“Spinoza’s Respublica divina:” in Otfried Höffe (ed.), Baruch de Spinozas Tractatus theologico-politicus (Berlin: Akademie Verlag (Klassiker Aulegen), forthcoming).

In Otfried Höffe (ed.), Baruch de Spinozas Tractatus theologico-politicus. Akademie Verlag (Klassiker Aulegen). pp. 177-192 (2013)

Yitzhak Melamed
Johns Hopkins University
Chapters 17 and 18 of the TTP constitute a textual unit in which Spinoza submits the case of the ancient Hebrew state to close examination. This is not the work of a historian, at least not in any sense that we, twenty-first century readers, would recognize as such. Many of Spinoza’s claims in these chapters are highly speculative, and seem to be poorly backed by historical evidence. Other claims are broad-brush, ahistorical generalizations: for example, in a marginal note, Spinoza refers to his Jewish contemporaries as if they were identical with the ancient Hebrews. Projections from Spinoza’s own experience of his Jewish and Dutch contemporaries are quite common, and the Erastian lesson that Spinoza attempts to draw from his “history” of the ancient Hebrew state is all too conspicuous. Even Spinoza’s philosophical arguments in these two chapters are not uniformly convincing, as I will attempt to show. Yet in spite of all these faults, the two chapters are a masterpiece of their own kind: a case study of the psychological foundations of politics and religion. The work that comes closest in my mind is Freud’s 1939 Der Mann Moses und die monotheistische Religion. The two works are similar not only in terms of their chronological subject matter – the Hebrews of Moses’s time – but also in their attempt to reconstruct the communal psyche of the Hebrews in order to demonstrate their respective social theories about the foundation of civilization. Needless to say, there are numerous differences between the two works, not the least of which are their distinct aims and the very different political contexts in which they were produced. We will return to this comparison with Freud’s Moses and Monotheism toward the end of the essay, but let me first stage the background for our discussion. Chapter 16 of the TTP begins a new section of the book which primarily deals with the relation between religion and the state. In this chapter Spinoza presents an outline of his political theory and his understanding of key notions such as right, power, the state of nature, the social contract, sovereignty, democracy, and justice. The title of chapter 17 announces its aim and focus: “showing that no one can transfer everything to the Supreme Power, and that this is not necessary; on the Hebrew Republic, as it was during the life of Moses, and after his death, before they elected Kings, and on its excellence; and finally, on the causes why the divine Republic [Respublica divina] could perish, and could hardly survive without rebellions” (III/201). The far less ambitious title of eighteenth chapter states that in it “certain Political doctrines are inferred from the Republic and history of the Hebrews” (III/221). Essentially, the two chapters present a surprising, ironic, and penetrating reading of the story of the divine Hebrew Republic, a reading which highlights both how much and how little was achieved by the use of the fantastic political device of attributing divine sanctification to the state and its sovereign.
Keywords Spinoza  Theological Political Treatise  Hebrew Republic  Political Theology  political philosophy  Bible  Kingdom of God
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