Spin­oza: Free­dom’s Messiah

  • Review
By – April 15, 2024

There are few fig­ures as infa­mous in the his­to­ry of phi­los­o­phy as Baruch Spin­oza. As one of the first voic­es to deny the divin­i­ty of the Bible and one of the first thinkers to define God as syn­ony­mous with nature, Spin­oza has been the sub­ject of count­less books and stud­ies. Few, how­ev­er, have tak­en as much time and care to look close­ly at the Jew­ish and sec­u­lar influ­ences on the thinker as Ian Buruma’s new book, Spin­oza: Freedom’s Messiah. 

Because Buruma’s study serves as a brief overview of Spinoza’s life, it avoids many well-trod­den sub­jects that are found in pre­vi­ous works. It does not, for exam­ple, include a full exam­i­na­tion of Spinoza’s thought; it even leaves out espe­cial­ly focused stud­ies of his mag­num opus, the Ethics. When Spinoza’s writ­ing is dis­cussed, it is often used as a way to illus­trate Spinoza’s approach to some his­tor­i­cal event or social phe­nom­e­non. Buru­ma cares less about what Spin­oza wrote than about what those writ­ings say about his engage­ment with the wider world. 

The book also avoids easy answers to the mys­ter­ies of Spinoza’s life. In ref­er­ence to the ques­tion about why Spin­oza was excom­mu­ni­cat­ed from the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty, Buru­ma is more at home rais­ing ques­tions and rep­re­sent­ing dif­fer­ent schol­ar­ly opin­ions than he is decid­ing which view is right. Thus, the book sit­u­ates read­ers in the rich con­ver­sa­tion about Spin­oza and lets us make up our own minds once we have all the facts. 

Although Spin­oza is writ­ten for a pop­u­lar audi­ence, some knowl­edge of sev­en­teenth-cen­tu­ry Dutch his­to­ry will ben­e­fit read­ers. Buru­ma does not shy away from intro­duc­ing lit­tle-known names and events that put Spinoza’s thoughts into per­spec­tive. The brevi­ty of the book means that some of the most impor­tant char­ac­ters in Spinoza’s life are only briefly devel­oped, and novice read­ers may have trou­ble keep­ing track of who is who. Yet by spend­ing less time with Spinoza’s sur­round­ing cast, Buru­ma is able to look at Spinoza’s life with a wider lens. He mas­ter­ful­ly shows how pol­i­tics inform thought and how thought in turn guides pol­i­tics. Read­ers will walk away from the book with an appre­ci­a­tion for the com­plex­i­ty of life in the Nether­lands at the time. 

Some­thing else that sep­a­rates Buruma’s book from those that came before is his final chap­ter, which speaks about the way Spinoza’s thought has influ­enced lat­er thinkers, from Karl Marx, to Nazis, to Albert Ein­stein. As Buru­ma quips, There is a Spin­oza for every­one.” On the one hand, this could be mad­den­ing, since clar­i­ty is the mark of a good thinker. But it also can be free­ing. Buru­ma does a mag­nif­i­cent job of demon­strat­ing the enig­mat­ic nature of Spinoza’s thought and life. Giv­en that mys­tery breeds pos­si­bil­i­ty, one leaves the biog­ra­phy feel­ing like Spin­oza can indeed speak in many reg­is­ters to many dif­fer­ent people.

Rab­bi Marc Katz is the Rab­bi at Tem­ple Ner Tamid in Bloom­field, NJ. He is author of the book The Heart of Lone­li­ness: How Jew­ish Wis­dom Can Help You Cope and Find Com­fort (Turn­er Pub­lish­ing), which was cho­sen as a final­ist for the Nation­al Jew­ish Book Award.

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