Wednesday, May 18, 2005

And your little dog too!

Right now I'm reading Steven Nadler's biography of Spinoza, and, after more than you ever thought you needed to know about life in the Jewish quarter of Amsterdam in the seventeenth century, we have arrived at the part where, for reasons still not entirely clear, though it probably had something to do with his enthusiasm for the writings of the (recently deceased) damned heretic and radical Descartes, the elders of the community have declared a ban on our hero. No disrespect intended, but to contemporary ears the rhetoric here goes a bit, how you say, over the top. Here's an excerpt (p. 120):
By decree of the angels and by the command of the holy men, we excommunicate, expel, curse and damn Baruch de Espinoza, with the consent of God, Blessed be He, and with the consent of the entire holy congregation, and in front of the holy scrolls with the 613 precepts which are written therein; cursing him with the ex-communication with which Joshua banned Jericho and with the curse which Elisha cursed the boys and with all the castigations that are written in the Book of the Law. Cursed be he by day and cursed be he by night; cursed be he when he lies down and cursed be he when he rises up. Cursed be he when he goes out and cursed be he when he comes in. The Lord will not spare him, but then the anger of the Lord and his jealousy shall smoke against that man, and all the curses that are written in this book shall lie upon him, and the Lord shall blot out his name from under heaven. And the Lord shall separate him unto evil out of all the tribes of Israel, according to the curses of the covenant that are written in this book of the law.

Yikes! Now that's some fine cursing: detail-oriented and thorough. I have to say, sometimes I feel that way about Descartes myself, or at least contemporary manifestations of same. W/r/t the proximate target of this magnificent malediction, on the other hand, my uneducated impression is this: he'll say something like "the great genius Descartes says such-and-such, which is certainly right, but actually I think it might work better if we put it this way" -- followed by a devastating refutation of Descartes's position (that is, of what we have come to see as the objectionably "Cartesian" part). Come to think of it, I'm not sure where I got that impression. If I run into any examples I'll let you know.

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