Affinities

George Steiner

  • Spinoza and Other Heretics. Vol. I: The Marrano of Reason by Yirmiyahu Yovel
    Princeton, 244 pp, $24.50, January 1990, ISBN 0 691 07344 9
  • Spinoza and Other Heretics. Vol. II: The Adventures of Immanence by Yirmiyahu Yovel
    Princeton, 225 pp, £29.50, January 1990, ISBN 0 691 07346 5

Oddly enough, philosophers, even of the most technical and abstract tenor, can generate personal mythologies. Very early, the aura of legend haloed Pythagoras and Empedocles. Wittgenstein is now the object of a considerable corpus of poetry and fiction in which the strangeness, the sometimes histrionic apartness and reputed violence, of his truth-seeking takes on a romantic, mythical cast. Baruch Spinoza has been a perennial source of imagery or fable. Even those unacquainted with his writings know of a thinker of utmost purity, of utmost abstention from mundanity, who ground optical lenses for a precarious living. They will have some intimation of a pariah of exigent genius wholly committed to meditations of the loftiest, most abstract order, of a man whose brief life (1632-1677) was spent in sombre isolation from his native community and contemporaries. No matter that this picture is, in decisive aspects, false. It adheres with a kind of obstinate radiance to the author of the Theologico-Political Treatise and the Ethics.

Is Spinoza much read today, even among philosophers? This turns out to be a thorny question. Spinoza’s works are not only intrinsically of great difficulty and inhibiting rigour. His Latin, bone-spare, mathematicised in its organisation and ideals of demonstrative certitude, yields imperfectly to even the most observant of translations. More even than Descartes or Leibniz, Spinoza seems to have ‘thought Latin’, to have made his sensibility immediate to the particular impersonal Latinity which persisted in philosophic-scientific arguments till late into the 18th century. It is a language world largely lost to us. Spinoza is, moreover, hard to locate historically. Scholars point to late Medieval and Renaissance elements in his doctrines, to the undoubted fact that he is, in his insistence on definitions and quiddities, archaic in respect of Descartes who came before him. Yet, at the same time, Spinoza’s textual critique of Scripture and his exalted pursuit of a ‘scientific’, meta-algebraic mode of philosophic propositions and proofs give to his writings a radical modernity. There is much in the ‘lay-out’, both formal and conceptual, of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus which distantly echoes Spinoza’s method and presentation in the Ethics. There are moments in Spinoza’s analytic psychology, his ‘logic of desire’, which anticipate 20th-century mappings of consciousness.

No, Baruch Spinoza is, probably, not read very much at present. When the eminent French pedagogue and philosophical essayist, Alain, reported, in the early part of our century, that the Ethics were his breviary, he spoke for very few. Apart from specialists, philosophers tend to cite Spinoza occasionally and selectively. He is referred to respectfully in the context of moral and political philosophy and of the 17th-century emancipation from dogmatism. But such reference tends, like the legend of the man, to be diffuse.

If there is a resurgence of interest in Spinoza – as witness Stuart Hampshire’s clear and thoughtful guide – the reasons may be somewhat special. Leo Strauss’s doctrines of reading and interpretation are now under intense debate in American political theory and moral philosophy. These doctrines appear (Strauss himself was aware of this) to apply with particular provocation to the work of Spinoza. The Tractatus, the Ethics, Spinoza’s letters would offer to critics and inquirers, a test-case for Leo Strauss’s model of deliberate covertness and Aesopian discourse. The second reason would relate to the profound concern of current Jewish scholars with the history of the Diaspora, of the nature and evolution of Jewish consciousness in the centuries prior to the re-establishment of a national home. In this history, Spinoza plays an especially complex role.

Both these motives, the Straussian and the Judaic, are crucial to Professor Yirmiyahu Yovel’s foundation of an International Spinoza Institute at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and to his two-volume study of Spinoza and Other Heretics. Professor Yovel’s Spinoza is possessed of a supreme rational intuition: ‘the recognition of the absolute immanence of God and his identity with the whole of reality.’ Nature is to Baruch Spinoza a uniform constant ‘in which man is a simple member, on a par with snakes and rainbows’. This most uncompromising of thinkers sheds all historical religions; there is salvation neither in Christ nor in Mosaic Law. The idea vera from which Spinoza’s cosmology, logic, historical criticism and ethics spring is that of a ‘religion of reason – naturalistic, monistic, and strictly immanent’. The concerns of this ‘purified substitute for religion’ remain religious in a philosophically unique way. Spinoza is neither a pantheist nor a materialist, though both pantheism and materialism seek to enlist his legacy. Salvation lies, argues Yovel, not in any intimations of immortality, however abstract, but in ‘the realisation of eternity within time’. ‘The philosopher understands nature as a single substance equivalent to God, in which we all inhere as modes.’ Scientific knowledge is essential to this comprehension, but it does not suffice. A tertium datur must crown analytic and scientific ways of investigation: ‘The network of transitive causes has placed and defined my body as it stands within nature at large. Now, in a flash of intuition, all this casual information is synthesised in a new way, which produces its epistemic counterpart: my particular essence. Nothing new is added to the scientific information already possessed, yet all its ingredients coalesce in the formation (or reproduction) of this essence as a new synthesis which lays bare the metaphysical “interior” of the thing I am and the way in which I derive immediately (or vertically) from God as my immanent logical cause.’ Yovel’s Spinoza is a ‘semi-mystical’ intuitionist of absolute immanence, but of an immanence, of a mundanity – in the strong, Pascalian sense of that word – in which prevails a logic, a mathematical ligature of truths which are tautological with God. The waters run deep but infinitely transparent.

It is not, however, a technical exposition of Spinoza’s philosophy which is Professor Yovel’s primary concern. It is the specific source of that philosophy and of the persona which it both reveals and masks which constitutes the thesis of these two volumes. Baruch Spinoza was a revolutionary and solitary figure. What little we do know of him points to a psychology of ascetic discretion and extreme inwardness. But he ‘did not spring from a void’. Among contributory factors were the pre-capitalist oligarchy, the worldly outlook, the scientific revolution in the Dutch Republic. Spinoza lives in a time in which man-made institutions, subject to secular questioning and alterations, are replacing transcendent paradigms of religious authority and political sovereignty. But the crux lies elsewhere. When, aged 24, he is expelled from the Amsterdam Jewish community on grounds of heresy, he carries with him a determinant existentialist inheritance: that of the Marranos, of the Jews forced to convert to Christianity in Spain at the close of the 15th century. It is the Marrano configuration of spirit and language, of conduct and self-consciousness, with its literally numberless nuances of dissimulation, of doubt, of anguished scepticism and remorse, which, according to Yovel, is the source and informing dominant in the entirety of Spinoza’s life and labours. This is not a novel claim: it has been made by such scholars as C. Gebhardt and R. Popkin. But Yovel carries it far beyond the tentative, proposals of his predecessors. For him Baruch Spinoza is ‘the Marrano of reason’. The Biblical critique in the Treatise, the repudiation of metaphysical transcendence and other-worldliness in the Ethics, Spinoza’s ostracism from the synagogue and his peculiar uses of Christianity, are the direct consequence of the scission incised in the psyche of the Marrano, of the sometime Jew with a spiritual or, indeed, literal abode in neither Judaism nor Christendom. At every cardinal point, Spinoza is a Marrano. In his heterodoxy and subversion of revealed faiths. In his linguistic equivocations (pointed to by Leo Strauss). In his muted, almost hidden life-style. In his ardent quest for a secular salvation, for at-homeness in this world. In his seeming acceptance of censorship, of external constraints so long as these allowed the obsessive deployment of inner spiritual-intellectual pursuits and a style of published discourse truly understandable only to the few.

The first volume sets out the history and psychology of the Marrano phenomenon. It discriminates between the genuine conversos, Jews Catholicised to the extent of becoming Grand Inquisitors and Baroque-mystical poets of the agonies of Christ (Torquemada, Saint Teresa of Avila), between secret Judaisers within the Catholic observance, between those relapsed into Judaism and done to savage deaths. It examines the delicate gradations of belief and vacillation among New Jews – that is to say, those who returned to their ancestral provenance after escaping or emigrating from Spain. These portraits and typological vignettes are fascinating. The cast of characters and their tormented witness are of haunting interest. Consider Uriel Da Costa or Juan (Daniel) de Prado and the shadow-lines they traverse.

A chapter is devoted to the most famous of picaro fictions: Rojas’s Celestina. Rojas, too, was of Jewish origin. According to Yovel, the plot and narrative texture of the ‘novel in dramatic dialogue’, the cynical wit and equivocations of its eroticism, the ‘aesthetics of mask’ within the clowning, closely mirror the condition of the converso and the games he had to play with the Inquisition. Spinoza will discard the vestiges of Judaeo-Christianism which partially fetter Rojas: but the same climate of riven sensibilities presses on both men and on what is opaque in their careers and manner of being.

Volume Two surveys Spinoza’s presence in the works and thought of ‘other heretics’. These include Kant, Hegel, Heine, Feuerbach, Freud. Together with Marx, Darwin, Nietzsche, ‘perhaps Heidegger’ and Sartre, these philosophers, political theorists, writers and men of science make up the tradition of the ‘dark enlightenment’. Their several critiques and doctrines mark the gradual secularisation of Western philosophic awareness and political theory. Theirs is, in differing degrees and modes, the heroic perception of secular naturalism. Even where they do not proceed as radically as Baruch Spinoza, for whom man is only one res in and of nature, these critics of transcendence carry out the implications of Spinoza’s unflinching immanence. Heretics in the cause of reason, a Feuerbach, a Freud search for ‘lucidity and disillusionment’ in a wholly immanent ‘vale of tears’. But it is a creative, even joyful (the Nietzsche motif) place, liberated from infernal and celestial fictions. It is man’s sole ‘metaphysical homeland’. A number of these settlers ‘in earth’ are Jews. Heine, Marx, Freud are salient presences not only in modernity but in the complex chronicle of Jewish emancipation. Like Spinoza before them, they are symbolic and literal outcasts both from the community of Jewish religious practices and from the gentile society in which they lived. ‘Like Spinoza, Freud was the stranger within the gates, neither quite integrated in his adopted society nor fully severed from his origins, a man both within and without, or better, whose way of being within was by his being an outsider, without.’ It is this precarious situation which allows ‘marginal Jews’ to develop insights of particular acuity into the life of the mind and of society. They make alienation a citizenship. Here also Spinoza is the key precedent.

What is one to make of this prolix, often repetitive tract? As I have suggested, the background material is fascinating. Professor Yovel brings to present life the sometimes fantastic destinies and psychic metamorphoses undergone by the Marrano, by the authentic convert, by the apostate. His narration of Jewish affairs in early and mid-17th century Amsterdam is richly informed. An active tolerance, a sense of the fragility of human loyalties and institutions, underwrites his love of Spinoza and of the stoic immanence which he takes to be the final dignity of man and of the bitter pilgrimage of the Jew.

But this is not the issue. What Professor Yovel argues is the close dependence of Spinoza’s philosophy on the Marrano background. The case must rest on the actual demonstration that this or that representative passage in the Ethics exhibits, both in matter and form, those traits of ambivalence, of alienation, of ironic dubiety which characterise the Marrano situation and which Yovel finds in the Celestina. To give a concrete example: we can, indeed, show, in numerous key passages in the Recherche, that Proust is grappling, both in the narrative and in his language, with the complications of his semi-Judaism and with the poignant solicitations both of Jewish pride and of self-hatred as he experienced them during the Dreyfus affair. No such demonstration can be made in reference to Spinoza’s ethics or logic, whose impersonal coherence, whose lapidary oneness, Yovel in fact underlines. Frege was a bitter racist. This attitude does not and cannot figure in his mathematical and linguistic logic. What Yovel tells us of Baruch Spinoza’s presumed fausse situation (Existentialism is one of the main instruments in this book) cannot be shown to be operative in the Ethics. That the Tractatus uses veiled discourse was evident before Leo Strauss’s paradigm of philosophic esotericism. But Descartes, and every radical philosopher in the period following on the condemnation of Galileo, did likewise. And Descartes was no Marrano.

A comparable tenuousness extends to the treatment of Spinoza’s posthumous influence. All too often, and with pained honesty, Yovel finds himself admitting that the actual connections are thin. In his voluminous collected writings, Sigmund Freud seems to have referred to Spinoza all of three times – and these laudatory allusions are conventional. The section on Heine is persuasive; that on Kant less so, because here the problem, complicated by the critique of Jacobi, cannot be briskly summarised. Yovel himself is candid in underlining the profound differences between Spinoza’s immanence or ‘spiritualised materialism’ and the historical materialism of Marx. Far more often than not, references to Spinoza in later writers and thinkers are of a symbolic, talismanic sort. Here was a supreme loner, uncompromising in his pursuit of clarity, exiled within exile. It is the figure and the aura more than the systematic proposals which have their high legacy. Like Nietzsche (here also, Yovel concedes the deep differentiations), Spinoza has left an example for other voyagers ‘through seas of thought alone’. But very few have followed or follow his course.

Will this condition alter? There are perhaps impulses in current cosmology, in the new physics of the interactions between mind and matter, which might find precedent in Spinoza. Leo Strauss’s redefinition of political philosophy redirects attention to the seminal cluster of Machiavelli, Hobbes and Spinoza. There are in the presence and tonality of Wittgenstein, now so pervasive, distinct affinities to Spinoza and to Spinoza’s tactics of abstention. But to be meaningful, a return to Spinoza must be a return to the substance and algorithm of the Ethics. It is this methodical motion which Yirmiyahu Yovel’s often engaging, learned but finally eccentric reading (would that it had been a longish essay) does not perform convincingly.