A brilliant biography of an elusive genius

Spinoza may be the master thinker to whom we owe modernity itself


This article is taken from the August-September 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

In mediaeval scholasticism, Aristotle’s reputation was such that he was usually referred to simply as “the Philosopher”. Amongst the moderns, this book makes the case for treating Baruch Spinoza (1632–77) similarly. If there is no philosopher but Spinoza, Jonathan Israel is his prophet. 

Spinoza: Life and Legacy, Jonathan I. Israel, (Oxford University Press, £39.99)

Spinoza: Life and Legacy is no ordinary biography. It builds on Steven Nadler’s classic Spinoza: A Life (1999), but its ambition is to assemble and interpret what we know of him on a much grander scale. Its 1,300 pages encompass not only the ancestry, adventures and afterlife of its subject, but provide a panoramic survey of his times, for which Israel’s first major book, The Dutch Republic, laid the groundwork quarter of a century ago. 

In other ways, this monumental volume represents the culmination of a life’s work: the reconstruction and re-evaluation of the Enlightenment, to which Israel has already devoted a vast trilogy. Spinoza is, for him, the master thinker to whom we owe freedom, democracy and modernity itself.

The scholarly world is divided about whether Israel has proved his case. For some, his methodology is old-fashioned and his enthusiasm borders on zealotry. Others are persuaded by his passionate advocacy of a “Radical Enlightenment”, led by the Spinozists — which he distinguishes from the received version, promulgated by “moderates” such as Locke and Leibniz. 

Although Israel is vehemently opposed to everything at which Spinoza took aim — any authority, religious or secular, that is not rationally justified and grounded in democracy — he is equally critical of authoritarians of “Left” and “Right”, to use anachronistic terminology. Robespierre and his ilk are no less anathema to the true radicals than the “enlightened despots”, from Louis XIV and Charles II to Frederick the Great or Napoleon. Israel is consistent in condemning contemporary movements that abandon the path of reason and freedom of thought.

It may at first seem surprising that Israel was a doctoral student of Hugh Trevor-Roper. Yet the archetypal Oxford don, who rejoiced in the Regius Chair of Modern History and insisted that undergraduates at his lectures wear academic gowns, who married a Field Marshal’s daughter and ended as a life peer, was intellectually as much a radical as a reactionary. 

Hugh played the part of the high Tory, enamoured of high church and high society, but his heroes were all outsiders, and his instincts were to subvert historical orthodoxies. Israel learnt from Trevor-Roper that classical liberals must be robust in their own defence and take the fight to the heirs of the counter-Enlightenment. Isaiah Berlin once accused Trevor-Roper of anti-Semitism, but Israel’s discipleship shows how unjust a charge that was.

In sheer output, Israel has far outdone his supervisor. Anyone who knows their Trevor-Roper, though, will recognise in Israel’s work the rich tapestry of ideas, weaving together political, social and economic thought to provide a context for the master narrative of intellectual history. In this life of Spinoza, he marshals his material in one last mighty effort to show the primacy of ideas as the motor of humanity.

History, unlike philosophy, does not operate more geometrico

Israel certainly shows that startling propositions such as Spinoza made in his Tractatus Theologico-Politicus (1670) and posthumously in the Ethics (1677) are a necessary condition for mankind to advance in knowledge. Are ideas, however radical, sufficient for progress in human understanding, though? Unlike the philosopher, who attempted more rigorously than any of his peers to demonstrate moral and metaphysical truth with Euclidean certainty, the historian cannot provide mathematical demonstrations of the how and why of great events. History, unlike philosophy, does not operate more geometrico — a term, meaning “in the geometrical manner”, that Spinoza introduced along with several others into intellectual discourse.

Another of Spinoza’s beautiful Latin phrases that many use without knowing its provenance is sub specie aeternitatis (“under the aspect of eternity”). Our lives are filled with ephemera and vanities, but Spinozan ethics is oriented towards the pursuit of truth and emancipation from the self. The best-known part of his philosophy, De servitute humana (“Of human bondage”), is his account of our enslavement to the passions. The paradox of Spinoza’s rationalist ethics is that this strict determinist, who denies free will in any form, can nevertheless offer a vision of liberation. 

That vision has a strong attraction for those whose moral framework is Judaeo-Christian, but who have become disillusioned by the contradictions between holy scripture and ecclesiastical practice, or for whom the Bible has lost its numinosity. Spinoza’s doctrine particularly appeals to all those struck with awe by the universe, “that eternal and infinite being”, which he invests with divinity in what was once his most notorious formulation: Deus, sive Natura (“God, or rather Nature”).

Amongst the most eminent adherents of Spinozan pantheism was Albert Einstein. In 1929 a rabbi, anxious about the great physicist’s alleged atheism, cabled him: “Do you believe in God? Stop. Answer paid. Fifty words. Stop.” Einstein replied: “I believe in Spinoza’s God, who reveals himself in the law-governed harmony of Being, not in a God who concerns himself with the fates and activities of mankind.” 

A diagram showing Spinoza’s metaphysical system

As Israel observes, Einstein was especially attached to Spinoza’s principle that ordo et connexio idearum idem est, ac ordo et connexio rerum (“the order and connection of ideas is the same as the order and connection of things”). Einstein took from his reading of Spinoza that mathematical and empirical science make possible a unified theory of the universe, despite its apparent randomness and uncertainty.

Unlike the luminaries of the scientific revolution, such as Boyle and Newton, Spinoza rejected all arguments of the kind now known as “intelligent design”. His was a deterministic universe with no need for the “hypothesis” of an interventionist deity. Yet for Goethe, Schelling and the Romantics, Spinoza was “God-intoxicated”. Unlike other atheist systems of thought in the West, Spinozism has a transcendent serenity akin to oriental religions such as Buddhism and Taoism. 

Like Marx and Nietzsche, Spinoza casts his spell upon the adolescent mind; unlike them, his allure endures into maturity. To give just one example: Leo Strauss, the godfather of American conservative intellectuals, devoted a book to Spinoza — a tribute to his persistent pertinence.

Yet the life so brilliantly reconstructed here by Israel is one of rejection, persecution and dissimulation. It is a story in some ways familiar to Jews throughout the past two millennia — except that in Spinoza’s case, it was the Jewish community in Amsterdam that condemned him first. Israel glosses over the fact that modern Orthodox Jews are still engaged in that argument. I have before me an excellent volume of essays, Strauss, Spinoza and Sinai: Orthodox Judaism & Modern Questions of Faith (edited by Jeffrey Bloom et al, Kodesh Press, 2022). 

Rightly, Israel begins with the drama of Spinoza’s expulsion from the Sephardic synagogue in 1656 by its lay governing body, on the advice of the rabbis. The herem, or ban, was declaimed by candlelight before the congregation, accompanied by the blowing of the shofar (sheep’s horn). Israel emphasises that the scandal caused by the “bad opinions and deeds” of this callow youth, still in his early twenties, must have been exceptional to provoke this irrevocable damnation of the heir to a pillar of the community. Even after the ban, the elders waited six weeks for Spinoza to repent before it took effect.

This was by no means Spinoza’s last proscription. Almost as soon as the Jews had finished with him, the Lutherans, Calvinists and Catholics were on his case. Earning a precarious living as a school teacher and lens grinder, he moved from one city to another to avoid the attention of the authorities. Israel’s Spinoza was essentially an autodidact, utterly dedicated to the intellectual life. He acquired his erudition and his heretical views very young, exchanging information and ideas with cliques of private scholars like himself. His only university was the bookshops, the Spinozist “sect” and learned societies, such as the theatre study group Nil Volentibus Arduum (“Nothing is difficult to those who want it”).

Despite this clandestine existence, Spinoza’s fame spread, and he was in correspondence with some of the leading thinkers of the day. In 1676, only three months before Spinoza’s death, Leibniz met him in Amsterdam, and they had several lengthy conversations — although in later years the German philosopher played down the intensity of that encounter. At the time Leibniz recalled that they discussed the Ethics and its “strange metaphysics full of paradoxes”, which had hitherto only circulated in manuscript.

Professor Jonathan Israel

Most of Spinoza’s writings were published by the Amsterdam bookseller Jan Rieuwertsz after his death in 1677; even then Spinoza’s Opera Posthuma was frequently banned and almost suppressed before it appeared. Even friends, such as the Danish scientist turned priest Nicholas Steno, were afraid of the “poison” supposedly spread by his works. 

Indeed, the sole surviving manuscript of the Ethics was deposited in the archives of the Roman Inquisition by Steno, who also submitted an indictment of his former friend to the Inquisitors. They did their work well: their subsequent investigation provides one of the main sources for Spinoza’s life. 

Jonathan Israel has more than done justice to this ultimately elusive genius, whilst evoking Spinoza’s fascinating milieu. Though Amsterdam was the capital of free-thinking in the 17th century, two of his most radical friends, the brothers Adriaan and Johannes Koerbagh, were destroyed by the authorities. One of his rabbis was Menasseh Ben Israel, who had persuaded Cromwell to readmit the Jews to England. An engraving by Rembrandt, said here to be of Menasseh, is now thought to be of his son rather than the rabbi himself. 

The reminder that Rembrandt was Spinoza’s neighbour in the Jewish quarter of Amsterdam prompts the question: what if the greatest artist of the age had depicted the greatest philosopher? As it is, Israel has chosen for his dust jacket a striking portrait by a lesser painter, Barend Graat, of an anonymous sitter believed to be the young Spinoza. He is dressed “as a gentleman, not a pedant, and his penetrating gaze is directed beyond the viewer, to the infinite and eternal substance otherwise known as God.

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