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Was Tuberculosis the Condition of Spinoza’s Emendation of the Intellect?

I have argued before that Spinoza’s life was likely one that involved carrying the burden of the disease tuberculosis, and that indeed it may have been the disease that influenced some of his most important decisions including his young adult break from the community and devotion to philosophy, as well as the decisions to live away from Amsterdam in states of relative isolation, and perhaps even his break from writing the Ethics and the turn to the Theological-Political Treatise: Spinoza and Tuberculosis: His Disease and Devotion. This is not to say that this is definitely the case in any of these events, but only that as far as I have read his disease is almost never considered by biographers or interpreters as a causal influence upon his life’s trajectory.

The article was called to my attention again and as it happens I was also looking back over Spinoza’s first philosophical work (following Mignini), the Emendation of the Intellect for other reasons last night. I was struck by more than one reference to death, disease and health in its first pages. I went back and inserted a reference in the original post, but it seems good to put them altogether here, for it strikes me that at the very least Spinoza does have disease and death on his mind as he makes his definitive break from the “uncertain” to the “certain”, leaving behind both the community he grew up in and the pursuit of wealth (his family buisness).

Four Citations of Health, Malady and Death

Keep in mind this is a prospective view, meant only to cast a different light on much-looked-at texts, and not a full-blown thesis. And thus the four citations I give are not definitive in any sense, but only supportive of general understanding that is missing in the common interpretations of Spinoza’s life and work.

The first of these is the opening paragraph of the Emendation. Here Spinoza cites “experience” that has taught him of the uncertain. As mentioned in the first article, the deaths of his step mother Esther and then of his father (1654-55) seven months apart, if from tuberculosis, approximately 3-4 years previous, not to mention that the possible onset of the disease in himself could have formed a definite part of this “experience”.

After experience has taught me that all the things which regularly occur in ordinary life are empty and futile, and I saw that all the things which were the cause or object of my fear had nothing of good or bad in themselves, except insofar as [my] mind was moved by them, I resolved at last to try to find out whether there was anything which would be the true good, capable of communicating itself, and which alone would affect the mind, all others being rejected – whether there was something which, once found and acquired, would continuously give me the greatest joy, to eternity [1]

If my hypothesis is correct, Spinoza has been suffering from some symptomatic tuberculosis, just as others of his family had, and that these bouts of coughing and possible blood were in some sense a wake up call to a devotion to the Infinite form him. I read something of this as expressed in his talk of the intervals of peace that increased with his determined change of mentality, possibly understood as a certain conflation of his disease with mental inordination itself (the worries and pursuits of the family business in trade). Could it be that it was intervals of real health, in the cyclic nature of TB, that coincided with Spinoza’s own attempts to straighten out his thinking?:

I saw this, however; that so long as the mind was turned toward these thoughts, it was turned away from those things [greed, desire, love of esteem], and was thinking seriously about the new goal. That was a great comfort to me. For I saw that those evils would not refuse to yield to remedies. And although in the beginning these intervals were rare, and lasted a very short time, nevertheless, after the true good became more and more known to me, the intervals became more frequent and longer – especially after I saw that the acquisition of money, sensual pleasure, and esteem are only obstacles so long as they are sought for their own sakes, and not the means to other things [11]

Then there is a small note on the importance of health, and the understanding of disease which he places between moral philosophy and mechanics, as important in the pursuit of human perfection. Though this could be a mere inclusive coincidence, but it also places the issue of “health” in chronological order between Spinoza’s own moral education at the hands of rabbis, and the discovery of Cartesian mechanics, likely at the Van den Enden school:

Third, attention must be paid to Moral Philosophy and to Instruction concerning the Education of children. Because Health is not small means to achieving this end, fourthly, the whole of Medicine must be worked out [15]

And lastly of the four opening references we have Spinoza speaking of the inadequate knowledge he has of his own condition, the mere report and inference if his own birth and death. Out of context of course these would be common ways of talking about how we “know” we are going to die, but note the specificity here. Spinoza says that he knows that he is going to die because “others like me” have died if from different illnesses. This strikes me as a philosophical abstraction from a real condition, the likelihood that both his step-mother and father had died of the same illness, and that indeed Spinoza was symptomatic of it was well. He “knew” he was going to die in a very real and specific way, and not just the common way that we all know, I suggest.

I know only from report the date of my birth, and who my parents were, and similar things, which I never have doubted. By random experience I know that I shall die, for I affirm this because I have seen others like me die, even though they had not all lived the same length of time and did not all die of the same illness [20]

Surely none of this is conclusive, but if correct it would shed more like both on the radical break Spinoza made towards a philosophy of the eternal, and away from the community that would excommunicate him. Further, it qualifies to a much greater degree Spinoza’s concern with the body and its limitations, and his attempts at mental perfection. It puts further emphasis upon his notion of the contingency of the body and the ignorance we have of its causes, and would show the way in which he envisioned mental clarity as the one self-determining path out of confused bondage. He was not so much escaping death, as embracing its brute fact and appreciating it, thinking in death’s shadow, I would propose, in a time where death was to become quite prevalent and all the more seemingly contingent.

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