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.

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