Spinoza and the Happy Few

Spinoza and Other Heretics Vol. I: The Marrano of Reason Vol. II: The Adventures of Immanence

by Yirmiyahu Yovel
Princeton University Press, Vol. II: 225 pp., $45.00 the set

Spinoza; drawing by David Levine

Spinoza and Other Heretics is a useful and important book because it points to a probable connection between some distinctive features of Spinoza’s thought and a particularly interesting episode in the history of the Jews. Marranos were former Jews living in Spain and Portugal who had been converted to Christianity, at least nominally, by the threats and penalties of the Inquisition. Many Marranos secretly preserved their Jewish faith, and sometimes their Jewish customs and rituals, under a covering of Christian observance. Consequently they tended to develop an unusually sophisticated attitude not only to religious belief, but to the phenomenon of belief itself. Can one change one’s moral and religious beliefs at will, and as prudence or public policy require? Marranos could not avoid asking themselves such philosophical questions, even if they were not otherwise drawn to philosophy.

Spinoza, living in Holland from 1632 to 1671, was descended from Marranos and belonged to the community of Portuguese Jews in Amsterdam. His father was a merchant prominent in civic affairs and a leader in the Jewish community. Spinoza knew Hebrew and Latin, which was for him the language of philosophy. He probably spoke Portuguese at home, and he read Spanish literature, and he wrote an early work, “The Short Treatise,” in Dutch. He was a polyglot who did not have an obvious natural language. He had his roots in two international communities: the community of educated and learned Europeans, who usually communicated with one another in Latin, and the community of men educated in the Jewish tradition, who had studied Hebrew and Scripture and the Talmud.

At the age of twenty-four he was famously expelled from the Jewish community. The text of the fierce sentence of excommunication, in which he was “banned, cut off, cursed and anathematized,” survives. For the remainder of his life he belonged only to the community of learned Europeans who exchanged scientific and philosophical ideas principally by letter. He lived detached from the shelter of any religion and without the support of any institution or community, unlike Montaigne, Hobbes, Leibniz, and Locke, who all had, in varying degrees, a clear linguistic inheritance and their own original attachments.

Spinoza’s isolation as a secular intellectual in an age of religious loyalties has always been stressed by Spinozists, and sometimes deliberately imitated, as by Santayana, who pursued in solitude in Rome the detached life of reason, which was the way of life recommended by Spinoza. Yovel’s originality is to have greatly complicated the story by bringing Spinoza’s ancestors into the foreground. His intuition is that Spinoza did not cease to be influenced by the history of the Marranos in Spain in spite of the rupture that separated him from the Jewish community. Under the heading of “Marranos in Mask and a World without Transcendence” Yovel describes some representative writing of the Marranos, and he stresses the ironies and the many levels of intention that…

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