By JESSE TISCH
“By what right
is Benedictus Spinoza included in this series, devoted as it is to Jewish
Themes and thinkers?” Thus begins Betraying Spinoza (2006), Rebecca Goldstein’s investigation into the
mind and more daringly the heart of Benedict Spinoza. Spinoza was a
philosopher, “strict rationalist,” and heretic; Goldstein is a novelist and
intellectual. For the fourth book in Nextbook’s “Jewish Encounters” series, she
illuminates his keystone works, The Ethics and the Theological-Political Treatise. In this excerpt from an interview from Contemplate: The International Journal of Cultural
Jewish Thought,she discussed his Jewishness (which he himself disavowed),
his conception of god (complicated), and “politicians who go where philosophers
fear to tread.”
Contemplate: Spinoza was a strict
rationalist, but you use empathy and imagination—a novelist's tools—to
understand him. Is that the only way you "betray" him?
Rebecca Goldstein: Oh, I betray him
far more than by the occasional flexing of the imaginative musculature, though
that flexing is symptomatic of the general sort of treachery I commit in the
Spinoza is an extremist on behalf of a view I call "radical objectivity”
and he called the view "sub specie
aeternitatus," under the guise or form of eternity. From that point of
view, uncompromisingly impersonal, the differentiating particulars of an
individual life retreat into irrelevance—even one's own life. To reform one's
mind so that it consists, as much as is possible, of the view sub specie aeternitatus is Spinoza’s
path to what he calls blessedness.
A project like mine, trying to seek to better understand what Spinoza was about
in espousing radical objectivity by placing it in a personal context, both his
and mine—this is the closest to writing personal memoir I've ever come and ever
want to come—is a betrayal. By looking at Spinoza's viewpoint in this way I'm ipso facto violating it.
I want to ask you about Spinoza’s very unorthodox (in both senses) conception
Rebecca Goldsetin: OK, I'll do the
best I can here. And you'll just have to take my word for it that I'm standing
on one foot while I'm writing this:
Spinoza famously identified God and nature, and it's hard not to misunderstand
him here. For one thing, he wasn't a pantheist of a tie-dyed-circa-1960s-what's-that-you're-smoking
sort. He certainly didn't believe that God existed in the babbling brooks and
whispering pines. His notion of nature was very abstract, similar to the notion
of the final Theory of Everything that string theorists dreamily murmur about
in their sleep and that [Albert] Einstein probably had in mind when he called
himself a Spinozist. This would be the theory that would not just state the
complete set of fundamental laws of all of nature, but that would also explain
why these laws of nature, and none other,
had to be the laws of nature. In other words, the Theory of Everything
would explain, literally, everything, including why it itself was the final
Theory of Everything. Everything,
after all, includes itself. This captures what Spinoza had in mind when he
calls God the causa sui, the thing
that explains itself.
Spinoza believed that there had to be a final Theory of Everything, and this
theoretical entity is his conception of both God, the final explanation, and of
nature, the explained. The string theorist Stephen Hawking, for example, is
speaking pure Spinoza in the famous last paragraph of A Brief History of Time, when he writes that if we had that final
theory, the one that explains why it is the final theory, that would be the
ultimate triumph of human reason for "then we would know the mind of
God." Spinoza takes it one step further. It isn't that the Theory of
Everything is the blueprint God used in creating the world, so that, knowing
the theory, we'd know what God had in mind. The Theory of Everything is the mind of God. The Theory of
Everything, in fact, is God. It's both the realized world and it's the
explanation that the world had to realize. That's Spinoza’s conception of Deus sive natura, the thing that can be
conceived alternatively as God or as nature.
I guess the above paragraph, if it's coherent at all, should shed some light on
the ways in which Spinoza's God bears little resemblance to the God who goes
walking in the breeze of the evening in the Garden of Eden and from whom Adam
and Eve hid their nakedness. Many of Spinoza's contemporaries, and
post-contemporaries, found his use of the word "God" so eccentric
and, they charged, disingenuous, that they didn't hesitate to call him an
atheist. In fact, even throughout the 18th-century
"Spinozism" was another word for atheism.
A major divergence between Spinoza's God and traditional religious conceptions
of God is that for Spinoza the concept of God's will is meaningless. (I'm
switching feet now.) We can't resort to God's will in explaining either why
there's a world at all or why there are objective differences between right and
wrong—which are the two fundamental explanations that traditional religions
have to offer. Spinoza's God, the Theory of Everything, explains why it is the
theory and why it—and therefore the world—had to be realized. To know God is to
know that the world couldn't possibly have been otherwise. God's will is a null
concept when it comes to explaining why there is something rather than nothing.
In Betraying Spinoza, you channel
your yeshiva teacher, who decries The
Ethics as, well, unethical (though,
as you argue, it was anything but). Could you explain the relationship—as
Spinoza understood it in The Ethics—between
reason, knowledge, and virtue?
R.G.: Reason is the only way that we
can attain knowledge; the world itself is woven of the stuff of reason and our
faculty of reason can alone yield us knowledge of the world. Lens-grinder that
he was, he offers us an ocular metaphor for the cognitive form of his choice:
"For the eyes of the mind, whereby it sees things and understands, is none
other than proofs." Authority, faith, prophecy, revelation; all pose falsely
as means to knowledge. Dispassionate reason, faithfully tracing out the facts
of reality, whether those facts favor us or our kind or not, can alone yield us
the true picture of the world. To submit oneself to reason's guidance, whether
or not it reveals a world that is to our liking, that flatters our sense of our
own importance is our only salvation. Simply to be able to see the world as
reason forces us to see it, not as we'd like it to be in order to assuage our
feelings of helplessness and lack of cosmic importance, but as it objectively
is, signifies an ethical achievement. "Sit and learn," Spinoza tells
us, and thus achieve virtue.
That would seem to imply some abandonment of ego—the ego borne out of our sense
of “cosmic importance.” Is that what Spinoza wanted? For us to develop an
ego-less, and less selfish, self?
R.G.: The goal of The Ethics is to induce us to be
rational, which means both seeing things as they really are and also acting in
our own best self-interest, which is only rational.
Spinoza never asks one to relinquish one's whole-hearted devotion to one's
self. One cares about one's self in a unique way, without requiring any
premises or philosophical argument whatsoever.
Yes, even the most rationally objective of us will pursue her own life—who
else's life is one supposed to pursue, after all? But one's point of view
toward one's self will be tempered by the view from outside of one's self, and
this outside view of oneself will affect how one sees others—relentlessly pursuing
their own interests, too, no different in their relation to their desires as one is in the relation to one's own desires.
So the endpoint of rationally pursuing one's self-interest will be to view others
as one views oneself—or, what comes to the same thing, to view oneself as one
Spinoza died relatively young. How close did he come to that “endpoint” where
one achieves "radical objectivity"?
R.G.: Spinoza, you could say, had
three goals: to understand reality, to find comfort and salvation in that
understanding, and to change the world, to make it more rational, a place that
provides the safety and stability for full human potential to be realized
(which is why he got into political philosophy).
I think that he thought he had accomplished the first two goals. But there's no
way he could have felt, even in his most sanguine moments, that he'd
accomplished the last. He was more successful than he could have dreamt, but
the progress he prompted was slow, barely discernable during his lifetime. And
it's still treacherously, tragically slow. People are still slaughtering others
for not sharing their groundless beliefs; governments are still dangerously
mixing religion and politics; there are still states that are
undemocractic religious tyrannies, and they are living up to the doomsday
prophesy of Spinoza, that such tyrannies threaten all, not just the citizens of
their own states.
Spinoza's work is slow.
A final question: What would Spinoza make of our present situation in the
United States? Would he see parallels—given the ascendancy of religion, and
religious rhetoric, in the public and governmental spheres—between our day and
his own day?
R. G.: The fundamental political
fact Spinoza insisted on was that the state has no business mixing into the
pursuit of truth. Beware those politicians who go where philosophers fear to
This interview was conducted by Jesse Tisch. He is the assistant editor of
"Contemplate: The International Journal of Cultural Jewish Thought."
excerpt is reprinted with permission from Contemplate:
The International Journal of Cultural Jewish Thought (Center for Cultural Judaism, 2004). For further reading please visit http://culturaljudaism.org/ccj/contemplate