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Journal of the History of Philosophy 38.1 (2000) 123-124

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Steven Nadler. Spinoza. A Life. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999. Pp. xiii + 407. Cloth, $34.95.

Nadler's book is a comprehensive biography of Spinoza. It gives, within the limits of the information available, a full presentation of the life and personality of Spinoza; ample information about the different milieus in which Spinoza grew up and lived; about the vicissitudes of the public life which marked his life and work; about the ways in which Spinoza's work evolved and, although it is not meant to be an "intellectual biography" (xiii), a general description of his thought. It is a welcome addition to the growing literature on Spinoza.

The book begins with the story of the Jewish Portuguese community of Amsterdam, constituted by former Maranos who emigrated from the Iberian peninsula. Becoming in a very short time a flourishing community, it was unique in many ways, and the author nicely shows this. He explains how it had to rebuild its Judaism practically ex nihilo, and how this fact caused many of the inner tensions and rifts that marked its history. Nadler tells minutely the way that led to Spinoza's famous excommunication and the roles played by the main personalities involved in this dramatic event, which was not only a rupture with the community, but actually with Judaism in general.

The author proceeds to examine the life of Spinoza outside the Jewish community. [End Page 123] We learn about the religiously and politically radical milieu within which Spinoza, a twenty-four-year-old man cut off all family and community ties, now lived; about the famous Spinoza circle of friends and disciples; and, most extraordinary of all, about his rather rapid ascent to a position of prominence in the Dutch and the European République des lettres.

Nadler skillfully presents the concrete context of Spinoza's work and gives a chronological account of the way his philosophy gradually took shape. One gets the right feeling about the manner in which it was intertwined with the political events, the ideological and theological controversies that often threatened to tear apart the Dutch society, and to which Spinoza's work is to a large extent a reaction.

The specifically philosophical and scientific context of Spinoza's work receives extensive treatment as well. The author discusses the work of Boyle, Huygens, and others with whom Spinoza had scientific exchanges. Most importantly, Nadler describes the Cartesian context of Spinoza's philosophy—Descartes' own philosophy and the Cartesian movement in the Netherlands. He gives an ample account of Spinoza's many connections within this context; he describes Spinoza's many correspondents and recounts many episodes, not all of them well known.

Nadler's work is essentially based on the existing material and the extensive work done in unearthing Spinoza's life and background. He does it in quite an impressive way—he seems to have covered all the relevant material and to have studied all the relevant fields. It is a work of compilation—but in the best sense of the word. It makes manifest that an enormous amount of work has been done on these topics in this century and particularly in the last twenty years or so. Nadler succeeds—this is certainly a tour de force—in integrating this enormous amount of material into a coherent whole in which he also manages to keep the right amount of literary fluency and readability. Not the least of the book's merits is that it is never boring.

Although I would recommend the book without any reservation to anyone who is interested in Spinoza—both beginners and veterans—I must make two brief critical remarks: 1. There seems to be some bias in favor of the Jewish background of Spinoza. Sure enough, the book is divided into two almost exactly equal parts which recount, respectively, Spinoza's life before and after the cherem (which, as a matter of fact, divides his short life into more or less equal parts). Yet—and without taking sides in the ongoing...


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