display | more...
The addresse of this letter, Yashuma Neiboku, was apparently a student in the city of Keio with Seiji Koga in the years just before the turn of the century. Beginning in the year 1809, the two initiated another of their magnificent correspondences. This one serves as a fine record of both of their scholarly abilities. A lifelong student of translation, Koga was also interested in more religious matters. In this letter, we have an example of his longing to understand God. At Keio he apparently read the works of the Jewish Dutch philosophy Baruch de Spinoza, which he may have first learned of through Florian Von Banier's excellent treatise The Art of Writing Translations, in which short treatment is given of an axiom from Spinoza's posthumously published Ethics. The first part of Spinoza's book is De Deo, On God. It is this section of the work that Koga considers in the following letter.



Yashuma Neiboku,

I hope, my friend, that this letter arrives with you safe. The safety, though, shall belong primarily to you and your family, and only secondarily, after the affairs of all others have been watched after, to the words contained herein. Were they lost forever at sea, or even in my own stacks of confused papers, the loss would not be great. It is not my words, I trust, that allow you to call me a friend, but rather my friendship, which exists, in the very subterfuge through which these lines pass on the way from my hand to yours.

You have asked that I wrote to you of Spinoza, whom you know I studied with great industry and passion at Keio. Even my teachers at Keio were impressed with my translations and understanding of Spinoza, but I allow you now this in confidence: I do not understand Spinoza. Nonetheless, you have asked this of me, and so I thank you for the favor that you have done. It is true that I am never far from the words of Spinoza. Also is it true that I do not read them often enough. My edition, as you know, is a wonderful hand-copied manuscript. One of the only I have seen here in Japan, though in other lands, closer to Spinoza's, I have seen many such books in the beautiful libraries populating our world. You have asked me for what you name "lessons". What I provide you are only the "wanderings" of an old man's hand across the page as I leaf through pages.

Let my first wandering be short. So that I do not scare you off of the path. I will only state the beginnings of what I believe Spinoza to be saying. I will not say much, but that is because it is best to begin speaking, or writing, by not speaking, or writing, very much. It is only later that the complexity of our conversations is revealed.

I will consider the axioms of Spinoza's book of God. I know that you already fully understand them, as well as the definitions which precede them. Still, perhaps my understanding of these axioms differs from yours. They are these, which I will explain even if only by translation:

I. Omnia quae sunt vel in se vel in alio sunt.
II. Id quod per aliud non potest concipi, per se concipi debet.
III. Ex data causa determinata necessario sequitur effectus, et contra si nulla detur determinata causa, impossibile est ut effectus sequatur.
IV. Effectus cognitio a cognitione causae dependet et eandem involvit.
V. Quae nihil commune cum se invicem habent, etiam per se invicem intelligi non possunt, sive conceptus unius alterius conceptum non involvit.
VI. Idea vera debet cum suo ideato convenire.
VII. Quicquid ut non existens potest concipi, eius essentia non involvit existentiam.

I. Of the first it can be said that it simple states that "Anything which exists, exists in its own be-ing or in another be-ing". That is, its existence is either of its own, or of another. That is clear enough. II. Of the second axiom, it says, "That which through another cannot be conceived, through itself must be conceived." This axiom is very similar to the first. If something exists either through itself or through another, this is almost the same as it being conceived either through itself or through another.

III. The third axiom simple states that there must be a cause and effect; IV., the fourth that a cognizance of an effect relies on a cognizance of that which caused the effect. These are both simple enough, for they state only that every cause effects something, and that every effect must be caused, and that likewise, cognizance of causes and effects are inter-dependent.

V. The fifth axiom holds that things which have nothing in common with one another cannot be understood by means of each other. For example, one could not understand an orchid by a fish, for the two are not of the same order, in any sense. The example does not fully suffice, for both fish and orchids are of the order of living things, and so we can understand an orchid by a fish, insofar as the orchid is a living thing. Yet the workings of the fish, its breathing, its swimming, its production of eggs or live offspring, cannot be understood by the orchid, which has nothing in common with it in these regards.

The sixth and seventh axioms are those that I find most interesting, and terribly perplexing. They are a puzzle which I fear I will never solve. Perhaps they are but riddles and my contemplation shall never cease. A question which has no answer is still worth a million years of contemplation. For it is the love that one derives from thought that is of value, rather than the derivative truth. Yet I digress too far from Spinoza, even though in some manners perhaps I do not.

VI. The profundity of the sixth axiom first hollowed my mind when I read it in the book of Florian Von Banier's which you and I used to study. I have already translated Von Banier's writings on this axiom, and you have read my translations. I will copy parts of that translation here, if only to refresh my memory:

VI. Idea vera debet cum suo ideato convenire. Literally, "Idea true must with its object correspond". Translation, "A true idea must correspond with its object". Of particular interest, here, is the Latin word "convenire", which is of interest not only to the translator, but also the metaphysician, or he who seeks the true geometry of their soul.
"Convenire" could be translated as "agree" or "correspond", and it certainly implies the philosophical concept of corresondence. The word "convenir" in French (obvious etymological relationship) suggests such an agreeing, though not as corresponding, but rather as fitting, or suiting, or being agreeable with, perhaps in the way that a flower's fragrance may agree with that flower. The closest word in English to "convenire", from a graphic standpoint, is "convene". Convening is a coming together of two (or more) things. The graphic resemblance between "convenire" and "convene" is important for a translation of Ia6.
In Latin, "Venire" is a conjugation of the verb "venio". This verb is equivalent to the French "venir" and the English "to come". The prefix "con-" comes from the Latin word "cum" which designates an accompaniment or connection and can simply be translated as "with" or "together". Con-venire literally suggests a together-coming or a coming together of two or more things. Less technically, that is, according those that are not mathemeticians or physicians of humanity, perhaps the best translation of "convenire" is "to come together" or "to meet up with another". There is, in Spinoza's use here, certainly more than a hint at the metaphysical category of identity. For the identity of two things is merely that, their coming together in some sense, their coming down to the same thing, as we might say in the vernacular.

In my own thinking, I have still not veered from what Von Banier wrote so many years ago. Do you, honorable and wise Neiboku, agree with this translation and comprehension?

VII. The seventh and final axiom from the first book of Ethica is this: "Quicquid ut non existens potest concipi, eius essentia non involvit existentiam". Literally, "If thing as not existening can be conceived, that thing's essentia does not involve existence." I have still not settled on a proper translation of this axiom. The very general outlines of the idea are clear enough. Translation. "If a thing can be conceived as not existing, its essentia does not involve existence." It it is this word "essentia" which plagues me, which has spilled forth into my dreams while I was in Keio, and since I have returned here to Fukuoka. It is often understood as we might write, "essence". But I do not know if that is what Spinoza intended. The essence of a flower can be distilled, as can that of any organic compound, or so I have been told by many scientists from Europe. For many years I took it for granted, as scholars often do, that this was the true meaning of the term.

Yet then I had a strange fortune or misfortune. Late at night, not many years ago, I heard it suggested from the quivering and nervous lips of a wandering Jew in search of Buddha that essentia is truly a verb, which should be in this context conjugated in an entirely active tense--in short, this Jew told me that the word was "be-ing", in the active sense of be-ing. God is not a be-ing, he told me. God is be-ing. That is a description of what God does, his vocation and true purpose if you will. God's essence, as some philosophers might conceive it. The face of this wandering Jew was much like the face of Spinoza that I once saw portrayed on a copy of his Theological Tractatus. I only saw this foreigner for one evening. In the morning he had left before either I or the sun rose. He left behind him only the peels from his breakfast fruit.

If he is correct, we have, "If a thing can be conceived as not existing, its be-ing does not involve existing". I do not know what to make of this strange construction. Perhaps we can offer this as a lesson to each other, Neiboku.

I write to you as always,
With trembling,
Seiji Koga

Yashuma Neiboku wrote his first reply to Seiji Koga later in the year of 1810, and in that letter he offered Koga his puzzlement over his treatment of the seventh axiom. He pressed Koga to clarify the metaphysical and ontological status of the translation of the Latin word essentia proposed in the above epistle.

Log in or register to write something here or to contact authors.