Baruch Spinoza is one of the most revered and scrutinized philosophers of the Enlightenment. An atheist at a time when witches were still burned at the stake, his treatises on democracy, free speech and free inquiry were branded as unpardonable heresies by Jew and Christian alike. Spinoza was a Portuguese Jew whose family had fled the Inquisition and established itself in the relatively open society of Amsterdam during the height of mercantilism. An extraordinarily gifted student of the Talmud, he began questioning the conventional wisdom of Judaism, and religion itself, in his adolescence and was excommunicated by his own mentor and rabbi. Spinoza thus became, at an early age, a minority of a minority, or a “double-exile” of 17th-century Europe.
That the radicalism of his philosophy was tied into the radicalism of his life is Rebecca Newberger Goldstein’s subject in her excellent philosophical biography, Betraying Spinoza: The Renegade Jew Who Gave Us Modernity. One of the enticements of this book is that it places The Ethics, Spinoza’s most self-revealing disquisition on nature and human conduct, center-stage. How do we account for the experiences and material conditions that shaped one of the most important minds since antiquity? To even endeavor such a task is to run counter to Spinoza’s objective philosophy, which has it that human behavior is predetermined by nature; our only challenge while we’re still breathing is to understand the sheer necessity of our being. That’s how reason can liberate man from superstition and myth.
Rebecca had kindly agreed to participate in a dialogue with me that, as I explained it, would be a sort of epistolary book review and kibitz on Spinoza’s life and philosophy, and how both are still relevant today. (Theo van Gogh’s murder in 2004, and Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s flight from Amsterdam, both caused by the forces of religious reaction, spring immediately to mind.)
More than that, however, I also wanted to know about the author of Betraying Spinoza, who I’ve been reading for years, both in fiction and non-fiction. (Rebecca’s novel The Mind-Body Problem is probably the best academic satire since Lucky Jim.) Her profile of Baruch is a kind of cerebral love affair at a distance. As a work of biography, it’s tinged with Rebecca’s own intimate experiences, beginning with her girlhood as a skeptical and precocious yeshiva student who first heard the name of this dead heretical Jew pronounced with accented scorn by an orthodox instructor.
I had no idea how enjoyable this exchange would be when I began it, or that I’d manage to coax a little one-act play out of Rebecca in her second letter, a gratis contribution to Jewcy’s pages that had us rethinking our No Fiction policy.
– Michael Weiss
To: Rebecca Goldstein From: Michael Weiss Subject: Laughter of the Mind and the Original Non-Jewish Jew
I should probably say at the outset that I’d been looking forward to your treatment of Spinoza ever since I read your engrossing book on Kurt G?del's incompleteness theorem. This is a profound accomplishment since you're talking to someone with absolutely no aptitude for mathematics. (As far as I'm concerned, once a formula exists, the tedious spadework has been done; I'll take the textbook's word for it that it works, thanks all the same.)
Without getting too much into the arcana of G?del's theorem, it’s probably worth mentioning that he employed a very ironic and witty method for legitimizing his Neo-Platonic worldview. G?del believed in certain immutable truths that could not be substantiated by empirical investigation alone. He used the tectonics of the famed Vienna Circle to cause the epistemological earthquakes that brought down the entire edifice of logical positivism. Isn't that the most charismatic kind of genius, to debunk somebody else's wisdom on its own terms and turn reason into an intellectual satire? Incompleteness is laughter of the mind.
Which brings me, if a bit obliquely, to your latest biography of another cosmic comedian, Spinoza. Why do I say comedian? Because in retrospect, there is something distinctly amusing about one man's ability to turn even the most “progressive” elements of 17th-century European society into fire-breathing reactionaries. Spinoza may have been the godfather of modernity, but he also negatively characterized his age, proving that to be ahead of one's time is also, inevitably, to be "of" one's time. The original non-Jewish Jew, the rootless cosmopolitan par excellence, got so much right long before the world was ready to appreciate him – indeed, if it even is ready now. And despite his notorious asceticism, Spinoza strikes me as having a much more winning personality than G?del. He wasn't cracked and tortured, and even when chivvied by the hidebound and medieval, he managed to keep his powder dry (except once, but more on that later). Meet the brooding loner of the Enlightenment, a Clint Eastwood for the life of the mind crowd.
You write early on that you were won over by Spinoza – you loved him – because despite the baleful portrait Mrs. Schoenfeld, your yeshiva teacher, painted of him, he still had an abiding respect for his family and their reputation. He stuck by his motto of Caute ("caution") until the truth elbowed its way out of his study and into the gossip-crazy streets of Amsterdam, where it became a scandal. Before this, he was willing to keep up appearances until the only sacrifice he'd make would be of himself, alone. Shalom bayis (peace within the house) and "not in front of the goyim" are harder orthodoxies for a nice Jewish boy to shake than belief in the soul’s immortality or in the existence of angels. Spinoza didn’t have ice water in his veins, however icy his rationalism may have been.
It's amazing to me that, for someone who didn’t get out much, and didn't have too many people over, he was also a brilliant psychologist. Spinoza knew human folly and passion with the kind of intuition you don't expect from hermetic bookworms. His definition of cruelty, for instance – endeavoring to injure someone who loves you if hatred is your prevailing emotion – is on the same plane as Dostoevsky's insight in The Brothers Karamazov that we sometimes can't forgive the ones we've wronged.
I developed my own affection for Spinoza when I read the circumstances surrounding his excommunication. "Cursed be he by day and cursed be he by night; cursed be he when he lies down and cursed be he when he rises up." This is like that t-shirt they sell in the Village with the shit-happens precis of all the religions. Judaism is "Why does shit always happen to me?"
Now, it’s precisely these biographical details, which are few but extremely telling, that give you the paradoxical challenge of writing a biography of Spinoza. By trying to understand what motivated a purposefully inscrutable philosopher you fly in the face of the "radical objectivity" of his philosophy. This is your betrayal of him. He thought human beings were nothing but the piddling q's implied by the august p's of the logical superstructure of the universe, whether that superstructure is defined as the Mind of God, the Presumption of Pure Reason, or Einstein's a priori "out yonder." Our only task is to use our “eyes of the mind” to try and glimpse as much of that superstructure as possible, to approach its true nature asymptotically.
Rebecca, you're a novelist as well as a scholar of rationalism and its history. I'm wondering how great the temptation must have been to see Spinoza as that near-perfect invention of fiction, a character not just molded by his surroundings, but whose entire legacy might be thought of as its own conscious rejection of them. His personality obtrudes in certain ways: "absurd" is a common adjective used in The Ethics, and it sounds to my ear like the haughty sigh of a pissed-off double exile. Is Spinoza sometimes protesting too much? Are those "eyes of the mind" of his smiling just a little too indulgently for their own good?
I remember your closing line of the G?del book, where you guess at what a horrifying but exciting awareness of being the smartest guy in the room must have been like for an adolescent prodigy:
"There are always logical explanations and I am exactly the sort of person who can discover such explanations. The grownups around me may be a sorry lot, but luckily I don't need to depend on them. I can figure out everything for myself. The world is thoroughly logical and so is my mind – a perfect fit."
This is not betraying G?del because he'd have been indifferent to such a surmise of the motives behind his metaphysics. You're allowed inside his head. Not so Baruch, which makes me wonder if it was purely "objective" of him to place imagination behind reason and observation in his three-part catalogue of knowledge.
You were easier on your subject than you might have been. Compare your treatment of Spinoza to the way Nabokov went to work in The Eye on another famous free-thinking and Hellenized Jew of modernity:
It is silly to seek a basic law, even sillier to find it. Some mean-spirited little man decides that the whole course of humanity can be explained in terms of insidiously revolving signs of the zodiac or as the struggle between an empty and a stuffed belly; he hires a punctilious Philistine to act as Clio's clerk, and begins a wholesale trade in epochs and masses; and then woe to the private individuum with his two poor u's, hallooing hopelessly amid the dense growth of economic causes. Luckily no such laws exist: A toothache will cost a battle, a drizzle cancel an insurrection. Everything is fluid, everything depends on chance, and all in vain were the efforts of that crabbed bourgeois in Victorian checkered trousers, author of Das Kapital, the fruit of insomnia and migraine.
I look forward to your reply,
To: Michael Weiss From: Rebecca Goldstein Subject: The Intoxicating Passion of Abstract Thought
Your reaction to my book on G?del certainly tickles me. "Incompleteness is laughter of the mind." That's very good. Want to know the precise tone of that laughter leaking out of the corrugated frontal lobes? The “heir to Aristotle” with the air of a sagacious child had a high-pitched giggle. That's right, a giggle. The few visitors who sought him out in his hermitage at the Institute for Advanced Study were always utterly taken aback by G?del's laugh. Isn't that perfect?
A giggle is just the right kind of noise bubbling up from the man who used the tools of the logic trade in order to construct a M?bius strip of a proof that left the logic world not knowing its up from its down. The problem for G?del was that he came to feel, especially after his best pal Einstein died and left him stranded and lonely on the Olympian Heights, that nobody else really got the joke, not the way he did. If people saw a joke at all they thought it was an altogether different one, with a punch line punching holes in the whole idea of truth and rationality, whereas that wasn't what the man had meant at all.
In the end the joke was on him, and he became one of the most profoundly lonely of men, locked up in his own increasingly paranoid take on the uncomprehending world. That delightfully inappropriate giggle is one manifestation of him–the proof for the incompleteness theorems itself has a sort of Alice-in-Wonderland playfulness, gleeful and wild. But the over-plotted delusions that made him think that there was a conspiracy afoot "to make men stupider" and that therefore wanted to rub him out, well, that's also a manifestation of the noises inside that incomparable cerebrum, a hysterical chatter just below the surface of his silence.
But anyway I like it that you confess that mathematics doesn't exactly make your heart beat faster and yet you got the book. It's one thing for me to get the stacks of blandishments from MIT types using words they haven't seen fit to use since blackening the last ovoid on their verbal SAT's with their sweaty number 2 pencils. I don't actually get those stacks, mind you, but that would be one thing. What I like is hearing from people who look for the nearest exit whenever they hear the word “theorem.”
Showing the passionate side of the most abstract thought—mathematical logic, quantum mechanics, metaphysics— is sort of my beat, in fiction and non-fiction. I'm a novelist who certainly knows the tug of pure reason. Literary types, if they deal with the mathematical personality at all, often present it as being in terrified flight from the passions. What often is missed is that abstract thinking itself can be the most intoxicating passion of all. Of course, it can also be a terrified flight from the passions.
Sometimes abstract thinking really does serve as an elaborate defense mechanism constructed by nervous thinkers who can't figure out human relations and can't accept the lack of control that being human entails and who seek to hide their fear and trembling in the rarified atmosphere of logical relations. Which of course brings me to Spinoza.
Spinoza is philosophy's most ardent advocate for the intoxicating passion of abstract thought. This is the only passion that's truly good for us, he argues, the heady passion that just keeps on getting headier, unlike all the others that deliver their rush and then leave you limp. But, as you point out, this was not a man who was clueless about All Things Human. Quite the contrary.
The part of The Ethics that discusses human psychology is studded with mini-portraits of various psychological types, so faithfully rendered that the "originals" almost jump out at you; or rather you're able to supply "originals" out of your own stock of acquaintances. He's an absolute fiend at peering beneath the psychological vestments, lifting the skirts of all sorts of behaviors to reveal the unwashed soul.
For example, he spots the narcissism that besmears various forms of depression:
"Though dejection is the emotion contrary to pride, yet is the dejected man very near akin to the proud man . . . Hence none are so prone to envy as the dejected; they are specially keen in observing men's actions, with a view to fault-finding rather than correction, in order to reserve their praises for dejection, and to glory therein, though all the time with a dejected air."
I read that description and I immediately see some of my most lugubrious friends, astutely cataloguing how nobody lives up to their own high standards, "though all the time with a dejected air." That last phrase is just fantastic. This is an observer of human nature on whom nothing is lost.
Spinoza is a rationalist who doesn't shrink from the emotions, the mess of our inner lives, as a subject not fit to think about, escaping into the transparency of logic because that's the only thing he truly gets. No, he really gets the emotions and he tells us we should get them, too, especially our own. We should look at them with coldly analytic objectivity, study them, he famously says, as if they were the "lines, planes, and solids" of the Euclidean geometry whose methodology he usurps in The Ethics. We should get them so that we can get passed them, at least the irrational ones.
Of course, one can see him as just one more of those essentially terrified thinkers unable to face up to the essential powerlessness of the human condition, cowering behind his hyper-rationalism, much weaker than the rest of us miserable slobs who at least don't aspire to being anything but miserable slobs. This leveling view of Spinoza was the one Nietzsche took, at least part of the time; he also praised Spinoza, in a postcard, as being the only one in the history of philosophy worthy of being called Nietzsche's predecessor.
But in another mood Nietzsche views Spinoza as a craven charlatan: "Or consider the hocus-pocus of mathematical form with which Spinoza clad his philosophy . . . in mail and mask, to strike terror at the very outset into the heart of any assailant who should dare to glance at that invincible maiden, Pallas Athena: how much personal timidity and vulnerability this masquerade of a sick hermit betrays."
I don't agree with this view of Spinoza at all. I don't think that his hyper-rationalism cloaks personal timidity and vulnerability, but rather is his extreme solution to an extreme problem. For Spinoza, unreformed human nature is a problem to be overcome, on both an individual and societal level.
Unreformed human passion wreaks terror within the individual and in society at large, where it assumes monstrous shapes that roam the streets in the form of bullying ideologies, most especially religious ideologies, vicious gangs that claim to get their orders straight from the Big One. If anything, I think Nietzsche's take on Spinoza sheds more light on Nietzsche's psyche than on Spinoza's.
Still, it's possible to look with skepticism at anyone who maintains, as Spinoza does, that we can use rationality to cure ourselves of our all-too-humanness. You want to cure yourself of being human, buddy? You must be one hell of a freaking mess inside to think you've got to go to that kind of length just so that you don't have to take a good hard look at yourself. But then, Spinoza would respond (not even deigning to address the slight to his innards): What's the alternative, my friend? A world constantly shattered by jihads of one form or another?
Having just finished scanning today's New York Times I chime in, as I do almost every morning, "Baruch, my man, you got yourself a major point there."
The next series of letters to this dialogue will be published Tuesday, first on the Daily Shvitz.
Why Spinoza was a "real radical" of the Jewish world [Jewcy Wiki]