Spinoza’s Ethics


I much enjoyed the play Spinoza’s Ethics at Theater for the New City last night.  As I mentioned in this earlier post, the book this play references both solved and saved religious faith for me; it was pivotal in forming my world view. I rather foolishly boasted to someone last night that I had “read” this book several times, but that’s a silly way to put it. You don’t “read” a philosophical treatise in the same way you do a fiction or non-fiction narrative. The Ethics is more like an elegant intellectual apparatus, a system built of Euclidean proofs on the existence and nature of God and the universe. Its structure is not fluid, but mechanical. Rather than read it you absorb statements and assertions, and the logical relationships between those statements and assertions, and then contemplate the truth of them. (I would say the “truth or falsity” of them, but really, you’re a formidable individual indeed — a once in a millennium sort — if you can prove this thinker false.) You might call this work theological, but for the fact that Spinoza’s system is entirely self-contained and operates entirely outside any church’s dictates, which is why Jews, Catholics and Protestants banned him for centuries. We modern folk are fortunate in being able to read him directly, but his influence was immense long before. Writers like Montesquieu and Locke absorbed his ideas and integrated them into their essays and books; these in turn profoundly influenced America’s Founding Fathers. The rationalistic arms-length distance of “God” in our founding documents (in favor of careful words like “the Creator”) is a clear illustration of his long reach. Many of America’s Founders have been called theistic or pantheistic in their religion. Spinoza has often been given the same labels (often in accusatory terms), but that has always been a matter of controversy. At any rate, Spinoza gave the world an interpretation of God that lives most harmoniously in the world of empirical science. His vision is superstition-free and in every way the essence of Enlightenment.

I was most curious to see how something like this could be turned into a play, let alone a good or compelling one. Crazier things have been done, though, often with very satisfying results (the movie of Tristram Shandy springs to mind). There are many masters of the formal mash-up between “life” and the world of intellectual ideas; I thought of people like Tom Stoppard and Charlie Kaufman both before and after seeing this play.

Emily Claire Schmitt’s Spinoza’s Ethics turns out to be a true story, but that doesn’t matter. At a narrative level, the heroine’s journey is a fairly ordinary one, but that seems largely the point. As someone who generally feels closer to long-dead authors than to most living people, I relate mightily to the character of Ruth (here played by Arielle Yoder), whose best and most constant friend throughout her rocky life’s-voyage is the dead philosopher. It matters little where we are (her head? heaven?); what matters is the conversation and interactions between the two characters, and Spinoza’s deep influence on the woman. Surely the fact that she leaves the order of nuns to which she belongs in order to marry a man has something to do with the free-thinking of which her engagement with the Ethics is both an encouragement and a symptom. Later, her toxic marriage breaks up and she endures decades of loneliness, but the Ethics is with her throughout, much like the Bible or other religious works have sustained other people. The play shifts radically between time and place, sometimes Ruth visits Spinoza in his time, sometimes he visits her in her own, and at a certain point we appear to be in the afterlife, though maybe the whole play takes place there.

As someone pointed out last night, Dianna Garten’s minimalistic staging and settings, which isolate and dwarf the actors within TNC’s cavernous Johnson Theater, have the twin effects of reinforcing the characters’ loneliness and emphasizing their metaphysical predicament within the limitless black void of the universe. The result was a thought-provoking and surprisingly emotional experience.

Check it out yourself! It’s part of TNC’s Dream Up festival. Information and tickets can be found here. 

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