- Hardcover: 422 pages
- Publisher: Cambridge University Press (March 13, 1999)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0521552109
- ISBN-13: 978-0521552103
- Product Dimensions: 6 x 1.2 x 9 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1.8 pounds
- Average Customer Review: 29 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,595,321 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Spinoza: A Life Hardcover – March 13, 1999
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Remarkably, given his importance in Western philosophy, there has never been a substantial English-language biography of Baruch (or, as he was later known, Benedictus) Spinoza (1632-1677) until now. Spinoza: A Life makes up for the lack, delving into the archival records of 17th-century Amsterdam to flesh out Spinoza's world in rich detail. The subject himself doesn't even appear until the third chapter; Nadler first provides historical background on the treatment of Jews during the Spanish Inquisition and their eventual resettlement in the Dutch Republic. Later chapters explore Spinoza's relationship to the Jewish community and the possible reasons for his excommunication in 1656, as well as the emergence of his philosophical system. Academically rigorous without becoming ponderous, Spinoza: A Life is splendid both as biography and history, and a worthy introduction to Spinoza's philosophy.
From Library Journal
Nadler (philosophy, Univ. of Wisconsin at Madison) is active in the Center for Jewish Studies there, which is reflected in one of the major questions he attempts to answer in this biography: "What did it mean to be a philosopher and a Jew in the Dutch Golden Age?" He answers it convincingly in this thoroughly researched study. Scholars will find this work rigorous enough for them, but it was also written with the general reader in mind. Spinoza (1632-77) is a notoriously difficult thinker, yet Nadler has given us not only as detailed a picture of Spinoza's life as we are likely to see, based on the best recent scholarship, but also an analysis of Spinoza's ideas that the nonspecialist will find understandable and provocative. For academic and public collections in philosophy, Jewish studies, and 17th-century European history.?Leon H. Brody, U.S. Office of Personnel Mgt. Lib., Washington, DC
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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Nadler has provided us with the best introduction to Spinoza's life and thought in English. His writing style is fluid, his expositions are lucid and balanced and his knowledge of the time period impressive.
Spinoza is one of those philosophers whose force of personality has a lot to do with how they are read. He is also capable of being read as differently as anyone in the history of philosophy. Novalis described him as "drunk with God", Antoine Arnauld described him with the phrase that serves as my review title, and Althusser saw him as a great materialist predecessor of Marx.
Nadler leads you through these reactions clearly. In spite of some of the other reviews, the book is full of speculations about the events of Spinoza's life and thought but they are judicious and consistently written as being speculative.
All in all, I cannot recommend this book enough. I plan to read the rest of Nadler's books on Spinoza. But this is the one to start with.
There have been a fair amount of reviews saying that they get very little about Spinoza from the text, I do not agree with this claim. However, it is necessary to point out that it is a historical work and a philosophical work. Going back to my professor's statements, it does well in contextualizing Spinoza as a product of the time in which he lived. The book does require at least some background knowledge on Spinoza's philosophy, because of this I would not recommend it as an introduction to Spinoza as a thinker and philosopher. Instead, you should find another book that explains his metaphysics, ethics, and theology or if you're particularly good at the early moderns, just read his work.
I believe one of the strengths of this book is that Nadler spends a lot of time at the beginning letting the reader know about what happened to the Jews before Spinoza was born. It is incredibly significant to understand what a Jewish Conversa is to understanding the community that Spinoza was raised and the treatment of da Costa. It's also significant because outside of philosophy, Spinoza is looked at differently. In Judaic Studies, Spinoza is viewed as one of the many responses to modernity, a huge breaking point in Judaic history. It is absolutely essential to understanding Spinoza's approach to know the evolution of Jewish custom in the time prior to his life. Nadler definitely seems to realize this.
The book makes you yearn to read (or, in some cases, reread) the Ethics, it makes you want to interact with Spinoza's work immediately and with fresh eyes. That is probably the best strength of the book.
Someone only interested in philosophy could even be disappointed by the great space given to history at detriment to the analysis of Spinoza's thinking and biography.
It was a long time I wanted to read this book and I did truly enjoy every page of it.
I'm not a specialist in Dutch history, but a few years ago had the chance to read that other superb portrait of Dutch Golden age under the title of "The Embarrassment of Riches" by Simon Schama, and later I red also the classical "The Dutch Revolt" by Geoffrey Parker and the much more focused "Tulipomania" by Mike Dash
So I did already know something about the time and the argument.
This book is different. Obviously it is more focused on the intellectual dimension of Dutch Golden Age, but also much more attentive to individual destinies, not just Spinoza's.
What is so special in this book?
First, of course, the portrait of Spinoza, a delicate and difficult task since the extant testimonies about his life are very thin and mostly connected with the thinker and not with the man. To recreate a so vivid portrait from so tiny fragments is probably the best achievement of this book.
Then the portrait of Amsterdam from the special point of view of the Jewish Sephardim community, the attention to the (truly fascinating) history and peculiarity of this community with its links with mainstream European Judaism, and the special interest in describing everyday life.
Not lastly the great harvest of anecdotic tales, so many of them to create the texture or a big canvas depicting the time), mostly connected with the main argument, but some of them with a life of their own - and many real gems.
I'm thinking especially about
- the case of Uriel Da Costa, a member of a prominent and respectable family in Amsterdam Sephardim Community (maybe even connected by family with Spinoza) who in 1640 - after having been excommunicated from the community after having lost his faith (the sad part is that he wanted, but was no more able, to believe in a personal God) - shot himself in the head.
- the history of one of the first Jewish (and to some extent Christian too) great awakenings at the call of the so-called Messiah of Smyrna, Sabbatai Levi in 1666: "Jews in various part of the Middle East and Europe were taken by a messianic frenzy...began selling their goods... preparing for their joint return to the Holy Land".
- the events following the conversion to Catholicism of Albert Burgh, the scion of a wealthy regent family of Amsterdam and former friend of Spinoza, who after a travel to Italy and a deep crisis of conscience regained his faith rejecting the impious Cartesian method and the Spinozist rationality.
- not last the story of the lynching and murder of the Grand Pensionary Johan De Witt, one of the greatest European intellectuals of the time, and this brother by the Orangist mob in 1672, the year of French invasion of Holland. That night Spinoza was prevented by his landlord "to go out at night and post a placard near the site of the massacre, reading ULTIMI BARBARORUM (roughly translated "You are the greatest of all barbarians")"
Sometimes imperfection in a book can be a great virtue.
This book creates as many questions as the answers it tries to give.
It left me a great curiosity to investigate on Spinoza's circle of friend and to inquire further in that special dimension (still not so distinct, as it will be a century later in Enlightenment Europe) that is the Republic of Letters of the XVII Century.
The greatest limit of the book is that it conveys the idea that the thinker was a kind of contemplative hermit. And yet it advances a great deal of evidence suggesting a totally different hypothesis: his wide net of correspondents, not least with Leibniz and Oldenburg (at the time Secretary of the Royal Society), the evidence of his ties with the De Witt clan and with many prominent regent families, not last the great "mystery" of his "trip behind the enemy lines" to meet the Great Conde (head of French army) in occupied Utrecht and the secrecy that clouds his death (according to the testimonies he died almost unexpectedly, assisted - or helped ? - by a mysterious unidentified man) are maybe a strong indication of a secretive and reserved mind.
Possibly the same fact of the so many people that visibly ignored (De Witt) or publicly defamed (the Cartesians, Oldenburg, Leibnitz, Stouppe,...) Spinoza and privately kept on having friendly relations with him, indicates a different condition, a double moral, widely - and shyly - practiced by others and an unshaken coherence, kept strictly private, from his side, ... a pale looming of a larger freer dimension that prepares the European Enlightenment.
Of course there are many other themes that are considered and explained: philosophical, religious and political... but remember that this is not a strictly philosophic analysis and its main effort has been directed to understand how the contemporary problems and events did shape the life and the environment around the man, and lastly contributed to the development of his particular philosophy.