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Summary

When 16-year-old Alfred Rosenberg is called into his headmaster's office for anti-Semitic remarks he made during a school speech, he is forced, as punishment, to memorize passages about Spinoza from the autobiography of the German poet Goethe. Rosenberg is stunned to discover that Goethe, his idol, was a great admirer of the Jewish 17th-century philosopher Baruch Spinoza. Long after graduation, Rosenberg remains haunted by this "Spinoza problem": How could the German genius Goethe have been inspired by a member of a race Rosenberg considers so inferior to his own, a race he was determined to destroy?

Spinoza himself was no stranger to punishment during his lifetime. Because of his unorthodox religious views, he was excommunicated from the Amsterdam Jewish community in 1656, at the age of 24, and banished from the only world he had ever known. Though his life was short and he lived without means in great isolation, he nonetheless produced works that changed the course of history.

Over the years, Rosenberg rose through the ranks to become an outspoken Nazi ideologue, a faithful servant of Hitler, and the main author of racial policy for the Third Reich. Still, his Spinoza obsession lingered. By imagining the unexpected intersection of Spinoza's life with Rosenberg's, internationally best-selling novelist Irvin D. Yalom explores the mindsets of two men separated by 300 years. Using his skills as a psychiatrist, he explores the inner lives of Spinoza, the saintly secular philosopher, and of Rosenberg, the godless mass murderer.

©2012 Irvin D. Yalom (P)2019 Blackstone Audio, Inc.

What listeners say about The Spinoza Problem

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    4 out of 5 stars
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    4 out of 5 stars

More textbook than novel

A deep and rich book, especially if you're interested in philosophy or psychoanalysis - but do approach it as part-textbook, rather than a well rounded novel.

The author is a psychiatrist and boy, does it show. Every single conversation is stilted and unrealistic. The two main characters are built up not through action, but by long verbatim accounts of therapy sessions - either literal, or under a very thin veneer of conversation about philosophy. There are long passages of material which is irrelevant (histories of Portuguese Judaism or early psychoanalysis) whilst important characterisation is left undone - 'Oh yes, I married again' says one central character in the only hint we ever get of his home life.

That said, the book has a quiet intensity which held my attention to the end, and I learned a great deal about Spinoza.

2 people found this helpful

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One of Yalom's Best

What a treat for my ears and brain this was. Irv Yalom brings his remarkable mind and imagination to blend fact and fiction of two worlds - seventeenth century Amsterdam and twentieth century nascent Nazi Germany, inhabited by two key figures the philosopher Baruch Spinoza and Nazi Party ideologist Alfred Rosenberg. Talking therapy draws a line between the two world's especially that of Rosenberg. His narcissistic frailties and need of approval find the monstrous focus of Hitler and what then plays out. It's an ambitious novel in part because of it breadth but also because Yalom is always teaching: Spinoza, Jewish culture, therapy, philosophy, art, literature and history. But this is Yalom's strength. His quiet, gentle brilliance to simplify the complex into a story, into a nugget of knowledge. Loved it.

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As superb blend of Philosophy, Psychoanalysis and putative histories.

As in the title, a superb blend plus Yalom is a writer who engages the reader through his style. He’s not overly didactic or pedantic. Attracted me to read more about Spinoza and to give actual hard copies to friends. Narration was good and kept my attention but as with all longer books, I feel I need the text to supplement the narrative and re-address certain sections.

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My favourite book

I cannot remember the last time I have enjoyed a book so much.

I am a big fan of Yallom and his work around group and existential therapy, this book whilst being based around therapy is brilliant in its own right.

A must read.

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  • Marian
  • 22-04-19

Loud, Modern, Imaginative with Catharsis

I have read several Yalom works and am unsettled by The Spinoza Problem. I am apt to listen to it again on Audible to make a better assessment. This book is more a work of psychology and imagination than a volume of specific history and raw philosophy. This makes sense as Yalom is a psychiatrist, so he uses the profession he knows to create inspired fiction with the talking cure. He projects himself into the past. He imagines deep conversations and applied philosophy with Spinoza and others. Perhaps the title is my first question: was the excommunication situation a Spinoza “problem” or a societal problem? I was uncomfortable with the loudness and impassioned performance of the book at the beginning, but I adjusted to it after a while. The needs of individuals in a group and the demands of the group to regulate its members repeat as frequent themes in society and literature. Here, the exclusivity of “Aryan” ideologies, and Judaica-related scenarios clash. Religious demands are subject to fashionable trends, even when the claim is for 5000 years of continuity. Nazi-era contrasts and the psychological issues of identity conflicts appear in an uncomfortable and judged way. I felt that Yalom achieved a personal catharsis with the project, and he clearly had a lot of pent-up tensions released in this projective drama. The result is sedentary, post-Freudian, loud, modern, and diseased, but I could enumerate the same list for modern society itself. Here is a question - - how would Spinoza feel about being “reclaimed” by those who banned him during his life? Does the idea, “Once a Jew, Always a Jew,” trump Spinoza’s experience of mutual rejection in his lifetime? It feels to me the snagging of Spinoza despite his philosophy and experiences to be more offensive than even a posthumous proxy baptism because he did not want or identify with the Bible’s legacy. Modern Judaism (generally speaking) would not ban him today, so, yes, the lesson persists: one century’s absolute dogmatism is another century’s shame.

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  • Orlando Hill
  • 02-09-20

Boring dialogue and unconvincing characters

Painfully dull. Doesn't work as historical fiction. By comparison, The Schopenhauer Cure was much more enjoyable because the author didn't try to convey history through invented scenes and dialogue. The chapters on Alfred Rosenberg were more believable, presumably because it's easier to create less intelligent characters, but even those were tortuous.

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  • Patrick
  • 12-11-20

worth reading.

reading it in the end of 2020, this book seems too relevant. highly recommend a good read.

1 person found this helpful

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  • Louis novak
  • 31-05-20

Narrator needs to pronounce putsch properly.

As Spinoza had a few problems that were reproduced with Rosenberg the titular problem should be spelled out.

1 person found this helpful

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  • Anthony Penn
  • 04-02-20

Yalom comes through again!

Yalom does an outstanding job once again. With each book I become more and more of a fan. Pure genius!

1 person found this helpful

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  • edwen gomez
  • 01-01-20

Love it,

highly recommend it, one of my favourite books of all time, it keep you interested on it with the overlapping of the story.

1 person found this helpful

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  • IAN
  • 25-11-19

History

Delving into a history that I had a little knowledge of has left me pleased to have picked up this book. Very interesting how influential writing can be taken up and driven to atrocious ends.

1 person found this helpful

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  • Ronald Israel
  • 17-11-21

Entertaining !

E.Y. Blended the periods 17th and 20th centuries nicely. Creating a believable backdrop to tell the story of two men, centuries apart who’s path crossed, without ever meeting.

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  • John H. Wheeler
  • 06-07-21

Swan W

When you are drifting along in audio world, it takes a while to catch on to the two time zones. The people in 1656 are students, with a teacher, and the people in 1931 are students with a teacher. The characters, respectively, grow up; Bento, also known as Baruch, and Alfred. The first, Bento, becomes isolated because of his relentless search for truth. Alfred becomes isolated because of his own fears and longing for approval. Baruch has no fear , and seeks only his own approval. But his community has much fear. And thus, cannot harbor or tolerate him.

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  • MREB
  • 14-06-21

The best faction book I’ve read

Not only do I love Spinoza, but I also love WW2 history. With the exception of one chapter near the end where it becomes a bit of an historical fact listing (talking about Hess), the characters, dialogue and settings make this food for my imagination. Plus it made key Spinoza concepts very accessible. I binge-listened to it. Well read as well. Congratulations to the author.