These efforts failed: Spinoza’s unpublished manuscripts, with the Eth-
ics at their core, appeared in Latin and Dutch editions less than a year
after the author’s death in 1677, with his name abbreviated to initials and
the publisher’s omitted. The dangerous man, it turned out, had brave
and devoted friends who at considerable risk took it upon themselves to
outwit the zealous clerics and their civic allies. Names are available for
only the inner circle—bookseller and publisher Jan Rieuwertsz, transla-
tor Jan Hendrik Glazemaker, physicians Lodewijk Meyer and Johannes
Bouwmeester, fruit merchant Jarig Jelles, mathematician Petrus van
Gent, and would-be alchemist Georg Hermann Schuller—but the efforts
and discretion of a host of copyists, typesetters, printers, and couriers
also contributed to the successful defeat of the ecclesiastical hit squad.
It’s a great saga—its closest examiner greatly understates the case as a
But what did these wonderful friends in fact save by their clandestine
labors? What in Spinoza’s thinking was so compelling that the project
of its preservation and wider distribution engaged them in such risks?
What was, by their efforts, transmitted to the ages?
The first impression is of daunting difficulty. Steven Nadler, for example, introducing a guide to the Ethics, stresses at the outset that it
is “an extraordinarily difficult book.” He then follows this up with additional apology: “I am sorry to report that . . . it only gets harder on
each subsequent reading.” In part, this opacity is a matter of presentational style. The Ethics is printed in what Spinoza called the “
geometrical method” (mors geometricus) for which the great model was Euclid’s
Elements. Mathematics, then as now, presented itself as the gold standard for certain knowledge, and Spinoza manages to suggest at once the
highest levels of rigor, universal applicability, and transparent clarity by
the formal device of presenting his thoughts as an interlocking system
of definitions, axioms, and propositions.
The Ethics in the second place presents itself as a wholly accomplished
work, a gleaming monolith. No doubts are expressed, few assertions
qualified. Even argument, seemingly a central task of philosophy, is for
the most part restricted to very confident explanations and discussions
(Spinoza calls them “proofs” and “scholia”) of the serene and wholly impersonal claims at the center. He exhibits little sense of philosophy as
an ongoing project, of useful predecessors or thinking yet unfinished
to follow upon his own. The Ethics bristles with citations, but almost all
are to itself. Not for him the implicit modesty of Kant’s Prolegomena to