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Atlas Interview: Maxime Rovere

A unique edition of Ethica was published by Flammarion last November. Published with the new translation of the French philosopher Maxime Rovere, known for his works on Spinoza and "interactional ethics", this work is part of collective practice. Five researchers have joined Maxime Rovere in this undertaking to write giant annotations opposite to the text by Spinoza, to provide a large number of details on the text's links with several crucial areas. Let us take this opportunity to share the news that this edition, in which Atlas Publishing Lab represents Turkish rights, will be published in Turkish by Alfa Publishing.

Eylem Canaslan from Spinoza Circle in Turkey has done an interview with Maxime Rovere and asked him about the details of this collective work experience, the aims of this edition, the importance of translation activity, and his recommendations for readers of the Ethica.

Maxime Rovere.

"The form of their experience and the questions raised by their everyday life make Turkish citizens privileged interlocutors for Spinoza’s philosophy."

Eylem Canaslan: Readers from Turkey know you through the Turkish translations of Le Clan de Spinoza, a historical-literary work on Spinoza’s circle, and Que faire des cons?, a popular book bearing traces of Spinozian intellectual improvement and pedagogy. But you are not only a writer or commentator, you are also a translator. You have already translated Spinoza’s letters into French with a detailed account and annotations. Now your new edition of the Ethics has appeared. I’ll come back to this new edition, but I want to start with more general questions about the practice of translation itself. How do you define philosophical translation? Does it have an aspect that goes beyond philological expertise and has to do with the conceptual production of the philosopher whose text is being translated?

Maxime Rovere: Translation is an essential practice for both writers and scholars. As a writer, there is no better way to intimately come to know creative or philosophical writing than to translate texts from other authors. We usually think that translation is a kind of transfer from one language to another, but there is no such simple process. The translation is about expression, and it challenges a writer’s relationship with his or her own native language; i.e. to be a translator is to be a specific kind of writer. Then, as a scholar, I consider translation a central duty: in our effort to transmit and perpetuate a tradition (in my case, philosophy), it is crucial to ensure that barriers do not limit the authors to which a community has access, neither those authors who belong to a different linguistic community nor those who have expressed themselves in old languages, such as Latin. As a result, translation is, for me, a way to simultaneously become more familiar with Spinoza or J. M. Barrie (I translated his Peter Pan) or Virginia Woolf, to make an offering to others, and also to develop my vocabulary to be more accurate in my own research.

E.C. What was it like, specifically, to translate Spinoza’s texts? How easy and how difficult was this process, what pleasures and pains did it cause you in terms of Spinoza’s language, style, and way of thinking?

M.R. Theoretically, Spinoza’s Ethics should be an easy piece to translate because of its “geometrical” style: its language consists of artificially rigidified concepts that are explicitly defined within the text. This was meant to exclude the ambiguities, misunderstandings, and surprises of languages, and it should make the translator’s task easier than in a treatise or a novel. The problem is that the text is not only, and not always geometrical. When Spinoza answers objections, incorporates suggestions, or relays a story, he reverts to natural language and the tone of his phrase is different. The fun and the difficulty start when it comes to conveying these changes of tone. Then, I had the privilege to be able to lean on abundant notes to justify certain choices. This allowed me to explore Spinoza’s Latin like never before. For example, the verb “sentire” is very broad in Latin; when Spinoza attributes that verb to animals, I don’t translate “les animaux sentent” (the animals feel) as is usual in French, but “les animaux ont leurs points de vue” (the animals have their points of view), which is more faithful to the original Latin.

E.C. Your edition, which was published by Flammarion in 2021, is certainly not the first French translation of the Ethics. We already know the editions by Appuhn, Caillois, Misrahi, and Pautrat. How did the need for a new edition arise? What is special about your edition, what new possibilities does it offer Spinoza readers?

M.R. The main innovation lies in the way the text is presented. All my predecessors considered it desirable to publish their translation as simple as could be, without commentary except, sometimes, for some essential endnotes, so that the readers could read the text in its purest form, without another’s interferences or interpretations. Today, our reading habits are so different from those of Spinoza’s time that this conception of “purity” doesn’t fit the text. First, the Ethics was meant to be read in a group, and not by isolated individuals. My idea was to gather a group of six scholars to read the text alongside the readers and enlighten it with their erudition, explaining the problems at hand and explicitly quoting the references that Spinoza makes implicitly. Second, many things that were familiar to Spinoza and his friends now need to be explained to the readers: anatomical practices, discoveries about insects, frequency of shipwrecks, etc., shed important light on certain parts of the text. The more the readers are aware of these elements, the more lively their interpretations can be! This is why we made notes part of the text and presented the commentary in front of the referenced passages so that the translated text would not stand on its own, but be part of a broader philosophical project.

E.C. The new edition of the Ethics also has a collective feature. Your translation is accompanied by annotations and illustrations by Filip Buyse, Russ Leo, Giovanni Licata, Frank Mertens, and Stephen Zylstra, as well as yourself. Can you talk a little bit about this collective work experience, about the making of the edition? Can you draw parallels between your experience and Spinoza’s collaborative work environment among friends?

M.R. Each of us selected the passages to comment on; then I collected all the notes and combined them, translating from English and Italian into French. Some passages were left to stand alone, allowing us to insert images – more than 30 images, mainly coming from the Rijksmuseum – while, on the contrary, some were much commented on. When all the commentators wanted to write on the same passage, I tried to make sure all their ideas would fit on a single page. At first, we thought we would sign every single note by our initials; but this became too complex, and we all agreed to let go of our initials and stand as one group. Because of the different perspectives, there was never any clear-cut opposition between us, but it was fun to realize that, according to one’s own speciality, some would believe a passage would obviously refer to Jewish philosophy, some others would maintain Spinoza meant it as a contribution to a problem in physics, some others to Christology. This practice of interwoven commentary made us more aware than ever that philosophical thinking is often so dense that many issues can interact at once! The grace of being a group was that each of us learnt a lot from the others.

"How is it possible that so many generations of scholars have erased the 'heart' from Spinoza’s Ethics?"

Dirck Volckertsz Coornhert'in portresi, @Rijksmuseum.

E.C. The most original aspect of the edition that struck me is the care you give to the term animus. As you point out in your presentation, you translate animus as cœur to distinguish it from the mind (mens) and soul (anima). This is an unusual preference not often found in earlier translations. Does animus have any special significance for Spinoza’s ethical project? Does the distinction between anima, mens, and animus have a place in modern Western rationalism, or is it merely a peculiarity of the “Oriental” Spinoza?

M.R. My surprise is exactly the opposite: how is it possible that so many generations of scholars have erased the “heart” from Spinoza’s Ethics? When you read Coornhert’s Ethics, or the Art of Living Well, the term “heart” is everywhere – and the author is surrounded by hearts. It is hence very clear that in the 17th century and particularly in the Netherlands, ethics is the science of the heart. But from the 18th century and on, “reason” will progressively be considered in opposition to “emotion”. This “cold” rationalism, based on a purely technical or purely logical definition of “reason” led scholars to neglect what was at the core of Spinoza’s work. To Spinoza and his friend, the term “animus” was so evident that it didn’t need to be explained. It means the force that makes us active in love, and active in action, and it is the subject of transformation when it comes to ethics. The increased potency of the heart through better understanding has an immediate impact on everyday life! Therefore, there is no need to consider Spinoza as an extreme rationalist who would believe only in the powers of the intellect. His ultimate goal was to raise the “intellectual love of God”, which is obviously experienced both by the intellect and by the heart!

E.C. Turkey is one of the countries where the effects of the last Spinoza Renaissance are strongly felt. When you came to Istanbul for a talk in February 2020, you may have personally observed the interest here. As in many other countries, Spinoza is one of the most widely read philosophers among non-professional philosophy lovers here in Turkey. As a professional, what is your advice to these readers? How should they read the Ethics, where should they start? And above all, what habits should they avoid when reading?

M.R. I think that Turkish readers, students, and scholars can play a major role in the development of 21st-century Spinozism, just as much as Spinoza can prove relevant for the future of Turkey. Clearly, Spinoza has strong positions about the relations between theology and politics; he also promotes reflection on the status of minorities in a political community, and his ethics is a fantastic tool to articulate one’s personal life with religious vocabulary. These are, among many, some of the issues where I think Spinoza is relevant for Turkey. In reverse, there are very few places in the world that are today in a position to explore questions and possibilities that Spinoza could only sketch more clearly than Turkey. As a democracy, Turkey forms a wonderful philosophical experiment. In a way, Turkish citizens are closer to Spinoza than French or American citizens. The form of their experience and the questions raised by their everyday life make Turkish citizens privileged interlocutors for Spinoza’s philosophy.

Now, the Ethics is famous for being difficult to read. For those who want to read it, my advice is twofold: first, it is essential to accept that not everything should be understood as you read. If things were so, we would all still be reading children’s books! It is okay to read something without understanding every single line; in Spinoza, you need to let yourself make progress. Second, this book is not a novel, you don’t need to start at page one and read it all the way to the end. Actually, I think the best method is just to survey quickly parts I and II and then start reading part III in order to experience quickly how the definitions Spinoza gives of love, hatred, sadness or joy impact the way you see the world. In any case, the Ethics is not just a book to be appreciated for the pleasure it might give. It is mainly a tool to help people change for the better. So, the question is to find a way for it to have its most effective impact. It’s important to feel the need for explanation; once you have that interest and urgency, you will find everything, the definitions, the demonstrations and so on, so very useful!

A portrait of Spinoza.

E.C. Finally, I would like to ask a question that concerns Spinoza readers, even if it is not directly about the Ethics. In Le Clan de Spinoza you emphasized that the name Baruch was never used by the philosopher himself or his immediate circle, but only by religious people or anti-Semitic groups at that time. You repeat the same warning in the preface of the Ethics edition. Can you elaborate on this matter a bit? Baruch, Bento, or Benedictus?

M.R. First, I want to underline that this question is important for today’s world but is almost irrelevant in the 17th century. Indeed, before the 19th century, the spelling of names was unstable; they commonly had multiple accepted variations. For example, Giacomo Casanova (1725 – 1798) was born an Italian but would call himself “Jacques” while in France, “Jakob” while in Bohemia, etc. Today, we tend to simplify and fix identities. So the question really is: what the first name can best “identify” Spinoza? Well, there are three different answers. If you accept “Baruch”, you place the emphasis on an official form that was only used in the documents within the Jewish community where Spinoza was born; it is symbolic of his Jewish background, which some authors want to emphasize. Then, if you prefer the form “Benedictus”, you draw attention to the fact that Spinoza, as a philosopher, belonged to the community of Latin speakers who used to call themselves the “Republic of Letters”, notwithstanding their different nationalities. Conversely, if you use “Bento”, which is the way Spinoza himself would sign his name in Portuguese, you suggest that the way a person refers to himself should prevail over any other label imposed on him. In fact, Spinoza’s identity is of course made of these three dimensions – he is a philosopher, and of Jewish ascent, and from a Portuguese family. Restoring the diversity of these options is not important to Spinoza, who has been dead for centuries, but it is important for us as we consider questions of identity.


Maxime Rovere is a philosopher and associate researcher at the IHRIM (Institut d'Histoire des Représentations et des Idées dans les Modernités), at the Ecole Normale Supérieure in Lyon. A specialist of Spinoza, he works on the philosophies of the 17th century and the Roman schools of the 1st century, while developing an "interactional ethics" at the crossroads of several contemporary currents (complexity, cybernetics and paraconsistency).

Eylem Canaslan is a research assistant and lecturer at Kırklareli University (Turkey), the author of a book and several other works on Spinoza, the Turkish translator of Negri’s Savage Anomaly and Subversive Spinoza (with N. Çelebioğlu). She is also one of the founders of the Spinoza Circle in Turkey.

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