Some of the best-loved characters in English literature are observed only dimly through the eyes of an unreliable first-person narrator; like fish seen through the glass of a tank, they swim toward us, momentarily dazzling in their colors, before receding again into the murk. Such is surely the case with P.G. Wodehouse’s immortal creation Reginald Jeeves. Beyond the fact that he has an encyclopedic knowledge of everything from Shakespeare to the correct tone of socks for a gentleman to wear in the city, enjoys travel, plays bridge, and is once seen “swinging a dashed efficient shoe” with a lady at a London dance-hall, we know little of the valet’s inner life. Even Bertie Wooster, his employer and companion through 35 short stories and 11 novels, is left to conclude the man is “a mystery” to him, having first learned his Christian name only in the penultimate book of the canon.
One significant clue about what might be going on behind Jeeves’s mask of superbly maintained composure—affording him the look of “a youngish High Priest of a refined and dignified religion”—comes, however, with the revelation that he likes nothing more than to curl up with “an improving book” by the 17th-century Dutch philosopher of Sephardi-Portuguese origin, Baruch Spinoza.
In many ways, it’s a rum thing. On the one hand we have Jeeves, eternally deferential, with distinctly feudal ideas on the prevailing English class system, whom even his blue-blooded employer calls “hidebound and reactionary.” On the other, Spinoza: a professional contrarian who was cast out of the Portuguese-Jewish community of Amsterdam for “abominable heresies,” his name to be “expunged from all the tribes of Israel” and “blotted out from under Heaven,” shunned equally by the Catholic Church, unaffiliated with any university or institution, and for 21 years following his excommunication primarily employed as a humble lens grinder and oculist’s technician until his early death in February 1677 at the age of 44.
Wodehouse scholars have never satisfactorily explained why the author made Spinoza Jeeves’s philosopher of choice. Possibly it’s no more than a comic device intended to throw the valet’s mental candlepower into sharper relief when compared with that of his amiable but incorrigibly dim young master. Over the years the relationship between Wooster and Jeeves has been analyzed in everything from spiritual to psychosexual terms, but at its heart it surely remains the pairing, at once richly comic and oddly touching, between one man given to mangled proverbs such as “Spilt milk blows nobody any good,” and another whose brain is so massive that it bulges from the back of his head, who “moves from point to point with as little uproar as a jelly-fish,” and who invariably rescues his master from the latest soup into which he’s immersed himself, all without tearing, or even crinkling, the social fabric.
But all that aside, might Wodehouse have chosen Spinoza for some reason other than the sheer fun of introducing the morally austere archetype of the Dutch Golden Age into a cast of characters with nicknames such as Pongo and Catsmeat, whose greatest provocation to the established order lies with their periodic engagements to unsuitable young women, or the ritual theft of a policeman’s helmet on Boat Race night? It’s true that Spinoza’s magnum opus, Ethics, published posthumously in 1677, would not seem to fit naturally into Wodehouse’s idyllic world. Yet the philosopher writes that, in order to be truly free, we must first realize “how much pure reason itself can control the emotions, and thus discover liberty of mind and blessedness.” When human beings are controlled by their passions or ambitions, by contrast, “they are not their own masters, but are mastered by fortune, in whose power they are.” The happy life is the one characterized by constant self-containment and a rigidly pragmatic, stoical approach to daily problems. The closer one approaches this ideal, Spinoza writes, the more one “passes to the highest human perfection, and consequently is affected with the highest joy.” Happiness, in other words, is equilibrium. It is sometimes necessary to shift one’s moral weight in order to advance the “higher faculty” of reason over the “low plane” of emotion. There are surely few characters in the history of English literature who better demonstrate this personal equanimity and coolly objective approach to life than do Sherlock Holmes and his logical, chronological successor Reginald Jeeves.
Étienne Balibar is a French academic, and his book, as translated, at times reads like a lecture delivered to a room full of intelligent but inattentive students. “Why then, if this is the case, does misunderstanding constantly threaten, as if by anticipation, to undermine the arguments advanced in the Tractatus Politicus?” he inquires at one point. Or, in discussing the nature of a government’s proper relationship to the masses:
If the correlation I thus adduce were total, that is, if the form of the State were no more of a “threat” to the security of the individual than the activity of the individual were a danger for the institutions of the State, then the consequence would be a perfect body politic, which could be and is so described in the Tractatus.
One can almost hear the note of mounting exasperation from the lecturer’s podium, followed by the ping of the chalk-stick rebounding off a dozing undergraduate’s head. After some 60,000 words of this, during which I more than once experienced the peculiar sensation of being transported back to my adolescence, Spinoza himself emerges through the fog as astonishingly fresh, vital, and relevant. Even his more Delphic utterances on matters such as the dualism of mind and body, or his proleptic rejection of substance as part of an extended discussion of the notion of history as dialectic, can be read as the philosopher’s direct intervention in our modern political discourse. Thus, alongside the exquisite entertainment to be derived from Professor Balibar’s dissertation, there ought to lurk some unease about the left’s continuing genius for so thoroughly plundering the intellectual copyright of those like Spinoza, whose thoughts, suitably condensed to palatable, bite-sized format, they peddle to an historically illiterate press and public.
Indeed, Spinoza appears increasingly to be the central philosophical figure in new-left theoretical discourse, along with Hegel (now viewed by some radical ideologues as shamelessly pre-Thatcherite) the starting-point of today’s critical-liberal thought.
Why should this be so? Perhaps because Spinoza was an advocate of the concept of perpetual interior revolution. In his view, society was defined not by adherence to a given set of rights or laws, but by the constant tension between conflicting forces. In placing the subject of this book in his historical context, Balibar describes a Dutch society rigidly divided in two camps: on one side, the urban bourgeoisie, who accumulated significant wealth during the Golden Ages of colonial expansion and who were united around a political doctrine of republicanism and a peculiarly tolerant form of Calvinism; on the other, primarily rural landowners, grouped around the House of Orange, supported by the majority of more radical Calvinists who hoped to end republican government and install a monarchical-theocratic system. If you follow Spinoza’s Tractatus through its many theological ruminations and inquiries into the human condition, what remains at its core is a spirited defense of political and religious self-determination against the encroaching forces of superstition and absolutism. The paranoiac tendency among the left (one need only switch on CNN to get some of the flavor) portrays modern life much in terms of this same fundamental struggle. Sen. Bernie Sanders seems to be speaking as a Spinozist when he remarks, “The political revolution is not about one election or one candidate. It is about transforming America and continuing to fight for economic, social, racial and environmental justice.”
Of course, Spinoza was never narrowly ideological, either in his spiritual teachings or his political opinions, not that that has prevented his adherents on both the left and the right from squaring off on the matter with all the fury of Lilliput and Blefuscu arguing whether to cut the egg at the big end or the little end. If anything, he believed that individuals, not their rulers, should set limits on their own behavior, and that this self-limitation was what was meant by liberty. The practical question arose of where to place the limit—how to make the accommodation between individual independence and social control—and it remains more than ever relevant in our age of personal “empowerment,” or, if you prefer, utter self-absorption.
It was “childish,” Spinoza insisted, for anyone to base his happiness on the uniqueness of his own gifts or the “primacy of [his] interests.” This seems to lie quite far from today’s fetish for individual gratification. At the root of Spinoza’s politics there exists not so much a narrowly sectarian philosophy as a pervasive value system that John Stuart Mill would come to extend and refine some 200 years later. “The only practical commandments that properly remain to a government are those that are necessary to carry out God’s moral precept, and confirm in our lives the love of our neighbor,” Spinoza wrote. As for other dogmas: “Every person should embrace those that he, being the best judge of himself, feels will do most to strengthen in him love of justice.”
Professor Balibar has a long and many would say distinguished history of toiling amidst the thicket of post-Marxist theory. In his seminal 1994 work Masses, Classes, Ideas, for example, he notes, “Labor is the veritable site of truth as well as the source from which the world is changed.” Critiquing “Western conceptions of the nation-state” in his 1990 essay “The Nation Form: History and Ideology,” Balibar argues that “a propensity to ingrained racism led us back to nationalism, and nationalism to uncertainty about the historical realities and categorization of the so-called nation.” For all his undoubted talents, this is not a man who would seem ideally qualified to serve as our next director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
As the professor’s present work makes clear, Spinoza appeals to the new left precisely because he invites us to appreciate the sovereignty of the individual—“In his universe, each creature is viewed as striving to empower itself [the Dutchman was a robust early advocate of animal rights] by accommodating itself to other subjects and data.” Future historians, we’re told, will come to see Spinoza as having effectively collapsed the old academic distinctions between “ethics” and “politics” by formulating an integrated theory of human nature. To him, the individual is neither created by God according to an eternal model, nor delivered by nature as a kind of raw material. As Balibar writes,
The individual is a construction. This construction is the result of a striving by the individual himself, within the determinate conditions of his “way of life.” And that “way of life” is nothing other than a given regime of communication (affective, economic, or intellectual) with other souls.
Of course, Spinoza was not only a restless social thinker and prophet of radical green politics, as we’re frequently reminded here. He was also a master of human psychology (a “psychology of the individual,” if you will), whose Ethics can profitably be read as a lengthy meditation on how best to harness the power of reason. In the end, we learn, the “free man” is the one who realizes “how much reason itself can control the emotions [and] thus achieve grace.” In drawing together all the Spinozist ideals of ceaseless self-control, immunity from received wisdom, rejection of superstition, and the eternal propensity for seeking the analytical and rational solution to life’s difficulties, it seems to me that there are few characters in history who better embody the beliefs under treatment here than that godlike prime mover Reginald Jeeves. He is the supreme pragmatist, facing each problem as he comes to it, and I feel he has more to teach us about Spinoza than any amount of post-Marxist theorizing.
[Spinoza and Politics, by Étienne Balibar (New York: Verso/New Left Books) 136 pp., $19.95]