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Thursday, 3 May 2012

Book Review: The Spinoza Problem by Irvin Yalom

I've already blogged about my admiration for the psychotherapist and author Irvin Yalom. I've also mentioned how much I've been looking forward to reading his latest novel, The Spinoza Problem. So I was delighted when it dropped on to the doormat in its Amazon package and I set aside three days over Easter, dedicated to reading the book.

Yalom always writes a fascinating book. In When Nietschze Wept he imagined a curious scenario where the German existentialist philosopher Friedrich Nietschze seeks help from the father of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud. In the Schopenhauer Cure a follower of the pessimistic philosopher, Arthur Schopenhauer, attends a therapy group. Philosophy in novel situations is a Yalom speciality.

In his latest book it's the thought and attitude of Baruch Spinoza that provides Yalom with the philosophical tool bag he requires to meditate on such issues as religious belief, community, belonging and the nature of evil. On a more personal level Yalom also reflects on what it means to be Jewish and what it means to stand outside the religious beliefs of one's culture and community.

The book is a double narrative. We read about the life and thought of free-thinking philosopher Baruch  Spinoza and his excommunication from the Dutch Jewish community in the late Seventeenth Century;. This alternates with the life and thought of Nazi philosopher Alfred Rosenberg in 1930s Germany. 

So the Spinoza Problem exists on a number of levels. For Jewish leaders in Seventeenth Century Holland the problem is Spinoza's heresy, his critique of Jewish dogma. For Spinoza the problem is a personal dilemma: to accept the religious dogma of ones community and continue enjoying the benefits of fellowship or follow ones conscience and pursue knowledge and truth wherever it leads. For Rosenberg the Spinoza Problem is a problem for a Nazi bigot: how to reconcile the fact that the greatest of German writers, Goethe, admired the Jewish philosopher Spinoza.

Spinoza lived the life of a thinker - grinding lenses and writing philosophy. Rosenberg was an anti-Semitic  idealogue, besotted with Hitler and totally committed to the Nazi Party. They have nothing in common, but Yalom's alternating double narrative means that each is seen in the light of the other. So, for example, Rosenberg's pathological need to be well-regarded by Hitler and the Nazi leadership is contrasted with the heroic truth-seeking of Spinoza: his stoical acceptance of excommunication and internal exile. In Yalom's book Rosenberg sees a psychotherapist, so we are treated to the fantasy of Irvin Yalom treating the Nazi philosopher for depression! The book ends rather randomly and an epilogue completes the two narratives. I don't think this book is as satisfying as Yalom's previous novels, but it is nonetheless a thoughtful and thought provoking read.


  1. I'm looking forward to getting stuck into this. Thanks for writing a review which intrigues without spoilers. I think my partner will like this too - he is currently reading "Explaining Hitler" by Ron Rosenbaum - a book I bought years ago, eager to find out about Hitler's humanness. So many grey areas around this and any exploration of what is usually seen as in black and white terms, draws me in.

  2. Thanks Amanda. This was a difficult review to write. Couldn't quite find an angle or settle on an opinion. I'd like to know what you make of it.

  3. I finally read it! It tore apart the fabric of my reality, whilst on holiday! I shall write a blogpost when I return. It may be my favourite of his novels thus far.