Branford College Master Steven Smith consulted a rabbi while deciding on the title of his new book, “Spinoza’s Book of Life: Freedom and Redemption in ‘The Ethics.'”
The rabbi, Jewish Chaplain at Yale James Ponet, said he was impressed by Smith’s connection of the positive determinism in Baruch Spinoza’s book “The Ethics,” with the Jewish belief that God opens the Book of Life for 10 days every year and people have the opportunity to repent and therefore determine their own destinies.
Ponet introduced Smith yesterday afternoon at a reading and book signing of “Spinoza’s Book of Life” held at the Slifka Center. The books had already sold out by the time Smith began speaking.
In his book, Smith analyzes the writing of Spinoza, the Jewish Enlightenment philosopher who is known for his belief in reason and the universe as a unified whole. Smith said he sees Spinoza’s ideas of human nature as deterministic rather than fatalistic, so that through an understanding of oneself a person can be happy and achieve powers of free action.
“What is different about my book is that I focused on the issue of human freedom and responsibility as part of Spinoza’s work,” Smith said. “There is a widespread view that Spinoza was a grim fatalist who saw freedom as bowing to necessity. I see in him a much more robust notion of creativity and individualism.”
But Yitzhak Melamed GRD ’04 said he disagreed with some of Smith’s conclusions about Spinoza.
“Though we have a common appreciation for Spinoza, I see something very dark in Spinoza’s view of morality and the place of human beings in the universe,” Melamed said. “In Spinoza’s writing I feel there is no place for morality, only prudence. There is no care about others.”
During the reading, Smith discussed Spinoza’s life, from his 1632 birth in Amsterdam to his expulsion from the Jewish community in 1656. He also examined how Spinoza’s relationship with religion influenced his thinking as well as how later philosophers, such as Nietzsche, interpreted him.
“For a long time, Spinoza was anathemized as a teacher of atheism,” Smith said. “Later he became a cultural icon. Still, ‘The Ethics’ is a profoundly Jewish book. It begins with God and ends with soul-swelling conception of human freedom, a sort of exodus of the mind.”
Teddy Goff ’07 — who took a class with Smith last term — said Smith is good at making creative connections in political philosophy.
“[Smith] is an interesting and intelligent thinker. He uses a lot of interpretation to put traditional philosophy in perspective and make it a more accessible part of current political thought. He could relate ancient or Enlightenment philosophy to today’s international relations,” Goff said.
Dean of Yale Law School Anthony Kronman said he has read Smith’s previous book on Spinoza’s writing, “Spinoza, Liberalism and the Question of Jewish Identity,” and looks forward to reading Smith’s newest book.
“I am a reader of Spinoza and a long time friend of Steven [Smith], and the combination is an irresistible attraction,” Kronman said. “Spinoza is one of the half dozen philosophers in the history of Western thought that deserves a lifetime of recognition. Steven combines a serious and passionate interest in philosophy with an exuberant love of life.”
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