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Tag Archives: Letter 17

Omens of the Future: Intellection and Imagination

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More on the Balling Letter

This is a follow up on the train of thought I began two days ago on the subject of Spinoza’s letter to Peter Balling where Spinoza brings up the curious notion of sharing in the essence of another person, and even the result that one could have phenomenological experiences of future events: Spinoza’s Scheme of the Prophetic Imagination. I wanted to really explore just how Spinoza is using or conceiving of the imagination as a wayward point between events of the body, and events of the mind, as it seems that this is most important to determining the value of Spinoza’s comments, in particular how they might reveal just how he conceived of the importance of the “imitation of the affects” and also our general capacity to know (and/or participate in) the essences of external things.

Spinoza displays some inconsistency in how he treats the imagination (and even the concept of order, discussed here: Spinoza’s Two Concepts of Order), throughout his work. And the problem of the standing of the “imagination” in 17th century thought is not something unique to Spinoza. By and large though I think we can assume that what Spinoza means by the imagination is what we commonly mean by phenomena, that is our experiences of things either being present to us, or our ability to conjure them up apart from their presence. Largely these are just what we would call our “experiences” in general. So when Spinoza and Peter Balling are talking about either a waking dream of a diseased slave or the sounds of an ailing child groan, these are hallucinatory effects which are not different in mechanism than the effects we experience when we perceive the world.

Spinoza early on takes these experiences of the imagination to be best seen as products of the body, and as sources of confusion. We do not understand their causes, and they kinda of erupt out of our ignorance, seemingly at random. They are the products of external bodies interacting with and stimulating our own body. Most importantly, it is this tendency towards randomness (in terms of their meaningfulness) that Spinoza is most concerned with, the way in which our phenomenal experiences occlude and confuse, something which Spinoza attributes to their bodily source. You can see this in his Emendation where he claims that the effects of the imagination are only caused by bodies, but it is interesting that when it comes down to it Spinoza himself seems a bit confused on how to classify them by their source in the body. Instead it is merely their tendency towards (apparent) randomness and also our passivity towards them and the world which distinguishes them from products of the Intellect. In this sense explanations of our experiences which turn to our body alone, due to our ignorance of causes, tend to create passive states to be contrasted with the workings of the Intellect which are activities of our being:

Thus we have distinguished between the true idea and other perceptions, and we have established that the fictitious, the false, and other ideas have their origin in the imagination, that is, in certain sensations that are (so to speak) fortuitous and unconnected, arising not from the power of the mind but from external causes, in accordance as the body, dreaming or waking, receives various motions. Or if you wish, you may here understand by imagination whatever you please, as long as it is something different from the intellect, and the soul has a passive relationship to it. It matters not how you understand it, now that we know that it is something random, and that the soul is passive to it, while we know how we may be delivered from it with the aid of the intellect [84].

Emendation of the Intellect

In this way our experiences are seen as simply the receiving of motions from external bodies, and our bodies become something of a “picture making machine” (citing the end of Willa Cather’s story “Paul’s Case“). But by the time of Spinoza’s writing of his letter to Balling in 1664, perhaps some six years after the Emendation (if we are to believe Mignini), Spinoza adopts a dual possible source for effects of the imagination and our experiences. They can come either from the states of our body, or from the Intellect. In fact, Spinoza regards a whole class of imaginary effects as near automatic traces of the ideas we form in the Intellect:

The effects of the imagination arise from the constitution either of body or of mind. To avoid all prolixity, for the present I shall prove this simply from what we experience. We find by experience that fevers and other corporeal changes are the cause of delirium, and that those whose blood is thick imagine nothing but quarrels, troubles, murders and things of that sort. We also see that the imagination can be determined simply by the constitution of the soul, since, as we find, it follows in the wake of the intellect in all things, linking together and interconnecting its images and words just as the intellect does its demonstrations, so that there is almost nothing we can understand without the imagination instantly forming an image.

Letter 17, To Peter Balling, July 20th 1664

Apart from the take in the Emendation, here the imagination actually “follows in the wake of the Intellect” and distinct from the opinion that it tends towards randomness in meaning, its images and words (!) are interconnected just as (one presumes, in a way similar to) the intellect’s linking of its proofs. It should be noted that Spinoza is reasoning from “experience” itself here, and not making a deductive determination, but it is clear that he has at the very least shifted his stance away from the significantly passive and randomesque sources of the imagination some years back. And even more evocative, the very concept of linked and interconnected images and words strongly calls to mind the linchpin proposition 13 of part II of the Ethics, wherein the order and connection of ideas and (extended) things is said to be the same. There is nearly a third “order and connection” going on here.

How Can The Imagination Have Two Sources?

This aspect of the letter actually has troubled me quite a bit. In fact any place Spinoza argued that there is either a bodily source or a mental source for an event I felt a deep objection arise in me that Spinoza’s parallel postulate strictly forbids any such ultimate distinction. As you can see from the diagram posted above, the order and connections of the bodily state expressions of an essence run necessarily parallel to their ideational expression; and Spinoza precludes the idea that one side of the parallel can have causal effect on the other. So any bodily state, when taken as the causal source of an event, must also have its parallel ideational state which additionally the causal source of the same event (read as an ideational expression). What determines whether one uses the bodily state as the causal source or not is whether the event is read as either a physical expression, or as an ideational one. But all events are necessarily both. So when Spinoza says in the Emendation that the imagination (those events) are bodily in nature, this can only mean that he is already speaking of them as physical (putting some strain on the future of the parallel postulate). By the time of writing of letter 17, the effects of the Imagination are dichotomized, but at first blush this is not at the level of description. Instead it seems rather for Spinoza there are kinds or classes of effects of the Imagination. Delirums and dispositional judgments spring from bodily constitutions, and in this case, prophetic imaginary experiences which spring from the mind or the constitution of the soul.

What are we to make of this supposedly confusion of the parallel postulate wherein some experiential events are predisposed to be explained through a physical causal chain, and others through an ideational one? And what are we to make of the causal difficulties involved in the notion of the imagination “following in the wake” of the Intellect, or even that such wake-following possesses its own order of expression? I think the answer lies within the kinds of relevant causes that get swept up in either chain of explanatory force. That is to say, while we may presume that the parallel postulate holds and that there is a causal chain of each kind flowing backwards for any one event, which chain we chose depends on both our access to information about that chain, but also what each explanation would reveal. And in the case of our experiences of our interactions with things external to us, indeed each chain gives us a different method of self-analysis and world orientation which is in some sense linked to the ontological lean each event has towards the world itself. Spinoza wants to say something of the effect, there could be two seemingly similar imaginative effects, waking dreams, but understanding one might tell us more about ourselves (if we take it to be the product of the physical states of our body), and the other might tell us something more about the world, something external to us, (if we take it to be the product of our ideational state and our relational juxtaposition to other things in the world). You can see this in the way that Spinoza justifies that Peter Balling’s hallucination would indeed be prophetic, born out of the love and literal union of the father to the son:

[continuing from the passage just cited] This being so, I say that none of the effects of the imagination which are due to corporeal causes can ever be omens of things to come, because their causes do not involve future things. But the effects of the imagination, or images, which have their origin in the constitution of the mind can be omens of some future event because the mind can have confused awareness beforehand of something that is to come. So it can imagine it has firmly and vividly as if such a thing were present to it…

The Logic of the Future

What I propose is that the dichotomy Spinoza uses is one quite natural to us. In lieu of the medical common place at the time, thickness of blood, we moderns need only replace “low dopamine levels” or “damage to the cerebral cortex” to see that physical causal explanations of our experiences and judgments gain their traction from the way in which those experiences fail to shed light upon the world. The meaningfulness of those mental events, in that they fail to reveal the world (for others or ourselves), drains away, and is recouped through a physical explanation. In Spinoza’s letter, a fever explains a hallucination when the vision does not seem to derive from events in the world. Physical dispositions explain those that are too morbidly or aggressively predisposed, when those mental events seem out of joint with what is going on. To take another example, “its the drink speaking” is a regular dismissal of the “truths” spoken by a drunk person. The recapture of explanatory force at the level of the physical is accomplished by understanding better the way in which physical causes are operating. One might cure a fever to ride oneself of delirium, or abstain from alcohol to avoid overly emotional outbursts (or take lithium to avoid depressions). Key though to Spinoza’s dual cause interpretation is that given that mental events lack traction in the real world (seemingly), such imaginary effects will simply seem to the person experiencing them to verge towards “random”. A cloak of ignorance covers much of the causal chain, leading to confusions.

There is another path to explanation, the path to order and sense-making, and it is to this that Spinoza sets up his alternate explanation of a waking dream. Imaginary effects, in that they follow in the wake of the Intellect actually can reveal the world itself – and in this case even indicate something of its future. Spinoza predicates this upon what he calls “participating” in the essence of another person (or perhaps more correctly, in the affections and ideas of another person), something he calls a union and a becoming as if one and the same, via love. For clarity sake I diagram out the two causal explanations of waking dreams below:

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I think that there is more than our ability to interpret waking dreams at stake in these descriptions. In fact I think we have clue to the very picture of the world Spinoza holds as it underwrites all of his epistemic arguments for how we do and do not know things in the world. But first I would like take up the very notion that we might have premonitory imaginary experiences. This is something that strikes us as sheer superstition, and it is hard for us to accept that the quite sober Spinoza would indulge in such a fancy. But I think I can appeal to some very real, in fact everyday experiences which may clear up just what future-vision may be for Spinoza, or perhaps why he holds the claim that he does: that things of the Intellect involve things of the future. The first of these is obvious, the sciences indeed are, based on acts of intellection, quite predictive. But it is more than this, for Spinoza is talking about an outright hallucination of a future event, so much so it is as if the event is happening right in front of you. Do we have any instances of this sort we can draw on? The most instructive one I believe is the example shared by Spinoza and Wittgenstein, discussed here: Understanding in a Flash and the Mastery of Technique. This is when a mathematical series is being expressed and that there is a rule that is being followed in the succession of numbers. It don’t think it is too much of a stretch to refer to what Wittgenstein called “characteristic accompaniments” as effects of the imagination which are not understanding itself, but rather seem to come in the wake of understanding. If I say aloud “2, 4, 6, 8…” it is not out of the question that you might have an auditory hallucination of the sound “1o” in anticipation of the next number. This in fact would be an albeit confused but still imaginary premonition of a future event, even if I happen to stop at the number 8. In fact we get a glimpse at what Spinoza means by the “wake of the Intellect”. In some sense this power of anticipation through imaginary phenomena expresses our grasp of a situation is what Spinoza is appealing to when trying to explain how Balling’s vision differs from his own. And most importantly, the foundation of this difference is the participatory relationship the father has with his son’s essence, the literal union of the two.

How Adequate Are Our Ideas of External Things?

Much has been debated about the way Spinoza conceives the adequacy of our ideas of external things, and in this questions about just how adequate the ideas of Science are. Spinoza is restrictive to the value of abstractions (of which much of Sciences seems to be composed), and mathematics (which he calls both a product of, and an aid to, the imagination in letter 12). Spinoza’s theory of Common Notions introduced in the Ethics simply is too bare to do the weight of carrying  the whole load of how we gain knowledge about states of the world. Indeed I side with others such as Michael Della Rocca and Eric Schliesser who, for different reasons, renounce that completely adequate ideas could be held about things external to us, insofar as they are taken as separate things. And I think core to the issue of adequate knowledges is Spinoza’s Letter 17 notion of participating in the essence of another person to strong ideational effect. There seems to be an undercurrent of participation in essences between Spinoza’s intuitions about how we hold ideas of other things i the first place.

Most readings that seek to resolve the difficulties of how adequate our knowledge of external thing is turn to either our necessarily adequate knowledge of “common notions” (supposedly ideas that are common to both ourselves and external things) or to the infinite modes like “motion and rest”, which in turn are taken to be common to all things. And Spinoza towards the end of his unfinished treatise on the Emendation gives us a good hint at how we should think about these very “real” things, things we must train our Intellect to:

As to the ordering of all our perceptions and their proper arrangement and unification, it is required that, as soon as possible and reason demands, we should ask whether there is a being – and also what kind of being – which is the cause of all things so that its essence objectified is the cause of all our ideas [ut  class=”hiddenSpellError” pre=”ut “>eius essentia obiectiva sit etiam causa omnium nostrarum idearum]. Then our mind, as we have said, will reproduce [referet] Nature as closely as possible, for it will possess the in the form of thought the essence, order and unity of Nature. Hence we can see that it is above all necessary for us always to deduce our ideas from physical things, i.e., from real beings, advancing, as far as we can, in accordance with the chain of causes from one real being to another real being, neither inferring something real from them nor inferring them from something real. For in either case the true progress of the intellect is interrupted.

But it should be noted that by the series of causes and real beings I do not here mean the series of mutable particular things, but only the series of fixed and eternal things. It would be impossible for human limitation to grasp the series of mutable particular things, not only because they are innumerable but also because of the infinite number of factors affecting one and the same thing, each of which can be the cause of the existence or nonexistence of the thing. For the existence of mutable particular things has no connection with their essence; that is (as we have said), their existence is not an eternal truth.

But neither is there any need for us to understand their series. For the essences of particular mutable things are not to be elicited from their series or order of existing, which would furnish us with nothing but their extrinsic characteristics, their relations, or, at most, their circumstances. All these are far from the inmost essence of things. This essence is to be sought only from the fixed eternal things, and at the same time from the laws in these things as well as in their true codes [veris codicibus] so inscribed, which govern the coming into existence and the ordering of all particular things [99-101]

The Emendation of the Intellect

In such a passage our modern scientific gaze turns to these “true codes” and “laws” which govern particular things, and we ask ourselves just how Spinoza conceives that we can know these laws within his framework of knowledges. And how are we to conceive of the passing from one real thing to another, without falling into abstraction? What does it mean for us to identify what kind of being is the cause of all our ideas so that we hold the essence of something in our mind, as the source of our own ideas of a particular thing? What I suggest is that Spinoza’s letter 17 notion of “participation” in an essence is precisely the relation that Spinoza is thinking of here. There is for Spinoza a genuine transformation of the self, through the power of its ideas, when it comes to perceive and think about particular things external to it. And I would suggest that this transformation involves the literal becoming other than itself, or rather, forming a mutuality with the object known such that the inter-relationship expresses a new essence: 


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In letter 17 the father is said to necessarily have an idea of the affections of the body of his son due to the degree of their union so as to have become one and the same. They have achieved a kind of identity which at the ideational level anchors the adequacy (or at least the greatly increased adequacy) of his idea of his son’s affections, so much so that the future of the son’s illness leaves a trace in the imagination of the present. That indeed a new essence is achieved through the father’s love could be argued in two ways, following two of the definitions of what makes any composition of physical parts an “individual”. The first is that any fixed ratio of a communication of parts achieves individuality, and there is no reason at all why one would not admit any cognitive inter-relationship between a knower and a known as just such a communication of parts (however mediated). The second is that Spinoza defines as an individual anything combination of causes which produces a singular effect. In the case of the father’s premonition, at least as Spinoza qualifies it, it is the union of the two, closely related to the level of essences, that produces this imaginary event, establishing this union itself as an individual. But I suggest further, participation in the essences of other things external to us is the FUNDAMENTAL mode of our knowing anything about anything in the world, and this is due to the fact that any particular modal expression shares its status as an expression of Substance with any other modal expression. If there are laws (and codes) which govern the expression of any two modal forms, these two modes are necessarily participating in the essences of each, at the very least through their sharing of the governance which brings them into being and order.

The Participatory Ontology of Knowing

But something more is meant by “participation” by Spinoza in this letter, in particular how it is due to the deep love of the father for his son. In the Ethics “love” is relegated to the order of the passions, a complimentary psychological part to hate, each echoing back into the other. Here in the letter to Balling instead love is seen as the source of a deep ideational union between two persons, and a kind of prophetic power of epistemological imagination: a father that can foreseen his son’s death, however confusedly. In the Ethics Love is defined as the increase of perfection accompanied by the idea of an external cause, and in this sense the father loves his son because he regards the son as the source and cause of his own increases in perfection and joy. I have always taken this phrase “accompanied by the idea of an external cause” to be a reprovement for the human tendency to select out only ONE cause for the complexity of relations which compose our mental and physical events. Indeed the beloved is “a” cause of our increase in joy and active perfection, but what makes this a passive relation is the exclusion of all other causes, the entire matrix of intimate connections which for Spinoza go all the way up to God-Substance, and all the way into our own individual states, which have brought about this change. What distinguishes Spinoza’s participatory love from just this sort of passion, at least so far as how he exemplifies it (and notice he speaks of an ideal relation, and not necessarily the Balling experience), is that it creates a participation in essence which connects one’s own ideas with the affections of the other person. And implicitly, I would propose, such a love-paricipation must involve all the common notions, the mutuality of human nature and the infinite modes as determining and shared expressions. One has, at least potentially, ideas of all these mediating things in just the same way that one has ideas of the affections of the son.

If this line of thinking is to be embraced as underwriting knowledge for Spinoza, that is, degrees of participation qualified by the degree of adequacy of one’s ideas, the degree of one’s being, and even the strength of intellectual love, then Spinoza’s principle of the “imitation of the affects” has to be reconsidered or at least put into juxtaposition with the participation in essences, due to love:

 E3, Proposition 27: If we imagine a thing like us, toward which we have had no affect, to be affected with some affect, we are thereby affected with a like affect…

Such a proposition puts the imagination front and center in the processes which allow us to achieve social bonds, not only with other humans but with almost all things in the world; (I argue this at some length here: The Trick of Dogs: Etiologic, Affection and Triangulation, Part I of IV) The question always is, How can mere processes of projective imagination gain any ground on which such imagining and experiencing the world through others actually proves efficacious and informative. When Spinoza says “If we imagine a thing like us” is there a concrete, or real “like us” which makes this process gain traction and ultimately real? If we take up Spinoza’s Letter 17 musings on the prophetic, and if we grant that essence participation is fundamental to the access of at least some of our intellectual activity and awarenesses, it would seem that the imitation of the affects is an imaginary expression “in the wake of” real intellectual, ideational unions, unions which vary by degrees of adequacy and being. The question is not whether we can have adequate ideas of external, particular things, but rather how adequate ideas express themselves in varying degrees of our occasions of cybernetic union with things in the world. It is for this that Spinoza wants us to concentrate on “real beings” which constitute our very combinative participation with those things we know, use and ultimately love.

Revelation in the Wake of Intellect

Lastly, this would suggest, that if our world being – quite in contrast with Heidegger is not a “thrown-into-ness” of alienation – is one of a necessarily participation and overlapping, boundary-defying mutuality of expression, in which our knowing of things is to some degree our being them (Campanella), then our imaginations may very well be capable of producing phenomenal presentations of our futures, however confusedly, in much the same fashion that Peter Balling foresaw his son via participation. Additionally, it is my suspicion that Spinoza’s dream of the Scabrous Brazilian slave was no mere random eruption of the physical states of his body, as he would have it, but likely an expression, however mitigated, of the actual relations of Spinoza to the Jewish community back in Amsterdam, and the slave trade discussed some here: Spinoza and the Caliban Question.


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

Spinoza Sugar…

Sugar and Slavery and Conscience

It occurs to me, perhaps this is obvious, that there is additional evidence that the Spinoza firm conducted a primary investment in Sugar production. This is that Spinoza’s brother, Gabriel, with whom he at one time was a partner in the firm, in October 31 1664 transferred power of attorney for the firm and left Amsterdam to live in Barbados. The economic conditions in Barbados were powerfully organized around sugar plantations and slave importation. The huge influx of African slaves fueled the sugar boom (introduced by Dutch merchants in 1554), so much so that by the year 1682 there were 30 black slaves for every 1 European indentured servant, with indentured Europeans making up approximately 80% of the European population of the Island. After fire and a major hurricane in ’67, a drought in ’68 and flooding rains in ’69, in 1671, after Gabriel moved to Jamaica, he successfully applied to become a naturalized English citizen.

Gabriel Spinoza move to Barbados strikes me as a powerful indicator of the level of sugar investment by the family firm, at least in these later years. Such a move is hypothesized by Gullan-Whur to be part of the Jewish flight from plague-ridden Amsterdam, and this may be so. But it must also have impressed Gabriel that it was more lucrative to be on the production end of sugar under the changing Barbados conditions, rather than to simply to import it – did the British harrying of Dutch ships and the strictures of the lasting English Navigation Act strongly suggest just such a solution? And so he stepped right into the slave-trade sugar boom of the island. Could it not be that there was an element of an awareness of Gabriel’s intention to move to Barbados as Spinoza reported his dream of the suffering Brazilian in July of 1664? Gullan-Whur suggests that Jelles at some point must have heard of it, at least after it was accomplished. (Spinoza’s sister too would emigrate to the West Indies sometime after 1679.)

To provide an example of the social structure that Gabriel was moving into, a highly successful “slave code” was instituted in Barbardos in 1661, (so successful it was exported nearly clause for clause when Thomas Modyford, one of the of the largest plantation owners of the island, moved carrying the code to Jamaica to become its Governer:

The first comprehensive slave code for Barbados was the 1661 “Act for the better ordering and governing of Negroes”. This slave law, according to Richard Dunn, “legitimized a state of war between blacks and whites, sanctioned rigid segregation, and institutionalized a rigid early warning system against slave revolt”. It formed the legal basis of slave-planter relations and represented an attempt to legally structure the social order of the plantation world… In the preamble of the 1661 Code, the slaves were described as both “heathenish”, “brutish”, and a “dangerous kind of people”, whose naturally wickid insticts should be at all times suppressed.  It provided that masters should feed, clothe and accommodate the slave within the “customs of the country”, while on the other hand, it found that slaves found guilty of certain crimes, other than those of a public nature, would be punished by being branded, whipped, having their noses slit, or by having a limb removed.  For crimes of a public nature, such as rebellion, slaves were capitally punished (A History of Barbados: From American Indian Settlement to Nation State, 34)

This is about as far from the maxim of Spinoza’s radical teacher Van den Enden’s Liberal Considerations and Considerations of a State (1665), “The People’s prosperity is the highest law, and their Voice is God’s Voice”, as is conceptually possible. How tensioned the directions and political values of the two brothers. A Caliban question indeed.

Addendum to the related posts: The Hope of Israel, and What Spinoza Means by the “Ethiopian”,  Spinoza the Merchant: The Canary Islands, Sugar and Diamonds and Leprosy and Spinoza and the Caliban Question

The Hope of Israel, and What Spinoza Means by the “Ethiopian”



Issues of Translation: Æthiopis

Did Spinoza Consciously or Unconsciously mean something more than “Black man” or “Negro” when he referred to the scabrous Brazilian which haunted him in his waking dream? Prolific rabbi Menasseh ben Israel, who was intimate to Spinoza and his family, in 1650 published The Hope of Israel in both English and Latin, in response to increasing ferver over the report that the Portuguese New Christian Antonio Montezinos, during his travels to South America, had discovered those of the Lost Tribe of Rueben. This was a significant factor considering the widespread belief that the Lost Tribes of Israel must be thoroughly dispersed across the Earth before the Messiah could appear to rejoin them to the Holy Land, in a time of everlasting peace. This formed a hope not only for Jews but for millennial Christians who contemplated the last days, and Menasseh would partake of its reasoning in his later petition of Cromwell to re-admit Jews to England, from which they had been banned since the year 1260. The book thus likely was for Menasseh a prelude to his 1651 pamphlet appeal to Cromwell, and then his 1655 visit to London. It should be noted, Menasseh was a merchant of Brazilian trade, and no doubt had investment of various sorts in the answer to these sorts of questions.

I bring Menasseh’s book up though to draw aid in interpreting Spinoza’s description of the waking dream he had of a scabrous Brazilian, taken by some to be a conscience-ridden dream which helped drive, or trigger Spinoza to greater attention to the political situations of his day. What is interesting about his words is that he characterizes the figure, first as Brazilian, and then seamlessly as Ethiopian:

“When one morning, after the day had dawned, I woke up from a very unpleasant dream, the images, which had presented themselves to me in sleep, remained before my eyes just as vividly as though the things had been real, especially the image of a certain black and scabrous Brazilian whom I had never seen before. This image disappeared for the most part when, in order to divert my thoughts, I cast my eyes on a boot, or something else. But, as soon as I lifted my eyes again without fixing my attention on any particular object, the same image of this same Ethiopian appeared with the same vividness again and again, until the head of it gradually vanished” (translation modified), – Letter 17, July 20th 1664.

Some have translated the Latin term generically, as a racial epithet – Elwes “negro”; Curley “Black man”, and even the modern Dutch translator F. Akkerman translates it interestingly as “blacamoor” or “the moor”- a tendency for which I am sure there is great precedence. But because words are polyvalent, I would like to consider an alternate influence upon Spinoza’s choice of word. Menasseh in his “Hope of Israel”, as he investigates where the Lost Tribes are, mentions the likely widely held belief that the Lost Tribes had reached Ethopia, where a large number of Israelites live. I quote at length:

S E C T. 18.

Part of the ten Tribes also live in Ethiopia, in the Habyssin Kingdome; as divers Habyssins reported at Rome. Boterus in his relations speakes the same thing, that two potent Nations doe live neare Nilus, and that one of them is that of the Israelites, who are governed by a mighty King. A Cosmographer who hath added notes to Ptolomyestables, saith thus in his table of New Africa; that part of New Africk was unknowne of old, the head of Nilus not being knowne, which is in the Mountaines of the Moone, as the Ancients call them; where there dwels a great number of Israelites, paying tribute to Prester John. Rabbi Abraham Frisolin the Book already quoted, saith, that in his time some who had been in those Countries, reported the same to Hercules the Duke of Ferraria. And without question from hence the Habyssinslearned Circumcision, the observation of the Sabbath, and many more Jewish rites. Of these Isaiah seemes to speake, in Isa. 18. 1, 2, Woe to the Land which under the shadow of sails doth sailebeyond the rivers of Ethiopia, by whom (the Prophet saith) are sent Ambassadors in ships of Bul-rushes, (such as the Aethiopians use, commonly called Almadiae.) Bring back a people driven out of their Country, and torn, and more miserable then any among us. Gifts shal be brought to the Lord of Sebaoth, in the place where the name of the Lord of Sebaoth is worshipped, in the mount Sion. The Prophet Zephany saith the same, in Zeph. 3. 9, 10, Then will I give to the people that they speaking a pure language, may all call upon the name of God, whom they shall serve with reverence; from beyond the rivers of Ethiopia they shall bring to me for a gift, Hatray the daughter of my dispersed ones, (that is, the Nations of Aethiopia.) Which agrees with that of Isa. And your Brethren, (which are the ten Tribes) shall bring gifts to the Lord.

When Spinoza calls the leperous Brazlian an Ethiopian, because of a social context which is looking for messianic signs, as the Lost Tribes are being found among the Indians of the Americas, a context which spurred Menasseh’s well-circulated text and petitions to Cromwell, it seems at odds with sense to translate the term generically. What is more, if not consciously, Spinoza is making some equation with the imagined inhabitants of Ethiopia and Brazilian slaves, one that cannot simply be collapsed into a broad description. In fact it is tempting to read this Brazilian figure as somehow eschatological, either to European history, or Spinoza’s own sense of a distant gathering under affects imagined to be the same (E3p27), the root of sociability. One might say that it is the Ethiopian component of the figure which persists and cannot be rubbed away. If one follows the examples of violence and illness in the letter that immediately Spinoza uses to indicate the bodily source of his image (an interesting twist of his parallel postulate), not born of love or “mental causes”, perhaps one can trace out, anachronistically, something of the repressed.

I conclude with a last except from Menasseh’s text, as he focuses on the issue of the Israelite standing of South American Indians:

S E C T. 18.

…I doe like of, in part, the opinion of the Spaniards who dwell in the Indies, who by common consent doe affirme that the Indians come of the ten Tribes. And truly they are not altogether mistaken, because in my opinion, they were the first planters of the Indies; as also other people of the East-Indies came by that Streight which is between India, and the Kingdome of Anian. But that people, according to our Montezinus, made warre upon those Inhabitants the Israelites, whom they forced up unto the mountaines, and the in-land Countries.

The Spanish, Dutch, Hebrew and Yiddish editions of The Hope of Israel, here

The English Edition here

Postings connected to this issue:Spinoza the Merchant: The Canary Islands, Sugar and Diamonds and Leprosy, and  Spinoza and the Caliban Question