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Reviving a radical,
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]