Horrible Heresies

Jonathan Rée

  • The Collected Works of Spinoza Vol. II edited and translated by Edwin Curley
    Princeton, 769 pp, £40.95, June 2016, ISBN 978 0 691 16763 3

Baruch Spinoza was fascinated by human follies, and in the Ethica he set out to examine them dispassionately. ‘These turmoils move me neither to laughter nor even to tears,’ he said, ‘but to philosophising.’ With philosophy’s help he cast a cold eye on servitus humana, or ‘human bondage’, arguing that our ‘vices and absurdities’ were not anomalies or aberrations but, like the rest of our ‘affects’, part of the ordinary course of nature. He presented his analysis in terse, impassive Latin, beginning with explicit axioms and definitions, proceeding through numbered propositions and scholia, and drawing conclusions ‘in the geometric style’. Here, for example, is his account of ‘ambition’, or the yearning for public approval:

From the fact that we imagine others to love or hate something, we shall love or hate it too (by P27), i.e. (by P13S), we shall thereby rejoice in or be saddened by its presence; and so (by P28) we shall strive to do whatever we imagine others to love or to look on with joy, etc., QED.

The heroic mismatch between Spinoza’s style and his subject matter can take some getting used to, but – like Krafft-Ebing’s deadpan accounts of the uses of boots, whips and spurs – it also has a quirky kind of charm.

Spinoza was born into the family of a Jewish merchant in Amsterdam in 1632. He spoke Portuguese at home, along with some Spanish and Dutch. He also attended a synagogue school where he learned Hebrew (he would eventually write a Hebrew grammar) while picking up what he called ‘traditional opinions concerning the Bible’ – notably that it is the word of God and that the first five books were written by Moses. Around the time of his bar mitzvah he started work in his father’s dried fruit business, which gave him the opportunity to sample the cosmopolitan glories of Amsterdam: an ‘outstanding city’, and ‘the wonder of all nations’, where – so he said – anyone could converse with anyone else ‘in the greatest harmony, no matter what their nation or sect’. He then gave up his religious training, in defiance of his father, and went through the kind of mental crisis that seems to be obligatory for anyone hoping to become a philosopher: he convinced himself that good and evil do not exist ‘in themselves’ but only ‘insofar as the mind is moved by them’, that conventional morality and religion are a sham, and that ‘the everyday occurrences of ordinary life are empty and futile.’

As a Jew he could not enrol at a university, but he took private Latin lessons and before long he was reading the works of René Descartes, a local celebrity (he had lived mainly in Holland until his death in 1650) and ‘the brightest star of our age’. Descartes had always presented himself as a good Christian, content ‘by the grace of God’ with ‘the religion of my nurse’. But he was also a leading advocate of mathematical, mechanistic approaches to the natural world, as opposed to the Aristotelianism favoured by the Church, and was often accused of deviating from theological orthodoxy and neglecting the distinctive dogmas of Christianity. To use a recently minted term, he was suspected of being a deist – of believing in a God of reason rather than revelation – and in the opinion of many of his contemporaries, deism was just a mealy-mouthed form of atheism.

Spinoza also used his newly acquired Latin to read the New Testament. He was intrigued by Christian doctrines of forgiveness and universal love, and got involved with a society of puritanical reformers in Amsterdam called the Collegiants. After his father’s death in 1654 he started to lose touch with his Jewish friends, but rumours of his heterodoxy found their way back to the synagogue. In 1656 he was denounced for ‘horrible heresies’, and his fellow Jews were instructed not to ‘come within four ells of him’, or ‘communicate with him in any way’ or ‘read anything he writes’.

Excommunication seems to have come as a relief. After more than ten years as a half-hearted businessman, Spinoza disposed of the family firm and swapped the bustle of Amsterdam for a life of rural seclusion. But he already had a reputation as an incisive thinker, and in 1661 he was tracked down to a village near Leiden by Henry Oldenburg, who was a leading figure in the Royal Society of London. They pledged themselves to a philosophical friendship based on ‘every kind of good will’, and their subsequent correspondence, on topics ranging from mechanics and optics to general philosophy, brought Spinoza international recognition. Oldenburg tried to persuade him to write a proper book. ‘I shall never stop exhorting you till you grant my request,’ he said, but Spinoza kept putting him off. Spinoza also turned down an offer of financial patronage, preferring to top up a small private income by grinding lenses, building scientific instruments and giving private instruction in mathematics and philosophy. To support his teaching he wrote a pedagogical guide to Descartes, which was printed in Amsterdam in 1663 with a long appendix on the prospects for truth, free will and providence within the new philosophy. But the book was not what Oldenburg had been waiting for. ‘I wish you would finally reveal the fruit of your own talent,’ he said. ‘Get on with it; finish it … What’s stopping you, my friend?’

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[*] While Curley was still at work, he was overtaken by the good but comparatively unscholarly Spinoza: The Complete Works, translated by Samuel Shirley et al., edited by Michael L. Morgan (2002).