Portuguese-Jewish-Dutch philosopher Spinoza

This video says about itself:


4 February 2009

Roundtable discussion with Akeel Bilgrami, Jonathan Israel, Steven Nadler, Joel Whitebook, and Catherine Wilson.

By Derek Wall in Britain:

Critical thinking: On the importance of reading Spinoza

Thursday 26th June 2014

The foundations of free-thinking and modern secular societies were laid down by a fearless Dutch philosopher who used logic to dismantle prejudice, writes DEREK WALL

I must admit that I am somewhat mystified by my favourite philosopher. Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677), a Dutchman and member of the Jewish community excommunicated for unknown transgressions, is increasingly in fashion. However, he is far from readable and easily misunderstood.

I think that for a whole number of reasons his ideas are hugely inspiring especially for those of us on the left and in particular to members of the Green Party like me.

He is notoriously difficult to read and many recent authors who have looked at his work, in my opinion, obscure rather than enlighten.

Today he is seen as a prophet of radical green politics and as the most important philosopher to challenge religion and superstition.

Steven Nadler’s recently published A Book Forged In Hell is a clear and fascinating guide to Spinoza’s most controversial work — the Theological-Political Treatise. The very title of the treatise shouts out dullness and obscurity but as Nadler recounts its effect when it was first published in 1670 was explosive.

It is a materialist guide to religion that shocked the Dutch authorities.

Nadler’s book is a biography of the treatise and very much a page turner, a philosophical and political thriller, which demands to be bought, read and shared.

Spinoza was a political thinker inspired by the Dutch republic and the need to create a real democracy, which put the people — described by him as “the multitude” — in charge.

While he feared that the multitude might be manipulated by an elite, he has been seen as a radical democrat or even an early communist because of his opposition to hierarchy.

In 21st century terms he would have supported the 99 per cent and challenged the elite. He argued that God and nature, in Latin “Deus sive Natura,” were the same.

He was a materialist and felt that it was wrong to see humanity as separate from the rest of nature, or to see reality divided into “spirit” and “matter.”

So his connection to green politics is obvious. If we are part of nature, we should respect nature. Animal welfare has a strong foundation in his thinking because, while we are different from other species, we and they are part of a common substance.

Georgi Plekhanov described Spinoza as “Marx without the beard.” While I think this is a massive over simplification, Engels famously noted that Spinoza’s materialist outlook was consistent with a Marxist philosophy noting: “Old Spinoza was quite right.”

Marx read the Theological-Political Treatise and made detailed notes on it as part of his preparation for his PhD on philosophy.

Warren Montag has produced a very readable Marxist perspective of Spinoza’s ideas in his book Bodies, Masses, Power: Spinoza And His Contemporaries.

Nadler’s book focuses more on Spinoza’s views of religion which I find fascinating.

It’s fair to say that I am so taken with Spinoza’s views on religion that whenever I see a group of Jehovah Witnesses I can hardly contain my urge to proclaim the good news to them.

Whether you class him as an atheist, pantheist or believer in the god of the Bible, there is no doubt that he shook things up quite dramatically.

Spinoza was alarmed that religion in the Dutch republic was used to suppress free thought, with various churches and sects denouncing nonconformists.

Religion for Spinoza was intrinsically political, often used as a means of social control, but it could instead be used to promote mutual love and the common good.

Free thinking was only possible if the social control element of religion — based on empty rituals and irrelevant dogmatism — was exposed and rejected.

The treatise is an examination of the Bible that rejects all elements of superstition because superstition is a means of social control.

It is almost as if he went through the Old Testament with a black marker pen, crossing out anything that he saw as false.

Spinoza rejected Genesis — God was timeless and identical with nature, so the idea of a creation story, where God creates the universe is obviously theologically untenable.

Spinoza rejected the concept of miracles — why would God suspend rules of nature and perform tricks. This was undignified and profoundly irreligious.

Moses could not have written about his own death, so the belief that he wrote the first books of the Old Testament was false argued Spinoza. And on, and on — any suggestion that prophets had special insights or God acted, or appeared like a human being, was also crossed out from Spinoza’s Bible.

He seemed to have run out of energy, or at least marker pens, by the New Testament where considerably less is crossed out, although the various miracles performed by Jesus were of course binned.

Spinoza’s materialist and critical reading of the Bible has been seen as paving the way for a secular society.

He argued that the Bible was not the direct word of God but the work of human authors in a given historical context. If they distorted the true religion in their confusion, it was sacrilege not to throw their words away or reread them in the light of reason.

Nadler’s book shows how Spinoza’s critical reading of the Bible contributed to the creation of free-thinking, secular societies.

He argues that in creating the modern world, which values science and reason, Spinoza’s treatise was a vital text.

From religious tolerance to sexual freedom, Spinoza paved the way by criticising superstition and irrationality founded on the Bible.

Nadler also shows that Spinoza’s book created panic and provoked hatred, even in the relatively tolerant Dutch republic.

The treatise was condemned in the words of Nadler’s book title as A book Forged In Hell.

Spinoza was condemned, in contradictory fashion, as both a Jew and an atheist.

The book was banned and became subject to a trans-European hate campaign. Nonetheless in the longer term, Nadler argues, the treatise changed everything.

Spinoza rejected the label atheist, arguing that religion, politics and science, could be brought together, although personal belief and personal freedom to pursue philosophical enquiry were vital.

For him, once the constructed historical nature of the Bible was understood, the true religion could be pursued.

So what did Spinoza recognise as the true religion, once everything else has been stripped from the Bible? He argued simply that true religion was based on obedience to a simple moral principle of mutual love.

While there are always likely to be intense theological debates, the truth of religion is simple for Spinoza — if it promotes mutual love it is true, if it promotes hatred and repression it is false.

I think this formulation has implications for politics too.

Whatever its origin, politics that promotes human cooperation and trust is right, if it promotes inequality, elite rule and intolerance is wrong.

Spinoza can be criticised in various ways but he is a key inspiration for both socialist and ecological politics and should not be forgotten.

In his day — as Nadler reminds us — he upset people. The Calvinist Synod condemned the treatise as “spawned in Hell by a renegade Jew and the Devil.”

While his writing, inspired by Descartes’s geometric method, is tough and often uninspiring, the effects of his words make Spinoza continually worth re-reading.

Derek Wall is international coordinator of the Green Party of England and Wales.

Philosopher Baruch de Spinoza’s birthday today

This video, in English with Portuguese subtitles, says about itself:

Spinoza – The Apostle of Reason (Espinosa – O Apóstolo Da Razão)

An excellent and quite accurate film on Spinoza. The scenes showing Spinoza reading/writing letters is very accurate. They picked two of the funniest of his letters, especially the one on the existence of male apparitions and ghosts. Those writing to Spinoza were Albert Burgh and Hugo Boxel. I highly recommend that people read Spinoza’s letters. There is some excellent philosophy in his correspondence, and lots of laughs.

By David B. Green in Israel:

This Day in Jewish History / Europe’s first secular Jew is born

Philosopher Baruch de Spinoza was banned by the Jewish community of Amsterdam for his allegedly heretical views on God and religion.

Nov. 24, 2013 | 5:06 AM

November 24, 1632, is the day that philosopher Baruch de Spinoza was born, in the Jewish quarter of Amsterdam. The son of a family that originated in Spain before the Inquisition, and eventually settled in Holland, Spinoza was banned by the Jewish community of Amsterdam for his original and allegedly heretical views on God and religion. Although he never recanted his beliefs, he also did not convert to Christianity, and continued developing his philosophy, producing a number of works that are studied to this day. As such, he has been called Europe’s first secular – or modern – Jew.

Baruch de Spinoza (after his excommunication, he Latinized his name to Benedict de Spinoza) was the second son of Miguel, a Portuguese-born merchant, and his second wife, Hanna Debora de Espinoza, conversos who re-embraced their Judaism on their immigration to Amsterdam.

Baruch received a traditional Jewish education, but his formal studies ended when he was 17 and joined his father’s import business. It is apparently the beginning of Spinoza’s dealings with the world outside Amsterdam’s insular Jewish community that opened him up to free-thinking Christians like Frances Van den Enden, a former Jesuit who saw his own writings proscribed by the Church. Van den Enden taught Spinoza not only Latin, but also apparently exposed him to the rational thought of Descartes and to the concept of democracy.

In 1654, Miguel de Spinoza died, and Baruch began to run the family business, together with his brother Gabriel. Later, encountering debts he could not repay, he turned to the civil authorities (rather than Jewish ones) in Amsterdam to be recognized as an orphan, so as to be freed of responsibility to his father’s creditors. At the same time, he began lowering his annual contributions to the city’s Jewish community, eventually ending them altogether. These events closely corresponded to a lawsuit with his sister, Rebekah, who disputed his inheritance. Baruch won the suit, but later relinquished the family holdings to her, turned over the business to Gabriel, and took up the profession of optics. Around the same time, Spinoza was shaken by a knife attack, by someone who was apparently outraged by his public expressions of unorthodox views.

On July 27, 1656, the Jewish community of Amsterdam – its parnassim, or secular leaders, not its rabbis — issued its herem (ban) on Spinoza, whom it accused of “abominable heresies” and “monstrous acts,” and cursed “by day and … by night… when he lies down and… when he rises up.” It also forbade any other member of the community from having any contact with him.

Oddly, the writ of herem does not in any way specify Spinoza’s heresies or monstrous acts. Despite its harshness, there is evidence that Spinoza was given an opportunity to redeem himself before it was issued, but he refused the demand that he keep his thoughts to himself. Although there is no evidence that the municipal authorities had pressed the Jewish leadership to deal with Spinoza, it is clear that the Jews were a tolerated minority (they had only recently been permitted to settle in Holland) who were expected to remain true to their faith and keep contact with Christians to a minimum. Spinoza was consorting with non-Jews and discussing matters of theology openly with them.

After being banned, Spinoza left Amsterdam, and no longer lived the life of an observant Jew. Yet, he also did not adopt another religion. Although he moved several times, he spent the last years of his life in The Hague, where he pursued the profession of lens-making and devoted the rest of his time to thinking and writing. He died on February 20, 1677, probably from an illness connected to the glass dust he inhaled from his lens-grinding.

To this day, philosophers are still trying to categorize Spinoza’s teachings, to determine, for example, whether he was an atheist, or a theist or a pantheist.

Clearly, he denied the existence of a God who directly involved in history; his God was impersonal, perhaps co-equal with nature. The human soul, apparently, was not immortal. The Scriptures were written by humans, not God or his agent Moses. Since most of Spinoza’s works were published posthumously, there were likely more personal reasons behind his ostracism.

Almost immediately after he died, his writings were shipped to Amsterdam and published. And almost as quickly, they were banned throughout the Netherlands.

Slovenian philosopher Žižek on Syria

This video from England is called National Demonstration No Attack on Syria, Stop the War Coalition, London 31 08 13.

From daily The Guardian in Britain:

Syria is a pseudo-struggle

The ongoing struggle we see is a false one, lacking the kind of radical-emancipatory opposition clearly perceptible in Egypt

Slavoj Žižek

Friday 6 September 2013 13.42 BST

All that was false in the idea and practice of humanitarian interventions exploded in a condensed form apropos Syria. OK, there is a bad dictator who is (allegedly) using poisonous gas against the population of his own state – but who is opposing his regime? It seems that whatever remained of the democratic-secular resistance is now more or less drowned in the mess of fundamentalist Islamist groups supported by Turkey and Saudi Arabia, with a strong presence of al-Qaida in the shadows.

As to Bashar al-Assad, his Syria at least pretended to be a secular state, so no wonder Christian and other minorities now tend to take his side against the Sunni rebels. In short, we are dealing with an obscure conflict, vaguely resembling the Libyan revolt against Colonel Gaddafi – there are no clear political stakes, no signs of a broad emancipatory-democratic coalition, just a complex network of religious and ethnic alliances overdetermined by the influence of superpowers (US and western Europe on the one sideRussia and China on the other). In such conditions, any direct military intervention means political madness with incalculable risks – say, what if radical Islamists take over after Assad’s fall? So will the US repeat their Afghanistan mistake of arming the future al-Qaida and Taliban cadres?

Žižek book review: here.

Laura van Dolron, Dutch comedian

Laura van Dolron is a Dutch comedian. She calls herself a stand-up philosopher. Her last show before her present New Year’s Eve show was about French philosopher and author Jean-Paul Sartre.

This video is about Laura van Dolron’s New Year’s Eve show.

On 19 December 2012, she did a tryout show for her New Year’s Eve show.

It was in a small new theatre: Ins Blau in Leiden.

Laura van Dolron was born in 1976. Then, and earlier, every 31 December, there was a famous New Year’s Eve show by comedian Wim Kan. In the fifties, millions of Dutch people listened to it on the radio. When, in the 1970s, the show went on TV, millions watched. The theme of the show was mainly Dutch and international politics.

Audiences often expect comedians or clowns to be funny all the time, also in their private lives. Often then, there is a discrepancy between what people expect of these entertainers, and how these entertainers really are as human beings. Wim Kan in his everyday life and in his diaries was often somber.

Laura van Dolron said that, for Wim Kan, there was an extremely big discrepancy between what others expected of him, and how he really was. That is not just Wim Kan’s problem; he was an extreme example. Laura said that she herself should be careful not to become alienated from herself too much by conforming to audiences’ expectations.

Now, at the end of 2012, Laura van Dolron asks herself what has changed since 1976. In this show, she has things in common with Wim Kan. She wears white tie clothes similar to him. However, contrary to Wim Kan, she does not want to hide things which she feels bad about from her audience behind jokes.

So, a big part of Laura’s show was about relationships between men and women going wrong. Another difference with Wim Kan, Laura said. As Wim Kan loved his wife for half a century. During World War II, Kan was a prisoner in a Japanese camp. He desperately missed his wife, and wanted her back.

Iris Murdoch letters acquired

This video is called Iris Murdoch on Philosophy and Literature: Section 1.

From Kingston University in England:

Kingston University acquires revealing Iris Murdoch letters

03 September 2012

A collection of letters written by Dame Iris Murdoch, which reveals the depth of her relationship with one of her closest female friends, has been acquired by Kingston University’s Centre for Iris Murdoch Studies. The 250 letters from the 1940s to 1990s were written by Murdoch, the philosopher and distinguished post-war British novelist, to fellow philosopher Professor Philippa Foot. The pair first met in the early 1940s and subsequently had a brief affair in the late 1960s.

The purchase – made possible by a £107,000 Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) grant – represents an important addition to the London university’s Iris Murdoch archive, now thought to be the most extensive in the world. The letters provided a rare insight into Murdoch’s private life and thoughts, director of the Centre for Iris Murdoch Studies Dr Anne Rowe said. “They hold particular human interest because of the intense personal relationship between the two women who first met as undergraduates at Somerville College, Oxford,” she explained. “They went through all the ups and downs of friendship together but they remained very close for six decades and, in the final stages of Murdoch’s illness, Philippa was one of the few people apart from Murdoch’s husband with whom she could be left alone without becoming agitated.”

Murdoch and Foot’s 60-year friendship survived personal upheavals and painful emotional dilemmas. Referring to an earlier estrangement, Murdoch wrote in the late 1950s: ‘‘Losing you, and losing you in that way, was one of the worst things that ever happened to me. I hope very much that we can now recapture something. I have thought of you so much in these years and dreamed painfully of you too. I would entirely wish only to speak to you from the heart.” In 1968, the year in which their relationship became more intimate, Murdoch wrote: “Sometimes I feel I have to invent a language to talk to you in, though my heart is very full of definite things to say. You stir some very deep part of my soul. Be patient with me and don’t be angry with my peculiarities. I love you very much.”

Iris Murdoch published 26 novels between 1954 and 1995 and is recognised internationally as one of the most significant British writers of the 20th Century. The latest purchase would ensure that the letters, which also gave a first-hand insight into the social, political, philosophical and literary zeitgeist in Britain in the mid-to-late 20th Century, would stay in the United Kingdom and be made available to a global community of scholars and researchers and the wider public, Dr Rowe said. “The powerful combination of historical, intellectual, political and personal insight in the letters provides a unique opportunity to encourage members of the public to explore the significance of scholarly archives to British heritage,” she added.

Dutch philosopher says Ayaan Hirsi Ali should not have got the Beauvoir prize

Simone de Beauvoir with headscarf

Translated from the Dutch philosophical review Filosofie Magazine:

De Beauvoir specialist unhappy with prize for Hirsi Ali

Dutch De Beauvoir specialist Karen Vintges is unhappy that Ayaan Hirsi Ali has won the Simone de Beauvoir prize.

‘Simone de Beauvoir is probably noisily turning in her grave right now. It is OK that Hirsi Ali opposes fundamentalism; however, it is not OK that she attacks all of Islam across the board. She helps to create an atmosphere in which seemingly each and every Muslim is dangerous; de Beauvoir definitely would not have wanted to have anything to do with such an atmosphere’, according to Karen Vintges, a philosopher at Amsterdam University.

The prize goes to women who, in the spirit of Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1986) work for women’s rights. …

In a letter to the editors of the French review Nouvelles Questions Féministes, founded in 1981 by Simone de Beauvoir, Karen Vintges explained her objections to awarding this prize to Hirsi Ali. In a short interview, she explains her objections further. ‘The kind of feminism, established in France now, pretends that oppression of women is something still only happening in non-western cultures. Also, Ayaan Hirsi Ali stands for a kind of feminism which sees western [neo-]liberalism as the only way to liberation. For many Muslim women, this kind of views are an obstacle, rather than a help towards emancipation. De Beauvoir would have been very critical about the claims of western [neo-]liberalism of bringing freedom on a world scale. She was allergic to imperialism and colonialism. She was one of the first French intellectuals resisting the French wars in Vietnam and Algeria.’

Apologists for the Algerian war in the 1950s used to say that the war had to be waged as the enemies supposedly were ‘backward Muslims’.

She would have been much more suspicious about the way people in France and other West European countries think about headscarves of Muslim women and girls. Simone de Beauvoir would, on the contrary, have supported an inclusive feminism, giving Muslim feminists a voice from their own culture. These other voices have been around for a long time; however, you hardly hear them in the Dutch press.

Not just on this blog, there is one of various photos of Simone de Beauvoir with headscarf. Proving once again that headscarves often do not have anything to do with professing Islam; let alone with professing ‘fundamentalist’ Islam.

Feminism, imperialism, Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan: here.

Alain Badiou: here. And here.