The impermanence of human affairs is a major theme in Spinoza’s discussions of political histories, and from our present-day perspective it is both intriguing and ironic to see how this very theme has played out in the evolving fate of Spinoza’s association with atheism. While Spinoza’s contemporaries charged him with atheism in order to impugn his philosophy (and sometimes his character), in our times many lay readers and some scholars portray Spinoza as an atheist in order to commemorate his role (...) as a founder of modern secularism. In this paper, I will argue that Spinoza deserves neither vilification nor praise for being an atheist, for the simple reason that he was not one (unless one employs the term ‘atheism’ in a very peculiar sense). I have chosen the current topic as my contribution to a volume focused on the TTP, the Ethics, and their interrelations because it is precisely these two books which brought about the common reactionary accusation of atheism by Spinoza’s contemporaries. Addressing Spinoza’s 1663 book, Descartes’ Principles of Philosophy, Bayle writes: “Spinoza appears as orthodox in that book about the nature of God.” As we shall shortly see, Descartes too was accused of atheism by some of his contemporaries (though not so by Bayle). The latter designates his target quite explicitly: “[Spinoza’s] Tractatus Theologico Politicus, printed in Amsterdam, in the year 1670, is a pernicious and execrable book which contains all the seeds of the Atheism he plainly discovered in his Opera Posthuma.” François Lamy, in his 1696 Le nouvel athéisme renversé, also focused on the Ethics and the TTP in his attack on Spinoza’s atheism. Bayle’s reference to the Opera Posthuma is ostensibly targeting the Ethics at least primarily, if not uniquely. Even the most suspicious and distrustful mind would have to labor hard in order to find atheism in the Hebrew Grammar, or even in the Tractatus Politicus where Spinoza argues that it is not within the power, and hence right, of the commonwealth to induce people to adopt utterly absurd beliefs, such as “that the whole is greater than its part or that God does not exist.” The TTP and the Ethics are the works where Spinoza launches his merciless attack on anthropocentric thinking and anthropomorphic religion. Spinoza’s panentheism (“quicquid est, in Deo est”) constitutes the metaphysical foundation of the Ethics, and it is repeatedly and clearly alluded to in the TTP. Since it is these two elements – (1) Spinoza’s open assertions of panentheism and (2) his critique of andromorphic conceptions of God – which are the historical grounds for the atheism charge, it seems natural that the merit of this charge should be decided primarily by examination of these two foundational works. I will proceed in the following manner. In the first part of the paper, we will make our first acquaintance with the imputation of atheism by Spinoza’s contemporaries and Spinoza’s response to the charge (or lack thereof). In the second part, I discuss three broad strategies, or hermeneutic avenues, that have been pursued to impute atheism to Spinoza. The first of the three was dominant in Spinoza’s time, while the latter two were employed more recently. These strategies are not mutually exclusive and we can find occasionally various combinations of different shades of these three strategies. In this part, I will also raise some preliminary questions about the cogency of the hermeneutics employed by each strategy. In the third and fourth parts of the paper, I will discuss a small selection of key texts from the Ethics and the TTP, respectively, and argue that the atheist readings fail to make sense of these key passages (unless one adopts an extreme hermeneutics of suspicion which could allegedly find any view harbored in any text). Let me stress that this selection of passages is far from comprehensive, and that dozens of other passages can be adduced to establish the very same point. I hope by the end of the fourth part to convince the reader of the deep problems besetting the atheist readings. In the fifth and last part, I show that both panentheism and the critique of anthropomorphic religion and anthropomorphic conceptions of providence were quite common within rabbinic discourse. Thus, I will argue that if we are not in the business of announcing that both Maimonides and the Kabbalists were atheists, we should avoid the same imputation to Spinoza. Underlying my argument in this final part is the claim that at least some perceptions of Spinoza as an atheist are instances of what could be termed conceptual colonialism, i.e. the enforcement of the categories of a hegemonic culture (in this case, Western Christianity ) on minority cultures (in the current case, rabbinic Judaism). To be clear, this attitude need not be motivated by ill intentions or racism. It is always tempting and easy to explain the unfamiliar through the familiar, but conceptual stagnation and insistence on imposing the categories of the familiar on other cultures may quickly lead to deep distortion and blindness, despite one’s best intentions. Unless one is exceedingly careful to avoid the – completely natural – temptation to impose one’s own categories on a foreign culture (and to look for the coin only under the street light), one is likely to end up with distorted conceptions of the relevant alien culture, despite one’s best intentions. (shrink)
In the first part of this paper we will consider the likely extent of Spinoza’s exposure to Kabbalistic literature as he was growing up in Amsterdam. In the second part we will closely study several texts in which Spinoza seems to engage with Kabbalistic doctrines. In the third and final part we will study the role of the two crucial doctrines of emanation and pantheism (or panentheism), in Spinoza’s system and in the Kabbalistic literature.
Jean-Claude Milner’s Le sage trompeur (2013), a controversial recent piece of French Spinoza literature, remains regrettably understudied in the English-speaking world. Adopting Leo Strauss’ esoteric reading method, Milner alleges that Spinoza dissimulates his genuine analysis of the causes of the persecution and survival of the Jewish people within a brief “manifesto” found at the end of the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus (TTP), Chapter 3. According to Milner, Spinoza holds that the Jewish people themselves are responsible for the hatred of the Jewish people, (...) and that the engine of their longevity is the hatred they engender. Additionally, claims Milner, Spinoza covertly insinuates that the solution to this persistent state of hatred consists in the mass apostasy of the Jewish people under the leadership of a Sabbatai Zevi-like figure. This article presents the Milner–Spinoza controversy to the English-speaking public along with the larger context of French-language scholarship on Spinoza’s relation to Judaism. While refuting Milner’s reading of Spinoza, I simultaneously clarify relevant elements of Spinoza’s discussions of Judaism in the TTP, such as Spinoza’s examination of Jewish identity and the nature of divine election, Spinoza’s understanding of the causes of national hatred, and Spinoza’s appeals to Portuguese, Spanish, Chinese, and Turkish political history. (shrink)
It is often put forward that the entire political project of epicureanism consists in the overcoming of fear, whereby its scope is deemed to be very narrow. I argue that the overcoming of the fear of death should actually be linked to a conception of freedom in epicureanism. This idea is further developed by Spinoza, who defines the free man as one who thinks of death least of all in the Ethics, and who develops this idea more in the Theological (...) Political Treatise. (shrink)
These notes contain an annotated edition of the only four extant letters of Burchard de Volder to Philipp van Limborch. In the first letter De Volder provides Van Limborch with some information about the subscription to the Dordrecht Confession of Faith by professors. In the second letter De Volder comments upon Van Limborch’s De veritate religionis Christianae. This letter is interesting as it provides insights into De Volder’s views on religion and theology. The third letter served as a cover letter (...) for De Volder’s sending to Van Limborch a copy of the honestum testimonium on Jacobus Arminius that was requested by Arminius’s widow in 1611. In the fourth letter Volder comments upon the visit that Pieter Burman had paid him. The visit was an episode in the quarrel between Pieter Burman, his brother Frans Burman jr., and Van Limborch, caused by Van Limborch’s remark, in his Theologia Christiana, that Frans Burman sr. had used Spinoza’s words while treating the issue of divine omnipotence in his Synopsis theologiae. (shrink)
Radical Enlightenment – Spinoza’s Demiurgic Role in the Formation of the Idea of Enlightenment? In his monograph devoted to the history of enlightenment, Radical Enlightenment. Philosophy and the Making of Modernity (1650-1750) British historian Jonathan Irvine Israel formulated a new theory of dating, sources, and the nature of this period of history. Israel attributed a major role in the formation of the concepts of enlightenment to the philosophy of Spinoza (1632-1677). The work has caused a series of controversies and criticisms (...) concerning the assessment of facts related to the history of ideas. In this article I refer to interpretations of the role of Spinoza’s philosophy and its early reception between 1663-1678 when it had a direct influence. The political situation in the Netherlands in the period of 1648-1677 (i.e. from the gaining of independence to the death of Spinoza) and the fate of the philosophy of Descartes (since 1650) are two significant factors that played an important role in shaping the initial reception of Spinozism and determined the fate of that philosophy for a long time. (shrink)
In This Paper I Aim to Place Spinoza’s famous injunction in the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, to separate philosophy from theology, in its historical context. I contend that in order to properly understand Spinoza’s views concerning the relationship between philosophy and theology, we must view his work in the context of philosophical discussions taking place during his time and in his country of residence, the Dutch Republic. Of particular relevance is a meta-philosophical thesis advocated by a certain group of Cartesian philosophers and (...) theologians. Their thesis was developed in response to attacks on Cartesianism from more conservative authors, who saw it as a source of impiety. It stated that Cartesian .. (shrink)
Susan James explores the revolutionary political thought of one of the most radical and creative of modern philosophers, Baruch Spinoza. His Theologico-Political Treatise of 1670 defends religious pluralism, political republicanism, and intellectual freedom. James shows how this work played a crucial role in the development of modern society.
Context -- A Jew in Amsterdam -- Conflicts and communities -- Christian philosophy? -- A Bible gallery -- Religion and politics in the TTP -- Miracles, meaning, and moderation -- Christian pluralism -- Ethics reconsidered -- Providence, obedience, and love -- Spinoza and Christianity.
Why was the great philosopher Spinoza expelled from his Portuguese-Jewish community in Amsterdam? Nadler's investigation of this simple question gives fascinating new perspectives on Spinoza's thought and the Jewish religious and philosophical tradition from which it arose.
Spinoza's political writings are not merely a theoretical exercise or a philosophical conclusion of his system. They are part of a very practical political discussion in seventeenth-century Holland. Spinoza was influenced by and played a role in a political movement known as "Radical Cartesianism", which combined ideas from Descartes and Hobbes in order to argue against the reinstatement of a stadholder. This movement provided arguments for religious and philosophical freedom and against monarchy based on a fundamental drive of self-preservation and (...) a particular understanding of the passions. This paper provides a general introduction to Radical Cartesianism by explaining its historical context and discussing two Radical Cartesian voices: Lambertus van Velthuysen and the brothers De la Court. The final section discusses Spinoza's political philosophy as a systemization of their Radical Cartesian ideas. (shrink)
In the first volume of his Spinoza and Other Heretics entitled The Marrano of Reason, Yovel proposes a different cultural context for the study of Spinoza: the Marrano mentalité. Living as crypto?Jews in a Catholic Iberian world, the Marranos developed a certain life?style that had specific religious and literary modes of expression: heterodox tendencies, the use of equivocation, and the zealous search for salvation, which often assumed secular forms. These Marrano traits are, Yovel claims, found in Spinoza as well, who (...) was the son of a Marrano and brought up in the Marrano milieu of the Amsterdam Jewish quarter. In this essay I challenge this interpretation of Spinoza by stressing both the generally orthodox character of Marrano religiosity and the significant differences between Spinoza and the few Marrano heretics by whom he was supposedly influenced. I argue that Spinoza not only rejected Marrano orthodoxy but was already inhabiting an intellectual framework that differed considerably from the marginal deviant Marrano pattern that Yovel focuses upon. (shrink)
This book investigates various aspects of the controversial relations between Spinoza's philosophy and his Jewish background. It examines some important trends of medieval Jewish philosophy on the shaping of Spinoza's thought - particularly the impact of Maimonides. The book elucidates the differences between Spinoza and his predecessors in regard to Bible criticism, and dwells extensively on the concepts of Substance and Pantheism. It also discusses Spinoza's views of Judaism and the Jewish people, the relationship between state and religion, and some (...) problems of his -Hebrew Grammar-.". (shrink)
This ambitious study presents Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677) as the most outstanding and influential thinker of modernity--and examines the question of whether he was the "first secular Jew." A number-one bestseller in Israel, Spinoza and Other Heretics is made up of two volumes--The Marrano of Reason and The Adventures of Immanence offered as a set and also separately. Yirmiyahu Yovel, Professor of Philosophy at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, shows how Spinoza grounded a philosophical revolution in a radically new principle--the philosophy (...) of immanence, or the idea that this world is all there is--and how he thereby anticipated secularization, the Enlightenment, the disintegration of ghetto life, and the rise of natural science and the liberal-democratic state. The Marrano of Reason The Marrano of Reason finds the origins of the idea of immanence in the culture of Spinoza's Marrano ancestors, Jews in Spain and Portugal who had been forcibly converted to Christianity. Yovel uses their fascinating story to show how the crypto-Jewish life they maintained in the face of the Inquisition mixed Judaism and Christianity in ways that undermined both religions and led to rational skepticism and secularism. He identifies Marrano patterns that recur in Spinoza in a secularized context: a "this-worldly" disposition, a split religious identity, an opposition between inner and outer life, a quest for salvation outside official doctrines, and a gift for dual language and equivocation. This same background explains the drama of the young Spinoza's excommunication from the Jewish community in his native Amsterdam. Convention portrays the Amsterdam Jews as narrow-minded and fanatical, but in Yovel's vivid account they emerge as highly civilized former Marranos with cosmopolitan leanings, struggling to renew their Jewish identity and to build a "new Jerusalem" in the Netherlands. (shrink)