Baruch Spinoza: The Most Dangerous Man in Europe
By 1670 all of the pieces of modern humanism were in place, waiting for one guiding intellect to join them together at last for a complete assault on the ramparts of organized religion. Abelard had cast doubt on the consistency of the Church fathers; Averroes and Albertus Magnus had attacked the cult of theological authority; Pietro Pomponazzi had dismantled the immortal soul; Paolo Sarpi had defanged the temporal authority of the Church; and Thomas Hobbes had advocated for a vigorous materialism that rewrote the meaning of good, evil, heaven, and hell. Each had a profound impact on the reordering of some aspect of European religious life, but one man was feared as the greatest threat to the very foundation of religion itself since the dawn of recorded history, Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677), the architect of atheism.
Unlike Hobbes, who hadn’t achieved anything of note during the first four decades of his life, Spinoza was, from the get-go, “that kid.” The one who not only had all the answers in class, but could build on the facts with a dizzying natural ability, reaching conclusions that left his classmates reeling and his teacher, rabbi Saul Morteira, beaming in the hope that here, at last, was a student worthy of him. Like most teachers with gifted students, he assumed that Spinoza’s intelligence would cause him to become a miniature Morteira, and didn’t seem to consider for a moment that something deeper was at work beneath the outward signs of respect and consideration.
Supremely confident in the persuasiveness of his own scriptural interpretations, Morteira fed the young student as much Hebrew, history, and commentary as he could, not noticing when Spinoza’s sharp but subtle questions revealed a curiosity that was working quietly against the weight of Hebrew tradition. And perhaps Spinoza himself didn’t realize the dangerous implications of his speculations until he became the student of Franciscus van den Enden, one of the strangest figures in the history of Dutch radicalism. van den Enden was to be Spinoza’s Latin teacher, but as a thorough-going critic of religion, advocate of gender and racial equality, and part-time political revolutionary looking to establish a democratic state in Normandy, he ultimately offered the bookish adolescent something far more subversive than ablative absolute constructions.
Van den Enden was part of a growing subculture of religious skeptics who flourished in the open liberality of the Dutch Republic’s golden age. A small nation that resisted the military might of both Habsburg Spain and Bourbon France at their respective heights, and challenged English commercial supremacy, all while operating a model government based on religious tolerance and political openness, the Dutch Republic was, for half a century, the epicenter of radical thought in Europe. The Jewish Spinoza family had come there seeking refuge from the irregular genocide practiced by the Habsburgs, and for his whole life Baruch Spinoza would know a degree of comfort and intellectual freedom that would have been impossible in any other European land of the time.
With his doubts about the veracity of the Old Testament (encouraged by van den Enden), and his father’s trading business facing bankruptcy at the hands of British piracy, Spinoza began distancing himself from the Jewish community of Amsterdam. He stopped attending religious services and spoke in private of his new ideas concerning the nature of God, the priesthood, miracles, and nature. Word was not long in reaching the community elders, who begged him to recant, to return to the fold and reclaim the status of honored son he had known in youth. Instead, Spinoza railed against his accusers, all but daring them to excommunicate them.
Which they promptly did, on July 27, 1656.
As a Jew, Spinoza was on the margins of European society. As an excommunicated Jew, he was at the margins of those margins, the absolute outsider whose ejection from the embrace of all tradition only made him a sharper observer thereof. For the rest of his life, Spinoza lived modestly, supporting himself as a lens-grinder while eating only the simplest of foods, living in a series of rented rooms, and dressing in plain, durable clothes. He thought about philosophy and God, chatted with his landlords, and diligently ground lenses, filling the air with the glass powder that lacerated lungs already weak by nature, contributing to his premature death.
The remaining twenty-one years of his life established Spinoza as the most dangerous man in Europe, read secretly everywhere in spite of the official prohibition of his few texts. The most explosive of those published in his lifetime was the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus of 1670, a tract which portrayed God as the immanent cause of the natural world, and nothing more. Employing his training as a Hebraist, Spinoza pointed out the startling coincidence between biblical authors and the ideas about God and law that they put forth. Undertaking an extensive investigation of the motivations of each author, he showed that what generations had taken to be the deep truths of Scripture were really just the result of various authorial perspectives, and often ignorant ones at that. Not understanding nature, and desiring the universe to be shaped according to their own personal natures, these authors called ordinary events miraculous and ventured absurd and self-serving notions of how God worked in the universe.
Pressing the point further, in the notorious Chapter VI, Spinoza argued against the reality of miracles, stating that they were either ordinary events viewed by people unschooled in the workings of nature or fits of imagination bleeding over into reality. The God of Spinoza does not act in the world, does not have emotions, does not support one people over another, does not wish for things, and does not ask for worship. He is, rather, the substance underlying the universe, a completely indifferent source of natural law to whom prayers and sacrifice are nothing whatsoever.
This view of God, one who could not be bribed or pleased, and who offered neither punishment nor advice, was a trident in the heart of standard theology. While theologians argued over aspects of God and definitions of good and evil, Spinoza offered the sober reality that, if even the authors of the Bible couldn’t clear away their local historical prejudices in interpreting God’s nature, a man coming thousands of years later, with an incomplete knowledge of the base languages involved and a totally different historical context, had no chance of saying anything except the pre-existing content of his own religious fancy. Good and evil are just what we call things that are useful and appealing to us or not, but nature makes no such distinction. Tragedy is inflicted upon the innocent as often as triumph is meted out to the villainous, all following rigidly mechanical laws emanating from the structure of the universe, and there’s nothing to be done about any of it.
He would expand these ideas in his posthumous masterwork, the Ethics, which had to be smuggled out of his house in an unmarked crate lest it fall into the wrong hands and be destroyed in manuscript. It is a towering work which attempted to display Spinoza’s complete system with geometric precision, the philosophical counterpart of Euclid’s Elements. It was his final statement of belief, and if written in a more sober tone than the Tractatus, was even more radical in its content. Since God is essentially just a nom de guerre for nature, and nature is governed entirely by mechanistic cause and effect, there can be no such thing as free will in any meaningful sense. Rather, there are just people, striving to actualize their personal natures to the fullest extent possible, and forming societies to do so.
When such people come across something that meets their needs, they have a natural tendency to think it was made specifically for them, and so they craft notions of Providence from crude matter, and when they are foiled in their ambitions, they seek an outer source to propitiate, and thus are born superstition and the power of priests. Spinoza exhorts us to turn away from anything that demands the sacrifice of our reason, or the freedom to investigate the workings of nature. Any government or church that claims power over minds or knowledge of God’s thoughts is unworthy of its authority. Each person must employ the full power of his (or her) reason to understand his nature, work against self-defeating desires, and pursue the needs of his particular self in joint purpose with his fellow human beings. Because the universe is fully determined, along with our actions in it, there is no need to feel envy for those who happen to have done better, nor to feel superior to those who have had a rougher lot in life.
Instead, we are to approach other humans with compassion and understanding, realizing that their conception of good might not be our own, and that there is no way to judge one person’s path as objectively better than another’s. In a Europe still finding its feet after the destruction wrought by the Thirty Years’ War, Spinoza’s call to relinquish self-satisfied superiority in favor of a broad-based sympathy was strikingly original, and formed the positive ethical core of modern humanism. By combining scriptural critique with an uncompromising materialism, and welding both of those onto a new secular ethics of inclusivity, Spinoza produced the foundation of not only the Enlightenment, but the basic vocabulary of present humanism.
Throughout his life, Spinoza’s motto was caution. He kept the sensibilities of his Christian audience in mind, seeking to wean them of their dependence on Jesus Christ by degrees, focusing on the Old Testament and letting the implications trickle through to the New. For all his caution, however, the consequences of his philosophy were plain to all, and Spinoza watched friend after friend turn vehemently upon him, upbraiding him for his arrogance in supposing that he, and he alone, knew better than thousands of years of religious experts. He was called the most vile, foul, and dangerous human being in the history of religion. His friends, the Koerbagh brothers, were put on trial for espousing atheistic doctrines. Van den Enden traveled to France to foment his beloved Normandy rebellion and was hung for his troubles. Leibniz, the greatest mind in Europe, eagerly sought him out in private, and condemned him vehemently in public.
And yet, his life went on, supported by a handful of true friends and a growing army of those attracted to his views but too afraid to be seen publicly defending him. He was never arrested, never driven from his home country, and lived, to all appearances, precisely the life he desired, a simple life of the mind. When he died, it was suddenly, without warning, though his health had always been precarious. Within a year, his Ethics was published, along with some of the secret correspondence that had flown between his humble rented rooms and the rest of Europe. Spinozism became synonymous with atheism, and his philosophical system proved fresh for generations of intellectual outsiders. His comments about the consequences of linguistic degradation for religious exegesis found their way into Herder’s revolutionary linguistic theory, while his observations about humans crafting gods in their own image inspired Feuerbach’s dialectic critique of Christianity. From being the outcast’s outcast, he has become the philosopher’s philosopher.
Spinoza is now very much in style again, and there is no shortage of academic works seeking to ride the modish wave while it lasts. Matthew Stewart’s The Courtier and the Heretic is a dual biography of Spinoza and Leibniz that is that rarest of things, an academically responsible book that at the same time has an ear for elegant prose. More imposingly, Jonathan Israel’s Radical Enlightenment: Philosophy and the Making of Modernity: 1650-1750, is a titan of a text with a set of wonderful chapters on Spinoza and the Dutch radical philosophers at its core. If you want to read some original Spinoza, the Tractatus makes for a much more digestible start than the Ethics, and is widely available, and there’s an inexpensive Dover volume that includes selections from his intense correspondence which is quite fun.