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The Tractatus Theologico-Politicus is the only work of Benedict Spinoza’s original philosophy published during his lifetime. The work has three purposes: to defend and bolster religious tolerance, to make a plea for freedom of thought and democracy, and to offer a new approach to the study and interpretation of the Bible and to its political uses. Despite the author’s attempt to disguise its origin—it was published in 1670 anonymously and with a false city of publication, Hamburg rather than Amsterdam—the Tractatus was quickly attributed to Spinoza and became something of a sensation. It was widely vilified, considered an illegal publication, and quickly put under local censorship and suppression. The Dutch Reformed Church condemned it in 1673, and in July 1674 it was officially banned at the Synod of Dordrecht. Nevertheless, unlike other banned books, the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus spread like wildfire all over Europe and numerous copies of it in various European language translations were found in libraries from Britain and all over Europe.
Benedict Spinoza was excommunicated from the Jewish community of Amsterdam at age twenty-four, and he never joined another religious group but kept a respectful distance, attending religious services of various persuasions. He was born in Amsterdam to a Portuguese Jewish family who had fled to the Netherlands, escaping the persecutions of the Catholic Inquisition which, in 1497, had forced all the Jews of Portugal to convert to Christianity. This was only the latest in a wave of forced conversions in the Iberian peninsula beginning with those in Spain in 1391. Some of those forced to convert secretly maintained loyalty to Judaism for generations, and Spinoza’s parents were among these. In the Netherlands, crypto-Jews (or Marranos) escaping the Iberian peninsula could renew their Jewish commitments openly and return to a Jewish communal life, especially after 1609 when the Netherlands won its independence from Spain after battling for it for almost a century. It is not surprising that Spinoza in his political works was a great advocate of freedom of conscience and freedom of speech. Nor do we wonder that his overriding concern was how to lessen the dangers of religious fanaticism upon democratic institutions and political stability. In the Ethics Spinoza places freedom as the ultimate aim and central value of the life well lived. Spinoza had a traditional Jewish education and was particularly versed in and influenced by the Jewish philosophical tradition and especially by Maimonides, Gersonides, Crescas, and Hebreo Leone. The influence of Maimonides and Judaeo-Arabic scientific naturalism is evident throughout Spinoza’s works, especially in his assessment of religion and its political function, but also in his sensitivity to language, metaphor, literary genre, style, and rhetorical modes.
The immediate impetus for the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus was the threat to freedom of thought and liberty in the Netherlands precipitated by the Dutch Wars of the mid-seventeenth century, wars that originated in commercial maritime rivalries between England and the Netherlands. But the war to which Spinoza was also responding was the Thirty Years’ War between Protestants and Catholics that had gone on during his childhood. That war ended only in 1648 when Spinoza was sixteen. The Dutch revolt against Spanish domination had begun in the 1560s and had resulted in the independence of the largely Calvinist Netherlands from Catholic Spain only in 1609. The truce of 1609 had opened up the Netherlands as a refuge to many Marrano Jews escaping persecution in the Iberian peninsula, among them Spinoza’s parents. So the Sephardic Jewish community of Amsterdam into which Benedict Spinoza was born offered a quite newly established security and freedom from religious persecution.
Spinoza took five years off from working on The Ethics to write the Tractatus in response to what he regarded as the urgent demands of the times: to shore up the liberty of conscience and thought, tolerance, and freedom of worship that were traditions in the Netherlands but now under increasing threat. Spinoza also hoped through the Tractatus to encourage democratization and religious pluralism by setting out a model in which he envisioned how both could be institutionalized in a modern liberal, non-denominational form of government. So as the title suggests, Spinoza’s concern in the Tractatus is not just with proposing a new form of government to meet the demands of a New Age, but also with proposing a new vision for the relationship between religion and government.
Spinoza’s solution to the problem of the place of religion in a modern political society is a liberal solution but one somewhat different from Locke’s separation of church and state as well as from Hobbes’ authoritarian vision of the complete subordination of religious authority to the political sovereign. For Spinoza’s concern was not merely to remove ecclesiastical authority from political life but even more crucially he set out to weaken independent systems of religious authority by redefining the basic meaning of the authoritative document, the Bible, that all the different Christian and Jewish communities held as sacred and the source of their legitimacy and power. So rather than marginalize the Bible and religion, Spinoza envisions a society in the Tractatus in which the Bible is redefined as a basic universal ethic, general enough that all groups and individuals could sign on to it. Spinoza proposes that the Bible be understood as a basic set of moral principles, an updated Ten Commandments, which can serve as the constitution of a democratic pluralist polity that champions both freedom of conscience and freedom of thought. In the society he envisions religious particularisms would be privatized while a common denominator of a biblical ethic focused on a basic morality of good deeds (rather than right thoughts) would be held in common and promoted by the state.
So Spinoza sets as his aim the reinterpretation of the biblical text as the basis for a civil religion that promotes a state that cuts across Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish differences. Spinoza aims to show that the Bible ought to be used as the founding constitution of a modern multi-religious society. Thus for him it is a work whose import is in its devotion to general ethical suasion and not to either special pleading or scientific and philosophic truths. He is not concerned with validating prophecy (any religion) but instead with its power to move the masses and thus serve, appropriately reinterpreted, as a founding political document.
Spinoza’s solution to the problem of religion and politics in the Tractatus was largely inspired by Maimonides in his Guide for the Perplexed, although the influences upon the work are myriad, from the Roman historians and philosophers to Machiavelli to Hobbes. Spinoza tweaks Maimonides’ political vision towards greater tolerance and a broad, democratic distribution of power, adopting Maimonides’ terms of the debate, to wit, the latter’s conception of the nature of religion (that’s what he means by “prophecy”) and its crucial and in his view indispensable, albeit dangerous, role in politics. Religious feelings and loyalties, because of their tremendous potency, must be managed rather than merely eliminated from the political arena. For Maimonides, the Bible (unlike Spinoza who included the New Testament, Maimonides referred only to the Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament) was both a political document as well as a veiled introduction to the fundamentals of a true (Aristotelian) science and philosophy. That is, it consisted in both a political constitution and a scientific textbook, both in narrative and fanciful garb so as to reach the common people. The imaginative tales and moral rules were to induce in the masses the ethical moderation at the heart of (Aristotle’s vision of) a good society. And the veiled science was to reduce superstition to a minimum by offering the uneducated masses a rudimentary rational scientific outlook and worldview. Maimonides’ greatest hope was to eradicate from the masses their religious anthropomorphism, the view that God is a venerable old man residing in the heavens and controlling the world by fiat and moral intervention, and to replace it with a view of the heavens as the working out of grand natural processes over eons originating in the divine in ways beyond our understanding.
Spinoza follows Maimonides part way in signing on to the political import of religion as both suasion and political governance to be used to induce an obedience and loyalty to morals and justice. He drops the scientific claims of Maimonides about the Bible’s hidden meaning and introduces instead a method of reading the Bible based on the analysis of the Hebrew linguistics and the varying historical and cultural contexts of the various biblical texts. Spinoza’s invention of this approach to the Bible contributed greatly to the development of the modern academic study of the Bible. Spinoza took strong issue with Maimonides’ claim that the prophets were philosophers and that the Bible offers veiled insights into the central doctrines of philosophy and science, a belief so deeply held by Maimonides that he included it as one of his Thirteen Principles of Jewish Faith.[i] At the same time, however, Spinoza agreed with Maimonides’ doctrine of the “imaginative” (literary and suasive) character[ii] and the political function[iii] of the Bible and of its authors and of the major prophetic figures.
In the Tractatus, Spinoza also adopts and adapts Maimonides’ literary method, a cryptic style that is meant to shield the radicalism of his conclusions from all but the most astute readers. Both were concerned with the potential dangers to political stability of their debunking of the direct divine origins of both the Bible and of authoritative religious inspiration, or “prophecy.” Yet despite this nagging concern both also felt compelled to carry out their planned works: Maimonides felt acutely the pressing need to prove the rationality and scientific respectability of Judaism to the philosophically astute and increasingly sophisticated, scientifically educated Jewish audience of the twelfth-century Golden Age of Spanish Arabic science and philosophy in which he lived. And he was also concerned to rationalize Judaism for the Jewish masses.
Spinoza too was personally and professionally overcome with the urgency of dampening religious irrationalism. He hoped to confront religious fanaticism and stop it in its tracks, dampening the terrible effects it had on political liberties and on the advancement of science and philosophy. He had experienced the effects of religious fanaticism intimately in his parents’ Marrano heritage in Portugal of hiding their Jewish commitments from the Catholic Inquisition on pain of torture and death. He had also experienced the pressure for religious conformity in his own excommunication from the Jewish community perhaps for challenging too openly religious doctrine on the afterlife. And all around him swirled religious debates, religious wars, and the political persecutions of free thinkers and of their works even though the Netherlands was also temporary refuge to great philosophers such as Descartes and Hobbes, escaping even more restrictive regimes and their threats of religious and ideological persecution.
Spinoza took a page from Maimonides’ Guide in presenting his own veiled radical critique of traditional religion, as Maimonides had, as a systematic reinterpretation of the Bible and its language. While Maimonides wanted to expose what he regarded as the hidden scientific rationalism at the heart of the biblical text if one only had the keys to unlock its symbolic meanings, Spinoza aimed to purge the Bible of its particularisms in the interest of finding within it a cross-religious, cross-cultural moral core doctrine and also a viable model of the just society. A great deal of ink has been spilled by scholars on whether or not Maimonides or Spinoza uses a literary method of deliberate contradiction to hide the import of what he is saying from those it might rashly set afire and also to avoid reprisal. Maimonides lends support for this view in his own case since he enumerates, in his introduction, seven sources of contradiction in literary works, the last of which is an author’s desire to disguise his own meaning, hiding it from those only partially educated readers in whom it might trigger a tendency to religious skepticism and the undermining of political stability. Maimonides warns the reader that his book is intended only for those who have been fully, exhaustively, and professionally trained in the Jewish tradition as well as in the rudiments of the philosophic and scientific education of his day (the late twelfth century) and as a result have come to have some doubts about the former in the light of the latter.
Spinoza clearly wrote the Tractatus for an educated audience. He wrote it in Latin, the literary language of the educated. But unlike his other works, it is not directed principally to fellow philosophers and professional theologians. His style is based more on the Roman historians—he cites Quintus Curtius Rufus repeatedly in this regard—and we can also feel the presence of Machiavelli. So Spinoza teaches by the use of examples coming from history, a method suited to the generally educated reader, rather than by arguing broad philosophic points abstractly and systematically as he does in his philosophic works. Yet the history he draws from, rather than that of the Romans or Greeks, is that of the biblical Jews or Hebrews of the Bible. Thus he implicitly treats the Bible as a secular document, analogous to the classical histories, drawing political, not what we would call religious or spiritual, lessons from it.
In Spinoza’s case the evidence is less direct than it is for Maimonides that he deliberately uses contradiction to hide his meaning, and perhaps as a result, the scholarly controversy is perhaps even more heated. Rather than jump into the scholarly fray, I’ll simply recommend the following procedre to the reader of the Tractatus: Spinoza redefines important terms throughout the book, for example, “divine,” “spirit,” “Word of God,” “blessedness,” “salvation,” and “divine ‘providence.’” When you see such a redefinition, write it down and apply it wherever else you see that term, either earlier or later in the text. You must systematically replace your own understanding of the word, often the standard meaning of it, with Spinoza’s redefinition. In that way, with that kind of close and careful reading, you will grasp Spinoza’s intent.
Despite the precautions that Spinoza took to cushion the reception of the Tractatus, when it was published in 1670, it was widely vilified. Spinoza was branded an “atheist,” and the language used to describe him even by some venerable contemporary theologians and important clerics would, even today, have to be bleeped on television. The scandalized reactions not only continued during Spinoza’s lifetime but continued over generations and throughout Europe. Spinoza and the Tractatus were not only vilified by conservative theologians but met with the heated denunciations of even major Enlightenment figures, such as Pierre Bayle (himself a religious skeptic and an escapee from religious persecution from France to the Netherlands), who devoted an entire volume of his famous Historical and Critical Dictionary to Spinoza, and later of Voltaire.
The unanticipated storm over the Tractatus led Spinoza to withhold the publication of The Ethics, which was published only soon after Spinoza’s early death from silicosis in 1677. Spinoza had hoped that the Tractatus would smooth the way for The Ethics, but it clearly had just the opposite effect. Perhaps Spinoza, despite his warning to himself to be ever wary of the depth and breadth of human irrationality encapsulated in his motto, caute (Caution!), underestimated the power of the emotional fanaticism his own critique of religion could arouse. Spinoza was not rehabilitated in European educated opinion until his rediscovery by prominent nineteenth-century German literary figures and philosophers, but theirs was not the Spinoza of the Tractatus. Their Spinoza was derived from a Romantic reading of The Ethics, a reading that inspired Herder, Lessing, Goethe, Novalis, and Schelling, and those they influenced. Through them the popular image of Spinoza was forged anew, this time as the lone thinker intoxicated with Nature. That Spinoza is still with us but it is not the Spinoza of the Tractatus. The real Spinoza of The Ethics is not as distant from the Spinoza of the Tractatus as the Romantics imagined. For in both his great works Spinoza is concerned with the emotions, and particularly with the emotional hold upon us of our most fanatical and irrational feelings. Notice how Spinoza begins the Tractatus with an analysis of how fear can cause people to act in fanatical and other irrational ways. He is concerned also that fear, cleverly exploited by political power, can induce subordination in people. These are themes that are central to the Tractatus but also important in The Ethics and analyzed in that text down to their deepest causes in nature. The importance of Spinoza’s Tractatus and its relevance to the present moment of rising religious fanaticisms all over the world could not be greater.
A COMMENT ON THE ELWES TRANSLATION
The importance of the Elwes translation has been to bring the works of Spinoza to an English speaking public. Elwes was not a professional Latinist. For those wishing to further their understanding of Spinoza, there are several more technically precise translations into English available. They are noted in the suggested reading.
Heidi Morrison Ravven, Professor of Religious Studies at Hamilton College, has written extensively on Spinoza, the imagination and the emotions, Spinoza and Jewish philosophy, and Spinoza and recent neuroscience. She is currently working on a long-term project funded by the Ford Foundation on Rethinking Ethics and American Pluralism through Spinoza.
[i]e.g., Tractatus ii:
Prophecy never rendered the Prophets more learned, but … it left them with their preconceived opinions, that for that reason we are not at all bound to believe them concerning purely speculative matters. With what remarkable rashness everyone has persuaded himself that the Prophets knew everything the human intellect can attain!
(Curley manuscript, 28; VV&L, vol. ii, 113)
And later in the same chapter:
The Israelites knew almost nothing about God, even though He was revealed to them. … Nor is it credible that men accustomed to the superstitions of the Egyptians, unsophisticated, and worn out by the most wretched bondage, would have understood anything sensible about God, or that Moses would have taught them anything other than a way of living—and that not as a philosopher, so that after some time they might be constrained to live from freedom of mind, but as a legislator, so that they would be constrained by the command of the Law to live well.
(Curley manuscript, 32– 33; VV&L, vol. ii, 118)
[ii]Spinoza writes (Tractatus i):
[W]e can now affirm, without any reservation , that the Prophets perceived God’s revelations only with the aid of the imagination, i.e., by the mediation of word or of images, the latter of which might be either true or imaginary.…
It is evident, therefore, why the Prophets perceived and taught almost everything in metaphors and enigmatic sayings, and expressed all spiritual things corporeally. For all these things are more consistent with the imagination.
(Curley manuscript, 22; VV&L, vol. ii, 106)
Spinoza also agreed with Maimonides that the prophets were of outstanding moral character and taught moral virtue to the masses.
[T]he Prophets had a singular virtue beyond what is ordinary … [and] they cultivated piety with exceptional constancy of heart.
(Curley manuscript, 21; VV&L, vol. ii, 105)
[iii]“[T]he purpose of Scripture,” Spinoza writes (Tractatus vi), “is not to teach things through their natural causes, but only to relate those things which greatly occupy the imagination, and to do this by the Method and style which serves best to increase wonder at things, and consequently impress devotion in the hearts of the multitude.” (Curley manuscript, 67; VV&L, vol. ii, 164)