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The best books on Spinoza

recommended by Steven Nadler

Spinoza: A Life by Steven Nadler

Spinoza: A Life
by Steven Nadler


In 1656 Baruch Spinoza was thrown out by Amsterdam's Portuguese-Jewish congregation for 'abominable heresies' and 'monstrous deeds', ensuring he would be forever remembered as a radical thinker. Here Steven Nadler, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and author of a number of books on Spinoza, talks us through the life and work of the 17th century philosopher whose worldview remains, in many ways, remarkably modern.

Interview by Nigel Warburton

Spinoza: A Life by Steven Nadler

Spinoza: A Life
by Steven Nadler


Before we get to the books you’ve recommended, who was Spinoza and why is he so important?

He was important in his own time and I think he is important for our time. He was the most radical and independent thinker of the 17th century. He was born in Amsterdam in 1632 into a Portuguese-Jewish family, but by the age of 23 it was clear he’d lost his faith and in 1656 was put under herem (in effect, excommunicated) with extreme prejudice by the Amsterdam Portuguese-Jewish congregation. We don’t know exactly what the charges were because the herem document speaks only of ‘abominable heresies’ and ‘monstrous deeds’. But, at the same time, anybody who’s read Spinoza’s mature treatises should have no trouble figuring out what he was saying and communicating: denying the immortality of the soul; rejecting the possibility of miracles; saying that the Jewish law was no longer valid; and insisting that the Bible was just a work of human literature.

Was he en route to becoming a rabbi before his excommunication?

No, he wasn’t. There are lots of myths about Spinoza and one of them is that he was training to be a rabbi. But we know from the documents of the period that he’d had to cut short his formal schooling because his father died and he was needed to take over the family importing business. So, he passed through the primary levels of the Jewish community’s school and the middle levels, but we know his name does not appear anywhere on the rosters for the upper classes, where Talmud was taught.

That makes his brilliance all the more remarkable.

Yes. I think he was precociously brilliant. It’s not as if he cut short his education; he only cut short his formal Jewish education. He may have continued to attend one of the community’s yeshivot, or adult learning groups, but he also studied Latin with a local ex-Jesuit priest, Franciscus van den Enden. We also know that, at around this time, when he was starting to feel a lack of satisfaction with the life of a merchant, he started reading philosophy. So he was, in many respects, what one early scholar called an ‘autodidact’ but, at the same time, he had a very good grounding in Jewish texts, including Jewish philosophy.

“There’s this aura about Spinoza. He was heroic and we’re still trying to figure out why”

He left the Jewish community and he left Amsterdam and went on to write a number of extremely important philosophical treatises that offered astoundingly modern and reasonable views on religion, on politics and on ethics. His views on God and his views on human well-being are all really extraordinary. He’s of continued importance and relevance today because, even though you won’t, when walking down the street, run into somebody who’s a Leibnizian or a Cartesian, you are likely to run into somebody whose views on the role of religion in the state, or whose views on free thought and free speech are exactly what Spinoza was arguing for in the 17th century.

And, also, I would say on the relationship between religion and science.

Absolutely. Yes.

So maybe we could just, very briefly, look at those three things. What, roughly, was his view on religion in the state, freedom of thought and the relationship between science and religion?

He was not against religions but there was no love lost between Spinoza and the organized religious authorities. He thought that they were repressive and encouraged superstitious ceremonies. At the same time, he was not opposed to people believing whatever they wanted and even engaging privately, or in groups, in whatever religious devotions they wanted to. What he was opposed to was a form of religious organization in civil society that, in a way, creates a separate focus of loyalty. When you have a strong organized religion, especially an established religion, then you wonder whether citizens are devoted to the civil authorities, or whether they are more devoted to the religious authorities. This was a very hot issue in the Dutch Republic. One of the reasons why Catholics were initially repressed, but then later tolerated but never fully trusted, was because a question arose as to whether they were more devoted to the well-being of the Dutch Republic, or to the Pope in Rome.

Which was something that John Locke raised, in his Letter on Toleration.

Yes. For Locke, no Catholics and no atheists.

Locke didn’t trust either of them: Catholics because they were in thrall to a foreign prince and atheists because they had no book on which to swear.

Another myth about Spinoza is that he was a proponent of the separation of church and state. In one sense that’s true. He thought people should be free to believe and worship as they like. But he did think that any organized religion in the state had to be instituted and governed by the civil authorities. So, if there was going to be a church, it had to be subservient to the sovereign, because the sovereign was in charge of anything having to do with public welfare and public ceremonies of religion are matters of public welfare.

That’s clear about Spinoza’s view about the state and religion. What was his line on freedom of expression?

Spinoza’s views were on the face of it simple, but actually a little more complex. The Theological-Political Treatise has this astoundingly bold and remarkable statement that in the state people should be free to think what they want and say what they think. It looks like there you have complete toleration and freedom of speech—freedom of thought is easy, because you can’t control people’s thoughts anyway.

I think you can control people’s thought, but not usually directly.

In Spinoza’s mind you can’t.

But that is a very radical position on freedom of expression, even for today: that anything goes.

Yes. However, Spinoza walked it back a little bit because he also said that the civil authorities should not tolerate speech that would incite political subversion. That is, you shouldn’t allow people to say things that would disturb the public peace and undermine the authority of the sovereign. That, of course, opens up a huge can of worms. Who’s going to decide what kind of a speech is subversive? Well, the sovereign.

I think what he means is, as in the United States, you can’t shout ‘fire!’ in a crowded theatre; you can’t engage in what the Supreme Court called ‘fighting words’.

That’s very much John Stuart Mill’s line on the limits of freedom of expression as well. Maybe there’s a causal story there. I don’t know.

I think Mill has a much broader idea of freedom of speech than Spinoza. Mill thinks there are very narrow limits within which free speech has to be restricted; fighting words causing imminent danger, things like that. Otherwise, the search for truth requires almost complete and absolute freedom of expression, or what we in the United States call ‘First Amendment rights’.

Where does Spinoza differ? Where does he set the limit? Limiting speech to prevent social violence sounds very much like Mill.

Anything that would serve to undermine the authority of the sovereign or the social contract.

So, that could be mockery or humour.

Exactly. My guess is that if you were to have pushed Spinoza, he’d be closer to Mill’s position. But the statements he gives us in the Theological-Political Treatise leave room for interpreting it in a very conservative way, that the sovereign will decide what kind of speech is subversive, what kind of speech threatens their own authority and therefore on which they can impose limits.

You wrote an excellent book on the Theological-Political Treatise, called A Book Forged in Hell. Why did you call it that?

One of Spinoza’s critics said it was ‘a book forged in Hell by the Devil himself’. Good review!

You’d want that on the back cover of your book! Why did they think it was so subversive, given what you’ve said?

There are a couple of theses in that book that really were unacceptable, not just to ecclesiastics in the 17th century, especially Dutch Reformed ecclesiastics, but to the sovereign authorities. For example, the denial that miracles are possible. Spinoza goes much farther than David Hume did a century or so later. Hume just said that you’re never justified in believing that an event was miraculous. Spinoza’s view was that miracles are metaphysically impossible because God is nature and, if a miracle is defined as God acting contrary to nature, that’s logically impossible. So, miracles are simply events for which we do not happen to know the natural cause.

I wouldn’t be surprised if Hume would have agreed with him on that, he just didn’t necessarily express that view. It’s an extremely radical position and it answers the question, in a way, about what Spinoza’s view was on the relationship between science and God, which I take to be that, because he talks about ‘God or nature’, the scientist is, effectively, revealing the mind of God – but, of course, if you’re religious, you’ll think that’s just a closet way of being an atheist.

Yes, and I actually think Spinoza was an atheist, but my view is a minority one. Your point is right: science and philosophy on the one hand, and religion and theology on the other, are distinct disciplines.

The point of religion and theology is, essentially, to interpret the message of the Bible and the prophetic writings. And the message of the prophetic writings is ‘treat other human beings with justice and charity’.

The point of philosophy and science is to understand nature. Properly used, philosophy will also lead you to the conclusion that you should treat other human beings with justice and charity. But, in that case, you know why. Whereas in religion and through reading the Bible, you’re inspired to do it by these wonderfully imaginative and edifying stories. Religion should set no bounds to what science and philosophy can achieve. But, then again, neither should philosophy and science be used to determine what religion is about. They’re separate spheres.

“I actually think Spinoza was an atheist, but my view is a minority one”

There are two other important theses in the Theological-Political Treatise. One is that the Bible is just a work of human literature, compiled over generations. It is a mutilated, corrupt text that was handed down over the centuries and only put together by some editors in very specific historical and political circumstances.. The authors were not scientists or philosophers and so it is not a source of natural or historical or philosophical truth. It’s simply a set of inspiring, morally edifying stories.

That is just amazing, isn’t it? It’s such a modern view.

Yes. It wasn’t unusual for somebody to claim that God was not the literal author of all of scripture. And it also wasn’t unusual to claim that Moses didn’t write every single word of the Torah, because there are passages about his own death and what happened after his death. So, even authoritative Jewish rabbinic figures like Abraham Ibn Ezra said that Moses could not have written every single word, and Thomas Hobbes also pointed out those passages that Moses could not have written. But what Spinoza said was, ‘It’s just a novel, essentially, except there are many authors who don’t always agree. It’s an anthology of short stories.’

The other important idea was that Spinoza reduced religion—true religion—simply to moral behaviour. All of the ceremonies of Judaism, Islam and Christianity are just superstitious practices that have nothing to do with true piety. True piety is justice and charity.

That’s another amazingly modern, humanist view. Did he explicitly reject the idea of heaven and hell?

Yes, this is something else I’ve argued for. Spinoza denies that there is any such thing as personal immortality. To believe that there’s an eternal heaven in which you’ll be rewarded, or an eternal hell where you’ll be punished, simply gives rise to superstitious beliefs. Your life in this world will be governed by irrational hopes and fears for what’s going to happen in the next world. That’s a life of bondage and servitude.

Spinoza believed that when you’re dead you’re dead. So, whatever rewards of virtue there are are in this life—and those are simply the happiness and flourishing that you get from living the life of reason.

I can see why you find him such an attractive thinker and say he’s so relevant today. He sounds, in the way you’ve paraphrased him, as if he could be talking to me now about what he believes about religion. It doesn’t seem like there’s much distance there at all.

For that reason I think he’s also struck a chord in popular culture. You have novels and plays and operas and cafés named after Spinoza. There’s even a supermarket chain in the United States that sells Spinoza bagels.

But he’s not a very easy writer to read on the whole, which is odd, because the views that you’ve expressed are very clear. You’d think it should be possible to express those views clearly.

True, he’s not an easy read. Especially the Ethics. I think that adds to the attraction of Spinoza. But he does nevertheless have a very wide appeal: everybody loves a radical and everybody loves a radical who’s been excommunicated. And everybody loves a radical who has been excommunicated for mysterious reasons. There’s this aura about Spinoza. He was heroic and we’re still trying to figure out why.

Your first book choice is the best edition to read of Spinoza’s works in English. It’s the Princeton edition of his works in two volumes, edited by E.M. Curley.  Is it his complete writings?

Almost complete. Volume I and volume II were translated by Edwin Curley. Volume I includes the early writings, the Treatise on the Emendation of the Intellect and the Short Treatise on God, Man and his Wellbeing and the Ethics, plus all the correspondence up to, I think, 1665.

The second volume includes the Theological-Political Treatise and the Political Treatise and all the correspondence up to his death in 1677. The only things that Spinoza published in his lifetime were: his summary presentation of Descartes’s Principles of Philosophy. That’s in volume I and he did that under his name, in Latin. Then, in 1670, he published the Theological-Political Treatise anonymously, because I think he had a sense of how scandalously it would be received. Everything else remained unpublished in his lifetime and appeared only after his death. The reason why I say this is not the complete works is because Curley decided not to include Spinoza’s Compendium of Hebrew Grammar. He wrote this in the 1670s. I am actually in the process of translating that, so there will be a volume III in the Princeton edition, which will include the Hebrew grammar, plus the herem document. That will be a more accurate and, I hope from now on, the standard translation. There will also be some other relevant documents, including the inventory of his library, which was made when he died.

Is the herem document a very long document? What’s the controversy around it?

As herem documents go, it was quite long. Usually a herem document in Amsterdam in this period was just a couple of sentences saying ‘so-and-so has been put under herem for assaulting a rabbi’, or something like that, and you’re told how the person will be able to make amends and reintegrate themselves into the community. In Spinoza’s case, by contrast, it’s a relatively long document, full of curses and damnations, expelling him from the people of Israel, seemingly for good, without offering any means of restitution or reintegration. It’s in Portuguese. The original document is in the Jewish archives in the Amsterdam municipal archives. A lot of translations have been very loose, for example, they use the word ‘excommunication’. In fact, that word doesn’t appear. The Amsterdam Portuguese invented a word, ‘enhermar’, which means to put under herem, combining the Hebrew with Portuguese. So I think a more literal translation is better.

And, from what you’ve said, this is a stronger document than most other people received who were kicked out under herem. So there was something really provocative about what he did. It wasn’t just run-of-the-mill being difficult. Some people really did want him to burn in hell.

Yes. He really pissed people off. But there is a debate about why. Some people think that his offences were not matters of ideas and heresy, but that he had engaged in business practices that undermined the Jewish community in the eyes of the Dutch. When his father died he inherited a great deal of debt because the business wasn’t doing well. In order to relieve himself of the debt, rather than going to the leaders of the Jewish community, he went to the Dutch authorities and had himself declared an orphan, which he could legally do because he was under the age of 25. By being declared an orphan, he was no longer responsible for those debts, many of which were owed within the Jewish community. He became a preferred creditor on his father’s estate. So, he breached the regulations of the Jewish community, which stated that all such legal matters had to be resolved within the community. But, also, if a member of the Jewish community could avoid paying their debts in that way, that wasn’t good for business with the Dutch.

Presumably, there were also creditors who wouldn’t have been paid, people who resented what he did because, but for that, they might have been paid eventually.


Is there a cheaper option for the Ethics and the Treatise for those who can’t afford the full, scholarly Princeton editions? 

There’s a Princeton paperback edition of Curley’s translation of the Ethics along with selections from other items in volume I, and a Hackett paperback edition of the Theological-Political Treatise, translated by Samuel Shirley.

So, if you’re talking to somebody who’s never read anything by Spinoza, which book should they go to first?

I want to say you should go for the Ethics first because that is his philosophical masterpiece. But it’s a really tough book to read because it’s in the geometrical Euclidean format. So I would suggest the Theological-Political Treatise. It’s a very different kind of book. It’s a political work. It’s a treatise on religion and politics and it’s much more accessible. It’ll start to give you a sense of what Spinoza is about. And then you’ll be ready for the Ethics.

Presumably, given the difficulty of the Ethics, most readers won’t understand it without help, but it’s the core of his philosophy. Have you chosen a book that could be read alongside it to try and contextualize it to some extent?

Yes. This is Curley’s book, Behind the Geometrical Method: a Reading of Spinoza’s Ethics. It’s relatively short, only about 130 pages, and it’s a nice accessible introduction to the main themes of Spinoza’s philosophy. He doesn’t devote a lot of time to the political stuff or even the religious stuff. It’s focused mainly on the Ethics. There’s a chapter on God. There’s a chapter on the human being – about the mind-body relationship. And then the third chapter’s on human well-being, which is moral philosophy. You’re not going to get the full sense of Spinoza’s very broad system, but I think it’s a nice entry portal to the basic ideas of the Ethics. He describes it as a reading of Spinoza’s Ethics, not of Spinoza’s whole philosophy.

Why did Spinoza use this slightly strange way of writing about philosophy, as if it were a geometrical proof?

I think partly it’s a way to ensure that he’s establishing his conclusions with mathematical certainty.

But the method doesn’t ensure it. He’s got the trappings but it’s not the same.

No. In fact, he was under no illusions about that, either. But, one of his views is that nature is governed by an absolute necessity. He’s not just a causal determinist: he’s a necessitarian. For him things could not possibly have been any other way because events are causally determined. The laws of nature themselves are also absolutely necessary. So, what better way to capture the relationships that exist in nature than by a body of propositions that are themselves related by logical necessity? I think he also just thought it was an effective way to convey fairly complex ideas in a clear and distinct manner.

It’s interesting. Thomas Hobbes talks about finding a book of geometry and wanting to put philosophy on the same footing as the proofs of Euclid. It seems to be a common touchstone for logical reasoning in the 16th and 17th centuries. If you were looking for a model of what it is to reason clearly from uncontroversial premises, geometry was that model, just as thinkers took clockwork as a model of a sophisticated machinery.

Descartes did it, too. You mentioned Hobbes. In his response to the second set of objections in Hobbes’s Objections to the Meditations, Descartes presents some of the conclusions in the Meditations in a geometric format.

We might excuse Descartes more because he was a mathematician.

True, yes, and a geometer.

So, you can understand, biographically, why he might reach for that model. But it’s still interesting to find it in Spinoza. It’s quirky, at least, and it’s a bit like Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. There’s an organizational plan that makes it feel very different from any other book I’ve ever read.

Remember, too, that Spinoza was a Cartesian, at least in his early years. He was inspired by Descartes and his first published work was that summary of Descartes’s Principles of Philosophy. So, he may have been inspired by Descartes’s own attempt to present philosophical matters in geometrical format.

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Curley’s other book, Spinoza’s Metaphysics: An Essay in Interpretation, has been very influential and it’s hard to write about Spinoza’s views on God and nature without taking into account his important interpretation.

Why is that? What’s complicated about Spinoza’s ideas about God and nature? That seems to be the simpler bit of his philosophy.

There’s the question of whether he is a pantheist or an atheist, but also the technical vocabulary that Spinoza uses. Spinoza says that whatever is, is in God, and he uses this Cartesian language of ‘substances’, ‘attributes’ and ‘modes’ and says that ordinary things in the world are ‘modes’ of God or substance. What does he mean? In what sense are all things ‘in God’? ‘Modes’ we usually think of as properties inhering in a substance. This book might be the substance and the green is the mode. So, when Spinoza says ‘whatever is, is in God’ and ‘God is the only substance’ are we supposed to think that we are just pimples on God’s skin, that we are ‘in God’ as properties are in God?

And Curley argues that that’s just awkward metaphysics. Now, I think that’s not an objection to a reading of Spinoza to say, ‘well that makes him awkward’, because Spinoza is awkward. He is trying to get us to radically rethink the way we look at the world.

So, there’s a lot of debate about how we are supposed to understand this relationship between finite things, which includes ourselves, and infinite eternal substance—God. And in his book on Spinoza’s metaphysics, Curley tries to reinterpret it in terms of laws and facts and to make it seem a little bit more palatable to our modern scientific philosophical way of thinking. I think it’s brilliant, but I don’t think it’s the right way to read Spinoza.

Interesting. Jonathan Bennett has done a lot of work to help people understand difficult texts by paraphrasing the language on his Early Modern Texts website. It’s a really interesting project. The book you’ve chosen by him is A Study of Spinoza’s Ethics. Again, focusing on the key work the Ethics. How does this one compare with Curley’s book, the first book you recommended?

It’s longer. Bennett’s book is a book that Spinoza scholars love to hate because it’s so fascinating, so interesting and stimulating, and yet it’s so wrong in so many ways – wrong both in the way he goes about doing it, and in many of the conclusions he draws. At the same time, you can’t help being drawn in by the readings he offers of particular claims and arguments by Spinoza. And he’s an entertaining writer, as well. So, for example, he wants us to think of the substance/attribute/mode relationship in terms of field theories in physics, which is a really interesting and stimulating idea. Whether it works or not, who cares? It’s just great fun to see a mind like Bennett’s at work on a mind like Spinoza’s.

Are you implying that he’s ahistorical in his approach?

Yes, to a fault. Here’s why: right at the beginning of his book on Spinoza’s Ethics he says, ‘I’m not going to discuss any of Spinoza’s political or religious writings or views because I find them of no help whatsoever in understanding the ethics.’ That is a tremendous mistake because Spinoza’s metaphysics and epistemology were in the service of this large-scale philosophical, political, religious and moral project. Not using those political and theological writings to help him understand the Ethics is why Bennett, in the final chapter of his book, says, essentially, ‘I can’t make sense of Part V of the Ethics.’

Well, of course, he can’t make sense of it. If you’re not looking at the broader context, for example the Jewish philosophical context of Part V— which is, in my view, a kind of dialogue with Maimonides—you’re not going to be able to make sense of it. So yes, Bennett’s approach is anachronistic, both in the sense of being ahistorical and of not looking at context. It’s also anachronistic in that it doesn’t consider Spinoza’s own philosophical training.

That’s very similar to something Paul Russell has written about in relation to David Hume, that most people read David Hume’s works and they don’t read his contemporaries and so don’t appreciate the extent to which many of his apparently non-religious arguments are directed at specific theological positions, just not overtly. And, if you read his work in context, this becomes obvious. Even when he’s talking about causation, for example, it’s not just because he’s interested in abstract questions about causation or in certain positions that people have taken on that. The underlying interest is in the ‘first cause argument’. It is a common and odd fault of philosophy that many philosophers are too ready to think that texts disclose themselves to an intelligent reader, that because you’re a philosopher, you can understand a philosopher from any period without immersing yourself in that period. It seems to me fairly obvious that you should at least take all the evidence available, or dip into it a bit, and have some sense of the milieu in which the person was saying these things and why he or she might have been saying them.

Especially when it comes to deeply historically embedded philosophers like Spinoza and Hume. It’s nice to think that they were writing for us, but they were writing for their contemporaries.

Absolutely. They’re not necessarily writing for anybody beyond the next week. If the evidence is there it seems really perverse to say, ‘I don’t need to look at it, it doesn’t affect me.’ But the book is interesting, nevertheless. Is that the kind of book that you read to focus on what you actually think about Spinoza rather than to learn what Spinoza said?

Neither, I would say. I don’t need Bennett to tell me what Spinoza said. I have my own views on that. I’m not saying I don’t need anybody to help me, because Spinoza gets more and more difficult every time you read him because new questions emerge, and you notice things you didn’t notice before. I’m always turning to fellow scholars to help me understand it. I would say that sometimes Bennett is helpful in that. He gives you a really interesting, imaginative way of thinking about some things. I will turn to Bennett’s book to help me to understand something of Spinoza.

But it is one of those books, like Curley’s book, that you really can’t avoid dealing with if you’re going to write about a certain topic—what Bennett has to say, or Curley or Margaret Wilson has to say about that topic. That’s just what scholarship is. When I was the editor of The Journal of  the History of Philosophy, if we got a submission on Plato or Spinoza or Kant and it didn’t engage with scholarship at all, we wouldn’t even bother sending it out to reviewers, because philosophy is a dialogue and the history of philosophy is still a dialogue. It’s just that many of the people you’re in dialogue with are long dead. But you can’t avoid the dialogue with fellow scholars. And Bennett is somebody who’s made himself indispensable in that regard because he has written such a stimulating, entertaining book.

Am I right that Curley and Bennett are of roughly the same generation? They were prominent in the 1960s and 1970s?


What about The Explainability of Experience: Realism and Subjectivity in Spinoza’s Theory of the Human Mind by Ursula Renz, your next choice? I don’t know Renz. Is she a contemporary writer?

Yes, she’s our contemporary. Her book, The Explainability of Experience, was originally published in German. A translation came out a couple of years ago and we should be really grateful for that.

On the face of it her theme is narrow: does Spinoza offer us an explanation for our experience of the world? But, in pursuing that thesis across various topics in the Ethics, she offers us a very broad vision of Spinoza’s system, which I think is the right one: that Spinoza was both a rationalist and a realist.

By rationalist, I don’t mean—and she doesn’t mean—this caricature of somebody who thinks that you can come to all knowledge deductively with reason, but that, for a moral rationalist, well-being, human flourishing and happiness are a matter of living a life according to the guidance of reason. So, in her reading, Spinoza is a rationalist both about knowledge and about ethics.

“Spinoza gets more and more difficult every time you read him because new questions emerge, and you notice things you didn’t notice before”

But she also argues he’s realist. Here, she’s combating a certain interpretation of Spinoza that goes all the way back to Hegel, that for Spinoza the only thing that’s really real is God, or nature itself, and all the finite things around us are merely subjective phenomena by which we try to understand or make sense of nature. She says that Spinoza really did believe that the world around us is real and there are finite durational things and that the basic metaphysical and epistemological grounds for our knowledge of them requires their reality. So, I think her book is a nice counter to subjectivist readings of Spinoza’s metaphysics.

What is the ‘subjective interpretation’ of his metaphysics?

It’s a kind of Parmenidean theory that the only thing that’s real is ‘the one’, ‘the whole’—in Spinoza’s terms, ‘God’ or ‘nature’. We seem to see around us items in nature that have metaphysical integrity—tables, chairs, trees, giraffes. Are these things real things that exist as durational beings—although they’re part of nature and everything is a part of nature—or is the breaking up of nature into discrete individuals illusory?

Got it. What about your fifth choice: Spinoza on Philosophy, Religion and Politics by Susan James? Tell me about this book.

For a long time Spinoza was regarded, especially by professional philosophers, to be of interest primarily for his metaphysics and epistemology. And I think this was pedagogically motivated. We would teach courses in the history of modern philosophy where Descartes lays the epistemological and metaphysical foundations, Spinoza responds to those and Leibniz responds to Spinoza and so on. So, students, if they read Spinoza, they read the Ethics, but only Parts I and II. They’re left wondering why the hell this book is called ‘Ethics’, when there’s nothing ethical in it. It’s just about God, nature, free will and so on. So, for a long time, Spinoza was not taken seriously as a moral philosopher, or as a political philosopher. In fact, he still isn’t in many ways. Alan Ryan, in his big two-volume history of political philosophy, has nothing to say about Spinoza, not a word.

That’s interesting. In his case it must be a deliberate omission. I was shocked to see that AC Grayling did this big history of philosophy that doesn’t have a single reference to Kierkegaard. This happens sometimes through accident.

Grayling’s recent book on philosophy in the 17th century barely mentions Spinoza and doesn’t mention Leibniz at all.

But Ryan is more of a scholarly philosopher. It must have been a deliberate decision of his, I would imagine.

Terry Irwin, in his two-volume history of ethics, does have a full chapter on Spinoza.

Maybe it reflects teaching, because the perceived difficulty of teaching Spinoza means it doesn’t easily get read in depth in undergraduate courses. It may be a pragmatic thing that philosophy lecturers, if they’re not Spinoza specialists, haven’t had to read Spinoza in any great depth for teaching purposes. And if they’re writing a synoptic book, it may not occur to them that there’s something interesting there.

For a long time, Spinoza was not taken seriously as a moral philosopher or a political philosopher. Only recently have we started to see real work done on his moral and political philosophy. In particular, the Theological-Political Treatise is rarely taught in philosophy departments.

I know. I’m ashamed to say I wrote a book about free speech and didn’t include Spinoza and I should have done. But I hadn’t read your A Book Forged in Hell,  and I hadn’t read Spinoza’s Treatise. If I were to write it again now, there’d be a section on Spinoza. But there is something weird going on. There might have been some anti-semitism historically in British and American—particular British—philosophy departments, an almost unquestioned antisemitism, an idea that ‘there’s nothing there for us’. Why else would Spinoza loom so small in the curriculum?

For a long time Spinoza was on the outs generally, especially in Anglo-American philosophy, because metaphysics was on the outs, and as a metaphysician there was this idea that Spinoza could not be taken seriously. Thank you, A.J. Ayer.

But before him we know that George Eliot translated his Ethics. It massively inspired Middlemarch, which is highly regarded by philosophers as well as literary specialists. Eliot’s such an important writer and saw a lot in Spinoza. I wonder how she came across him?

There has been a new edition of her translation by Clare Carlisle. It’s an interesting question. Eliot was obviously a skilled linguist. She obviously felt some affinity for Spinoza. She did the translation before she wrote any of her novels.

It’s very interesting, if he wasn’t a well-known figure, that of all people to translate, she chose him.

Yes. It’s a really interesting question why she did. I don’t know the answer.

So, Sue James is putting Spinoza back on the map in terms of ethics…

When it was published, hers was one of very few books dedicated to the Theological-Political Treatise. What really gets discussed by philosophers if they talk about Spinoza is the Ethics. The Theological-Political Treatise is usually addressed in religious studies or Jewish studies courses. Sue James’ book was, along with an earlier book by the Dutch scholar Theo Verbeek, one of the only two books on the Theological-Political Treatise. James’ book is very readable. It covers all the right things and really brings Spinoza back to us as a large-scale systematic thinker and not just somebody who’s doing metaphysics and epistemology between Descartes and Leibniz.

And Sue James is very much a historian of ideas as well as a philosopher. So, presumably, the context is reliably explained, rather than just taken for granted or ignored. She’s a very different style of thinker from Jonathan Bennett, for instance.

Exactly. She’s got great historical sense and sensitivity to the context.

Is her interpretation controversial in any way? Is she putting it in a context, or is she discovering something in the book, that other people hadn’t seen?

I don’t see that she has any controversial axes to grind, but she brings out some of the themes of the work that I think have escaped notice, especially the coherence of the Theological-Political Treatise with the Ethics. In that regard, it is a response to Bennett, and she shows that these are part and parcel of the same project. You can actually see the Ethics itself as a continuation of the Theological-Political Treatise because, by undermining in the Ethics the beliefs in miracles and an immortal soul and offering us this conception of human flourishing and virtue, and happiness, and reason and freedom, there’s a political goal there, which is to undercut superstitious beliefs. And by undercutting superstitious religious beliefs, like the belief in immortality, you are thereby undercutting the political influence that ecclesiastics were exercising in the Dutch Republic at the time.

Do you think those two books had a similar audience, or were written for similar audiences?

I think there’s some overlap, but I think the Ethics was written for philosophers familiar with the Cartesian vocabulary and the Cartesians’ conceptual schema, like his friends in Amsterdam who were studying it as he was writing it, and also philosophers in the universities and colleges. The Theological-Political Treatise was aimed at a broader audience: liberal theologians and other educated members of Dutch society (for example, the regents that governed the cities), people who would be amenable to its message of toleration and secularism and liberation from religious superstition. It’s a very angry book in some ways, because it was written after one of his friends had been thrown into prison for writing a book with Spinozistic themes. The mistakes his friend made were that, first of all, he wrote it in Dutch, so it was accessible to a broad readership and, second, he put his name on the cover.

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Spinoza wrote the Theological-Political Treatise in Latin and did not put his name on the cover, but it was a response to what he saw as a creeping intolerance in the Dutch Republic and the growing influence of the Dutch Reformed Church in civic and political matters.

Now if I were recommending books for a general reader, I would certainly recommend your book, A Book Forged in Hell, which I loved. How did you come to write that book? It’s not an academic book, it’s a page-turner in lots of ways. What motivated you to write in that genre?

A long time ago, after getting tenure, and with small children, I decided that, if I was going to squirrel myself away to work on something, it should be a project that gets read by more than 12 other people. And I thought Spinoza was interesting and important enough to try to reach a broad audience. It’s a great pleasure trying to write general nonfiction. I still like to do the occasional academic article, which is more technical. And I think that technical work allows me to write the more general nonfiction books.

My new book on Spinoza’s moral philosophy, Think Least of Death: Spinoza on How to Live and How to Die, is essentially taking seriously Spinoza’s moral philosophy and looking at the lessons he offers us on how to deal with our emotions, how to treat other human beings, how to value life, and the proper attitude to take towards death.

And do you think that this is a liveable philosophy now?

Yes, but it’s not one of those self-help books, like ‘How to Live as a Stoic.’ I think those often trivialize and oversimplify. I look at Spinoza’s arguments, but I try to make them accessible and to take him seriously as a philosopher, not as a self-help guru.

What is the implication, in relation to death, of believing there is no afterlife and there is no God apart from nature? If I’ve got him right, we should live in a way that’s in accord with reason and control our passions.

In the case of death, the question is, ‘how should you approach death?’ If you think there’s something to be hoped for or feared, then you’re going to live your life governed by these irrational emotions. But death is nothing to be feared. Epicurus reportedly said, ‘Where death is, I am not; and where I am, death is not.’ So, you shouldn’t be afraid of being dead, because you’re not going to be there when you’re dead. It shouldn’t be a source of anxiety. The proper attitude wouldn’t be one of hope, either—certainly not. As the title of the book says, you shouldn’t think about it at all, because there’s nothing there. When you’re dead, you’re dead. You should focus on how to improve your life in the here and now, and on the joys that bring us the greatest satisfaction in pursuing the true goods of this life, which is knowledge and understanding.

Lastly, with your son, I believe, you’ve written a comic book in which Spinoza features.

It’s a graphic-book history of philosophy in the 17th century, from Galileo and Descartes to Leibniz and Newton, with plenty of stops in between, but Spinoza gets a whole chapter to himself.

How did you get to do that?

My fantastic editor at Princeton University Press, Rob Tempio, said, ‘Would you like to write a history of philosophy of the seventeenth century?’ And I said, ‘No, not really. That would just be a kind of cookbook.’ But, at the time, my son had just graduated from art school, and I thought that it would be really fun to do something together and get his career going. So, I said to Rob, ‘What about a graphic book on philosophy in the seventeenth century?’ And, much to my surprise, he said, ‘Cool!’

It was great fun working with my son. He did most of the work. Nine hundred drawings all by hand and hand-coloured. I think it came out really well—but I’m partisan.

What’s your next book after the one that’s just come out? Is it about Spinoza?

No, I think it’s going to be a biography of Descartes. You’ve written popular books on philosophy. What motivated you to start doing it?

To be honest, being a mediocre philosopher and churning out articles to meet obligations wasn’t a very important thing to do, for me. I was doing teaching and teaching notes led quite naturally to introductory books. And so I got caught up with that really, and it’s quite satisfying because you sell more copies and you see your books around in bookshops. I guess that’s why I got stuck in that vein. But, then, I think people should play to their strengths and I felt my strength was in communicating to a broad audience and through podcasts and so on, and not necessarily in deep scholarly research. So that’s a self-assessment. Some of my contemporaries just immerse themselves in trying to be original in very small areas that don’t really matter very much. I thought that’s a waste of a life in some ways.

I couldn’t agree more. It’s very exciting, too, when you get notes from readers who are not academics.

Interview by Nigel Warburton

October 13, 2020

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Steven Nadler

Steven Nadler

Steven Nadler is William H. Hay II Professor of Philosophy, Evjue-Bascom Professor in Humanities and Weinstein-Bascom Professor of Jewish Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His research focuses on 17th century philosophy and he has written extensively on Descartes, Spinoza and Leibniz. His other focus is medieval and early modern Jewish philosophy. You can see all the books he's written here. If you're new to 17th century philosophy, we highly recommend his comic book, Heretics!, illustrated by his son, Ben Nadler.

Steven Nadler

Steven Nadler

Steven Nadler is William H. Hay II Professor of Philosophy, Evjue-Bascom Professor in Humanities and Weinstein-Bascom Professor of Jewish Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His research focuses on 17th century philosophy and he has written extensively on Descartes, Spinoza and Leibniz. His other focus is medieval and early modern Jewish philosophy. You can see all the books he's written here. If you're new to 17th century philosophy, we highly recommend his comic book, Heretics!, illustrated by his son, Ben Nadler.