The Spinoza Problem: A Novel (Book Review)

Author: Yalom, Irvin D.
Publisher: Basic Books, 2012, 336 pages. ISBN: 978-0465029631
Reviewed By: J. Scott Lewis, PhD, Penn State University

Separated in history by 300 years, the lives of philosopher Baruch Spinoza and Nazi propagandist Alfred Rosenberg intertwine in fascinating and unexpected ways. Based on the historical lives of both men, psychiatrist and novelist Irvin D. Yalom weaves together the circumstances that define each of them into a colorful and playful novel exploring the question of identity and one’s place in the world.

Rosenberg, a rabid anti-semite and architect of the racial theories of the Nazi party, embarks on a lifelong quest to understand his idol Goethe’s admiration for the Jewish philosopher Baruch Spinoza. Rosenberg wonders how the greatest modern Germanic writer could find value in the writings of an exiled Jew. The “Spinoza problem” becomes more than a mere academic endeavor. It becomes a search for understanding of place in a world torn by rigid identity distinctions and unyielding out-group warfare.

Rosenberg is cast as a subtly immature figure, seeking his place in the party he helped to form. Overshadowed by the charismatic Hitler, Rosenberg finds himself on the periphery of a party he to which he desperately wants to belong. As he courts the friendship of Hitler, Rosenberg becomes a pawn to the forces of history. He finds some solace in Goethe—but the Spinoza problem niggles at him like a persistent cough.

Nearly 300 years in the past, the brilliant Baruch Spinoza undergoes his own identity crisis. Once considered the most likely successor to Amsterdam’s most vocal and respected Rabbi, Spinoza rejects the rigid teachings of the Talmud and embraces immanence. This earns him permanent excommunication from the Jewish church, a sentence which the young Spinoza accepts with dignity beyond his years. Yet, Spinoza deeply struggles with his own identity. In love with a gentile who does not reciprocate, Spinoza isolates himself from a world he knows he cannot fit into. Seeking to understand the grand nature of the universe itself, Spinoza struggles to adapt to his isolation.

As the novel portrays them, these two distant and opposite figures share a common struggle to find their identity and personal truth in radical worlds. Though the paths are distinct, they cross often. Yalom does a masterful job of interweaving the lives of two men so distinctly different in time and space. Yalom’s novel reminds us of the common struggles faced by all people, regardless of their historical era. The sturm und drang faced by Rosenberg and Spinoza serve as examples of the fate of all humankind, and the interconnectedness of identity through time. The novel stands as testament to the universal struggle to find one’s place in the world.

Reviewer Notes

J. Scott Lewis is an assistant professor of Sociology and the program coordinator for Penn State Harrisburg’s Bachelor of Social Science in Secondary Education Social Studies program. His research interests include the philosophy of social science, sociobiology and pedagogy.

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