(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Much of this two-volume work seeks to vindicate the nineteenth century poet Heinrich Heine’s claim that “All of our contemporary philosophers, perhaps without knowing it, are looking through eyeglasses that Baruch Spinoza polished.” If Yirmiyahu Yovel is right, much the same could be said of twentieth century thinkers. Such claims are justified, despite their seeming hyperbole, because it was Baruch Spinoza (1632- 1677) who ushered in the revolution in thought that Yovel terms the “philosophy of immanence.”

The “philosophy of immanence” is a perspective shared by many in the modern world. Some notable commitments of this perspective are the claim that all there is, is of this world; that whatever order is found in this world, whether causal or moral, is not to be explained by appeal to facts beyond this world in some transcendent realm; and, in particular, that this world is not to be explained by appeal to the free acts of will of some transcendent God. Since there is no transcendent realm, whatever salvation or liberation a human being can aspire to must be found within this world.

All of this Spinoza can, perhaps, be said to embrace in his assertion that all that there is, is “Deus sive Natura”—God or Nature, the one eternal and infinite substance; and for Spinoza human salvation amounts, in complex ways, to coming to understand this God or Nature. There can be little doubt that in Spinoza’s work one encounters an unabashedly naturalistic voice. Spinoza embraced mechanistic explanation, argued for mind/body monism, rejected revealed religion as a source of knowledge, and advocated political tolerance. Rejecting the transcendent, he was a harbinger of modernity.

Yovel is here writing against a particular interpretive background Spinoza has long been viewed as leading an isolated and solitary life. Though commentators have been quick to note that he was, for example, familiar with the works of René Descartes, the ancient Stoics, and Jewish medieval philosophers, as well as the revolutionary work in the sciences of his day, this has not done much to undermine the suspicion that Friedrich Nietzsche was right when he called Spinoza a “sick hermit.” Indeed, Spinoza has seemed to many to have led the quintessentially philosophical life, a life of pure reflection led in isolation from his contemporaries. Still, the very great difficulty of Spinoza’s own writings has added to the importance of the task of trying to come to grips with the man in the hopes that an understanding of his life might aid in the comprehension of his work.

A little more than twenty years ago Alasdair Maclntyre wrote in his essay on Spinoza for the Encyclopedia of Philosophy that Spinoza is “of all philosophers the one whose life has the least apparent connection to his work.” What is most important about Spinoza and Other Heretics is that it seeks to refute this judgment. Much of the work—especially The Marrano of Reason—is an effort to show how the history and experience of the Marranos played a central part in Spinoza’s life and philosophical work.

Marranos were Jews living on the Iberian peninsula who were forcibly converted to Christianity by the armies of the Inquisition. Spinoza was himself the descendent of Marranos who had left Portugal for the relative freedom of Holland. He was excommunicated for heresy by Amsterdam’s Jewish community in 1656.

Yovel’s account of Spinoza, then, is an effort to display certain aspects of Marrano experience within Spinoza’s life and work. These crucial aspects of Marranism emerged in response to the complex and contradictory demands made on the Jewish community during this period. Indeed, some of the most successful and compelling portions of Spinoza and Other Heretics are concerned with the identification and discussion of these patterns of Marrano experience.

Nevertheless, intellectual history is always a delicate and vexed matter. It is alarmingly easy to make claims about why a particular thinker came, on the basis of his life or cultural milieu, to think as he did. Too often such claims add little to an understanding of the work of the thinker. What Yovel has to say about the experience of the Marranos does add to an understanding of the life of Spinoza; whether it also adds to an understanding of his work is a more difficult question to answer.

The responses of the Jews of Iberia to the pressures of the Inquisition were varied. Some were secret Judaizers; that is, they remained inwardly and surreptitiously faithful to their own traditions in the midst of an oppressive Christian majority. Thus, Judaizing Marranos took themselves to be Jews while they outwardly professed allegiance to Catholicism. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, their own religious practices and beliefs were often neither Jewish nor Christian but an amalgam of both. Some Marranos (the Inquisitor Torquemada and St. Teresa of Avila among them) were, however, conversos; they became devout Christians. Even here Yovel argues that there was something distinctive to the Marrano conversos, something peculiarly messianic and spiritualist: an emphasis upon the inner world of devotion rather than on the external elements of the faith. Most important for Yovel’s portrait of Spinoza, however, are those Marranos who, as a result of the confusion of Judaism and Christianity, and as a result of living in a setting in which religious beliefs of one kind were affirmed inwardly but denied outwardly, were neither Jewish nor Christian but rather became skeptical rationalists. What such Marranos rejected was precisely the promise of the transcendent in favor of a this-worldly outlook in which reason replaces...

(The entire section is 2322 words.)