Being Benedict Spinoza


Conversation with spinoza
By Goce Smilevski
152 pages. Northwestern University Press. $16.95.

Goce Smilevski’s Conversations with Spinoza is a lovely book. This “cobweb novel,” as the author subtitles it, brings together a number of threads to give us a crisscrossing philosophical and personal portrait of the 17th-century philosopher Benedict Spinoza. The threads revolve around conversations between the writer and Spinoza, and between Spinoza and key characters in his life. (To add a layer of complexity, some of these conversations are only imagined by Spinoza.) The conversations build a life out of the sparse biographical information that has come down to us, but they also animate essential aspects of Spinoza’s philosophy. These conversations sometimes allow Spinoza to speak at length, and they are persistently questioning and challenging, always on the lookout for the deeper truth behind Spinoza’s self-presentation, and they are often philosophical interrogations that challenge Spinoza’s deepest metaphysical suppositions and conclusions. One might expect that such conversations would drag, but they do not. The biography and the philosophy are carried off with great brio. Although there are passages that will puzzle the philosophically unprepared reader, these passages often puzzle Spinoza’s interlocutors as well, and they join in the conversation to press for clarification. The conversations are never pedantic; there is none of the clumsiness of the usual novel-of-ideas, in which characters drone on in defense of abstruse philosophical positions.

Smilevski’s skill makes this joint investigation of abstract philosophy and concrete life work, but he has the advantage of a perfect subject: Spinoza, perhaps more than any other philosopher since Plato, was convinced that one could only live well if one grasped the underlying metaphysical structure of reality. Spinoza’s metaphysics, like Plato’s, are far from our commonsense understanding of the world, and as a consequence, the way of life Spinoza recommended, was far from the common life we all live. Smilevski’s exploration of how a philosopher who thought like Spinoza actually lived his life is therefore more than a novelist’s conceit. It is a test and a challenge. Again and again, the conversations challenge Spinoza’s philosophical beliefs and push Spinoza in the end to admit that philosophy has not taught him how to live, but rather that he has “fled from life into philosophy.” In this way, then, the novel is a work of philosophy; it is a critique of Spinozism. But it is in no way triumphant; it is instead filled with love for its main character. In the end, Smilevski imagines Spinoza on his death-bed, recanting and choosing life over philosophy, and Smilevski magically offers him the chance to re-enter the womb and start over. But to understand the problematic and romance at the center of the novel, we need to understand a little about Spinoza’s life, his intellectual background, and his own distinctive philosophy, especially his antagonism to our normal everyday life.

Spinoza was born in 1632 in Amsterdam to a Jewish family that had fled Portugal to escape the Inquisition. He lost his mother when he was a young child, and his father and many siblings not much later. He was excommunicated from the Jewish community of Amsterdam for his heretical views when he was 23 (though the exact nature of his heresy remains a mystery), so he was without a social and religious community. He was a Jew in a world where Jews were almost everywhere persecuted, and he was persecuted by his fellow Jews. (Rebecca Goldstein’s new book Betraying Spinoza tells this story of his Jewish background well and tries to think through its possible effect on Spinoza.) He learned to grind lenses to support himself, and he chose to live a relatively solitary life devoted to philosophy. Spinoza had few deep attachments: he believed emotional entanglements were constraining and intruded on the philosophical thought that he idealized. He tutored students in the ‘new’ philosophy—he was especially interested in Descartes’ works—and he had a deep interest in the scientific advances of his day. Two features of this intellectual and cultural setting are especially relevant to Spinoza’s thinking. The first draws on the central scientific theme of this revolutionary period: the growing realization that there is a significant distinction between appearance and reality; that the way the world appears in everyday perception masks a very different ultimate, underlying reality. The second is the new confidence in the power of unfettered human reason to understand this ultimate reality.

For Spinoza, life as we normally live it is powered by sense and perception, and therefore does not respond to the true nature of things. Our lived experience is confusing and misleading; it is a crisscrossing of threads, each of which may “make sense” when understood alone, but which we experience as a jumble without rhyme or reason. Spinoza’s thinking here is not as obscure as it sounds. As you read these words you may notice the clock at the bottom of your computer screen. It is distracting you as you’re trying to read, you feel your body shift in the chair, you think of the author of these words, and you smell the coffee in the kitchen. This sequence of experiences and thoughts is just a medley made up of crisscrossing independent streams—the coffee, the light, the book, your body, me, and so on. What’s more, you only experience the elements in these streams indirectly. Your experience of the coffee, for instance, is a muddle—one factor is the coffee itself, another is your response to it—the way it smells to you. In perception you are experiencing a blend of the world (the coffee) and your own body (your olfactory response), and the elements are not easily separable and identifiable.

Many of Spinoza’s intellectual contemporaries shared these insights, and saw them as opening up onto fields of research that would one day lead to a deeper understanding of the elements of the blend and their interactions. The continuation of their efforts is nothing less than our modern scientific culture. But Spinoza, for philosophical reasons that are beyond our scope here (and perhaps for the personal reasons that Smilevski probes in the novel), took a different path. For him, the perceiving mind is only a passive responder; it is continually distracted by a passing parade of contingent concrete phenomena. It can track these phenomena, correlate them, and learn to anticipate them (sugar makes coffee sweet), but there are ultimately no rational explanations of this perceptual stream, no ultimate whys and wherefores. It is what it is but does not make sense.

But for Spinoza, there is a kind of experience, mental experience, in which the stream is pure, in which things do make sense, and this is logical-rational thought. When we think through a proof of the Pythagorean theorem, for instance, our experience—our mind’s focus—can be on a pure unblended stream in which the elements are not simply a contingent medley, but where the whole “makes sense”; where the elements are as they must be, where one thing follows from another. For Spinoza, all of being is an expression of a pure, timeless, eternal, infinite, “rational” order of this sort, but we cannot easily track it. Spinoza’s philosophy is designed to help us see the underlying order. It tries to define and arrange philosophical concepts in much the way Euclid defined and arranged geometrical concepts, and it aims to link these concepts into a deductive structure in the way that Euclid’s definitions and axioms are linked to the theorems of his geometry. If he could succeed, then he would lay bare the underlying logical structure of reality; the necessity of being, one might say (though one might not be quite sure what one means when one says it).

The more we can understand this logic of being, the more we are at one with nature; thinking Nature’s thoughts, as it were. Inside each one of us is the potential to transcend the experience of nature playing itself out in a crisscrossing mishmash of threads, to cut away from the contingencies of our existence—our perceptual streams, the “accidents” of our body, our birth, our concrete situation—and to think nature’s own pure thoughts. In this way, we leave behind the unfolding of nature in time and join what he calls “eternity” and “Infinity.” The shocking, for some thrilling, upshot of all this is that we ourselves—our identities as finite concrete individuals—are more part of the mishmash than the pure design. Our “salvation,” and Spinoza uses these sorts of terms, lies in transcending ourselves and making as much of our lives and thoughts at one with the ultimate principles of being. Being what we are, we cannot fully transcend our human nature, but we soar only when we go beyond the passivities of our perceptual and emotional lives and turn our minds into active rational engines, seeing as best we can the rational connections between ideas and thoughts. The physical world is for Spinoza just one manifestation of Nature; nature is at the same time the ideas that we experience as physical realizations. When we entertain these ideas and grasp their connections, we are at one with eternal Nature; thinking its thoughts. This is the rational nirvana we must pursue. As Smilevski’s Spinoza puts it: “Anything less than eternity is not worth spending our time on.”

This is heady stuff, a made-to-order set-up for Woody Allen. But there is a real human drama in the situation of Spinoza, who is a man despite himself, a man who has set a goal he knows no man can reach, but can only strive to approach. In the end, Spinoza is left with a mind and body and self. We, reluctantly, must be ourselves—but what is a reluctant life like? What are the doubts and uncertainties that must creep in? What price will Spinoza pay for the decision to strive for eternity and to turn his back on the life of ordinary men? Will the prize be worth the price?

The conversations that probe the difficulties of being Benedict Spinoza focus, as they must, on the solitude and the other—on matters of emotion, love, loss, the body, and, most vividly, sexuality. Here we are in the realm of contingency, of affect, buffeted about by circumstance and feeling. This is the part of life Spinoza would leave behind if he could, but he could not. The subjects here are Freudian, and Smilevski in the end sees Spinoza’s metaphysical choices as connected to the early loss of his mother. He suggests that Spinoza’s turning away from the finite and the transient is a way of avoiding loss and endings. The Pythagorean theorem does not die. It is because Spinoza cannot bear the thought of ending that the possibilities of love and sexuality with his friend Clara Maria van den Enden and his student Johannes Casearius are never really pursued. He has decided to only love infinity. Smilevski somewhat shockingly saddles Spinoza with necrophiliac urges, but the theme here is the same: there is no fear of loss with the dead who are already gone.

Smilevski is right to focus on sex and physical love and the difficulty of integrating these into Spinoza’s hyper-Rationalist metaphysics. They are through and through contingent and beyond the kind of “making sense” and logic that Spinoza so prized. Plato and Socrates hardly do better in understanding this central aspect of what it is to be all too human.

Smilevski does not pretend that he has gotten to the core of Spinoza. We finish this story and still find it hard to grasp what it must have been like to be such a man. Philosophers have been able to follow many of his lines of thought, although some of it remains obscure and open to various interpretations. But the decision to live this philosophy—if indeed Spinoza’s internal life was anything like what we have presented here—carries with it an air of mystery and almost eeriness. Part of Smilevski’s achievement is that even as we are shocked by what we literally have to call his “inhumanity,” we come to love this strange man. It was said of Leonardo Da Vinci that it is as if he somehow traveled through time to the see the future of technology, and did his best to scribble down what he saw when he was returned to 15th-century Florence. Something like this is true of Spinoza’s work as well. It is as if he escaped being a 17th-century Portuguese Jew living in Amsterdam and saw the world—not from another place and time—but from no place and no time; from the view point of a durationless, infinite eternity—sub species aeternitatis, as he puts it. His metaphysical system is an attempt to get down on paper what he saw. It urges us to look behind the perceived unfolding of things in space and time, and to train our minds as much as possible on the timeless character of what is ultimately real and of which we are ultimately part. As with Leonardo, we can’t make sense of all he tells us, but unlike Leonardo, Spinoza never made it fully back home. Like a homesick traveler, and like the soul in Plato’s philosophy, there was a part of him that never made it back to Amsterdam. Smilevski’s daring and deep novel takes us a step closer to the heart and mind of this mysterious traveler.