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A Book Forged in Hell: Spinoza's Scandalous Treatise and the Birth of the Secular Age Hardcover – October 9, 2011

4.6 out of 5 stars 72 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews


Honorable Mention for the 2011 PROSE Award in Philosophy, Association of American Publishers

"In this clearly written and accessible book, Nadler offers up a historical and philosophical analysis of Spinoza's Theological-Political Treatise. . . . Each chapter not only focuses on sections of the Treatise but also explains the historical context of the Treatise and why many saw it as such a dangerous and corrupting book. . . . [Nadler] has definitely succeeded in writing an extremely rewarding and engaging book."--Library Journal (starred review)

"[T]his is a groundbreaking analysis of an incendiary text."--Booklist

"Steven Nadler's new study of the Treatise, A Book Forged in Hell, succeeds. . . . While his tasks are primarily expository and contextual, Nadler, who is the author of the standard biography of Spinoza, puts forward a substantive thesis as well. . . . Guided by this set of claims, Nadler takes us through the Treatise in a detailed but seamless account of Spinoza's arguments and aims. One measure of his integrity, indeed, is that while endorsing the common portrayal of Spinoza as a founder of modern secularism, Nadler is sensitive to some of the ways in which Spinoza is not to be taken as the harbinger of the secular mindset. In fact, A Book Forged in Hell raises the important question of how appropriate it is to view Spinoza as a philosophical founder of contemporary secularism and especially of contemporary liberalism. It also raises the question of whether Spinoza should be understood as a Jewish thinker, if so, to what extent."--Zachary Micah Gartenberg, Jewish Review of Books

"Steven Nadler has written a delightfully lucid and philosophically thorough account of the Treatise that helps to explain how and why this singular text became the object of such opprobrium and why we should see its appearance as the 'the birth of the secular age.'. . . What makes Nadler's so welcome a contribution is the care and the clarity of his philosophical exposition, and his restraint when tracing the wider implications of Spinoza's work."--Peter Gordon, TNR.com's The Book

"Without comparison the best among the available books on Spinoza in this category."--British Journal for the History of Philosophy

"Nadler shows, for a general audience, why Spinoza's Tractatus Theologico-Politicus evoked such opposition from contemporary religious and political readers. Nadler places Spinoza and his book in their historical context, explains the issues that were at stake, and discusses the book's subsequent influence. Persons interested in the history of political liberalism, modern Judaism, biblical interpretation, and early modern philosophy will welcome this excellent book."--Choice

"A Book Forged in Hell is . . . without comparison the best among the available books on Spinoza in this category."--British Journal for the History of Philosophy

"Steven Nadler, professor of philosophy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison has written a thoroughly engaging study of a book which, not only controversial in its day, may be said to have moved Biblical studies into a modern terminology and thrust. It will be a welcome addition to seminary and university libraries."--Morton J. Merowitz, Association of Jewish Library Reviews

"[A]ccomplished. . . . Few have accepted Spinoza's equation of God with Nature or his determinism. Yet his deconstruction of the Bible remains a towering achievement, a triumph of reason over ecclesiastical obfuscation. Nadler is to be applauded for making this achievement so accessible. God knows, the world still needs such enlightenment."--Jewish Chronicle

"Philosophy professor Steven Nadler tells the story of the book that scandalized early modern Europe--and laid the groundwork for modern republican, anticlerical, and anti-sectarian movements--in his readable A Book Forged in Hell."--Reason

"[L]ucid. . . . Nadler does an excellent job of summarizing Spinoza's sometimes convoluted arguments."--Weekly Standard

"Nadler's book is a biography of the treatise and very much a page turner, a philosophical and political thriller, which demands to be bought, read and shared."--Derek Wall, Morning Star Online

"In this highly readable study, Steven Nadler persuasively shows that this scandalous work of modern philosophy deserves far more attention than it has actually received from scholars."--Grant Havers, European Legacy

From the Back Cover

"Steven Nadler's knowledge of the many influences acting on Spinoza is profound. He is as sensitive to Spinoza's reactions to Descartes and Maimonides as to the philosopher's fears of the conservative religious forces that were threatening the Dutch Republic of his day. The wide context that Nadler provides makes for a reading of Spinoza's treatise which is unfailingly rich, nuanced, and illuminating."--Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, author of Betraying Spinoza: The Renegade Jew Who Gave Us Modernity

"If there is a single theme that runs throughout Spinoza's writings, Steven Nadler says, 'it is the liberation from bondage, whether psychological, political, or religious.' Spinoza's importance as a philosopher--maybe as the philosopher of modernity--hinges on that. This Amsterdam Jew was one of the grandest and boldest mold-breakers of all time. Nadler gives us a clean, crisp, indispensible account of what made Spinoza's Treatise so revolutionary."--Russell Shorto, author of Descartes' Bones

"A Book Forged in Hell is more than just an excellent and highly readable introduction to one of the most important texts of philosophy and political thought. Steven Nadler provides an eloquent portrait of Spinoza's treatise, placing it firmly in its historical, religious, political, and philosophical setting."--Jonathan Israel, author of A Revolution of the Mind: Radical Enlightenment and the Intellectual Origins of Modern Democracy

"This is an excellent book. Steven Nadler's wonderfully elegant and fluid writing style makes difficult ideas accessible and exciting without watering them down. A prime virtue of the book is that it provides just enough biographical and historical background to make the philosophy come alive and to reveal what a dramatic work Spinoza's treatise is."--Michael Della Rocca, Yale University


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press (October 9, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 069113989X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0691139890
  • Product Dimensions: 9.2 x 6.4 x 1.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 14.4 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (72 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #298,019 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Robin Friedman HALL OF FAMETOP 100 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on October 7, 2011
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
About 25 years ago, I was engaged in serious graduate study in philosophy and preparing to write a dissertation on Spinoza's Theological-Political Treatise (1670). I have had a lifelong interest in Spinoza and was interested in the Treatise because of the questions of how to interpret texts it raises in terms of its treatment of the Bible. Also, at the time, the Treatise was receiving far less attention than Spinoza's most famous work, the Ethics. I never completed the dissertation but retained my interest in Spinoza and the Treatise.

The Treatise has received substantial attention since the time I was closely engaged with it. Historian Jonathan Israel has writtent a trilogy of lengthy, difficult books showing the great influence of Spinoza and the Treatise on Enlightenment thought and on the French and American Revolutions. Radical Enlightenment: Philosophy and the Making of Modernity 1650-1750,Enlightenment Contested: Philosophy, Modernity, and the Emancipation of Man 1670-1752, Democratic Enlightenment: Philosophy, Revolution, and Human Rights, 1750-1790. Steven Nadler's new study, "A Book Forged in Hell: Spinoza's Scandalous Treatise and the Birth of the Secular Age" (2011) is much more accessible than Israel's study and has a different focus.
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The name Spinoza is well known although his books may not have been widely read in modern times. Even so, he is likely to be known as the Jewish philosopher who believed in pantheism. What was his philosophy and how did he come to embrace it? The first question is best answered by reading his two famous books, "Ethics" and "Theological-Political Treatise" ("TPT"). Steven Nadler, however, answers both questions in his 242-page book, "A Book Forged in Hell" ("BFH") in a lucid and exciting exposition which also provides a splendid biography of Baruch Spinoza, A Shephardic Jew who started in his family's dried fruit business and ended as an ex-communicated man whose masterpiece was placed in the Catholic Church's index of banned books. Spinoza started on "Ethics" but before he could finish it he was digressed to work on TPT. In "Ethics" he exhorted us to be free from irrational passions such as hope and fear, and from superstition. In TPT he exhorted the state to permit the freedom of expression and to philosophize. One reason why Spinoza is not better recognized is the lack of accurate translations of his works. That is why Nadler's book is such a welcome addition.

Spinoza was strongly against sectarian religion and an anthropomorphic God. He also opposed the accusation that he was an atheist. He believed in religion, but his God is not a God who has human traits like love, anger and jealousy. He believed that God is Nature. To Spinoza, everything is reducible to Nature, and thus his God is everything and everywhere. It is not a distinct being that requires or indulges in dialogue with man. Hence Spinoza's religion is generally classified as a form of pantheism.
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Format: Hardcover
If Spinoza's highly neglected but highly influential "Theological-Political Treatise" exemplifies the publishing output of Hell, then we clearly need to see more books forged from this fount of human imagination. The "scandalous treatise," roundly condemned in its time, broke many hallowed boundaries and arguably influenced many who would architect new political systems that applauded toleration and freedom of expression. None of this helped Spinoza in his own time, of course. He found himself unjustifiably labeled an "atheist." Meanwhile, his peers, some of whom he thought should have known better, ridiculed the work as blasphemous either out of self preservation or genuine repugnance. Nonetheless, his reputation increased in unofficial channels. Many of the day's leading lights sought correspondence with him, though some were abhorred by the audacity of the ideas they found. Some found the devil himself in print.

These same ideas that once summoned the depths of damnation don't always present themselves in an accessible manner to today's reader. As such, those lacking a background in philosophy or 17th century Dutch history may find the works of Spinoza forbidding and impenetrable. Just open up his most famous work, "The Ethics," to get a taste. Many would justifiably find their interests squashed by reading a mere page of this quasi-geometrical work filled with seemingly abstruse metaphysics that speaks of "God" in a manner that still seems arcane. Though the "Theological-Political Treatise" presents fewer challenges than "The Ethics," it nonetheless has its own difficulties that could hinder an unguided reading. Spinoza's work shares the same fate of many historical philosophical masterpieces: it's far easier to read about these works than it is to read the works themselves.
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