Channeling Spinoza


“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.”

: 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 book.

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.

Contemplate: I want to ask you about Spinoza’s very unorthodox (in both senses) conception of God.

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.

Contemplate: 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.

Contemplate: 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 views others.

Contemplate: 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.

Contemplate: 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 tread.

This interview was conducted by Jesse Tisch. He is the assistant editor of "Contemplate: The International Journal of Cultural Jewish Thought."

This excerpt is reprinted with permission from Contemplate: The International Journal of Cultural Jewish Thought (Center for Cultural Judaism, 2004). For further reading please visit