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In 1656, Amsterdam’s Jewish community excommunicated Baruch Spinoza, and, at the age of twenty–three, he became the most famous heretic in Judaism. He was already germinating a secularist challenge to religion that would be as radical as it was original. He went on to produce one of the most ambitious systems in the history of Western philosophy, so ahead of its time that scientists today, from string theorists to neurobiologists, count themselves among Spinoza’s progeny.
In Betraying Spinoza, Rebecca Goldstein sets out to rediscover the flesh-and-blood man often hidden beneath the veneer of rigorous rationality, and to crack the mystery of the breach between the philosopher and his Jewish past. Goldstein argues that the trauma of the Inquisition’s persecution of its forced Jewish converts plays itself out in Spinoza’s philosophy. The excommunicated Spinoza, no less than his excommunicators, was responding to Europe’s first experiment with racial anti-Semitism.
Here is a Spinoza both hauntingly emblematic and deeply human, both heretic and hero—a surprisingly contemporary figure ripe for our own uncertain age.
"If, like me, you have ever felt daunted by Spinoza’s thought, Rebecca Goldstein’s captivating new book provides the key. By engaging with not only Spinoza’s Jewish origins but her own Jewish upbringing, Goldstein brilliantly - and movingly - illuminates this self-effacing champion of rationalism and secularism. Excommunicated for heresy by the Jewish community of Amsterdam, Spinoza was thereby excommunicated from his own(and Europe's past) and freed to leap forward to a future of unbounded individual inquiry. Enlightening in every sense." —Niall Ferguson, author of Colossus: The Rise and Fall of the American Empire and Laurence A. Tisch Professor of History at Harvard University
“This is a splendid book. Goldstein provides a richly illuminating history of the Amsterdam Jewish community in which Spinoza was born and raised, and by which his distinctive outlook on human life was formed; she develops perspicuous accounts of some of Spinoza's most central metaphysical and ethical doctrines; and she sketches insightful portraits of his intellectual and personal identities. In all of her approaches to Spinoza—historical, philosophical, and personal—her work is both satisfying as scholarship and a pleasure to read.” —Harry Frankfurt, author of On Bullshit and professor emeritus of philosophy at Princeton University
“Rebecca Goldstein has written a brilliant, engaging and personal reflection on Spinoza's thinking, life, and historical context. I read this intellectual page-turner in one sitting. I recommend it to anyone curious to know how Spinoza was doubly betrayed, first by those who failed to acknowledge his monumental contribution to modernity and then by those who are now intent on dismantling it.”
—Antonio Damasio, author of Looking for Spinoza and Descartes' Error
“We are all children of Spinoza. But even now we are in danger of betraying him. Rebecca Goldstein reminds us of what is urgently at stake in a clear-eyed appreciation of this prophet of tolerance, democratic value, and authentic faith. This book is as timely as it is beautifully crafted.”
—James Carroll, author of House of War and Constantine’s Sword
“With a novelist’s imagination and a philosopher’s clarity, Rebecca Goldstein gives us a richly personal and accessible account of Spinoza’s life and thought. This is a rare and paradoxical feat, since Spinoza urged us to look beyond our passions and particularity, to see the world from the standpoint of eternity. Goldstein illuminates Spinoza by ‘betraying’ him–by showing how Spinoza’s universalist philosophy arose from his predicament as a renegade Jewish thinker, excommunicated by the Jewish community in seventeenth century Amsterdam.” —Michael J. Sandel, author of Public Philosophy and Anne T. and Robert M. Bass Professor of Government at Harvard University