, , , , , ,

Novel ‘form’ used to explore ideas and the personalities which subscribe to them

the-spinoza-problemReviewing The Spinoza Problem is more than a little challenging, it is not quite successful as a novel, but is a far better way of educating the reader into grasping facets of Spinoza’s philosophy than any of the ‘Dummies’ type guides might be, because the information is woven in a more dramatic, narrative, human way

Irvin Yalom is a much revered humanistic psychotherapist. He is also a marvellous writer/communicator about these matters, and his non-fiction writings are rich, meaningful and informative, to practitioners and to those interested in our very human nature, and all the ethical and philosophical ideas which might arise from consciousness, and self-consciousness. He has written other novels, using a semi fictional framework to explore ideas.

In ‘The Spinoza Problem’ there are two parallel journeys happening, separated by nearly 300 years, and both stories, of real people with a strange, cross-time connection, are explored using a similar device, that of presenting the central character in each time, with a kind of analyst figure, a wise, self-reflective listener who can be trusted to explore how who we are, and our formative experiences, often determines how we think

God did not make us in His image – we made Him in our image

Baruch, later Bento Spinoza was a Portuguese Jew of extraordinary intellect and a rigorously independent, questioning nature. The Netherlands, where he lived and died was, in the 1660’s, a markedly tolerant society, where religious freedom, and different religions, were able to live side by side. Great things were expected of Spinoza within his community, where his understanding of religious texts and analytical mind seemed to indicate he would become a highly influential rabbi. This was not to be, however, as he began to question religion itself, and dismissed the forms as created by man, not God. Extraordinary thinking in those times, and brave to voice those thoughts : religious intolerance and fundamental beliefs were rather more the bedrock of the times, and dissent, in some cases, led to death. He had an extraordinary certainty in his own belief system, but also a tolerance towards others of different beliefs. He was, however, uncompromising in his insistence that he could not live untruthful to his own beliefs. The result was that he was cursed, excommunicated by his community, for the rest of his life. This was a man who hugely valued his community, but valued adherence to his own understanding of ‘truth’ more. Where I found his uncompromising adherence to that to be even more laudable, is that he did not feel the need to force others into his thinking. A rather unusual combination of uncompromising adherence and toleration. Often, those who hold most fiercely to their own ‘right’ seek to deny others theirs – where we are talking the systems of beliefs

nothing can occur contrary to the fixed laws of Nature. Nature, which is infinite and eternal and encompasses all substance in the universe, acts according to orderly laws that cannot be superseded by supernatural means

The shadow side of belief lies in the second figure, the one who searches for the solution to ‘The Spinoza Problem’ : Nazi Alfred Rosenberg, who was chief ‘theorist’ of the Party. Rosenberg, committed Anti-Semite, had a major problem with Spinoza – that he was a Jew, and was admired, hugely by the ‘good German’ Goethe, whom Rosenberg venerated. Here is a clear mark between mature and immature thinking, feeling, being – the inability to hold any kind of nuance or conflict between ‘this’ and ‘that’

You attempt to control the populace through the power of fear and hope – the traditional cudgels of religious leaders throughout history

Where the book particularly fascinated me is through Yalom’s own background as a psychotherapist, and one with a view which is both ‘narrow focus’ – this person, this story of theirs, and ‘broad focus’ – the overview, the wider issues. So, our own beliefs, which we generally believe are rationally driven, whilst the beliefs of others, with different opinions, we are more likely to believe spring from ‘personality and individual psychology’ than fact, are always driven more by ‘who we are’ than by rationality.

Yalom teases out, in the ‘invented’ encounters, giving Spinoza and Rosenberg people whom they can trust to have meaningful dialogue with, of the kind that happens in the best-run psychotherapeutic encounters, known history and personality traits. Obviously, more is known of the man Rosenberg through his writings, sayings, deeds as his is a more recent history – Rosenberg was one of those brought to trial, at Nuremberg, and executed for his war crimes, and his crimes against humanity. Yalom traces this aberrant personality and psychology, which the wider events of the times fitted so horribly well – when external political/economic systems hurt ‘the common man’ the easiest, and most terrible solution is to make some massed ‘other’ the cause.


This is what we are of course seeing, nascent, in the rise of what is being improperly named – ‘the alt right’. Let us name it – certainly there is proto Fascism as a driver : the so called ‘alt right’ leaders are using the terrible, dangerous language of Fascism, before it became powerful enough to translate word into action,  and the terrible, dangerous, ‘feeling thought’ is gaining credence.

Reason is leading me to the extraordinary conclusion that everything in the world is one substance, which is Nature, or, if you wish, God, and that everything, with no exception, can be understood through the illumination of natural law

To return (and how we need to) to Spinoza. There is a wealth of quite complex writing – which Yalom has clearly studied at depth – which can be used, with historical background about his life, and what has been said about him by others, whether at the time, or later students/researchers into his life an writing – to create an idea of who this man might have been. Certainly there is an enormous intellectual and emotional intelligence at work here, a visionary, positively inspirational individual. He may not have been an easy man to be around in some ways – those who are ‘greater’ in a kind of moral, ethical way than most of us, those who serve as ‘inspirers’ to our feebler selves to orientate towards, can easily inspire our fear and our dislike – through no fault of their own, but because they make us uncomfortable and uneasy with our own shortcomings. ‘Dead heroes’ of history may be easier to read about and be with, than the person better, more humane, more morally fine, who lives next door!

It is the fall from grace of the most highly placed that has always most excited crowds: the dark side of admiration is envy combined with disgruntlement at one’s own ordinariness

So, not quite fully satisfying as ‘novel’ Yalom, as ever, invites the reader to engage with themselves, and with ethical ideas, educating without standing dryly outside what is being explained

You can see I have categorised it as both fiction and non-fiction. I am trying to hold the ‘this AND that’ idea together, rather than this OR that.

I keep coming back in my mind, to that idea of ‘one substance’ in the quote which starts ‘Reason’ . Right there, is the idea of wholism, communality, community, respect towards other – including towards our planet itself. Not a splitting, not a division. Spinoza grasped the spirit of matter. Spiritual materialism, not the split, mechanistic version that is merely consumerism.


All quotes  come from the Spinoza section, and are either from his writing, or from a clarifying/ distillation/explanation of his philosophical framework.

Quotes from the ‘disordered thinking’ Rosenberg section do not bear repetition, and some of the current political leaders are espousing modern versions of them, daily, by spoken word and by tweet

The Spinoza Problem Amazon UK
The Spinoza Problem Amazon USA