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Tag Archives: A Life of Reason

How Long was Peter Balling’s Son Dead?

Within Reason: A LIfe of Spinoza

I have to say that reading Margaret Gullan-Whur’s biography of Spinoza is such a mixed experience. It is so well-researched, stuffed with details, and those details so creatively composed that I find that page after page I turn to the endnotes in the back to run through her sources, opening up new ways of seeing material that has long rested in a single frame of reference. And I don’t really mind her very speculative tendencies, something which no doubt has bothered many readers who want to keep their personal “Spinoza” intact, for it is her speculative that allows her to open up the new material. But I have to say, along with this speculation comes the quite evident fact that she plain does not like the man she had studied, or, if she does like him, she has irrepressible drive to “humanize” him, that is, to impress upon him every character flaw she can find hint of (or, if I was more reckless, perhaps make him in the image of some very memorable male figure in her own life). One need only look to her interpretation of Spinoza 26 to Oldenburg, which is pretty much plainly filled with glee and enthusiasm over a meeting with Huygens, to see how deeply she will insert values of arrogance and resentment into a historical Spinoza. I am all for remaking Spinoza for too often he becomes more like a Personage rather than a person, but Gullan-Whur seems strained to find a particular kind of person. Be that as it may, I have to recommend the wonderful biography to anyone serious about building a clearer picture of the man, his world and his life.

The Death of a Son

As an example of what I find fascinating is the way that Gullan-Whur is able to re-contextualize material that felt pretty well settled in my mind. I take for instance his letter to Peter Balling (letter 17). I had always, as had many, taken this letter to be prima facie a letter of consolation to a mourning father. Spinoza’s reported waking dream of the Brazilian and his thoughts on prophetic knowing and immortality that follow were to be seen in the light of Peter’s recent loss of a son, probably to the plague. I don’t know if the research or interpretation is original to her (she cites only official records, and no article), but challengingly Gullan-Whur points out that there is only one record of the death of a son of Peter Balling:

Peter Balling’s omens could have concerned things other than his little boy’s death (which may not have been recent: the only record of the burial of a “child Peter Balling” is for 16 October 1661), since one “Pieter Balling”, living on the Burghwal opposite the Swan Brewery was buried  on 23 December 1664, in an emergency graveyard in the grounds of an old monastery, fourteen guilders being paid for the beir and boat-cover used for his brief obsequies (152).

Of course the original, widespred interpretation of the Balling letter remains quite possible. Deaths were very frequent at this time, and Balling may have had several other children who died. The sense that Balling has been spooked by his auditory premonition of his son’s rasping still can be in order, as the plague was in full-bloom in July of 1664 when Spinoza writes to him, and Peter’s death just five months later becomes a kind of tragic fulfillment. But what this tidbit of historical evidence does is inspire a closer look at the letter, the possibility to see it in another light. Nowhere does Spinoza’s words specify a recent death, and if Balling is recalling a premonition and fulfillment Read more of this post