Ways into reading Spinoza

spinbooks-2How do you solve a problem like (reading) the Ethics? Try not to get put off by the appearance of the geometrical method. At a first look, you may open the book to find dry definitions, arcane axioms and a series of propositions, pared-down to provide an economical and rigorously argued logical progression from premises to conclusion. However, don’t skip over the scholia (referred to as “notes” in some translations) or the prefaces and appendices, where Spinoza lets his hair down a bit, allowing himself a more conversational engagement with the reader. I would also argue that the book can be approached in a non-linear fashion, dipping in and out, following meandering trails signposted by the constant cross-references in the text, getting pleasantly lost as one might in a well-written encyclopaedia. Whether Deleuze himself says this or not, I’d suggest that the book can be taken as rhizomatic, allowing for multiple entry points, with each proposition being linked by uncountable paths to all the others. If you’re interested in the ethical-therapeutic angle, you could start with the Appendix to Part Four, where Spinoza summarizes his psychological results, providing simple advice on how to live with ourselves and with others. The other question about the Ethics is whether to read an introductory volume, or to approach the work with a fresh and open mind. The philosopher Stuart Hampshire writes:

I believe that everyone who has ever written about Spinoza, and who has tried to interpret his thought as a whole, either has been, or ought to have been, uneasily aware of some partiality in his interpretation, when he turns once again from his words to the original. Certainly this is my own position. (1)

While it is certainly true that every writer on Spinoza has their own standpoint, and reading “secondary” literature carries the danger of accepting a partial view as Spinoza’s own, historical distance can be hard to traverse unaccompanied. A wise companion can be of great assistance in overcoming the difficulties in understanding Spinoza’s seventeenth-century conceptual scheme. All the same, like Spinoza’s ring, I advise caution: even the clearest and most faithful commentary is no substitute for reading the text itself, given, of course, that even a translation is an interpretation. The following bibliography is anything but exhaustive. If you feel I’ve left out anything that you have personally found useful and relevant, please post a comment. It’s also almost certainly more than most people will ever read, myself included, but ask a librarian for a book and he or she will always return with arms full of ’em. And do check back, as I will be adding those that I think are most useful, as well as others that come to my mind or my notice.

Translations of the Ethics

Assuming that you’re not going to read it in the original Latin, the canonical translation of the Ethics (used by most current writers on Spinoza) is by E.M. Curley and has been included in at least three different titles.

→ Spinoza, B. d., & Curley, E. M. (1996). Ethics. London : Penguin, 1996.

→ Spinoza, B. d., & Curley, E. M. (1994). A Spinoza reader: The Ethics and other works. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

→ Spinoza, B. d., & Curley, E. M.  (1988). The collected works of Spinoza Vol 1. Princeton, N.J. ; Oxford: Princeton University Press.

→ (In Finnish)  Spinoza, B. d. & Oittinen, V. (1994) Etiikka. Helsinki: Gaudeamus

Online translations:

→ The Ethics at Project Gutenburg Older translation by R.H.M Elwes, also still in print, published by Dover Publications.

→ The Ethics as audio file at LIbriVox (R.H.M. Elwes translation)

Spinoza, Ethics Demonstrated in Geometrical Order at Early Modern Texts Jonathan Bennett’s loose, modern language translation, more readable, less faithful to the original.


→ Nadler, S. M. (2001). Spinoza: A life. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Excellent and meticulously researched biography by a prominent Spinoza scholar and philosopher.

→ Kayser, R. (1946) Spinoza, portrait of a spiritual hero. New York, Philosophical Library. Entertainingly written, more like a historical novel than a serious biography, with a short preface by Einstein.

Introductions to Spinoza and the Ethics

→Curley, E. M.  (1988). Behind the geometrical method: A reading of Spinoza’s Ethics. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press. Seminal introduction, based on three lectures delivered at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in 1984, taking a materialist view of Spinoza’s metaphysics.

→ Della Rocca, Michael. (2008) Spinoza. London : Routledge, 2008. Clear and readable introduction, probably aimed at undergraduates. Central thesis is what Della Rocca refers to as the “principle of sufficient reason” (a phrase coined I believe not by Spinoza, but by Leibniz) which the writer holds as fundamental to Spinoza’s thought. Also has a useful index of propositions of the Ethics which means it can be used as a commentary and companion.

→ Lloyd, G. (1996). Routledge philosophy guidebook to Spinoza and the Ethics. London: Routledge. Concise and readable. → Nadler, S. (2006) Spinoza’s Ethics An Introduction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

→ Popkin, R. (2004) Spinoza.  Oxford : Oneworld. Readable introduction to Spinoza’s thought, including on religion and politics, and putting this into historical context.

→ Scruton, R. (2002). Spinoza: A very short introduction ([2nd ed].). Oxford: Oxford University Press. Very short introduction, as the name suggests, and by a very forthright British philosopher. A very much abridged version of this is also available in Finnish, published by Otava, but with so little remaining, it may not be good value for money!

→ Silverman, R.M. (1995) Baruch Spinoza – Outcast Jew, Universal Sage. Northwood: Symposium) 1995 Particularly useful on the Jewish philosophical context, tracing a thread from earlier Jewish thinkers through to recent critics of Spinoza, such as  Emil Fackenheim.

→ Smith, S. B. (2003). Spinoza’s book of life: Freedom and redemption in the ethics. New Haven, CT ; London: Yale University Press. Clearly written and accessible. Recommended. spinbooks-3 Reading further:

→ Bennett, J. F. (1984). A study of Spinoza’s Ethics. [Indianapolis]: Hackett. Quirky and partial, includes a chapter ‘Psychotherapy’, a very critical reading of Spinoza’s recommendations for working with the emotions. See Koistenen (1998) below for a partial rebuttal.

→ Deleuze, Gilles (1988) Spinoza: Practical Philosophy. San Francisco: City Lights. Not sure if this belongs in the “introductory” or “advanced” category, as the best part of it is a  glossary of the often archaic terminology found in Spinoza’s work.

→ Hampshire, S. (2005). Spinoza and Spinozism. Oxford: Clarendon. Written by a notable philosopher in his own right and one of a previous generation of commentators on Spinoza though still relevant. Beautifully written.

→ James, S. (1997). Passion and action: The emotions in seventeenth-century philosophy. Oxford: Clarendon. Contains a chapter on the psychology of Hobbes and Spinoza; by one of the foremost Spinoza scholars, who has recently published…

→ James, S. (2012). Spinoza on philosophy, religion, and politics: The Theologico-Political treatise. Oxford: Oxford University Press. A reading of Spinoza’s other great work, published in his lifetime, before the Ethics.

Koistinen, O. (1998). ‘Bennett on Spinoza’s Philosophical Psychotherapy’ A critique of Bennett’s critique of Spinoza’s prescription for the mind’s power over the emotions.

→ Koistinen, O. (2009). The Cambridge companion to Spinoza’s Ethics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Edited volume including a chapters on the passions by Susan James and Michael LeBuffe.

→ Lloyd, G. (1994). Part of nature: Self-knowledge in Spinoza’s Ethics. Ithaca, N. Y. ; London: Cornell University Press. Examines Spinoza’s ideas of individuality, selfhood, and freedom in Spinoza’s Ethics.

Podcasts and videos

Susan James on Spinoza and the Passions at Philosophy Bites

Susan James arguing that you should vote for Spinoza

Spinoza: BBC Radio 4 “In Our Time”

Steven Nadler talk on Spinoza Part 1

Steven Nadler talk on Spinoza Part 2

Notes: (1) Hampshire, S (2005)  p. 175.


One thought on “Ways into reading Spinoza

  1. Pingback: Beginning Spinoza | Crossing Borders

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