I’ve often been asked both by journalists and by my readers why my novel
The Elixir of Immortality
tells the story of the family of Baruch Spinoza. My usual reply is that it’s simply because of my lifelong interest in that Jewish philosopher who lived in seventeenth-century Holland.
I don’t really remember how I first became aware ofSpinoza. I do know that I ran across him at a fairly early age, probably because of my curiosity about philosophy in general and my teenage tendency to ponder existential issues.
No one who has read Bertrand Russell’s great work A History of Western Philosophy (1946) could fail to be impressed by the opening words of the Englishman’s chapter about him: “Spinoza is the noblest and most lovable of the great philosophers. Intellectually, some others have surpassed him but ethically he is supreme.”
Russell’s work showed me that important philosophers tended to come into conflict with the theological or ecclesiastical establishments and, more often than not, with the political authorities as well. Spinoza was no exception. One might suppose that the very word ‘philosophy’ was tantamount to the struggle for independent thought as opposed to the passive acceptance of dogma. A true philosopher always takes risks that endanger his own life and security. Spinoza learned that lesson the hard way. The Jewish community of Amsterdam excommunicated and expelled him, and even today Orthodox Jews regard him with suspicion.
Spinoza’s character and fate fascinated me, perhaps even more than his ideas did, since I was having trouble understanding much of what he wrote. I was fascinated by the community he lived in and its influence upon his life and ideas in that historical context. Studying these things became my point of entry to the Jewish world in that time of my life when I began seeking to understand Jewish heritage. That was how Spinoza helped me to understand myself and the background of my childhood in a family of non-observant Jews living under a totalitarian dictatorship.