Spinoza: Freedom's Messiah (Jewish Lives)

Image of Spinoza: Freedom's Messiah (Jewish Lives)
Release Date: 
February 13, 2024
Yale University Press
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“For those who don't know Spinoza and for those who do, Buruma offers a truly illuminating book. . . .  a fascinating portrait of a man who was incredibly prescient, more important today than ever.”

Ian Buruma's Spinoza is concise yet covers a tremendous amount of ground. He captures not only the specifics of the philosopher's life, he places him firmly in context, in a 17th century roiling in wars and in the unique place that Amsterdam was then in terms of intellectual and religious freedom.

The short chapters capture the essence of what made Spinoza's thinking so revolutionary: "He was surely one of the pioneers of modern scientific thought. Albert Einstein said he believed in 'Spinoza's God,' but a Nazi could also claim the same man as the philosopher of spiritual fascist community. There is a Spinoza for everyone."

Other chapters show exactly how Spinoza could serve Marxists, atheists, Zen Buddhists, and a wide range of other "ists." What Spinoza espoused first and foremost was clear, careful, objective thought: "If one thing can be said unequivocally about Spinoza, it is that freedom of thought was his main preoccupation." This thought was spiritual, moral, and political.

Besides discussions of the work itself, Buruma does an excellent job explaining Spinoza's cultural background as a Marrano, Jews who were forced to convert to Christianity in Spain and Portugal. This "hidden" Jew experience continued to affect this community, even living in much more tolerant Amsterdam. For Spinoza, this meant "Whether or not dissembling was part of his Marrano heritage, he tried to avoid needlessly provoking the fury of zealots." This meant most of Spinoza's writing was closely guarded, with only one book published in his lifetime. Despite this, his reputation as a brilliant thinker, heretical to some, inspiring to others, spread across Europe. French royalty, military men, philosophers, and intellectuals were all eager to meet him. He was a man who transcended national borders. "That he saw himself as a thinker who was above tribal, ethnic, or sectarian divisions was not intellectual arrogance: it was a fact."

All of these complexities are well explicated in Buruma's pages, as well as the puzzle of Spinoza's expulsion from the Jewish community. It happened before he had published anything. "But Spinoza loved to talk. Apparently, he talked fast and well. What was worse, he discussed his subversive ideas with the gentiles."

Buruma offers a solid history of Dutch politics at a critical time as background to Spinoza's life, fodder for his political theories. This kind of careful writing illuminates not only the thinker's philosophy but embeds it in specific events. It also adds a rich texture to Spinoza's life as a man reacting to the swirl of upheavals around him.

The book ends with a compelling argument for why Spinoza matters so much today. He's particularly relevant as an antidote for progressive trends that may be intellectually dangerous. "The insistence, for example, on 'lived experience' as an essential condition of truth—that truth cannot be objectively acquired, let alone expressed, but is the property of a particular race or gender—is too close to the vulkisch ideal for comfort." In other words, the "own voices" movement has more in common with Hitlerian values than it may realize. Spinoza's way of thinking offers guidance as well in the gender wars.

"Subjective feelings must not be dismissed; they are part of any 'lived experience.' Some people born in a male body feel trapped in the wrong gender and wish to live as women. One can respect this feeling without abandoning the biological truth that there are discernable differences between male and female bodies. Spinoza's insistence on separating theology from philosophy might offer a way out of these contemporary dilemmas. Subjective feelings exist, and so do biological differences. Both can be acknowledged, but they shouldn't be confused. Like theology and philosophy, they belong to different categories."

For those who don't know Spinoza and for those who do, Buruma offers a truly illuminating book. This is a fascinating portrait of a man who was incredibly prescient, more important today than ever.