Setting: My freshman year of college. For some reason, I had imagined I would enjoy philosophy – be good at it, even. So with stars in my eyes and hope in my heart, I signed up for an entry-level philosophy course: critical reasoning.
It began with logic, which makes – well – logical sense. If you want to discuss how to build a rational argument, of course you want to have a grip on the basics of logic, right? But here’s the thing: I hated the stuff.
It’s not just that I found logic boring, which it thoroughly was. And I mean it. t was utterly, thoroughly, frighteningly, despairingly boring. It was also that I couldn’t relate to this stuff. I realized I had no interest in being logical. Logic didn’t take into account the things that actually cared about. Like emotion. Like impact on lives. Like the real world as it actually existed. Because most people – I don’t know if you’ve noticed – don’t make a habit of behaving logically.
Don’t think I didn’t make a good-faith effort, though, because I did. There were Venn diagrams and horseshoe shapes and visits to the teaching assistant’s office hours. All for naught. When all was said and done, I was done. I dropped the class just under the deadline and picked up a course in cultural anthropology, which was endlessly more fascinating. To this day, I can tell you much more about the Yanomamö people of the Amazon than I ever could about the basics of logic. And I’m fine with that.
But I wasn’t done with philosophy yet. I transferred to a different school and, on a whim, picked up a class on ethics. Much more interesting. And useful. Discussions about the Golden Mean, utilitarianism vs. Kant’s universal laws, and questions over bioethics and political ethics were much more real to me than discussions about how many tails Aristotle’s cat had (seriously, it’s a thing). Still, my early run-ins with philosophy has left me feeling wildly insecure about the stuff.
So how ironic is it that some 20 years later, I find myself writing a novel featuring Baruch Spinoza, one of the most notable philosophers of all time as one of the leading characters? After all, there’s no one making me write this bastard but myself, and no one who made me put him in this thing but myself. Why did I do it?
He’s a fascinating character for one — both in his real life and (I hope) in my creation. And he inhabited a fascinating place and time: Amsterdam in the mid-1600s, just as it was enjoying the spotlight as the most powerful place on earth, at least from a mercantile standpoint. On another level, though, his is an immigrant’s story — a refugee’s story — as his family belonged to the community of Portuguese Jews fleeing the Inquisition in their homeland. He then became a refugee of refugees, when that community kicked him out because of the ideas he refused to relinquish.
But trust me, I am so mindful that philosophy is not my leading suit. Maybe that’s why my main character is more like me: casually interested in philosophy but not a philosopher himself. When the philosophy talk becomes too thick, he graciously leaves the room, sparing me a headache. I am endlessly grateful for that.
Still, I have made an honest go of doing my best to understand Spinoza and his philosophy. Or, to paraphrase him: I have not wept, I have not waxed indignant, but I have striven to understand Spinoza.
Maybe a tear or two was shed, if I’m being honest. Or perhaps they were just beads of sweat from intellectual exertion.
So I’d like to hear from other writers: How have you approached writing about characters or topics that were out of your league? How did you do the research that made you capable of writing about them with authority? What ways did you find to write around the things that remained above your pay grade? I’m curious how we write about things we don’t fully understand logically, but get on another level.