The year 1656 may not loom large in the annals of Western history, but perhaps it should. For it was in that year, on July 27th to be exact, 350 years ago, that a precocious 24-year-old man was excommunicated from Amsterdam’s Jewish community. It was the fate of Baruch Spinoza to become a revolutionary figure who charted the philosophical and political blueprints which laid the basis for the creation of the modern world. In some sense his thinking was a hundred years, and even two hundred years, ahead of its time, and though Spinoza lived his entire life within the 17th century, much of his thinking remains relevant to us today. It is my intent this morning to try to show how.
Of the more than 280 edicts of excommunication proclaimed by the elders of the Amsterdam Jewish community in the 17th century, the wording of Spinoza’s was by far the most virulent and condemnatory. He was accused of “abominable heresies” and “monstrous deeds.” But what those heresies and deeds were remain unknown. Barring the discovery of some newly found manuscript or letter, the reasons for his excommunication will remain a mystery and no better than a matter of speculation for intellectual historians.
It was sometimes presumed that Spinoza’s excommunication, and the many others proclaimed by the elders of the Amsterdam synagogue, was an example of the sheer authoritarianism and close-mindedness of a backward and benighted community. But this was assuredly far from the truth. The Amsterdam Jewish community was comprised, to great degree, of respectable middle class merchants and businessmen. It was an urbane community whose residents had connections to their Christian neighbors and the wider world. It was by no means a ghetto. For example, Saul Morteira, the chief rabbi of the Amsterdam community, was a graduate of the University of Padua, worked at the Louvre, and was conversant in Latin. Rabbi Manasseh ben Israel, another religious leader of the community, had been a painter, a friend of Rembrandt, who for a while lived in the Jewish sector, and traveled to London to meet Oliver Cromwell to plead for the return of the Jews to England.
While the Jewish community was sophisticated and reasonably well off, it was nevertheless insecure and faced two great challenges: one from without and one from within. It was these challenges that caused the community to employ the threat of excommunication as a tool to ensure that its members lived orderly lives. Though Holland in the 17th century was a haven of tolerance, the Jews who migrated there still understood that they were the guests of their Calvinist hosts. Therefore, the Jewish community had to demonstrate that it was religiously proper, since any deviance from religious propriety threatened the security of the community as a whole. Secondly, the majority of Amsterdam’s Jews were recent immigrants from the Iberian Peninsula. In the 17th century, the Inquisition was still alive and well in Spain and Portugal. During the Inquisition, Jews were forced to leave Spain and Portugal, suffer the pain of death, or convert to Catholicism. Many converted and lived openly as Christians, but secretly continued to engage in Jewish rituals, however attenuated, and sustain an underground Jewish identity. These secret or crypto-Jews were referred to as “marranos,” “conversos” or “New Christians” and they were always in danger of discovery by the Inquisition because of suspicion that they would secretly attempt to convert Christians to Judaism.
By coming to Holland these secret Jews could live their Jewish identities openly and freely, and out of danger. But after generations of living as Christians, their Judaism was very much alloyed with Christian rituals and habits. Their Judaism had been badly corrupted and many aspects of Jewish life forgotten. So, it was the role of the leaders of the community to help restore appropriate and normative forms of Jewish religious observance and they used, again, the power of excommunication to set put the community in order. Miguel d’Espinosa, Baruch Spinoza’s father, was one such marrano who emigrated from Portugal to Holland in 1623.
Most of the bans of excommunication, many for minor infractions, were for brief durations. And with appropriate acts of penance and a contribution to the synagogue, the excommunicants were restored to the community. What differentiated Spinoza’s excommunication was not only its severity, but the fact that having been expelled from the Jewish community of Amsterdam, Spinoza never looked back.
What was especially noteworthy in Spinoza’s case, which goes to the heart of my address this morning, is that having left the Jewish community, Spinoza never converted to Christianity, nor became a member of any religious community at all. He became, rather, a freestanding, independent citizen of the Dutch republic. In this sense, Spinoza became the first modern person in Western history.
Throughout the Middle Ages, every man and woman was inseparably a part of a religious community, and their identity was rooted in that fact. One was either a member of the Christian, Islamic or Jewish communities, and there was no such political animal as a person who stood alone aside of his or her religious community.
If there is anything that is emblematic of modern life, it is the idea of individualism; that we have identities that are ours alone, and that politically we can be individual and free citizens of the nation states in which we live. By choosing to live outside of any religious community, either Jewish or Christian, Spinoza was emblematic of the modern concept of self and citizenship, which today we in the West take for granted.
But there was a second way in which Spinoza represented, indeed ushered in, the modern world. In a time and place in which religion reigned as a pervasive and all-powerful force in the public and private live of men and women, Spinoza articulated a philosophy, and commended a way of life, which was radically secular, and therefore profoundly heretical to the sensibilities, beliefs and values of the people of his time. Indeed, he either had to write his philosophical treatises anonymously, or ensure that they were published only after his death.
What did Spinoza stand for, and what was his philosophical contribution that made him a revolutionary figure in the history of Western thought?
First and foremost, Spinoza, in a way that was totally uncompromising, stood for a life lived based on the power of reason. More than any philosopher before or since, Spinoza advocated for a life based on reason, and it was the rigorous employment of reason which, he believed, was the only way toward establishing our moral freedom and our happiness. When we talk about “freedom” in Spinoza’s thought we have to be careful to understand that he meant by freedom something extremely specific, which can be grasped only by understanding his philosophy as a whole.
Though Spinoza’s thought is sublimely difficult to understand and remains subject to continual debate and interpretation, what I will venture to do is provide the barest outline of his philosophy, in order to provide a glimmer of his contribution to creating the modern world, as I have put it.
Spinoza wrote eleven books, but two of them are pillars in the canon of Western philosophy. His masterpiece is his Ethics, in which he lays out his technical philosophy of reality, that is, his metaphysics. The second goes by the inelegant name of the Theological-Political Treatise, in which he articulates his philosophy of the modern liberal state, and makes a powerful case for religious tolerance and individual freedom of thought and speech.
Let is be said that the Ethics is an exquisitely difficult book. Not only is it written in Latin, it is written in a Latin that is so dry that it ensures that no one could ever write a line of poetry or fiction using that language. It is also written in a style which was not uncommon among philosophers of the period. To write his masterpiece, Spinoza uses a style that is referred to as “the geometrical method.” If one looks at the Ethics, ones sees that it is written in the manner of a geometrical proof, replete with definitions, axioms, propositions, proofs and corollaries. Each proof follows with air-tight logic from the one before it, and Spinoza’s entire treatise holds together as an interlocking logical whole. Indeed, the structure of his Ethics is emblematic and descriptive of his philosophy of reality; that is that reality is comprised of an infinitely large, seamless chain of causes and effects that are logically put together with the absolute flawlessness of mathematical and logical theorems.
In the Ethics, however, Spinoza uses the method and vocabulary of the Medievals to reach totally radical, heretical and thoroughly modern conclusions.
So, for example, it was a mainstay of religious thought, which was appropriated by Spinoza’s earlier contemporary, René Descartes, that reality is comprised of two fundamental and totally separate substances: thought and matter, or we might say spirit and body. Or, in a theological vein, there is God, the Creator, who is totally spirit, and then there is the creation, which is material, and the two are totally different substances. Spinoza at the beginning of the Ethics demonstrates that the existence of two totally different, independent substances is a logical impossibility, and logic demands that there can only be a single substance, not two.
You might be saying “so what?” But the consequences of this seemingly innocuous and technical declaration could not be more far-reaching. Because by demonstrating that reality is made of only a single substance, not two, Spinoza is dispassionately but radically concluding that God and his creation, let’s call it Nature, are one and the same thing. From the Christian and Jewish perspectives this is total heresy. So if you ask Spinoza, what do you call reality, he says you can call it either “God” or “Nature” (Deus sive Natura) and it is exactly the same thing. Spinoza had later been called “a God-intoxicated man” because in the Ethics he continuously refers to God. But if we understand by God, “Nature”, then we can just as well see Spinoza as an atheist.
We usually think of God as infinite, and indeed Nature is infinite, because for Spinoza there is nothing outside of Nature. We think of God as omnipotent, and for Spinoza, Nature is omnipotent, because there is no force greater than Nature. But Spinoza’s God is radically different from the God of Christianity or Judaism. For one thing, Spinoza’s God has a body, that is, the material universe. In conventional religious belief this is heresy because God is understood to be pure spirit. For Spinoza, God, or Nature, is also austerely impersonal, as indeed Nature is impersonal. God does not judge us, reward us, punish us or care about us. As Spinoza says “Those who endeavor to love God cannot hope that God will love them in return.” God is also eternal, not in the common sense of existing forever, but in the more philosophical sense of being atemporal, that is timeless, without time, outside of time. And where did God come from? For Spinoza, God or Nature is the one, stand-alone, independent substance. God, for Spinoza, is self-created, the one and only thing which is not brought into existence by something outside of it, because there is nothing outside of it. God, says Spinoza, is a cause of itself; the Latin phrase is “causa sui.” In short, God or Nature is a single, infinite, interlocking, unitary system logically organized according to — for lack of a better term — what we can call natural laws, which are ultimately knowable by the power of human reason in the way in which the laws of logic or mathematics are known by reason. Divine categories inclusive of God’s will, God’s judgment and love, God’s morality and God’s miraculous abilities and the special creation of the world and man are replaced by Nature, sublimely impersonal, deterministic and austere. In conventional religion, we know God’s intentions by reading scripture. In Spinoza’s philosophy, we get to know God by getting to know the world, and how Nature is structured and operates. When Einstein was asked whether he believed in God, his response was “I believe in the God of Spinoza.” Einstein believed in the God of Spinoza because he believed in a universe that was rationally organized and deterministic — and he added because Spinoza’s God is not concerned with the fate and action of human beings.
This is a point that needs to be emphasized. Characteristic of God or Nature is that while God is totally free, in the sense that there is nothing outside of God or Nature to constrain it, Nature is so constituted and so organized that it is totally deterministic. Within Nature there is no freedom. Everything within Nature is caused and can be rationally explained by antecedent causes and reasons. Other than God or Nature itself, there is nothing, our selves included, that is not brought into being and explainable by antecedent causes. Spinoza’s universe is a billiard ball universe in which the existence, motion and behavior of every object in it is caused by and can be rationally explained by antecedent causes and reasons. And we are no exceptions.
By claiming that we are part of Nature, Spinoza was proclaiming another heresy. In the Christian and Jewish scheme of things, human beings are not merely a part of Nature. We are special and we are unique, because we are created in the divine image and we possess a soul. For Spinoza, this presumption is a sheer illusion. It is a mistake born of ignorance, and the inadequate use of our reason. It is a fantasy. Man, for Spinoza, is a part of Nature and governed by the laws of Nature. As he says “Man is not a special kingdom within a kingdom, but man is part of the kingdom of Nature.” Such a proclamation was, needless to say, far ahead of its time. It is one thing for Darwin to make the claim that man is a totally natural being and nothing but a natural being in the 19th century. It was quite an extraordinary conclusion to draw in the middle of the 17th.
Locating man as a totally natural being lies at the heart of Spinoza’s system. This is because his ultimate aim in the Ethics is to demonstrate how human beings can wrest from Nature, however determinate it is, a modicum of freedom, and in the process of attaining freedom we can achieve happiness. Freedom, for Spinoza, is a prerequisite for happiness, for the person who is enslaved, either politically or emotionally, cannot be happy. To be free for Spinoza is to assert our power. For Spinoza, freedom, power and happiness go together. But to achieve emotional freedom, which is the point of the Ethics we need to have a correct understanding of where we fit in the scheme of things, and we have to have some understanding of the emotions. In Spinoza’s philosophy, in a tradition that goes all the way back to Aristotle, an increase in our knowledge brings an increase in our power. And to increase our power is to increase our pleasure and our happiness.
Book III of The Ethics, is devoted to his theory of the emotions, which is too detailed to explain in summary form. But this much is essential to where Spinoza wants us to go. Spinoza claims that there are two types of knowledge. The first way in which we know things takes the form of images we create in our minds as a result of things that happen to us. Stimuli impinge upon us and we create images in our minds. We are told a story, we are taught a lesson, we see an object such as a tree and we develop the image of a tree in our minds. As a result of these experiences, the mind forms certain images, whatever they may be. The second form of knowledge results from an internal process of mind, which we can identify with the processes of logic and mathematics. When I arrive at the conclusion that 2+2 = 4, the processes by which I use to arrive at that conclusion are not based on stimuli I receive from the outside world. It is a thoroughly interior mental process. Furthermore, and most importantly, the truths of logic and mathematics have a compelling certainty about them that no knowledge or ideas gained in any other way can have. That a squared plus b squared = c squared is an eternal, indisputable truth and gives us certainty in the way in which nothing else can. Knowledge that comes through the senses, Spinoza tells us, is uncertain knowledge; it is befogged and often inaccurate knowledge. Such knowledge that comes through our senses he refers to as “imagination” and results in what he calls “inadequate ideas.” But through the use of reason and reason alone, as we apply reason in mathematics or logic, we gain what Spinoza calls “adequate ideas” which is the higher and totally accurate form of knowledge. That 2+2 = 4, or a triangle has three sides, is a certainty which is absolute and for which there can be no doubt. For Spinoza, Nature, in its deterministic majesty, is immanently so organized. Just look at the laws of physics, for example, wherein the physical universe is explicable in rational and logical principles that grip the mind with their absolute truth.
He gives us an example of what he means by the two types of knowledge. When we look at the sun, he says, according to our senses, we conclude it is a small disk maybe 200 yards away. But we can correct that inadequate idea through an understanding of the laws of physics, which tells us that the sun is a very large object millions of miles away. Reason is the vehicle that corrects our inadequate ideas and replaces them with adequate ideas.
The same kind of lawfulness can be applied to our emotions, for our emotions are natural phenomena as are the motions of the planets and the stars. When it comes to our emotions, we experience both pain and pleasure. We experience pain when we are the passive objects of some stimulus that impinges upon us. Someone is angry at us and we feel hurt. We feel jealous. We lose something we love. Spinoza believes that we suffer the pain of negative emotions, what he calls “passions,” because we do not have an adequate understanding of ourselves. But if we can gain an adequate idea of the causes of our hurt, by gaining a clear and rational understanding of ourselves as to what makes us feel as we do, we can gain some mastery over our emotions; we can move beyond being a victim of our emotions, and achieve a sense of freedom and power. In short, for Spinoza, knowledge, in this case correct self-knowledge, leads to freedom from what he calls “the bondage of the negative emotions.” Spinoza believes that our emotions are determined and as necessary as is any physical object in nature. But by understanding that necessity we act according to our own nature, we identify with our own nature, we are one with the necessity of our nature, and therefore become free. Through correct understanding, we are no longer compelled from the outside, which is the opposite of freedom. But to be self-determined is to be a cause of ourselves, so to speak, and is to achieve freedom. We are free only when we act in accordance with the requirements, the laws, of our own nature
Some people, not incorrectly, have seen Spinoza as a very early precursor to Freud. For it is the assumption of Freud’s psychoanalysis that knowledge into the causes of what makes us who we are, and why we suffer as we do, is the vehicle toward liberation from our psychic pain, from our negative emotions.
But Spinoza takes his concept of freedom and happiness one grand step beyond this notion of psychological freedom. Remember that God is Nature and, since we are part of Nature, we are also in some sense part of God also. (Needless to say this was also a great monumental heresy). In that sense, when we gain correct knowledge of ourselves, as natural beings whose make-up is lawful and as necessary as the stars, the planets and everything of which the universe is comprised, to that extent we get to know God also. We gain a correct understanding of where we stand in the deterministic order of nature. For Spinoza adequate ideas and correct knowledge are a source of joy. The highest good for Spinoza, the greatest happiness is what Spinoza refers to as the “intellectual love of God.” For Spinoza when we can gain an intuitive grasp of the order of Nature and our place in it, and gain a sense of the universe as a grand, timeless, unified system, accessible in its basic outlines to our reason, we have achieved the highest form of happiness. His final, glorious vision is like that of the poetically-inspired physicist who upon unlocking the mysteries of Nature is enraptured and awed by the grandeur and order of the Universe. It is then that we contemplate reality, not with a focus on immediate preoccupations, nor on particulars, but we look upon reality from the very long view. We see the universe, as Spinoza puts it “sub specie aeternitatis” from the standpoint of eternity — that is, in its necessary, harmonious, timeless grandeur. We grasp the big picture. The end of life, Spinoza proclaimed, is the realization of human freedom through knowing where we fit in the chain of causal necessity, and how the reality we encounter could not be different from what it is. By studying the laws of Nature, we in a sense, get to know the mind of God, because God Himself is identified with the rational, deterministic, indwelling structure of Nature. And when we possess this knowledge in a flash of intuitive insight, we have achieved a type of this-worldly beatitude.
Clearly not everyone can achieve this rarified insight. For as Spinoza tells us at the end of the Ethics, “All things excellent are as difficult as they are rare.” But if people cannot achieve this grand appreciation of Nature, Spinoza’s philosophy lets us know that it is because of ignorance, and not because human beings are tainted with sin or are in any sense evil. For difficult as it is, this type of mastery through knowledge and self-knowledge is possible for us within the human condition.
Spinoza’s technical philosophy as laid out in the Ethics becomes the basis for his political philosophy, and here, too he was far ahead of his times. If happiness built upon freedom is the ultimate end of human life, then the political state must be one that enables people to live in freedom in order to seek their happiness.
The century that Spinoza lived in was one that occurred at a time when Europe drenched itself in the blood of the wars of religion. And in Spinoza’s day, religion continued to have tremendous influence over the political lives of people. His Theological-Political Treatise was devoted to decoupling religion from the state, so that the state could be organized in the most rational and practical way, in a way that maintained both security and freedom. In other words, he advocated for a secular state, divorced from religious influence
His strategy to render the state free of religious influence was nothing less than extraordinary. It was to demonstrate that the basis of religious authority, that is the Bible, both Jewish and Christian, is riddled with contradictions, is not founded on reasonable premises, and is a pile of superstitions, not worthy of our belief. He potently argues that the prophets of the Old and New Testaments did not make their religious pronouncements based on reason, but rather were ignorant men who had vivid imaginations and a strong moral sense and spoke to primitive folk in a language that they understood so as to manipulate them into obedience in the service of doing good. As philosophers, Spinoza believed, we understand this function of the ancient prophets, and do not regard their writings as making any claim to literal truth. It should be noted that Spinoza was the world’s first biblical critic, whose detailed critique of the Bible came two hundred years before the emergence of modern biblical criticism that took off in the early 19th century in Germany.
The state has to be based on premises other than religion. The state, according to Spinoza, needs to provide order and security first of all. If the state is repressive, if it attempts to prevent people from believing as they will, the state will only invite rebellion and disorder. Therefore, a rationally governed state will be a tolerant state. It will be one in which, as Spinoza said, “every man will think what he likes, and say what he thinks.” Spinoza believed in democracy, but it was a democracy that would not meet our contemporary standards. He believed that a democracy in which there were property qualifications was the best in terms of not interfering with individual freedom. He believed that universities should be free of government control, and that there should be no established religions, but that churches should be supported by their own believers. He was a very early proponent of the separation of church and state. It was the condition of tolerance, which maximized freedom, a condition in which Spinoza believed people could most pursue their happiness, which for him were the ends of life. And it was the function of the state to provide for these conditions.
What was Spinoza’s legacy, and in what way is her relevant to us today? In a certain sense, Spinoza did not have any formal disciples. His philosophy, especially as elaborated in The Ethics, was too hot to handle, too radical. In intellectual circles, to be called a “Spinozist” was to be branded an atheist, and all the evil that that implied. But, in another sense, as the title of my address implies, Spinoza laid the groundwork for the creation of the modern world in which we live. In his philosophy one can see the emergence of individualism, of secularism, of free thought, of political tolerance, of the separation of church and state, of the idea that man is naturally fitted with sufficient resources to govern his life without benefit of supernatural support or intervention. And most of all, we see in Spinoza the significance of the scientific paradigm and the importance of reason. All these values are the pillars of modernity that we enjoy, and Spinoza was a forerunner of them all.
Spinoza, who lived in the 17th century, was clearly an early architect of the European Enlightenment that gave birth to the idea of modern democracy. In 1683, six years after Spinoza’s death, when circumstances in England became too treacherous, the philosopher John Locke moved to Amsterdam, where he lived for five years before he began to publish. There is no doubt that while in Amsterdam, Locke conversed with people who knew Spinoza personally and his ideas, including his political thought. It was John Locke, who, of course, was the major influence on Thomas Jefferson and the creation of American democracy.
In a broader sense, Spinoza was an apostle of the liberation of human beings from the shackles of ignorance, superstition, and the political forces that suppress the free mind. And it is in these commitments that I believe he makes his most relevant contribution to our times.
We live in age that is characterized by an extraordinary outpouring of unreason. The continuing power of religious ideas, which are counter-rational, and their influence on our political culture, 350 years after the time of Spinoza, would no doubt be baffling to him, if he were to return. It is baffling to many of us also.
If nothing else, Spinoza remains a powerful icon to the importance of reason in our personal and public lives. We who are naturalists, humanists, and freethinkers are Spinoza’s intellectual children. We need sources of inspiration. We need our heroes. In Spinoza’s thought we can find the inspiration to carry on the project of the Enlightenment, a project that is severely challenged at this moment and in which the values that we most cherish hang in the balance.
Dr. Joseph Chuman’s platform address of Sunday 26 November 2006