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Spinoza’s “Spring Pole” Lathe: Experience to Metaphysics and Back

Spinoza’s Practiced Knowing

I mentioned in my recent post on the likely design of Spinoza’s grinding lathe that the dynamics of the Hevelius’ spring pole lathe may be tied to Spinoza’s ideas of Substance and the modes, such that one would be able to see how the epistemo-kinetic experiences Spinoza had during his many hours, days and years of lens grinding on such a lathe may have bore influence upon his metaphysical conceptions.

Here I want to take up this intuition, and perform the appropriate visualizations that would allow us, if for a moment, to picture what Spinoza’s body went through in communications with his device. In this way we might place ourselves, materially and affectively, in a relationship to his ideas, such that reading them alone in text would not allow (even if this goes against what one could argue is Spinoza’s rationalist program of understanding). That is, in short, one hopes to understand through body and affect what ideas Spinoza thought at the most abstract of levels, through their causal origins; for we can follow what Spinoza wrote, “experience can determine our mind to think…of certain essences of things” (Ep. 10), and assume that a similiarity of experiences may determine us to think of a similarity of essences. If we attain the experiences Spinoza underwent which determined him to think of certain essences (in his terms), this I believe can provide clarification to the same thoughts reached through his geometric pedogogy alone. 

The Horizontal and the Vertical: An Initial Philosophical Platform

Further below is an illustration of the tension dynamic of a spring pole lathe, as taken from Hevelius (second diagram). But first in order to follow my thinking here I want to insert a most revealing point made by Gatens and Lloyd in their critique of Hegel’s critique of Spinoza. As they point out, Hegel, while in great praise of Spinoza, felt that he did not embrace the full reality of the “negation”, Hegel’s personal contribution to the progress of philosophy and mankind. Spinoza’s description from Hegel’s point of view simply collapses into an acosmism, an undifferentitated whole of Substance, leaving no specific reality for either rocks, lakes or most importantly Man. In examining Hegel’s objection, Gatens and Lloyd introduce the vectoral notion of verticality and horizontality. It is suggested that Hegel’s problem is that he is only thinking of the “vertical” relationship of the modes to Substance, their individual, expressive relationship to the Totalizing whole. I quote at length here from the two authors because it is a very good paragraph, as they make an extremely important point:

Hegel’s critique of Spinoza thus focuses on the relation between individual mode and Substance. His complaint is that Spinoza cannot coherently articulate that relation without collapsing the infinite mode back into Substance; Substance remains undetermined, undifferentiated, while the individual mode is merely negative. But this is to miss the other dimension of Spinoza’s treatment of the finite modes -their mutual interaction, in which the determining force of Substance is mediated through the whole interconnected network of modes. Hegel’s critique of Spinoza is oriented, as it were, to the vertical relation between Substance and individual mode, rather than to the horizontal relation in which finite modes act on and are acted on by one another. Here, along the horizontal axis of finite modes, the claim that determination involves negation can be seen not as a repudiation of finite individuals but as an insight into their interdependence (71)

– Moira Gatens and Genevieve Lloyd, Collective Imaginings, chapter 3 “Re-imagining Responsibility”

Gatens and Lloyd are making clear the a key emphasis Spinoza places on modal expressions, as real, when included in our own constructive and immanent projects of freedom. I would graph out the differentiation that they find in Spinoza in this way:

I would parenthetically add to Gatens and Lloyd’s point that the reason why Hegel is thinking solely about the verticality of the modes is that the binary of individual/God, (or individual/world) is one of the primary schemas of the intersubjective investigations and inculcations of European Christianity. The salvation of the soul, through its relationship to an all-encompassing God, (via various institutional mediations), was the essential dogmatic concern, and this lengthy heritage necessarily brings the philosophical focus back to this binary difficulty: how does the individual soul return to God. Hegel, because he sees man at the apex of history, primarily must read the problematic in terms of a vertical dynamic, the individual vs. the whole. But Spinoza, because he is not burdened by the primacy of man or his reflective powers, allows another dimension of analysis which Hegel cannot see: that of the horizontal. The institutional mediations of the State, Church, Family and their imaginary relationswhich simply interpose themselves as aids to an essential verticality, are by Spinoza exploded out to the ultimate horizontal limit: the infinite expression of the modes. And the imaginary status of their mediating ideas become proliferate and constitutive vectors of power, degrees of freedom, across the field of Being (if one could put it that way without too much obfuscation).

Heveliuss Selenographia (1647) Spring Pole, Foot Pedal Lathe, illustrated

Spinoza’s Lathe

I want to return to the assumed spring pole, foot pedal lathe (pictured above), to get a much more concrete, affective sense of the vertical and the horizontal in Spinoza, and how the practices of Spinoza’a lens grinding may have helped construct his metaphysical conceptions. One must recall that Spinoza spent hours upon hours at such work lens work. To grind, polish and re-polish a lens could take several days, much of it in non-stop and highly repetitive, one might even say meditative, action (Auzout in 1664 records a time of 15 days for a single objective lens). So let our attention be called to the internal dynamics depicted above, found in focus of the dotted yellow frame. Here one should picture Spinoza seated or standing at length, his foot rhythmically pushing down a vertical tension from the spring pole at the ceiling. The vertical rising and falling motion forms a kinetic warp which not only works to orient the body spatially to the height of the room, connecting consciousness from the floor boards to the ceiling, but also creates and punctuated temporality, a timed ratio to the work. Transverse to this warp is the weft of horizontal action. The oscillations of the grinding form are pulled across the body by the push and pull connectionsof the foot the ceiling pole, and distinctly lateral to the focus of concentration. Again and again for hours these up-down, left-right actions literally weave a room of fluctuating conscious attentions, in which the craftsman necessarily embraces the lived experiences of the space, aware that whatever precise spotlight of focus he may have, it is merely a part of much larger, wider degrees of perception. Against Hegel’s fear of an individual’s collapse into the undifferentiated, the agentized craftsman becomes the draw-string of every quarter of the room, a focal point of at least two vectors action, from which and to which he is a differentiated, yet interconnected and expressive part. The melding of the craftsman and his tool is more than a metaphor. It is an experiential and metaphysical certainty.

Within this dotted frame of loomed space, at its center is a rotating circle. It whips at varying speeds in response to both the intensities of the leg, and the limits of the spring pole above, in a concentric motion. It is no secret that Spinoza had great love for the circle as a diagramed exemplar of the relationship between the modes and Substance (Ethics 2p8s, pictured below), but also as an ideal of vision and the actions of optical focus (Letter 39 to Jelles, March 3rd 1667). Here, for hours on end Spinoza would stare determinitively as a rotating circular form which remained both fixed (stable in its ratio), and changing, expressing in both the consummation of the vectors of the room’s actions. One cannot help but think that such concentrated attention upon the spinning form would leave at least a conceptual imprint upon the philosophical craftsman, especially as he considered the modal expressions to be causal interactions immanent to the whole, just as internal rectangles can be considered immanent to the properties of a circle (his diagram below). It is most suggestive to see that the rotating circular form becomes a bed of friction and idea, producing realized changes in the material of glass held in Spinoza’s sensing hand.

from Ethics 2p8s
The Turning Lap

To carry our instructive analogizing further, one must look closer at the actions immediate to Spinoza’s attention as he worked his glass into the required shape.

In the scalloped metal form likely an abrasive would be applied to aid in the grinding, the light blue arrow above represents the hand’s actions upon the circular rotation. The horizontal and vertical tensions are vortexed into an oscillating circularity. There a recipe of frictions and intelligenced experiences interact to bring about an ideal result. What Antonio Negri calls the “concrete…unique terrain of reality, [the] fruit of the paradoxical determination [a metaphysical dilation of unity and multiplicity]” (The Savage Anomaly, 127), the modal “surface of the sea”, occurs here, in the turning scalloped dish, a product of the cybernetic expressions of a room, a mechanism, and man, in which the craftsman’s hand performs a living shore of perceptual action.

The Sublime Tool

If this notional leap from mechanism to conceptual metaphysics seems too great, too fantastic, I believe that this is because we do not have a strong enough sense of the bodily, affective, imaginary foundational means of immanent abstract thought, something that Spinoza’s own metaphysics works to make more clear. Further I believe we must adjust ourselves from thinking of Spinoza merely in terms of propositions and proofs, though the rhetorical form of his work certainly at first or even second glance invites us to think of him in this way. Richard Sennett for instance in his recent pragmatic and near-poetic book, The Craftsman (2008), perhaps gives us a bridge for thinking about craft and abstraction as part of one constitutive process. He invites us to understand how human progress and freedom comes by thinking through one’s tools, how tools help frame our questions and solutions. In fact this is very much how Spinoza has conceived of abstract thinking itself, as he followed Descartes’ analogy found in the 8th rule of the Regulae : just as how a blacksmith’s tools had to be originally made by simpler tools themselves, so too simple tools of the intellect are needed to make other, more complex tools of the intellect (On the Emendation of the Intellect ). In a certain sense, one needs something that hammers in order to make a hammer:

The matter stands on the same footing as the making of material tools, which might be argued about in a similar way. For, in order to work iron, a hammer is needed, and the hammer cannot be forthcoming unless it has been made; but, in order to make it, there was need of another hammer and other tools, and so on to infinity. We might thus vainly endeavor to prove that men have no power of working iron. But as men at first made use of the instruments supplied by nature to accomplish very easy pieces of workmanship, laboriously and imperfectly, and then, when these were finished, wrought other things more difficult with less labor and greater perfection; and so gradually mounted from the simplest operations to the making of tools, and from the making of tools to the making of more complex tools, and fresh feats of workmanship, till they arrived at making, with small expenditure of labor, the vast number of complicated mechanisms which they now possess. So, in like manner, the intellect, by its native strength, makes for itself intellectual instruments, whereby it acquires strength for performing other intellectual operations, and from these operations gets again fresh instruments, or the power of pushing its investigations further, and thus gradually proceeds till it reaches the summit of wisdom.

But is our reading of Spinoza’s metaphysics anything more than simply a coincidence of horizontal and vertical vectors in the lens-grinding lathe, and Gatens and Lloyd’s horizontal and vertical spatialization of his metaphysics in defense against Hegel? Is this conflation merely accidentally bolstered by the analogy of ideas to be taken read tools in Spinoza’s very early work? I think there is much more to this than that, and that aside from the notion of the horizontal and the vertical there is a multiplicity of core principles that seem to stem from Spinoza’s unique, and one must say classed, artisan experiences. In particular we must understand that Spinoza, unlike Descartes, was through and through a practiced craftsman, an artisan by trade and value, who repetitious and refining practices which he took rather seriously must have influenced his guiding conceptions of Mind, Body, Idea and Power. In fact, it seems that it is a tooled notion of idea and body that I believe informs his vital definition of the power of the body, a defintion which will reconceptualize any of our instrumental approaches to material augment of the human body or mind:

Whatever so disposes the human Body that it can be affected in a great many ways, or renders it capable of affecting external Bodies in a great many ways, is useful to man; the more it renders the Body capable of being affected in a great many ways, or of affecting other Bodies, the more useful it is; on the other hand, what renders the Body less capable of these things is harmful.

– E4p38

Think on how this expressive yet instrumental numerical notion of power can be found within the most elementary experiences of tool use, as Richard Sennett tells us about the wonders of the flat-edged screwdriver:

…in its sheer variety this all-purpose tool admits all manner of unfathomed possibilities: it, too, can expand our skills if only our imagination rises to the occasion. Without hesitation, the flat-edged screwdriver can be described as sublime – the word sublime standing, as it does in philosophy and the arts, for the potentially strange. In craftwork, that sentiment focuses especially on objects very simple in form that seemingly can do anything (195)

The Craftsman, Chapter Six “Arousing Tools”

I believe that Spinoza’s lifelong craft experiences with the lens-grinding lathe (among so many other simple tools) had a lasting effect on his conceptions of Mind and Body, and their necessary unification. The grinding lathe, with its intimate, indeed cybernetic, interweave of body, mind and material construction, its concentric use of the spinning semi-sphere, must have struck Spinoza as sublime in the sense that Sennett tells us. There is the evidence of Spinoza’s resistance to the sophisticated, semi-automated designs of his brilliant and wealthy neighbors the brothers Huygens ( EP 15/32 ) which tells us that Spinoza was quite hesitant to leave behind the interface of the machine with the understanding and felt hand. But it is more than this. It seems that the grinding lathe leaves its conceptual, kinetic trace all the way up through to the most abstract, and most radical of conceptions. In fact there is the very real sense in which we may read Spinoza’s Ethics (as it exists both in idea and extension) as a tool which can affect and be affected in the greatest number of ways. 

Picturing Work and the Work of Picturing

Once we have a vivid sense of the kinds of material engagements Spinoza had concerned himself with, his bodily practices of concentrated creation and refinement, we get a better sense of how Spinoza conceived of his own Rationalist, propositioned philosophical aims. From there we can place ourselves with the lived historical space of the man who lived at the cusp of our modernity, and feel something of the material and pragmatic focus of his articulations of freedom. Below is Spinoza’s rented room in Rijnsburg where he lived roughly from age 29 to 31 having fled the upheavals of Amsterdam, perhaps with concern for the return of his tuberculosis from remission. It is today’s Spinozahuis museum. As mentioned before the wood turners lathe depicted there is NOT the kind of lathe Spinoza would have used, but if you look to the upper center left of the photo you can see a hypothesized spring pole, the vertical vector of his practice. It is not known if Spinoza’s later rooms in the village of Voorburg, where it is thought that he did his most concentrated grinding work, were of this size, but the combination of the Rijnsburg room and Hevelius’s illustration gives us I believe some determinative sense of the internal dynamics of Spinoza’s lived experiences as a craftsman and thus as a thinker; they directs us to the material and conceptual causes that may have privileged Spinoza treatment of the Mind and Body over his predecessor, Descartes. There is much that divided these two thinkers from each other, but perhaps even more than joined them. Each was concerned with lens-grinding, optics and the improvement of the telescope, but only one of them was a practiced maker of lenses and instruments. Only one of them touched the glass.

The Rijnsburg Wood-turners Lathe, Spinozahuis

Hevelius's Spring Pole Lathe, from the Selenographia (1647)

 

The Rijnsburg Wood-turners Lathe, another angle

The Rijnsburg Wood-turners Lathe, another angle

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Spinoza and Tuberculosis: His Disease and Devotion

[Tuberculosis can be a difficult disease to diagnosis. The following is working under the assumption that the diagnosis of “phthisis” for Spinoza’s long-running pulmonary problems is best understood as the disease tuberculosis.]

The Influence of Disease

It is interesting that of all the influential facts we seem to have about Spinoza’s life, his tuberculosis may be neglected only as much as his lens-grinding has been. Very little of how debilitating this disease can be, nor its chronic nature seems to be considered when framing a picture of Spinoza’s motivations for life decisions. At most his tuberculosis, called in biographies “phthisis” (its name derived from Greek) gives us a remote picture of a man made weak and coughing at times. Then there is the oft repeated, unsupported, yet romantically satisfying thought that he died not only of his TB, but also from inhalations of glass dust from his lens-grinding. The facts of the disease seldom seem to enter into the explanations for Spinoza’s decisions and life turns.

Spinoza’s early biographer Colerus tells us that Spinoza had been suffering from tuberculosis for more than 20 years when Spinoza died at the age of 44, in February of 1677:

Spinosa was a Man of a very weak Constitution, unhealthy and lean, and had been troubled with a Pthysick above twenty years, which oblig’d him to keep a strict course of Dyet, and to be extreamly sober in his Meat and Drink. Nevertheless, his Landlord, and the people of the House did not believe that he was so near his end, even a little while before he died, and they had not the least thought of it.

If we track backwards, this would place the first bout with tuberculosis very close to the date of his father’s death (March 28, 1654), and his taking over of the family firm (September 1654). Spinoza’s step mother, Esther, died only five months before his father did (October 14, 1653), after a year of serious illness, itself a year after Spinoza’s own sister Miriam had died. Tuberculosis is a highly contagious disease when symptomatic, (if living 24-hours-a-day exposed for two months it is estimated that you have a 50% chance of being infected).

To more fully picture the condition, the symptoms of active tuberculosis include:

– A cough which may last three or more weeks and may produce discolored or bloody sputum
– Unintended weight loss
– Fatigue
– Slight fever
– Night sweats
– Chills
– Loss of appetite
– Pain with breathing or coughing (pleurisy)

That Spinoza may have contracted tuberculosis from his father (or other family members), and may himself have become symptomatic in the year 1656 or so is not something that many people have considered. (To his credit, Nadler does momentarily bring up the idea that Spinoza may have suffered from the same thing that killed his step-mother (Spinoza: A Life, 155); why he notes the step-mother and not his father I do not know. These are years that we have very little historical record of, and a struggle with the illness may very well be a reason for this (the highest risk for developing of the disease is in the first two years after infection). When Spinoza applied for orphan status in March of ’56 (two years after his father died), and when the cherem is read against him in July of the same year, removing him from the community, having failed to pay the family firm’s imposta tax, he may indeed already have been tubercular, and perhaps even seriously so. This would make his excommunication something of a quarantine, not only of ideas, but also in a vividness of metaphor, of body and illness. A cutting off of an already diseased limb. We really need not go that far, though it should be considered. We have had such a variety of motivations projected onto Spinoza and his situation at this time, from Jonathan Israel’s thought that Spinoza was during this period attempting to be excommunicated by being outrageous simply to climb out from the burden of onerous debts, to Wim Klever’s notion that Spinoza at this point was so invested in his political and spiritual education with Van den Enden, long broken from the community, the excommunication was but a trifle. Either of these may be so, but if Spinoza had by now become symptomatic, his illness certainly would have played into his inability to run the firm to profit, or more significantly, his desire to no longer conduct that kind of vigorous business or to remain in the community 0f his youth. No matter the thesis for his excommunication and his change of attitude towards the values in life, the facts of an onset of a lethal diseased that might have killed many of his family members certainly would play an informing role.

Chekhov’s Example

Tuberculosis does not always head in a straight line, by my understanding. It can be recurrent. Chekov, for instance, who like Spinoza also suffered from the disease over a twenty-year period. A first onset expressed itself in an initial bout of fevers in December of 1883, and then three days of coughing up blood a year later in December of 1884. It was not until six years after these, from the strain of trans-Siberian travel, that again the disease seemed to surface, much more forcefully. Chekhov, like Spinoza, died in his 44th year, at the peak of his intellectual and creative powers. [Citing “Chekhov’s Chronic Tuberculosis” (1963), by Brian R. Clarke]. This is how one medical information website describes the nature of the disease’s chronic mechanism:

In addition, TB can spread to other parts of the body. The body’s immune (defense) system, however, can fight off the infection and stop the bacteria from spreading. The immune system does so ultimately by forming scar tissue around the TB bacteria and isolating it from the rest of the body. Tuberculosis that occurs after initial exposure to the bacteria is often referred to as primary TB. If the body is able to form scar tissue (fibrosis) around the TB bacteria, then the infection is contained in an inactive state. Such an individual typically has no symptoms and cannot spread TB to other people. The scar tissue and lymph nodes may eventually harden, like stone, due to the process of calcification of the scars (deposition of calcium from the bloodstream in the scar tissue). These scars often appear on x-rays and imaging studies like round marbles and are referred to as a granuloma. If these scars do not show any evidence of calcium on x-ray, they can be difficult to distinguish from cancer.

Sometimes, however, the body’s immune system becomes weakened, and the TB bacteria break through the scar tissue and can cause active disease, referred to as reactivation tuberculosis or secondary TB. For example, the immune system can be weakened by old age, the development of another infection or a cancer, or certain medications such as cortisone, anticancer drugs, or certain medications used to treat arthritis or inflammatory bowel disease. The breakthrough of bacteria can result in a recurrence of the pneumonia and a spread of TB to other locations in the body. The kidneys, bone, and lining of the brain and spinal cord (meninges) are the most common sites affected by the spread of TB beyond the lungs.

“experience had taught me”

At the very least, if Spinoza was showing symptoms of the disease as early as 1656, as Colerus’ very rough estimate would place them, Spinoza’s life decisions to not pursue wealth, but rather a life of philosophy, must be cast in a slightly different psychological light. Spinoza writes of his change of mind in The Emendation of the Intellect:

After experience had taught me that all the usual surroundings of social life are vain and futile; seeing that none of the objects of my fears contained in themselves anything either good or bad, except in so far as the mind is affected by them, I finally resolved to inquire whether there might be some real good having power to communicate itself, which would affect the mind singly, to the exclusion of all else; whether, in fact, there might be anything of which the discovery and attainment would enable me to enjoy continuous, supreme, and unending happiness.

I say “I finally resolved,” for at first sight it seemed unwise willingly to lose hold on what was sure for the sake of something then uncertain. I could see the benefits which are acquired through fame and riches, and that I should be obliged to abandon the quest of such objects, if I seriously devoted myself to the search for something different and new. I perceived that if true happiness chanced to be placed in the former I should necessarily miss it; while if, on the other hand, it were not so placed, and I gave them my whole attention, I should equally fail (Elwes translation).

This is thought to have been Spinoza’s earliest philosophical text, before the Short Treatise, Shirley placing its composition between the years 1657 and 1660. What, we may ask, was this “experience” that has taught Spinoza the futility of social life, the uncertainty of “fame and riches”. Are these generic experiences that all of us would have, or perhaps the particularities of watching his father die in tubercular fashion, after a life of substantial monetary and honorific gain? Or, more jarringly, was it the onset of the same disease, the same coughing up of blood, that he had seen his father and his step-mother succumb to? This would certainly have a life-turning effect. Spinoza continues in the opening of the Emendation, actually referencing the analogy of fatal illness and remedy as the very mode of his decision making:

For I saw that my situation was one of great peril and I was obliged to seek a remedy with all my might, however uncertain it might be, like a sick man suffering from a fatal malady, who, foreseeing certain death unless a remedy is forthcoming, is forced to seek it, for therein lies all his hope (Shirley translation).

Is this just a proximate reference, or is Spinoza speaking literally of his own onset of illness?

We see no evidence for debilitation in April of ’55 in the record of Spinoza’s subpoena and physical confrontation with the Alvares brothers. He is struck so hard his hat comes off, something which might afford a reference to physical weakness, but none is mentioned. In fact, from the vague description it seems that only the hat seems worse for wear, leaving the impression of a firm man. And in ’58, from Fra Tomás’ 1659 report to the Spanish Inquisition, we find Spinoza to have a handsome face “de buena cara” with light, clear, but perhaps pale skin, blanco. This would seem to put him in good health. The only thing I would mention is that in this report there is great contrast given between his very dark hair and eyes, and the paleness of his skin. Prado, in whose company Spinoza is in, has a “brownish” complexion on the other hand. While he may have been in good health at the time, the paleness of his skin may have been due to some convalescence. In 1659 he is described by another informant for the Inquisition as having a “well-formed body, thin, long black hair, a small moustache of the same color, a beautiful face”.

Yet as we have seen from the example of Chekhov, an attack of tuberculosis does not necessarily leave one debilitated for life. The body’s immune system can indeed isolate the infection, and return one to health, even robust health, only to be susceptible to the disease later, at times of great stress or weakness. Assuming that his disease was that of tuberculosis, one cannot conclude that Spinoza’s health was never robust, as some have thought.

The Beginnings of “Isolation” and a Conserve of Roses

A great deal of investigative imagination and analysis has gone into the question as to why Spinoza left Amsterdam for the much more quiet Rijnsburg in 1661. Gullan-Whur suspects that something had frightened Spinoza in a way that the excommunication had not, perhaps something to do with the Spanish Inquisition. Perhaps an increasing pressure from Dutch authorities and Jewish reaction made it unsafe for Spinoza to continue his Amsterdam life, some feel. And there is the account of a knife attack outside the theatre, if it is to be believed. Alternately, some think that he went to Rijnsburg to be closer to the Collegiant movement. Spinoza’s very good, generous friend Jarig Jelles bought a large new house on the Herengracht in Amsterdam in 1660, but Spinoza did not move in. First he moved to near  “near ” Ouderkerk, and then to Rijnsburg near Leiden’s university. Why? It is mentioned that his move towards isolation was so that he could be away from distractions from friends, so that he could concentrate on his work, and this is no doubt true. But is it too much to notice that his withdrawal from friends and the air of the city may have been really a question of health? Was it not that tuberculosis struck him again, and it is was in full view of his mortality, and even questions of contagiousness, a theoretical need for fresh air, that brought him to concentrated isolation?

By September 1661 he writes to Oldenburg that his Short Treatise, (one may say his most overtly spiritual work) is still a work in progress. There is no hint of his illness in their correspondence. In the winter of ’62/’63 he has the company of Johannes Caesarius, who is living with him, helping him in a none-too-satisfactory fashion with the geometrical treatment of Descartes’ philosophy. Gullan-Whur reads Caesarius to be Jan Casier, a student of Van den Enden’s school, now a young, Dutch Reformed ordinand (1642-77). As a collaborative biographical note of perhaps significant correspondence during this period, Adriaan Koerbagh, Spinoza’s friend and comrade in spirit of the same age, had received his doctor of medicine from nearby Leiden University in 1659, with a dissertation on the causes of Tuberculosis, Disputio medica unauguralis de Phthisi. In 1661, the year that Spinoza moved to Rijnsburg, Koerbagh became a Doctor of Law, again at nearby Leiden, and in Koerbagh’s later political trial he admits that he had discussed philosophical matters with Spinoza numerous times in the years 1661-63. Having conducted a study of the causes of tuberculosis, one wonders if Koerbagh had ever seen Spinoza as a patient. Or if Adriaan himself had tuberculosis which weakened him (as he would died only within a few months of being sentenced to prison and hard labor in 1669). Along this thin line of argument, is it a coincidence that a conserve of roses is the only conserve mentioned in Koerbagh’s Bloemhof  (1668). The suppressed Bloemhof  was a 672 page dictionary of terms written by Adriaan and his brother, meant to demystify the use of foreign phrases and technical jargon, putting into the vernacular the verbal obfuscations by which eclesiastical, medical and legal “experts” carried out much of its authority over the common man. In June 1665 it is for a conserve of roses that Spinoza says he is waiting (Letter 28), writing to the physician Johan Bouwmeester who was an intimate of Adriaan Koerbagh. Spinoza had visited his friends in Amsterdam earlier in the year, and during his visit to the city he seems to have suffered a recurrence of his tuberculosis:

At the same time I also expected some of the conserve of roses which you promised, although now for a long time felt better. On leaving there, I opened a vein once, but the fever did not abate (although I was somewhat more active even before the bloodletting because of the change of air, I think). But I suffered two or three times with tertian fever, though by good diet I have at last rid myself of it and sent it packing. Where it went I know not, but I don’t want it back.

At this time Spinoza has just moved from Rijnsburg to Voorborg near the Hague. Likely having finished first drafts of parts I and II of a then tripart Ethica, he makes a break and begins his work on the Politico-Theological Treatise. Spinoza distinctly associates the “air” of Amsterdam with the onset of his illness. It would appear likely that this causal belief was consistent in his life, and thus part of his reason for moving out of Amsterdam in the first place. One can also ask, something I’ve not seen considered, was the renewed attack of his disease in some way linked to the much discussed break from the Ethics, and his turn to political issues of the day?

Voorburg, Not So Quiet

At this point I would like to take up some of the psychological criticism aimed at Spinoza by his biographer Gullan-Whur. In making her assessment of a certain flaw in Spinoza’s self-perception she provides us with a rather telling description of the house Spinoza moved into in Voorburg. She points out that although Spinoza, in her opinion, plays the role of the isolated sage, being crankily troubled by intrusions, he moved into one of the most bustling, connected locations in all of Voorburg:

Voorburg was a rural village, but Benedictus had not chosen to live in a peaceful part of it, for the Kerkstraat houses, huddled on a terrace and generally having only a gable loft above their ground floors, were flanked by the market place and a boat-servicing harbour beside the Vliet. Yet, whole this lodging was feverishly cacophonous compared with sleepy Katwijkerlaan, he never complained…nothing was easier that getting to any Dutch city from Voorburg. The philosopher could leave home almost at the ringing of the horse-boy’s bell to catch the trekschuit. Voorburg being on the way to everywhere (the canal system joined the River Schie at Delft, and continued south to Rotterdam and Dordrecht), he should have foreseen a continuous flow of callers (154-155)

She goes onto conclude that Spinoza himself does not own up to his own emotional needs for company, caught up in the production of his own image. I might suggest that Gullan-Whur has severely misread Spinoza’s contradictory needs for isolation and for contact. This essentially is the mindset of the chronically, if sporatically, ill. Rather than this being a profound conflict of conscience, or the inability for Spinoza to understand his own needs, Spinoza’s tuberculosis and his philosophical/scientific endeavours required both isolation and contact. Indeed I would suggest that it was likely the disease that forced Spinoza to reconsider his life, and it was this ever-present relationship to his own body and mortality that made his rationalist philosophy most concerned with the freedoms of the body. Gullan-Whur’s example of reading the man is actually instructive for all interpretations which ignore his physical histories. In fact Iwould think that all of Spinoza’s metaphysical positions on the body should benefit from being seen in the light of  a possible continual threat and experience of tuberculosis. 

Summation

It is persuasive to infer, and least as persuasive as any other reasoning I have encountered, that Spinoza’s father and step-mother indeed died of tuberculosis, and that Spinoza had contracted the illness from them. On average, people have a 50 % chance of becoming infected with tuberculosis if they are in close contact eight hours a day for six months. If Colerus’s estimate is right that Spinoza had struggled with the disease for more than twenty years, this would put his first attack right at the decisive years of the late 50s, as Spinoza was forming his new political and theological relationships with Van den Enden and Prado, leaving behind the family business. (By stating this length as more than 20 years, Colerus at the very least seems to want to place the illness before Spinoza’s milestone move from Amsterdam.) This encounter with a disease that may have killed his father and step-mother surely would have shaped the decisions Spinoza was making. And the resultant dedication to philosophy, science and selective isolation should not be considered outside of this persistent awareness of both his disease and the effects it may have had on others. All the complexities of influence that we can convincingly conjure up may very well pale to the experience of the fatal fever and cough a year after you watched your father and step-mother, and perhaps even sister, pass under similar conditions. It is agreed that this is a time of plagues, and the death of family members and close friends, certainly by 1664 was not uncommon. This does not mitigate the personal effect the disease would have had upon Spinoza in the determinative years of 1655-1658, not to mention the consequences of managing the disease over a lifetime.

Why the timing and substance of the disease has not been well considered by biographers and interpreters of Spinoza’s life, I do not quite understand, except for the recognizable need to comprehend the man in terms of much vaster, more abstract historical and intellectual factors.

Two more looks at the Rijnsburg Draaibank

[note: the nature of the Rijnsburg Lathe has been resolved: The Rijnsburg Lathe: Like the Sun, not 200 Feet Away]

Adding to the post below, here are two more looks at the Rijnsburg lathe, passed on to me by Mr. Verdult who runs the excellent Spinoza resource site http://spinoza.blogse.nl/

A detail from a photo from Theun de Vries’ book on Spinoza (1972) (page 101)

A photo found at AntiqueSpectacles.com

A Closer Look at the Rijnsburg Lathe

[note: the nature of the Rijnsburg Lathe has been resolved: The Rijnsburg Lathe: Like the Sun, not 200 Feet Away]

I am still attempting to assess the documentation and authority of the lens lathe at the Rijnsburg Spinozahuis. If anyone has notions of either the historical accuracy of this device, or even the working designs of its construction, your thoughts are appreciated. Posted are two perspectives, one taken from a Spinozahuis photograph, the second is of an illustration of something of the same as found in Rebecca Goldstein’s Betraying Spinoza (2006).

A detail of Goldstein’s illustration