The Spinoza Problem

The Spinoza Problem, by Irvin Yalom

The Spinoza Problem   by Irvin Yalom

So, what is the “Spinoza problem”?  Who was Spinoza?   When we look at the cover of this book we see two people sort of intertwined.   The One person whose picture is older looking obviously must be Spinoza.  The other picture is what looks like a Nazi officer.  When we read the book blurb we find out that this is Alfred Rosenberg, a high ranking official in the Reich’s inner circle.

Irwin D. Yalom is a practicing psychotherapist.  In this book he attempts to psycho-analyze  these two historical characters and rationalize their actions.

Barach Spinoza was a Dutch Jewish philosopher who lived in the mid 1600’s.  He came to be considered one of the great rationalists of 17th century philosophy.  During his studies he became convinced that the Jewish traditions were no better than the Catholic Church which had persecuted him and his family in Portugal and forced them to relocate to Amsterdam.  He dreamed of a God that was pure nature, reflecting the natural world.  Man would have no influence over this God and would not be influenced by him.  For these heresies he was cast out of the Jewish faith.

Alfred Rosenberg, a virulent anti-Semite, was an early and intellectually influential member of the Nazi Party.  When he was sixteen he was called into his headmaster’s office for anti- Semitic remarks he made during a school speech.  He was forced, as punishment, to memorize passages about Spinoza from the autobiography of the German poet Goethe.  Rosenberg was stunned to discover that Goethe, his idol, was a great admirer of Spinoza.  In this book we discover that Rosenberg was as hateful of the Jews as Hitler himself.  In fact he longed to be the Fuhrer of the German people, but Hitler beat him to it. He was Salieri to Hitler’s Mozart.  Hitler mostly ignored him and did not see him as a threat to his supremacy of the Reich.  Rosenberg was obsessed with Spinoza.  How could a Jew espouse things that he as a representative of the master race could whole-heartedly agree with?  For his war crimes and anti-Semitism Rosenberg was executed after the Nuremburg trials.

The Spinoza problem has two elements.  How could a devote Jew who studied to be a rabbi come to renounce most of the tenets of his faith and suffer the fate of excommunication?   How could a man who suffered from Aryan derangement syndrome reconcile the fact that Goethe,  considered one of the supreme geniuses of Modern German literature, had been so greatly influenced by a Jew, whom many including Rosenberg considered an inferior race?

We learn a lot about Spinoza’s philosophy and the origins of Third Reich genocidal ideology in this book.


One thought on “The Spinoza Problem

  1. From Deutscher’s essay, The Non-Jewish Jew : Finally, all these [Jewish] men, from Spinoza to Freud, believed in the utalmite solidarity of men; and this was implicit in their attitudes towards Jewry. We are now looking back on these believers in humanity through the bloody fog of our times. We are looking back at them through the smoke of the gas chambers, the smoke which no wind can really disperse from our eyes. These e2809cnon-Jewish Jewse2809d were essentially optimists; and their optimism reached heights which it is not easy to ascend in our times. They did not imagine that it would be possible for e2809ccivilizede2809d Europe in the twentieth century to sink to a depth of barbarity at which the mere words solidarity of men’ would sound as a perverse mockery to Jewish ears.( ) Was then the optimistic belief in humanity voiced by the great Jewish revolutionaries justified? Can we still share their faith in the future of civilization? I admit that if one were to try and answer these questions from an exclusively Jewish standpoint it would be hard, perhaps impossible, to give a positive answer. As to myself, I cannot approach the issue from an exclusively Jewish standpoint; and my answer is: Yes, their faith was justified. It was justified in so far, at any rate, as the belief in the utalmite solidarity of mankind is itself one of the conditions necessary for the preservation of humanity and for the cleansing of our civilization of the dregs of barbarity that are still present in it and poison it. I can’t add anything to that profound statement, written on or before 1968. But I can’t help wondering what these remarkable Jewish humanists of yesteryear would think of today’s political Zionism.

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