Tag Archives: Hobbes

Dangerous Ideas: Hobbes & Spinoza

An excerpt from the draft of the book I am currently writing:

Chapter 5: Hobbes & Spinoza


Two books were published in the second half of the seventeenth century, almost twenty years apart in separate countries, that made nearly identical arguments and utilized a similar structure in presenting their cases. Both books were influential in shaping arguments that led to the later emergence of Western democracy, and due to their remarkable similarities and some fascinating details surrounding their arguments, a dedicated chapter comparing their insights is deserved. Given that these are two lengthy works that tend to be very repetitive in places, and in an attempt not to bore the casual reader with an in-depth analysis, this will necessarily involve an extremely rigorous summary of their main arguments.

In 1651, Thomas Hobbes published Leviathan in England, and in 1669 or 1670, Benedict Spinoza published the Theological-Political Treatise in the Netherlands. As the name of Spinoza’s work implies, the topic of both books dealt with theological issues to make political points; specifically, that church officials should stop interfering in civil matters. Under these two topics, they each made several related points which will be outlined below in a high-level grouping by subject. Both men had other writings, of which mention will be made, but the primary focus here will be on these two works which most advanced the cause for freedom of thought and had a lasting impact.

As with Descartes, both authors got their books on the Vatican’s list of prohibited books for their controversial challenges to Church authority. Protestants in Europe were not very happy with them, either. While Hobbes published his book openly, Spinoza not only took the precaution of publishing anonymously, but also used a fictitious publisher (Henry Künraht) and city (Hamburg) of publication. Spinoza’s caution undermined his claim that Holland was a tolerant place—which by contemporary standards to other European countries, it was—in which to voice criticism:

Since, then, we happen to have that rare good fortune—that we live in a Republic in which everyone is granted complete freedom of judgment, and is permitted to worship God according to his mentality, and in which nothing is thought to be dearer or sweeter than freedom—I believed I would be doing something neither unwelcome, nor useless, if I showed not only that this freedom can be granted without harm to piety and the peace of the Republic, but also that it cannot be abolished unless piety and the Peace of the Republic are abolished with it.[1]

Spinoza also revealed what he truly thought in his private correspondence, which at times stands at odds with what was publicly stated in his published writings. For example, in Letter 30 to Henry Oldenburg in 1665, he stated matter-of-factly:

I am currently working on a treatise giving my views about scripture. I am led to do this by the following considerations:

(1) the prejudices of the theologians; for I know that they are the greatest obstacle to men’s being able to apply their minds to philosophy; so I am busy exposing them and removing them from the minds of the more prudent;

(2) the opinion the common people have of me; they never stop accusing me of atheism, and I have to rebut this accusation as well as I can; and

(3) my desire to defend in every way the freedom of philosophising and saying what we think; the preachers here suppress it as much as they can with their excessive authority and aggressiveness.

Spinoza experts, Professors Nadler and Curley, made similar points about the stealth of Spinoza in regard to the TTP. Nadler wrote that after his friend Adriaan Koerbagh was arrested and tried for blasphemy, then imprisoned and died in jail for his Dutch publication criticizing the status quo, Spinoza was well aware of what could happen to him and took the appropriate precautions.[2] Curley asserted that Spinoza needed to make a judgment call on just how far he could go in certain cases, and often “pulled his punches.”[3] Curley further pointed out from Letter 30 that Spinoza stated he was working on a theological treatise in 1665, with no mention of politics.[4] Given that Leviathan was not translated into a language Spinoza understood until 1667[5] (in Dutch, and Latin by 1668), this suggests that the political arguments of the final chapters of the TTP were likely an afterthought following his exposure to the ideas of Hobbes, and given further motivation by the persecution and death of Koerbagh.

Main Arguments

Both authors spent, roughly, two-thirds of their content on biblical exegesis—textual criticism, deconstruction, and (re?)interpretation. From a modern context, it is tempting to think this is excessive (indeed, it is, in places) and that their arguments could have been dramatically more concise. A casual glance at Leviathan’s table of contents and the huge number of topical subheadings will give the reader an idea of just how prolix Hobbes could be and the monotonous detail he went into. Granted, they both could have used a decent editor to consolidate their repetitive arguments. However, they were writing at a time when religious bodies exercised considerable control and influence over society and government, and, as such, they needed to make strong cases for delegitimizing ecclesiastical authority. Consequently, a disproportionate amount of their writing is aimed at just this task and the breakdown of those arguments is presented in the Theological Arguments section.

Spinoza’s exegesis in the TTP gave rise to the modern discipline of textual criticism, which has continued to uncover new insights in biblical scholarship to the present day; some of those insights confirming and others disproving certain points he made about the authenticity and meaning of many passages and books.[6] While Hobbes made many of the same points, it will be Spinoza’s references that will be the focus here with the occasional corresponding citation from Leviathan. The primary reason for this is because of Spinoza’s unique background: an excommunicated Jew from a Portuguese immigrant family that fled the conversions in Iberia, who was fluent in Hebrew and educated in the Jewish schools of Amsterdam; giving him unique insights and skills Hobbes and other thinkers of their day did not have. While the political arguments of Hobbes informed the last chapters of the TTP, Nadler pointed out that Spinoza would have needed no input from his contemporaries on formulating his biblical deconstructions.[7]

The arguments of both Hobbes and Spinoza can be summarized into subjects covering: Political – state authority, church subordination to the state, and social contract theory; and, Theological – the origins/legitimacy of scripture, critiques of religious authority and their usurpation/abuses of power, and in Spinoza’s case, his conception of God as indistinguishable from nature and not an anthropomorphized being concerned with human dealings.

Ontological Arguments

Before exploring Spinoza’s theological arguments in detail it is first helpful to understand his conception of God, as it forms the foundation of his subsequent points in the TTP. In Ethics, published after his death in 1677, he laid out his “proof” for the existence of God. In Book I: God, Proposition 11, Spinoza makes the claim:

God, or a substance consisting of infinite attributes each of which expresses eternal and infinite essence, necessarily exists.

If God didn’t exist, then God’s essence would not involve existence; and that is absurd. Therefore God necessarily exists.

This is the standard ontological argument, the same used by Descartes shown in the preceding chapter. In a book dedicated to deconstructing Spinoza’s arguments in Ethics, Bennett was very direct in his assessment stating that Spinoza believed this was “sufficient for a proof” and it is a natural reaction for one to “gasp at the impudence;” and overall, asserted that Spinoza was not adept at proper reasoning and used logic only so far as it supported his arguments rather than as a purely philosophical means to an end.[8] Oppy provided a detailed account of the history and types of ontological arguments and the invalid nature of their construction, listing Spinoza’s proof as “Intimations of a defensible mereological ontological argument . . . e.g., the existence of the physical universe.”[9]

Oppy continued:

. . . there is fairly widespread consensus, even amongst theists, that no known ontological arguments for the existence of God are persuasive.

Many other objections to (some) ontological arguments have been proposed. All of the following have been alleged to be the key to the explanation of the failure of (at least some) ontological arguments: (1) existence is not a predicate; (2) the concept of god is meaningless/incoherent/inconsistent; . . . and (7) ontological arguments are question-begging, i.e., presuppose what they set out to prove.

Oppy referred readers to Sobel, who in his book, Logic and Theism, used the mathematical logic and symbolic notation formalized by Bertrand Russell and Alfred North Whitehead in their twentieth-century groundbreaking contribution to philosophy, Principia Mathematica, to deconstruct the logical fallacy contained in Spinoza’s proposition. Russell, on the nature of ontological arguments, stated, “The argument does not, to a modern mind, seem very convincing, but it is easier to feel convinced that it must be fallacious than it is to find out precisely where the fallacy lies.”[10] Interestingly, Sobel commented that Russell never used his own mathematical logic to deconstruct ontological arguments, as Sobel did, to show precisely where the fallacies were.[11]

Russellian notational logic is complex and beyond the scope of this work (and comprehension for most of the general public), and consequently only the conclusion will be noted here. Sobel demonstrated[12] that Spinoza’s Axiom 7 (If a thing can be conceived as not existing then its essence doesn’t involve existence), contains a type of logical fallacy known as an amphiboly—an “ambiguity of speech, especially from uncertainty of the grammatical construction rather than of the meaning of the words.” Spinoza defines this thing as an essence or a substance in his premise, and in his conclusion claims this presupposed substance that exists is God. Sobel pointed out this subtle switch is easy to overlook.[13] Obviously, people are capable of conceiving of something not existing, and Spinoza begs the question by claiming that something cannot be conceived not to exist so it must, therefore, exist. Spinoza’s proof, that God necessarily exists from the antecedent conclusion of Proposition 11, collapses with the falsification of Axiom 7—as do any of his arguments subsequently built upon it. This will not be the only logical fallacy that Spinoza commits.

While Spinoza may have reasoned himself into this conclusion, Russell noted reason is not enough:

The whole of this metaphysic is impossible to accept; it is incompatible with modern logic and with scientific method. Facts have to be discovered by observation, not by reasoning; when we successfully infer the future, we do so by means of principles which are not logically necessary, but are suggested by empirical data. And the concept of substance, upon which Spinoza relies, is one which neither science nor philosophy can nowadays accept.[14]

I think it may be said quite decisively that, as a result of analysis of the concept “existence,” modern logic has proved this argument invalid.[15]


While Spinoza’s proof of God is invalid, his conception of God was important for the advancement of secularism, because his premise that God is an incorporeal prime mover removed from the concerns of humanity was the basis from which he attempted to deprive the religious leaders of his day of their biblical authority. By arguing that God is indistinguishable from nature and that millennia of Jewish and Christian priests have perverted the “true nature” of religion—loving God and practicing loving-kindness and justice for our fellow humans—Spinoza made the case that their self-appointed authority was just as made-up as the flimsy dogmas they had invented in order to subvert and control the populace.

For his views, Spinoza was widely accused of being an atheist simply because his concept of God (which he believed in, just not the personal God of the Abrahamic faiths) was different from the mainstream understanding.[16] Spinoza is most often labelled with the term pantheist, someone who equates, as Spinoza does, God with the laws of the universe (“God or Nature”[17]), and which is closely related to the deism of the American founding fathers. He repeatedly disavowed the atheist slur directed at him, as noted in point two of Letter 30 above, which was one of his motivations for writing the TTP and which did absolutely nothing to dispel this popular notion, but only made matters for him worse. The accusations of atheism levelled at Hobbes and Spinoza, and their replies, will be covered after reviewing their arguments in Leviathan and the Theological-Political Treatise which so inflamed the establishment.

As outlined in chapter two on the Vatican’s accumulation of power and domination in Western Europe, and in his own day with the interference of stern Dutch Reformed Calvinists into non-church spheres of influence, religious authorities repeatedly sought to repress intellectual freedom. Spinoza decided the best way to make his case for freedom of thought was to amply demonstrate in all the ways (he thought) the church fathers were wrong, in order to remove their shackles from the minds of the men advancing science. Spinoza made the targets of his attention clear, mocking those who would hinder progress for the sake of tradition:

So it comes about that someone who seeks the true causes of ‘miracles’ and is eager (like an educated man) to understand natural things, not (like a fool) to wonder at them, is denounced as an impious heretic by those whom the people honour as interpreters of Nature and of the Gods. For the denouncers know that if ignorance is taken away and replaced by real knowledge of mechanical processes, then foolish wonder is also taken away, depriving them of their only means for arguing and defending their authority.[18]

Judging from the rising numbers of non-believers in twenty-first-century, highly secular Western Europe, and the corresponding rapid decline in church attendance, Spinoza was correct that knowledge is the key for attenuating religious authority in the socio-political sphere. Though, he would loathe the lack of reverence for God that came hand-in-hand with the dwindling wonder of fools, especially as such rigorous secularism was sparked, in part, by his own arguments.

[1] TTP Preface, 12. All references to the TTP employ the Bruder paragraph numbering system used by Curley in The Collected Works of Spinoza, Vol. 2. Further, Curley affixes a prime notation to the words knowledge and power, providing them differential meanings from their Latin originals: ‘knowledge…where “science” did not feel right for Scientia…[such as] treating scientia as equivalent to cognitio. (637-8); ‘power…very often (not always) refers to power arising in an institutional context from a person’s (or collective body’s) position in that institution. (649-50).

[2] Nadler 1999, 269.

[3] Curley 2016, 53-56.

[4] Ibid., 14.

[5] From Curley’s “Spinoza’s Contribution to Biblical Scholarship” in the forthcoming second edition of The Cambridge Companion to Spinoza by Don Garrett, editor. Professor Curley generously emailed me a draft version of his contribution for my consideration. See also Nadler 2011, 119.

[6] Curley 2016, xv; Nadler 2011, 106.

[7] Nadler 2011, 119.

[8] Bennett 1984, 72; 75; 28.

[9] Oppy, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

[10] Russell 1945, 349.

[11] Sobel 2004, 58.

[12] Ibid., 50.

[13] Ibid., 53.

[14] Russell 1945, 344.

[15] Ibid., 466.

[16] Cf. Letter 73, “My opinion concerning God and Nature is far different from the one modern Christians usually defend. I maintain that God is the indwelling cause of all things, not the cause from outside.”

[17] Ethics IV, Preface.

[18] Ethics I, Appendix.

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