Thursday Book: The philosopher's philosopher


BERTRAND RUSSELL wrote of Spinoza that he was "supreme" in ethics, if not in metaphysics, "the noblest and most lovable of the great philosophers" and predictably anathematised as wicked during his life and for much of the 17th century. Accused of "horrendous heresies", which he could not be bribed to recant, Spinoza was expelled from the Jewish community of Amsterdam in 1656. He then lived in peril of Christian persecution for his religious and political free-thinking.

There was public outrage at his Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, and most of his texts are posthumous because he dared not allow their publication. His greatest work, the Ethics, lays out in a series of geometrical definitions and theorems the "proof" that, for anything to be a substance, it must be self-caused, self-explanatory, self-sufficient - in other words, it must be God. Since God and the universe are one, nothing else could exist and all things were determined by divine necessity. Was that tantamount, as the bigots complained, to declaring that God did not exist: or, as later interpreters have thought, to declaring that God was everywhere? Was Spinoza a materialist or a mystic, a believer in free will or determinism?

Combining mathematical precision and cryptic ambiguity, Spinoza is, perhaps, the philosopher's philosopher. In his later years he polished and ground lenses for a living. Philosophically, however, he offered not translucency but an illuminating opacity that, for each generation, has reflected its preoccupations. For some time after his death he was no more than a target for refutation, excoriated for alleged atheism even by philosophers (such as Leibniz) who were indebted to him. In the 18th century, the same reason made him a revered figurehead in the battle against religion.

Yet to the 19th-century Romantics, Spinoza was a "God-intoxicated man", a pantheist who presaged their sense of oneness. For Schopenhauer, he exemplifies the noble ascetic who achieves liberation from the torments of will by denying the "will to live" - but he is also seen as a determinist denying freedom of will. He is said to anticipate both Freud and cognitive science. Many 20th-century materialists claim him as their own, impressed by his assertion that mind and matter are not two types of stuff (as Descartes held) but two aspects of the same substance.

The only thing that all commentators have agreed on is that Spinoza was gentle, ascetic, lovable and loved. Yet this new biography presents him as arrogant, misogynistic and curmudgeonly. It ignores the fact that what counts as misogyny now was then "the invisible colour of daily life" and that utterances she cites as disdainful are apprehended through a double barrier of time and translation. It is precisely this barrier that the biographer should pierce.

The book begins promisingly with a fascinating picture of 17th-century Amsterdam (where Spinoza's Jewish-Portuguese parents had sought refuge from the Inquisition). Ultimately, though, the crammed details about trading, tobacco, tallow, sea-faring and the position of women lead to a no-wood- but-trees feel. It is difficult, for instance, to extrapolate how tolerant to Jews this "great ark of refugees" actually was or (despite the minutiae on Spinoza's free-thinking friends) to get a sense of the prevailing attitude to atheism and "libertinism".

Forgivably, Gullan-Whur is as perplexed as previous biographers over the vexed questions of why Spinoza joined the family business rather than becoming a rabbi, for which his scholarly prowess might seem to have fitted him, and what the precise reason was for his excommunication at the age of 24. But there seems insufficient insight into Spinoza's motives and desires in general. What are usually considered examples of his dignified pride and asceticism, such as his refusal to accept money and rejection of a professorship at Heidelberg University, are gratuitously cavilled at: Spinoza seems forever cast in the worst possible light, without being illuminated.

The author does proffer a new slant on Spinoza: a mooted homosexual attachment to the young Dutch merchant, Simon de Vries. Yet it is hardly surprising that this was "hitherto unnoticed", since her grounds for it amount to little more than a metaphor de Vries uses in a letter.

She also loses sight of Spinoza's philosophical significance. Too little is said about the Tractatus, an odd combination of political theory (a defence of toleration and free speech in a modern republic) with scriptural critique. Although spot-on in her brief treatment of the Ethics, she says virtually nothing on Spinoza's theory of the emotions or on the much-debated topic of whether or not he was a determinist. Despite interesting glints and gems, Within Reason disappoints overall. Perhaps we have had too idealised a picture of Spinoza, but a biography so unsympathetic to its subject inevitably proves alienating.

Jane O'Grady

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Arts and Entertainment
Richard Hammond, Jeremy Clarkson and James May on stage

Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Hynes in W1A
tvReview: Perhaps the creators of W1A should lay off the copy and paste function spoiler alert
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
    Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

    Fifa corruption arrests

    All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
    Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

    The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

    In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

    Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
    Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

    How Stephen Mangan got his range

    Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor
    The ZX Spectrum has been crowd-funded back into play - with some 21st-century tweaks

    The ZX Spectrum is back

    The ZX Spectrum was the original - and for some players, still the best. David Crookes meets the fans who've kept the games' flames lit
    Grace of Monaco film panned: even the screenwriter pours scorn on biopic starring Nicole Kidman

    Even the screenwriter pours scorn on Grace of Monaco biopic

    The critics had a field day after last year's premiere, but the savaging goes on
    Menstrual Hygiene Day: The strange ideas people used to believe about periods

    Menstrual Hygiene Day: The strange ideas people once had about periods

    If one was missed, vomiting blood was seen as a viable alternative
    The best work perks: From free travel cards to making dreams come true (really)

    The quirks of work perks

    From free travel cards to making dreams come true (really)
    Is bridge the latest twee pastime to get hip?

    Is bridge becoming hip?

    The number of young players has trebled in the past year. Gillian Orr discovers if this old game has new tricks
    Long author-lists on research papers are threatening the academic work system

    The rise of 'hyperauthorship'

    Now that academic papers are written by thousands (yes, thousands) of contributors, it's getting hard to tell workers from shirkers
    The rise of Lego Clubs: How toys are helping children struggling with social interaction to build better relationships

    The rise of Lego Clubs

    How toys are helping children struggling with social interaction to build better relationships
    5 best running glasses

    On your marks: 5 best running glasses

    Whether you’re pounding pavements, parks or hill passes, keep your eyes protected in all weathers
    Joe Root: 'Ben Stokes gives everything – he’s rubbing off on us all'

    'Ben Stokes gives everything – he’s rubbing off on us all'

    Joe Root says the England dressing room is a happy place again – and Stokes is the catalyst
    Raif Badawi: Wife pleads for fresh EU help as Saudi blogger's health worsens

    Please save my husband

    As the health of blogger Raif Badawi worsens in prison, his wife urges EU governments to put pressure on the Saudi Arabian royal family to allow her husband to join his family in Canada