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.