Friday, June 7, 2019

Spinoza by Berthold Auerbach

From aspiring rabbi to excommunicant
Baruch Spinoza
Baruch Spinoza (a.k.a. Benedict de Spinoza) is a philosopher whose work I greatly admire. Berthold Auerbach is a German writer of the 19th century who has since faded into relative obscurity, but I have previously enjoyed reading his short story “Christian Gellert’s Last Christmas” and his book Black Forest Village Stories. When I discovered that Auerbach had written a biographical novel about Spinoza, I was eager to read it, hoping the book would provide insight into Spinoza’s intellectual development. This 1837 novel did not turn out to be the masterpiece I had hoped, but it does have its merits, both literary and philosophical.

Spinoza was born in Amsterdam, the son of Portuguese-Jewish immigrants who fled the Inquisition to find religious freedom in the Netherlands. Spinoza lived from 1632 to 1677, but Auerbach’s biographical narrative only covers his life from about 1647 to 1657. The novel begins with a teenage Spinoza undergoing studies to become a rabbi in his community synagogue. It ends a decade later with his being excommunicated from the Jewish faith for heresy. In the intervening years, Auerbach focuses on two main plot threads. One is Spinoza’s drifting away from the Jewish faith as he develops his own individual pantheistic philosophy. The second is a love story between Spinoza and Olympia van den Ende, the highly educated daughter of his Latin teacher. Both are freethinkers, but Spinoza was raised a Jew and Olympia a Catholic, and neither of their communities will accept an intermarriage. In addition, Spinoza feels compelled to abandon earthly pleasures such as love so that he may concentrate solely on his intellectual pursuits.

The narrowness of the novel’s scope is a bit disappointing. I was hoping for a more lifelong view of the development of Spinoza’s philosophy, but instead Auerbach concentrates on this one period of its nascency. Auerbach himself was a Jew, and it is clear from this book that he is enthralled by Jewish history and ritual. The entire first half of the book is strictly about Judaism; freethought doesn’t rear its ugly head until roughly the halfway point. There are only a couple chapters where Auerbach really discusses Spinoza’s mature philosophy in detail, but when he does delve into the philosopher’s Ethics, for example, Auerbach explains Spinoza’s ideas clearly and insightfully. We see how Spinoza’s conception of monism emerges from the dualism of Descartes. Much of this is revealed through extensive dialogues between Spinoza and a small circle of friends that includes Olympia. While the scenes dealing with Judaism seem authentic in their level of detail, the love story never really rings true. It feels like fictional license on Auerbach’s part but not necessarily in a bad way, much like Shakespeare’s fictionalizations of the lives of historical figures.

I don’t know enough about Auerbach to say to what extent he was a faithful Jew and to what extent he was a Spinozan freethinker, but as a member of the latter category myself I can say that when all is said and done the author certainly does justice to the philosopher’s freethought. He paints Spinoza as a secular Christlike figure who sacrificed much in his search for rational truth. Spinoza’s pantheistic conception of a deity is portrayed as his attempt to seek out divinity in the universe rather than turning away from God. Reason is a gift from God, Spinoza believed, even when the exercising of that reason clashes with religious tradition and dogma. I wish there had been less about Judaism and more about monism in this book, but in the end I found this to be an interesting, though romanticized, look at Spinoza’s life and thought.
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