Betraying Spinoza: A Critical Review

I recently completed an essay that was a "critical book review" of Rebecca Goldstein's Betraying Spinoza. I wanted to read this book for pleasure, but it wasn't on the top of my unwritten list. It's great to have pleasurable reading assigned and have to read a book that I wanted to read! Enjoy. Rebecca Goldstein presents Spinoza as an autonomous philosopher who had a very high degree of courage, concern for looking for the truth, and rationality. The history of Jewish persecution, Goldstein suggests, deeply influenced Spinoza and led him to question his identity and shape his ideas. Goldstein writes, “Spinoza opted for secularism at a time when the concept had not yet been formulated,” suggesting that, as the title of the book includes, Spinoza gave us modernity (5). Spinoza's ideas greatly influenced and are apparent in the works of Nagel, Leibniz, Locke, Einstein, and many other famous thinkers. Goldstein's Betraying Spinoza is an interesting, informative, and engaging book about Spinoza's life, his basic philosophical ideas, and Jewish history that is accessible to a lay audience. Her book gently introduces Spinoza's philosophy and doesn't overwhelm the reader, but more philosophically-minded audiences might find the descriptions lacking in content and will be longing for more understanding and a longer book.
Goldstein portrays Spinoza as a likable, modest, and cautious individual. Spinoza, Goldstein notes, lived life like he wanted to: simple and isolated. Spinoza's group of friends ranged from freethinking Christians to protestant dissenters who listened to Spinoza's thoughts. Spinoza was cautious not to reveal his thoughts to narrow-minded individuals, but would freely divulge his thoughts to his close group of friends (5). Spinoza wore a treasured signet ring throughout his life with a rose symbol that bore the Latin phrase for cautiously – one of the main elements of his character. Goldstein classifies Spinoza as quiet, fiercely independent, respectful, quick in thinking, and loyal (200). Spinoza, although he was generally very calm and likable, had some episodes of showing his temper, but they were warranted and not even vitriolic (170). Upon his death, Spinoza was most concerned about the publishing of his unpublished work and pleaded with his friend to release his information to the world.

Goldstein argues that Spinoza's excommunication and ostracism were an important part of framing his identity. Spinoza's philosophy was so radical in the eyes of the Jews of his time that simply being called a follower of Spinoza would be an extreme slur against a person. Goldstein notes that “Spinoza remained throughout his life, and well into the eighteenth century, a thinker whom one could admire only in secret” (8). Spinoza was viewed as a betrayer of God (34) and was cursed, condemned, and reviled as a dangerous heretic (21). Many who were excommunicated from Jewish community were allowed to repent at a future time in order to lift the excommunication, but Spinoza's excommunication was non-negotiable (41). Jews were even forbidden from reading Spinoza (43) or talking to him (36). All of this, Goldstein claims, led Spinoza to reconsider his identity and define himself in accordance with his rationalistic philosophy and his cautious manner (165-166).

Goldstein calls Spinoza a “man who had given himself over entirely to the search after truth” (46). Spinoza viewed logic as the “fabric of reality” and insisted that reason alone can discover the truths about reality (48). Spinoza believed that the laws of nature are of necessity and that one need not look to an external world or a supernatural explanation to understand reality because reality's explanation is imminent within itself. Spinoza denied the is-ought gap, the idea that we cannot discover what we are to do from knowing facts about reality, and felt that we can find what we ought to do simply by knowing reality's true nature through pure reason (52-53). Spinoza's idea of salvation, much different than that of Jewish belief, was that reason could detach us from the primal fear of the truth and accept reality for what it is (163).

Spinoza felt that appeals to the divine were unnecessary and that explanations with supernatural content were erroneous (234). He felt that religious people who view themselves as the favored people of God are superstitious and their religions should have the status of superstition (15). Spinoza did not view religious faith as virtuous, but rather believed that virtue was attained through believing what one can know through proof (86). Goldstein notes that Spinoza was not interested in reforming religion, but rather offered a “religion of reason” (121). Spinoza believed that false beliefs “delivered unspeakable harm to our species” and superstition, rather than decreasing suffering, leads to an increasing of suffering and ends in “the most painful and violent contradictions” (222-223).

Goldstein chronicles a history laden with oppression of Jewish people containing death and violence that would lead Jews to question what being Jewish really meant; Jews experienced an identity crisis. Jews were not allowed to practice their rituals and were forced to convert to Christianity. Hysteria and a sense of surveillance permeated the Jews. Christians, many of them former Jews, who even seemed to be living a “Jewish lifestyle” would be viewed as secret Jews, even if they were not forced or influenced to convert. Anything that can be interpreted as “crypto-Judaism” such as excessive personal hygiene, wearing clean clothes on Sunday, or draining the blood of meat could cost a person his/her life. People were placed in trials under the flimsiest charges and were not allowed to face their accusers (106). Jews were allegated to perform the most menial and degrading tasks under the force of the Spanish Inquisition and statues demanding “purity of blood” [no “Jewish blood”] would deprive Jews or converts to Christianity who were former Jews from entering certain locations (103). Goldstein writes, “The Inquisition gave prominence to the question of Jewish identity” and jokingly asserts that “Wafers and wine could be transformed into the flesh and the blood of Christ, but no rite or ritual could turn a Jew into a Christian” (130).

Spinoza, Goldstein argues, undertook an ambitious metaphysical project and is “audacious in the claims he makes for pure reason” (48). Spinoza believed that his idea of presumption of reason, a principle stating that all facts have explanations, should be on par with the laws of logic (57). Everything, Spinoza believed, must be self-explanatory (218) because the world is nothing but logic (185). In order to arrive at these realities, Spinoza believed, we must detach ourselves from our personal points of view and gain “unblinking objectivity” (122). Spinoza believed that humans can attain a sort of immortality by abandoning personal identities “to become rational, believing only what we have good grounds for believing” (68). An objective point of view allows us to humble ourselves and counter our often overinflated views of our place in the cosmos (184) and possibly see ourselves from the outside (188) in order to attain the highest level of reason which amounts to love (195).

It might be impossible to determine whether or not Spinoza's views were the products of his environmental conditions, but it appears that many of his ideas and his identity were influenced by his environment. Spinoza is certainly not a passive thinker, but rather is active and concerned with arriving at the truth, sharing his ideas, and is quite confident that he has arrived at the truth in his writings. Jonathan Bennett notes that a culturally deterministic way of looking at philosophers can treat the philosopher as “a passive node in a network of influences” and can lead us to the conclusion that the philosopher's environment determined what he/she thought, easily overlooking the philosopher's autonomy (Bennett 1). Goldstein's work counters this view and adds a human element to Spinoza by describing his dispositions and intellectual commitments. Knowing about an individual and the individual's environment can be very helpful in reaching a conclusion about why a philosopher thought the way he/she did. On the other end of the spectrum, it would be wrong to ignore the philosopher's environmental influences and history.

I enjoy Spinoza's commitment to what he calls pure reason and find that many of his ideas resonate with my metaphysical commitments and epistemological ideas in some ways. Like Spinoza, I have a great regard and a need for evidence and don't think that faith, belief without evidence, is virtuous. The pursuit of knowledge and holding a radically objective viewpoint that Spinoza details and yearns for is a virtuous endeavor. Spinoza's idea that explanations for facts about reality exist in this world and require no appeal to the divine or an external world seems quite right. Spinoza, like me, prizes knowledge and finds great virtue in the pursuit of knowledge. Spinoza's idea of god, though, seems quite superfluous, and seems to confuse recipients of his ideas. Spinoza's view about reality is certainly materialistic and has no room for supernatural entities, but a word that is commonly used to imply the supernatural is employed by Spinoza when Spinoza can omit the word God from his philosophy and substitute it with reality or something similar.

Goldstein credits Spinoza with influencing thinkers who sought naturalistic explanations for events in the universe and insisted that progress in science should not be impeded by religious dogma (11). Using information that is presented later in the text, readers can come to understand that Spinoza's methods of pure reason would lead him to arrive at this conclusion; Spinoza believed that one need not look for otherworldly explanations when explaining the natural universe because everything that exists has an explanation that is rooted in this world. Contemporary scientists operate under methodological naturalism much in the way of Spinoza (but don’t totally eliminate the possibility, however slim, that a supernatural explanation can exist) and assume that there is a naturalistic explanation for a phenomenon. Scientists don't assume a supernatural explanation when investigating the universe, but rather look for naturalistic explanations and do not jump to conclusions containing supernatural content. Spinoza is also credited with influencing thinkers who posit a theory of everything, an explanation or formulation of concepts that can be used to explain the universe, such as Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow who explore such concepts and discuss them in books written for lay audiences.

Contemporary atheists and secular Jews also may be inspired by Spinoza's works and much of their thinking may be the result of Spinoza’s philosophical ideas. Spinoza denied the supernatural, divine revelation, miracles, prophecy, and divine inspiration of books. Jews have longed for a reason that explained their persecution and suffering throughout human history – they believed that they were God's chosen people, but God was missing in their lives on a day-to-day basis. Spinoza answered this question of why Jews suffer and eliminated Yahweh from the picture. Goldstein called this the “ultimate betrayal” (164) of the Jews who believed in a literal God. Many Jews have given up their literalistic beliefs and continued to participate in cultural traditions and are frequently called reformed, secular, or humanistic Jews. Secular Jews may have gained a great deal of inspiration from Spinoza, the man who was brave enough to publicly challenge centuries of thinkers and texts that were believed to be divinely inspired at a time in which no one else did in the Jewish community. Goldstein notes that secularism was unthinkable in Spinoza's time (12) and he was the first modern Jew (26). Non-theists are standing on the shoulders of Spinoza in many ways.

Goldstein noted that Spinoza's city of Amsterdam was quite a tolerant place, but I don't think she expounded upon Spinoza's ideas of toleration or direct influences upon the founding fathers' beliefs about free speech and separation of church and state. I believe that Goldstein focused too much on Jewish history and not enough on the specifics of Spinoza's philosophy. The detail regarding Spinoza's excommunication was quite in-depth and allowed the reader to understand the severity and the implications of the unforgivable excommunication that Spinoza was faced with. I felt that this book was a good introduction into Spinoza and would be a great springboard into other works, but to learn more I would have to read a book that was more focused on Spinoza's philosophy. The concept of the detached self that Spinoza had was present in Thomas Nagel's The View From Nowhere, so I'm able to understand the influence that Spinoza had regarding this item, but only because I read Nagel's book. Goldstein could have expanded on this idea of the detached self. Goldstein did an excellent job detailing Spinoza's life, his environment, and describing the basics of Spinoza's philosophy, but I yearn for more detailed explanations of Spinoza's philosophy. More than anything else in Goldstein’s book, I learned about Jewish history. If I were a reviewer of books, I would rate this book as four stars out of five.

Works Cited

Bennett, Jonathan. Learning From Six Philosophers. 1. New York: Oxford, 2001. Print.

Goldstein, Rebecca. Betraying Spinoza. New York: Random House, 2006. Print.