California Literary Review

An Interview with Rebecca Goldstein, author of “Betraying Spinoza”

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March 30th, 2007 at 5:19 pm

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Rebecca Goldstein [Photo by Steven Pinker]

Rebecca Goldstein is a Professor of Philosophy, novelist, biographer, and 1996 winner of the MacArthur Foundation “Genius Award.” Her most recent book is Betraying Spinoza: The Renegade Jew Who Gave Us Modernity.

How would you summarize Spinoza’s philosophy?
Spinoza’s system, as laid out in “The Ethics,” presents one of the most ambitious projects in all of Western philosophy. He attempts to deduce not only what the world is like (very different from the way it presents itself to us through our senses), but what our emotional life consists in and where our true happiness and salvation lies–and all of this, he claims, to answer with absolute certainty, not relying on any speculations or inferences or even empirical observation, but rather on rigorous proofs that yield a sort of mathematical necessity. So what is the world like according to Spinoza? It’s one infinite matrix of logical connections that is infinitely self-aware (which means that everything that happens happens necessarily). And what does our emotional life consist in? Our emotional life has got an internal logic of its own, all motivated by each thing’s attempt to persist and to flourish in its own being. And what does our happiness and salvation consist in? It consists in our each seeing, through the operation of our reason, the necessity of all things, deducing the nature of reality and seeing ourselves with complete objectivity in relation to the whole infinite sweep of things.Seeing one’s self with uncompromising objectivity through pure reason, Spinoza argues, effects such a substantial change in the very identity of one’s self that one emerges from the process as if almost remade. In the light of objectivity the personal differences between us shrivel up into near non-existence. The “Ethics” can be seen as one long argument for a conclusion that is still radical today (how much more so in the seventeenth-century when people were all defined in terms of such group identities as religion and class), namely: to the extent that we are rational we all partake in precisely the same identity. Obviously, such an ethical viewpoint also has political consequences, anti-authoritarian and pro-democratic.

Who were the Marranos? What was the historical backdrop to Spinoza’s life?
Spinoza was brought up in a family, and in a larger community, of former Marranos and it’s one of the claims of my book that Spinoza’s preoccupation with personal identity and salvation–the way that he interwove these two issues–was influenced by the preoccupations of his community. The answer to who the Marranos were lies in the history of the Jews of Spain. The Jews had flourished in Spain for centuries, especially when the Moslems had ruled, but their fortunes deteriorated over the course of the fourteenth century, as Christianity regained its control, and at the end of the fifteenth century–in fact in 1492-, an auspicious year for Americans for other reasons–Judaism was formally outlawed by Ferdinand and Isabella. The Jews had either to convert or to leave. A large majority converted (conversion had been going on for generations, keeping pace with the persecutions), but a large number also left–the majority of these going to Portugal. Unfortunately for them the king of Portugal outlawed Judaism in his own kingdom only a few years later, and he gave the Jews there only one option: conversion. So Judaism was officially outlawed on the Iberian Peninsula at the end of the fifteenth century, and it was the task of the Holy Inquisition to ensure that none of the “New Christians” (as they continued to be called for generations, no matter how sincere their Christianity) backslid into Jewish ways. The Marranos were those who did try covertly to cling to their Judaism. Historians debate over what proportion of New Christians were Marranos, but the Inquisitors tended to be suspicious of all New Christians, always watching for Marranoism, which was, of course, punishable by death, the mass burnings of the auto-de fe (literally, acts of faith).This suspicion and persecution persisted for hundreds of year, by the way, and the Inquisition was even fiercer in Portugal than in Spain (Marranoism was probably more active there as well). At the end of the sixteenth century some Marranos came to Amsterdam, which was the seventeenth-century’s most tolerant city. They began to reseek their Jewish roots, relearn the Judaism which had been semi-forgotten in Portugal, establishing an active Jewish community, with rabbis and a school. This was the community into which Spinoza was born. His formal education was at the community’s school, with its rabbis as his teachers. He was formally excommunicated from the Portuguese-Jewish community of Amsterdam when he was 23. Though he hadn’t published anything yet, he had managed to indicate to them that their project of refashioning themselves into fully observant Jews–obviously a project fraught with significance for former Marranos–was not one he deemed important. He was as obsessed as they were with how it is that we ought to remake ourselves in order to effect our personal salvation, but he would go on to think himself outside of all sectarian frames of reference, to think himself into the idea of secular salvation that could only be attained through the exercise of pure reason. Spinoza’s “religion of reason” is more arduous than any of the laws of Deuteronomy or Leviticus, since it asks each of us to cultivate and sustain a trait we find pretty difficult, namely to be reasonable.

Your book is subtitled “The Renegade Jew Who Gave Us Modernity.” How do you define modernity and why do you think Spinoza’s role was critical?
We’re not avoiding the big questions here, are we! OK, what I generally have in mind here is one aspect of modernity, the aspect that we associate with the European Enlightenment, which is dated roughly a hundred years after Spinoza’s death in 1676. I mean first and foremost a certain faith in human reason as the faculty that can make us both happier and ethically better. Spinoza’s faith in human reason as our only hope is at the core of “The Ethics.” This, of course, goes hand in hand with a diminished role for established religion, since it makes each individual responsible for their own spiritual and ethical progress. One becomes better by becoming more rational. It also goes along with an increased respect for the individual–we all have been endowed with the faculty of reason, after all, and the kings and the clergy among us are not necessarily better endowed than anyone else–and so it is accompanied with democratic ideals. All of these components–and the way that they’re knitted together–is first systematically set forth in Spinoza’s thought, which is why I think he’s pivotal in modernity. And throughout the eighteenth century “Spinozism” was the name that enemies of the Enlightenment employed in trying to associate the new liberalism with the renegade Jew who had been almost universally condemned in his own day, hoping with this association to discredit the shift in culture that had finally caught up with Spinoza.
Is it also possible to view Spinoza as not necessarily a break to modernity, but another spokesman in an ancient line of Eastern and Western mystics who see the universe as one whole – what Huxley called the Perennial Philosophy?
I have such a superficial knowledge of mysticism that I feel reluctant to answer, but I’ll do the best that I can. It’s true, as you point out, that the description of reality–the radical split between appearance and reality; the oneness of it all as well as its ultimate intelligibility, that is that it all ultimately “makes sense”; the ego-induced illusions that one must break free of in order to apprehend how it all makes sense–all this bears a striking resemblance to various mystical descriptions of the nature of reality. But mysticism depends on experience–an anomalous extraordinary experience that pierces through the layers of illusion. Spinoza placed little faith in experience of any sort. He is so wary of the strenuous activity of the personal ego (as are the various mystical traditions) and believes (unlike these mystical traditions) that the only guarantee we have of getting past these illusions that saturate our experience of the world is strict logical deduction. If A necessarily follows from B, and we see that, then no amount of wishful ego-induced thinking can convince us otherwise. Logic is the only tool powerful enough to break the spell of self-enchantment. And that’s such a radically different approach from the mystical tradition, at least as I understand it. As I understand it, the mystical tradition asks us to empty ourselves so that we can receive the truth, whereas for Spinoza passivity always allows our self-flattering self-deceptions to swamp us; our only hope is in the activity of the systematically logical operations of reason. But if the end results are strikingly similar–and it seems to me that they are–then perhaps that can be used as a sort of argument for the description of reality–its oneness and intelligibility. If ultimate passivity (of the mystical sort) and ultimate activity (of the Spinozistic sort) both get us to the same description of reality, then perhaps that’s some evidence for the truth of that description.
Along these same lines, Spinoza’s philosophy has strong similarities to Buddhism – most notably the concept that any notion of a separate and distinct self is an illusion. Buddhism’s method for understanding that truth is to turn off the mind, while Spinoza’s is to rigorously engage the mind.
The final viewpoint that Spinoza comes to has a great deal in common with Buddhism. (A friend to whom I was once explaining Spinoza quipped, “Oh, you’re telling me that Baruch was the first Bu-Jew.”) But of course Spinoza’s methodology is entirely different, as you point out, placing all its trust in the deductive processes of logic. Since the world itself is woven of logic–really IS logic–then that’s the one and only faculty of our minds that can penetrate beyond the appearances into true being. “For the eyes of the mind, whereby it sees and observes things, is none other than proofs.” Spinoza’s entire system in fact unfolds from what I call his basic Presumption of Reason, the belief that the world is entirely intelligible, that every fact that truly is a fact has an explanation. From this intuition of his (which he seems to regard as itself true by logic) he deduces the full sweep of his system. His system is supposed to be as inextricably woven of pure logic as reality itself.
How can one get a deeper understanding of Spinoza’s philosophy? Can the average person read and understand his writings or do you recommend a book, in addition to your own, that might serve as a guide to his philosophy?
You’re right that he’s a pretty difficult philosopher to get on one’s own. That’s why an entire semester devoted to Spinoza is my favorite course to teach. The students always start out looking at this terribly formal text, modeled on Euclidean geometry, and think no way is it going to come to mean anything to them. And then they make their way into the system and it’s always amazing to see the transformation that comes over them. It’s one of those texts that makes a professor really earn her salary and it’s hard to find a book that’s a good substitute. (In this respect, studying Spinoza is something like studying Talmud, which also seems to require hands-on experience.) A good overview is perhaps provided by Will Durant’s chapter on Spinoza in his classic “The Story of Philosophy.” More advanced texts are Stuart Hampshire’s “Spinoza and Spinozism” and Jonathan Bennett’s “A study of Spinoza’s Ethics.”
With all the problems in the world, do you see any ways in which a healthy dose of Spinoza could help us?
Here are just some of the ways in which Spinoza’s outlook strikes me as painfully relevant to the mess of our times. The issue that animated his life and his thought was that of religious intolerance. The Jews who excommunicated him at the tender age of 23 had themselves been victims of a prolonged, horrific exercise in both religious (as well as racial) intolerance. Spinoza uses this history of suffering to reason his way into uncompromising universalism, an outlook that reduces all the contingencies of birth–our religion and race and, by extension, our nationality, gender, sexual orientation–to details of no significance whatsoever in the real process of self-fulfillment. Spinoza’s places each person’s happiness and “blessedness” (by the way, he was known in three languages by the word for “blessedness”–“Bento” [Portuguese], “Baruch” [Hebrew], “Benedictus” [Latin]) in that person’s ability to see the truth as it objectively is, and the truth is the same for each of us. There’s no truth for this group and truth for that group. There’s just one truth, woven out of logic, accessible through logic, for all of us. So Spinoza’s modernity not only mediates between pre-modernity’s reliance on religious blind faith in authority but post-modernity’s rejection of objectivity and reason as well. Spinoza’s story–the story I try to bring out, at least–demonstrates how progressive the idea of objective truth is and how it first emerged as a corrective to the very worst abuses of religion. It’s Spinoza’s “radical objectivity” that brings him to a viewpoint that was unprecedented in its universalism, denying that any group is in a privileged position for seeing the truth or deriving its consolations.Another respect in which Spinoza’s thought seems painfully relevant is on the issue of science versus religion. While I was writing “Betraying Spinoza” last summer each morning I’d first read the newspaper, which was quite obsessed in those months with the whole “intelligent design” challenge to evolutionary theory. What Spinoza has to say about the importance of allowing the discovery of nature to proceed unimpeded by religious dogma couldn’t speak more directly to such issues. Last of all I think of Spinoza on an almost daily basis these days while witnessing the erosion of the separation of church and state in this country. One of the ideas that I play around with in the book is tracing a possible path from Spinoza’s influence in Amsterdam to the founding fathers of America, by way of John Locke, who spent time in Amsterdam a few years after Spinoza’s death and fraternized with people of the same liberal persuasion as those in whom Spinoza had confided his ideas. No matter whether Madison and Jefferson really did read Spinoza (Spinoza was in Jefferson’s library) they often sound just like him in their letters. Once again, I think that reflecting on Spinoza’s life and thoughts, showing how his thoughts were a response to what his community had undergone and how the principles of liberal democracy were derived as a cure for such abuses, will remind us of what’s at stake in rejecting the best of moderni

  • James Kennedy

    I know that these are a naive questions, but that does not stop me from asking them.

    1. Does Goldstein use “Betraying” in the title of her book mostly in the senses that are normally associated with the word “protraying”?

    2. Does Goldstein use “Betraying” in the title of her book with the negative connotations usually attached to that word?

  • sidney orlovitz

    Like other large systems of thought,
    it appears that its best to approach
    Spinoza from several directions.
    Perhaps from both the direction of the primacy of reason, and from the direction of the primacy of emotion.
    More than one discussion of Spinosa emphasises the relevance of both to his thought. He does seem to be about the integration of systems of thought, to an extent that is modern – Who’s the modern writer that said “only connect”….?

    Prof. Goldstein’s comments here make me want to see her book for more.

  • robert zilver

    The achievements of Spinoza?

    There seems to be a campaign going on to ascribe many achievements of the West to Spinoza. This campaign is largely tribal. Some publishers try to boost the sale of Spinoza books.

    But Spinoza’s conclusions are wrong. You cannot trust reason. You need observations and faith if you can’t think or you have no data.
    The “Ethics” is an unreadable book in a geometric pseudoformat and unciphering it is a waste of time for 99,999999 percent of people.
    Example: Reason may suggest that you have bad genes for eyesight and certain other health parameters and so on. Christ said “if your eye is evil, then your whole body is in the dark.”
    There is a plain and simple logical conflict here.
    The last thing we need is lens grinders like Spinoza who dabble in philosophy and think they can reason it out. Down with Spinoza!

    Robert Zilver, 2006

  • Peter The Excommunicated

    I think all truth is temporary–a kind of temporary truth–this included!

  • Steve Hall

    So, ‘modernity’ was the ‘gift’ of a 17th century Jewish philosopher. Spinoza was quite interesting, but this suggestion is utterly myopic liberal-culturalist claptrap. When are American philosophers actually going to start thinking about the world?

  • Gary Goldberg

    Wonderful interview with Rebecca Goldstein about Betraying Spinoza. Very revealing and interesting. I believe the mistake that Spinoza makes and that we are in need of correcting, is to believe that the application of human rationality to life necessitates dissociating oneself from one’s own experience of the world. THat is the only primary data we actually have upon which to judge and make our decisions about the world. Much more enlightening and perhaps our pathway out of the traps of modernity is “neurophenomenology”. Understanding the link between our subjective experience of the world and the constraints placed on our existence by our own internal biology, specifically how our brains constrain our experience of the world.
    Thanks.

  • Eric Duyshart

    Thanks to Rebecca Goldstein for her efforts in keeping Spinoza’s ideas alive. Although not always intuitive for me, Spinoza’s philosphies should get more attention.

  • Wim Klever

    Rebecca Goldstein is fully right in surmising that Locke was influenced by Spinoza’s ideas and so mediated towards their further effect on the making of America. He not only conversed with Spinoza’s intimates in Amsterdam but also read and extracted his books. The evidence for this is that one can discover at least 40 crypto-quotations from Spinoza’s text in Locke’s texts. In the last decade I composed a draft-ms on this subject (“Apple and worm. Locke as a disguised Spinozist”)that I am willing to pass to serious Locke scholars.

  • http://calitreview.com/55 paul

    Is the “Apple and worm” draft available from Dr. Klever?

  • Dr. Ann Nunes

    James Kennedy asks why Rebecca Goldstein uses the word “betraying” in her title, and whether she means “betray” in the “bad” sense.

    Goldstein herself says, in another interview, that she does literally betray Spinoza in several ways.

    One is that she deals with his personal life, which he as a philosopher thought was irrelevant to his philosophy.

    Another is that she deals with his Jewish religious and ethnic background, which again he as a philosopher thought was irrelevant.

    This is not necessarily “bad”–but, since it is contrary to the approach that Spinoza himself would have preferred, it is appropriate to say that her approach here “betrays” Spinoza’s own philosphical principles.

  • Sunil Sharma

    Interesting commentary. Have never read Spinoza in detail but was quite impressed with his radical faith in rationality that I came across in a philosophy refresher class. I can see that some are belittling him on the grounds of his excessive proclivity towards logic and reason with little regard for subjective experience and emotion. I believe both reason and experience/feeling contribute greatly towards an individual’s construction of reality. Each psychic constitution is diffrent so arguing whether rationality or subjective experience comes first is futile. Carl Jung’s theory of Psychological Types lists thinking and feeling as two important human functions. Two person’s perception of reality could be polar opposites of each other depending on whether you are thinking dominant(emphasizes logic) or feeling dominant(emphasizes subjective experience/emotion).

  • http://www.acourseinmiraclesmovie.com/ Alban

    This is a great interview, although it seems that Rebecca Goldstein reduces Spinoza to existence, political and social systems and how we all may live together.

    I think his idea has nothing to do with that at all. While Spinoza probably would argue for a democratic system, given from what I see, his primary purpose is the discovery and recognition of truth, the truth of what we are. This world is a denial of truth which should be very obvious to anyone confronted by his claim that truth is the same for everyone.

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