Review: Think Least of Death

American philosopher Steven Nadler has been at the forefront of those who have helped to raise Spinoza’s profile


Think Least of Death: Spinoza on How to Live and How to Die by Steven Nadler (Princeton University Press, £22)

The past two decades have seen a remarkable efflorescence of interest in Baruch Spinoza. He has emerged from under the shadow of his luminous contemporaries, Descartes, Hobbes and Leibnitz, as every bit as formidable a thinker as they, and probably even more influential as a harbinger and architect of secular modernity.

Along with the intellectual historian Jonathan Israel, the American philosopher Steven Nadler has been at the forefront of those who have helped to raise Spinoza’s profile to these unprecedented heights. In part, this has been due to Nadler’s impressive familiarity with the details of Spinoza’s thought, plus an unerring ability to convey Spinoza’s ideas in clear and simple language rather than in the forbiddingly opaque, complex prose in which Spinoza was disposed to present them.

Nadler’s latest foray into Spinozian exegesis is, perhaps, his most ambitious. For here, he expounds what is universally recognised as not just Spinoza’s most important work, but also his most obscure one — the Ethics, which he held back from publication in his lifetime knowing how objectionable its iconoclasm would be to the religious and political authorities.

It begins with a purported proof by Spinoza that, ultimately, only one single, independent substance exists, namely the entire universe itself, which Spinoza dubbed “God or Nature”. From what he presented as being the essence of this single substance, Spinoza went on to deduce a view of human beings, along with all other individual entities in Nature, as finite modes of it, endowing them all with a drive to persist in being, and, where possible, to augment their power to do so. This drive, in humans, which Spinoza termed conatus, manifested itself at the mental level as a set of pleasurable or painful emotions, or “passions”, occasioned by external things according to whether humans’ encounters with them facilitated or impeded their persistence.

While Spinoza envisaged everything in the universe, including humans, as entirely determined in behaviour, he argued that humans would best flourish if, upon becoming dissatisfied by how inadequate a source of well-being was the governance by our passions and the external things that occasioned them, we sought to substitute a form of rational self-rule in which our understanding of things became our chief delight and end. In place of the inevitable disappointment people suffer from investing their happiness in scarce and divisive goods, like riches, honour and fame, humans could unite in the co-operative endeavour to expand and share knowledge of the world.

The crowning glory of the personal freedom that comes, according to Spinoza, from freeing oneself from rule by the externally induced passions, was the ability to engage in what he called “the intellectual love of God”. This was a mental activity in which he argued humans could become so united with Nature through an act of intuitive knowledge of it as to gain a taste of the eternity that it alone truly possesses.

Nadler makes as good an effort as anyone in rendering these novel ideas of Spinoza’s as clear and convincing as they can be made, which, to my mind, is less than the 100 per cent that, one suspects from reading him, Nadler thinks he has achieved. Nevertheless, if you want the clearest and most sympathetic introduction as exists to Spinoza’s ideas (including his dismissal of all human concern about mortality and what may lie beyond the grave, since, according to Spinoza on Nadler’s reading of him, nothing does), then Nadler’s your man. This, his latest book, is a must-read for our present, troubled times in which, as in Spinoza’s day, death stalks the globe in the form of a deadly and highly contagious disease — in our case, Covid-19, in Spinoza’s, the plague.

David Conway is Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at Middlesex University and author of ‘The Rediscovery of Wisdom’ (Palgrave, 2000)

Share via

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive