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Spinoza's Critique of Religion / Edition 2

Spinoza's Critique of Religion / Edition 2

by Leo Strauss, E. M. Sinclair


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226776880
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 01/28/1997
Edition description: 1
Pages: 327
Sales rank: 912,313
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Leo Strauss (1899-1973) was one of the preeminent political philosophers of the twentieth century. Born and educated in Germany, he emigrated to the United Sates in 1937. From 1949 to 1968 he was a professor of political science at the University of Chicago.  He was the author of numerous books, many of which are published by the University of Chicago Press. 

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Spinoza's Critique of Religion

By Leo Strauss, E. M. Sinclair

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 1965 Schocken Books, Inc.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-77688-0



IN THE extreme case — and the extreme case is the common one — radical criticism of religion is by intent scientific criticism. It is rendered no less scientific by the general situation that opposition to religion points at the pernicious nature of religion, or the positive harm it does, rather than at the error of its doctrines. Nor is the claim to being scientific rendered questionable by the fact that opposition to religion passes beyond theoretical rejection and into practical revolt. For both the rejection of religion as harmful and the practical revolt against it can be justified by the critic on scientific grounds.

But, we must ask, is not the very idea of scientific criticism of religion inherently absurd? Are not religion and science by their inherent intent so basically different that they cannot come into conflict with one another? The concept of science that underlies this view of the relation of science and religion (science as positive, man-conceived science) is not applicable, one must concede, to the metaphysics underlying the traditional criticism of religion. Inherent in the idea of this metaphysics, as the knowledge essentially of God, is the possibility of criticism of the false notions of God; also inherent is the idea of a scientific criticism of religion. Must the difference between positive science, which offers no possibility of criticism of religion, and metaphysics, which in principle permits criticism of religion, be defined as it has been defined by Kant in his transcendental dialectics, namely by the statement that this difference has its basis in theoretical consciousness? Is the difference between metaphysics and positive science not rather the fact that metaphysics by origin is more than pure theory? Is it not perhaps this extra something that throws a bridge between religion and science over the gulf dividing them, a bridge that makes scientific criticism of religion possible? These early critics of religion speak with a naiveté, which never ceases to startle us, of the happiness which they owe to their science, and which they confidently expect to receive from their science — the liberation from religion. By this happiness they do not mean the joy of disinterested investigation aiming, it is true, at results, but not at these or those particular results. Their interest aims at particular results. Their particular happiness requires that they should arrive at particular "truths." Their scientific inquiry serves a particular purpose. And is this purpose not prior to the pursuit of science? Does it not define the limits of their questioning? Does it not foreshadow their answers? Certainly these metaphysicians by their systems prove that the interest which directs their science is the only justifiable human interest, the sole interest in harmony with nature and with truth. But is the reality and the effectiveness of this interest due to its scientific foundation? Is it not much more plausible and convincing that this interest guides their science, and by so doing directs the scientific justification adduced for the interest? We need not take for granted that this question is settled on one side or the other. But we must assume the possibility here adumbrated that the criticism of religion undertaken, in intent scientific and objective, nevertheless has its origin in an original interest springing from the heart, in an original motive. This possibility becomes reality, if ever, in the philosophy of Epicurus. Epicurus' criticism of religion is one source, and the most important one, of seventeenth century criticism of religion.

Epicurus is conscious of his motive. It is expressly the root first of his criticism of religion and then of his science. Were we not in awe of active and effectual gods, science, according to Epicurus' expressed opinion, would be in essential part superfluous. For Epicurus, the basic aim of knowledge is to achieve a condition of eudaimonia, by means of reasoning. This eudaimonia does not consist in the scientific investigation itself; science is no more than the indispensable means of attaining the condition. The concrete meaning attached to eudaimonia defines the task of science as the elimination of all fear of the gods.

We shall first retrace the exposition of his objective as given by Epicurus himself. The only standard is pleasure. Any and every pleasure is as such a good, and any and every pain is as such an evil. Nevertheless, we do not welcome every pleasure, nor do we avoid every pain. For it is better to endure much toil in order to gain greater pleasure, and it is more profitable to refrain from certain pleasures so as to avoid paying the price of still greater pain. Therefore, taking into account the fact that pleasures and pains are often inextricably coupled, what is required for the sake of the highest possible return in pleasure is a prudent weighing in the balance, a comparative assessment which sets against the probability of pleasure, as given at any specific moment, the probability of pain. What is to be understood as the greatest pleasure is not, however, the highest possible surplus of any pleasure over the pain mingled with it, but the purest pleasure, free of any pain. The elimination of every pain — this is "the limit for the magnitude of pleasure." The greatest pleasure is thus unambiguously defined as the purest pleasure. What above all imperils purity of pleasure is the recall of past pain and the premonition of future pain. Pleasure must be safeguarded not only against the admixture of present pain, but also against the intrusion of past and future pain. The security of pleasure is for Epicurus only the more general form of the achievement of pure pleasure. But it is manifest that, if certainty is divorced from its association with purity of pleasure, and one can disregard the particular premise that the greatest pleasure is the purest, then pleasure may also be understood and desired as secure. This observation is necessary for understanding the Epicurean tradition in criticism of religion. Epicurus' critique of religion is founded on the achievement of security divorced from the achievement of purity.

The most certain pleasures are those of the past; "they are safe behind impregnable fortifications." Memory holds them for us as ever-present, and thus builds round us a world in which present pains are felt no more. Of past sorrows Epicurus takes no heed. He recalls his past only in so far as it is pleasurable. It is the decisive characteristic of the Epicurean that he is incapable of suffering from his past. Present pleasures are not yet entirely secure, they are still exposed to the grasp of fate. Future pleasure is altogether uncertain. Therefore interest in pleasure, understood as interest in certain pleasure, is focused sharply on past pleasures, on living in memory of pleasures past. It is not the youth but the old man, if his cup of happiness has brimmed, whom Epicurus accounts happy. Just as pleasure, which consists not in present joys, but in the memory of those past, is stronger than the greatest present pain, so also the expectation of future pain is in its turn stronger than the greatest present pleasure. Here, however, the countervailing force of expectation, memory, on which one might well have expected to be able to count, must fall short. For it is not a case of expecting some future pain unknown and uncharacterized. We hold that we are threatened by eternal and limitless pain. It follows that Epicurus cannot but direct the whole of his energy to the elimination of this anxiety by which all pleasure is brought to nothing: The fear of the gods and fear of death.

The opposite of man's perfect state, eudaimonia, is the condition of confusion due to fear. Liberation from fear is achieved by denial of the fearful quality of what is taken to be fearful. It is science which provides proof that there is no cause for fear, that there is nothing to fear. That is the very intent and meaning of science: were we not harassed by apprehensions regarding Olympus and death, there would be no need for a science of physics (Sententiae Selectae 10–13).

That science will achieve this, that the unveiling of truth will bring us tranquillity of mind and not still greater anxiety, is taken for granted by Epicurus. The justice of this hope, of this belief that outward events are keyed to human peace of mind, which is thought to be needlessly disturbed by fear of celestial things and by fear of death, is the pre-condition for the success of his undertaking. What cannot be traced back to this motive is his conviction of the truth of certain theorems which favor the effectiveness of this motive.

What throws a bridge between these heterogeneous elements, the motive and the theorems? Does the definition of the purpose of science rest on results of science? But how are these results reached by science? There is justification for the misgiving that the interest which science serves and which doubtless is active prior to its being justified by results, on its part influences these results and distorts them. This suspicion becomes stronger, the less Epicurus' science proves to be consistent. Furthermore, if his theorems — in correspondence with the whole structure of his science — are to be understood as his theorems only, in the light of their function as furthering the object of his science, it then becomes obligatory to interpret his science in the light cast upon it by his motive. For him the theorems are only means. His lack of scruple in the choice of means may lead to the oft-repeated charge that his theory is "superficial," but the unity and consistency of his intent are beyond all doubt.

It is to be conceded that the word "means" overstates the case, for it is in no sense to be said that Epicurus consciously reconstructs the world as a figment in harmony with his impelling interest. Rather is it that his dominant will to self-liberation from fear predisposes him to seek out and prefer facts which work for equanimity and consolation. It is not only the specific scientific findings which are modified by this tendency, but the specific scientific approach as a whole.

Since the connection between Epicurus' motive and the science corresponding with that motive is so important for understanding the criticism of religion in the seventeenth century, the features of this connection must be treated in some detail. If science is to do away with fear and confusion of mind, there must first of all be unambiguous criteria which permit the final settling of at least those questions which touch on principles. It is for this reason that dialectic is rejected, and only a few rules, and those unconditionally valid, are admitted to be "canonic." This underlies the insistence on maximum simplicity, palpability and clarity. The truths unveiled by reason using these epistemological principles must at all times be ready to hand in the form of propositions, to quell perturbation in the moment of its arising. This explains the terse formulation of the basic propositions — those most frequently needed — into apophthegms, designed to be learned by heart. Let it be borne in mind that it is not truth qua truth which brings calm, but the particular truth that there is no ground for fear. The world itself must be of such a nature that we need not fear finding ourselves confronted with surprising, dangerous occurrences. A soothing regularity and necessity must prevail. This necessity must not tyrannize over us, it must leave us our freedom. Hence the notorious resort to the theory of the arbitrary movements of atoms, so that human tranquillity may persist, even in the face of the otherwise inexorable necessity of atomic events.

If all the theories of Epicurus, in the sense of being Epicurus' own theories, are to be understood essentially as a means of liberating men from fear, the question arises whether the means are at least necessary means. According to the express opinion of Epicurus himself, they are necessary. However, he himself indicates another possibility. "It were better to follow the tale of the gods than to be enslaved to the doom of which the physicists speak: for that tale leaves the hope that the gods may be swayed by being honored, but this is of inexorable necessity" (Diogenes Laertius x, 134). Taking this proposition in all seriousness, the possibility opens that fear could be eliminated through faith in effective gods, provided that these gods themselves are kind. We interpolate this observation only to bring out that Epicurus' predominant motive is independent, not only of his concrete theorems, but also of hostility towards religion. It also brings out that Epicurus' motive is inseparable from his hostility towards any position which assumes that fear of the divine must ever operate to prevent peace of mind. Such a position looms large in Epicurus' mind — the thought that belief in willing and acting gods is the mightiest impairment of human peace of mind (ibid., x, 81). Against this, according to Epicurus, there is no recourse except by adherence to the theology and physics of his teaching. The whole of Epicurus' scientific endeavor assumes — more than any other — the fear of the gods as an ever-menacing danger.

The history of criticism of religion has every reason to devote particular attention to the only thinker who saw in criticism of religion his highest task, the fulfillment of his intent. This is no divagation under stress of circumstance. His own basic intention drives him undeviatingly along the straight and narrow path to this goal. In this sense, Epicurus' teachings merit the epithet "classical." It is in this light that Lucretius sees his master and teacher, when he sings his praise

Primum Graius homo mortalis tollere contra est oculos ausus primusque obsistere contra.

For this reason we must pay careful attention to his motive. Epicurus' concern is for tranquillity of mind and life unbeset by fear. He sets his face resolutely against all that confuses and disturbs. The drive behind his philosophy is of such nature that it must have affected not only the adherents of a particular school of philosophy, i.e. those who choose a certain particular means. Rather is it the case that in Epicureanism a universal human motive for rebellion against religion finds its expression — the most universal human motive, which changes little, if at all, amid all the modifications and developments in the evolution of human consciousness.

Epicurus' analysis of religion must be kept sharply distinct from the motive underlying that criticism. It is to be assumed from the outset that the motive will cause Epicurus to adopt analyses from other sources, and, on the other hand, that his own analysis will be called on to serve critical analysis born of different motives. It is, however, to be expected that the analysis of religion characteristic of original Epicureanism will stand within the framework of his system; in other words, within the general means available to him for his basic purpose.

When Epicurus anticipates that liberation from fear of the gods will come from physics, the search for causes, in particular causes of celestial events, he is implicitly stating that ignorance of causes is in fact the condition sine qua non for fear of the gods. If one puts the further question, what is the sufficient cause of this fact, the sources available to us fail to provide us with the answer given by Epicurus. Taking into account the relationships which exist in other connections between Epicurus and Democritus, and further taking into account the context in which Lucretius gives the answer returned by Democritus, we can without hesitation assume that the answer of Epicurus was the same. Celestial events (lightning, thunder, eclipses of sun and moon, etc.) evoked in ancient times the belief that it was the gods who were responsible, and, because of this, men became frightened (Diels 55 A 75). Sextus, who handed down this theory of Democritus, interprets it in this way: 'it was because of unanticipated untoward events that men came to the concept of gods.' This is the sense in which we must interpret Democritus; the unforeseeable and exceptional event, against whose effects on the mind there was no means of reassurance by knowledge of causes, were to be attributed to the gods.


Excerpted from Spinoza's Critique of Religion by Leo Strauss, E. M. Sinclair. Copyright © 1965 Schocken Books, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Table of Contents

Preface to the English Translation
Pt. 1: The Tradition of the Critique of Religion
I: The Tradition of the Critique of Religion
II: Uriel da Costa
III: Isaac de la Peyrere
IV: Thomas Hobbes
Pt. 2: Spinoza's Critique of Religion
V: The Critique of Orthodoxy
VI: The Critique of Maimonides
VII: The Critique of Calvin
VIII: The Analysis of Revealed Religion
IX: The State and the Social Function of Religion
X: Spinoza's Conception of the Bible and Bible Science

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