Irvin D. Yalom, The Spinoza Problem. New York: Basic, 2011. 321 pages.

In rummaging through a bookcase, I came upon this book. I put it aside with the intention of reading it, but never got around to it until recently. I don’t remember its getting much attention when it was published in 2011. It deserves more. Dr. Yalom has written a historical account – indeed two connected accounts – of memorable events and personalities.

Baruch (Bento) Spinoza was born into the Dutch Sephardic Jewish community. Orthodox in religious practice, it was very practical – and successful – when it came to commerce. Its primary origin lay in the Spanish Inquisition, established in 1478 by King Ferdinand II of Aragon and Queen Isabella of Castile at the instigation of Tomás de Torquemada, a Castilian Dominican friar. An estimated 150,000 people in Portugal and Spain were prosecuted for various offences during the Inquisition’s three-century existence, of whom up to 5,000 were executed. Royal decrees issued in 1492 and 1502 ordered Jews and Muslims to convert to Catholicism or die, resulting in hundreds of thousands of forced conversions and the mass exodus of Jews and Muslims.

A large number of Iberian Jews ended up in Holland (Britain was closed to them until Oliver Cromwell reversed the policy in 1655, while their status elsewhere on the continent was uncertain at best). It is no coincidence that Amsterdam was the richest and most culturally advanced community in the Western world during the 17th and into the 18th century.1 It is also no coincidence that Spain was soon to become a European backwater, overtaken by France, Britain and many others, especially after its South American colonies broke free.

The notorious freethinker

The author, Irvin Yalom, is a psychotherapist who also writes historical novels. Here he sets out two contrasting, yet somehow linked, case histories, fascinated by the anomalous connection between a leading Nazi antisemite and a renowned Jewish philosopher. Yalom discovered that Spinoza’s entire private library was stolen by the Nazis in 1942, apparently under orders of Alfred Rosenberg, the chief ideologue of National Socialism. While the main story is about Baruch Spinoza, it is interspersed with chapters recounting the life of Alfred Rosenberg.

Yalom writes well, so that even when slow-moving this book makes compelling reading. The Spinoza Problem provides an accessible introduction to how the world was understood by the 17th-century rationalist whose ideas in many ways laid the foundations of the Enlightenment – even though few have read Spinoza’s writings as such. He was a philosopher’s philosopher, writing for other philosophers, and perhaps also avoiding explicitly setting out ideas that directly challenged the prevailing orthodoxy.

We first encounter him as the Dutch Jewish community’s most promising, but also most disconcerting, yeshiva student. Baruch asks questions like “How could Moses have written about his own death?” As he matures, it becomes clear to him that the Torah is not only mythological but imprisoning. He must escape if he is to uncover essential truths through logic alone.

When we meet him again he is a young man, a simple shopkeeper running his father’s failing business along with his brother, not far from Rembrandt’s home in Amsterdam. He spends much time in contemplation, posing and trying to resolve difficult philosophical questions. In good part, the chapters setting out his ideas and life choices take the form of his conversations, mainly with a young student named Franco who is allegedly in existential crisis. Spinoza, appreciating the opportunity to “express aloud the arguments he had been constructing,” spends many hours in conversation with Franco and his cousin Jacob. In this way, Yalom familiarizes the reader with Spinoza’s main ideas.

In these hours he brings out the contradictions in the religion-based understandings of his interlocutors. They become increasingly uncomfortable as he arrives at his conclusion that ultimately their religion is only a metaphor: “Why should your God care how we feel about him or obey his commands? No rational person could imagine that a divine omniscient author deliberately wrote with the object of contradicting himself freely.” The Torah is a human construction, designed to give authority to the human-made rules that are set out. The simple truth can only be that “God is Nature and Nature is God.”

In a recent article in the New Yorker, “Baruch Spinoza and the Art of Thinking in Dangerous Times,” Adam Kirsch tells us of a subversive book published in Amsterdam, Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, an anonymous Latin treatise that declared the best policy in religious matters is to allow “every man to think what he likes, and say what he thinks.” While giving thanks to living in a place where everyone’s judgement is free and unshackled, the author withheld his name. Soon, however, the authorities figured out that the Tractatus was the work of the notorious freethinker Baruch Spinoza. Ministers in several cities immediately forbade booksellers to carry the Tractatus, and in 1674 it was officially banned in the Netherlands.

As a young man, Spinoza impressed the leaders of Amsterdam’s Sephardic Jewish community with his brilliance, and they sought to recruit him to follow in the footsteps of family members who were among its elite. But he refused, unwilling to conform – or even pretend to conform – to a set of rules based on a religious doctrine in which he did not believe.

In his writing, Spinoza refers to “the eternal and infinite Being, which we call God or Nature.” Since there is no difference or distance between God and the rest of the universe, then God cannot do any of the things that we ordinarily think of God as doing: hearing prayers, working miracles, creating the world with a “Let there be light.” In the end the wider community, like his young interlocutors, disavows Spinoza, finding him guilty of “insolence and injury.”

Spinoza is excommunicated and condemned to live out his life in near-isolation, which he claims suits him fine, allowing him to pursue the life of the mind. He finds refuge in the small village of Rijnsburg, close to Leiden, and makes a living grinding lenses, a place he deems perfect for the life of the mind – but not, as it turns out, of the body, since lung illnesses run in the family. (One can only wonder what he could have produced had he lived to a ripe old age.) When he falls ill and dies in 1677 at the age of 44, the Jewish community will not bury him. Being no Christian either, he is buried outside the parish church cemetery.

Knowing that even in the tolerant Netherlands bigotry and fanaticism were never far away, he took care not to provoke the crowd and to be cautious in his intercourse with those who were not philosophers. Like his contemporary Thomas Hobbes, whose work was banned alongside his, he managed to die in his bed. To survive, Hobbes fled England, while Spinoza, when the Tractatus provoked a hostile reaction, decided not to publish anything else. All of his work, including the Ethics, was left in manuscript form for his friends to print after his death. Kirsch notes that “while a champion of political and intellectual freedom, Spinoza had no interest in being a martyr. Instead, he shows us how prudence and boldness can go hand in hand.”

The Nazi ideologue, the poet and the philosopher

Yalom’s interest in Alfred Rosenberg was stimulated by his discovery that Rosenberg, in charge of looting for the Third Reich, had ordered the removal of the contents of the small Spinoza museum in Amsterdam, and the officer in charge of the looting wrote in his report that it contained “valuable early works for the exploration of the Spinoza problem.” Because of the “Spinoza problem” they protected the books rather than burn them, as they burned so much of Europe.

Yalom came across the books at the Spinoza Museum in Rijnsburg, and wondered how they ended up there. The answer he got from the museum guide was that no one knows. Apparently, the museum had managed to collect replacements for most of the books that the Nazi authorities had confiscated and carted off to Germany. The originals turned up five years later in a German salt mine and were returned to Rijnsburg after the war.

Yalom ends the preface as follows: “I wondered if this Nazi, Alfred Rosenberg, had also … for his own reasons been looking for Spinoza … Shortly thereafter, I began writing.” Though Yalom admits that he found no evidence actually linking Rosenberg with Spinoza, he claims that it could have happened, and it all had to do with great German poet Johan Wolfgang von Goethe.

Though better educated than his Nazi cronies, for whom – apart from Hitler – he has little respect, Rosenberg believes that Jews are parasites upon the Aryan race and embraces Nazi race theories, of which he becomes the preeminent propagandist. We follow his career as he moves to Berlin and Munich and moves up the Nazi hierarchy. When the Nazi realm is destroyed, Rosenberg is convicted at Nurenberg and hanged.

We first meet Alfred as a pompous German student in Estonia, much taken by Houston Stewart Chamberlain’s ideas about the superiority of the Aryan race. At school he is a loner. One day he delivers a fiery antisemitic speech and is called to the office of his Jewish headmaster. But he stands firm on his racial theories. His history teacher concludes, “Excavate anywhere in his mind … and we run into the bedrock of unfounded convictions.”

He soon attracts the attention of the local Nazi party hierarchy and rapidly moves up to its top rungs to become the chief ideologue of the Nazi regime, impressing Hitler with his talents as a communicator, though – to his great regret – never winning the Führer’s personal friendship. As Yalom portrays him, Rosenberg is a genuinely unpleasant person, a success in his political career but an unhappy failure in his personal life. On the basis of what he and others wrote, Yalom constructs Rosenberg’s psychotherapy sessions with the fictional Dr. Pfister. In this way he lays out “how I personally might have approached the task of working with such a man as Rosenberg.”

To connect the two accounts and explain Rosenberg’s apparent interest in Spinoza, he suggests that along the way Rosenberg encountered an anomaly that uncomfortably challenged his conviction that Jews were parasites upon the Aryan race and culture. He found out, to his dismay, that his inspiration Goethe had himself been inspired by Spinoza and his writings.

The linking of the two stories is not a perfect fit, but on balance, it was probably a good decision, since each narrative is insufficient on its own to fill out a historical novel: not enough happens in Spinoza’s life, while Rosenberg is too negative a character around whom to build a book.

Notes

1 The reader interested in such a phenomenon might find enlightening the Belgian television series Rough Diamonds, set in the Orthodox Jewish diamond-dealing community of Antwerp. The series premiered on Netflix on April 21, 2023.