living not as an academic philosopher (he turned down a professorship
from the University of Heidelburg in 1673) but as a grinder of lenses.
A significant point of disagreement is thus highlighted. A cadre of professional philosophers insists upon Spinoza’s essential isolation and laments
his lack of worthy companions. The philosopher himself, however, describes the advantages of friendship in extravagant terms. His friends
esteem him nearly to the point of adoration (one biographer suggests a
homoerotic component in his relationship with De Vries). Three—Jelles,
Meyer, Balling—produce and publish their own works of philosophy.
Their letters to Spinoza, and his to them, suggest a real-life approximation of his philosophy’s ideal situation. His conversations with Hendrik
and Ida Margarete Van der Spyck include topics that would immediately
be recognized as philosophic were not the very capacity for philosophizing on the part of his interlocutors dismissed out of hand.
The great thinker, seated in “discourse” with his landlady at the
times of her confinement, is thus most fruitfully imagined not as condescending to her lower level of erudition but as happy in the warm
company of her house and conversation, as grateful for his proximity to
births he would have understood as theophanies. His wisdom led him
to both honor the mother and reverence the children recognized as new
“extensions” of an all-encompassing divine. One does not “very often
discourse” with folks one judges incompetent. It seems no less clear
that Hendrik and Ida Margarete, like the barber and the mercer and the
ironmongers, did not sense themselves condescended to. People, even
unlettered people, know when they are being patronized. They do not
appreciate it. They do not hang around for lengthy conversations with
those who look down on them, nor do they develop personal loyalties
leading them to assume great risks on behalf of a snob who thinks himself too bright for their company.
Furthermore, and most tellingly, Spinoza could not, without abrogating core tenets of his own philosophy, subject to dismissal any person, no matter how poorly educated or humbly situated in life. The very
heart of the metaphysics driving the Ethics is an identification of the
cosmos itself, understood as multitudinous “modes” of a single infinite
“substance,” with God. The meanest individual, in such a light, both ex-presses and embodies divinity. Spinoza’s God may take on human form
most spectacularly in Jesus, but human form is in every instance divine.
When the lover resides in a universe understood as Godhead material-