When 16-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 17th-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 24, 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 best-selling 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.
What members say
More textbook than novel
A deep and rich book, especially if you're interested in philosophy or psychoanalysis - but do approach it as part-textbook, rather than a well rounded novel.
The author is a psychiatrist and boy, does it show. Every single conversation is stilted and unrealistic. The two main characters are built up not through action, but by long verbatim accounts of therapy sessions - either literal, or under a very thin veneer of conversation about philosophy. There are long passages of material which is irrelevant (histories of Portuguese Judaism or early psychoanalysis) whilst important characterisation is left undone - 'Oh yes, I married again' says one central character in the only hint we ever get of his home life.
That said, the book has a quiet intensity which held my attention to the end, and I learned a great deal about Spinoza.