Happy Valentines, Bento: It Gets Better – Part 1

(In part 2, I discuss his writings about emotions in Book 3 of Ethics, and his declaration that “Desire is the very essence of a man,” as well as his assertion that pain, pleasure and desire are the primary emotions. This, along with his analysis of romantic love, rivalry and regret lead me to believe he’s done more than analyze these feelings; he’s lived them.)

(In part 3, I reveal how we can read between the lines of correspondence to see that Spinoza likely had a romantic relationship with Simon de Vries, a friend and fawning generous admirer, and how that relationship may have directed some of Spinoza’s behaviors.)

(In part 4, I disprove one myth about Spinoza and offer a theory of my own, however unlikely it may be)

This Valentine’s Day, I want to show a little love to a man who doesn’t seem to have gotten very much of it when he was alive. Not only was he kicked out of his community at the ripe age of 23, he was sued by his half-sister for his inheritance, and even though he won, he gave it all up save for a bed. He went on to live the life of an ascetic, albeit a rather popular one in his own way, but never one who had his own person, as we might call it today.

I’m speaking, of course, of Baruch Spinoza. Benedito. Benedict. Or Bento, to his very oldest friends.

His life is something of a mystery. If you bother to pick around in his biography, you’ll find no mention of a wife and kids, no description of a family of any sort after his father died and he was excommunicated from the Portuguese Jewish community in Amsterdam. Moreover, there’s no hint of romance to be had, no indication of a love gone wrong, or even a love that never got off the ground. There’s just … nothing. He had friends and intellectual admirers aplenty, but romantic ties? You won’t find them.

And I think I can tell you why. It was beyond heretical then, in the mid-1600s. To even say such a thing was monstrous. But I’m fairly certain — in fact, I stake my reputation on it — there’s a reason Spinoza was so tight-lipped about his most personal side. That reason? He was gay.

Of Spinoza and what we know for certain

I understand if you doubt my hypothesis. I’ve done the Google search myself, and there are scant hits on the search Spinoza + gay. There was a book written back in 1998, “Within Reason” by Margaret Gullan-Whur, that also reached the same conclusion, but it ruffled many feathers and was overshadowed by Stephen Nadler’s biography of Spinoza that came out around the same time. There are a smattering of academic articles that dare mention Spinoza’s name and “queer” or “gay” or “LGBTQ” in the same breath, but since Spinoza didn’t mention anything like that in his writings, the academics hesitate to draw a straight — if you’ll pardon the pun — line between the two.

As I’m blissfully unencumbered by academia, I won’t hesitate. But since this is Bento’s Valentine, I will prove my hypothesis in a way that Spinoza himself might approve of — but hopefully, using words that are rather less befuddling.

So let us begin with what we know for certain.

We know that Spinoza never married — full stop. There is no mention of it during his time in the Portuguese community, and no mention of any marriage during his time among the Dutch, either in his letters to others, or in letters he received, or in writings people made about him. It never happened. Nor is there any mention of an engagement, a romance, or even a wistful folly of youth (save one myth, which I’ll get to in a bit). So, if we are to limit ourselves to the historical record alone, we would have to conclude that Spinoza was either entirely asexual, or that he lived a life of frustration and disappointment, so far as emotional and physical love is concerned.

Further, we know that despite having no apparent love life, Spinoza’s life was rich in friendships. He carried on conversations over the span of years by letter with people he cared about in nearby cities or across the waters in England. He was known by his inner circle to be a gentle and kind person. Seriously — he sounds like a saint in the descriptions: frugal, humble, sober. He declined a 500 florin-a-year pension offered by a dying friend (more on him in a bit) because the money, he said, should go to that man’s family (the gift was reduced to 300 a year and accepted).

We also know that Spinoza was very much interested in emotions, including the emotions associated with romance. I will go over these at length, but for now, let me assure you that the entire third book of his “Ethics,” entitled “On the Origin and Nature of the Emotions,” is essentially a catalog of feelings broken down into what Spinoza considers to be their building blocks. Like an artist mixing paints, he combines primary feelings and other elements together to create more complex ones: blue + yellow = green; pleasure + an external cause = love. Granted, this might sound like a robot’s idea of love to you, but Spinoza put a lot of thought into emotion, passion, how feelings moved people, and how people could keep emotions from getting the best of them.

The picture emerges of a man who had no success (or interest) in romantic love, but had several close friendships, and who also had a deep interest and appreciation for emotion — even if he was wary of the power of emotion to overcome reason.

These are things we can be certain of Spinoza.

In the next post, I’ll venture into the unknown, and show why I’m so certain that the (apparent) lack of a love life was not due to ineptitude, and not due to a lack of desire, but to something else entirely. Spinoza lived in a time when having same-sex desire was absolutely unacceptable, and he knew he had to keep it hidden.

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