Spinoza and Friends

by Stephen Schecter (June 2019)

Man of the Woods and Cat of the Mountain, R. B. Kitaj, 1973



Ultimate barbarians. That’s what Spinoza wanted to write on a sign and wear on his person as one would an advertisement for eating at a tavern. Then he would descend into the crowd at The Hague roaring its approval at the murder of the liberal Prime Minister Jan de Witt and his brother Cornelius. Fortunately, his landlord restrained him from doing so or he would have been torn apart by the mob, reported to have eaten the roasted livers of the de Witt brothers they massacred. Perhaps that explains Spinoza’s use of the phrase in Latin. They were, as far as he was concerned, the ultimate barbarians, though he might have meant by that phrase the last barbarians, indicating a hope for the future. Or simply the latest barbarians, which indicates no hope at all. In his great work, Ethics, Spinoza held that neither fear nor hope was a good basis for human conduct, grounded as it was in uncertainty.


Ethics is one of the most stunning books ever written. I read it five times before I finally understood it. I was expecting a treatise of proper ethical behaviour. It turned out to be the first textbook of modern psychology. The writer starts with God, moves on to a discussion of mind, and then to an analysis of human passions. Only at the end does he explain what ethics might consist of. And the whole book is written like Euclid’s geometry, with definitions, axioms, propositions and scholia. Only once you are deep into the book do you realize that if you conceded him his first set of definitions he was taking you to the cleaners.


God has many attributes, the argument goes, but we only apprehend thought and extension. The mind apprehends God through thought, but true thought is only represented by adequate ideas. There is no denying that the mind is related to the body, because the body is the first idea of the mind. But the body is subject to passions, because the body is first and foremost affected by external causes impinging upon it. Ideas motivated by our passions are not adequate ones, because they are determined by forces outside the mind, contingent ones. They are not true for all eternity as mathematical truth is, as Descartes himself might have put it. On the contrary, they keep us subservient to the affects. Our passions, in short, hold us in thrall. To change that, we need to think about our passions and understand them, using our reason. When we do that we become closer to God and experience what others have called His glory. Our whole being is quickened, not to action but to understanding, which curiously makes us feel more whole, more free, more enhanced. In short, more active. We think we are approaching the mind of God, as least in relation to human psychology, much as Stephen Hawking suggested string theory would do for us in physics. If Spinoza is right—and I think he is—we get to feel most ourselves when we take a step back and observe the picture of our bodies in motion. At that point we are like God, to the extent that God does not share the human passions that drive us, does not get wound up about what we do, even if the Bible portrays Him as doing so. It is His dispassion that makes His love infinite, and when we get an inkling of that, we too become understanding toward all people. God most certainly would not have gone down the stairs of Spinoza’s boarding house.


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Had Spinoza made it down the stairs of his boarding house, it would have been his first political act. Quite unlike anything he had done before, or rather not done. When he was excommunicated from the Portuguese Jewish community of Amsterdam, he simply moved away. When his sister and brother-in-law took him to court over their father’s will, he fought their suit and won, then gave them the valuable possessions his father had left him. When his friends begged him to publish his writings, he declined, not wanting to cause further consternation to them and to the climate of the Dutch Republic, already under attack from the orthodox Reformed Church. At first he settled in Rijnsburg, near Leiden, where he had friends among the Collegiants, a Christian sect that was open to diverse views. Later, when it seemed his writings caused some trouble among his Collegiant friends, he moved to Voorburg. There he interrupted his work on Ethics to write his Theologico-Political Treatise, a form of action, one could say, since its tenets provided intellectual support for Jan de Witt, whom he never personally met. But that action, grave a step as it must have been for Spinoza, hardly constituted more than an intellectual digression to confront the times. The least he could do, he must have thought, and not without scientific interest. Besides, it was published anonymously, even if people suspected he was the author.


Spinoza did not want to offend. He never wanted to offend. The texts spoke for themselves. He communicated with the leading philosophers and scientists of his day, including a number of the members of the Royal Society in England. He made his living as a lens grinder. No thinker, he once said, should be dependent on others or the integrity of their work could suffer. Toward the end of his life he was offered a teaching post at a university in Heidelberg, but declined, preferring to retain his freedom of thought. He lived frugally, and when his money ran out at times he simply said he would have to economise. He was modest to a fault, if fault there can be, but he was clearly loved by his friends, and admired by so many more for his intellect. Even at a distance of nearly three hundred and fifty years he feels lovable. I went once to visit his lodgings in Leiden. Two rooms he rented from a doctor in the adjoining cottage. In the kitchen stood his enormous lens-grinding apparatus. In the other room were his bed, his library, his writing table. Religious texts in Hebrew and Latin. The major philosophical treatises. Priceless. And quiet. I could feel the quiet, the humble simplicity of the man, and marveled that in such simply furnished surroundings and others like it that man thought out the foundations of modern science, modern psychology and modern politics. Hobbes himself said Spinoza had overthrown him by a bar’s length.


How did he do it? How did this man who lived so simply and alone write the first major work that laid bare our understanding of the human psyche? It would seem, from all reports, he never had an intimate relationship in his life. Yet Ethics names passions we have forgotten inhabit us and analyzes them in such detail and precision, and with such acuity, it is hard to believe he thought all this in his own mind. I suspect when in Voorburg he did have a sexual relationship with his manservant, Caesarius. I know one of his friends and benefactors, Simon de Vries, was jealous of Caesarius, could not understand why Spinoza was content to live alone with only him for companionship. De Vries hid his jealousy under concern that Spinoza would not accept his money to live more comfortably and securely. Spinoza told him to give his money to his brother. What could he explain if his friend did not understand?


I imagine things went down something like this. Perhaps one day Spinoza was ill. Caesarius brought him some broth, a cup of tea, propped him up in bed so he could drink it. When he was finished, he slipped under the bedcovers again. Caesarius went to wash the dishes, came back to find Spinoza a bit feverish, trying to get warm under the blanket. Caesarius sat down beside him, watched him shiver, slipped off his own clothes and took Spinoza in his arms to warm him. Or perhaps it happened otherwise. Caesarius was doing some chores in the yard. Spinoza looked up from his work to watch the young man’s lean muscles go taut as he chopped some wood or repaired a door hinge. Caesarius looked up too and caught Spinoza looking at him. He wiped his hands on his apron, went inside, took Spinoza in his arms and kissed him. Spinoza kissed him back and Caesarius took the philosopher to bed. They said little, but returned to the bed often enough, whenever the urge seized them in fact, until one day Ceasarius left for the Dutch East Indies. I imagine Spinoza was not too surprised when it first happened. He noticed how Caesarius provoked sexual stirrings in him, the body moved by desire, appetite become conscious of itself. And Spinoza was anything if not conscious, always observing. Now he had but to observe himself and put his understanding to work.


Certainly, he observed the pleasure Caesarius’ body procured him. Observed and enjoyed it, this joy accompanied by the idea of an external cause, what Spinoza defined as love. But he was by no means in love in the way people later came to think about it, the way we still talk about it, for that would have made him subordinate to the passion and ruined whatever they had between them. He took care with it, appreciated it for as long as the gift of their love lasted, and made no scene when Caesarius left and took it with him. Moderation in all things, he would one day write, because that’s what you do when the mind understands the passions and rides them rather than being ridden. That’s how a happy soul reconciles the mind and the body. Love is not an occasion for tyranny, he would have explained to Simon de Vries if Simon had been capable of understanding. But Simon was in love with Spinoza and could not. And so Spinoza took his interlude with his manservant and used it to continue the writing of his greatest work.


I picture him sitting in his house now that he was once again alone, at times sad, at times wistful, but on the whole happy, content to take up his pen and elaborate his thought. His totally adequate thought devoid of drama. How surprising then, that having moved to The Hague, he should feel impelled to wade into the fray. What he was not willing to do for homosexual love he was now willing to do in defense of political and intellectual liberty, one and indivisible. It was out of character for one so wedded to the virtue of observation, but I must confess to sympathy with his inclination. The end of a love affair is one thing; the end of freedom quite another. The man was willing not to publish his work in order to give the climate of freedom in the Dutch Republic some breathing room. The murder of the de Witts must have shaken him to the core. How can people be so indifferent to all that is good in the world? How willingly give up their freedom for crumbs of rage and power? I think the same of our times and so sympathize totally with his plight. I see my entire generation succumb to the most mindless indifference to evil, doing immense harm while thinking they are acting for the good, muzzling the voices of free thought with catch-worn phrases, media herd and government muscle. Look at the Dutch government hound Geert Wilders. Look at the UN hound Israel. See the universities wage jihad on freedom. It makes one both enraged and despondent. Why write, I ask myself, as Spinoza may well have asked himself? Why think? Why not simply stand by and observe, as God continues to observe His minions spin out of control, and enjoy love affairs when they present themselves?


But of course, one cannot stop thinking. Nor can one stop adequate ideas from circulating, even if the world refuses to recognize them. Perhaps that’s why Spinoza did not worry too much about his works not getting published during his lifetime. It was enough that he saw what he did, for if what he saw was true, it was true for all time, and sooner or later would make itself felt in the world. That’s what an adequate idea is. In that sense the text does write itself, just as God wrote the Bible. Thanks to his friends, Ethics did get published in the end and I got to read it, an experience for which I am very grateful. For a while I carried Spinoza with me wherever I went and whatever I did. As Spinoza would say, was how I would preface my remarks. Later I kept my remarks to myself, but Spinoza has remained an abiding presence. Thinking about him even today I realize he remains both comfort and inspiration. And so I think and write, knowing the adequate ideas will come to light somehow. It is enough that they be penned, the barbarians on the rampage notwithstanding.



What you like about Luhmann is exactly what you like about Spinoza, a former colleague once told me. All you do with them is observe. He was right. Finally I came across a sociologist who did not think we had to use our theory to change the world. I could describe the world without dragging teleology around like a ball and chain around my observations. I started to look at questions without the answers being ordained in advance. So did my brightest students. We were roundly excoriated for our conclusions, which did not support the general theory that the world was going to pot. Poverty was not increasing. Inequality was not growing. Gay men took risks because they fell in love. Globalization was simply a way of talking about the world. Palestinians were responsible for their own naqba. Indeed, they were a naqba unto themselves. Government of the people, by the people, for the people was a self-description of democracy, but not an adequate picture of how democracy worked.


Of course, all this did not make any of my colleagues happy. Most of them wanted action, thought social science without a moral purpose was despicable. The moral purpose they had in mind was to defend the underprivileged right across the board, down to and including the earth itself. That was their version of the granting agencies’ criterion of social relevance, which they eventually got to install throughout western academia in the social sciences and humanities. The upshot is a generation of very ignorant people doing immense harm. They do not think and observe. They simply pontificate, using their slide rule of who is the top dog and who the underdog, high priests in some ritualized S and M theatre called society. Not for them Brecht’s warning to beware the power of the weak. And so we have epithets of right-wing and racist bandied about to forestall any thought or discussion when neither wing nor race have any scientific validity, not to mention sociological pertinence. My own undergraduate students bought into all this clap-trap, going on strike to reduce tuition fees that were already the lowest in the country and claiming their demand would prevent the final collapse of the Enlightenment which my former colleague, whose works they cited, was so nobly defending. Things have gotten much worse since then, as the declining birth rates of western society would attest. But then, that might also be a fact of no interest to people who already know what is wrong with the world and how to fix it.


Yes, Luhmann places a high priority on observing. Also on knowing what and from where you are observing. If you are studying some economic phenomenon, you are not following a political conversation. And if you are observing as a sociologist you are not observing as a moralist or a political pundit or someone running for electoral office. The task of a sociologist is to describe the world, not to hector it or change it. His viewpoint is rather refreshing. It means you can describe behavior to which you conform even if you are not especially proud of it. It also means you can describe a situation as it is, even if you do not like what your observation has revealed. As a person active in the world what you see can make you very upset. But when you see how things work and how blind people are to what you see even when you point it out, the upshot can be somewhat calming. There but for the grace of God go I. Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do.


I have followed Israel’s situation for nearly two decades now. I see what the Palestinians are up to and I see what the Israelis are up to and I conclude that peace will only come about when Israel extends sovereignty over Judea, Samaria and Gaza and kicks out the Palestinians who refuse to recognize the Jewish state. Which means most of them. People call me right-wing. Most of my friends call me right-wing or worse. I barely talk to them now. I do not understand how they can believe in a two-state solution when the Palestinians, in word and by deed, proclaim their desire to liquidate the Jewish state and murder its people. Has not one Holocaust been enough? I understand people’s predilection for peace. It is an expectation normal to a democratic society. But the Arab Muslim world is not a democratic society and is not going to become one anytime soon. Why observe their world through western eyes? Do not excuse what they say or do by claiming it is a response to western arrogance, colonialism, or any of the other sins which so many have so wrongly laid at the doorstep of the West. As if peoples and countries have not been conquering and plundering each other since time immemorial! My friends would do better to read the Bible, but they don’t do that anymore either. God or society, a friend of mine once said. The Bible or sociology, he could have also said. Perhaps he did. He was a smart man and he had met Luhmann.


I liked that young man. He was much more advanced than I was in his understanding of Luhmann’s theory. He was also more constitutionally fit to integrate it into his way of being in the world. When things went south, as they usually do in life, he would simply say: wait and see. His emotions, unlike mine, were not always bubbling on the surface. In fact, they rarely bubbled up to the surface. It was as if he was a walking, breathing embodiment of the theory he had adopted. It spoke to him. It spoke to me too, but I had to use it to calm myself down. I still do. I have to remind myself to divorce the friends I still have from the questions that matter to me. I have to put distance between us and the distance diminishes the friendship. The distance means I do not talk about the things that matter to me most. I spend time with them as Spinoza spent time with Caesarius. And I see how right he was about people being both our greatest good and the source of what drives us crazy. The cognitive recognition is one thing. Living it is quite another. Moderation in all things, he said. Dispassionate observation, said Luhmann. Wait and see, said my friend, would still say it when we meet again. In the meantime there is my analyst.


My former analyst, really, since I no longer see him. But when I did I could talk to him freely. He also understood me when I talked to him, and on the important things agreed with me. By important I mean Israel. Or what I would explain to him about society from Luhmann’s perspective. In exchange he would make it clear to me he did not approve of my homosexuality. Strangely enough, that made me feel secure. I knew he would not lie to me. And on those things that I needed clearing up about, he was very good. My relationship with him was the most comforting one I ever had. He would tell me the patient always had a right to talk about himself for at least five or ten minutes every hour. He apologized for ruining my sex life when he pointed out my repetition compulsion in choice of boyfriends. When I mused aloud about how I was not attracted to him sexually he explained that when I got from a man what I needed I did not need to have sex with him. I think what my analyst did for me was stop the world from being a source of terror. He made me feel safe. Safe in my own skin. That too was priceless. And I don’t even know how he did it. But he did it, and after my time with him the terror went away and with it my anxiety, and slowly I could absorb what I had seen once I finally understood Spinoza.


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I have one friend who is somewhat like my former analyst, both pitiless and compassionate. The two traits go together, as they must have gone together for Spinoza. This friend and I do not indulge each other. We have even sinned against each other over the years. But nothing has managed to dislodge the comfort we feel when we converse with each other. The last time I saw him he even made an enormous scene, which kept his lady friend and me laughing for hours. He finally owned up to it, though there was nothing to own up to. It was like the phrase from Mallarmé he had quoted to us for days, a conversation piece, something to allow us to take the world’s pulse by rolling it between our sad fingers; and though we would not say we have read all the books, we certainly have read a goodly number and like quoting them. As well him as another, I told him apropos of my current boyfriend, waiting for him to remind me that nonetheless it was him and not another, like Bloom and Molly, as he had once told me years ago. That’s how we talk, Joyce or the Bible close at hand, like two characters from a nineteenth century novel. And what was the phrase he incanted over and over for those few days we spent together? The virgin, lively, lovely day, will it with a burst of drunken wing tear apart this hard forgotten lake…? Of course he now lives in the country as far from a lake as possible. As I in the desert, where I sit and write elegies about my boyfriend who claims all men are gay.


When I tell my friend I think he says that in order to keep his emotional distance, my friend holds up his hand. Let me stop you right there, he tells me. He’s not so wrong. Of course, he goes on, we are not talking about the acts, the frolicking amid the bedsheets. But think of your Spinoza and his little friend Caesarius, taking their pleasure and then separating with no fuss or bother. Not like that Simon de Vries who was a real girl, asking for love tokens. No, your boyfriend leaves you alone, tells you to go about your business, which in the end it is, is it not? You have your freedom and your loneliness, but then they go together. As did Spinoza, I say. Obviously, answers my friend. Your boyfriend is rather astute, he adds. It’s like the line from Mallarmé, and he incants once again, scanning the air with the phrase: The virgin, lively, lovely day, will it with a burst of drunken wing tear apart this hard forgotten lake…?


After our conversation, the line of poetry ringing in my ears, especially the phrase this hard-forgotten lake, my mind wanders in its own attic, thinking of things. My sex life, which my friend does not want to ruin any more than my analyst did. Israel’s predicament to which I would like to see an end. The culture wars tearing America apart Luhmann warned would come about. Freedom and loneliness. Spinoza at the top of his stairs restrained by his landlord. Friends. Spinoza and friends. I wonder if Spinoza’s recommendations for happiness are not eminently suitable for manly love. Maybe, I think, modern society runs on that more than ever. After all, with every social sphere running on its own resources, no one at the top can command anything, not even the good life. Things can only progress through interpenetration, a term Luhmann coined to denote the way one social system influences another by irritating it. Even people respond to society through interpenetration. Perhaps modern society’s pleasure is at heart homosexual, which would lead one to think all men are gay. Gay, free, and lonely; and wary when they are lucky enough to have earned friends, as Spinoza did, that time a mob burst through the fence of the republic on a drunken wing to tear it apart.



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Stephen Schecter is a poet, writer and sociologist who specializes in telling stories from the Hebrew Bible. His work can be seen at www.shabbtai.com.

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