Friday, May 16, 2008

Betraying Spinoza

It is ironic that Spinoza should be selected as one of the subjects for a series of books on Jewish history and culture. The author of the book, Rebecca Goldstein who is a novelist and a philosophy professor, however is fully aware of the ironic nature of the whole project as is evident in the rather clever title of the book itself. In fact it is one the main themes of her book -- how to see Spinoza's thought in the context of Jewish history, even if it means betraying the very spirit of his philosophy.

To him the very idea of Jewish identity or the way Jews saw themselves as chosen people was nothing but superstition and so were the various arbitrary religious laws which formed the bedrock of Jewish community. For his views he was denounced as a heretic and excommunicated from the Jewish community. He didn't believe in any transcendent God either. God to him was nature itself and nature nothing but a sum total of laws, all following rules of logic and derived from a priori principles. As Goldstein puts it:

"It is logic itself, not its rules but its applications -- the vast and infinite system of logical entailments that are not merely abstract, as we usually conceive of them, but rather coated with the substance of being. Reality is ontologically enriched logic. It is a logic that is animated, alive with thought, infinitely aware of its own infinite space. And it is, simultaneously, a logic that is embodied, a logic which generates itself in space, resulting in a material world."

Even more awe-inspiring is his philosophy of ethics. The Ethics, which is generally considered his masterpiece and the most important work is written in the style of Euclid's geometry with mathematical proofs showing what constitutes an ethical behaviour and what doesn't. His vision of personal identity followed the same principles. He was critical of all passive and contingent identities forced upon human beings from outside. According to him, "all the accidents of one's existence, the circumstances into which one was born — including one's family and history, one's racial, religious, cultural, sexual, or national identity — appear as naught." Goldstein argues that this kind of impersonal worldview was an outcome of his reaction to the Jewish experience and particularly the sufferings and tragedies he was witness to as a Jew. He originally belonged to the Marrano Jewish community who had emigrated from the Iberian peninsula (Spain and Portugal) to escape the inquisition. It is again ironic, specially from the vantage point of the twentieth century, that Jews prospered under the Muslim rule in Spain and only when Christians regained the control over the peninsula the repression of Jews began. Goldstein obviously knows a great deal of history and much of this section of the book was overwhelming for me, specially because I knew very little of it beforehand.

In our contemporary intellectual culture which is so sceptical and dismissive of reason's claims of being objective and universal, Spinoza's vision of extreme rationalism comes off as breath of fresh air. Spinoza actually is admired by a lot of scientists, or at least the "theoretical" scientists since he believed only in deductive logic. He was Einstein's favourite philosopher for example. When asked if he believed in God, Einstein used to reply that he believed in Spinoza's God i.e. God immanent in the laws of nature. It is also true that in our culture there is too much emotionalism and too much subjectivity, the worst kind of sentimentality is passed off as authentic expressions of one's self. We really do need Spinoza's dose of impersonal asceticism.

Godstein's book is extremely well-written and very useful specially for newbies and beginners like me. I was initially sceptical because of the way she inserted her personal autobiography into the narrative. She basically talks about her Orthodox Jewish education and how her love for Spinoza started after her teacher warned her of arrogance of thought giving Spinoza as an example. It is as if a straight-forward book about Spinoza would be too boring for non-specialist readers and they need it peppered up with memoiristic or, worse, novelistic touches. A few of the later sections where she "imagines" Spinoza's private experience and thoughts are grating to read too. It will be particularly irritating to a true Spinozist, I don't think just the title can excuse it. She has actually written a few novels too so probably she just can't help it. Anyway, she writes very well and she is obviously extremely well-informed too. Overall it is an excellent work. A perfect introduction to a vital and important thinker. For more, her website has some reviews and interviews about the book here.

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