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Spinoza: Not As Abused As Is Said

Two Kinds of Disparagment Found In the Huygens Letters

I am looking at the references to Spinoza made by Christiaan Huygens, coming to them with the expectation that they would reveal a general disparagement of the man, either in terms of his optical knowledge, or in terms of his person, for these letters have been characterized as proof of a certain diminishment Spinoza had suffered in the minds of those who came to know him.

I quote below two sources that typify this kind of conclusion.

It is however the letters which Christiaan Huygens wrote to his brother Constantijn between 9 September and 11 May 1668, which provide us with the clearest evidence that by then, those engaged on actual research into dioptrics had begun to take a somewhat patronizing attitude to Spinoza’s theorizing on the subject. They make it perfectly clear that although Huygens valued “our Israelite’s” practical skill in producing first-rate lenses, he thought it very unlikely that he was capable of adding anything of value to the understanding of optical phenomena (97)

Spinoza’s Algebraic Calculation of the Rainbow & Calculation of Chances, by Michael John Petry  

Over time, he earned praise from some notable experts for his expertise in lens and instrument construction. Huygens, writing to his brother from Paris in 1667 (when Spinoza was living in Voorburg) noted that “the [lenses] that the Jew of Voorburghas in his microscopes have an admirable polish.” A month later, still using the somewhat contemptuous epithetet – occasionally replaced in his letters by “our Israelite” – he wrote that “the Jew of Voorburg finishes [achevoit] his little lenses by means of the instrument and this renders them very excellent (183) 

Spinoza: A Life, by Steven Nadler

The Optical Israelite

While Petry finds in these letters clear evidence for an accumulation of doubt as to Spinoza’s capacities as an optical thinker, the relegation of him to simply that of an excellent craftsman, Nadler acknowledging that although Spinoza’s instrument achievements were much respected, strongly suggests that he was seen merely as a “Jew”, or perjoratively as “our Israelite”. The picture that is left by these writers and others is that somehow Spinoza was seen in a poor intellectual and ethnic light by the Huygnses.

In looking at these letters, this simply does not seem to be the case. Firstly, Nadler’s implied characterization that in these letters Spinoza is ONLY the Jew or Israelite does not hold. He is also “Le Sieur Spinoza” , “Sir Spinoza” (September 9, 1667, May 11 1668), and just “Spinoza” several times. He is also addressed in combination of “Spinoza et Monsieur Hudde” (Semptember 23, 1667); whether this is a sign of his diminishment in contrast to Mr. Hudde, or one of familiarity is hard to weigh. In fact it is hard to measure the full texture of the Jewish nomenclatures, some of which Nadler finds distinctly “contemptuous”. There very well may be social contempt in these, but the title “the Jew of Voorborg” may be a title Spinoza had somehow informally gained in circles, and not simply one of Christiaan’s invention, and though “our Israelite” may strike our eyes in a jarring fashion, it is difficult to parse out the affection from the diminishment, if indeed there is such. (To understand what Huygens means by “our Israelite” one for instance may have to anachronistically ask, Is Spinoza diminishing others when he refers to the “Brazilian” in his waking dream, as an “Ethiopian” [Ep. 17].)  Because of these telescopic difficulties across centuries, at the very least I want to present the picture of the Huygenes social relationship to Spinoza as more complex and varied than what I assumed by reading the tale of these references without looking at them. And I wish to open the possibility that there was more social respect there, against the tremendous currents of the prejudice of the times, than otherwise would be assumed possible in a less nuanced reading, a respect that Spinoza had personally earned across social barriers.

Petry’s point I am unclear on, for in the letters Spinoza’s optical (vs. craft) acumen does not seem to be in question. There seems to me to be clear evidence rather that Spinoza rather had collaborated with the well-respected mathematician Johannes Hudde on calculations for a 40 ft. lens (Sept 23, 1667), and that these calculations had perhaps influenced Huygens’ own calculations for even longer lenses. Perhaps Petry has in mind Huygens’ thoughts in his May 11, 1668 letter, where Huygens discusses his new eyepiece with Constantijn. Spinoza certainly had no knowledge of the optics of this eyepiece, or its principles, but if I am reading Huygens correctly, this is his proposed solution to spherical aberration using only spherical lenses (against a hyperbolic solution). Not only would Spinoza have no knowledge of these principles, neither would any other man in Europe, Johannes Hudde included. I am unsure if we could say that this was a “patronizing attitude”. I am certainly open to evidence to the contrary.

Others have suggested Christiaan’s warnings to Constantijn should keep quiet about his invented lenses, and not reveal them to Spinoza, proves that he regarded Spinoza to be a “competitor” in lens-making. I find this an odd, or perhaps incomplete conclusion. Christiaan’s invention simply was not ready to be made public, and he knew Spinoza to be at times in close contact with Oldenburg, the secretary of the Royal Society of London. Spinoza had kept Oldenburg abreast of the details of Huygens’s progress. There is a sense though in which Spinoza may have been a competitor to Christiaan. The Huygens brothers may have had an intimate relationship to lens-grinding, and there are signs that Constantijn grew cold to Christiaan’s instructions when Christiaan had gone to Paris. The lenses ground during the time of their separation are thought by Anne van Helden to have been entirely farmed out to craftsmen. If though Constantijn continued his conversations about optics and lenses with his neighbor Spinoza, having lost his brother partner to fame in Paris, indeed Spinoza may have represented, however slightly, an emotional threat to Christiaan. It seems, by several accounts, that Spinoza was an engaging man to talk with. Any disparagement we may find in these letters from Christiaan, insofar as we find it, I think should be understood within this context as well, that the brothers were extremely close on the subject and practice of lens-grinding.

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