Charles Petzold

Summer Reading: “Betraying Spinoza”

August 4, 2006
Roscoe, NY

Spinoza must be hot, considering the recent popular books about him. Earlier this year I read Matthew Stewart's The Courtier and the Heretic (W. W. Norton, 2006), which uses as its springboard the 1676 meeting between Spinoza and Leibniz, and I've just finished Rebecca Goldstein's Betraying Spinoza: The Renegade Jew Who Gave Us Modernity (Schocken, 2006).

I'm sure there's never been a book about Spinoza quite like this one. After a brief prologue, Rebecca Goldstein pulls us into her narrative with a charming recreation of a history class in the yeshiva high school she attended in the East Village in 1967. She first learns of Spinoza as a cautionary tale about the dangers of probing into matters best left unprobed, of asking the wrong questions, and seeking the wrong answers. Despite her teacher's disappoval of all that Spinoza stood for, the young Rebecca is irretrievably intrigued. She learns that Spinoza waited until after his parents had died before going public with those ideas that would get him excommunicated from the Jewish community in Amsterdam in which he was raised. Spinoza's virtue of preserving shalom bayis (household peace) becomes suddenly endearing to her. "The thought occurred to me that he must have been a lovable man. I sat in Mrs. Schoenfeld's class and I felt that I loved him." (p. 47)

Ms. Goldstein's next major encounter with Spinoza comes when taking on the teaching of a course at Barnard on the 17th century rationalists (including Descartes and Leibniz as well as Spinoza) — those philosophers who attempted to use pure rational deduction in deriving their grand schemes of the workings of the universe. Spinoza's major work, The Ethics, even takes as its structural and logical inspiration the Elements of Euclid, and like Euclid's work, gives nary a hint of the man behind the philosophy.

Rebecca Goldstein's intent in Betraying Spinoza is to reconcile these two visions of Spinoza — the 23-year old heretic she fell in love with in high school and the almost anonymous mathematical-philosopher author of The Ethics. In Spinoza's mind, she knows, this obsession with the man behind the ideas is irrelevant and distracting, and that's why she freely admits to "betraying" him.

In Ms. Goldstein's view, central to understanding Spinoza is understanding the cultural and intellectual environment in which he was raised. The Jews of 17th century Amsterdam were originally from Spain and Portugal, forced to flee after Ferdinand and Isabella's expulsion of Jews and Muslims from Spain in 1492 (the same year they funded Columbus's first voyage). Those who remained were forced to convert to Christianity, some often practicing their old religion in private, and put to death by the Inquisition if they were caught. (Apparently there are some Mexican Catholics who still secretly practice Jewish rituals handed down through five centuries of family customs. [p. 104])

Ms. Goldstein sees the issues of cultural and religious identify caused by this displacement and secrecy to be reflected in the impersonal nature of Spinoza's system. She proceeds from this observation to skillfully weaving a discussion of Spinoza's philosophy into accounts of his life, 17th century Jewish theology, and finally the intrusion of Dutch politics and war. At times, she employs her imaginative skills as a novelist to probe deeper than customary philosophic restraint would allow.

Last year, Rebecca Goldstein published her first non-fiction work, Incompleteness: The Proof and Paradox of Kurt Gödel (W. W. Norton, 2005), a somewhat similar (although, of course, completely different) intellectual study — not quite biography, certainly not a philosophy textbook, but a penetrating type of "proper study" that she has pioneered and now crafted into two unusual and extraordinary books.