The Autobiography of Solomon Maimon

The Complete Translation

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Editor(s): 
Yitzhak Y. Melamed, Abraham Socher
  • Princeton, NJ: 
    Princeton University Press
    , May
     2018.
     328 pages.
     $35.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780691163857.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

The Autobiography of Solomon Maimon is a classic and for good reason. Solomon Maimon (1753-1800) is an engaging, if somewhat arrogant and eccentric, raconteur and an honest, astute observer of his surroundings. Widely read when it was originally published (in German, 2 volumes, 1792 and 1793), it remains a fun read. The autobiography first appeared in English in 1888, and that translation has been republished, repackaged, excerpted, and anthologized numerous times. Nonetheless, The Complete Translation by Paul Reitter has been eagerly anticipated both because it is an entirely new translation and because it represents a valuable new approach to the question of “how to make good use of this book and how to judge its contents.” (121)

Maimon claims “this ledger of successes and failings should help the reader understand me and, I hope, improve himself” (123). And what a ledger of successes and failings it is! Early on, Maimon was received with honor by prominent Jewish families for his mastery of Talmud and later on, Immanuel Kant writes that Maimon understands Kant’s critical philosophy better than any other contemporary writer. But, Maimon also tells of his abandonment of his young wife and children, suicidal ideation, homelessness, hunger, and extreme poverty and hints at his alcoholism and frequenting of brothels. Maimon also includes in his autobiography a nearly sixty-five-page synopsis of the Guide of the Perplexed by the 12th century Jewish philosopher Moses Maimonides (whose patronymic became Maimon’s surname around 1784), as well as discussions of Spinoza, Leibniz, Hume, and Kant, among other philosophers. In a sense, therefore, the autobiography’s culmination in a listing of Maimon’s recent, German publications makes the book a marketing pitch to draw its readers—who should now understand Maimon and his manner of thinking—to his more serious philosophical writings. Yet Maimon would also like for this progenitor of the bildungsroman to induce even those readers who do not learn how to read philosophy à la Maimon to love truth and to reject prejudice, religious zealotry, and superstition.

Although Maimon likely thought that he wrote a story of transcending his parochial Judaism and becoming an enlightened cosmopolitan, from the beginning his autobiography has been regarded as a Jewish book. Karl Philipp Moritz, the original editor, introduces Maimon as a spokesman to cultured Germans on behalf of Jewish enlightenment. “Now, when the cultural education and enlightenment of the Jewish people has become a special topic of reflection . . .  the author’s story will allow the reader to experience the place where—and the people among whom—he happened to be born, and where reason enabled his mind to reach a state of development that created intellectual needs that could only be met elsewhere” (xxxvii). Although Maimon’s autobiography did influence many prominent German thinkers, the editors of The Complete Translation state that it “made the greatest impression on nineteenth-century Eastern European Jewish readers who had suffered a similar crisis of faith and were struggling to modernize Jewish culture or find their feet outside of it” (xiii).

The subgenre of maskilic autobiography that Maimon inaugurated is not to be minimized, but recent abridgements treat the autobiography as a primary text for Jewish history. Maimon endorses this approach when comparing his memoirs to the recounting of court affairs and military adventures by the great men of political and military history. “For what seems to be the most insignificant occurrences of daily life can be in some respects more interesting—and more edifying, too—than such brilliant deeds, which are more or less the same in every case. ... Nature is inexhaustible; but the great-man memoir was exhausted a long time ago” (121). While some social historians focus on the details Maimon shares of everyday life among Polish Jews, other historians turn to the autobiography because Maimon is the only individual known to have entered both the circle of Rabbi Dov Ber (better known as the Maggid) of Mezritch, leader of the second generation of Hasidism, and that of Moses Mendelssohn. One price that Maimon’s autobiography has paid for this interest in historic narrative is that editors have been omitting the extended philosophical excurses (as in previous English editions) or dispatching them to appendixes (as in German and Hebrew academic editions.)

In contrast, the editors of The Complete Translation are more focused on the autobiography as a work of Jewish philosophy. Hence, they keep the autobiography in the form in which Maimon published it and argue in their introductory essay that Maimon’s anecdotes demonstrate that the long excursus on Maimonides “is both philosophically astute and a key to understanding his book, both as an autobiography and as a critique of contemporary Judaism” (xvii). Thus, unlike the 19th century translator of Maimon’s autobiography, who wrote that “the sketches which the book contains of Jewish speculation and life were made at a time when the author had severed all vital connection with his own people and their creed; and they are therefore drawn from a point of view outside Jewish prejudices” (J. Clark Murray, trans., Solomon Maimon: An Autobiography, Cupples and Hurd, 1888, xii), the editors of the Complete Translation place the autobiography alongside Spinoza’s writings as positive contributions to the canon of modern Jewish philosophy. Editorial annotations throughout the autobiography further complement this argument by expanding upon Maimon’s allusions to rabbinic teachings and references to modern philosophy within his narratives, as well as pointing to contemporary scholarship on Maimon. The afterword, “Maimon’s Philosophical Itinerary” by Gideon Freudenthal, shares this emphasis by highlighting Maimon’s “innovative and singular place” (261) in 18th century European philosophy.

There are, however, a few distracting inconsistencies. For example, the introductory essay states that the editors “retained Maimon’s own transliteration of Hebrew words . . . to preserve these bits of eighteenth-century Ashkenazi-Lithuanian Hebrew dialect” (xxxv). This rule is not observed consistently, particularly within chapters 14 and 16 of part 1, nor should it be because recovery of Maimon’s dialect from his transliterations depends upon knowledge of how 18th-century German sounded when read aloud. Readers of English are better served by a standard transliteration scheme based on either modern Israeli Hebrew or contemporary Yiddish.

In addition, the philosophical and literary annotations are among the book’s strongest features, but some passages need more historical annotation and dating of events. For example, other editions tell readers that Maimon’s first stay in Berlin was from 1780 to 1783 or that Maimon’s demure statement that during that stay in Berlin he tutored “young S.L. (who is still my patron)” (196), refers to Samuel Solomon Levy (1760-1806), who in 1783 married Sara Itzig (1761-1854), a daughter of the wealthy court Jew Daniel Itzig, an aunt to two of Mendelssohn’s daughters-in-law, and hostess of a prominent salon when Maimon wrote these words. Although the additional information might not be germane to Maimon’s philosophy, it nonetheless ought to have been included.

Regarding his chapters on the Guide, Maimon states that those “looking for mere incidents or a novelistic story can skim these pages, which will not, however, be unimportant for intelligent readers” (128). Maimon’s advice also applies to the Complete Edition. General readers will enjoy the book but will likely want to skip the philosophical content. For such readers, this edition may only represent an incremental improvement over its predecessors. For students of enlightenment Germany, Jewish history, and German and Jewish philosophy, however, the philosophy is essential. This edition is highly recommended and supersedes all previous English editions of The Autobiography of Solomon Maimon.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Mark Kaplowitz is currently a Visiting Assistant Professor of the Humanities at Rhodes College and an adjunct Instructor of religion and Philosophy at Christian Brothers University, both in Memphis, Tennessee.

Date of Review: 
October 21, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Yitzhak Y. Melamed is the Charlotte Bloomberg Professor of Philosophy at Johns Hopkins University.

Abraham Socher is Associate Professor of Jewish Studies and Religion at Oberlin College.

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