[Continuing the discussion with Rebecca Goldstein on her book Betraying Spinoza: The Renegade Jew Who Gave Us Modernity. Access the whole exchange here.]
To: Rebecca Goldstein From: Michael Weiss Subject: All Philosophy is Self-Betrayal
So G?del’s Mad Hatter routine was as constant off the page as on it. I know focusing on the private eccentricities of genius can easily degenerate into a kind of Good Will Hunting kitsch-fest. Einstein kibitzing with his barber is automatically judged worthy of the sententious Quote-a-Day treatment.
But this type of thing really can’t be avoided, can it? We need to know that the elect members of the species are made of the same damp clay as the rest of us, subject to the same passions and frailties. If anything, they suffer more acutely because of their gifts, as if nature meant to imprison them in a holding cell whose keys remain visible but just out of reach. (Anthony Lane had a great line recently that there’s something encouraging about the even distribution of endowments: we take comfort in knowing, for instance, that George Eliot looked like Sea Biscuit.)
I quite liked your narcissism quote, although my Penguin translation of The Ethics doesn’t put it so poetically as that – a shame, given the citations of Ovid with which Spinoza peppered a few of his axioms. This lure towards the romantic furnishes us with a clue, I think, about Baruch’s unacknowledged biases, since he thought the antique pangs of a fellow outcast fit for such a hyper-rationalist treatise on how best to stifle those pangs. Augustus likely gave Ovid the boot for his decadence and estimation of eros above the stuffy political conservatism and jingoism of imperial Rome. Spinoza had his own epicurean tastes, so I wonder if the frequent nods to the love poet aren’t further evidence of his inner warmth despite the outer carapace.
My suspicion is that his ethical scope was more sympathetic than he lets on, the result of remembering how quickly Rabbi Morteira turned on him and wondering what such an experience must be like for someone without the intellectual fortitude to cope with it. “Love conquers hate” may be reassuring, especially when “proved” by Euclidean means, but is it not also the projection of a horribly mistreated boy?
What’s amazing to me is that Spinoza didn’t grow up to be a misanthrope, but one of the kindest philosophers the West has ever known. I estimate humor pretty highly on the list of moral virtues, and it’s a good sign that the stuff is everywhere in his writing. Baruch is expert in gauging the different registers of laughter, from the sinister and mirthless to the ecstatic and transcendent:
“I recognize a great difference between mockery and laughter. For laughter and joking are pure joy. And so, provided they are not excessive, they are good through themselves. Nothing forbids our pleasure except a savage and sad superstition. For why is it more proper to relieve our hunger and thirst than to rid ourselves of melancholy?”
The pedantic bores are always in this guy’s sights, as they have been in for the great anti-totalitarian writers of our time: Milan Kundera, Czeslaw Milosz, Nabokov with his “laughter in the dark.” (Another favorite joke of mine from The Ethics is the quip about false modesty, where Spinoza quotes Cicero to the effect that those who object to ambition in others always seem to attach their own names prominently to the objections.)
Since you brought it up, I very much wonder about that Nietzsche swipe. It reeks of the anxiety of influence, doesn’t it? God’s better-marketed obituarist once described a joke as the “epitaph on the death of a feeling.” Yes, well, Spinoza performed the major inquests two hundred years earlier.
Even if The Ethics does come off a tad baroque at times, the initial damage it inflicts is a healthy one. It forces you to become self-aware because you feel as if you’re the one slipped under the microscope. Spinoza’s greatest achievement is precisely the one you implicate by “betraying” him: in order to have examined human nature with such high levels of magnification, the technician must have ground his lenses by using his own foibles and prejudices as ready test specimens. All philosophy is self-betrayal in this respect.
Of course, the very idea of human nature gets us into trouble in the age of postmodern gobbledygook, cultural relativism, and endowed chairs in Anthropology. Evolutionary psychologists have a tough time explaining what should be commonsensical to all: that we are beholden to our genetic wiring. Oh, no! How pessimistic to think in terms of “determinism.” But determinism, properly understood, is actually closer to probability, which means that a chromosome is not slavery so much as indentured servitude. Reason, and the constant struggle against impulses, is the price one must pay for manumission, as Spinoza realized long before “chromosome” was a term in the lexicon. Notice, for instance, how he inveighs against the concept of cognitive free will by showing that we have no control over the content of our dreams:
[T]hese decisions of the mind arise by the same necessity as the ideas of things which actually exist. Those, therefore, who believe that they either speak or are silent, or do anything from a free decision of the mind, dream with open eyes.
“Dream with open eyes” sounds like the title of a symposium on Freud.
This hardly exhausts Spinoza’s modern relevance. The brave Somali dissident Ayaan Hirsi Ali has fled her adopted homeland of Holland after becoming too high-profile a critic of a religion she was raised to believe in unquestioningly. Sounds familiar. And, in addition to your book, Matthew Stewart has recently come out with a shrewd Straussian re-evaluation of Spinoza’s influence on Gottfried Leibniz, that Hanoverian yes-man of the monad and summer crusade.
Have you read The Courtier and the Heretic? Stewart argues persuasively that Leibniz, for all his outward scorn toward the heretic Jew disrupting the status quo, was a covert atheist himself. He never recovered from Spinoza’s arguments, nor from the weeklong conversation the two men had in The Hague. (Am I the only one who desperately wants Michael Frayn to adapt this exchange for the stage?)
As The Ethics might have demonstrated, “hating” Spinoza was Leibniz’s way of dealing with the shock of spotting something of himself in the braver, better philosopher.
So I wonder how misguided the current refrain “Why they hate us” is with respect to Islamic fundamentalists. How many of our blood-boltered enemies abroad really pine for the principles of an open society they claim to deplore? Spinoza gives us hope that there might after all be a few unacknowledged unbelievers scurrying through dark caves in Waziristan, even as I write this.
To: Michael Weiss From: Rebecca Goldstein Subject: Et in Arcadia Non Ego
I agree that the four or so days that Leibniz and Spinoza spent holed up in the Hague, throwing back Dutch brewskies and comparing proofs for God's existence, could make for intriguing theater. But Lord, do please keep Michael Frayn away from it! Anyone who mangled Einstein as Frayn did in Copenhagen—-making that redoubtable scientific realist out to be the leader of the simpering "physics-isn't-really-about-reality-after-all" pack—-is not the right sort to treat the über-realist, über-rationalist likes of Spinoza and Leibniz. I wouldn't mind Tom Stoppard's having a go at it, though. Stoppard's got the intellectual goods to see what those two really had going between them.
And by the way, it's not at all obvious to me, as passionately attached as I am to Spinoza, that he was the better philosopher compared to Leibniz. Perhaps our light-hearted communication isn't the right forum for exploring the subtle intricacies of their philosophical relationship. To really see the way in which they deeply disagreed, but even more deeply agreed, involves more technical analysis than most people can stomach, unless maybe they're going to get graded on it at the end of the semester.
But let me just say that Leibniz had very sound reasons for rejecting Spinoza's proffered solution to the problem that occupied them both, which is basically: why is there something rather than nothing?
Both of them were committed to there being an ultimate answer to that question. That question could serve as a fine way of dividing up philosophers, according to those who think that that question has an answer, even if it's one we can't get at, and those who think that there's simply no answer out there at all to that question. On this score, Spinoza and Leibniz were playing in the same band, tooting on the same horn and singing the same lyrics, to wit that there is, because there has to be, an explanation for the world at large.
The question that divided them was whether logic alone provided that explanation. Spinoza said it did, thus committing himself to the claim that this is the only logically possible world. Leibniz, who was by far the better logician—-in fact, the advances he made in mathematical logic are staggering, though he kept almost all of them to himself—said there was an infinite plurality of logically possible worlds, so logic itself can't answer the question of why this particular world is the one that got realized.
For Spinoza, logic has generative powers; logic is the only thing that explains itself, the very causa-sui itself—that's his famous Deus sive natura. But for Leibniz, the logician, logic isn't generative. Logic is perfectly inert insofar as existence is concerned, which is why he brings a transcendent God—a God over and beyond logic itself— back into the picture, though Transcendent God had to have his reasons for choosing to realize this world among all the logically possible worlds, and that's why the mockable, Voltairean notion of the "the best of all possible worlds" gets put into play.
Stewart's claim that Leibniz was just too much of a philosophical wuss and company man (where the company is Christendom, Inc.) to swallow Spinoza's no-helpings-of-God-on-the-side universe isn't doing justice to the issue that joined them. Leibniz accepts Spinoza’s intuition that there's an ultimate answer for everything but can't accept Spinoza's claim that logic itself is the causa-sui.
Their disagreement is perched on top of a towering assumption—shared by both, but which Leibniz went ahead and named, thus appropriating it for himself, "The Principle of Sufficient Reason''—and that went like this: for every fact, there's a reason why it's a fact. There simply is no brute contingency in this world. By the way, this is an assumption to which Kurt G?del also ascribed, which is why he identified so strongly, to the point of doing him the great honor of extending his paranoid delusions to him, with Leibniz. His Princeton walking partner, on the other hand, famously identified his own views with Spinoza's, though it's not clear to me that Einstein actually agreed, as G?del actually did, with that fundamental rationalist assumption.
Anyway, if you miss understanding how seriously Spinoza and Leibniz took this assumption, the very one that holds up their rationalism, then all you see is two guys with fabulous hair prancing about in an elaborate seventeenth-century dance, suspended in the middle of what looks for all the world like empty air.
Speaking of hair, the seventeenth-century was, among all its other virtues, the preeminent age for male hair. One of my students recently accused me of favoring it for that very reason, pointing out that my partner is the cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker, who, among many other fine attributes, has very good hair. You can tell how carefully I train my students in the art of argument.
A very interesting mathematician, Gregory Chaitin—I highly recommend his book Meta– Math!: The Quest for Omega—suggested to me by email that my next intellectual biography should be on Leibniz. Chaitin has studied Leibniz and believes, as G?del did, that the man was even more of a polymathing seer, or searing polymath, than he's been acknowledged to be. But as I explained to Gregory, I need to identify strongly, emotionally as well as intellectually, with someone in order to write about them. To be perfectly honest, I need to fall a bit in love with them. And the sine qua non for me in this weird process is that whoever it is be an incurable outsider, resenting, and being resented by, the intellectual Keepers of The Gate.
I just can't overstate how much this condition of Outsiderhood, or Einzelgängerheit (made-up nouns are always better in German) matters to me. Personally speaking, whenever things start getting just a bit too cozy for me, and it appears that I might be in danger of getting within the comfort zone of the Inside, I do something decisively alienating to piss everyone off. Given this quirk of mine, that smoothie Leibniz, a careerist if ever there was one, is just not a guy I can bond with. But that doesn't mean I think he had any but the soundest of reason in diverging from Spinoza's metaphysics.
But I do like your idea of a play bringing together those two wünderboychiks of seventeenth century rationalism. And so, without further ado, I bring you the first stunted scene of Holed Up In The Hague.
As the audience members straggle into the theater to find their seats, settling down and looking through the Playbill for those unwelcome bits of papers announcing performance substitutions, they will not realize right away that the dimly lit stage is already occupied by a solitary figure in a tattered albeit scrupulously clean dressing gown.
He is sitting in a sparsely furnished room, although it does contain the large four-poster bed that he had inherited from his parents, as well as a simple wooden chair and table, where he is seated. His long silken black wavy hair partially obscures his face as he leans over the table, quietly scribbling with a quill. He will remain there the entire time, intent at his writing, as ushers continue to show the audience to their seats.
The audience members will either discover his silent presence for themselves, or be directed by the bemused gesturing of their neighbors to the figure on the stage. Eventually, it is to be hoped, all of them, even the most distracted, will become aware of him and be swathed in the hush of anticipation as well, most importantly, of confusion.
Thus, even before a word of dialogue is spoken, the audience will be entangled in theatrical-ontological uncertainty, each onlooker forced to consider for himself the fundamental metaphysics of the situation: is the play in progress or is it not? And if it is not, at what point will it be? And if it is, then was it even before there was anyone there in the theatre to see it?
At some point, Benedictus Spinoza will look up, pushing away his luxurious locks from his brow and squinting out at the audience. He will pick up one of the lenses that lies, quite naturally, near to hand, and place it before his eye, studying the audience for a long uncomfortable time, provoking uneasy laughter, at which noise he will scowl. This can be drawn out for as long as it remains funny, which may amount to absolutely no time at all.
Spinoza (gruffly): What, then? Yet another intrusion? These social events are becoming intolerably regular. I just had a visitor, not three or four months ago. (Considering) Well, at most five. Could have been six. In any case, it was within recent memory, which is, by my accounting, a ration radically exceeding the rational. I've become so popular I ought to be running for Grand Pensionary. How can a man aspire to the everlasting contemplation of the view sub specie aeternitatus if his front door is constantly being pounded into splinters?
(There is soft, polite knocking, which the philosopher pointedly ignores, continuing to muse).
Only last year, or maybe the year before, I had to put up with that German busybody, Heinrich Oldenburg. He stayed a week if he stayed a day. He becomes secretary of London's Royal Society and makes of his position an excuse to impose himself on every working mind in greater Europe. Those who would be known as thinkers in their day, but who cannot see their way clear to tracing out the order and connections of ideas, try to make their connections by pounding on doors.
More knocking, more assertive.
Spinoza, suddenly standing: Why, it could be him again! I thought I'd heard the last of that meddling bore after he'd read the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus and came to the conclusion that I was not the good Christian that an excommunicated Jew ought to be. He'd seen for himself, for to spy me out was no doubt one of his aims, that I live an austerely simple existence, with no signs of those morbid sensual indulgences that the churchified believers assume all others plunge into the moment they give up belief in an hereafter. For all their extolling of virtue they seem to think it the heaviest of adornments, which none would be inclined to possess of their own free will. Oldenburg, seeing no signs of unseemly pleasures, immediately inferred I must believe as he and all of Christendom believes, otherwise why no unseemly pleasures?
He starts to laugh at the thought, slowly sinking back down into his chair, and ending with a resigned chuckle:
Spinoza: Ah me. How human nature doth amuse. Though I have resolved never to mock, or bemoan, or belittle, but only to understand.
He bends again over his work, dipping his quill into the inkstand and writing, while the knocking continues, with various alternating rhythms.
Suddenly, the door opens a crack, and a man with even longer and more luxurious hair pokes his head in. Spinoza remains resolutely oblivious. An elegant leg is extended into the room, followed by the whole of the decked-out form of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz.
Leibniz stands there smiling quite formally, arranging his truly magnificent cape-like mane carefully around his shoulders, but he continues to be ignored. Leibniz shrugs exaggeratedly and walks across the stage to stand directly in front of Spinoza, who rigorously persists in his acute inattention. Leibniz finally puts an elegantly fluttering hand to his lips and delicately clears his throat. Spinoza resignedly sighs, carefully replaces his quill in whatever the hell they used to keep their quills in, and only then looks up, with a quizzical look.
Leibniz executes an elaborate bow in best courtier fashion.
Leibniz: I offer, most noble among philosophers and therefore (suppressing the major premise) most noble among all men, a plurality of apologies for forcing you to abandon, albeit however temporarily, both your quill and the incomparable line of reasoning that you were no doubt in the very act of pursuing. I would not have presumed on your famous patience, which all who speak of you do not fail to mention alongside your other estimable virtues of both mind and soul, were it not the case that I know, with an indubitability almost Cartesian, that you are eagerly expecting me, your most humble servant, who nevertheless proclaims himself a fellow quester for the truth and consequently as eager to make your esteemed acquaintance as you are to make his.
Spinoza: Expecting you, you say? And eagerly, too?
Leibniz: Why yes, Herr Philosopher.
Spinoza (considering for several moments): Perhaps it's true. That is, I don't know that it's demonstrably not true. But it was to be today? You're sure about that?
Leibniz: Undoubtedly! November 17, 1675.
Spinoza: Well, you seem quite confident of yourself in that.
Spinoza looks Leibniz up and down, smiling in a slightly amused but not grossly disdaining manner, obviously storing away his character assessment of this self-possessed young man for further reference. And then he laughs in such a way that one can't know whether he's laughing at his visitor or at himself.
Spinoza: There's no doubt at all about your confidence. And since I myself possess no confidence at all on this matter, I mean of the date, I'll help myself to a portion of yours. You've so much confidence, I wager you'll hardly miss my small borrowing.
The two laugh together, though Leibniz in a way that indicates his uncertainty regarding Spinoza's precise intent.
Spinoza: Only one more question, then, I beg to put to you, if I may be permitted, O' fellow seeker after truth.
Leibniz, again bowing magnificently: It will be my greatest pleasure to enlighten you.
Spinoza: Just who the dickens are you?