Magazine article The Spectator

The Equality of Mankind

Magazine article The Spectator

The Equality of Mankind

Article excerpt

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. 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 preFreudian self-analysis for me. Spinoza helps me to see myself objectively. This makes life bearable even in experiencing suffering; and with the teachings from 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', and banned from the synagogue and from the academic establishment. Even his pupils would acknowledge him only in private. And when Karl Ludwig asked the impoverished, lonely philosopher to lecture at the University of Heidelberg, Spinoza turned him down: he 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 musical scores philosophically and rationally. Spinoza's principle that reason and emotion cannot be separated became for me a primary approach to music. I believed 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 contribution to philosophy.

Questions about Jewish ethics and morals and 'What is being Jewish?' were long identified as about 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 they were tragically persecuted under the Spanish Inquisition and under 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. …

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