Today is Spinoza’s 388th Birthday, and in his honor, I’m sharing one of my favorite anecdotes of his life – that time when he almost got torn to bits defending those two other guys who got torn to bits.
I can’t allow myself to slip into despair. It’s just not a place I want to be. So I began looking for a branch to grasp on the slide down that hill. And I turned to, of course, Spinoza. Because what use is philosophy if you can’t use it when you really need it?
I was raised godless. Churchless. Creedless. Without spirituality except for one thing. Once a week, on Sunday nights, we made a big bowl of popcorn, flavored with Lowrey’s seasoning salt, and gathered on the couch to watch Carl Sagan’s groundbreaking and breathtaking science for the masses series, “Cosmos.” The show is back for a new season, and the first episode has a special guest who’s an old friend.
February 21, 1677, fell on a Sunday, so it happened when the landlord and his wife were away at church. Just as it is this year, it was the weekend before the start of the Lent season. If they knew their tenant was on death’s door, they may have stayed home instead. They just didn’t know.
Any natural thing whatever can e just as well conceived, wehether it exists or does not exist. As then the beginning of the existence of natural things cannot be inferred from their definition, so neither can their continuing to exist. ARE WE CLEAR?
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?
Suppose I’m right, Spinoza was a gay man in the 1600s who needed to hide the very essence of who he was. How would that color his actions? How would that determine the way he behaves? Would it change how he publicly acts toward the man he has or did have a romantic relationship with — someone like Simon de Vries?
Spinoza respected emotion in the way someone who spends a lot of time outdoors respects thunderstorms or black bears — a powerful, awe-inspiring force that can wreak great damage before you know what hit you. And like storms and bears, he believed they couldn’t be controlled. They could, however, be understood. In fact, to do so was the only way to obtain any sort of freedom in a world he viewed as devoid of free will.
It was beyond heretical 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.
Pish posh, my old friend says. If you’re uncertain about a thing, be uncertain. Sit with it. Don’t flatter yourself into thinking that feeling hopeful about it will make it any better. Or that by worrying yourself into a heart attack, you can stop it. Those are different flavors of ignorance.