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The Spinoza Problem

The Spinoza Problem

4.5 4
by Irvin D. Yalom

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When sixteen-year-old Alfred Rosenberg is called into his headmaster’s office for anti-Semitic remarks he made during a school speech, he is forced, as punishment, to memorize passages about Spinoza from the autobiography of the German poet Goethe. Rosenberg is stunned to discover that Goethe, his idol, was a great admirer of the Jewish seventeenth-century


When sixteen-year-old Alfred Rosenberg is called into his headmaster’s office for anti-Semitic remarks he made during a school speech, he is forced, as punishment, to memorize passages about Spinoza from the autobiography of the German poet Goethe. Rosenberg is stunned to discover that Goethe, his idol, was a great admirer of the Jewish seventeenth-century philosopher Baruch Spinoza. Long after graduation, Rosenberg remains haunted by this “Spinoza problem”: how could the German genius Goethe have been inspired by a member of a race Rosenberg considers so inferior to his own, a race he was determined to destroy?

Spinoza himself was no stranger to punishment during his lifetime. Because of his unorthodox religious views, he was excommunicated from the Amsterdam Jewish community in 1656, at the age of twenty-four, and banished from the only world he had ever known. Though his life was short and he lived without means in great isolation, he nonetheless produced works that changed the course of history. Over the years, Rosenberg rose through the ranks to become an outspoken Nazi ideologue, a faithful servant of Hitler, and the main author of racial policy for the Third Reich. Still, his Spinoza obsession lingered. By imagining the unexpected intersection of Spinoza’s life with Rosenberg’s, internationally bestselling novelist Irvin D. Yalom explores the mindsets of two men separated by 300 years. Using his skills as a psychiatrist, he explores the inner lives of Spinoza, the saintly secular philosopher, and of Rosenberg, the godless mass murderer.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“In The Spinoza Problem, Irvin Yalom has given us a suspenseful and meaningful novel spanning nearly three centuries and depicting how philosophy and wisdom can spur evil counter-responses that can continue for centuries. This book is another tour de force from a leading psychiatrist psychotherapist who has truly created a genre of fiction and whose novels engross and enlighten us as we anticipate turning the next page. The Spinoza Problem is another not to be missed work from one of the great contributors to the scientific and fictional literature of psychotherapy.”

Kirkus Reviews, starred review
“Imaginative and erudite”
The Washington Post
“[A]s an accessible introduction to Spinoza’s complex philosophy, Yalom’s method has much to recommend it.  Like a good teacher, he presents only a few ideas at a time and moves carefully from one to the next with frequent recapitulation….The conversations he creates give a lovely sense of the philosopher’s character and provide a lucid explanation of the man’s major ideas about nature, free will, and reason.”
Tucson Citizen

Dilip V. Jeste, M.D., Distinguished Professor of Psychiatry & Neurosciences, University of California, San Diego
“Irvin Yalom’s The Spinoza Problem is an amazing novel that combines fact and fiction in a spell-binding manner. Little is known about the psyche of either Baruch Spinoza or Alfred Rosenberg, yet using his extraordinary ability to peer into the minds of his patients, Dr. Yalom has produced a rare gem in existing literature. Only an incomparably gifted author could write such a fascinating and thought-provoking novel. A real page-turner.”
Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, author of ­Betraying Spinoza: The Renegade Jew Who Gave Us Modernity
“The great-souled psychiatrist has written a novel about the great-souled philosopher. Ambitious, erudite, and engaging, The Spinoza Problem’s interweaving tale forces a reader to confront the fundamental question: can reason exert its force for good?”

Abraham Verghese, author of Cutting for Stone

San Jose Mercury News
“What links renowned 17th-century Jewish philosopher Baruch Spinoza with the Nazi party ideologue whose ‘master race’ theory led to Hitler’s ‘final solution? That question is brilliantly explored in the new novel The Spinoza Problem…. As in his earlier novel When Nietzsche Wept, Yalom again dramatizes a great thinker’s ideas.”
Jewish Journal
“Yalom’s latest novel, The Spinoza Problem, is yet another example of how a psychiatrist’s stock in trade — the secrets spoken only in the therapist’s office — can be spun into gold by a gifted storyteller….The Spinoza Problem consists of two compelling narratives….The two tales amount to a mystery novel, although it is a mystery of a very cerebral kind.”

City Book Review “Yalom delivers a powerful philosophical and psychological novel.”

Shelf Awareness
“[Yalom] is the perfect author to bring together Spinoza and Rosenberg in a novel …. [The Spinoza Problem is a] highly intriguing exploration of the connections between a Jewish philosopher and a Nazi ideologue.”

“Irvin Yalom does a masterful job in bringing to life Spinoza and his philosophy and connecting it to the apocalyptic history of Nazi Germany and the persona of Alfred Rosenberg. It’s the sort of temporal alchemy and alchemy of science and fiction that Yalom does so well. The Spinoza Problem is engrossing, enlightening, disturbing and ultimately deeply satisfying.”
Lou Marinoff, Professor of Philosophy, City College of New York, and President, American Philosophical Practitioners Association
The Spinoza Problem is a ringing endorsement for an authentically philosophical life, wherein a toweringly heroic philosopher is persecuted in two eras: one governed by medieval superstition; the other, by totalitarian racism. The novel is a masterpiece, depicting the ultimate triumph of clear and compassionate reason over religious dogma and political pathology alike. I think it’s Yalom’s greatest yet.”
Alan F. Schatzberg, M.D., Kenneth T. Norris, Jr. Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Stanford University, and Past-President, American Psychiatric Association

“In this highly intriguing novel, Irvin D. Yalom…builds a plot around the obsession that the infamously anti-Semitic Rosenberg had with Spinoza, a Jew. Yalom seamlessly parallels the intellectual and personal lives of these two very different men in this engaging, erudite tale. Yalom’s ability to make complex ideas and theories accessible is what makes his novels so popular. The Spinoza Problem gives readers a penetrating look at the perils inherent in seeking wisdom, and the dangers incumbent on anyone brave or foolish enough to attempt a philosophical life.”
San Francisco Book Review “Powerful.”

Jewish Book World
“Beautifully written, remarkably ambitious, filled with vivid descriptions of place, and bursting with brilliant insights, The Spinoza Problem carefully develops its personalities and issues so that they come alive in a highly original and absorbing way.”

Sir Anthony Hopkins, actor
“This is the most intriguing novel I’ve read in many a year. Irvin Yalom has created a taut, deeply informative page turner. I enthusiastically recommend The Spinoza Problem.”

Jay Parini, author of The Last Station and The Passages of H.M.
“Spinoza had no ‘real life’ outside his reading and writing: he lived in his brilliant mind. So how do you write about a philosopher—a writer beloved of Goethe, Schopenhauer, and so many other thinkers—who spent most of his time in thought? And how do you regard Spinoza—a Jew whose work helped to usher in the Enlightenment—if, indeed, you’re a Nazi? Irvin Yalom is just the writer to take on such a problem, and he solves it, with his own novelistic brilliance, in this vibrant book. In my view, Yalom is one of the most eclectic, wide-ranging, and dazzling writers of our time.”
Martin E. P. Seligman, author of Flourish
“Irvin Yalom is the most significant writer of psychological fiction in the world today. I didn’t think he could top When Nietzsche Wept or The Schopenhauer Cure, but he has. The Spinoza Problem is a masterpiece.”

Kirkus Reviews
As much intellectual exploration as novel, Yalom's latest (The Schopenhauer Cure, 2005, etc.) fictional foray into philosophy connects Baruch Spinoza and an agent of the Holocaust. The Nazi is Alfred Rosenberg, historical figure, war criminal sent to Nuremberg's gallows, and philosopher-manqué and self-styled intellectual catalyst of German fascism. As a schoolboy, Rosenberg latched onto Houston Stewart Chamberlain's racist theories. Rosenberg also worshiped Goethe, though he couldn't understand Goethe's appreciation of Spinoza. Thus, The Spinoza Problem. "Never able to cleanse his mind of the image of the great Goethe genuflecting before the Jew Spinoza," Rosenberg migrates to Munich, writes for a propaganda sheet and befriends Hitler. In chapters shifting between Spinoza and Rosenberg, Yalom unfolds the dual narratives in clear, straightforward language, following Spinoza as he rejects religious superstition and embraces rationalism while simultaneously sketching the history and social milieu of Jews who fled the Hibernian peninsula for Holland. Spinoza's conversations with the fictional Franco Benitez, a refugee from Portugal, bring the philosopher to life as he suffers excommunication (cherem), befriends scholars like Franciscus van den Enden and lives "an unencumbered life of contemplation." Characterizing Spinoza as "the supreme rationalist," one who "saw an endless stream of causality in the world," Yalom makes the philosopher accessible to a popular audience. He also does a credible job of imagining how the intellectual connection between Goethe and Spinoza would have befuddled the narcissistic Rosenberg, who was trapped in the belief that there are "higher things than reason—honor, blood, courage." Yalom ends with Spinoza interacting with patrons and Rosenberg on the gallows, followed by an epilogue and an addendum explaining the novel's impetus and construction. Imaginative and erudite.

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Basic Books
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Meet the Author

Irvin D. Yalom, M.D., is an emeritus professor of psychiatry at Stanford University and a psychiatrist in private practice in San Francisco. He is the author of many books, including Love's Executioner, Theory and Practice in Group Psychotherapy, and When Nietzsche Wept. He lives with his wife in Palo Alto, California.

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The Spinoza Problem: A Novel 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 4 reviews.
qwertyz12 More than 1 year ago
I found this novel very interesting. The author uses the right blend of historical facts, Spinoza's writing, and fictional characterizations to bring Spinoza's rational philosophy to life. It's a fun read that may get you interested in reading some of Spinoza's writing. However, if you hold strong religious views and can't see the world from a different perspective, this may not be the book for you.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Apart from learning about jewish traditions and dogma, I didn't get much out of this book. I prefer "When Nietzsche wept".