Betraying Spinoza

From Nov ’08 Spotlight: The Chicago Humanities Festival, in partnership with Spertus Institute for Jewish Studies, has arranged a visit from Rebecca Goldstein on Sunday afternoon, November 9. Goldstein is best known as the author of Betraying Spinoza (published in Nextbook’s Jewish Encounter series), so I called her in Boston to learn more.

“Rene Descartes (Mr. ‘I think, therefore I am.’) had been working on a new methodology, a very explicit attempt to rethink the foundations of knowledge, but he was nervous about telling anybody what he was working on,” she said. “He was living in Catholic France, and to rethink knowledge was to attack religion. In 1628, he went to a lecture by a man named Sieur de Chandoux. During the question-and-answer period, everybody forgot about the poor lecturer and started questioning Descartes, and it’s the first inkling he gave that he had something up his sleeve.”

“In some sense, this all has to do with a Christian family argument (contradictions within Christian theology represented by the Trinity), so why is Spinoza such a pivotal figure? Spinoza came from a Marrano background, one that was consumed with questions of personal identity. Because of the terrible conditions they had lived under as ‘Secret Jews’ in Portugal, Marranos had cultivated the idea that what we really are is our inner point of view. Raised in this community, Spinoza makes the greatest claim for the life of reason that has ever been made. Because he argues so rigorously and so brilliantly, Spinoza radicalizes the argument. He has an enormous effect; everybody reads him, if only to condemn him.”

“Now we’re reliving the Age of the Enlightenment, and all of these questions are on the table again. I never expected my Spinoza book to do so well, and I think it has much to do with the political climate right now. Separating religion and politics? I thought we had actually settled that once and for all, but America has always been a very religious country.”

To purchase tickets for what is sure to be a fascinating lecture, call (312) 661-1028 or visit the CHF website:

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