Saturday, April 07, 2007


Despite what the title of this post suggests, I’m not writing today about Nietzsche. Rather, my subject is a much more modern thinker, one who is considerably younger than the great German existentialist was in his prime – and also much more sane.

Our subject is Rebecca Spiro, my 14 year-old daughter. Those of you who read this blog religiously may last recall her from the Maryland State Band competition. That’s where she was left in the dust by two smirking, smug competitors, who expertly negotiated their way through their saxophone parts, laughing condescendingly at Rebecca after she screwed up her own.

Later this month, Rebecca gets her second chance at state-level competition. She and a friend will perform a play that they wrote as part of National History Day. Their play won the county competition, and that entitles them to battle at the State level, which no doubt will bring them back to another set of smirking, smug competitors from Baltimore, Frederick, Columbia and the Eastern Shore. There must be something about a good, clean fight that turns even a farm boy into a rat-racer.

I suppose I would be pleased about Rebecca’s second-chance at the “big prize” regardless of what her play was about. The event requires each competitor to talk about a historical matter in terms of “Triumph and Tragedy,” and that surely is a useful exercise, no matter the topic. But there is something especially enjoyable for me about the topic Rebecca chose. I can’t put my finger on it. Maybe you all can, though. The name of her play is: “Spinoza Remembered.”

What is it about “Spinoza Remembered” that would make me so thrilled to see Rebecca write such a play? Is it the irony in the title? After all, a couple of weeks ago I met a Harvard grad who had no idea who Spinoza was. But I think there’s something that pleases me here even more than my daughter’s opportunity to explore irony. There are indeed plenty of ironic titles – she could have spoken about the “Iraq War: Mission Accomplished” in terms of triumph and tragedy, for example – and yet I doubt many of them would have given me the same joy as the topic she chose.

Perhaps, instead, I’m joyous about the chance Rebecca has been given to think about the philosopher who has meant more to my life than any other. Spinoza is, indeed, the man who has freed me to adopt a belief in God, and who has provided me with an exemplar of what it means to devote your life as much as possible to reason. And Rebecca has spent time learning all sorts of facts about his life, his thought, and his historical influence. Could that be why I’m so excited that Rebecca has written a play about him?

Possibly. Then again, it’s not like Rebecca spends every waking hour studying Spinoza’s every teaching. While a few of her smirking, smug peers are no doubt boning up night after night on the historical topic they’ve chosen, Rebecca has gone back to being a – what is the word? -- oh yeah. She’s gone back to being a kid. So when all is said and done, I’m not sure how much Rebecca will remember about “nature naturans versus nature naturata,” “modes and modifications,” the two known divine “attributes,” or the other various and sundry Spinozistic terms to which she has been exposed in writing her play.

No, I think my joy at Rebecca’s chosen theme goes beyond the mere opportunity to study Spinoza. Let’s return to the title of this post.

When I think of giving middle-schoolers the opportunity to study “triumph and tragedy” in history, I assume that this is but one more vehicle to expose kids to the good and evil of the human condition. Most kids would choose some figure or figures from the past – a Jim Thorpe, say, a Joan of Arc, or perhaps a group like the Amazing Mets of 1969 – that have lived through trials and tribulations but also can boast great accomplishments, and then provide a narrative about their life stories. Nobody could possibly be confused about what part of their life constitutes the “triumph” and what part the “tragedy.” Nobody could be confused that the forces that hindered them are “evil,” whereas those that provided support are “good.” We’ve all read this story 1000 times. Heck, an entire TV show – VH1’s “Behind the Music” – essentially repeats this same story in every episode. (Boy meets guitar. Guitar sounds great. Boy becomes famous. Boy meets drug. Drug feels great. Boy meets either rehab or his maker – and therein lays the only variety in the series.)

None of this applies to the story of Spinoza. Who are the villains here? The Jewish community that excommunicated him? Ah, think again. Say you’re a Jew living in 17th century Amsterdam. Your people have been booted first out of Spain, then out of Portugal, and now you think you’ve finally found a safe haven, only to learn that one of your own is teaching that (a) free will doesn’t exist, (b) even God doesn’t act in accordance with a will, (c) the Creation and the Creator are one and the same, (d) the Biblical Prophets excel in their imaginations, but not necessarily their knowledge of truth, (e) the Bible, when studied scientifically, doesn’t hold up as literal truth, and (f) for a human to conceive of God in human-like terms makes no more sense than for a triangle to assume that God is triangular. You get the idea. For the 17th century Dutch Jews, separating a teacher of those dangerous doctrines from your community made as much as sense, if not more, than ridding yourself of an arsonist or even a killer.

And what exactly is the “triumph” in the Spinoza story? That 108 years after Spinoza’s death, a group of German intellectuals decided he wasn’t a wicked “atheist” after all – despite what theologians and many philosophers had been saying about him for a century – and was, in fact, “the most Christian” or “God intoxicated” man imaginable? That is truly a triumph, but how much of one can surely be debated. Remember that today, 330 years after his death, one can sensibly argue that Spinoza’s greatest influence upon the world was simply to pave the trail for the ascendancy of a secular, liberal mindset that seems to be destroying God and religion, much as Nietzsche (a Spinoza-disciple) predicted. In other words, this same man who claimed to have been devoted above all to the “intellectual love of God,” may have effectively killed the relevance of the deity to the modern world. A triumph?

The truth is that the story of Spinoza is bathed in ambiguity. It’s as difficult to grasp as some of the more obscure passages of his Ethics. Spinoza himself teaches that what is good and bad (let alone “evil”) is all dependent on the perspective of the moral actor involved. So indeed, the “triumph” and “tragedy” of Spinoza’s story is surely dependent on who is doing the evaluating. For me, a man who has come to embrace religion largely because of Spinoza, the triumph in his story is very different than what my atheist friends would identify. And yet we both recognize Spinoza as a hero. So did Einstein, Freud, Santayana, Hegel, Heine, Goethe, Lessing, Schelling, Hess, Deleuze … (the list goes on and on).

Yes, Nietzsche wasn’t the only great thinker who loved Spinoza. What that group of minds tend to have in common is that they are passionately devoted to the freedom of thought, and enjoy playing with multiple sides of an issue, making subtle distinctions, and never satisfying themselves with black-and-white solutions to complex problems. If, by studying Spinoza in middle school, Rebecca comes to develop such a perspective, this would make me so much happier than if she were to able to win some stupid competition and wipe the smirks off the rat-racers’ faces.

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