Friday, April 25, 2014


The Spinoza Problem, Irvin D Yalom, Basic Books, 2012, 308 pp

I learned of this author through one of my friends on Goodreads. Yalom is a professor of psychiatry at Stanford, a practicing psychiatrist, and an author of nonfiction as well as novels. The Spinoza Problem is a philosophical novel and I chose to read it as an introduction to Yalom because I admire Spinoza.

I have mentioned before, in my ranting about books and reading, my life long difficulties with studying philosophy. My only real success in this endeavor came when I read The Story of Philosophy by Will Durant, in which he gives a biography and summary of the writings of fifteen well known philosophers from Plato to John Dewey. I finally understood that these thinkers and writers learned from their predecessors, then enlarged upon or revised or argued against them, continuing to make the subject relevant for their times.

It was Durant's portrait of Spinoza that inspired my admiration. Since then, being a lover of novels, I confess I have fulfilled my philosophical curiosity by reading fiction based on the subject.

A philosophical novel is not usually a page turner due to the necessary extent and depth of its ideas. A serial killer kills, a philosopher thinks. The Spinoza Problem was fairly snappy though due to an intriguing dual plot. The story of Spinoza runs from 1656, the year he was excommunicated by Jewish leaders in Amsterdam, to 1666 when his loyal friend Franco warns him not to publish his critique of the Bible under his own name. The connection and dialogue between these two men serve to convey Spinoza's main ideas to the reader.

But we also get the sense of deep isolation and loneliness under which Spinoza worked on his ideas. The price paid for freedom of thought is high. In addition, the author creates the atmosphere for Jews living in Europe following the Spanish Inquisition. 

Intertwined with Spinoza's is a secondary story following Alfred Rosenberg, also a historical figure, from his teenage years as a student in 1910 Estonia to his adult years as a leading member of the Nazi party being the editor of Hitler's propaganda filled newspaper. The Spinoza problem for Alfred, an admirer of Goethe, was how the German genius could have held a Jewish philosopher in such high regard. Rosenberg was an anti-Semite of the first order and ultimately hanged as a war criminal for his part in creating the Final Solution.

Using a fictional psychoanalyst named Friedrich Pfister, Yalom explores Rosenberg's mental makeup. The sessions between them present both a historically accurate picture of mental health practices in the early 20th century as well as an analysis of the psychosis of an anti-Semite.

Thus the novel is an intriguing contrast between two men who both suffered from isolation and loneliness, who both held fiercely to radical ideas, and who both impacted history. Yet Spinoza's impact was to bring religious inquiry from superstition and manipulation into the realm of reason. Rosenberg's was to further the aims of hatred and oppression.

What then are good reasons to read philosophical novels? Philosophy is a calling, not well remunerated unless one teaches or publishes. It has its own language generally directed toward other philosophers or serious students of the subject. But to be human is to wonder about life and its quandaries.

The philosophical novel then forms a bridge from the deep thinker in his ivory tower and the everyday person. By putting those ideas into story form, such novels encourage us to look more closely at ourselves, our fellow humans, our societies and governments. We become included in a conscious conduct of life and in the pursuit of truth.

Can you recommend any good philosophical novels to me?

(The Spinoza Problem is available in various formats by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

No comments:

Post a Comment