- Recent Work on Spinoza
In a groundbreaking 1984 article, Warren Zev Harvey attempted “to sketch a portrait of Spinoza as a Maimonidean, as the last major representative of a tradition that mightily dominated Jewish philosophy for almost five centuries following the appearance of the Guide of the Perplexed.”1 Harvey covered a limited number of topics on which the two thinkers could be fruitfully compared—the distinction between intellect and imagination, a shared contempt for anthropomorphism in the depiction of God, and the intellectual love of God as our summum bonum—and he really only outlined a program for further research. But, nonetheless, fifty years after Harry Wolfson’s magisterial The Philosophy of Spinoza, he took seriously the spirit of Wolfson’s program of looking closely at what could, in fact, justifiably be said about Spinoza’s relationship to Maimonides.2 While Wolfson’s study was all over the place, throwing passages around helter-skelter (often without explanation), Harvey called for a more selective approach and more careful and critical scrutiny.
The situation when Harvey was writing was such that he could still say that portraying Spinoza as a Maimonidean was “controversial . . . it [End Page 507] generally has not been held that there was a distinctive Maimonidean influence on Spinoza’s philosophy.”3 It is hard to imagine anyone now being worried about making this kind of claim. Recent books and articles by Catherine Chalier,4 Heidi Ravven,5 Carlos Fraenkel,6 Idit Dobbs-Weinstein,7 and others have shown that there is much to be gained by reading Spinoza in a Maimonidean context, and scholars have followed Harvey’s lead by pursuing a deeper and more rigorous investigation of Spinoza’s relationship to the twelfth-century rationalist on such topics as the nature of prophecy and the proper conception of God.
Still, not everyone followed suit. The Dutch scholar Wiep van Bunge, for example, has argued in a series of essays that neither Maimonides nor any other Jewish philosopher played a formative role in Spinoza’s mature thinking.8 Joshua Parens, in his recent book Maimonides and Spinoza: Their Conflicting Views of Human Nature, is clearly in the skeptics’ camp. Taking issue with Wolfson, Harvey, and Shlomo Pines (well-known for his superb English translation of Maimonides’ Guide, as well as studies of the relationship between Spinoza and Maimonides), Parens claims that these scholars “too readily assimilate Maimonides to Spinoza, and vice versa,” and have thereby “impeded rather than increased our access to Maimonides and Spinoza” (p. 15). In Parens’s view, “a constellation of philosophic teachings set Maimonides and Spinoza apart” (p. 187). Rather than seeing Maimonides as a “protomodern”—which he apparently assumes is a necessary condition for finding a relationship of influence between Maimonides and Spinoza—Parens insists that Maimonides’s mindset is premodern (both in method and in substance), thereby introducing a deep gulf between him and “our own world and viewpoint, which has been so deeply shaped by the thought of Spinoza” (p. 1). [End Page 508]
A correlative normative thesis of Parens’s book is that with Spinoza (and, presumably, modernity) something valuable and enriching has been lost, and it has to do with the way in which we are supposed to relate to God, to the world, and to each other. In this regard, the book often comes across as an indictment of Spinoza and defense of Maimonides on some basic philosophical issues. Most prominent, in Parens’s reading, is the difference between the two thinkers in the fundamental principles of human nature. For Spinoza, there is the unique power of conatus, from which all human action and passion derives. For Maimonides, on the other hand, there are the two principles of desire and “spiritedness.” What we get, then, is a contrast between the love-centric Guide and the cold-hearted Ethics; the former, in Parens’s view, captures something essential about human nature, while the latter entails a spiritual loss. Through a series...