David S. T.'s Reviews > A Book Forged in Hell: Spinoza's Scandalous Treatise and the Birth of the Secular Age

A Book Forged in Hell by Steven Nadler
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's review
Apr 15, 2012

it was amazing
bookshelves: history-biography, philosophy, religion, read-in-2012
Read from April 10 to 15, 2012

My interest in philosophy started only a little over half a year ago; I read Durant's History of Philosophy and I've slowly read more in the months after. From Durant's book the philosopher I've been most interested in is Spinoza. Here was this renegade Jew whom questioned the bible and the faith of his fathers only to be excommunicated and later wrote a few political and religious texts. Eventually I'm going to attempt to tackle his Ethics, but the geometric style sort of scares me (furthermore I have absolutely no training in philosophy). In the mean time I'm going to read his more accessible Theological-Political Treatise (referred to in early criticisms as a 'book forged in hell'); this lead me to this excellent introduction from Nadler.

This book covers a brief history of Spinoza, the environment he lived in, the events leading up to his publishing of TPT, and the aftermath of the book. Here you have the common stories such as Spinoza developing the ideas of his version of God which got him excommunicated from the Jewish community, the death of his friend for publishing a book questioning the rationality of religion, Spinoza wanting to publish The Ethics only to decide to write TPT in order to prove that he wasn't an atheist and to better get the public ready for his ideas which would be in the later published book (only to have this backfire when most who read his book labeled him as an atheist). It doesn't cover all of Spinoza's life and death, although Nadler has written a comprehensive biography on Spinoza (one which I plan to read).

The bulk of the book covers themes and ideas in TPT along with comparisons to the works which inspired Spinoza. It seems that the major influences on TPT are Hobbes's Leviathan and Maimonides's Guide to the Perplexed. For someone like myself who is interested in religious texts, the TPT sounds very interesting. Written at a time when the majority of the public considered the bible as almost directly dictated by god (similar to the modern Islamic view of the Quran), Spinoza attempted to question that notion and prove that not only is the bible a man made book, but that the common assumptions such as those like authorship of it were wrong (for example Moses didn't author the Torah), and he supported the redactor view that Ezra was likely the later compiler/editor of the Hebrew bible and Ezra was rushed, which explains the sometimes contradictory nature of it (ie compare Genesis 1 with 2-3). The influence of this early criticism is still felt today, with this book leading the way to later higher and historical criticisms of the bible.

Moving away from the religious themes, the TPT also presents one of the earliest major philosophic arguments for democracy. He highly supports religious freedom and freedom to philosophize (one of the major reasons for attacking the scriptures was to lessen religious constraints). One of the things I did find odd though was that apparently Spinoza supported a state religion, I guess he wants the average man to follow these teachings (while still allowing complete freedom for religious toleration).

Overall this book was excellent, in the past few weeks I've read a few popular accounts of Spinoza and I liked this one the best. Nadler's book was accessible and did the best job explaining the philosophy (although I he did have the benefit of not getting far into the more complicated philosophy of The Ethics). I feel ready to finally tackle my first Spinoza the TPT. When I finally feel ready to read The Ethics, I'll be sure to first pick up Nadler's introduction.
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message 1: by Mike (new) - added it

Mike Puma This one keeps greeting me from my amazon wishlist--this time? this time? Thanks for forcing my hand and the review.

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