An unworldly ethicist

October 8, 1999

Any biographer of Spinoza faces some serious problems. After his death, his friends went through his papers to collect material for a volume of posthumous works, but they saw it as no part of their task to reproduce material of purely biographical interest: though they included 74 letters, the personal information they contained was very largely excised.

The remainder of Spinoza's personal archive was destroyed, or at least has not survived. Whereas a biographer of Locke or Leibniz can, and must, start from a huge mass of personal papers, a biographer of Spinoza has to deal, for the most part, with familiar printed sources.

Steven Nadler's erudite but highly readable life is a work of synthesis rather than original research in the strict sense, but it draws on the latest scholarship, including works published in Dutch, French and German. It provides an extremely valuable addition to the English-language literature on one of the greatest 17th-century philosophers, and anyone interested in how Spinoza's philosophy might be illuminated by the circumstances of his life need look no further.

Throughout the book, copious background material is supplied, which sometimes has the result of crowding out the central figure. Spinoza is not born until chapter three, and more than half the book has passed before we come to the first surviving letter, written in 1661. Much of this space is used to provide a very full account of the settlement of the Portuguese and Spanish Jews in Holland, the history of the Talmud Torah congregation in Amsterdam, with long biographical digressions on figures as varied as Menasseh ben Israel, Sabbatai Zevi and Uriel da Costa. There is a very full and expert account of the cherem, Spinoza's excommunication from the synagogue in 1656. The life and activities of the Jewish community are covered thoroughly, sympathetically and (so far as an admittedly non-expert reviewer can judge) accurately. The account of the Christian world in which Spinoza spent the remainder of his life is less sympathetic and less accurate.

The Calvinists of the reformed church (described as having bishops in one passage) get the worst treatment, being routinely described as reactionary and intolerant (neither word is used for the authorities of the synagogue, who are treated with singular forbearance).

Spinoza himself emerges from the narrative as a slightly indistinct but almost wholly admirable figure, though he is given a mild reprimand for the views on women expressed at the end of the Tractatus Politicus. Women seem, indeed, to have played an extraordinarily small part in Spinoza's adult life: not even his enemies accused him of being a rake, and it would be difficult even to describe him as an homme moyen sensuel , but it is striking that none of his known correspondents was a woman. There is no counterpart in his life to Elizabeth of Bohemia or to the various princesses whose company Leibniz found so enjoyable.

Nadler's account also shows how geographically circumscribed Spinoza's life was - apart perhaps from Kant, he is surely by far the least travelled of all the great philosophers: except for the visit to Utrecht in 1673, he seems never to have left the province of Holland. Whether more experience of the world would have lessened his tendency towards self-complacency ( acquiescentia in seipso - described in the Ethics as the greatest good we can expect) can only be a matter of speculation, but he seems to have been quite contented with living in small coteries in which he was the dominant influence.

J. R. Milton is senior lecturer in philosophy, King's College, London.

Spinoza: A Life

Author - Steven Nadler
ISBN - 0 521 55210 9
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £22.95
Pages - 407

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