Book Review: Spinoza: Outcast Thinker (2014)
Devra Lehmann, Spinoza: Outcast Thinker (South Hampton, NH: Namelos, 2014).
By Christopher Freiler, Hinsdale Central HS, Hinsdale, IL
Baruch Spinoza may be the most underrated philosopher in the western tradition. Yet the past half-century has witnessed a revival of interest in his works and his life. One explanation for the Spinoza renaissance may be found in our continued need to make sense of the human condition amidst an onslaught of science and technology. Devra Lehmann’s new work, Spinoza: Outcast Thinker, adroitly introduces Spinoza as a person, while doing justice to his intellectual and historical context. The book is intended for an adolescent audience; however, it will also be of interest to adults unfamiliar with Spinoza, and philosophy teachers seeking texts to engage students.
Though I’d taught AP European History for years and thus encountered Spinoza as figure of the Scientific Revolution, my first systematic entrée into his metaphysics came when I took a class on Rationalism at Northern Illinois University as a step toward an M.A. in Philosophy. Intrigued by Spinoza’s ideas and his life, I followed the course with another specifically on Spinoza taught by the same professor (Baron Reed, now at Northwestern). Even if I didn’t agree with all features of Spinoza’s philosophy, I found myself impressed by its internal coherence and simple majesty. Since then, I’ve picked up whatever I could find on Spinoza and continue to ponder how his intellectual system interrogates our preconceptions about nature, God, and humans. As a result, I was pleased to review Lehmann’s book; and I was not disappointed.
At just over 200 pages and punctuated with numerous helpful illustrations (though some are of marginal quality, and thus hard to make out), Outcast Thinker eases the reader into the subject matter. As a history teacher, I found Lehmann’s background on each topic vital in recreating the world in which Spinoza lived and to understanding his struggles and the intellectual conversation to which he contributed. Most of the chapters clock in under ten pages and do not take for granted the reader’s previous knowledge, a useful approach for young adult readers. Lehmann provides accounts of the Spinoza family’s life on the Iberian Peninsula, its emigration to the Netherlands, and particularly the community of Portuguese Jews as they attempt to assimilate to their new environment while maintaining a Jewish identity. Lehmann’s concise and informative discussion helps the reader understand how and why Spinoza’s transformation from child prodigy of the Torah to “heretic” angered those who looked upon his life with such promise.
One of my favorite chapters, “Beyond the Jewish Neighborhood,” lays out the geographic context for Spinoza’s life in Amsterdam and allows the reader to see the time and city through his eyes:
Walking through the city, Bento [Spinoza’s Portuguese name] could see the many ways in which Dutch people made their money and displayed their wealth. Along the numerous canals and waterways stood the warehouses that temporarily stored goods moving in and out of the city. Workers efficiently loaded and unloaded the ships that sailed all over the world. There so many ships along the city’s waterways that the vast collection of mast, those tall vertical poles that support the sails, sometimes reminded foreign visitors of a massive forest (p. 34).
This wider world shaped Spinoza’s sense of the possibilities and explanations that existed outside of his insular Jewish community. As the book unfolds, Lehmann takes us through a parade of intellectuals and books that the young Spinoza met in his quest for ultimate explanations.
Spinoza developed his ideas within a small circle of trusted friends, testing out and questioning the religious traditions of his youth. Word spread slowly among the Jewish leaders in Amsterdam about the bright young man who seemed to be calling fundamental truths of the faith in question. Under the guise of seeking guidance and intellectual companionship, two “spies” for the Nation [the Jewish community in Amsterdam] met with Spinoza and gathered evidence against him.
He showed every sign of becoming a pillar of the Nation, just as his father had been before him. But in the outspoken views he was developing about the immortality of the soul, the nature of God, and the truth of the Bible, Bento was already an outsider. He would never be able to return to the mainstream views of his community (p. 75).
The cherem, or excommunication, against Spinoza went beyond any that had been leveled against previous skeptics (like the ill-fated Uriel Da Costa, who committed suicide). The edict damned Spinoza in every respect and forbid even family members from having contact with him. He was truly alone. From there, Lehmann focuses on how, once excommunicated, Spinoza lived simply, grinding lenses, reading and writing, and socializing with a small but dedicated circle of admiring friends. However, the religious and political conflicts of the day kept drawing in a reluctant Spinoza. As an outcast, Spinoza needed to take great care in the public expression of his ideas, a theme that dominates Part II of Lehmann’s book.
Part II of Outcast Thinker concentrates on the development of Spinoza’s mature thought and the complex and dangerous environment in which he developed it. The latter includes violent upheavals in Dutch religious and political life. The former centers in Lehmann’s book on the Theological and Political Treatise, one of only two books published in Spinoza’s lifetime (1670). Due to the subject matter of the Treatise, Spinoza’s publisher released it under a pseudonym and fake title page. This daring work of Spinoza’s dramatizes the title “Outcast Thinker,” and we come to appreciate the naïve faith that Spinoza placed in the reason and tolerance of his intended audience. In short, the book caused a firestorm of controversy for questioning traditional notions of religious belief and political sovereignty. Vitriolic condemnations convinced Spinoza not to publish further works during his abbreviated life.
Spinoza’s publications—both during his life and after his death—caused the epithet “Spinozist” to be associated with atheism and all manner of evil. As presented in Lehmann’s book, this condemnation and his reaction mark Spinoza as a uniquely courageous and forward-thinking philosopher:
Spinoza would forever remain the bane of Calvinists and other traditionalists unwilling to live side by side with those who had other ways of looking at the world. But his international renown, which had reached even powerful European princes, would today earn the envy or a self-promoting celebrity with an entire public relations staff. (p. 192).
No one of good will can take exception to the simple and honest way in which Spinoza lived; he may truly be the first (and last) philosopher since Socrates to live according to his stated principles. However, this notion leads me to one quibble with the book, especially given its intended young adult audience. Spinoza is clearly the hero of this work—as well he should be—but one is also left with the impression that a spiritual person is left with two possibilities: accept Spinoza’s metaphysical account of God and nature or continue to embrace a superstitious biblical literalism. Certainly in Spinoza’s days that may have been the perception of choices, but Lehmann might have provided further analysis of alternate paths wending their way through the historical and contemporary conversation. A similar caveat goes for how Lehmann treats Spinoza’s view of women. The reader passes quickly over a paragraph that notes how Spinoza, for all his revolutionary thought, endorsed an inferior view of women. Of course, Spinoza on this issue was a product of his time, but an exploration of this tension by Lehmann might have humanized Spinoza ever further.
Spinoza’s masterwork remains The Ethics, published by his friends several years after his death. Because it did not appear in his lifetime, Lehmann spends much less time on the work than the Theological and Political Treatise. After reading Outcast Thinker, I was left wanting more of Lehmann’s deft analytical style directed at The Ethics, especially since it ties together his cosmology and its application to human affairs. Given that Lehmann’s book ends with Spinoza’s notion of “blessedness” and his intellectual integrity, it seemed fitting that his magnum opus play a more central role.
In all, Outcast Thinker impressed me with its clear style, strong attention to historical and intellectual context, and accessible explanations. Intellectual young adults will find much to appreciate in the book, as will teachers interested in providing students with supplementary reading materials. In my philosophy class, I offer students a final exam option that involves analyzing a work of philosophy or fiction with a philosophical theme. Lehmann’s book will be added to my list of choices. Fittingly, Lehmann ends her excellent text with an actual meeting between Spinoza and Leibniz, designed to show that if two very different thinkers could gather in civil discourse, then certainly we can today. Outcast Thinker is highly recommended.