For those who have studied the works of Baruch Spinoza, one of the most important philosophers of the seventeenth century and arguably one of the key thinkers of western civilization, one would also be familiar with the name of Steven Nadler. Nadler is the William H. Hay II Professor of Philosophy and Evjue-Bascom Professor in the Humanities at the University of Wisconsin – Madison, and the author of numerous books translating and interpreting Spinoza’s complicated thought and messy biography for the masses.
In his latest book, Think Least of Death: Spinoza On How To Live And How To Die, Nadler has proven why people turn to him as an indispensable guide to Spinoza. The book mainly explores the last three parts of Spinoza’s famously complicated Ethics. Although the Ethics is five parts long, most accounts of the book focus mainly on the beginning sections. In these early portions Spinoza lays out a pantheistic conception of God, a God who is everything and synonymous with nature. While most works do touch on the ethical implications of this theology — remarking on how if we are all part of God, then we must treat others with compassion and love — these books fail to treat these implications with as much detail as they give their philosophical foundation. In other words, Spinoza’s conception of God becomes center stage, not how we should act in light of that God.
In Think Least of Death, Nadler takes on these implications directly. Like the Ethics, Nadler’s book slowly unfolds. After briefly explaining Spinoza’s theological framework, he goes on to explore a number of issues that stem from it, including what makes a person free, how to live an honest life, the nature of a good friendship, and our ideal attitude toward death. Nadler takes great care with exploring each of these topics, citing relevant passages and explaining them, often a number of times to make sure his reader understands. As the title and book jacket suggest, this book is meant for lay readers interested not only in the thinking of Spinoza but how it might better their lives. For this reason, Nadler goes out of his way to define terms even after dedicating whole previous chapters to them, lest his readers forget. However, even with his masterful pedagogy, Spinoza is still difficult and thus the book must be read carefully, especially in the early chapters when he gives a brief refresher on Spinoza’s theology.
Though the book is accessible, it is not simply a primer of Spinoza’s thinking. It is clear that Nadler did a great deal of original work. On numerous occasions, Nadler cites a passage, explaining how a plain reading of the text would be incorrect and then continues on for the next few pages to read the text in a evoactive and creative way, opening up Spinoza’s philosophy and showing how he differs from thinkers before. For example, Nadler shows how Spinoza’s simple proposition, “The free person always acts honestly, never deceptively” does not advocate never lying, as philosophers like Emanuel Kant would say. Through close readings of Spinzoa’s Latin, questioning his word choices, reading closely what he means by a “free person,” and comparing the statement to others that Spinoza makes elsewhere, Nadler is able to prove that despite seeming to write the contrary, the Ethics makes room for lies that preserve life and protect feelings.
In Think Least of Death, Steven Nadler has once again written an indispensable book for anyone interested in learning about Baruch Spinoza. But more importantly, though carefully cultivating many of Spinoza’s most relevant topics, he has written a book we can all use to better understand the people we seek to be and the ethical lives we hope to live.
Rabbi Marc Katz is the Rabbi at Temple Ner Tamid in Bloomfield, NJ. He is author of the book The Heart of Loneliness: How Jewish Wisdom Can Help You Cope and Find Comfort (Turner Publishing), which was chosen as a finalist for the National Jewish Book Award.