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Spinoza: Freedom’s Messiah by Ian Buruma review – a man of his time… and ours
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Spinoza: Freedom’s Messiah by Ian Buruma review – a man of his time… and ours

In December 2021, the philosopher Yitzhak Melamed posted on social media a letter that he had received from the rabbi of the Portuguese synagogue in Amsterdam. Melamed had written requesting permission to film there for a documentary on the philosopher Baruch Spinoza, who had been emphatically expelled by the 17th-century Jewish community. The rabbi sternly explained that the elders of that community had “excommunicated Spinoza and his writings with the severest possible ban, a ban that remains in force for all time and cannot be rescinded”. Furthermore, not only was the ban – known as a cherem – still apparently in full force, but it was contagious: because Melamed has “devoted his life to the study of Spinoza’s banned works”, he too was now declared “persona non grata in the Portuguese synagogue complex”. When Melamed was interviewed about these events on the BBC World Service, he wryly commented: “I don’t completely buy the image of this kind of zealotry, partly because the synagogue itself is selling puppets of Spinoza in their shop.” It’s true: I visited in early 2022 and bought what was then the last puppet in stock, which now sits on the mantelpiece in my office and looks down at me when I teach.

Melamed’s letter – which prompted an apologetic reply from the synagogue’s board insisting that the rabbi had gone rogue – is mentioned in an endnote to Ian Buruma’s brisk and readable new biography of Spinoza. The whole affair exemplifies the philosopher’s near unparalleled ability to provoke strong opinions, ranging from reverence to outrage, several centuries after his death: no mean feat for a man who wrote difficult philosophy in Latin aimed at a select readership, and lived a determinedly unworldly life, never leaving the country of his birth. What distinguishes Spinoza, as Buruma compellingly shows, is that he is exemplary in two seemingly opposed ways. On the one hand, his was a parochial, intensely local life that encapsulates the tensions and extremes of his age: the multilingual, shapeshifting identities of Dutch Jews, and the violent struggles between warring political and Christian factions. On the other hand, Spinoza has often seemed to stand outside time or to belong to modernity, with his impulse towards (highly restricted) democracy, and his disinclination to adhere to any religion once he and Judaism had rejected each other. No wonder that so many secular Jewish thinkers, from Heine and Marx to Freud and Einstein, looked to him as a model.

Buruma, as he freely admits, comes to Spinoza not as a historian or a philosopher but as a writer whose concerns have included his own Dutch roots and the vantage point that they provide on questions of national, religious and political identity, most notably in his 2006 bookMurder in Amsterdam, on the killing of film director Theo van Gogh. He leans heavily and openly on other biographies, and produces what is undoubtedly the most readable introduction to Spinoza’s life now available. He draws, engagingly though sparingly, on his own background, which provides some of the book’s most appealing frissons of detail. Discussing the taste for French fashions in the Hague of the 1670s, for example, he observes that during his own childhood there “some snobbish people still larded their Dutch with French expressions”.

Aiming as it does to cover the crucial episodes and dimensions of Spinoza’s life, Buruma’s book has less space for his philosophy. He is clearly more drawn to Spinoza’s political writings – rightly, in my view, describing the unfinished Political Treatise as “one of the most astonishing political texts of all time” – than the admittedly unprepossessing Ethics, which is paraphrased at length but rarely cited and only described as “hard to read”. This is indisputable, but if he had given readers some sense of the electric movement of Spinoza’s mind as it dances from axiom to corollary that would still have been a service, and provided a clearer sense of why Spinoza has the capacity to beguile and entrance.

The least convincing aspect of Buruma’s attempt to make Spinoza our contemporary concerns his periodic inclination to refer to the philosopher’s expulsion from the synagogue as an example of “cancel culture”, as when he explains why “the rabbis advised the ma’amad [council of elders] to cancel him”. This is tendentious and unargued: in fact, the rest of the book could be used to make a case for cancel culture as a myth, since Buruma shows how sociable Spinoza was, how many other communities welcomed him, and how “his home in the Hague attracted a stream of visitors”. I sincerely hope that publishers will not encourage authors to refer offhandedly to the cancellation of, say, Socrates, or Joan of Arc in this fashion, in search of modern resonances. To do so is to flatten the past, lumping together all those who were criticised or persecuted. This strain of argument produces a bizarre conclusion, suggesting that Spinoza’s distinction between philosophy and theology might “offer a way out” of contemporary debates surrounding gender identity. These asides scarcely do justice to the strong case that the book otherwise makes for Spinoza’s complex vibrancy and the after-echoes of his thought.

Joe Moshenska is professor of English literature at Oxford University

Source: theguardian.com