Thursday Book: The philosopher's philosopher

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The Independent Culture
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