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In the earliest pages of The Spinoza Problem, Yalom describes the painters Rembrandt and Vermeer crafting some of their most iconic works. These Dutch masters were best known for their careful contrasting of light and dark, as such these descriptions act as a sort of overture, setting out the tone for the intertwining stories which will follow. One strand follows the early life of Bento (Baruch) Spinoza, the Jewish rationalist, as he makes his first foray into academic philosophy and the censure from his religious community in Amsterdam. The second strand traces the development and rise of Alfred Rosenberg, the Nazi ideologue and architect of the Third Reich's racial theory. Much like the painters of 17th century Amsterdam, Yalom emphasises the bright light of Spinoza's clear philosophy by blending its edges with the dark, hateful rhetoric of Rosenberg's Nazi propaganda.
Yalom's painterly approach to the text is more than just a structural trope; it also explains the heart of his intentions in writing this book. The prologue explains how little a 21st century student of Spinoza can learn about the man beyond his philosophy; his library is a facsimile, his portrait an approximation. The Spinoza Problem is an attempt to address this deficit. Yalom wants to compose a portrait that rings true to the man, his life and his times while at the same time giving the reader an insight into Spinoza's philosophical project and his effect on modern European society. This latter task is achieved by examining the eponymous problem.
The Rosenberg strand begins with the young racist engaged in a Socratic dialogue with his headmaster and history teacher. They probe and confound the teen's staunchly held Aryan pride and anti-Semitism. They ask him to explain how his own hero Goethe, the German polymath, could idolize and revere the work of Spinoza, a Jewish philosopher. Rosenberg fails to recognize the irony of the task and instead of addressing the examination inwards to his own prejudices, he directs it outwards and grows obsessed with 'solving' the problem which Goethe's love of Spinoza raises.
Yalom's experience as a psychiatrist and an educator seeps through the pages of the Rosenberg tale as he does not take a judgmental position but instead tries to peel back the layers of his character and reveal the reasons behind Rosenberg's hatred of the Jewish community. This story line takes the form of a series of conversations and debates which illuminate, to a lesser or greater extent, Rosenberg as a human responsible for the most terrible atrocities. Each conversation offers him an exit, a way out, a freedom from the path which would lead him to excuse and engineer the destruction of countless people. But each opening passes by unnoticed or ignored by Rosenberg, showing the reader, through a classical via negativa, the importance and power of Spinoza's rational philosophy.
Yalom takes us through the vital period of Spinoza's life just prior to his cherem (censure or excommunication) and as his own philosophy begins to take the form with which we are most familiar. As most undergraduate philosophy students can attest to, the difficulty and joy of reading Spinoza is the startling clarity of his method. Each Spinoza text begins with a set of axioms which must be fully grasped and understood before progressing to the next, more developed set. It is this step by step method which, we are told, provided Goethe with such comfort and succor. It is also this approach to reasoning that set Spinoza at odds with the Jewish community of 17th century Amsterdam. How can a mind that operates in this fashion simply accept the tenets of prescriptive religion, or the practices and traditions that go with it? We see Spinoza at odds with his family and his neighbors, but also with himself. This fleshes out the psychology of a man that could easily appear as a robotic counting machine. But Yalom directs us to the tension and doubt that comes when an analytic mind is confronted by emotionally charged questions of faith. We follow Spinoza through these difficulties, learning much of his own philosophy but also learning where and how this philosophy came about.
Yalom crafts the Spinoza plot so as to emphasize the intrigue, tragedy and romance of the philosopher's short life. While reading this strand we are made to feel as inhabitants of the vibrant old city, bustling through the Dutch melting pot. While in the Rosenberg strand, Yalom delves deeper into the mind of the national socialist without creating the same colorful background. This makes the Rosenberg strand less satisfying to read but also prevents it from glorifying or fetishizing the rise of National Socialism, which can be a common pitfall for stories dealing with this period.
By writing both strands in the present tense and in short, intercutting chapters Yalom maintains a fast pace in both stories and makes the book eminently readable. The whole book revolves around asking, or maybe answering, the wrong questions. As such both strands deal with huge issues. These questions and answers may be too large and too weighty to be covered in a single readable volume, but Yalom should be commended for trying, and to a certain degree succeeding, to do so. Any reader familiar with Spinoza's philosophy will find this book to be a treasure which compliments the rationalist's works. Readers unfamiliar with Spinoza will find themselves amidst an enthralling tale of faith, reason, identity and community. However, both readers will leave the book enlightened and eager to make sure the questions they ask in their day to day lives are the right ones.
© 2012 Stephen Cadwell
Stephen Cadwell, Ph.D., University College Dublin
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