Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Returning to Spinoza

Like most people, I was introduced to Spinoza in an undergraduate course in early modern philosophy, in which he was grouped with Descartes and Leibniz (the Rationalists) and opposed to Locke, Berkeley, and Hume (the Empiricists). I was captivated by Spinoza and The Ethics from my first reading; only Hume, with his relentless knocking away of seemingly solid ideas about perception, even came close to Spinoza (and, I thought, had more in common with him than was acknowledged). But while I enjoyed Hume, I didn’t feel the same kinship with him that I did with Spinoza. Rebecca Goldstein, in her recent book, Betraying Spinoza, gets at the sensation of urgent inquiry that pervades The Ethics when she imagines a young Spinoza:
He is always surprised to hear what it is that others find convincing. He understands, of course, what it feels like to have a powerful need for answers pounding inside. But the answers that people come up with to stop the pounding: he would rather live with the pounding. Better the pounding than the gnawing.
Everything that is should have a reason that it is; any explanation that fails to provide one is no explanation at all.

A dozen years passed, and, while I thought of Spinoza occasionally, I didn’t read him. But in recent months, two new books, the aforementioned Betraying Spinoza (2006) and Matthew Stewart’s The Courtier and the Heretic: Leibniz, Spinoza, and the Fate of God in the Modern World (2005) piqued my interest. So I read them, and through them I returned to Spinoza, finding that the spare geometry of The Ethics is as formidable and fascinating as it was when I first encountered it.

Stewart and Goldstein have different agendas, which makes their books complement each other nicely. Betraying Spinoza is in Next Book’s Jewish Encounters series, and therefore it’s focused on Spinoza as a Jewish thinker. That’s a challenging assignment, as Spinoza was excommunicated at a young age for heresy, to which his reply reportedly was,
All the better; they do not force me to do anything that I would not have done of my own accord if I did not dread scandal; but, since they want it that way, I enter gladly on the path that is opened to me.
On top of that, The Ethics are specifically non-religious, as Spinoza’s proofs lead to a god who is, in every way that we can understand, all of nature.

But looking at Spinoza through a Jewish lens allows Goldstein to tell the story of the Jews of Amsterdam (who were almost all forced exiles from Spain via Portugal) and to convincingly link elements of Spinoza’s thought—especially his political thought, which emphasized personal and intellectual freedom—to the experience of exile and religious persecution. By the time she’s through, she’s delivered a mini-history of early modern Jewish thought; pair Betraying Spinoza with Sherwin Nuland’s book in the same series on Maimonides and you’d have a quick primer on nearly six hundred years of Jewish philosophical and religious thought.

Matthew Stewart, on the other hand, in The Courtier and the Heretic, is interested in the relationship between the thought of Spinoza and that of Leibniz, with whom he is grouped in most histories of philosophy on the side of the Rationalists. Stewarts wants to demonstrate that such a grouping is overly simple, if not flat-out wrong, and that Leibniz’s philosophy was developed in direct opposition to Spinoza. Leibniz, he argues, horrified by the loss of God that he feared would be the ultimate consequence of The Ethics, created his stunningly baroque metaphysics in an effort to accommodate a recognizable god within the realms of thought opened up by Spinoza.

The argument is frequently very convincing, though Stewart’s attempt to pin down the roots of Leibniz’s opposition to one little-documented meeting between the two at times feels like a stretch, as if he was trying too hard to give W. W. Norton’s marketing department a Wittgenstein’s Poker–style hook to use in selling the book. But that aside, The Courtier and the Heretic is a well constructed, thoughtful book. Stewart’s explanation of The Ethics alone is worth the price: in less than thirty pages, he clearly and carefully limns its often-daunting contours. If I were to teach a course on Spinoza, that chapter is the first place I’d direct confused students. And, while he’s clearly on Spinoza’s side in the battle with Leibniz, Stewart’s explanation of Leibniz’s ever-changing, confusing-beyond-belief theory of monads is similarly clear and helpful.

As I wrote above, I find a lot of similarities between Hume and Spinoza (as, it turns out, does Stewart). Both insisted on pursuing their thoughts (in Hume’s case fueled by perception, in Spinoza’s by reason) to their logical conclusions, regardless of what comforting untruths they had to discard along the way. But whereas Hume leaves a barren landscape, devoid of any real, continuing knowledge for us to hold on to, Spinoza argues that, by accepting that we are not the center of any universe, but a part of one much more interconnected than we can ever hope to understand, we can reach an understanding—and a peace—previously unavailable. As he explains at the close of The Ethics,
If the way I have shown to lead to these things now seems very hard, still, it can be found. And of course, what is found so rarely must be hard. For if salvation were at hand, and could be found without great effort, how could nearly everyone neglect it? But all things excellent are as difficult as they are rare.

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