The Calm, Composed Fury of a Spinozist


In 1961, a young pisher named Amos Oz publicly critiqued an essay by Israel’s founding father, David Ben-Gurion. To his surprise and alarm, Oz was soon summoned for a meeting with the Great Man at his Tel Aviv office. What followed was perhaps the world’s strangest lecture on philosopher Baruch Spinoza.

In this Spartan room there was a man pacing little steps, his hands clasped behind his back, his big head thrust forward as though to butt. The man looked exactly like Ben-Gurion, but there was no way he could actually be Ben-Gurion. Every child in Israel, even in kindergarten, in those days knew in his sleep what Ben-Gurion looked like. But since there was no television yet, it was obvious to me that the Father of the Nation was a giant whose head reached the clouds, whereas this impostor was a short, tubby man whose height was less than five foot three.

I was alarmed. Almost offended.

Nevertheless, during the two or three minutes of uninterrupted silence that felt like an eternity, with my back still pressed against the door in terror, I feasted my eyes on the strange, hypnotic form of this compact, powerfully built little man, something between a tough, patriarchal highlander and an ancient, energetic dwarf, who was restlessly pacing to and fro, sunk in thought, remote, not bothering to give the slightest indication that he was aware that somebody, something, a speck of floating dust, had suddenly landed in his office. David Ben-Gurion was about seventy-five at the time, and I was barely twenty.

He had a prophetic shock of silvery hair that surrounded his bald patch like an amphitheater. At the lower margin of his massive brow were two bushy gray eyebrows, beneath which a pair of sharp gray-blue eyes pierced the air. He had a wide, coarse nose, a shamelessly ugly nose, a pornographic nose, like an anti-Semitic caricature. His lips, on the other hand, were thin and indrawn, but his jaw looked to me like the prominent, defiant jaw of an ancient mariner. His skin was rough and red like raw meat. Under a short neck his shoulders were broad and powerful. His chest was massive. His open-necked shirt revealed a hands-breadth of hairy chest. His shamelessly protruding belly, like a whale’s hump, looked as solid as if it were made of concrete. But all this magnificence terminated, to my bewilderment, in a dwarf-like pair of legs that, if it were not blasphemous, one would be tempted to call almost ridiculous.

I tried to breathe as little as possible. I may have envied Gregor Samsa in Kafka’s Metamorphosis, who managed to shrink himself into a cockroach. The blood fled from my extremities and collected in my liver.

The first words that broke the silence came in the piercing, metallic voice that we all heard virtually every day on the radio, and even in our dreams. The Almighty shot me an angry look, and said:

“Nu! So why aren’t you sitting! Sit!”

I sat down in a flash on the chair facing the desk. I sat bolt upright, but only on the edge of the chair. There was no question of leaning back.

Silence. The Father of the Nation continued to pace to and fro with hasty little steps, like a caged lion or someone who was determined not to be late. After half an eternity, he suddenly said:


And he stopped. When he had walked away as far as the window, he whirled around and said: “Have you read Spinoza? You have. But maybe you didn’t understand? Few people understand Spinoza. Very few.”
And then, still pacing to and fro, to and fro, between the window and the door, he burst into a protracted dawn lecture on Spinoza’s thought.
In the middle of the lecture, the door hesitantly opened a crack and the secretary poked his head in meekly, smiled and tried to mumble something, but the roar of a wounded lion was unleashed on him: “Get out of here! Go! Do not disturb! Can’t you see that I’m having one of the most interesting conversations I’ve had in a long time? So be off with you!”

The poor man vanished in a flash.

So far I had not uttered a single word. Not a sound.

But Ben-Gurion, it turned out, was enjoying lecturing on Spinoza before seven o’clock in the morning. And he did indeed continue for a few minutes without interruption.

Suddenly he stopped in the middle of a sentence, his breath on the back of my petrified neck, but I dared not turn around. I sat rigid, my tightly pressed knees forming a right angle to my tense back. Without a hint of a question mark in his voice, Ben-Gurion hurled at me: “You haven’t had any breakfast!”

He did not wait for an answer. I did not utter a sound.

All of a sudden Ben-Gurion sank out of sight behind his desk like a large stone in water; even his silvery mane vanished from view.

After a moment he resurfaced, holding two glasses in one hand and a bottle of cheap fruit drink in the other. Energetically, he poured a glass for himself, then he poured one for me and declared:

“Drink it!”

I drank it all, in a single gulp. Down to the last drop.

David Ben-Gurion, meanwhile, took three noisy swallows, like a thirsty peasant, and resumed his lecture on Spinoza.

“As a Spinozist I say to you without a shadow of doubt that the whole essence of Spinoza’s thought can be summed up as follows. A man should always stay composed! He should never lose his calm! All the rest is hair-splitting and paraphrase. Composure! Calm in any situation! And the rest—frippery!” (Ben-Gurion’s peculiar intonation stressed the last syllable of each word with something like a little roar.)

By now I could not take the slur on Spinoza’s honor any longer. I could not remain silent without betraying my favorite philosopher. So I summoned up all my courage, blinked and by some miracle I dared to open my mouth in the presence of the Lord of All Creation, and even to squeak in a small voice:

“It’s true that there is calm and composure in Spinoza, but surely it’s not right to say that that’s the whole essence of Spinoza’s thought? Surely there’s also...”

Then fire and brimstone and streams of molten lava erupted over me from the mouth of the volcano:

“I’ve been a Spinozist all my life! I’ve been a Spinozist since I was a young man! Composure! Calm! That is the essence of the whole of Spinoza’s thought! That’s the heart of it! Tranquillity! In good or in evil, in victory or in defeat, a man must never lose his peace of mind! Never!”

His two powerful, woodcutter’s fists landed furiously on the glass top of the desk, making our two glasses jump and rattle with fear.

“A man must never lose his temper!” The worlds were hurled at me like the thunder of judgment day. “Never! And if you can’t see that, you don’t deserve to be called a Spinozist!”

At this he calmed down. He brightened up,

He sat down opposite me and spread his arms out wide on his desk as though he was about to clasp everything on it to his breast. A pleasant, heart-melting light radiated from him when he suddenly smiled a simple, happy smile, and it seemed not only as though it was his face and his eyes that smiled but as though his whole fist-like body relaxed and smiled with him, and the whole room smiled too, and even Spinoza himself. Ben-Gurion’s eyes, which had turned from a cloudy gray to bright blue, scrutinized me all over, with no thought for good manners, as though he were feeling me with his fingers. There was something mercurial about him, something restless and ferocious. His arguments were like punches. And yet when he suddenly brightened without warning, he was transformed from a vengeful deity to a delightful old grandfather, radiating good health and satisfaction. A seductive warmth gushed from him, and for a moment he displayed the charming quality of a cheeky child with an insatiable curiosity.

“And what about you? You write poetry? Yes?”

He winked mischievously. As though he had laid a playful little trap for me. And had won the game.

I was startled again. All I had authored at that time were two or three worthless poems in out-of-the-way quarterlies published by the kibbutz movement (which I hope have crumbled to dust by now together with my miserable attempts at poetry). But Ben-Gurion must have seen them. He was reportedly in the habit of poring over everything that was published: gardening monthlies, magazines for lovers of nature or chess, studies in agricultural engineering, statistical journals. His curiosity knew no bounds.

He also apparently had a photographic memory: Once he had seen something, he never forgot it.

I mumbled something.

But the prime minister and minister of defense was no longer with me. His restless spirit had moved on. Now that he had explained once and for all, in one crushing blow, everything that had been left unexplained in the thought of Spinoza, he started to lecture me with passion about other matters: the loss of Zionistic fervor in our youth, or modern Hebrew poetry, which was dabbling in all kinds of weird experiments instead of opening its eyes and celebrating the miracle that was happening here daily in front of our eyes: the rebirth of the nation, the rebirth of the Hebrew language, the rebirth of the Negev Desert!

And suddenly, again without any warning, in the full flow of his monologue, almost in the middle of a sentence, he had had enough.

He leaped up from his chair as though shot from a gun, made me stand up, too, and as he pushed me toward the door—pushed me physically, just as his secretary had pushed me in some three-quarters of an hour previously—he said warmly:

“It’s good to chat! Very good! And what have you been reading lately? What is the youth reading? Please come and see me any time you’re in town. Just drop in, don’t be afraid!”

And while he pushed me, with my studded army boots and my white Sabbath-best shirt, through the door, he went on shouting cheerily:

“Drop in! Any time! My door is always open!”

Excerpted from A Tale of Love and Darkness by Amos Oz, and reprinted by permission of Harcourt, Inc.