II. THEOLOGY AND POLITICS

The circle of gentlemen students whom Spinoza had left behind in Amsterdam heard that he had begun, for a pupil in Rijnsburg, a geometrical version of Descartes’ Principia philosophiae. They importuned him to complete it and send it to them. He did, and they financed its publication (1663) as Renati Des Cartes Principia Philosophiae more geometrico demonstrata. We need note only three things about it: that it expressed Descartes’ views (for example, on free will), not Spinoza’s; that it was the only book of Spinoza’s printed in his lifetime over his own name; and that in an appended fragment, Cogitata metaphysica, he suggested that time was not an objective reality, but a mode of thinking. 24 This is one of several Kantian elements in Spinoza’s philosophy.

In Rijnsburg he made some new friends. The great anatomist Steno became acquainted with him there. Henry Oldenburg, of the Royal Society, coming to Leiden in 1661, went out of his way to visit Spinoza, and was deeply impressed; returning to London, he began a long correspondence with the unprinted but already famous philosopher. Another Rijnsburg friend, Adriaan Koerbagh, was summoned before an Amsterdam court (1668), charged with “intemperate” opposition to the prevailing theology; one magistrate sought to implicate Spinoza as the source of Koerbagh’s heresies; Koerbagh denied this, and Spinoza was spared; but the young heretic was sentenced to ten years in prison, where he died after he had served fifteen months of his term. 25 We can understand why Spinoza did not rush into print.

In June, 1663, he moved to Voorburg, near The Hague. For six years he lived in the home of an artist, still polishing lenses and composing the Ethics. The desperate defensive war of the United Provinces against Louis XIV frightened the Dutch government into tighter restrictions on the expression of ideas. Nevertheless Spinoza published anonymously, in 1670, a Treatise on Theology and Politics that became a milestone in Biblical criticism. The title page of this Tractatus theologico-politicus stated the purpose: “to set forth that freedom of thought and speech not only may, without prejudice to piety and the public peace, be granted, but that also it may not, without danger to piety and the public peace, be withheld.” Spinoza disclaimed atheism, supported the fundamentals of religious belief, but undertook to show the human fallibility of those Scriptures upon which the Calvinist clergy based their theology and intolerance. The clergy in Holland were using their influence, and their Biblical texts, to oppose the party led by the de Witts, which favored liberal thought and negotiations for peace; and Spinoza was warmly devoted to that party and to Jan de Witt.

As I marked the fierce controversies of philosophers raging in Church and state, the source of bitter hatred and dissension . . . , I determined to examine the Bible afresh in a careful, impartial, and unfettered spirit, making no assumptions concerning it, and attributing to it no doctrines which I do not find clearly therein set down. With these precautions I constructed a method of scriptural interpretation. 26

He noted and illustrated the difficulty of understanding the Hebrew of the Old Testament; the Masoretic text—which filled in the vowels and accents omitted by the original writers—was partly guesswork, and could hardly give us an indisputable prototype. He profited much, in the earlier chapters of this treatise, from Maimonides’ Guide to the Perplexed. He followed Abraham ibn Ezra and others in questioning the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch. He denied that Joshua had composed the Book of Joshua; and he ascribed the historical books of the Old Testament to the priest-scribe Ezra, of the fifth century B.C. The Book of Job, he thought, was a Gentile production translated into Hebrew. Not all these conclusions have been accepted by later research; but they were a brave advance toward understanding the composition of the Bible; and they preceded by eight years the more scholarly Critique du Vieux Testament (1678) of Richard Simon. Spinoza pointed out that in several instances the same story or passage was repeated in different places in the Bible, sometimes in the same words, sometimes in divergent versions; the one case suggesting common borrowing from an earlier manuscript, the other raising the question as to which account was the Word of God. 27 There were chronological impossibilities and contradictions. In his Epistle to the Romans (III, 20–28) Paul taught that man can be saved only by faith, not by works; the Epistle of the Apostle James (II, 24) taught precisely the opposite; which was God’s view and Word? Such diverse texts, the philosopher pointed out, have generated bitterest—even murderous—quarrels among theologians, not the good conduct that a religion should inspire.

Were the Old Testament prophets the voice of God? Evidently they were not ahead of the knowledge shared by the educated classes of their time; “Joshua,” for example, took it for granted that the sun, until he “stopped” it, revolved around the earth. 28 The prophets excelled not in learning but in intensity of imagination, enthusiasm, and feeling; they were great poets and orators. They may have been divinely inspired, but if so it was by a process that Spinoza confessed himself unable to understand. 29 Perhaps they dreamed that they saw God; and they may have believed in the reality of their dream. So we read of Abimelech that “God said unto him in a dream” (Gen. xx, 6). The divine element in the prophets was not their prophecies but their virtuous lives; and the theme of their preaching was that religion lies in good conduct, not in sedulous ritual.

Were the miracles recorded in the Bible real interruptions of the normal course of nature? Did the sins of men bring down fire and flood, and did the prayers of men give fertility to the earth? Such stories, Spinoza suggested, were used by the Scriptural authors to reach the understanding of simple men and move them to virtue or devotion; we must not take them literally.

When, therefore, the Bible says that the earth is barren because of men’s sins, or that the blind were healed by faith, we ought to take no more notice than when it says that God is angry at men’s sins, that he is sad, that he repents of the good he has promised or done, or that, on seeing a sign, he remembers something he had promised; these and similar expressions are either thrown out poetically, or related according to the opinions and prejudices of the writer. We may be absolutely certain that every event which is truly described in Scripture necessarily happened—like everything else—according to natural law; and if anything is there set down which can be proved in set terms to contravene the order of nature, or not to be deducible therefrom, we must believe it to have been foisted into the sacred writings by irreligious hands; for whatsoever is contrary to nature is contrary to reason, and whatsoever is contrary to reason is absurd. 30

This was probably the most forthright declaration of independence yet made for reason by a modern philosopher. So far as it was accepted, it involved a revolution of profounder significance and results than all the wars and politics of the time.

In what sense, then, is the Bible the Word of God? Only in this: that it contains a moral code that can form men to virtue. It contains also many things that have led—or been adapted—to human deviltry. For the generality of men (too obsessed with daily cares to have leisure or capacity for intellectual development) the Biblical stories can be a beneficent aid to morality. But the emphasis of religious teaching should always be upon conduct rather than creed. It is a sufficient creed to believe in “a God, that is, a supreme being who loves justice and charity,” and whose proper worship “consists in the practice of justice and love towards one’s neighbor.” No other doctrine is necessary. 31

Aside from that doctrine, thought should be free. The Bible was not intended to be a textbook of science or philosophy; these are revealed to us in nature, and this natural revelation is the truest and most universal voice of God.

Between faith or theology and philosophy . . . there is no connection, or affinity. . . . Philosophy has no end in view save truth; faith . . . looks for nothing but obedience and piety. . . . Faith, therefore, allows the greatest latitude in philosophical speculation, allowing us without blame to think what we like about anything, and only condemning, as heretics and schismatics, those who teach opinions that tend to produce hatred, anger, and strife. 32

So Spinoza, in his own optimistic variation, renewed Pomponazzi’s distinction between two truths, the theological and the philosophical, each of which, though contradictory, may be allowed to the same person in the one case as a citizen, in the other as a philosopher. Spinoza would allow to secular officials the right to compel obedience to the laws; the state, like the individual, has the right of self-preservation. But he adds:

With religion the case is widely different. Since it consists not so much in outward action as in simplicity and truth of character, it stands outside the sphere of law and public authority. Simplicity and truth of character are not produced by the constraint of Jews, nor by the authority of the state; no one the whole world over an be forced or legislated into a state of blessedness; the means required for such a consummation are faithful and brotherly admonition, sound education, and, above all, free use of the individual judgment. . . . It is in every man’s power to wield the supreme right and authority of free judgment. . . and to explain and interpret religion for himself. 33

The public practice of religion should be subject to state control, for though religion may be a vital force in molding morality, the state must remain supreme in all matters affecting public conduct. Spinoza was as firm an Erastian as Hobbes, and followed him in subordinating the Church to the state, but he cautioned his readers, “I speak here only of the outward observances, . . . not of . . . the inward worship.” 34 And (probably having Louis XIV in mind) he rose to hot indignation in denouncing the use of religion by the state for purposes contrary to what he conceives as basic religion—justice and benevolence.

If, in despotic statecraft, the supreme and essential mystery be to hoodwink the subjects, and to mask the fear, which keeps them down, with the specious garb of religion, so that men may fight as bravely for slavery as for safety, and count it not shame but highest honor to risk their blood and their lives for the vainglory of a tyrant; yet in a free state no more mischievous expedient could be planned or attempted. [It is] wholy repugnant to the general freedom . . . when law enters the domain of speculative thought, and opinions are put on trial and condemned on the same footing as crimes, while those who defend and follow them are sacrificed not to public safety, but to their opponents’ hatred and cruelty. If deeds alone could be made the ground of criminal charges, and words were always allowed to pass free,. . . seditions would be divested of every semblance of justification, and would be separated from mere controversy by a hard and fast line. 35

In examining the Scriptures Spinoza faced the fundamental issue between Christians and Jews: Had Christianity been unfaithful to Christ in rejecting the Mosaic Law? In his opinion that Law was intended for the Jews in their own state, and not for other nations, not even for the Jews themselves when living in an alien society; only the moral laws in the Mosaic Code (like the Ten Commandments) have eternal and universal validity. 36 Some passages in Spinoza’s discussion of Judaism reveal a strong resentment of his excommunication, and an anxiety to justify his rejection of the synagogue’s teachings. But he joined the Jews in hoping for their early restoration to an autonomous Israel. “I would go so far as to believe that. . . they may even raise up their state anew, and God may elect them a second time.” 37

He made several approaches to Christianity. He apparently read the New Testament with increasing admiration for Christ. He rejected the notion of Christ’s physical resurrection from the dead, 38 but he found himself in such sympathy with the preaching of Jesus that he conceded to him a special revelation from God:

A man who can by pure intuition comprehend ideas which are neither contained in, nor deducible from, the foundation of our natural knowledge, must necessarily possess a mind far superior to those of his fellow men; nor do I believe that any have been so endowed save Christ. To him the ordinances of God leading to salvation were revealed directly without words or visions, so that God manifested himself to the Apostles through the mind of Christ, as he formerly did to Moses through the supernatural voice. In this sense the voice of Christ, like the voice which Moses heard, may be called the voice of God; and it may be said that the wisdom of God (wisdom more than human*) took upon itself in Christ human nature, and that Christ was the way of salvation. I must at this juncture declare that those doctrines, which certain churches put forward concerning Christ, I neither affirm nor deny, for I freely confess that I do not understand them. . . . Christ communed with God mind to mind. Thus we may conclude that no one except Christ received the revelation of God without the aid of imagination, whether in words or vision. 39

This olive branch offered to the Christian leaders could not conceal from them that the Tractatus theologico-politicus was one of the boldest pronouncements yet made in the conflict between religion and philosophy. Hardly had it appeared when the church council of Amsterdam (June 30, 1670) protested to the Grand Pensionary of Holland that so heretical a volume should be allowed to circulate in a Christian state. A synod at The Hague, petitioned him to ban and confiscate “such soul-destroying books.” 40 Lay critics joined in the attack upon Spinoza; one called him Satan incarnate; 41 Jean Le Clerc described him as “the most famous atheist of our time”; 42 Lambert van Velthuysen accused him of “craftily introducing atheism . . . destroying all worship and religion from the very foundation.” 43 Luckily for Spinoza, the Grand Pensionary, Jan de Witt, was one of his admirers, who had already conferred upon him a small pension. As long as de Witt lived and ruled, Spinoza could rely on his protection. That was to be for only two years.

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