Baruch Spinoza’s first name means “blessed” in Hebrew, an ironic name for a man who was excommunicated with curses from the Jewish synagogue in Amsterdam when he was only twenty- three years old and who was condemned as an atheist by Christian writers during and after his life. Since his time, his work has provoked widely varying responses, including both blessings and curses. Some have argued that he was indeed an atheist because he maintained that nature was a closed chain of entirely determined causes and effects. Others have claimed that he was one of the most profoundly religious thinkers in history. Spinoza did identify nature with God, but his God has always seemed utterly unlike the God of traditional Christianity or Judaism. Spinoza saw God or nature as containing all things, completely impersonal, and without any power of choice or decision. Was he naturalizing God or deifying nature?
Steven Nadler’s biography of Spinoza does not solve the riddle of the true meaning of Spinoza’s philosophy, but it does provide an introduction to the man and his thinking. It is also a meticulously researched and absorbing examination of the social and historical setting of Spinoza’s work. One of the greatest difficulties for the biographer is the lack of information on the philosopher’s childhood and adolescence. Nadler deals with this absence of data by concentrating first on the rise of the Jewish community in the Dutch Republic and then on Spinoza’s family. The reader occasionally has the feeling that the first third of Nadler’s book looks at everyone who knew or might have known Spinoza, while Baruch himself hardly appears until it is time for him to be blackballed from the Jewish community. Still, biographers can only work with the sources that they have, and readers will be familiar with Spinoza’s surroundings by the time they are fully introduced to the thinker as a grown man.
Nadler, a member of the University of Wisconsin’s Center for Jewish Studies as well as a professor of philosophy, might be expected to take a special interest in Spinoza’s Judaism. However, Spinoza does not appear in these pages as a particularly Jewish thinker. While he did come out of a Jewish tradition and engaged in interpretations of the Old Testament, his thinking was much closer to currents in liberal Dutch Christian thinking than to the thinking of other Jewish philosophers or theologians. This may have been one of his problems. As Nadler convincingly argues, many of the Jews of the Netherlands were immigrants from Spain and Portugal. In their native lands, they had been pressured to convert to Christianity. The more tolerant political climate of the Netherlands enabled them to return to their ancestral faith, and they did so with all the zeal of new converts. At the same time, the intellectual awakening of seventeenth century Europe, exemplified by individuals such as Belgian philosopher René Descartes (1596-1650), posed challenges to traditional perspectives. Heretics such as Spinoza threatened the rediscovered Jewish faith.
Nadler manages to reconstruct Spinoza’s educational background. He provides documentary evidence that Spinoza did not, as legend has sometimes recorded, train to become a rabbi. In fact, the future philosopher did not complete the higher grades of Hebrew education, probably because he was needed as a merchant in the family business. Although he did have a good foundation in Scripture, his passion for learning led him to seek the kind of education that we would refer to today as “liberal arts.” Some time in his early twenties, Spinoza enrolled in the Amsterdam Latin school of Franciscus van den Enden. It was at about this time, also, that Spinoza began using the Latin form of his name, “Benedictus,” in a symbolic move toward the Latin culture of gentile Europe. Van den Enden’s school existed to provide the sons of prominent families with the skills they would need to enter university, and Spinoza must have been much older than his fellow pupils. Van den Enden was a radical adherent of republican government, as well as a humanistic educator. Late in life, Spinoza’s former tutor was executed in France for plotting to overthrow French king Louis XIV and replace the French monarchy with a republic. Spinoza’s own republican ideals must have been encouraged at van den Enden’s school.
After his study with van den Enden, Spinoza became a lens grinder, grinding the glass lenses used in telescopes and other optical instruments. The legend of Spinoza portrays him as a...
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