There are those of the great to whom glory comes like an accolade of thunder: strenuous beings who with brandished fists and roaring throats force the very heavens to sing their praise. But there are others no less great to whom glory comes like the dawn-wind, and of them it is less easy to write. There may be drama in their lives, but it is for the most part inward; there may be glamour, but it is largely veiled. And therefore the biographers pass them by. For example Baruch de Spinoza: of commentaries on his thought there are scores and hundreds, but of accounts of his life there are exceedingly few. Clearly enough, the career of that outcast philosopher has had little appeal for the tellers of tales. It contained to too little of physical storm to lend itself to dramatic writing, too little of blood and bluster an tears. It might have contained more, much more; for Spinoza’s times encouraged such extravagances. But the man himself did not. He was excommunicated in his youth, and hounded from the world in which he had been reared; his company was shunned, his writings were proscribed, his very life was menaced. Yet with a supernal aloofness, he rarely troubled to fight back. ‘The wise man,’ he once declared, ‘being conscious of a certain eternal necessity in whatever exists or occurs, is scarcely ever disturbed in his mind’. And Spinoza was supremely a wise man.
And just that, from the point of view of the biographer, was perhaps Spinoza’s sorriest failing. There was no recklessness in the man, no eagerness to fling himself on those who harried him, no readiness to go down in a gory brawl. Not that he was dead to such all-to-human impulses. On the contrary, they searched in him throughout his life, and with such urgency that once and again he was compelled to give vent to them. But, save for those extremely rare lapses, he was able to rein them in. He made his mind the sovereign of his being, and by dint of intellect so restrained his passions as to rid his life almost completely of that element of conflict which is the warp and woof of drama.
And perhaps that is why so little heed has ever been paid to Spinoza as a man. Lessing, Goethe, Shelly, Coleridge - they were all profoundly stirred by his thought; but not one of them ever wrote of his life. Byron once talked of doing so; but nothing came of his words. Likely enough he decided the man’s life was too virtuous to deserve recounting. ‘It is perhaps as difficult to write a good life’, says Lytton Strachey, ‘as to live one’. True. But to write a good life of a man who himself lived one- that is perhaps impossible.
Yet, impossible, as it may be, the task is worth essaying. Biographical literature, especially in these latter days, positively crawls with eccentrics, monsters, fools and blatherskites. But rare is the life-story of a good man. And therefore the biography of such a one as Spinoza is peculiarly deserving to be retold. Here is a man who was indisputably good. Even his pious contemporaries had to concede that to him. They considered his ideas pernicious and abominable, and his books the sinkholes of Satan’s own lies. Yet his conduct, they were forced to admit, was exemplary. His unflagging love of the contemplative life, his utter disinterestedness in fame or fortune, his fortitude in the face of wasting disease, his patience under relentless persecution, his sweetness, gentility, and superlative tolerance - these were virtues which none could deny in him. Not until centuries later did his romantic admirers begin to describe him as ‘the holy outcast’ and the ‘God-intoxicated man’. But even at the time of his dead his barber already spoke of him as ‘Mr. Spinoza of blessed memory’.
Yes, he was a good man. But that is not all. In addition he was a wise man - one of the wisest that ever lived. And it is this combination that makes Spinoza’s life shine out like a lamp in the dark that cloaks our world. He was no saint by the grace of God; he was a good man by virtue of deliberate reasoning. It was no dread of Hell or dream of Heaven that kept him from wickedness; he drew upon no other worldly faith for strength to withstand fate’s bludgeonings. He was a realist, his eyes never closed like a child’s when wishing, but wide open and aware of the actual.
And therefore, being under no delusions, Spinoza could be good without impassioned straining. There was nothing of the ascetic in him, nothing of the embittered no-sayer who says no only because he fears to say yes. If he denied himself pleasant luxuries, and even common comforts, it was not because he saw a virtue in denial. Rather it was because his absorption in the quest for truth made him indifferent to all. ‘It is superstition', he taught, ‘that sets up sadness as good and all that tends to joy as evil... Yes it is the part of a wise man to use the things of this life, and enjoy them to the full.’
That is why one finds in his writings no trace of those repressions which rise from the mouths of the conventional saints like stench from hidden carrion. The man was integrated, never lunging frenziedly to lay hold of some abstinence, and then falling back in hysterical despair. He was secure in goodness, serene in his joy of life - because he let reason guide his steps. ‘Whatever accords with reason’, he wrote, ‘is in my belief most conductive to the practice of virtue.’ And in his own life that belief was completely validated.
There are those who say that he carried reason too far – that he thought with such excessive acuteness and inexorable logic as to devour and absorb the very objects of thought. They say he reduced all life to nullity; that the ‘ultimate truth’ discovered by his relentless rationalism is but an empty equation made up of a God who is nothing and the world that is less than nothing.... But the fact remains that he who cleaved to such rationalism was himself a happy man. And that fact, demonstrated as clearly in his life as in his words, is the final refutation of the carping of mysticists.
Many volumes have been written on Spinoza’s philosophy; and, in this year which marks the tercentenary of his birth, many more such volumes are being written. That is good, for his philosophy is all too little known in the world, and even less understood. But it would be good also if his life were better known, for it is the most convincing demonstration of the soundness of his philosophy. These are days when men are once more learning to doubt the saving power of reason. But here was a life ruled completely by reason – and who shall say it was not saved?
August 7, 1932
(...) uitgaande van den gezonden stelregel, dat men zich niet boven SPINOZA verheven moet achten voor en aleer men hem begrepen heeft.
Willem Meijer (1903)
SKL (Spinoza kring Lier)
Platform voor de studie en de verspreiding van het gedachtegoed van Benedictus Spinoza (1632-1677)
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