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Spinoza’s Rose

Spinoza would sign his letters with the above image of a rose and the word “caute” (Latin for caution, carefully, beware). It was a ring that he wore.

What I find of note here is that in resorting to, and seemingly having some enjoyment in, an iconic communication of an idea, he is communicating in a way quite distinct from his geometric style of so much fame. Instead we have a double movement. You have an image and its word below it, a veritable thing (extension) and its idea. Af first glance it seems to hold a fairly conservative and moral meaning. Sensuous images, attractive things, emotions are things one should Beware. But there is more to this image and word. Firstly, the rose was not just the image of the sensuous, but also that of secrecy. The Rosicrucian movement was in full swing at this time (and there is even some evidence that Descartes was a member or adherent early in his life), an esoteric vision of the world in which mathematics played an interesting part.

This is not to say that Spinoza’s Rose was Rosicrucian, but that the image holds something of the occult in the literal sense, that every physical thing keeps in its heart causal consequences which are hidden, a secrecy of effects. Further, the Rose is an image pun, in that Spinoza’s name holds the Portuguese word for “thorn” espinoza. And he was of Portuguese descent. (The ring has not only the image and word “caute” but also his initials.) It reads something along the lines of “I am a rose, beware the thorns”. Interestingly to me, this departs somewhat from the cool, rational picture we have of Spinoza, and contributes something to how he saw the world, and himself. In a sense, caute is the idea which lies behind every appearance for Spinoza. But this caution cannot be read merely as a moral conservatism, a simple, “don’t indulge”, but rather as expressing the idea that all things have edges and complex consequences.

By signing his letters and wearing his ring in such a personal way, Spinoza expressed something of himself that we miss. He was a very thorny person. He was excommunicated from the Jewish Community as a young man, no light event. His ideas would unleash any number of accusations and consequences over the next 150 years. He was a particular kind of rose. There is also the sense that by so suitably carrying his message in a pictorial form, he seems to be embracing the very thing which Idealism would diminish, the real Image, the physical rose. We can see the difference between his Rose and the word “caute” and a similar combination of the Image and the word “rose”. He is not making a Saussurian point between the signifer and the signified, but between a thing and its real consequences to us. He says, I appear to you as a rose, beware.

What is one to make of Spinoza’s play with puns and pictures?

What happens when we take even words as roses?

[written September 23, 2008]