Non­fic­tion

Think Least of Death: Spin­oza On How To Live And How To Die

  • Review
By – September 21, 2020

For those who have stud­ied the works of Baruch Spin­oza, one of the most impor­tant philoso­phers of the sev­en­teenth cen­tu­ry and arguably one of the key thinkers of west­ern civ­i­liza­tion, one would also be famil­iar with the name of Steven Nadler. Nadler is the William H. Hay II Pro­fes­sor of Phi­los­o­phy and Evjue-Bas­com Pro­fes­sor in the Human­i­ties at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Wis­con­sin – Madi­son, and the author of numer­ous books trans­lat­ing and inter­pret­ing Spinoza’s com­pli­cat­ed thought and messy biog­ra­phy for the masses.

In his lat­est book, Think Least of Death: Spin­oza On How To Live And How To Die, Nadler has proven why peo­ple turn to him as an indis­pens­able guide to Spin­oza. The book main­ly explores the last three parts of Spinoza’s famous­ly com­pli­cat­ed Ethics. Although the Ethics is five parts long, most accounts of the book focus main­ly on the begin­ning sec­tions. In these ear­ly por­tions Spin­oza lays out a pan­the­is­tic con­cep­tion of God, a God who is every­thing and syn­ony­mous with nature. While most works do touch on the eth­i­cal impli­ca­tions of this the­ol­o­gy — remark­ing on how if we are all part of God, then we must treat oth­ers with com­pas­sion and love — these books fail to treat these impli­ca­tions with as much detail as they give their philo­soph­i­cal foun­da­tion. In oth­er words, Spinoza’s con­cep­tion of God becomes cen­ter stage, not how we should act in light of that God.

In Think Least of Death, Nadler takes on these impli­ca­tions direct­ly. Like the Ethics, Nadler’s book slow­ly unfolds. After briefly explain­ing Spinoza’s the­o­log­i­cal frame­work, he goes on to explore a num­ber of issues that stem from it, includ­ing what makes a per­son free, how to live an hon­est life, the nature of a good friend­ship, and our ide­al atti­tude toward death. Nadler takes great care with explor­ing each of these top­ics, cit­ing rel­e­vant pas­sages and explain­ing them, often a num­ber of times to make sure his read­er under­stands. As the title and book jack­et sug­gest, this book is meant for lay read­ers inter­est­ed not only in the think­ing of Spin­oza but how it might bet­ter their lives. For this rea­son, Nadler goes out of his way to define terms even after ded­i­cat­ing whole pre­vi­ous chap­ters to them, lest his read­ers for­get. How­ev­er, even with his mas­ter­ful ped­a­gogy, Spin­oza is still dif­fi­cult and thus the book must be read care­ful­ly, espe­cial­ly in the ear­ly chap­ters when he gives a brief refresh­er on Spinoza’s theology.

Though the book is acces­si­ble, it is not sim­ply a primer of Spinoza’s think­ing. It is clear that Nadler did a great deal of orig­i­nal work. On numer­ous occa­sions, Nadler cites a pas­sage, explain­ing how a plain read­ing of the text would be incor­rect and then con­tin­ues on for the next few pages to read the text in a evoac­tive and cre­ative way, open­ing up Spinoza’s phi­los­o­phy and show­ing how he dif­fers from thinkers before. For exam­ple, Nadler shows how Spinoza’s sim­ple propo­si­tion, The free per­son always acts hon­est­ly, nev­er decep­tive­ly” does not advo­cate nev­er lying, as philoso­phers like Emanuel Kant would say. Through close read­ings of Spinzoa’s Latin, ques­tion­ing his word choic­es, read­ing close­ly what he means by a free per­son,” and com­par­ing the state­ment to oth­ers that Spin­oza makes else­where, Nadler is able to prove that despite seem­ing to write the con­trary, the Ethics makes room for lies that pre­serve life and pro­tect feelings.

In Think Least of Death, Steven­Nad­er has once again writ­ten an indis­pens­able book for any­one inter­est­ed in learn­ing about Baruch Spin­oza. But more impor­tant­ly, though care­ful­ly cul­ti­vat­ing many of Spinoza’s most rel­e­vant top­ics, he has writ­ten a book we can all use to bet­ter under­stand the peo­ple we seek to be and the eth­i­cal lives we hope to live.

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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