- The Vatican Manuscript of Spinoza’s Ethica
By any measure, it is a remarkable find. There was a small codex in the Vatican Library, marked Vat. Lat. 12838. It originally belonged to the Congregation of the Holy Office, which in 1917 inherited the role of keeper of the Index of Prohibited Books. The codex had been transferred to the Library with other materials in 1922. The manuscript, originally acquired in 1677, bore no author’s name. According to the card catalogue it is a Tractatus theologiae, a five-part “Theological Treatise.” Its contents are described as follows: Pars prima de Deo: Definitiones. / 1. Per causam. / Des. Tam difficilia quam rara sunt.
We possess no autograph manuscripts of Spinoza’s philosophical writings (there are a couple of autographs of his letters). And the only philosophical manuscripts we do have are the two Dutch manuscripts of the Short Treatise on God, Man, and His Well-Being, both discovered in the nineteenth century but one of which almost certainly was composed in Spinoza’s lifetime from a Latin original. Thus, to discover a seventeenth-century Latin manuscript copy of the Ethics, even if it is not an autograph, is exciting news indeed. Since it was in the Vatican’s possession by September 1677, we know that it was written out while Spinoza (who had died only a few months earlier) was still alive; it may also be that, while the manuscript is not by Spinoza’s hand, he did look it over.
What makes this last possibility even more likely is the fact that, as Leen Spruit and Pina Totaro—the discoverers of the manuscript—argue in their introduction to this volume, the manuscript may originally have belonged to a member of Spinoza’s circle of friends in Amsterdam, Walter Ehrefried von Tschirnhaus. Tschirnhaus was in Paris by 1676, and had in his possession a copy of the Ethics (which a suspicious Spinoza famously told him not to show to Leibniz, who was also in Paris at the time and wanted to have a look at the work). Tschirnhaus was in Rome within a year, where, Spruit and Totaro suggest, he may have made the acquaintance of Niels Stensen, erstwhile Lutheran scientist and friend of Spinoza, now a fervent Catholic convert and anti-Spinozist soon to be appointed Vicar Apostolic of Nordic Missions. Tschirnhaus, or possibly some other “Lutheran foreigner” (in Stensen’s words) to whom he, eager to spread the good word of Spinozism, had given the manuscript, passed it on to Stensen, who in turn handed it over to the Roman Inquisition, along with a denunciation of its author. Stensen’s intention was to have Spinoza condemned by the Church and his works placed on the Index. Spruit and Totaro also claim—on the basis of the handwriting—that the copyist of this manuscript is Pieter van Gent, a member of Spinoza’s circle who played a role in the posthumous publication of his works.
While Spruit and Totaro wisely admit that this story behind the manuscript “cannot be established with certainty,” they also say that it is “rather likely.” Their plausible hypothetical reconstruction of the history of the manuscript and of its relationship to the publication history of the Ethics, as well as their account of other important contextual elements, is based on careful and informed scholarship, and makes for fascinating reading.
As for the manuscript itself, it is not a revolutionary discovery (as, say, the discovery of the Short Treatise manuscripts were). It will not affect the reading of the Ethics in any major way. There are a variety of discrepancies between the Vatican manuscript and the text of the Ethics in the Opera Posthuma (OP) of 1678: differences in spelling, “rather insignificant” omissions and additions of words and phrases, probable scribal errors, changes in word order, and some noticeable differences in expression. To take just one nonetheless interesting example, the final clause of the...