All that you can't leave behind

A new Spinoza book highlights the drama of his philosophy.

spinoza book 88 298 (photo credit: )
spinoza book 88 298
(photo credit: )
Betraying Spinoza: The Renegade Jew Who Gave Us Modernity By Rebecca Goldstein Schocken 304pp., $19.95 Rebecca Goldstein possesses life's trinity of great gifts: a thriving academic career, a MacArthur "genius" award and a pair of black tights with a giant run up the side. This was true when I met her two years ago at a reading of her then-latest book at New York City's 92nd Street Y. As in her work, in life Goldstein is a woman whose intellectual prowess is intentionally undercut by her approachability - her desire not only to imagine, but to partake in the real stuff of life. With her background in analytic philosophy, this is no easy feat. For this reason, Goldstein has been lauded for the synthesizing reach of her work, her integrative ability to wrestle with philosophical questions in the context of dramatic tales. She does this most successfully in her well-known book, The Mind-Body Problem. There she fictionalizes the struggles between her early academic life and internal passions as a way of refiguring the metaphysical questions involving the relationship between mind and body. As a novel cum philosophical paper, Goldstein's formula works well. It is also rich and smart. Yet somehow the original luminosity of this brand of fiction dims slightly with this recent book, as if the authentic passion that motivated Goldstein's earlier work has somehow begun to wane. Still, the book is of undeniable merit. In fewer than 300 pages, Goldstein manages to offer her personal motivation for the work; a general history of Jewish life in post-Inquisition Europe; a brief synopsis of some of the major theories of early modern philosophy; a biography of Spinoza; and an exposition of his metaphysics. All this is in service of Goldstein's overarching aim here: her argument that sociological conditions produced Spinoza's unique, incendiary philosophical views. It is this empirical-based hypothesizing - so defiantly un-Spinozistic - along, in double-entendre, with Spinoza's own quisling tendencies, to which the title Betraying Spinoza cleverly refers. Spinoza's tale of irreverent brilliance (or, depending on your religious convictions, brilliant irreverence) will no doubt be familiar to most readers. In 1632, Baruch (later, bad-boy "Benedict") Spinoza was born into a Portuguese-speaking Jewish community of former Marranos (a derogatory term for Jews practicing their religion in secret) who had recently arrived in Amsterdam in the wake of the Inquisition. Having been a gifted student of traditional Judaism, Spinoza famously went on to form his own rationalist philosophy. It was this philosophy that eventually led to his uniquely irrevocable excommunication from the Jewish community. What was all the fuss? Here's where Goldstein is at her best, crisply deciphering Spinoza's profoundly dense philosophy. Inspired by Rene Descartes' groundbreaking, rationalist writings, Spinoza sought to create an entirely logical system of metaphysics. Good riddance, he says, to messy things like nature and God, at least in any form we currently give them. Instead, in this system, existence and all permutations therein cannot be other than that which is logically valid. The beauty of Spinoza's system, Goldstein explains, is how all this leads to his understanding of ethics, delineated in his posthumously-published The Ethics. Since all substance partakes in a singular and infinite logical construct, we are ethically, which is to say logically, required to treat others as we would ourselves - to aim equally for that which preserves our and others' flourishing. For Spinoza, then, there is no one privileged person and, a fortiori, no one privileged group. The imagined distinctions between the Other, the self, nature and God vanish. All this sounds good, but for its more personal implications. What comes across, almost frighteningly so, is the extent to which Spinoza's system leaves no room for youthful illusions such as romantic love and emotion. Rather, for Goldstein's Spinoza, we must "treat emotions as dispassionately as a problem in geometry." It is a tribute to the lucidity of Goldstein's initial exposition of Spinoza's super-rational philosophy that we find suspect her further argument that such a philosophy is irrationally and rather empirically explained by his Jewish upbringing. "The language in which the most universal of systems was excogitated - a system designed to bleach out any reference to personal points of view," writes Goldstein, "was itself maculate with the extraordinary history of Spinoza's community." The thesis has uncomfortable tinges of the kind of smarty-pants exercise bored academics often undertake in service of saying something new. (To wit, E.B. White hates animals and J.D. Salinger is himself a phony in his phony rejection of phoniness.) Goldstein is far too smart for this. I can't help but wonder how much of the book was premised on the presupposition that there must exist a theory that links Spinoza's philosophy to his Jewishness. We can still give points for creativity. Otherwise, her efforts here must be taken seriously. Even beyond her enviable ability to explain a complicated philosophy to a broad audience, there is something more salient here. Specifically, we get Goldstein's anachronistic merging of Spinoza's imagined childhood with her own Lower East Side, scholastic experience. Goldstein recounts her own yearnings for something beyond the myopic lessons of her Jewish classroom. When she learned of Spinoza's history and philosophy - even as inchoately and blasphemously presented as it was by her teacher Mrs. Schoenfeld - Goldstein felt understood: "It was as if I suddenly knew him, knew the manner of person he was," a person as equally endowed with philosophical brilliance as communal expectations. In the end, whether or not his Jewish genealogy influenced the actual content of his philosophy, we come away from this book with a potent sense of Spinoza's baggage. And, likewise, Goldstein's. We are privy to witness the joint destiny of a supremely gifted set of individuals whose religious background turned albatross straddles them throughout their lives. This weight is so stunningly burdensome precisely because it is at odds with a life devoted to the service of pure reason. In my brief, in-person introduction to Goldstein those few years ago, she confessed to conferring an inferior status to her creative writing relative to her philosophical work. Yet much of her work, by its very form and selected content, implies a less dogmatic stance. In rare deviation from her otherwise effusive support for Spinoza, Goldstein writes, "[t]he imaginative acts by which we try to grasp the substance of others...are necessary components of the moral life." I hope that this is right, that we ought to betray Spinoza. Unlike logic and mathematics - beauty, hunger and love might very well be nothing but illusions. For whatever is gained here though, there's far too much lost: a denial of passion seems a denial of life.