The Spinoza Problem

“Gods decrees and commands and consequently God’s providence, are in truth, nothing but Nature’s order.”

Alfred Rosenberg was a Nazi anti-Semite, a pretentious, sometimes crony of Hitler who wrote one of the central doctrines advocating the annihilation of European Jews. Baruch Spinoza was a 17th century Jewish scholar who is recognized to be an early forerunner of contemporary philosophy.

Irvin Yalom explores the connection between these two widely separated individuals in his latest novel, The Spinoza Problem. Reading Yalom’s psychiatric tour-de-force is like listening to two alternating sessions between Yalom, the therapist, and Rosenberg and Spinoza, his two clients. Similarly, the chapters in this narrative alternate between centuries, between a thinker and a madman.

Like Yalom’s previous novels, The Spinoza Problem, also weaves together clinical practice with philosophical insight. A German psychiatrist who was a friend of Rosenberg remarks, “One of the things I love about psychiatry is that, unlike any other fiend of medicine, it veers close to philosophy.” Yalom is a master of linking these two disciplines.

As a young student Alfred Rosenberg could never understand why the great German writer Wolfgang Goethe, who always had a copy of Spinoza’s Ethics with him, could have admired a Jew. Rosenberg remarks, “What a paradox. A Jew both courageous and wise! Spinoza has soul wisdom—he must have non-Jewish blood in him.”

Before I read this novel, I had only a vague acquaintance with Spinoza’s life and work. But afterwards, I knew a very great deal. Moreover, I wanted to know more, bought a book about him, read widely on the web, pondered the relevancy of his “truths.” “We have always been enslaved by love…reason is no match for passion…I must learn to turn reason into a passion.” Isn’t this one of the great delights of reading a novel like this?

While I was far more familiar with the Nazi Germany of Alfred Rosenberg, I didn’t know he wrote a influential diatribe against the Jewish people, The Myth of the Twentieth Century. Because of his obsession with Spinoza, he led the raid on the Spinoza Library in Rijnsburg, a small town outside Amsterdam, and removed all the books that were kept mthere. At Nuremberg, Rosenberg was tried and convicted of war crimes and executed on the gallows.

The great tragedy of Spinoza’s life was his excommunication from the Jewish community of Amsterdam at the age of 24. This meant he was barred from Jewish his synagogue, his friends and family members (brother and sister) were forbidden to speak with him, and all his writings and books were formally banned for the rest of his life.

His days were largely spent writing and reading in solitude. “Though I desire and insist upon a solitary life to purse my meditations, I can sense another part of me for longing for intimacy.” Spinoza died at the age of 44 having supported himself as a lens grinder and private tutor. It was not until much later that the importance of his work was fully appreciated.

In the Prologue to The Spinoza Problem, Yalom writes that he always wanted to write about Spinoza, “…so alone in the world—without a family without a community—who authored books that truly changed the world. He anticipated secularization, the liberal democratic state and the rise of natural science and he paved the way for the Enlightenment."

Yalom speaks briefly about his novel here: