The Spinoza Problem: An Excerpt

The Spinoza Problem: An Excerpt

by Irvin Yalom
By imagining the unexpected intersection of Jewish philosopher Spinoza’s life with that of powerful Nazi ideologue Alfred Rosenberg, bestselling novelist Irvin Yalom explores the mindsets of two men separated by 300 years. is pleased to publish this exclusive excerpt.
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Spinoza has long intrigued me, and for years I’ve wanted to write about this valiant seventeenth-century thinker, so alone in the world—without a family, without a community—who authored books that truly changed the world. He anticipated secularization, the liberal democratic political state, and the rise of natural science, and he paved the way for the Enlightenment. The fact that he was excommunicated by the Jews at the age of twenty-four and censored for the rest of his life by the Christians had always fascinated me, perhaps because of my own iconoclastic proclivities. And this strange sense of kinship with Spinoza was strengthened by the knowledge that Einstein, one of my first heroes, was a Spinozist. When Einstein spoke of God, he spoke of Spinoza’s God—a God entirely equivalent to nature, a God that includes all substance, and a God “that doesn’t play dice with the universe”—by which he means that everything that happens, without exception, follows the orderly laws of nature.

I also believe that Spinoza, like Nietzsche and Schopenhauer, on whose lives and philosophy I have based two earlier novels, wrote much that is highly relevant to my field of psychiatry and psychotherapy—for example, that ideas, thoughts, and feelings are caused by previous experiences, that passions may be studied dispassionately, that understanding leads to transcendence—and I wished to celebrate his contributions through a novel of ideas.

But how to write about a man who lived such a contemplative life marked by so few striking external events? He was extraordinarily private, and he kept his own person invisible in his writing. I had none of the material that ordinarily lends itself to narrative—no family dramas, no love affairs, jealousies, curious anecdotes, feuds, spats, or reunions. He had a large correspondence, but after his death his colleagues followed his instructions and removed almost all personal comments from his letters. No, not much external drama in his life: most scholars regard Spinoza as a placid and gentle soul—some compare his life to that of Christian saints, some even to Jesus.

So I resolved to write a novel about his inner life. That was where my personal expertise might help in telling Spinoza’s story. After all, he was a human being and therefore must have struggled with the same basic human conflicts that troubled me and the many patients I’ve worked with over the decades. He must have had a strong emotional response to being excommunicated, at the age of twenty-four, by the Jewish community in Amsterdam—an irreversible edict that ordered every Jew, including his own family, to shun him forever. No Jew would ever again speak to him, have commerce with him, read his words, or come within fifteen feet of his physical presence. And of course no one lives without an inner life of fantasies, dreams, passions, and a yearning for love. About a fourth of Spinoza’s major work, Ethics, is devoted to “overcoming the bondage of the passions.” As a psychiatrist, I felt convinced that he could not have written this section unless he had experienced a conscious struggle with his own passions.

Yet I was stumped for years because I could not find the story that a novel requires—until a visit to Holland five years ago changed everything. I had come to lecture and, as part of my compensation, requested and was granted a “Spinoza day.” The secretary of the Dutch Spinoza Association and a leading Spinoza philosopher agreed to spend a day with me visiting all the important Spinoza sites—his dwellings, his burial place, and, the main attraction, the Spinoza Museum in Rijnsburg. It was there I had an epiphany.

I entered the Spinoza Museum in Rijnsburg, about a forty-five-minute drive from Amsterdam, with keen anticipation, looking for—what? Perhaps an encounter with the spirit of Spinoza. Perhaps a story. But entering the museum, I was immediately disappointed. I doubted that this small, sparse museum could bring me closer to Spinoza. The only remotely personal items were the 151 volumes of Spinoza’s own library, and I turned immediately to them. My hosts permitted me free access, and I picked up one seventeenth-century book after another, smelling and holding them, thrilled to touch objects that had once been touched by Spinoza’s hands.

But my reverie was soon interrupted by my host: “Of course, Dr. Yalom, his possessions—bed, clothes, shoes, pens and books—were auctioned off after his death to pay funeral expenses. The books were sold and scattered far and wide, but fortunately, the notary made a complete list of those books prior to the auction, and over two hundred years later a Jewish philanthropist reassembled most of the same titles, the same editions from the same years and cities of publication. So we call it Spinoza’s library, but it’s really a replica. His fingers never touched these books.”

I turned away from the library and gazed at the portrait of Spinoza hanging on the wall and soon felt myself melting into those huge, sad, oval, heavy-lidded eyes, almost a mystical experience—a rare thing for me. But then my host said, “You may not know this, but that’s not really Spinoza’s likeness. It’s merely an image from some artist’s imagination, derived from a few lines of written description. If there were drawings of Spinoza made during his lifetime, none have survived.”

Maybe a story about sheer elusiveness, I wondered.

While I was examining the lens-grinding apparatus in the second room—also not his own equipment, the museum placard stated, but equipment similar to it—I heard one of my hosts in the library room mention the Nazis.

I stepped back into the library. “What? The Nazis were here? In this museum?”

“Yes—several months after the blitzkrieg of Holland, the ERR troops drove up in their big limousines and stole everything—the books, a bust, and a portrait of Spinoza—everything. They carted it all away, then sealed and expropriated the

“ERR? What do the letters stand for?”

“Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg. The taskforce of Reich leader Rosenberg—that’s Alfred Rosenberg, the major Nazi anti-Semitic ideologue. He was in charge of looting for the Third Reich, and under Rosenberg’s orders, the ERR plundered all of Europe—first, just the Jewish things and then, later in the war, anything of value.”

“So then these books are twice removed from Spinoza?” I asked. “You mean that books had to be purchased again and the library reassembled a second time?”

“No—miraculously these books survived and were returned here after the war with just a few missing copies.”

“Amazing!” There’s a story here, I thought. “But why did Rosenberg even bother with these books in the first place? I know they have some modest value—being seventeenth-century and older—but why didn’t they just march into the Amsterdam Rijksmuseum and pluck a single Rembrandt worth fifty times this whole collection?”

“No, that’s not the point. The money had nothing to do with it. The ERR had some mysterious interest in Spinoza. In his official report, Rosenberg’s officer, the Nazi who did the hands-on looting of the library, added a significant sentence: ‘They contain valuable early works of great importance for the exploration of the Spinoza problem.’ You can see the report on the web, if you like—it’s in the official Nuremberg documents.”

I felt stunned. “‘Exploration of the Nazis’ Spinoza problem’? I don’t understand. What did he mean? What was the Nazi Spinoza problem?”

Like a mime duo, my hosts hunched their shoulders and turned up their palms.

I pressed on. “You’re saying that because of this Spinoza problem, they protected these books rather than burn them, as they burned so much of Europe?”

They nodded.

“And where was the library kept during the war?”

“No one knows. The books just vanished for five years and turned up again in 1946 in a German salt mine.”

“A salt mine? Amazing!” I picked up one of the books—a sixteenth-century copy of the Iliad—and said, as I caressed it, “So this old storybook has its own story to tell.”

My hosts took me to look at the rest of the house. I had come at a fortunate time—few visitors had ever seen the other half of the building, for it had been occupied for centuries by a working-class family. But the last family member had recently died, and the Spinoza Society had promptly purchased the property and was just now beginning reconstruction to incorporate it into the museum. I wandered amid the construction debris through the modest kitchen and living room and then climbed the narrow, steep stairway to the small, unremarkable bedroom. I scanned the simple room quickly and began to descend, when my eye caught sight of a thin, two-by-two-foot crease in a corner of the ceiling.

“What’s that?”

The old caretaker climbed up a few stairs to look and told me it was a trap door that led to a tiny attic space where two Jews, an elderly mother and her daughter, were hidden from the Nazis for the entire duration of the war. “We fed them and took good care of them.”

A firestorm outside! Four out of five Dutch Jews murdered by the Nazis! Yet upstairs in the Spinoza house, hidden in the attic, two Jewish women were tenderly cared for throughout the war. And downstairs, the tiny Spinoza Museum was looted, sealed, and expropriated by an officer of the Rosenberg task force, who believed that its library could help the Nazis solve their “Spinoza problem.” And what was their Spinoza problem? I wondered if this Nazi, Alfred Rosenberg, had also, in his own way, for his own reasons, been looking for Spinoza. I had entered the museum with one mystery and now left it with two.

Shortly thereafter, I began writing.

Chapter One

As the final rays of light glance off the water of the Zwanenburgwal, Amsterdam closes down. The dyers gather up their magenta and crimson fabrics drying on the stone banks of the canal. Merchants roll up their awnings and shutter their outdoor market stalls. A few workers plodding home stop for a snack with Dutch gin at the herring stands on the canal and then continue on their way. Amsterdam moves slowly: the city mourns, still recovering from the plague that, only a few months earlier, killed one person in nine.

A few meters from the canal, at Breestraat No. 4, the bankrupt and slightly tipsy Rembrandt van Rijn applies a last brushstroke to his painting Jacob Blessing the Sons of Joseph, signs his name in the lower right corner, tosses his palette to the floor, and turns to descend his narrow winding staircase. The house, destined three centuries later to become his museum and memorial, is on this day witness to his shame. It swarms with bidders anticipating the auction of all of the artist’s possessions. Gruffly pushing aside the gawkers on the staircase, he steps outside the front door, inhales the salty air, and stumbles toward the corner tavern.

In Delft, seventy kilometers south, another artist begins his ascent. The twenty-five-year-old Johannes Vermeer takes a final look at his new painting, The Procuress. He scans from right to left. First, the prostitute in a gloriously yellow jacket. Good. Good. The yellow gleams like polished sunlight. And the group of men surrounding her. Excellent—each could easily stroll off the canvas and begin a conversation. He bends closer to catch the tiny but piercing gaze of the leering young man with the foppish hat. Vermeer nods to his miniature self. Greatly pleased, he signs his name with a flourish in the lower right corner.

Back in Amsterdam at Breestraat No. 57, only two blocks from the auction preparations at Rembrandt’s home, a twenty-three-year-old merchant (born only a few days earlier than Vermeer, whom he would admire but never meet) prepares to close his import-export shop. He appears too delicate and beautiful to be a shopkeeper. His features are perfect, his olive skin unblemished, his dark eyes large, and soulful.

He takes a last look around: many shelves are as empty as his pockets. Pirates intercepted his last shipment from Bahia, and there is no coffee, sugar, or cocoa. For a generation, the Spinoza family operated a prosperous import-export wholesale business, but now the brothers Spinoza—Gabriel and Bento—are reduced to running a small retail shop. Inhaling the dusty air, Bento Spinoza identifies, with resignation, the fetid rat droppings accompanying the odor of dried figs, raisins, candied ginger, almonds, and chickpeas and the fumes of acrid Spanish wine. He walks outside and commences his daily duel with the rusted padlock on the shop door. An unfamiliar voice speaking in stilted Portuguese startles him.

“Are you Bento Spinoza?”

Spinoza turns to face two strangers, young weary men who seem to have traveled far. One is tall, with a massive, burly head that hangs forward as though it were too heavy to be held erect. His clothes are of good quality but soiled and wrinkled. The other, dressed in tattered peasant’s clothes, stands behind his companion. He has long, matted hair, dark eyes, a strong chin and forceful nose. He holds himself stiffly. Only his eyes move, darting like frightened tadpoles.

Spinoza offers a wary nod.

“I am Jacob Mendoza,” says the taller of the two. “We must see you. We must talk to you. This is my cousin, Franco Benitez, whom I’ve just brought from Portugal. My cousin,” Jacob clasps Franco’s shoulder, “is in crisis.”

“Yes,” Spinoza answers. “And?”

“In severe crisis.”

“Yes. And why seek me?”

“We’ve been told that you’re the one to render help. Perhaps the only one.”


“Franco has lost his faith. He doubts everything. All religious ritual. Prayer. Even the presence of God. He is frightened all the time. He doesn’t sleep. He talks of killing himself.”

“And who has misled you by sending you here? I am only a merchant who operates a small business. And not very profitably, as you see.” Spinoza points at the dusty window through which the half-empty shelves are visible. “Rabbi Mortera is our spiritual leader. You must go to him.”

“We arrived yesterday, and this morning we set out to do exactly that. But our landlord, a distant cousin, advised against it. ‘Franco needs a helper, not a judge,’ he said. He told us that Rabbi Mortera is severe with doubters, that he believes all Jews in Portugal who converted to Christianity face eternal damnation, even if they were forced to choose between conversion and death. ‘Rabbi Mortera,’ he said, ‘will only make Franco feel worse. Go see Bento Spinoza. He is wise in such matters.’”

“What talk is this? I am but a merchant—”

“He claims that if you had not been forced into business because of the death of your older brother and your father, you would have been the next great rabbi of Amsterdam.”

“I must go. I have a meeting I must attend.”

“You’re going to the Sabbath service at the synagogue? Yes? We too. I am taking Franco, for he must return to his faith. Can we walk with you?”

“No, I go to another kind of meeting.”

“What other kind?” says Jacob, but then immediately reverses himself. “Sorry. It’s not my affair. Can we meet tomorrow? Would you be willing to help us on the Sabbath? It is permitted, since it is a mitzvah. We need you. My cousin is in danger.”

“Strange.” Spinoza shakes his head. “Never have I heard such a request. I’m sorry, but you are mistaken. I can offer nothing.”

Franco, who had been staring at the ground as Jacob spoke, now lifts his eyes and utters his first words: “I ask for little, for only a few words with you. Do you refuse a fellow Jew? It is your duty to a traveler. I had to flee Portugal just as your father and your family had to flee, to escape the Inquisition.”

“But what can I—”

“My father was burned at the stake just a year ago. His crime? They found pages of the Torah buried in the soil behind our home. My father’s brother, Jacob’s father, was murdered soon after. I have a question. Consider this world where a son smells the odor of his father’s burning flesh. Where is the God that created this kind of world? Why does He permit such things? Do you blame me for asking that?” Franco looks deeply into Spinoza’s eyes for several moments and then continues. “Surely a man named ‘blessed’—Bento in Portuguese and Baruch in Hebrew—will not refuse to speak to me?”

Spinoza nods solemnly. “I will speak to you, Franco. Tomorrow midday?”

“At the synagogue?” Franco asks.

“No, here. Meet me here at the shop. It will be open.”

“The shop? Open?” Jacob interjects. “But the Sabbath?”

“My younger brother, Gabriel, represents the Spinoza family at the synagogue.”

“But the holy Torah,” Jacob insists, ignoring Franco’s tugging at his sleeve, “states God’s wish that we not work on the Sabbath, that we must spend that holy day offering prayers to Him and performing mitzvahs.”

Spinoza turns and speaks gently, as a teacher to a young student, “Tell me, Jacob, do you believe that God is all powerful?”

Jacob nods.

“That God is perfect? Complete unto Himself.”

Again Jacob agrees.

“Then surely you would agree that, by definition, a perfect and complete being has no needs, no insufficiencies, no wants, no wishes. Is that not so?”

Jacob thinks, hesitates, and then nods warily. Spinoza notes the beginnings of a smile on Franco’s lips.

“Then,” Spinoza continues, “I submit that God has no wishes about how, or even if, we glorify Him. Allow me, then, Jacob, to love God in my own fashion.”

Franco’s eyes widen. He turns toward Jacob as though to say, “You see, you see? This is the man I seek.”

© 2012 Irvin Yalom, excerpted with permission from The Spinoza Problem (Basic Books).
Irvin Yalom Psychiatrist and author Irvin Yalom, MD has been a major figure in the field of psychotherapy since he first wrote The Theory and Practice of Group Psychotherapy in 1970 (now in it's 5th edition). Other significant contributions have included Existential Psychotherapy, and NY Times Bestseller Loves Executioner and Other Tales of Psychotherapy. He has written four novels on psychotherapy: When Nietzsche Wept, Lying on the Couch, The Schopenhauer Cure, and The Spinoza Problem.  His works, translated into over 20 languages, have been widely read by therapists and non-therapists alike. Visit Dr. Yalom's website.

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