Betraying Spinoza: The Renegade Jew Who Gave Us Modernity

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Rebecca Goldstein, Betraying Spinoza: The Renegade Jew Who Gave Us Modernity. Schocken, 2006

Commentary by Anne Dalke, August 2006.

Rebecca Goldstein has written six novels and another intellectual biography, of Gödel. I like and have learned a lot from all of her work, but this volume seems to me a particularly remarkable one, particularly useful in helping us address a number of the most troubling issues which face us today all around the world. As Goldstein tells the tale, the 17th century philosopher Benedictus Spinoza developed an ethics grounded in the "ultimate insignificance of the personal" (64). It is the clever conceit of Goldstein's title--and the burden of the primary theme she develops in this intellectual biography--that there were very personal reasons for Spinoza's advocating an ethics of impersonality (as she herself acknowledges, "I have insisted on speaking in personal terms of the philosopher who insisted most on impersonality"-- 67). Until he was excommunicated, Spinoza was a member of an community of refugees from the Spanish-Portuguese Inquisition who, after centuries of being forbidden to practice their religion openly on the Iberian Peninsula, were insistently trying to re-establish their identity as Jews in Amsterdam. In doing so, they were attempting to recover from a highly complicated culture of "fraught subterfuge," of "elaborate congeries of masked identities and code phrases," of mumbling incantations "disavowing the rituals in which the worshipper was about to engage" (113). But Spinoza chose another, anachronistic route, the audacious one of defining "his life on his own terms" (132), of opting "for secularism at a time when the concept had not yet been formulated" (5). "The social frame of reference enclosing every individual of the premodern era was inherently religious" (12), and Spinoza's decision to live outside the bounds of such an identity, Goldstein shows, was "unthinkable."

But thinking--and living--outside those bounds was precisely what Spinoza did. In Goldstein's account, Spinoza's anticipation of the scientific objectivity of the view from nowhere offered a clear alternative to the sectarian wars of his era--as well as our own: if we are able to forsake our temporal identities in order "to construct--through the active reflective work of philosophy," a new rational identity, then we "cannot fail to get along; this provides the key to his political theory. Philosophy is good for the polity." (68) This was, of course, the belief of the Enlightenment, and we know better now how the unruly irruptions of the unconscious--not to mention the rational deliberations of the conscious mind--can lead to incessant warfare. I found particularly striking Goldstein's explanation that the very impossibility of establishing "purity of blood" (since the conversation of the Jews to Christianity had been taking place over so long a period of time) fed the racist anxiety of the Inquisition (103). In that context, Spinoza's countermove, to "deny meaning to the very phrase 'one of their own'" (164), seems particularly apt.


According to Goldstein, one of Spinoza's primary contributions to philosophy, and to modernity, was his claim that the "sorts of differences around which groups construct their social identities and distinguish between 'them' and 'us'" are "inconsequential," "confused" (if understandable) "attempts to substantiate"--and aggrandize--the significance we confer on ourselves "by erecting a view of all reality that would do justice to it" (15). As Goldstein layers her account of how and why Spinoza came to construct an ethics that rejects "the priority of that fascinating singularity, that problematic and precious 'I,'" she suggests ways in which our driving force to persist in our own being might better be served when we "cease being only that being" (69), "when in the true light of objectivity, one is overtaken by the sense of near-estrangement from one's own self" (162). This exercise of estranging ourselves from our located, particular (what Spinoza calls "accidental") identities might usefully be practiced in the world today; it is an activity that has, for instance, been repeatedly explored in Bryn Mawr's on-going discussions about Making Sense of Diversity.

There are many other areas in which Spinoza anticipated our contemporary understandings. His recognition of the soul as "an aspect of the body" struck me as particularly modern: it therefore "has as little possibility of surviving the death of the body," he argued, "as has any other corporeal part" (136).


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