The Moral of the Story: Morality and Literature, Part I

The Spinoza Problem by Irvin D. Yalom

I was immediately drawn to this novel because (a) it is a fictional account of the life of the 17th Century moral philosopher, Benedict Spinoza and (b) I have previously enjoyed Yalom’s fictional accounts of actual historical events (When Nietzsche Wept, which was about the relationships between Frederick Nietzsche, Josef Breuer and a young Sigmund Freud).

The story begins with Benedict Spinoza. We learn of the events that led to his excommunication from the Jewish community. The plot revolves around his viewpoints on the importance of reason or rationality and his opinions about God as a part of Nature - not as a deity that is personally involved in people’s lives. Spinoza posits that the role of a personal God was an invention of early believers to help answer the unexplainable and to give comfort and hope.

Stylistically, the novel alternates between chapters about Spinoza and Alfred Rosenberg, a Nazi idealist, editor and author who was heavily involved in the founding and development of the Nazi party’s politics and beliefs. We are introduced to Rosenberg as a teenager in trouble with his headmaster after delivering an anti-Sematic speech during a student election campaign. The story follows Rosenberg’s advancement through the Nazi party, his obsessive admiration and worship of Adolf Hitler, and his “Spinoza problem”.

To understand the problem, we have to first delve into Rosenberg’s mind. Rosenberg had a great admiration and respect for the German writer, artist and politician, Goethe. Goethe, in turn, was greatly influenced by the moral philosophy of Spinoza. Rosenberg cannot grasp how his German idol, Goethe, could have such respect for Spinoza, a Jew. Rosenberg deeply believes that the Jewish people are polluting Germany’s purity and have been a burden and a curse throughout all of history. The plot is based around Rosenberg’s attempts to reconcile his mixed feelings of hatred for Spinoza the Jew and admiration for Spinoza the philosopher.

Throughout the novel, there are overt references to psychoanalysis and psychotherapy (evident in all of Yalom’s work), since he is a psychiatrist and professor of psychiatry in his day job. In fact one of the characters (a childhood friend of Rosenberg) was invented to serve as a link between Rosenberg and Spinoza and to act as a psychoanalyst for Rosenberg for the purpose of understanding his inner thoughts and the formation of his extreme anti-Semitism.

The Spinoza Problem is an engaging and philosophically stimulating read. Yalom is a superb storyteller, and I loved the blend of moral philosophy, the psychology of prejudice, and real historical events. I would unreservedly recommend this book to the readers of our blog.

By Melissa A. Wheeler


thanks for that lovely and perceptive review - my best wishes to you - irv yalom

:) Looking forward to reading it!


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