Ian Buruma explores the life and death of Baruch Spinoza, the Enlightenment thinker whose belief in freedom of thought and speech resonates in our own time
“An elegant, relevant biography of a vital thinker.”—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
Baruch (Benedictus) Spinoza (1632–1677) was a radical free thinker who led a life guided by strong moral principles despite his disbelief in an all-seeing God. Seen by many—Christians as well as Jews—as Satan’s disciple during his lifetime, Spinoza has been regarded as a secular saint since his death. Many contradictory beliefs have been attached to his name: rationalism or metaphysics, atheism or pantheism, liberalism or despotism, Jewishness or anti-Semitism. However, there is no question that he viewed freedom of thought and speech as essential to an open and free society.
In this insightful account, the award-winning author Ian Buruma stresses the importance of the time and place that shaped Spinoza, beginning with the Sephardim of Amsterdam and followed by the politics of the Dutch Republic. Though Spinoza rejected the basic assumptions of his family’s faith, and was consequently expelled from his Sephardic community, Buruma argues that Spinoza did indeed lead a Jewish life: a modern Jewish life. To Heine, Hess, Marx, Freud, and no doubt many others today, Spinoza exemplified how to be Jewish without believing in Judaism. His defense of universal freedom is as important for our own time as it was in his.
Ian Buruma is Paul W. Williams Professor of Human Rights and Journalism at Bard College. He is the author of many books, including Murder in Amsterdam: Liberal Europe, Islam and the Limits of Tolerance, and contributes to Harper’s and the New Yorker. He lives in New York City.
“A brief but forceful entry in Yale’s sprawling Jewish Lives series. . . . Mr. Buruma succeeds admirably in capturing the man as well as the essentials of his thought. Rather than unhappy and isolated, as he’s sometimes been depicted, the stoic Spinoza portrayed here practically glows with serenity and grace.”—Daniel Akst, Wall Street Journal
“In his new book, Spinoza: Freedom’s Messiah, . . . Buruma observes that ‘intellectual freedom has once again become an important issue, even in countries, such as the United States, that pride themselves on being uniquely free.’”—Adam Kirsch, New Yorker
“Ian Buruma tells the story of Spinoza’s star-crossed Jewish life engagingly, drawing on his own Dutch background to give it added relief. His jargon-free critique of Spinoza’s philosophy, while placing it in his time, also asks trenchantly what it might say about our time.”—Gary Schwartz, author of Rembrandt in a Red Beret: The Vanishings and Reappearances of a Self-Portrait
“Ian Buruma has written a wonderfully lively and instructive introduction to the great philosopher who led a ‘modern Jewish life,’ and whose struggles for freedom of thought provide a model for us today.”—David A. Bell, Princeton University
“In this short and splendid book, Ian Buruma incarnates Spinoza as an exceptional human being, but human all the same. His immensely vivid account breathes new life into Spinoza, freeing him from mummified versions of this great man.”—Avishai Margalit, author of On Betrayal
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