Spinoza, according to Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy, is ‘the noblest and most lovable of the great philosophers’. As a natural consequence of his ethical supremacy, Russell adds, Spinoza ‘was considered, during his lifetime and for a century after his death, a man of appalling wickedness’. Born into the Hispanic Jewish community in Amsterdam in 1632, Spinoza had acquired, by the time he was twenty, a reputation as a dangerously free-thinking intellectual. In 1655 he was the victim of an assassination attempt, and a year later he was excommunicated from the Jewish community for his ‘evil ways’. Thereafter, he lived first in the countryside outside Amsterdam and then at The Hague, making a living by grinding lenses, while corresponding with some of the leading thinkers of the day and writing Tractatus Theologico-Politicus and Ethics, the books upon which his reputation still rests. In 1677, at the age of forty-four, he died of a lung disease then described as ‘phthisis’ but now identified as a combination of tuberculosis and silicosis.
This short, uneventful and poorly documented life offers little encouragement to the biographer, and yet Spinoza is the subject of one of the best and most famous of all biographies of philosophers: Sir Frederick Pollock’s Spinoza: His Life and Philosophy, first published in 1880. It was Pollock’s book that fixed the image of Spinoza, for Russell and many others, as the noble and lovable man of reason, a saint martyred by the mob for his superior virtue and intellect. It was an icon waiting to be smashed, and Margaret Gullan-Whur, in this irreverent biography, duly takes a few hefty swipes at it.