Freedom’s Messiah by Ian Buruma

Spinoza Who? That’s what I used to be reduced to asking myself, until a few years ago. Who was Spinoza? What did he think and write? Why is he so famous? Why don’t I know anything about him except4 a small pile of facts that don’t add up to anything?

Here my answer to the last question, which I arrived at with the help of Ian Buruma’s fine new entry in Yale’s Jewish Lives series. Spinoza’s position in the firmament of Western thought is obscured by three clouds: Incomprehensibility, Opprobrium, and Rumor. If you pick up one of the few books that Spinoza published, or that were published posthumously, you will have a very hard time reading it. Spinoza seems to have written his two principal books, the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus and the Ethics, as if he were thinking on out loud. The effect is that of walking into a classroom and confronting a blackboard covered with equations. Spinoza’s best students might know what they mean, but you won’t, not without a lot of work. Spinoza seems too busy getting things right to have time to explain what he’s doing to you.

Spinoza was born in the Sephardic quarter of Amsterdam in 1632; Portuguese was his first language. He was fluent in Dutch, but he learned early that it would be dangerous to publish his thinking in the vernacular; the authorities were somewhat more lenient when censoring books that ordinary people couldn’t read. So Spinoza wrote in Latin, and had to beg his admirers not to translate his work in to Dutch. Latin, already a dead language for two hundred years, was still written in and read by learned men. They did not have the difficulty grasping Spinoza’s arguments that you will. Spinoza’s through flew through the letters of the advanced thinkers of the time, most of whom were anywhere between intrigued and fascinated by the proposals of René Descartes. Unlike Voltaire and the other Lumières of the following century, Spinoza sand his fellow thinkers were not publicists. They wrote for one another. A rigorous rationalist, Spinoza deduced everything from one axiom, an idea that his contemporaries found both hypnotizing and offensive. It was so notorious that clergymen all over Europe denounced Spinoza on the basis of hearsay. And yet it is very hard for us to understand why they found his idea so upsetting. He appears to have influenced everybody, but no one would admit to agreeing with him. For two centuries, therefore, Spinoza’s difficult writings (incomprehensibility) were execrated everywhere (opprobrium), and yet everyone appears to have been influenced by him (rumor).

Spinoza’s basic idea was this: God and Nature are one and the same. We read this now and nod. Yes, we say, and? Looking back from the vantage of three centuries, it is hard for us to see through, and, so to speak, to un-write the work of Rousseau and the Romantic poets, who domesticated variations on Spinoza’s idea for popular consumption. Rousseau and the Romantics were not philosophers, they did not argue points of discussion. They simply made statements, and the force of their statements transformed their verses and their principles into  universal truths. Of course, few of them ever read Spinoza. They were inclined to suggest that God is Love and that is not what Spinoza was saying. But the possibility that God is very great but also very simple had an immense appeal in the Nineteenth Century. Not in the Seventeenth, though. God in the Seventeenth Century, to Jews and to Christians of every sect, was very complicated, bristling with attributes and bursting with demands. To his contemporaries, Spinoza insisted that he was not an atheist, that he believed in God completely. But to those contemporaries, he might as well have professed to worship a totem pole; a totem pole might have been better. To believe in God-as-Nature was to believe in no God at all. Instead of working out the attributes and demands of God, Spinoza worked out the implications of Divine Nature for Man. With Spinoza, the spirit of modernity, which had lighted the European sky for some time, actually broke over the horizon.

To stretch this metaphor (modernity as the sun), most people did not wake up and get out of bed until the new light was fairly high in the sky, by which time two responses, complementary and contradictory, had been worked out. You could see God as the embodiment of Newton’s Laws. Or you could see — feel, rather — God as a transcendent emotion. Either way, materialism or spirituality vaporized the need for theology. Churches have been emptying out ever since. If you think that that’s a bad thing, then you will have some idea of the outrage with which Spinoza’s thoughts were met, during his lifetime and for long afterward.

Of the facts of Spinoza’s life, I have mentioned only the circumstances of his birth. I hope that you will give Ian Buruma the chance to fill you in on the rest. I can assure you that he will do so with wit and concision. He will also introduce you to, or refresh your recollection of, the Zeitgeist of the Dutch Golden Age — the one fifty-year period in European history that we must all get to know if we are serious about knowing ourselves. Spinoza earns its place in the Jewish Lives series by illustrating the intellectual course of a Jew who, despite his rigorous training in the Law, could not live without thinking for himself, and so suffering the anathema of his native community, from which he was forever expelled. A recent attempt to rescind Spinoza’s banishment met with adamant refusal. Spinoza’s writings are simply too emphatically heretical, and the philosopher never repented.

Buruma quite rightly refers to Jonathan Israel’s massive and monumental history, The Radical Enlightenment. Working my way through this tome, which points on every page toward a Spinoza who never fully appears (Israel had already written a biography of the thinker), that Spinoza did not efface the God of this fathers, but rather that he personally assumed God’s blazing and paradoxical identity. If you have been puzzled by Spinoza, never quite clear about why anyone even remembers him, there are good reasons for your confusion.