I read Spinoza’s Ethics for the first time when I was 13 years old. Of course we studied the Bible at school – which for me is the ultimate philosophical work. However, reading Spinoza opened up a new dimension for me. I am still dedicated to it. Spinoza’s simple principle ‘man thinks’ has become an existential mindset for me. My copy of Ethics has become dog-eared and torn. For years I took it with me on my travels and in hotel rooms or intervals in concerts I became absorbed by many of the principles.
Spinoza’s Ethics is the best training ground for the intellect, because Spinoza like no other philosopher teaches us the radical freedom of thought. Only an individual who reflects on all consequences in life is able to find a form of happiness. This awareness has become a kind of pre-Freudian self-analysis for me. Spinoza helps me to see myself objectively. This makes life bearable even in experiencing suffering; and with the teachings from the Ethics the world is perceived as manageable.
The great Voltaire once accused Spinoza of ‘abusing metaphysics’. Is not the uncompromising nature of metaphysics more important today than ever? Has not liberated thinking become the most valued freedom at a time when political systems, social constraints, moral codes and political correctness often control our thinking?
Spinoza would not tolerate restrictions, imposed by any political or religious system or by any moral attitude. He struggled for the ideal of free thought. Hardly any other philosopher made so many enemies. He was labelled ‘a troublemaking Jew’, banned from the synagogue and from the academic establishment. Even his pupils would acknowledge him in private. And when Karl Ludwig asked the impoverished lonely philosopher to lecture at the University of Heidelberg, he turned him down. Spinoza could not guarantee that his thinking would not threaten ‘widely accepted religious concepts’. The philosopher in him preferred the quiet retiring life to a bourgeois career.
Spinoza had no particular interest in music. Nonetheless, his logic was influenced by his approach to music. My father, who studied philosophy, was the first to introduce me to Spinoza. He advised me to look at scores philosophically and rationally. Spinoza’s principle that reason and emotion cannot be separated, became for me a primary approach to music. I believe that one can approach a concept and a piece of music only if the logical structure can be established simultaneously with the emotional content.
I think back to the last discussion I had with the great conductor Otto Klemperer. We talked about Spinoza and he said “Spinoza’s Ethics is the most important book ever written”. Klemperer was, as we know, Jewish. At the age of 22 he converted to Christianity because he believed that only as a Christian could he conduct Bach’s St Matthew Passion. Many years later, after the War, when Klemperer had already reached old age, he converted back to Judaism. And the reason he gave was Spinoza’s Ethics. Perhaps the most important Jewish philosophy. Questions about Jewish ethics and morals and “What is being Jewish?” were long identified as being a minority. The traditional thinking and perceived identity of the Jewish people in its 2,000 year history was as a minority. Historically the Jews were integrated into social and cultural life but tragically persecuted under the Spanish Inquisition and the tyranny of Adolf Hitler. What is special about Spinoza’s philosophy is that, despite persecution, abuse and alienation, his thinking was never based on the premise of Jews being a minority. That is precisely why his philosophy is so contemporary, now that the Jewish people have their own state, i.e. are no longer a minority. Spinoza’s Ethics remains a potent formula for creating intellectual and moral unity among the Jews.
When in 1948 the Jews achieved statehood, the minority became a nation. This development was at the core of a profound change of identity. However, only 19 years later, the Jews in Israel had to meet a new challenge: the former minority suddenly found it had control over another minority, the Palestinians. This second transition has not yet been achieved. I would go so far as to say that it has not yet actually started. Even today, many Jews in Israel are still not real patriots, concerned with the good fortune of all inhabitants of Israel; they have taken on naïve nationalism. Spinoza once stated ‘the purpose of the State is in true freedom’. I wonder how far Israel has progressed with the State on the one hand and with freedom on the other. Spinoza speaks of the equality of mankind – the idea of the ruler and the ruled are foreign to him. Israeli democracy has not yet solved the problem of a state where minorities are suppressed yet freedom for all is the key goal. We are still living in a two-class democracy.
I am convinced that the Jews in Israel must come to a conclusion about their position before the conflict in the Middle East can be resolved. Jewish humour demonstrates that this is not yet the case. The humour of a minority demands courage. A Jew who throws a piece of stale bread before the feet of a Gestapo officer in the Warsaw Ghetto and says “that’s good enough for a non-Jew!” is displaying courage. A Jew who throws a piece of stale bread before the feet of a Palestinian and uses the same words, “that’s good enough for a non-Jew” in Ramallah, demonstrates only primitive inhumanity.
In the Fifties, Spinoza’s spirit was evident in Jerusalem – the city was the centre for Jewish intellectuals. Martin Buber and Max Brod taught there. I was living in Tel Aviv at the time. We were more practical – we built up the land, with hope and enthusiasm and created material value. The Hebrew University in Jerusalem provided the intellectual core of our lives. Now secular Jewry has left Jerusalem and the Orthodox Jews determine the spiritual climate; it is the reestablishment of the Spinoza philosophy in Jerusalem which is essential if progress is to be achieved in the conflict in the Middle East.
Spinoza suffered two experiences which are strongly evident today. Although a Jew, he was excluded from the Jewish community; he also became a victim of anti-semitism. A recent survey in Germany exposed the reality that a majority of Germans believe that the Jews were the greatest risk to world peace. Here a disturbing confusion has arisen: criticism of the State of Israel and anti-semitism. The one has become a reason for the other. There is every reason for criticism of the Israeli government -I have expressed it vehemently and often myself. To use this as a reason to fire anti-semitism is fatal.
Anti-semitism has no historical, political and certainly no philosophical origins. Anti-semitism is a disease. It is significant that Spinoza’s ideas had an influence on what is regarded as typical German thinking today – on Feuerbach, Wagner and Nietzsche. How could Richard Wagner become an anti-semite while influenced by Spinoza? Anti-semitism definitely formed part of the profile of a German nationalist in the nineteenth century. Why did Wagner pursue this idea with such fervour? He could not draw these ideas from his spiritual father, the heir to Spinoza, Feuerbach. Wagner’s anti-semitism, like any form of Jew-hating, had an irrational basis. He was too similar to his arch-enemies, the Jews Meyerbeer and Heinrich Heine. In the desire to belong to the chosen people, we have the dangerous separation of logic and private motives. Anti-semitism has no philosophical origins. It is a disease which we are not in any way adequately addressing.
A reading of Spinoza’s Ethics makes this perfectly clear. It is as relevant today as ever. On the one hand it could be an opportunity for revelation to the reader – to logic and free thinking. On the other, it offers a philosophy for our laws of co-existence. With Spinoza’s Ethics Israel could develop as a truly democratic state in which every part of the community defines its ethical values and the ultimate purpose of humanity.