Mr. Cogito Tells of the Temptation of Spinoza Themes

Zbigniew Herbert

Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

It is precisely this deflating of all that is elevated, poetic language as well as philosophical pretension, that is so noticeable in Herbert’s poem. The high-minded diction of the opening lines is put in perspective and in its place by God’s colloquial speech, and Spinoza’s single-minded pursuit of God is offset, even undermined, by God’s unadorned advice on getting ahead and on “Things Truly Great” (though those uppercase letters should give the reader pause). There is something incongruous and therefore comical in someone advising a philosopher of Spinoza’s stature to buy a house even if that someone is God, but there is wisdom, not just humor, in reminding Spinoza that pleasure is not in itself a vice and in admonishing him to “forgive the Venetian mirrors/ that they repeat surfaces,” for what those mirrors accomplish is rather similar to what the seventeenth century Dutch painters did in so faithfully rendering their commonplace subjects. However, the same title that links Herbert’s poem to their paintings also suggests that even if Spinoza is wrong not to heed God’s advice, he is right to resist the temptation to abandon or compromise his principles by colluding with those in power (for example, dedicating a treatise to the king who “won’t read it anyway”).

The poem, with its ambiguous depiction of the nature of both God, who may be the devil, and a temptation that is a reversal of the Faustian bargain and not without its...

(The entire section is 419 words.)