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.