Alex points me to this Rebecca Goldstein op-ed in The New York Times marking the excommunication of Baruch Spinoza. I am actually reading Goldstein’s biography of Spinoza, Betraying Spinoza: The Renegade Jew Who Gave Us Modernity, and just finished Matthew Stewart’s The Courtier and the Heretic: Leibniz, Spinoza, and the Fate of God in the Modern World. Most of you probably know the name Spinoza from Einstein’s assertion that he “believe in Spinoza’s God,” the pantheistic entity which suffused existence itself.
Update: James H. has more at The Island of Doubt.
Stewart, and Goldstein from what I can gather (see the subtitle of her book), both argue that Spinoza was the predecessor of the 18th century Enlightenment, the intellectual flowering which serves in many ways as the bedrock for modernity as such. I tend to believe this is true, and though Spinoza’s a priori philosophy as worked out in Ethics leaves me rather cold (its format is not particularly accessible to the imagination), his personal biography is something that I find inspirational. Spinoza was an exile many times, his people were Jewish refugees from Portugal, themselves exiled from Spain in 1492. But because of his heterodox beliefs Spinoza was himself exiled from the “Portuguese nation” of Hebrew faith, instead of communal acceptance he strove for his own individual fulfillment. No longer part of the Jewish community of Amsterdam Spinoza did not become a Christian. Rather, he remained apart, and though his days were spent grinding glass his nights were filled with the life of the mind, and his reputation as a philosopher illuminated the republic of letters. Though Spinoza left the Jewish people and faith behind him, that did not mean that his contemporaries no longer viewed him as a Jew. The eminent Dutch scientist Christiaan Huygens referred to him in personal correspondence as “Our Jew.” And yet though he remained a Jew to his contemporaries he was a man who was defined by his own choices, his own beliefs, in his personal life. Though the world might have viewed him always as a Jew and heretic, Spinoza heralded the emergence to prominence of a peculiar sort of individual who was unmoored from communal ties and taboos. His appeal to me should be obvious to regular readers. Born into a minority community in the West, stamped by the color of my skin as the exotic Other, I have spent much of my life rejecting all that was expected of me by birth and claiming what I expected of myself.
Nevertheless, I do think it is important for those of who attempt to walk in Spinoza’s shoes to acknowledge that that path is not for most of humanity. According to Stewart Spinoza himself understood this and even mooted the possibility of a “public religion” to safeguard morals and peace of mind for the masses. The question in the end for me, as a conscious follower of the Spinozan way is this: how can we forward the perpetuation of our kind into the future in a present where we are greatly outnumbered?