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25 of 26 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Reviving a radical
This exemplary study of an early Enlightenment figure is a superb analytical narrative. Nadler's account of Baruch Spinoza will stand for some time as the best introduction of a man of his own times and far beyond. Spinoza's philosophy has been sadly overlooked by scholars. Nadler's diminutive title is almost an injustice to the scope of his efforts. Yet, it perfectly...
Published on 3 Aug 2005 by Stephen A. Haines

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5 of 7 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Credit where it's Jew
Don't be taken in by the proceleusmatic blurbs. While in several respects this is an excellent book, it is a substantially bloodless biography of a philosopher who cut too deeply into the turf to be capable of terpsichorean aphorisms. It needed Somerset Maugham to supercharge what belatedly became Spinoza's most famous phrase ("Of Human Bondage"); and while everyone cites...
Published on 2 Dec 2011 by Sporus


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25 of 26 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Reviving a radical, 3 Aug 2005
By 
Stephen A. Haines (Ottawa, Ontario Canada) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Spinoza: A Life (Paperback)
This exemplary study of an early Enlightenment figure is a superb analytical narrative. Nadler's account of Baruch Spinoza will stand for some time as the best introduction of a man of his own times and far beyond. Spinoza's philosophy has been sadly overlooked by scholars. Nadler's diminutive title is almost an injustice to the scope of his efforts. Yet, it perfectly summarises what Nadler does - recounts a life without overwhelming us with lengthy analysis or idle speculation. He places Spinoza firmly in the social, political and philosophical realms marking the Enlightenment's beginnings. With clear presentation skills, Nadler takes us through the life and times of a man whose thinking was far in advance of his contemporaries. That Spinoza was reviled and condemned by church and state, yet avoided the martyrdom typical of Bruno, Galileo and others, attests to his perception and behavioural qualities.
Spinoza was the descendent of one of the multitude of Jews driven from the Iberian Peninsula in the reign of the Catholic Monarchs credited with reconquering Spain from the Moors. Harassed by the Inquisition, many found refuge in the Calvinist Netherlands. Nadler shows how tolerance and dogma fought continuously in the Dutch Republic, reaching every facet of society. Politics and religion were deeply intertwined. Even a reclusive like Spinoza wasn't immune to the swaying fortunes of party politics. While the Dutch struggled for an independent existence surrounded by enemy states, Spinoza formulated his ideas on Nature and the role of the divine. He began these studies at an early age. Expressing them led to the most vehement statement of excommunication issued by the Amsterdam rabbinical leadership. He spent the remainder of his life in near-seclusion, with occasional visits with friends and other thinkers. The time was spent in preparing what became his most significant work - The Ethics.
Spinoza, a deep scholar of both Scripture and Nature, refused to countenance a human aspect for the deity. Instead, as Nadler explains, Spinoza merged the deity and Nature into one. Humans, he insisted, were merely part of the scheme, not something apart. To be good was part of the divine plan. Evil, while deplorable, was derived from natural causes. Evil should be controlled, it should not be condemned. The State must have a role, but it must be under the direction of an enlightened populace. He scorned Utopian ideas, but found much to admire in the Dutch Republic's scheme. To Spinoza, the worst aspect of Netherland politics was the intrusion of the Reformed Church in government affairs. Spinoza condemned all dogma and superstition - both being symbolic of the various churches, Christian or Jewish. He published but one major work in his lifetime. The Theological and Political Treatise was roundly condemned by most European theologians, who goaded the states to follow suit. There is a special irony in Spinoza escaping the martyrdom some suffered for lesser views. Instead, he appears to have perished from a combination of inherited susceptibility to respiratory ailments and inhaled dust from his lens grinding.
Nadler's account is sound scholarship presented confidently. There are no frills nor wild speculations. Where he tries to resolve an issue in question, he does it firmly and with good sources. Where evidence is lacking, and there is very little on Spinoza that can be considered reliable, he indicates this without apology. A good bibliography and a few illustrations grace the book. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Biography of a Great Philosopher, 24 Mar 2010
By 
Robin Friedman (Washington, D.C. United States) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Spinoza: A Life (Paperback)
Baruch (Benedict)Spinoza (1632-1677) is one of the most influential philosophers in history. As a young man, he was excommunicated by the elders of the Jewish community in Amsterdam and subsequently came to be regarded by some as a "secular saint" and by others as an infamous atheist. Although there are many legends and myths about Spinoza's life, Nadler's book is the first extended biography in English. In fact, outside of brief accounts written shortly after Spinoza's death, this book is probably the first extended treatment of Spinoza's life in any language.

Given the scarcity of biographical information, Nadler does an excellent job in placing Spinoza's life in historical context. He discusses in detail how the Jewish community in Amsterdam became established, precariously, by immigrants from the Inquistion in Spain and Portugal. He describes the efforts the Jewish community made to win acceptance in Amsterdam, the place of Spinoza's family in the Jewish community, and the rabbis and leaders of the community. Some of this material is well-known, other parts of it are less so. It is all valuable to getting to understand Spinoza.

There is a great deal of discussion of the history of the Dutch republic in Spinoza's time. Nadler's discussion includes both internal affairs (the tension between those who wanted a powerful monarch and those who wanted republican institutions) and the complex foreign wars and shifting alliances of the Netherlands during Spinoza's time. I never could make sense of this material before, but Nadler has discussed it well and in sufficient detail to provide a good backround in understanding Spinoza's political ideas.

Nadler's book is not itself a philosophical study. But he treats carefully and instructively the origin of Spinoza's works and he summarizes their complex ideas well. He does not limit his discussion to the Ethics. Instead, Nadler spends a great deal of time on the Theological-Political Treatise which he rightly views as a neglected masterpiece, complementary to the Ethics. There are also good discussions of Spinoza's unfinished "Hebrew Grammar" and, particularly, of the Epistles, as well as of his other works.

Nadler has a good sense of Spinoza's naturalism encompassed be the famous phrase "deus, siva natura". He gives the reader a good feel for the revolutionary nature of Spinoza's thought and shows how and why Spinoza departed from the traditional religious belief of his day.

Nadler is a careful in his use of sources. He tells the reader what evidence from a record both complex and sparse he accepts, what he doubts, and why. When Nadler draws a conclusion that goes beyond the available evidence, he tells the reader that he has done so and why he has done so. This is measured, careful writing about a figure Nadler obviously admires.

There is much creative detail in this book as Nadler draws on recent scholarship to cast light on Spinoza and his times. For example, he relies substantially on the report made to the Inquisition of a person who knew Spinoza in Amsterdam. He discusses the Sabatti Zvi incident (a false Jewish Messiah who appealed to many people during Spinoza's lifetime) and Spinoza's possible knowledge of it. The book rebukes the myth of Spinoza as a recluse. Nadler offers a portrayal of Spinoza's intellectual circle and of his relationship to many friends.

The book is not a critical analysis of Spinoza's thought. Such studies are legion and there still is much to say and learn. But Nadler offers a thougthful and detailed biography of a seminal figure in Western philosophy. I came away from the book with an increased understanding of and appreciation for Spinoza's life and thought.

Robin Friedman
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A fine introduction to Spinoza and his age, 4 Sep 2008
This review is from: Spinoza: A Life (Paperback)
Despite the paucity of source material, Steven Nadler's biography captures the essence of one of western philosophy's brightest minds, as well as the age and place in which he lived. With almost nothing surviving to document his early life, the first third of the book on Spinoza's formative years is largely a history of the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisitions, and the Jewish immigrant community of Amsterdam to which Spinoza's family fled. I hadn't expected to read so much about these topics, but Nadler's presentation proved engaging, as it did throughout the book, including accessible summaries of Spinoza's thought and his major works. This is no intellectual history, so ideas are presented in their most general outline, but for someone new to Spinoza this might be just what you need to decide whether you'd like to explore further. This is the first book I've read about Spinoza. It was a good place to start.

What stays with me from Nadler's work is an image of the philosopher, a young man - he died still in his 40's - content with life and his place in it. He ate enough to survive, wore enough to stay warm, and kept only a few boxes of books and the lens grinding equipment with which he earned enough money to support his low-impact life. He never married and never traveled outside the Netherlands. He was offered prestigious academic positions, but turned them down. When confronted with the disputatious, he tried to find some way to avoid confrontation. He lived a quiet, interior life of reflection. If he was hungry for anything, it was ideas, what he called the search for truth. In all other ways, he seemed at ease in the world. And why not? For Spinoza the world is the sum of the long chain of cause and effect, a world that can't be otherwise, a world of perfect imperfections. In such a world, what is there with which to contend except oneself? And this Spinoza did, cleaving true to his vision of reality, a man of admirable honesty and simplicity.

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7 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars By the name of Spinoza !, 1 Sep 2005
By A Customer
This review is from: Spinoza: A Life (Paperback)
Baruch de Spinoza (1632-1677), an early figure of European Enlightenment like a Netherlands Descartes or Giordano Bruno, - he fought with his publications for the inauguration of modern times, influenced by sober reason - but still caught in the historical context of a society, which was ruled by the dictatorial interests of confessions and government cabals.
During Spinoza's lifetime (only 45 years) Amsterdam probably has been Europe's most alive, free and multi-cultural large city - the true mother of Nieuw Amsterdam = New York. As freely however, that anyone could philosophize, whatever he liked to sermonize - no, that wasn't possible staying completely unpunished.
Many of the perforce secret supporters of Spinoza (publishers, booksellers, authors) landed in the prison or in banishing. Most glaringly is the story of the brothers Johan and Cornelis de Witt, who had protected Spinoza, providing him with food, money and legal support: A furious mob of Monarchists and Calvinists in 1672 got them out of prison and carried out a lynching court in the style of that time: they mangled the bodies and pulled out the hearts, showing them full of triumph to the audience - many of the members of the aristocracy, sitting in carriages. A very anarchistic version of almost forgotten Inca- and Aztec-rites. Only with strive Spinoza's friends could prevent him from posting a placard near the site of the massacre, reading ULTIMI BARBARORUM (You are the greatest of all barbarians).
Spinoza's family, Jewish, harassed by the Inquisition, had escaped Spain like thousand others to find refuge in the Netherlands, which showed more toleration. Spinoza's first thinking results, which regarded the Bible as an historical writing collection of different humans (thus by no means written by God), led him to be excommunicated from the Dutch community of Portuguese Jews. The autocratic Sephardim rabbinical leadership wrote 1656 in beautiful calligraphic letters: "As to the judgement of the angels and statement of the holy we banish, curse, bewitch and condemn Baruch de Spinoza. Beware of operating with him verbally or in writing, beware of proving him the smallest favor, beware of reading his books..."
The remainder of his life (like an early forerunner of the famous Anne Frank, who was hidden by Amsterdam citizens from Nazi pursuance) Spinoza hid mostly in small grave chambers of rooms and he lost all the wealth of his family business. Secretly he was supported by friends. Additional he earned money by lens grinding (but the sharpening of glass caused an early death: the inhaled dust destroyed his lungs). Convinced of the correctness of his thinking he as long as possible continued writing, persistently and annoyingly - however anonymous.
He did not want to die in public at stake like his forerunner Giordano Bruno in Rome 1600. Spinoza was fascinated by the hypothesis of a Pantheism, first developed by the efforts of Giordano Bruno. In his "Treatise on the Emendation of the Intellect" he defined God as ruled by the same causes like nature ("deus, siva natura"). At that time neither the Jews nor the Christians had been ready to accept such dogmatic changes or at least to tolerate such opinions (which of course weakened the religious authorities).
A large city is - today like at that time - characterized by the fact, that trends in different parts of the society are not simultaneous. The aristocratic, bourgeois, working class or religious circles always have different speeds. The intellectual circles, sympathizing with Spinoza, seemed to live already in the 18th century.
Because Spinoza, inspired by Hobbes, also risked to formulate basics of a democratic society, he came immediately into conflict with the Netherlands Orangists, who controlled the state. The mob, brought to a level of puppets as well by the princes as by the clerical - the mob was not enlightenmentable by the shy and sensitive considerations of a cautiously hidden publisher.
We would have to thank Spinoza (if it would be possible) for his persistance, which helped to develop modern constitutions of states and stabilized the opinion, that a religion must not be monopolized, but, in the contrary, has to follow individual interpretations as well. With regard to September Eleven and the US-reaction against fundamentalist assaults we faster could decide, how to response. I think: not using military, but using reason: no religion should lead us to a Crusade or a "Reverse Crusade" anymore. Monopolizing trends of denominations should be stopped. By the name of Spinoza!
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4.0 out of 5 stars Glen Tochas says a cracking read, 21 April 2013
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This review is from: Spinoza: A Life (Paperback)
Spinoza, was one of the first in biblical criticism, and for his pains, was excommunicated. When his Rabbi offered him a pension to stop writing and tow the line he replied, "I thank you for the trouble you took teaching me Hebrew and I'll return the favor by teaching you excommunication" A man much misunderstood in his time, though time the great healer has now rectified that..
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5 of 7 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Credit where it's Jew, 2 Dec 2011
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Sporus (Yorkshire, England) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Spinoza: A Life (Paperback)
Don't be taken in by the proceleusmatic blurbs. While in several respects this is an excellent book, it is a substantially bloodless biography of a philosopher who cut too deeply into the turf to be capable of terpsichorean aphorisms. It needed Somerset Maugham to supercharge what belatedly became Spinoza's most famous phrase ("Of Human Bondage"); and while everyone cites George Santana (1863-1952): "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it", there are few who recall Spinoza (1632-1677): "If you want the present to be different from the past, study the past".
Should author Steven Nadler be excused for making neither of these observations? Well, given his avowed intention to write about Spinoza's life and times rather than a scholarly tome on the philosopher's ideas... I don't think so.
Much of Spinoza's correspondence survives and a number of near-contemporary writings about him exist. Nadler studiously orders and scrutinizes these in the context of recent scholarly findings about secondary historical personae in the 17th Century. As befits a Jewish academic he is especially impressive when it comes to analysing the 'cherem', the sentence of excommunication by which the young Spinoza was cast out of the Jewish community. But any further insights that Nadler offers are scrupulously speculative, often to the point of apology.
Spinoza was born into a family of Jewish merchants but, after receiving the cherem, he took up a job as a lens grinder. Nadler hardly talks about the reasons for this decision, the techniques it might have involved, or the way in which Spinoza set about finding customers. He spends more time talking about the rabbis who circled Spinoza's adolescence like vultures than he does about the philosopher's exact contemporary and inventor of the microscope, Leuwenhoek. It's not as if this information is hard to obtain (Spinoza's astronomical correspondence with Huygens, for instance, is on the web); Nadler - as an academic - just isn't excited by the practical aspects of Spinoza's life. He should be; especially as he states positively that glass dust led to Spinoza's early death, a historical supposition that deserves re-examination given that Spinoza smoked clay pipes and his mother probably had TB.
The 17th C. Dutch Republic is difficult to understand and Nadler offers the facts; but his welcome understanding of Jewish mores is not matched by a similar feeling for the period. This was a time of immense drama - plagues, maritime discoveries, warfare, religious mania - but here there's barely a smell or a scream in the telling. Spinoza's sex life (he never married) is completely unexplored and, while such 'novelistic' speculations might seem unwarranted to some, the absence of historical contexts for his behaviour is often legitimately frustrating. So, the central issue of how - when he published so little in his life - Spinoza came to attract such substantial contemporary attention is inadequately fleshed out. 'He must', says Nadler lamely 'have been charismatic'.
When Nadler has to relate his subject's opinion that women are weak and 'rightly' subjected to men, he describes it as "unfortunate" and - in the manner of a 19th C. vicar criticising Socrates - uses Spinoza's own logic to display the error of the great man's ways.
Spinoza set his cap against the times and he deserves a biographer who would do the same. The 'Ethics' might be a famously difficult book, but its profundity is not in doubt and its relevance remains. As Nadler details Spinoza's struggle with the religious sensibilities around him it often seems tiresomely historical. Until you come up against an epistolary excerpt in which the 'cautious philosopher' condemns the controlling aspects of Catholicism - then adds that it's not as suffocating as Moslemism. It's a reasonable and sensible remark: but it's one that most editors would today refuse to include on TV or in the press.
Hmmm. What did he say about changing the present, again...?
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Spinoza: A Life
Spinoza: A Life by Steven Nadler (Paperback - 23 April 2001)
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