Tag Archives: Spinoza

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 works of early political philosophy and, in the case of one, foundational in the arguments for Western secular democracy. 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 (hereafter TTP from the Latin title, Tractatus Theologico-Politicus) 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 clerics 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.

Hobbes published his book openly, even though he advocated for an absolute monarchy and was living through the period of Oliver Cromwell’s Commonwealth of England (1649-60) that had executed Charles I in 1649. Spinoza not only took the precaution of publishing anonymously, but also listed a different city of publication (Hamburg) and cited a fictitious publisher (Henry Künraht). 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 revealed what he truly thought in his private correspondence, which at times was at odds with what was publicly stated in his published writings. For example, in Letter 30 to Henry Oldenburg in 1665 he stated the exact opposite:

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 Spinoza’s friend Adriaan Koerbagh was arrested and tried for blasphemy,[2] 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.[3] 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.’[4] Curley further pointed out that in Letter 30 Spinoza stated he was working on a theological treatise in 1665, with no mention of politics.[5] Given that Leviathan was not translated into a language Spinoza understood until 1667[6] (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, often, reinterpretations of traditional views. From a modern context, it is tempting to think this level of detail was excessive and that their arguments could have been dramatically more concise. A casual glance at Leviathan’s table of contents and the plentiful topical subheadings[7] will give the reader an idea of just how long-winded Hobbes could be and the monotonous detail he went into. The breakdown of their points on this topic is presented in the Theological Arguments section below.

Additionally, they both could have used a decent editor to consolidate arguments that were frequently repeated. 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.

But the world in which Spinoza wanted to make the practical lesson of his philosophy effective was an old world in which rooted institutions and beliefs held sway and truths were embodied in writings which were regarded as sacred. Made of sterner stuff and living a few centuries later, Spinoza would have perhaps demanded the overthrow of the old order with its effete institutions so as to build upon its ruins a new society of a new generation raised on his new philosophy. He would then perhaps have become one of the first apostles of rebellion. But being what he was and living at a time when belief in the potency of reformation had not yet been shaken by doubt, he chose to follow in the footsteps of rationalizers throughout history. The story of his rationalization is the story of his Tractatus Theologico-Politucus.[8]

Spinoza’s thorough analysis 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.[9] While Hobbes made many of the same points, it will be Spinoza’s references that will be the focus here, with the corresponding citation from Leviathan where applicable. The primary reason for the focus on Spinoza is due to his unique background: an excommunicated Jew from a Portuguese immigrant family that fled the forced 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 possess. While the political arguments of Hobbes helped to inform the last chapters of the TTP, Nadler pointed out that Spinoza would have needed no input from his contemporaries in formulating his biblical deconstructions.[10]

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, Spinoza set out to create a wholly new moral philosophy, the first in modern Western history to be based on a humanist ethic and not a theological one.[11] In 1665, Spinoza set aside[12] working on Ethics and its revolutionary humanist approach to write the TTP to clear the way of religious opposition for the public reception of Ethics. However, his plan to prepare the field backfired given the outrage that the TTP generated, and subsequently Ethics was not published until after his death in 1677.

It was in Ethics that he laid out his proof for the existence of God. In Book I: Concerning God, Proposition 11, Spinoza made the claim:

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

Proof. (11:1) If this be denied, conceive, if possible, that God does not exist: then his essence does not involve existence. (2) But this is absurd. (3) 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.[13] Bennett’s assessment is an understandable reaction if Spinoza’s declaration is read as nothing more than the bold assertion for the existence of the traditional understanding of a cosmic deity.

However, Spinoza’s deliberate choice to use the word God has confused people about what he meant for centuries, and it is obvious why this term would lead to exactly the misunderstanding it continues to generate. Perhaps he needed to exercise caution in a heavily theistic society that imprisoned and killed people for denying the existence of a heavenly creator, or perhaps he just wanted to use terminology that people were familiar with to relate his concepts about the creation of the universe. Regardless of his motives for using the word God, when Spinoza’s Proposition 11 is read substituting God/substance with nature[14] as simply asserting that the universe follows the laws of physics,[15] which later science has clearly shown that it does, then his argument does not appear impudent but as profoundly intuitive and ground-breaking. Indeed, 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.’[16]

Motivations

Spinoza’s conception of God was important for the advancement of secularism because his premise that God was just the impersonal force of nature removed from the concerns of humanity[17] was a central premise of his attempt to deprive the religious leaders of his day of their biblical authority. By arguing that God was indistinguishable from nature, and that millennia of Jewish and Christian priests had perverted the ‘true nature’ of religion, 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.

As outlined in chapter two on the Vatican’s accumulation of power and domination in Western Europe, religious authorities repeatedly sought to repress intellectual freedom, and the same was true in Protestant Holland. The specifics of the various political battles and ongoing religious interference from the stern Calvinists of the Dutch Reformed Church are not necessary to this analysis and can be accepted as historical truth; details which Nadler covered in Spinoza: A Life. That Calvinist interference was a danger to stability in the Dutch Republic was central to Spinoza’s premise in the TTP, and why he drew parallels to the Jewish priests and their grasping political power which led to the collapse of the Jewish state. Therefore, the sovereign power should have complete authority in all matters, including religion, in order to ensure peace and end the sectarian divisions.

In formulating his concept for this ideal state, Spinoza made ‘one of the most eloquent arguments’ for secular democracy and why the TTP is essential in understanding the history of dangerous ideas in the evolution of freedom of thought.[18] While many scholars dispute when the Enlightenment properly began, most putting it in the late eighteenth century, Spinoza’s TTP definitively seeded the ground and influenced many of the revolutionary thinkers that came after him. Professor Jonathan Israel, who distinguishes between the radical and moderate arms of the Enlightenment, also credits Spinoza with being foundational to the radical side and its unflinching call for the checking of religious authority in order to ensure democratic freedoms; as opposed to Descartes, Hobbes, and Locke on the moderate side who conceded some measure of validity to religion.[19]

Spinoza decided the best way to make his case for freedom of thought was to amply demonstrate in all the ways the church fathers were wrong, in order to remove their shackles from the minds of the men trying to advance society. Spinoza made the targets of his attention clear, mocking those who would hinder progress for the sake of tradition:

Hence anyone who seeks for the true causes of miracles, and strives to understand natural phenomena as an intelligent being, and not to gaze at them like a fool, is set down and denounced as an impious heretic by those, whom the masses adore as the interpreters of nature and the gods. Such persons know that, with the removal of ignorance, the wonder which forms their only available means for proving and preserving their authority would vanish also.[20]

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 might loathe the exponential growth of atheism that came hand-in-hand with the dwindling wonder of fools, especially as such rigorous secularism was sparked by his own arguments.


[1] TTP Preface, 12. All references to the TTP refer to Spinoza 2016 and 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] Koerbagh also displayed Socinian (see Glossary) tendencies: denying the trinity and divinity of Jesus. Cf. Nadler 1999, 171.

[3] Nadler 1999, 269.

[4] Spinoza 2016, 53-56.

[5] Spinoza 2016, 14.

[6] From Curley’s ‘Spinoza’s Contribution to Biblical Scholarship’ in the forthcoming second edition of The Cambridge Companion to Spinoza by Don Garrett (Ed.). Professor Curley generously emailed me a draft version of his submission for my consideration. See also Nadler 2011, 119.

[7] Lacking a similar paragraph numbering system as in the TTP, or page numbers from the online version, subheadings will be given to guide the reader to the correct citations. The Project Gutenberg file for Leviathan lists all chapter and subheading titles: http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/3207.

[8] Wolfson 1934, 330. See also Hyman 1963, 190. In another age, Spinoza would ‘have ignored Scripture’ altogether.

[9] Spinoza 2016, xv; Nadler 2011, 106.

[10] Nadler 2011, 119.

[11] Goldstein 2018, 585.

[12] Letter 20 to van Blijenbergh in 1665, ‘I also read in that preface that you will shortly publish these Metaphysical Thoughts [Ethics] in an expanded form.’ Letter 30 listed above, also from 1665, indicated he had begun the TTP due to the ‘prejudices of the theologians.’

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

[14] He is clearer in his meaning in 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.’

[15] Rebecca Goldstein used this analogy in our personal conversation (July 2020), which confirmed what I had suspected from piecing together Spinoza’s thoughts across his various writings.

[16] Oppy 2019.

[17] See Chapter 1 for the conception of the impersonal God described by Epicurus and Pliny which Spinoza copied.

[18] Nadler 1999, 283–5.

[19] Israel 2011, 10.

[20] Ethics I, Appendix.

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