Spinoza: The Outcast Thinker

Winner of the 2014 National Jewish Book Award
for Children’s and Young Adult Literature

A Best Teen Book of 2014, Kirkus Reviews

Spinoza: The Outcast ThinkerA brilliant schoolboy in seventeenth-century Amsterdam quickly learns to keep his ideas to himself. When he is twenty-three, those ideas prove so scandalous to his religious community that he is cast out, cursed, and effectively erased from their communal life. The scandal shows no sign of waning as his ideas spread throughout Europe, where he is almost universally reviled as an instrument of the devil. At the center of the storm, he lives the simplest of lives, quietly devoted to his work as a lens grinder and to his steadfast search for the truth—an endeavor that paves the way to all that is best in modern democracies. He does not live to see the results of his efforts, but his ideas change the world.

Ages 12 and up • Grades 8 and up • 286 pages

Praise for Spinoza: The Outcast Thinker

“Part biography, part history, part exploration of Spinoza’s philosophy: wholly engaging.
The philosopher Benedict de Spinoza was born Bento Spinoza in 1632—a son of Jewish parents who had fled persecution in Portugal to settle in the relatively safe Amsterdam Jewish community known as the Nation. Raised and educated in the Jewish faith, Spinoza nonetheless began developing alarming (to his Jewish community) ideas about religion, culminating in his cherem—excommunication—at 23. Undaunted, he moved to another part of Amsterdam, took up the trade of lens grinding and continued his studies. Influenced by the writings of René Descartes, Spinoza developed a philosophy that promoted rational inquiry and tolerance over blind acceptance of tradition and superstition, especially in the matters of religion and government. Needless to say, religious and government leaders considered his views threatening. Generally reviled during his lifetime, Spinoza’s influence on future generations has nonetheless been far-reaching, informing the thoughts of John Locke, Thomas Jefferson and Albert Einstein, among others. Throughout this ambitious and thorough narrative, Lehmann does an outstanding job of illuminating Spinoza’s concepts in a clear, concise and logical manner and gives them contextual relevance by illuminating the pertinent political and social upheavals of the time. Archival illustrations add depth to the narrative.
Clarity, accessibility and spot-on relevance to issues facing modern society make this a must-read.”
Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“This is a highly readable, engaging and illuminating portrait of one of history’s most important philosophers. It is especially pleasing to see a book that introduces Spinoza and his thought to young readers without over-simplification and condescension, one that takes seriously the ideas and their continued relevance.”
—Steven Nadler
Professor of Philosophy, University of Wisconsin-Madison
Author of Spinoza: A Life, A Book Forged in Hell: Spinoza’s Scandalous Treatise, and The Birth of the Secular Age

“Beautifully described. If I were a young person reading this it would come as a revelation to me.”
—Jonathan Israel
Professor, School of Historical Studies, Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton University Author of Radical Enlightenment: Philosophy and the Making of Modernity 1650-1750 and Revolutionary Ideas: An Intellectual History of the French Revolution from The Rights of Man to Robespierre

“Devra Lehmann does such an admirable job of telling the story of Baruch Spinoza’s life and ideas that I expect grownup readers will enjoy the book just as much as her intended younger readers. Even more importantly, Lehmann’s treatment of Spinoza will inspire her readers with one of the most important lessons they can learn: Truth matters.”
—Rebecca Goldstein
Professor of Philosophy, New College of the Humanities, London
Author of Plato at the Googleplex and Betraying Spinoza: The Renegade Jew Who Gave Us Modernity

“In this lucid introduction to Spinoza’s life and thought, Lehmann walks readers through the contexts that led Spinoza to his belief that man’s chief responsibilities are to think for himself and follow the dictates of reason wherever they lead. …[H]er clear prose and short chapters make this an accessible historical biography for young adults; her exploration of Spinoza’s relationship with Judaism gives the book particular interest for many collections.”
The Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books (recommended review)

Spinoza: The Outcast Thinker flows elegantly and offers a compelling portrait of Spinoza both as a person and as a philosopher. In both respects, Spinoza exhibited a characteristic combination of fearlessness and caution, a duality wonderfully presented by Lehmann’s gripping narrative and her accessible engagement with Spinoza’s religious and political thought. The target audience of the book — young adults — will be struck by the way in which Spinoza honestly and unflinchingly faced the conflicting demands of tradition, authority, politics, and reason and, in so doing, developed into ‘a passionately religious man without a religion’ The many illustrations in the book are a most welcome feature that brings Spinoza’s life to life.”
—Michael Della Rocca
Professor of Philosophy, Yale University
Author of Spinoza

“Lehmann’s prose is clear and friendly and manages to make a complicated and dense topic readable and even entertaining. … [A] model of what intelligent, young adult non-fiction ought to look like.”
—Yoel Finkelman, Bookjed Digest
Lookstein Center for Jewish Education, Bar-Ilan University

Spinoza: The Outcast Thinker is certain to inform and inspire not just young adults, but their parents as well. Devra Lehmann’s sympathetic treatment and lucid prose provide an outstanding introduction to this seventeenth-century intellectual giant. But her book does far more than present the man and his times: it prompts readers to ponder questions of religion and history, and to reconsider their own place in a world forever indebted to someone unafraid to think for himself.”
—Geoff Bakewell
Professor of Greek and Roman Studies and Director of the Search For Values in Light of Western History and Religion Program, Rhodes College

“This insightful biography describes how Spinoza challenged traditional thinking of the time and racked up enemies as he wondered and wrote about the nature of God, the human constructs of good and evil, and the pursuit of reason…. Budding philosophers…will find a life worth examining.”
Booklist Online

“No one of good will can take exception to the simple and honest way in which Spinoza lived; he may truly be the first (and last) philosopher since Socrates to live according to his stated principles….Outcast Thinker impressed me with its clear style, strong attention to historical and intellectual context, and accessible explanations. Intellectual young adults will find much to appreciate in the book, as will teachers interested in providing students with supplementary reading materials….Outcast Thinker is highly recommended.”
—Chris Freiler, Hinsdale Central High School, Hinsdale IL
PLATO (Philosophy Learning and Teaching Organization: Engaging Young Philosophers)

“Spinoza comes alive for young (and less young) readers alike in Devra Lehmann’s Spinoza: The Outcast Thinker. Lehmann deftly interweaves Spinoza’s philosophy with the story of his life and times, explaining how his thinking evolved against the backdrop of his society and his upbringing, and spins it into a seamless narrative. Most illuminating is to see how his writings, radical in his day, remain radical in ours even as we have incorporated many of his beliefs into our modern thinking. But mostly this is the story of a man who had the courage of his convictions, and who thought deeply about the issues that continue to compel us all today, and who struggled against mighty odds to remain true to himself.”
—Roberta Israeloff
Executive Director, The Squire Family Foundation (Advancing Philosophy Education)
Author of Kindling the Flame: Reflections on Ritual, Faith and Family