Volume 32 Number 1 / January 2006Religious Studies Review / 11
© 2006 Council of Societies for the Study of Religion
THE BLESSINGS OF SPINOZA
SPINOZA’S MODERNITY: MENDELSSOHN, LESSINGAND HEINE
By Willi GoetschelMadison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2004Pp. x
351. $29.95, ISBN 0-299-19084-6.
SPINOZA’S REVELATION: RELIGION, DEMOCRACYAND REASON
By Nancy LeveneNew York: Cambridge University Press, 2004Pp. xix
256. $75.00, ISBN 0-521-83070-2.
SPINOZA’S HERESY: IMMORTALITY AND THEJEWISH MIND
By Steven NadlerNew York: Oxford University Press, 2001Pp. xix
225. $19.95, ISBN 0-19-926887-8.
SPINOZA AND THE IRRELEVANCE OF BIBLICALAUTHORITY
By J. Samuel PreusNew York: Cambridge University Press, 2001Pp. xiii
228. $75.00, ISBN 0-521-80013-7.
SPINOZA’S BOOK OF LIFE: FREEDOM ANDREDEMPTION IN THE ETHICS
By Steven SmithNew Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2003 Pp. 256. $25.00, ISBN 0-300-10019-1.
Reviewer: Abraham Socher Oberlin CollegeOberlin, OH 44074
ertrand Russell’s Ciceronian summation of Spinoza’s careeris unsurpassed in its elegant compression:
Spinoza is the noblest and most lovable of the great philosophers.Intellectually, some others have surpassed him, but ethically heis supreme. As a natural consequence, he was considered, duringhis lifetime and for a century after his death, a man of appallingwickedness. He was born a Jew but the Jews excommunicatedhim. Christians abhorred him equally; although his whole philo-sophy is dominated by God, the orthodox accused him of atheism.(569)
But here, as elsewhere, Russell glossed over difﬁcult questions,both philosophical and biographical. Spinoza’s metaphysical andpolitical teachings must ﬁrst be understood before we can deter-mine whether and in what respects they have been surpassed, andthis has never been as easily accomplished as Russell implied.What, most fundamentally, does it mean to speak of
Deus sive Nature
, God or Nature, and, relatedly, of human beings (as wellas everything else) as completely describable under both theattributes of thought and extension? Does this metaphysical doc-trine have any implications for democratic practice, or vice versa?Less subtly but no less importantly, what is the relation betweenthe theological and the political in Spinoza’s
? Finally—and this is the biographical question addressed in Steven Nadler’s
ingenious and provocative little book—why, exactly, was Spinozaexcommunicated?Whether Spinoza has been surpassed or not (“Every philoso-pher,” Hegel famously remarked, “has two philosophies, his ownand Spinoza’s”), he is certainly the most widely discussed of thegreat early modern philosophers at the moment. The books underreview, which are only a small sample of the current crop of Spinoza books, address these and related questions from a varietyof disciplinary methodological angles. I
Spinoza’s Book of Life
is Steven Smith’s second book aboutSpinoza. His ﬁrst,
Spinoza, Liberalism, and the Question of Jew-ish Identity
, focused on Spinoza’s
,and made a striking and persuasive case for its contemporaryrelevance. The “book of life” is, of course,
. The titleis meant to surprise. Proverbs describes Wisdom as “a tree of life to them who grasp her” (Prov 3 : 18), and rabbinic liturgyfamously applied this to the Torah. Smith, who notes that
, like the Pentateuch, is composed of ﬁve books, admits thatGilles Deleuze was right to describe the book as a kind of “anti-bible.” Nevertheless, he insists that
is thoroughlyJewish in its radical monotheism, even if it ultimately underminesJudaism, along with its institutional competitors. Moreover,despite that destructive intent—and Smith follows Strauss in read-ing Spinoza as a thoroughgoing atheist rather than the nondenom-inational “Gott betrunken Mensch” of Romantic dispensation—he interprets Spinoza’s message as ultimately one of hope. Inshort,
is a still-relevant book of life for an enlightenedpolity. (Smith’s interpretation is Straussian, but without the angst,a partial consequence, perhaps, of the differing fortunes of theWeimar Republic and the United States.)Smith sees Spinoza’s
as a founding attempt to provide“the psychology and ethics of a democratic soul,” and he cele-brates the enterprise. This is an interesting and fruitful approach,as far as it goes, but God (or Nature) is in the details, and hereSmith’s analysis often ﬂies rather high above the philological andargumentative landscape. Two related examples will have tosufﬁce. Early on, Smith discusses the central doctrine of Spinoza’s metaphysics. The third deﬁnition in the ﬁrst part of
By substance, I understand what is in itself and is conceivedthrough itself, i.e., that whose concept does not require the conceptof another thing from which it has been formed.
Of this deﬁnition, Smith writes,
Spinoza announces his break with the ancient and medieval philo-sophical traditions. For Aristotle with whom the debate aboutsubstance essentially begins, the concept of substance indicatedthe rational form or shape of any species. . . . Accordingly therewere as many substances as there were species in Aristotle’s poly-glot universe. (38)
This is more or less true, but it obscures Spinoza’s complexrelationship to the Aristotelian tradition and, in particular, to thegreat twelfth-century Aristotelian Moses Maimonides. At the out-set of his
Book of Knowledge
, Maimonides deﬁnes the sense inwhich his readers ought to believe in a divine being:
There is a ﬁrst being, which brings into existence all whichexists . . . and if it were supposed that this being did not exist,