Benedict de Spinoza: An Introduction
by Henry E. Allison
The Late Summer Passion of a Woman of Mind
by Rebecca Goldstein
For me, reading philosophy is like Algebra I (OK, philosophy really is part geometry, and it has a lot to do with mathematic principles in general, but speaking personally ...), if I miss a little in the beginning the whole foundation is off and I'm left wondering how I got from there to here. And that's how I felt with Benedict de Spinoza, which is an academic text. (By the way, I finished with a D -- and it was probably a pity D -- in seventh-grade algebra and had to repeat it in eighth grade, and nothing has been so confusing to me since. Also, I have never since spent class drawing pictures of Michael Jordan in pencil on the desk.)
So Goldstein's Spinoza (and Plato, I guess) novel, The Late Summer Passion, if a little didactic was helpful in making things clear. She focuses on the love angle. For Spinoza, an object is good because we love it. We do not love it because it's good. Also, there are no real decisions. Things happen because they are the next logical course in a string of events that go on into eternity. And if you think like that, then life is a dull proposition.
Eva Mueller, a professor of philosophy and our protagonist, does think like Spinoza, and her existence is impersonal. Until she studies Spinoza's The Ethics with a 20-year-old student who likes the human condition and sparks fly and she's all confused.
Then there's a bunch of stuff about World War II. (Eva is German, and a long time ago she had a crazy Jewish lover, so maybe that's why she turned off life. It's also a bit Sophie's Choice. Blond woman, crazy angry Jewish lover, etc.)
We're never told where Eva's university is, but it's pretty clearly set in Ithaca, and I assume it's Cornell cause Rebecca Goldstein is an Ivy League kind of woman. And one night, a distraught Eva goes to the bar at 3 a.m. There are few places in the U.S. where you can go to the bar at 3 a.m., and Google leads me to believe that Ithaca is not one of them (1 a.m. closing time, it seems). So maybe it's not an annoying departure from reality but the book is actually set in another college town famous for its gorges. Yeah, it must be that.