Everybody loves Spinoza

Atheist Jew, champion of modernism, and kind and sociable man, the 17th century lens grinder who was "drunk on God" continues to win hearts and minds with his breathtaking philosophical vision.

Published May 17, 2006 1:15PM (EDT)

Bertrand Russell declared the 17th century lens grinder Baruch Spinoza to be "the noblest and most loveable of the great philosophers." To judge from several recent books, he's not alone in that opinion. The neurologist Antonio Damasio made the philosopher's thought a keystone of his 2003 book on emerging theories of emotion and consciousness, "Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow and the Feeling Brain." In "Betraying Spinoza: The Renegade Jew Who Gave Us Modernity," philosophy professor and novelist Rebecca Goldstein declares herself to have loved Spinoza since the first time she heard him decried in the Orthodox yeshiva high school she attended as a girl. Matthew Stewart, a management consultant turned freelance historian of philosophy, makes Spinoza the supreme champion of modernism in his tale of intellectual rivalry, "The Courtier and the Heretic: Leibniz, Spinoza and the Fate of God in the Modern World." Even Einstein, when asked if he believed in God, replied, "I believe in Spinoza's God."

All this is strange, when you observe, as Goldstein does, that Spinoza's ideas, from the perspective of contemporary analytic philosophy ("the philosophic tradition toward which I gravitate"), are considered "not just unsubstantiated speculations, but highfalutin nonsense." Surveying Spinoza's view of existence, Russell declared "the whole of this metaphysic is impossible to accept; it is incompatible with modern logic and with scientific method." Stewart characterizes Spinoza's thought as exhibiting a forbiddingly "eerie self-sufficiency." And in his own time and for decades afterward, Spinoza was widely denounced as (according to one church leader) "that insane and evil man, who deserves to be covered with chains and whipped with a rod." Yet however obsolete, ridiculous or even blasphemous, Spinoza still speaks to modern thinkers with an immediacy no philosopher of his time can match.

Of the two most recent books on this once-infamous "atheist Jew," Stewart's is the more wide-ranging and entertaining and Goldstein's is the more elegant; both are splendid. Goldstein (whose book belongs to a series of short volumes on Jewish thought) wants to reclaim Spinoza's famously dismissive attitude toward notions like ethnic identity as a paradoxically Jewish position. Stewart wants to vaunt him as a prophet of liberal secularism.

Many are those who can be accused of betraying Spinoza, including the Jewish community of his native Amsterdam, who excommunicated him in his early 20s. Then there's Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, the brilliant German polymath who, as Stewart tells it, spent his whole life being influenced by and reviling Spinoza. You might, then, suspect Goldstein to be referring to these or other contemporaneous betrayals in her title. But what Goldstein gracefully acknowledges is that her own project to characterize Spinoza's philosophy as distinctly Jewish, though inspired by "love," amounts to another betrayal. The aspects of Spinoza's life that we consider fascinatingly personal -- his religious and ethnic background, his habits and relationships, his family history and quirks -- were qualities Spinoza himself dismissed as mere ephemera and illusion. To write about Spinoza's own life as if it matters is, in a way, to betray him.

Still, there's something about Spinoza the man that led people to love him, then and now -- even though his own work mostly avoids autobiographical intrusions and even though he would have frowned on such considerations. Although he was regarded as a dangerous heretic in his own time and refrained from publishing his final works for fear of provoking serious problems, Spinoza's funeral, as described by Stewart, was "an impressive event. Six state carriages led the procession, and many persons of high social rank attended along with the philosopher's numerous admirers. Notwithstanding his solitary ways and international notoriety, it seems, the sage of The Hague had developed quite a following among his fellow citizens."

Despite what Goldstein deems his "reptilian detachment" from the personal, little details of Spinoza's life manage to convey why he might have been so popular even when his ideas were often so detested. Goldstein herself decided that Spinoza was "loveable" when she learned that, as a young man, the philosopher kept his religious skepticism to himself until after his father's death, in order to prevent his own apostasy from troubling his parent. Whatever his beliefs about the irrelevance of individual identity, Spinoza was a kind and sociable man. His landlord's Christian family, for example, was devoted to him, supplying him with his simple meals and even locking him inside the house on one rare occasion when Spinoza intemperately tried to confront his fellow citizens about a recent act of mob violence.

"When he needed to take a break from his philosophical labors," Stewart writes, "the apostate Jew would descend to the parlor and chat with his house companions about current affairs and other trivia. The conversation often revolved around the local minister's most recent sermon. On occasion the notorious iconoclast even attended church service in order to better participate in the discussion." Spinoza did not believe in God as any church of his time would have defined the deity, and he considered most organized religions to be vehicles of deceit and oppression. But when his landlord's wife told him she was worried she'd picked the wrong church, he reassured her it was fine: "You needn't look for another one in order to be saved," he said, "if you give yourself to a quiet and pious life."

By the standards of his day, Spinoza was an atheist. (He insisted he was not, but his notion of "God" is one that even today many people would find overly abstract.) As Stewart notes, his contemporaries were much confused by the philosopher's character, since atheists were assumed to be depraved, amoral hedonists whose impulses were completely unrestrained by any threat of punishment in the afterlife. (This is still a common idea, especially among those raised in authoritarian religions. The comedian Julia Sweeney, in her one-woman show about losing her Catholic faith, describes fearing that without a belief in God she and others would run around stealing things and killing people.)

Spinoza, however, was no reprobate, although he was made to suffer for his beliefs. He never married, and after being excommunicated, he was forced to give up his position in his family's business, since all members of the Jewish community were forbidden to speak with him, including his own relatives. He lived an exemplary, modest life, supporting himself grinding lenses (a highly skilled trade) and turning down various commissions and allowances that he deemed either too extravagant or likely to impinge on his intellectual freedom. "Unlike some other philosophers," Russell writes, "he not only believed his own doctrines, but practiced them; I do not know of any occasion, in spite of great provocation, in which he was betrayed into the kind of heat or anger that his ethic condemned. In controversy he was courteous and reasonable, never denouncing, but doing his utmost to persuade." Many who knew him considered him a kind of saint.

Of course, even saints -- perhaps especially saints and everyone else who seems above fractious, ordinary human travails -- can be insufferable. And yet Spinoza, apparently, was not, even if Stewart tries to convince us that the philosopher had a certain infuriating, supercilious look that he unleashed on rare occasions and that revealed how little he thought of most people's intellectual powers. The love so many people feel for Spinoza, like all love, is a bit of a mystery, and it should be added that love itself was not something Spinoza particularly endorsed, with the sole exception of what he called "the intellectual love of God." This love, the only real form of, in Spinoza's words, "continuous, supreme and unending happiness," can be attained by applying oneself to the pursuit of reason, the apprehension -- however human and therefore imperfect -- of the infinite and perfect cathedral of laws and logic that is, for him, the essence of God.

Surely one reason so many thinkers remain smitten with Spinoza is the fabled beauty of his vision of the universe and God. Goldstein, a professor of philosophy at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., writes of seeing her students transformed by Spinoza's "Ethics." At first, they're put off by the "eccentricity -- both in form and content -- of this impenetrable work." But eventually, they make "their way into Spinoza's way of seeing things, watching the entire world reconfigure itself in the vision ... One feels oneself change, however, impermanently, as one beholds Spinoza's point of view -- the point of view that approaches, though it can never match, 'the Infinite Intellect of God.' One's whole sense of oneself, and what it is one cares about, tilts -- in a direction that certainly feels like up. Year after year, I've watched what happens with my students when Spinoza begins to take hold, and it's always moving beyond measure."

Although Spinoza's vision is ultimately "unsustainable," it does sound breathtaking. Goldstein's description reminds me of a passage in Neal Stephenson's historical novel "Quicksilver," in which a fictional character has an intimation about a friend, a real genius and contemporary of Spinoza's: "[He] experienced a faint echo of what it must be like, all the time, to be Isaac Newton: a permanent ongoing epiphany, an endless immersion in lurid radiance, a drowning in light, a ringing of cosmic harmonies in the ears."

What makes Spinoza's philosophy unsustainable in Goldstein's view is the fact that "in its ruthless high-mindedness, it asks us to renounce so many passions. (Among the passions we must renounce is romantic love, which, Spinoza deduces, will almost always end badly...)" Any love that is dependent on something that must inevitably change and cannot truly be possessed -- such as another person -- Spinoza explains, is asking for trouble. With a dazzling comprehensiveness, the philosopher seemed driven to topple every species of sacred cow. Anyone who isn't disturbed by his refusal to believe in the conventional notion of God as a person will surely be put off by his skepticism about the secular religion of our own time, true love.

Key to Spinoza's heresy was his monism, his belief that everything that exists is essentially a single thing, "nature" (that is, the infinite universe), and that this is identical with God. (As a girl, Goldstein was taught that Spinoza wickedly equated God with nature, when Jews and Christians agreed that God is supernatural, outside of nature, and a person.) Everything we experience -- people, events, objects -- is simply a "mode" of that single "Substance" or essence. Because God/Nature is infinite and we are finite, we perceive these things to be separate when they are not; all separate identities, including our own individuality, are merely an illusion or misperception. We perceive good and evil when neither really exists, from the perspective of God. The only way we can come to understand the true unity of the world is through the understanding of pure reason, which is integral to Substance in the same way that roundness is integral to a circle.

We can't fully grasp this -- our minds aren't adequate to the task -- but with a dash of intuition, we can glimpse it and experience Spinoza's notion of true happiness. We can then attain what Goldstein calls a "radical objectivity," a perspective that's outside of our own limited identity. This objectivity will enable us to see the insignificance of our own pains, pleasures and losses except insofar as they help or hinder our ability to reason. We will realize that a life of restraint and peaceful coexistence with our fellow man is exactly what will sustain us in this cause; self-interest and virtue will be revealed as identical. Finally, we will be able to regard with tranquility the fact that we are mortal, that our minds, like our bodies, are simply a mode of the great infinity of Substance, and will someday end.

While Spinoza was no Puritan -- he believed that pleasure, when properly understood, guides the philosopher toward self-preservation and the path of reason -- he did advise the renunciation of "passions," that is, any powerful emotion that interferes with the enlightened self-interest epitomized by a life of virtue and the pursuit of reason. Yet, strangely enough, he was admired by many of the Romantics of the 19th century, who were votaries of individualism and overpowering emotion. If his contemporaries called him an atheist, the German romantic poet Novalis would later swoon over this "God-intoxicated" visionary. It seems that everyone tends to see in Spinoza what they find most compelling.

No surprise then that Goldstein's young students, preoccupied with their own love lives, will suggest that "there must have been some woman who broke his heart" and caused Spinoza to take such a dim view of romance. There have been some feeble rumors to this effect, but they don't convince Goldstein, who "cannot quite condone" this sort of speculation. "If there's some missing element of biography that must be summoned in order to explain the philosopher's vision of radical objectivity, his abjuring any love other than that for objectivity itself, I very much doubt it lies in disappointed romantic love. If it lies anywhere, it's in Jewish history. Spinoza has forsworn the Jew's love of that history. That was the love that was too heartbreaking to bear."

As Goldstein sees it, Spinoza developed a philosophy that renounced identity because his Jewish identity was too painful, both in his own excommunication and in the history of his people, the Sephardic Jews. Much of "Betraying Spinoza" follows the history of this people, beginning with a golden age in the tolerant, culturally sophisticated, Muslim-ruled Spain of the early Middle Ages. When European Christians finally regained control of Spain in the 15th century, a bloody campaign of persecution and eventually expulsion against Spanish Jews began. Spinoza was descended from Sephardim who were driven by the Inquisition out of Spain and into Portugal, and eventually out of Portugal to Amsterdam.

Spinoza, Goldstein suspects, could no longer countenance the Jews' insistence on their status as the people chosen by God and their efforts to reconcile this belief with the seemingly endless sufferings they had endured. According to Spinoza's philosophy, the idea of a special or chosen people is absurd -- even the idea that humanity constitutes some special category of creation, in fact even the idea of creation is absurd. Spinoza's vision of the world as "the all-embracing web of necessary truths, intelligible through and through," countered the Jewish notion of a God of arbitrary laws and murderous rages and kabalistic fantasies of unfathomable mystery. In effect, Goldstein is claiming that the fact of Spinoza's Jewishness makes itself most felt in the way his philosophy seems custom-designed to refute the premises of Judaism as he knew it.

For Stewart, on the other hand, Spinoza's Jewishness is an ancillary issue. He sees the philosopher as a fundamentally political thinker. Looking around him, at the prospering and religiously tolerant Dutch Republic, Spinoza formulated a vision of the ideal state as a secular, democratic authority that ensured what he christened "freedom of conscience." Spinoza's "advocacy of democracy on the basis of individual rights was extraordinarily bold for its time," Stewart writes, "and it qualifies him as the first truly modern political philosopher." This aspect of Spinoza's work would eventually influence the British philosopher John Locke, who was in turn a major influence on the creators of the U.S. Constitution. In a way, Spinoza was a proto-American.

Stewart is so taken with this aspect of Spinoza's legacy that he makes the not very credible claim that it is the true root of the philosopher's thought. "Inasmuch as Spinoza's God is easier to understand in the negative -- that is, in terms of what it is not: a personal, providential, creator deity -- than in the positive -- what it is -- then to that extent his political commitments would seem to be prior to his philosophy. That is, his metaphysics would be intelligible principally as the expression of his political project, to overthrow theocracy."

If only we could always assume that the easiest part to understand in a philosopher's work is also the most important part! A Spinoza whose dearest goal is to overthrow theocracy and ensure the freedoms of a democratic secular state is certainly more appealing nowadays than the one who insists on his own weird, impersonal, indifferent "God" and the supremacy of reason over passion. But it seems more likely that Spinoza's quest to discover the nature of reality came first, and that it was the efforts of various religious authorities to squelch his questions and ideas that led him to conceive of the ideal of a secular, tolerant state.

Likewise, a Spinoza who honored his Jewish heritage enough to devote his life to transcending it seems more sympathetic than a Spinoza who cold-bloodedly tossed it out as a collection of absurd superstitions and tribal delusions of grandeur. Both versions of Spinoza -- the crusader for freedom of conscience and the tragic Jewish intellectual -- humanize the philosopher in ways congenial to our modern principles of liberal individualism. And certainly Spinoza, as both Goldstein and Stewart point out, is one of the prophets of modernism.

But there is also Spinoza's materialism, which makes him a "protobiologist" in Damasio's view, and perhaps a deterministic proto-Darwinian to others. Some might see the philosopher's advocacy of "radical objectivity" as harmonious with the Buddhist doctrines of non-attachment -- even if Spinoza's geometrically derived rationalism has little in common with the mind-emptying practice of meditation. Maybe someone will even eventually come along to admire the philosopher's "ruthless high-mindedness." For reasons that may always remain an enigma, when we look deep into Spinoza's (famously beautiful) eyes, what we see is very often a reflection of ourselves, perhaps even our best selves. If Spinoza was right about the universe, he's not around (anywhere) to either appreciate the irony of this or to rail against our solipsism. And that's just one more reason for us to love him so much.

By Laura Miller

Laura Miller is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."

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