When sixteen-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 selected passages from the autobiography of the German poet Goethe. Rosenberg is stunned to discover that Goethe, his idol, was a great admirer of the seventeenth-century Jewish philosopher Baruch Spinoza. Long after graduation, Rosenberg is possessed by this “Spinoza Problem”: how could the great Goethe have been inspired by a member of a race Rosenberg considers so inferior to his own? A race that, as he developed from anti-Semitic schoolboy to Nazi propagandist, he would become determined to destroy?
Spinoza himself was no stranger to punishment. Accused of heresy, he was excommunicated from the Amsterdam Jewish community in 1656, at age twenty-four, and banished from the only world he had ever known. Though he lived but a short life in great isolation, he nonetheless produced sublime works that changed the course of history.
In his keen imagining of the inner lives of two men—separated by 300 years, one dedicated to fashioning a moral philosophy leading to a life of virtue and happiness, the other dangerously obsessed with the superiority of the Aryan race and the subjugation of all other inferior races— internationally bestselling novelist Irvin D. Yalom explores the thin psychological line that separates the great intellect from the debased poseur, the righteous atheist from one who uses his godlessness to incite others to murder.