Monday, June 29, 2020

Solomon Maimon: Wandering Jew

Solomon Maimon (1753- 1800) was a rabbi's son who was lured away by western philosophy, becoming a confidant of Immanuel Kant and other Enlightened luminaries. In 1793 he published an autobiography, which was recently issued in a new translation and reviewed by Audrey Borowski in the March 6 TLS:
Married off to the daughter of an innkeeper as a Talmudic prodigy at the age of eleven, Maimon worked as a tutor, flirted with Hasidism at the court of Rabbi Dov Ber in Mezritch, grew disillusioned with the movement's lack of intellectual seriousness, and traveled to Berlin to study medicine. However, anti-Jewish restrictions reduced him to roaming Germany for months as a bedraggled beggar until 1780, when he finally succeeded in breaking into Berlin intellectual circles. He had the support – partly financial – of several employers and generous patrons, including the rabbi of the Jewish community in Posen and, later, the freethinking Count Adolf von Kalckreuth. This unsettled way of life suited him rather well: he would later describe those years as the "happiest and most successful" period in his life, when, unencumbered by familial responsibilities – having abandoned his wife and son back in Poland early on – he could devote himself fully to the contemplative ideal, while nonetheless deriding the "idleness" of those Jewish scholars had left behind at home.

Maimon jumped from one discipline to another, from astronomy and mathematics to medicine, philosophy and literature. He had immersed himself in books and absorbed philosophical systems from the moment he had access to his father's library, finding good in – and building on – each of them, even attempting to revise Kant's transcendental philosophy by drawing on Leibniz's concept of infinitesimal calculus.

Yet Maimon never really contemplated putting theory into practice, and as a result often found himself o the brink of disaster. His journey towards intellectual self-perfection often reads like a picaresque novel, complete with nocturnal flights, abductions, corrupt clerics, debauched princes, disgruntled Poles and mischief of various kinds;. These episodes form a tragicomedy in which wit, humor and self-awareness provide an antidote to the ambient misery. Early in his marriage, he engaged in "constant warfare" with his abusive mother-in-law, whom he "paid back with interest" and on whose head he eventually dumped a pot of milk. In the middle of one night he dressed up as his late mother in order to haunt his mother-in-law and threaten her with eternal damnation. 
Though he never completed his medical studies, Maimon concocted medicines and wrote prescriptions for patients, "not wanting to content himself with theory." As he writes himself, "one can imagine how that went. At lest it had the happy consequence of making me realize that I hadn't grasped much of what goes into being a practicing doctor. Maimon also tells us that a blatant attempt at self-advancement – conversion to Protestantism – failed because he could accept only a demystified version of Christianity. He therefore resigned himself to remaining a "stubborn Jew."
As his motto Maimon took a line from the Talmud, "Lovers of wisdom have no rest in this world or the world to come."

Excellent article on Maimon's career and philosophy here.

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