Or how life feeds a philosopher’s mind (and our own) and vice versa
2. A weapon of war against theology
Spinoza was able to hold out thanks to his firm beliefs, but also his new-found entourage of scholars, doctors, savant merchants, of whom there were many in Holland at the time. They belonged primarily to a liberal protestant group of churchless Christians known as the Collegiants, for whom Spinoza wrote his Short Treatise.
Among his correspondents was Henry Oldenburg, first secretary of the Royal Society of London who took the initiative of paying Spinoza a visit at a time when he had cautiously fled Amsterdam. In 1662, Oldenburg wrote:
“I strongly advise you not to grudge scholars what you have learnedly arrived at — in philosophy and in theology — through the acuteness of your understanding. Let it be published, whatever rumblings there may be among the foolish theologians. Your Republic is very free, and gives great freedom for philosophising. And your own prudence will tell you to express your concepts and opinions as moderately as possible. For the rest, leave the outcome to fate. Come, then, excellent sir, banish all fear of arousing the pygmies of our time. We have appeased ignorant triflers for long enough. Let us set full sail for true knowledge, and penetrate Nature’s mysteries more deeply than anyone yet has.”
The excerpt is very telling of Spinoza’s notoriety and the expectations people had of him leading up to his first publications. He was able to exchange with scholars across the borders thanks to his knowledge of Latin, learned after the age of twenty in classes delivered by a defrocked Jesuit by the name of Franciscus can den Enden. At the same time, he began writing the Ethics and the TTP. It is known, however, that Spinoza shelved the Ethics in the fall of 1665 to fully devote his time and efforts to the TTP.
His change of course had several motives. Eager to read the first books of the Ethics, Oldenburg, who found out presumably from a since-lost letter that Spinoza had ceased writing the works, took the news with a certain sarcastic surprise:
“I see that you are not so much philosophising as (to coin a word) theologising — recording your thoughts about angels, prophecy and miracles. But perhaps you are doing this philosophically.”
Spinoza’s correspondence make it apparent that he saw an urgency to denounce the status of Holy word vulgarly attributed to biblical texts, and shine a light on the detrimental effects religious powers’ ability to meddle in government affairs was having on society.
The 20 chapter text of the TTP is an exegesis foretelling of 20th century hermeneutics through the development of a “scriptura sola” reading method in which the truth of a work is assessed without recourse to any source besides the work itself. In it, Spinoza also plays historian, ethnologist and linguist to underline the insoluble contradictions of the Bible as a sacred text, and most of all to substantiate that its principle aim is social obedience, as the theological discourse ensures the devotion and subservience of the masses.
Containing essays demonstrating that the freedom to philosophize can not only be granted without injury to piety and the peace of the Commonwealth, but that the peace of the Commonwealth and piety are endangered by the suppression of this freedom.”
The theologian Thomasius called it a Godless book, Reignier Mansveld a dangerous works for all religions that should be buried for all of eternity, Willem von Blienburgh, a correspondent of Spinoza’s, described it as a “book full of abominations, forged in hell.” Harsh criticism and massive scandal led to its ban one year prior to that of Hobbes’ Levianthan. Hobbes admiratively said of Spinoza: “This author outthrew me by a barre’s length for I durst not write so boldly.”
Spinoza’s preface to the TTP:
“Men would never be superstitious, if they could govern all their circumstances by set rules, or if they were always favoured by fortune: but being frequently driven into straits where rules are useless, and being often kept fluctuating pitiably between hope and fear by the uncertainty of fortune’s greedily coveted favours, they are consequently, for the most part, very prone to credulity. (2) The human mind is readily swayed this way or that in times of doubt, especially when hope and fear are struggling for the mastery, though usually it is boastful, over — confident, and vain. (…) The mob has no ruler more potent than superstition.”
If public freedom and the freedom of expression needed to be defended, it was because they were under a dual threat: was the freedom to philosophise damaging to piety? The discussion goes on through the first 15 chapters. Was the freedom to philosophise undermining state security? Such is the topic of the last five, even it the theses inevitably intermingle. The answer to both is no.
His conclusions are both radical and straight-to-the-point, refuting a number of established axioms.
Firstly, the prophets: who made affirmations yet gave no proof: the boundaries of their words merely serve as inspiration to live better lives. Incidentally, they were no longer around when Spinoza was writing. He poked fun, saying they were replaced by beings whose imagination often raised wholesome indignation. There was nothing Sacred about their words, despite their being educational, useful and unifying at times.
Miracles? A notion of our misinformed and misled minds. Either a miracle can be scientifically explained and is not a miracle, or it doesn’t exist:
“I have taken miracles and ignorance as equivalent terms, because those, who endeavour to establish God’s existence and the truth of religion by means of miracles, seek to prove the obscure by what is more obscure and completely unknown.”
Regarding the election of the Jews, Spinoza attempted to show that they shouldn’t boast about being God’s chosen ones. He saw their pseudo-election as no more than a political will to ensure stronger bonds amongst the members of a landless community.
“With respect to intellect and virtue, God, as we have said and shown by reason itself, is equally well-disposed to all.”
As for what is known as the Sacred or Holy Scripture, Spinoza asserts that
“The sacred books were not written by one man, nor for the people of a single period, but by many authors of different temperaments, at times extending from first to last over nearly two thousand years, and perhaps much longer.”
The Bible is thus not the fruit of Divine words.
“Who does not see that both Testaments are nothing else but schools for this object, and have neither of them any aim beyond inspiring mankind with a voluntary obedience?”
The final five chapters outline Spinoza’s political philosophy, akin to that of Hobbes. Spinoza set out to demonstrate that the freedom to philosophise (freedom of thought and expression) would do no harm to a good government, au contraire. For this purpose, as he stated, we must “examine the foundations of a state, first turning our attention to the natural rights of individuals.”
What Spinoza intends by Natural Rights is nothing more than the rules of nature over each individual, through which each thing is perceived as being naturally conditioned to exist and act in a given way.
“For it is certain that nature, taken in the abstract, has sovereign right to do anything, she can; in other words, her right is co- extensive with her power. The power of nature is the power of God, which has sovereign right over all things.”
This notion foreshadows the famous “DEUS sive natura” developed by Spinoza in his Ethics.
“And, inasmuch as the power of nature is simply the aggregate of the powers of all her individual components, it follows that every individual has the sovereign right to do all that he can; in other words, the rights of an individual extend to the utmost limits of his power as it has been conditioned. Now it is the sovereign law and right of nature that each individual should endeavour to preserve itself as it is, without regard to anything but itself; therefore this sovereign law and right belongs to every individual, namely, to exist and act according to its natural conditions.”
Based on the analysis of nature, these observations (the strength to preserve the “conatus” in one’s being, a concept developed in the Ethics) could be used as a basis to set out the specifics of a good government: a good government couldn’t possibly deny the irresistible need for all Nature’s elements — mankind included — to preserve their inner being and themselves (including the freedom of thought and expression). Any pact among men failing to take that reality into account would be “foolishness.”
“The ultimate aim of government is not to rule, or restrain, by fear, nor to exact obedience, but contrariwise, to free every man from fear, that he may live in all possible security; in other words, to strengthen his natural right to exist and work — without injury to himself or others.
No, the object of government is not to change men from rational beings into beasts or puppets, but to enable them to develop their minds and bodies in security, and to employ their reason unshackled; neither showing hatred, anger, or deceit, nor watched with the eyes of jealousy and injustice. In fact, the true aim of government is liberty.”
In the last section, Spinoza calls into question the supremacy of mankind over nature’s other kingdoms. This, today, is why he is seen as the thinker to have expanded our ethical circle:
“What will the common people not arrogate to themselves in their foolishness! They have no sound conception of either God or nature and, confusing God’s decrees with human decisions, consider nature to be so limited that they believe men are its most important part.”
We can see why his fivefold refutation of common beliefs (election of the Jews, epistemological status of so-called Sacred Scripture, prophets exhibited as men with healthy imaginations, miracles placed on the same footing as our ignorance of the laws of nature, and calling into question the superiority of mankind in creation), still today a sensitive issue for some, sparked the outrage it did.
Spinoza 2/3 To be continued