not. The matter may be clearly grasped by means of what I am about to say. The effects of the imagination arise either from bodily or mental causes. I will proceed to prove this, in order not to be too long, solely from experience. We know that fevers and other bodily ailments are the causes of delirium, and that persons of stubborn disposition imagine nothing but quarrels, brawls, slaughterings, and the like. We also see that the imagination is to a certain extent determined by the character of the disposition, for, as we know by experience, it follows in the tracks of the understanding in every respect, and arranges its images and words, just as the understanding arranges its demonstrations and connects one with another; so that we are hardly at all able to say, what will not serve the imagination as a basis for some image or other. This being so, I say that no effects of imagination springing from physical causes can ever be omens of future events; inasmuch as their causes do not involve any future events. But the effects of imagination, or images originating in the mental disposition, may be omens of some future event; inasmuch as the mind may have a confused presentiment of the future. It may, therefore, imagine a future event as forcibly and vividly, as though it were present; for instance a father (to take an example resembling your own) loves his child so much, that he and the beloved child are, as it were, one and the same. And since (like that which I demonstrated on another occasion) there must necessarily exist in thought the idea of the essence of the child’s states and their results, and since the father, through his union with his child, is a part of the said child, the soul of the father must necessarily participate in the ideal essence of the child and his states, and in their results, as I have shown at greater length elsewhere.

Again, as the soul of the father participates ideally in the consequences of his child’s essence, he may (as I have said) sometimes imagine some of the said consequences as vividly as if they were present with him, provided that the following conditions are fulfilled:-I. If the occurrence in his son’s career be remarkable, II. If it be capable of being readily imagined. III. If the time of its happening be not too remote. IV. If his body be sound, in respect not only of health but of freedom from every care or business which could outwardly trouble the senses. It may also assist the result, if we think of something which generally stimulates similar ideas. For instance, if while we are talking with this or that man we hear groans, it will generally happen that, when we think of the man again, the groans heard when we spoke with him will recur to our mind. This, dear friend, is my opinion on the question you ask me. I have, I confess, been very brief, but I have furnished you with material for writing to me on the first opportunity, &c.

Voorburg,
20 July, 1664.

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