Spinoza, Part I (English)

“It is a general observation that people write as they read. As a rule, careful writers are careful readers and vice versa. A careful writer wants to be read carefully. He cannot know what it means to be read carefully but by having done careful reading himself. Reading precedes writing. We read before we write. We learn to write by reading.”

Leo Strauss, How to study Spinoza’s Theologico-Political Treatise (1948)

Since the ongoing debate about the influence of Islam on the fabric of modern Western societies has become more and more urgent, there is also a good deal of talk about the European heritage of Enlightenment and how it has shaped a generalized critical view on the role of religion. Here it seems the idea itself is considered as a given fact, although concrete knowledge and expertise about the history of this particular topic is very limited. This little text will try to give a short summary how the critique of religion on European soil in terms of scientific methodology began, first systematically developed by the Dutch philosopher Baruch (or sometimes Latinised Benedictus) De Spinoza, who lived from 1632 to 1677. Inside the history of philosophy Spinoza is one of the most important thinkers of all time. His influence on modern thought cannot be overestimated, although the content of his work is rarely known and what is actually known are slogans like “One substance for all attributes” or “God is causa sui” which out of context make little sense to contemporary readers. The purpose of this text is to share a glimpse how and why Spinoza came to be the first critic of religion in European history who did this on the basis of natural science in a systematic way. But before I focus on this, I want to give a brief summary of his life and the society in which he appeared to support the understanding of his thoughts.

Spinoza was born 1632 in Amsterdam, the commercial and cultural centre of the seven Provinces which formed the Dutch Kingdom. Holland, as we call it today, was a very unstable country in an even more unstable European landscape and Spinoza’s birth happened in the middle of the so called 30 Years war which ended not before 1648 by the treaties of the Peace of Westfalia.  Although this sectarian mass murder destructed half of Europe it was a catastrophe of extreme magnitude for Germany, killing a third of its population and leaving another third severely wounded and psychologically destroyed. But while in the centre of Europe Catholics and Protestants massacred each other in high proportions the Dutch Kingdom and its rivals the kingdoms of France, Britain, Portugal and Spain conquered islands and peninsulas in faraway lands, established colonial empires and created a new world. In 1602 the Dutch East India Company was found to become the first global corporation, for centuries only rivalled by the British East India Company, which came into being at the exact same time. The American Marxist historian Immanuel Wallerstein wrote extensively about the origins and the circumstances of the Dutch East India Company in the second volume of his opus magnum “The modern world system”, published in 1980. By the midterm of the 17th century the Dutch East India Company was a mighty political force of its own, involved in constant political struggle with the Oranian rulers and noblemen of Holland and their conservative popular basis. The interests of the Amsterdam trader’s association collided with the succession struggles (and wars) for the Oranian leadership and led to the formation of a political party, which promoted a general European peace and the establishment of a political rule of reason as it was formulated by Enlightenment philosophers, like Pico della Mirandola, who wrote his famous work “On Human Dignity” around 1500. Another influential thinker, who is not so often mentioned as a source of Enlightenment is Niccolo Machiavelli who – a century before Spinoza – first defined politics as the craftsmanship to use power properly and concluded that hence politics is only interested in the preservation and extension of power. The venture capital driven economy of the Dutch trade empire triggered inevitably a powerful elite, which wanted to create a new prolific society based on capitalist entrepreneurship and the extension of global markets. This “liberal” approach of the party which called itself the “the ones dedicated to the state” included early conceptions of free speech, religious freedom, the imagination of a secular division of power and the emphasis on science and reason as the guiding principles of political leadership. The 1672 murdered Dutch politician Jan de Witt, a great leader and merchant was an example of such a politician who led the Amsterdam province during its rise to world power.

The decade long crisis of war and instability caused by the 30 years of massacres created a lot of migration and the Dutch Kingdom welcomed migrants from all over Europe, using manpower and craftsmanship of many nationalities to build the best ships on the planet, which could reach the most distant islands in the South Pacific and much more important return from there in one piece. Holding the monopoly for the trade with the nutmeg, the geographical location of the island, where the Dutch produced nutmeg for the world market was a long hidden state secret, for which the Amsterdam traders association and the Oranian princes alike were willing to go to war. As far as military matters are concerned the rivals on land like France and Spain or Austria had always bigger and better equipped armies, but the Dutch fleet was among the best commercial and military assets the Oranian princes alongside the Dutch East India Company could command in order to lead their wars and performing their political game plans.

While this all happened Spinoza grew up in Amsterdam as part of the Jewish community which contained home grown families as well as migrants from all parts of Europe, but in this particular time most Jewish immigrants came from Spain and Portugal. They were called Marranos. There are two particular books which deal explicitly with the Marrano origins of Spinoza, I want to recommend for further reading. The first is “Betraying Spinoza” (2009) by Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, a wonderful philosophical monography about Spinoza and his times, which provides a lot of research about the Jewish community of Amsterdam. The second one is “Spinoza And Other Heretics” (1992), a brilliant two volume work of scholarship by the Israeli historian of philosophy Yirmiyahu Yovel, who deals with the influence of Marrano immigration on the Amsterdam community and how Spinoza who was accompanied by other heretics like himself took their heritage to create a powerful philosophical system, which became a milestone of Enlightenment and is still after 340 years a challenging and modern intellectual achievement. I will use both of these scholars knowledge to paint a picture which will lead us forward, without explicitly referencing their texts. All failures in accurately reporting their research are only mine.

The Jews who came from Portugal and Spain to Amsterdam in the 16th and 17th century were not at all Jews in a strict sense any more. Since the reconquista  influenced and directed by the Catholic Church, the Spanish and the Portuguese Crown enforced all Jews on the Iberian Peninsula either to convert or to leave. Some left, many stayed and converted. In the following century Jews found a way to be Christians on the outside but to preserve at least parts of Jewish life in private, always under dangerous and fearful circumstances. The conversos as they were called lived under constant suspicion by the religious authorities. The Spanish Inquisition was in reality a group of various institutional bodies which regulated different aspects of religious dogma. What we call “Spanish Inquisition” today was built from the late 15th century on and transformed into a vast intelligence organisation network with political ambitions of its own, using all kinds of informants, spies and emissaries all over Europe and the colonies. Its power and means have been singular in European history and nowhere else came any institution called Inquisition ever close to its Spanish equivalent. The grade of persecution the inquisition unfolded over the suspicious converted Jews depended on political conjunctures and was sometimes low and almost invisible but most of the time a totalitarian, ruthless and brutal enterprise which reigned with gruesome punishments and a wide network of surveillance.  Every once in a while a Spanish or Portuguese converso was disguised as still practising “Jewish rituals”, meaning prayer and reciting the Talmud and publicly tortured and murdered. A lot of the conversos who fled the persecution to Holland were descendants of Jews who converted generations ago and many of them had a very limited knowledge of the Jewish law and knew nearly nothing about daily religious obligations. It was a major challenge for the Amsterdam Jewish community to integrate these migrants from Portugal and Spain and ensure their return to a normal life under the obligations of the Halacha. Some of them enjoyed their new freedom in a relative tolerant Dutch society, engaging in debate and discussion with the intellectual elites of Amsterdam under the reign of Jan de Witt and it was this particular friendship the Jewish leadership was always concerned about. There were serious considerations among them that being perceived as affiliated to one certain political party and thereby maybe alienating their rivals, the conservative elites of the Oranian noblemen, was dangerous and unreasonable. And they were absolutely right. The conservative popular basis of the Oranian noblemen, the churches and other conservative political alliances did not support the enlightened spirit of Amsterdams ruling merchant class. Although Holland did tolerate the Jewish communities like no other European power, Dutch politics did not tolerate heretic views, which could create social unrest or could possibly offend other religious authorities like the several Protestant churches of the Dutch provinces. In order to demonstrate its compliance with the political order the Jewish authorities banned once in a while people with heretic views. A ban, a cherem in Hebrew, meant the exclusion of a member from all community activities and an interdiction for all members to interact with the banned individual. The threat of being an outcast did its work and held most heretic views under control. Such bans could range from a few days to many years, but in most cases the culprit was eventually pardoned under the condition not to fail again, sometimes this included humiliating and painful punishments. Two names which are often mentioned in this regard are Uriel da Costa, a man who taught Spinoza as a child his first lessons in Talmudic Hebrew and the physician Juan De Prado. Both were heretics because both doubted the immortality of the soul, were highly unfavourable of the obligations of the Jewish law and did question the Jewish authorities on several occasions publicly. Da Costa was banned and pardoned several times during his lifetime, but after his last revision, where he was submitted to humiliating punishments he shot himself. Spinoza was eight, when this happened. Juan de Prado, an educated man and established physician in Amsterdam was banned in 1658 and after the Jewish authorities rejected his appeal to get pardoned he never entered the Jewish faith again until his death. Most Marranos nevertheless were not heretics and remembered their persecution in Spain and Portugal all too well. The Jewish immigrants were good merchants, had contacts and expertise in financial transactions throughout the continent and established themselves very quickly in the business communities of the Dutch East India Company. But they lived also in Holland under a constant fear of being targeted again and remained very discrete, promoted conservative religious views and by no means did they engage in political debates. Until his early twenties, when his father died, Spinoza lived the life of an upcoming Talmud student who was expected to continue the rabbinical tradition, but things went a completely different path, mostly because Spinoza had unlike his father no special talent for trade and being a merchant. He was not interested in being a business man and did not aspire wealth. He was all in all a very modest and humble man, spoke with great passion but was always polite and listened attentively. His views which he had to hide from his father’s ear came out with strong argument and considerate knowledge of the Scriptures which he had thoroughly learned while being a Talmud student.

Attracted by the new and challenging ideas of some Marrano thinkers Spinoza did question in public the fundamental basics of his faith and of religion in general. He had such ideas long before but kept them to himself until his father passed away, who was one these conservative Marranos looking frightened and wary to the state of affairs in a for Jews hostile environment. When Spinoza was introduced into the circles of intellectuals which appear under the reign of Jan de Witt, he and other Marranos were questioned by the Jewish authorities who had to rely on sometimes obscure ear witnesses. In the case of Spinoza the rabbinic leadership was very patient for a long time and offered him even a lifelong pension for his silence on delicate matters, but he of course refused and was banned in 1556 by the Jewish authorities with an exceptionally sharp verdict. Spinoza’s cherem charged him with „abominable heresies“ and complained that he was not compliant in order to „reform him from his evil ways“. The punishment was immediate exclusion from the Amsterdam community and a threat of exclusion for everyone else in any case of contact and communication with him. To this day it is not exactly clear what the „abominable heresies“ were the Jewish authorities banned him for. Spinoza had not written anything until 1556, so it must have been conversations with other heretics that alarmed the Jewish leadership. The only available contemporary source is the report of a spy who served for the Spanish inquisition as an informant about the actions and ideas of the Marranos. Although the Spanish Inquisition had no political power in Amsterdam, its spies monitored Jews, Christian heretics and opponents of its rule all over Europe. In this document, written for the authorities of the Spanish inquisition, Spinoza’s excommunication was reported due to the constant display of heresy and even atheism which included doubts about the immortality of the soul, his disregard for Jewish law as a spiritual guide for life and the idea that god only exists “philosophically”, which allows a wide range of interpretations, but all three of these charges are without a doubt true and will appear in the works of Spinoza one way or the other. But I will discuss this a little later. After his ban Spinoza moved to another city and lived the rest of his life as an outcast of the Jewish community but as a much appreciated guest of the Amsterdam and The Hague elites which supported him financially to enable him to write and to study. To this day the cherem has never been lifted and Spinoza was never rehabilitated by the Jewish orthodoxy. Even David Ben Gurion the first prime minister of Israel who made such a proposal to the religious community was rejected. Although his friends and enemies advised him to convert to Christianity Spinoza refused and remained distant from any organised religious creed. Throughout the last three centuries many commentators asked: Is Spinoza a Jew or not? There is absolutely no doubt that also after his cherem he was considered and spoken of as a Jew by friends and foes, but this only highlights the traditional anti-Semitism. The problem is complicated because Spinoza himself did not feel to be Jewish in terms of religion, but on the other hand he represents and lived something we can call the Jewish experience. This question, is Spinoza a Jew or not, appears throughout philosophical history and is answered very differently by various personalities from various centuries. In “Betraying Spinoza” Newberger Goldstein discusses in large parts what in the work of Spinoza is actually present to qualify him as a “Jewish” philosopher and why the Jewish experience was the main source of his thinking. I personally can’t contribute to this question, so I leave it to the readers to offer opinions. I can only offer some facts. Spinoza was an educated reader of Hebrew, taught in the scholarship of Rabbinic Talmud tradition, but never wrote a single text in this language. All books Spinoza wrote were published in Latin. He spoke to a mostly intellectual Christian audience and used the language of scholastic theology, which on the other hand itself borrowed a lot of ideas from Hebrew sources and Talmudic thinking inspired by authors like Maimonides. Spinozas great gift was to combine the intellectual depth of Jewish and Christian theology while rejecting both creeds (and any other) as representations of absolute truths at the same time. The famous German philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz one of the greatest mathematicians and scientists who ever lived admired Spinoza and when he met him personally he copied some parts of Spinoza’s drafts of the “Ethics” during a visit in Holland. I will discuss mostly the “Tractatus Theologico Politicus” (from now on TTP) to describe Spinozas critique of religion, but before I start I want to make some remarks, why these books are hard to read, although their main ideas are very clear and accessible to anyone who is interested. Spinoza was an unbelievable well organised writer, reader and thinker. He did extensive studies and research and had a sophisticated system of structured notes to work his argument by strict logical constraints. His “Ethics” is very hard to grasp without commentary or a larger expertise, but properly understood it represents a convincing logical network of arguments, cross referencing its conclusions over five books, demonstrating an immense craftsmanship regarding logic, consistency and an unrivalled systematic textual structure. As a contemporary of Newton, Leibniz and Descartes and several other intellectual giants of his time he knew a lot about geometry and observed methods and progress of mathematical calculation. He was interested in astronomy, read about the empirical research of Galileo and studied optics by being a professional cutter of lenses which were used for scientific instruments like telescopes. Science as a principle of perceiving the world in general meant everything to him. His TTP is first and foremost a critique of religion in (contemporary) scientific terms, later in the “Ethics” he introduces the first fully developed scientific philosophy or philosophy of science.  Spinoza to make it short stands on the turning point in European history where all metaphysics have to submit to regular physics in its most basic arguments. The most confusing detail for today’s readers is that Spinoza speaks nevertheless of God all the time and comes not even close to any expression of atheism as it is understood today. But it is now time to look at our main subject.

Move to the second part here.


%d Bloggern gefällt das: