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  • Spinoza's Landlady
  • Robert Cochran (bio)

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Detail from Excommunicated Spinoza, Hirszenberg, 1907

[End Page 20]

Total grandeur of a total edifice, Chosen by an inquisitor of structures For himself.

—Wallace Stevens, "To an Old Philosopher in Rome"

For so gentle and cautious a man, he provoked strong responses from the beginning. At twenty-three he was kicked out of Amsterdam's Jewish community with impressive ceremony. An incensed Most High, he was assured by official proclamation in 1656, would "blot out his name from under heaven." His neighbors, including his younger brother and business partner, Gabriel, were ordered to avoid all contact. He did little better with Catholic and Protestant authorities. Files in Madrid revealed the Spanish Inquisition's interest—two informants had reported the heretical views of the ex-Jew. In Protestant Holland synods denounced the 1670 publication of the Tractatus Logico-Politicus and urged civic authorities to suppress its printing. In Leiden the sheriff removed copies from the shelves of offending booksellers.

His ideas, of course, caused all the trouble, though he was slow to publish them and circumspect almost to the point of duplicity in their expression. His best biographer calls him "one of history's most radical thinkers," and in his own day he was the great scourge of ecclesiastical and political authority. A study devoted to Spinoza's influence upon Gottfried Leibniz notes that fear and hostility toward him were so widespread that in the months following his death, the canals of Amsterdam might well have carried "the proverbial boat with a rabbi, a Protestant minister, and a Catholic priest," all eagerly in search of his unpublished manuscripts in order to destroy them. [End Page 21]

These efforts failed: Spinoza's unpublished manuscripts, with the Ethics at their core, appeared in Latin and Dutch editions less than a year after the author's death in 1677, with his name abbreviated to initials and the publisher's omitted. The dangerous man, it turned out, had brave and devoted friends who at considerable risk took it upon themselves to outwit the zealous clerics and their civic allies. Names are available for only the inner circle—bookseller and publisher Jan Rieuwertsz, translator Jan Hendrik Glazemaker, physicians Lodewijk Meyer and Johannes Bouwmeester, fruit merchant Jarig Jelles, mathematician Petrus van Gent, and would-be alchemist Georg Hermann Schuller—but the efforts and discretion of a host of copyists, typesetters, printers, and couriers also contributed to the successful defeat of the ecclesiastical hit squad. It's a great saga—its closest examiner greatly understates the case as a "remarkable achievement."

But what did these wonderful friends in fact save by their clandestine labors? What in Spinoza's thinking was so compelling that the project of its preservation and wider distribution engaged them in such risks? What was, by their efforts, transmitted to the ages?

The first impression is of daunting difficulty. Steven Nadler, for example, introducing a guide to the Ethics, stresses at the outset that it is "an extraordinarily difficult book." He then follows this up with additional apology: "I am sorry to report that … it only gets harder on each subsequent reading." In part, this opacity is a matter of presentational style. The Ethics is printed in what Spinoza called the "geometrical method" (mors geometricus) for which the great model was Euclid's Elements. Mathematics, then as now, presented itself as the gold standard for certain knowledge, and Spinoza manages to suggest at once the highest levels of rigor, universal applicability, and transparent clarity by the formal device of presenting his thoughts as an interlocking system of definitions, axioms, and propositions.

The Ethics in the second place presents itself as a wholly accomplished work, a gleaming monolith. No doubts are expressed, few assertions qualified. Even argument, seemingly a central task of philosophy, is for the most part restricted to very confident explanations and discussions (Spinoza calls them "proofs" and "scholia") of the serene and wholly impersonal claims at the center. He exhibits little sense of philosophy as an ongoing project, of useful predecessors or thinking yet unfinished to follow upon his own. The Ethics bristles with citations, but almost all are to...


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