A Philosophical Puzzle: Who Was This Guy Spinoza?

I taught my first philosophy classes in the autumn of 1952, at Northwestern University. In those days, an instructor was expected to teach three or four courses a quarter, and thus in the space of a year I taught nine or 10 different courses, most of which were simply assigned to me. One was a course on “The Rationalists,” meaning Descartes, Spinoza and Leibniz (fortunately, I had the benefit of having taken a course on Spinoza taught by the great Harry Wolfson in 1949). The interest in Spinoza evoked by being assigned that bit of “forced labor” stayed with me, as did a certain puzzlement.

At the other end of my teaching career, shortly before I retired from Harvard University in 2000, I directed a dissertation on Spinoza by Nancy Levene, later reworked into her book Spinoza’s Revelation: Religion, Democracy, and Reason. By then, I was pretty familiar with Spinoza and Spinoza scholarship, as well as with Spinoza’s enormous influence on German philosophers (not only Leibniz, but also Hegel), but the puzzlement was still with me. The puzzle was that, although I could see how Spinoza’s metaphysics was supposed to “work,” I could not fathom Spinoza the human being, and that meant that the mighty system did not ultimately make sense to me.

The reason it didn’t “make sense” is that—as the title of his masterwork, Ethics, indicates—Spinoza didn’t just produce a metaphysical system and an epistemology to go with it (although that’s what has always attracted the most philosophical attention), but also an ethical philosophy in the ancient sense. His philosophy attempts to answer the great three-word question— How to live?—in a way that includes saying what the ideal life would be and what the place of man in the cosmos is, and not just rules for conduct. And I do not believe that one can understand what a philosopher who proposes to answer that three-word question really means if one doesn’t understand the philosopher as a fellow man (even if Spinoza would have thought that the latter sort of understanding is irrelevant).

Rebecca Goldstein’s Betraying Spinoza speaks directly to my puzzlement. As she points out, Spinoza was the most private of men. He wished to be known solely though his philosophical arguments, which he saw as products of pure reason. He would certainly not have approved of her project of understanding him in human terms and in Jewish terms, as a child born in a tolerant country (Holland) whose parents were survivors of the Spanish Inquisition. That’s why she calls her book Betraying Spinoza.

Obviously, this relatively short book (287 pages, including chronology, notes, etc.) is not an “analysis” of Spinoza’s system; rather, it is an analysis of Spinoza the man. And Ms. Goldstein, author of The Mind-Body Problem (1983), brings to that difficult task the skills of a novelist: the skill, above all, of vividly imagining the life of another human being, and the skill of being able to evoke that life by her words. She is also a trained philosopher, one who, like myself, has found herself teaching a course on “the seventeenth-century rationalists” and who has felt just the puzzlement I described.

But this is also—though not obtrusively or irrelevantly so—a book about Rebecca Goldstein herself, and of the particularly Jewish way in which Spinoza entered her life. It initially happened, she tells us, in a yeshiva high school for girls. Her favorite teacher, Mrs. Schoenfeld, told the girls the story of Spinoza as “a cautionary tale of unbridled human intelligence blindly seeking its own doom.” “He was a brilliant student,” Mrs. Schoenfeld told them, “a boy born with blessings. His very name, of course, means ‘blessed’ in the holy tongue. Yet this misguided young man … who might have used his superior mind to increase our knowledge of the Torah, had died with the pagan name of Benedictus, excommunicated and cursed by his own people, condemned and reviled even by believing Christians. Let the history of the philosopher Spinoza serve as a warning to you, girls, of the dangers of asking the wrong questions.”

Fortunately, Ms. Goldstein did not heed her teacher’s warning. What she learned about Spinoza many years later is not unknown to scholars (although the way she brings out Spinoza’s brilliance as a psychologist was new to me). In Spinoza and Other Heretics, for example, Yirmiyahu Yovel has traced the importance of the “Marrano” experience (the experience of people like Spinoza’s parents, of pretending to be Christians in Spain while secretly practicing Judaism) to Spinoza’s development, and Nancy Levene has explained the importance of Spinoza to democratic thought, from the 17th-century Enlightenment till now. And I have said that this is a “short” book. But short as it is, it succeeds in integrating an amazing number of facets of Spinoza’s life and thought. And despite its brevity, it also succeeds in selecting and describing the key political developments, both in the Netherlands as a whole and in the microcosm of the Jewish community in Amsterdam.

Betraying Spinoza is beautifully crafted. What seem like separate issues—Spinoza’s pioneering advocacy of complete freedom of thought in religious matters; the turmoil in the Jewish community; the fateful events in Amsterdam in the closing years of Spinoza’s life; the philosophical developments of the 17th century; Spinoza’s idea of a philosophical religion utterly purged of all anthropomorphism, even to the extent of denying that God is a “person” in any sense—come together as if by themselves (the sure sign of a fine artist!) to answer my puzzle: how to understand Spinoza the human being, a man for whom reason itself was a kind of salvation.

Hilary Putnam is the Cogan University Professor Emeritus in the Harvard Department of Philosophy. A Philosophical Puzzle: Who Was This Guy Spinoza?