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Spinoza and Ovid

Michael Weiss discusses the book Betraying Spinoza with it author: A Kibitz on Pure Reason (Day Two). I have have to say that the book was not a favorite of mine, though the combination of veiled and unveiled personal observation, fiction and nonfiction was a unique take on Spinoza, a man who is sometimes overly caricatured by our needs to make him be a certain kind of person.

But I write here momentarily on something Michael Weiss says in passing, his note of the “inner warmth” of Spinoza beneath the “outer carapace”, signaled by Spinoza’s use of Ovid in the Ethics, hinting at an exoteric and an esoteric Spinoza:

I quite liked your narcissism quote, although my Penguin translation of The Ethics doesn’t put it so poetically as that – a shame, given the citations of Ovid with which Spinoza peppered a few of his axioms. This lure towards the romantic furnishes us with a clue, I think, about Baruch’s unacknowledged biases, since he thought the antique pangs of a fellow outcast fit for such a hyper-rationalist treatise on how best to stifle those pangs. Augustus likely gave Ovid the boot for his decadence and estimation of eros above the stuffy political conservatism and jingoism of imperial Rome. Spinoza had his own epicurean tastes, so I wonder if the frequent nods to the love poet aren’t further evidence of his inner warmth despite the outer carapace.

This caused me to think of my own love for Spinoza’s Ovid quotes and suggestions. In the wider view, I actually find Spinoza quite humorous at times. There have been guesses on what part Spinoza would have played in Terence’s “Andria” and “Eunuchus”, put on by van den Enden’s group in ’57 and ’58 (Leopold, Proietti), a point brought out by Wim Klever. I love the picture of Spinoza acting on stage as a 25 year old. But mostly, I have liked Spinoza’ remarkable Ovid Amores II xix reference when discussing the nature of the courtesan, and the facts of social binding, a Nietzschean: 

Ovid:

Iron is he who would love what the other has set down.

Let us hope while we fear and fear while we hope, we lovers

And let rare repulse make a place for a vow. (4-6)

The wordplay of the Latin is intense, and that Spinoza would draw on such multiplicitous lines is suggestive. Spinoza must have quoted favorite lines from memory (!), for he transposes the two initial lines, and significantly perhaps, suppresses the conciliatory conclusion of mutual conflict, the “locum voto”, the space for a vow (must we revisit the rumor of his lost love for van den Enden’s daughter?),

Spinoza:

Let us hope while we fear, and fear while we hope, we lovers

Iron is he who would love what the other sets down. (Ep31c)

Spinoza’s contextually Ovidian argument:

If we imagine that someone enjoys some thing that only one can possess, we shall strive to bring it about that he does not possess it.
Schol: We see, therefore, that for the most part human nature is so constituted that men pity the unfortunate and envy the fortunate, and with greater hate the more they love the thing they imagine the other to possesses. We see, then, that from the same property of human nature from which it follows that men are compassionate [misericordes], it also follows that the same men are envious and ambitious (E3p32).

He who strives, only because of an affect, that others should love what he loves, and live according to his temperament, acts only from impulse and is hateful…since the greatest good men seek from an affect is often such that only one can possess it fully [ut unus tantum eius possit esse compos, hinc fit], those who love are not of one mind in their love-while they rejoice to sing the praises of the thing they love, they fear to be believed (E4p37s1)

I find these to be incredibly subtle and suggestive parts of his argument, and the poem they are drawn from provocative in subject. And lastly, one must remember that Colerus tells us that he would place spiders in a web to fight, amusing himself at the gladiatorial display. I have a feeling that Spinoza was something more than the man (image) we have made of him.

 

related thoughts: Spinoza and His Courtesan

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One response to “Spinoza and Ovid

  1. Pingback: The “Slave of Love” in Latin Poetry « Frames /sing

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