Saturday, March 19, 2011


Paola Teresa Grassi is an Italian philosopher whose talk about Spinoza and Goethe was one of the highlights of the Spinoza and Feminism conference in which I participated last month. She has been kind enough to translate into Italian my blog post regarding the conference. For all you Italian speakers, here's a link where you can find the translation:

After I wrote that blog post, Paola was inspired to write a piece of her own. I contributed a few thoughts, and now we have a finished product. So here it is. I hope you enjoy it.

Shakespeare, A Prophet in the Spinozistic Manner by Paola Teresa Grassi

With the passage of time, ideas have the capacity to germinate. It has been almost a month since the Spinoza Symposium at American University, and I am finding that some ideas from that Symposium are becoming clear for the first time, and others are becoming quite powerful. I find myself especially struck by two reflections. First, that an effective demonstration in philosophy is not merely a theoretical exercise; it is a practical one. Secondly, philosophy at its most practical asks such fundamental questions as "what is ethical"? But it does not stop with these questions. They are used as points of departure from which emerges a lively byplay, experienced at the very core of those who take up the challenge.

At a symposium on Spinoza, perhaps the most basic question is what is meant by the "Spinozist project"? For me, this project is a phenomenological resource for nothing less than a revolution, one that takes place in both the political and the theological domains. Indeed, just as Spinozism has this dual soul, so does philosophy as a whole. This is illustrated by the work of the recently deceased French scholar, Pierre Hadot. Hadot spent his life reformulating the history of his field as a never-ending process that furnishes evidence of a symbiosis between philosophical discourse and a rich, dialectically-stimulating existence. One of the main lessons taught to us by Hadot is that modern philosophy does not forget philosophizing in the manner of the ancients. Quite the contrary -- modern philosophy, at its best, grapples with many of the same issues and ideas that the ancients raised. The innovations accomplished by modern philosophers have the ancients to thank for providing the needed background.

You certainly can see this phenomenon operating in the work of Goethe, which owes so much to the teachings of Spinoza. Much has been said about the connection between those two thinkers. What has not, however, been widely revealed, are the many intersections between Spinoza and another literary great, Shakespeare. You don't often hear the name of the Bard invoked as a prophet among men, but I would argue that that is precisely what he was -- if the word "prophet" is used in the sense employed by Spinoza.

Readers of Spinoza's Theological-Political Treatise will note that Spinoza thought of prophets as people who were distinguished, not so much by their command of the truth, but by the power of their imaginations. Who can deny that as a master of the imagination -- and the psyche -- Shakespeare was at the very pinnacle of his species? Shakespearean stories are stories for the people deliciously invented by a man of the people whose main craft was acting. The characters crafted out of Shakespeare's imagination emerge as moral icons in the Spinozistic sense that, armed with a complex and increasingly self-aware inner life, they succeed in transforming the self. And all this happens on the wooden stages of the Elizabethan age, in front of those who are standing on the ground (the groundlings).

The range and profundity of Shakespeare's characters are mind-boggling. You have the stoic, if not ascetic, skepticism of Hamlet. Then there are such counter-cultural lovers as the bitter Beatrice, who strives to love in a reasonable manner, or Ophelia, who unconsciously finds profit in the negative. And finally we have fighters, like Henry V. These characters evoke different portions of the human soul, each one conjuring up memories upon memories in those who observe the fictional lives of these characters. (Can they really be fictional? They do not appear that way by the story's end.) The depth of these characters is such that they become models to strive for, each in his or her own way. In the effort to reproduce these models so that they can come alive on the stage, the Bard creates a way of being in the world, one that is entrancing, thought-provoking, and ultimately challenging to the observer's system of ethics.

What Shakespeare has forged on many levels is nothing less than a way of being in the world -- an accomplishment that Spinoza reproduced, in his own way, a century later. And insofar as they have opened our eyes to a new way of living, they are both aptly termed not only philosophers, but practical philosophers. In other words, they are philosophers for the people, and not merely for academicians. Both men, using very different media, came to the conclusion that wisdom lies in a life led by questioning the world so as to grasp the nature of every movement of the human soul. Spinoza explored this via pure reason. Shakespeare, via drama.

For Spinoza, prophets are not merely lions of the imagination; they are also the people who carry the nature of the world in a language that is particularly accessible, and stirring, to the commons. Shakespeare is surely a prototype of such a prophet. Spinoza characterized the knowledge learned from prophesy as "knowledge of the first kind" -- by which he meant the lowest form of knowledge (beneath that of reason and intuition). Yet an encounter with Spinoza's ideas reveals Shakespeare as a "philosopher of the first kind," and I mean that in the highest sense of the words. For what Shakespeare's plays communicate to the acute observer is the true nature of the human mind; he has as much to say on that topic as does any protégé of Plato or Aristotle.

As Spinoza the theologian was well aware, the Biblical figures beautifully translated reality into images and events to produce the most indelible convictions in the minds of the faithful. Shakespeare's plays do the same, and can accomplish this feat without even a pretense that the events ever happened. What's more, Shakespeare defined the real language of the people -- the vulgar language -- not only during his own time but even today, half a millennium later, when his beloved English has become the closest thing we have to a universal tongue. When Shakespeare depicted an image, that image would become publicly available then ... and now. And so, when the "theatre of the passions" was played out in Spinoza's century -- as it is played out in every century -- it had already received some of its flesh and blood on the London stages that had been graced by the works of the Bard. Spinoza knew those passions well, as you might expect given that he was banished from his own community at the tender age of 23. And so, armed with the knowledge of these passions, which Shakespeare has made so real for so many, Spinoza set out to forge his own creation -- the "geometrical" deductions of his own masterwork, the Ethics.

This historical overview takes me back to where I started: the idea of philosophy as a practice. Attending a Shakespeare play is definitively an exercise in philosophical practice -- an exercise for which Hadot may have used the term "spiritual." It is intriguing for those who love Spinoza to consider that this brilliant philosopher from Stratford wrote so soon before the century of Spinoza. Was Spinoza influenced by Shakespeare? Were the psychological ruminations that many view to be the heart of the Ethics deepened by those of the Bard? Historians may well know the answer to these questions. But for me, as a lover of philosophy -- practical philosophy -- I'm just grateful that we can enjoy both of these luminaries as our teachers.

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