Spinoza’s Ineffable Opera Postuma

by Jeff Mezzocchi of Eternal Return Antiquarian Bookshop


One of my favorite books I have owned is the 1677 first edition of Spinoza’s Opera Postuma. I studied Spinoza in graduate school and always had a soC spot for someone I believed was too overlooked in terms of his importance to the history of ideas. When I found myself many years later with a growing collection of rare books, I knew I had to find a copy, and I did. When I held the object that is the book in my hands, I understood Spinoza more. The book was a struggle to produce, the manuscript hunted down by the ecclesiastical authorities shortly after Spinoza’s death, coming so close as to even knock on the door of the very home where the books were being produced. “I know of no such manuscript,” stated Spinoza’s friend. The Church believed him. They left, and as a result I was able to study Spinoza in graduate school centuries later. Holding the vellum binding, tracing the hand-scripted “Spinoza 1677” with my fingers, thumbing through the 330 year-old Latin leaves, I believe I met Spinoza. I came to know something more—the author himself, the time, the people, the political and social complications—the story of The Book became at least as interesting as the ideas the book contained. I was hooked.

In many ways, my experience holding Spinoza’s Opera (or any truly rare book by someone I spent a lot of time reading) reminds me of William James and his description of the mystical experience. In Varieties of Religious Experience, he describes the four “marks” of the mystical experience. Each is ineffable, has a noetic quality, requires a posture of passivity, and is transient in its duration. Such is the experience of owning and holding a rare book. With Spinoza, the experience was ineffable— something words (despite my attempt here) fail to adequately capture. It had a noetic quality. That is, I gained knowledge about so many things, including myself. It required a posture of passivity. I could not grab the book and demand, “Here! Now! The moment must become mystical!” Rather, I could only hold the book often and, perhaps, the moment would arrive. It was not in my control. Finally, the moment was always transient. As soon as I thought, “Ah! Here is the spiritual moment!” it is gone...

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