(In part 1, I offer my hypothesis: that the philosopher Spinoza, a lifelong confirmed bachelor, did not live single because he lacked opportunity, was unlucky in love or was asexual. He was gay. I review what is known for certain about his life and relationships.)
(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.)
By now, I’ve described what we know for certain about Spinoza’s seemingly solitary life, and why I believe it may not have been quite as lonely as it was purported to be. Up to this point, I have had documents to back up my suppositions. From here on out, it’s all conjecture. Here comes the fun part!
I’ll begin with disproving a common myth that gets repeated about Spinoza, and then I’ll move on to adding a favorite pet theory that, while interesting to muse about, quite likely has no basis in reality whatsoever. Still, it’s an interesting thought exercise, so I’m adding it to the mix more as an experiment in alternative history than anything else.
Let’s get started.
Vanden Ende had an only Daughter
From the very first biography written of Spinoza, a story was told that he fell in love with a girl named Clara, the daughter of his Latin teacher, Franciscus van den Enden . It’s said that he also had a rival for his affection, Dirk Kerckring:
Vanden Ende had an only Daughter, who understood the Latin Tongue, as well as Musick, so perfectly, that she was able to teach her Fathers Scholars in his absence. Spinosa having often occasion to see and speak to her, grew in Love with her, and he has often confest that he design’d to marry her. She was none of the most Beautiful, but she had a great deal of Wit, a great Capacity and a jovial Humour, which wrought upon the Heart of Spinosa, as well as upon another Scholar of Vanden Ende, whose name was Kerkering, a Native of Hamburgh. The latter did soon perceive that he had a Rival, and grew Jealous of him. This moved him to redouble his care, and his attendance upon his Mistress; which he did with good success: But a Necklace of Pearls, of the value of two or three hundred Pistoles, which he had before presented to that Young Woman, did without doubt contribute to win her Affection. She therefore promised to Marry him: Which she did faithfully perform, when the Sieur Kerkering had abjured the Lutheran Religion, which he profest, and embraced the Roman Catholick.
This is a bunch of bunk for so many reasons.
First, Franciscus van den Enden didn’t have “an only daughter.” He had six! Granted, not all lived to adulthood, and Clara is the only one known to have a definitive year of death, but holy cow, “an only daughter” is way off. And that’s saying something, as the author of this text, Johnannes Corelus, took the trouble to interview several people who personally knew Spinoza. So to get a basic fact like that wrong makes me raise an eyebrow at the rest of the story.
Second, Clara was born in 1641. Spinoza was born in 1632. By the time Spinoza moved in with the Van den Endens in 1656, he was 23 and she was 15. Possible? OK, but icky. And also unlikely, as a) the age of majority in Amsterdam at the time was 25, and b) people matured at a much slower rate at that time¹.
Finally, there is no indication that Spinoza and Kerckring had ever been rivals. And it seems there would have been, because the two of them went on to work together on optics. In fact, Kerckring — a noted anatomist — boasted of using a microscope that used lenses made by Spinoza. And we know what Spinoza said of rivalry, envy, jealousy and hatred. There’s just no indication any of that existed here. Either all the parties here were incredibly mature about it, or it never happened. And there’s no indication any of it happened (though it’s historical fact that Kerckring and Clara van den Enden did marry).
So we can drive a stake through the heart of that myth. Q.E.D.
Abominable heresies and monstrous deeds
Now I come to one of my favorite pet theories, and it involves the mysterious circumstances of Spinoza’s expulsion from the Portuguese Jewish community in Amsterdam. While commonly called an “excommunication,” it’s more correctly called a cherem.
Cherems weren’t anything unusual in that community. They were issued for any number of things: adultery; buying meat from the Ashkenazic and not the Sephardic butcher; posting leaflets against a business rival; persisting in a theological debate with a rabbi; insisting on ideas others considered atheistic. But in nearly every instance, cherems weren’t final, either. The whole point of them was to guide someone back into the fold. Sometimes, people were welcomed back into the community after paying a fine. Other times, a person had to write a formal apology and confession. Sometimes, the ritual was more humiliating. Uriel da Costa was given 39 lashes and made to lie on the floor while the men of the synagogue walked over him — or on him. Da Costa later committed suicide after that spectacle.
But there was something different about Spinoza’s cherem. In every other instance, the formal document, the writ of cherem, specifically says what the person did that offended the community. In Spinoza’s case, it’s all very vague:
“Having long known of the evil opinions and acts of Baruch de Spinoza, (the governing body of the community has) endeavored by various means and promises, to turn him from his evil ways. But having failed to make him mend his wicked ways, and, on the contrary, daily receiving more and more serious information about the abominable heresies which he practiced and taught and about his monstrous deeds, and having for this numerous trustworthy witnesses who have deposed and born witness to this effect in the presence of the said Espinoza, they became convinced of the truth of this matter; and after all of this has been investigated in the presence of the honorable hakhamim, they have decided, with their consent, that the said Espinoza should be excommunicated and expelled from the people of Israel…”
Wowzers! Whatever those “abominable heresies” and “wicked deeds” were, they sure must have been something. But … what were they? To this day, no one knows. For whatever reason, the synagogue leaders decided not to record them. And that seems a bit … different.
Why is it that Spinoza’s acts weren’t recorded? Perhaps it was just an oversight. A coincidence. Or maybe, it wasn’t written down because if it were committed to paper, someone else could find and read it. And if that were to happen, how would it make the community look to know that the Jewish community had someone “abominable” and “monstrous” among them?
Remember now that the Portuguese Jews were a refugee community fleeing the Inquisition. Many of them were wealthy, but their position was also precarious. The influential Dutch Reformed Church wasn’t all too excited about them being in Amsterdam, and hearing the community was sheltering this abominable, monstrous person could be just the pretext they needed to kick them ALL out of town.
Maybe, just maybe, Spinoza’s evil deeds weren’t recorded on purpose. But what deeds could be so bad that they weren’t recorded?
Surely not atheism, because that was the fault of Uriel da Costa, and that was committed to paper. Surely not heterosexual impropriety, as there were numerous cases of that on record. If this was intentional, it must have been something different.
Maybe — just maybe — it was that Spinoza was gay. Or not just that he was gay. He was also a heretic. But a gay heretic. And that was all just a bridge too far. He had to go.
An event like that could certainly lead Spinoza to want to be cautious the rest of his life.
What might have been
The truth is, it’s impossible to know today, more than 300 years after Spinoza died, whether Spinoza felt romantic, much less sexual, feelings at all, and if he did, whether they inclined toward one sex or the other. Still, it’s difficult for me to read the works of someone who is so insistent that emotions are a powerful force on human life without musing on how they might have worked on his own life.
If he felt attraction to women, there would have been nothing to stop Spinoza from acting on it. Any restriction regarding relations between Jews and Christians presumably would have been moot once he was booted from the community, so that shouldn’t have been a barrier. According to his earliest biography, his looks were considered at least good to average, so that shouldn’t have got in the way. His personality sounded pleasant enough. From all accounts, if he wanted it, it could have happened. But it didn’t happen. So I’m left to think he didn’t want it, at least, not with women.
As I think of Spinoza’s lonesome life, night after night in his room, musing over his thoughts or worrying over his lenses, I can’t help but feel sad for him. He had lots of friends, yes. But who could make him laugh when he got lost in his thoughts and anxious? Who was there to remind him to eat when he spent too much time working out some question? Who was there at the end of a good day when he wanted to share some happy news? Whose comforting breath did he hear when he woke in the middle of the night, and who did he get to shower his attention on?
No one, no one, no one.
My poor man. The world just wasn’t ready for you.
- Roberts, B. B. (2012). Sex and drugs before the rock n roll: youth culture and masculinity during Hollands Golden Age. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press. (p. 21)