The picture is of Benedict aka Baruch Spinoza.
Sunday, October 25, 2009


The text I’ll be dealing with is Spinoza’s Theological-Political Treatise. This has several concerns:

I won’t be quoting as much from Spinoza as I do when dealing with other books. While there is much that is interesting here, it does not have the same appeal as a Nietzsche, or a Plato, or even the Talmud, with sections that cry out for extensive quoting. This is not necessarily a reflection on Spinoza, and may say more about me. Also much of the book is highly repetitious. Once Spinoza has proven to his satisfaction that Moses was not the author of the Pentateuch, he then feels the obligation to disprove the reputed authors of the rest of the Old Testament or Tanakh.

Chapter 1—On prophecy. Spinoza asserts that the prophets received prophecy not through some kind of direct revelation from God, what we might term locutions, but through their imagination. He says that the visions may have been real or they could have been imaginary. He also contends that because they grasped things by the imagination they could have grasped things beyond the intellect.

Chapter 2—On the prophets. Prophets have a greater power of imagination. Let me note as an aside here that Shaw used a similar explanation for the visions of St. Joan. He asserts that she was, in his phrase, a “Galtonic visualizer.” Joan, like Spinoza’s prophets was gifted with intense imaginative powers. It is here that Spinoza voices what I have called accomodationism, the belief that scripture was written to match the educational level of the original audience. One problem here, and it’s an emotional one, is that you get the feeling that Spinoza at various points is denigrating all the little people out there in “flyover country” who aren’t as smart, or as educated as he is. He has references throughout the text to how some people are not very intelligent. This is true, and I’ve know a good many dumb people, many of them my bosses, but it shows a certain arrogance on his part.

Chapter 3—On the vocation of the Hebrews. The Hebrews were chosen, but their election was not permanent, only conditional upon good behavior. It should be noted that this contradicts Paul’s position in Romans in which he asserts that the Jews, or Hebrews, did not cease to be God’s chosen people.

Chapter 4—On the divine law. Spinoza contrasts laws based upon natural necessities with those based on the ordinances of men (jus). The law of God is universal to all men, and is not something decreed solely to the Hebrews.

Chapter 5—Ceremonies. Ceremonies, by which he apparently means religious ceremonies, are seen as “only relevant to the temporal prosperity of the state” (69). He denies that things such as the Mass, feast-days, and other ceremonies contribute to happiness or have any sanctity. Hence any notion of sacramentality is gone from Spinoza’s view.

Chapter 6—On Miracles. Here he denies the existence of miracles. If my memory serves it is at this point that he denies things like transubstantiation. We have already commented on skepticism regarding this doctrine when we dealt with Hobbes, so I see no need to repeat what I’ve already said. Here again we have those references to “the common people,” that smack of a rather unpleasant elitism. (Here I must confess that I’m an elitist too, but I rather think that Spinoza would find me to be one of “the common people,” and that offends me.)

Spinoza’s contention is that miracles do not involve interruptions or disturbances in nature. So the apparent delay in the movement of the sun in Joshua, is attributed to ice crystals, and the phenomenon of refraction. (Spinoza was a lens grinder, and this may have colored, so to speak, his conception of the event.) There is nothing that is beyond reason. This however, is an assertion, an act of faith in reason itself. It is probably pushing things too far to include Godel and the incompleteness theorem here, but since I have no hesitation in making a fool of myself, let me give a brief statement of my understanding of this.

Godel proved that in any theory of arithmetic there were problems, within that theory, that cannot be proved. (See here for Wikipedia’s article on incompleteness.) There are statements that are true, but which cannot be derived from the formal system itself. Now the question is whether these theorems, Godel formulated two of them, can be extended to other areas, including reason itself, so that we can affirm that there are true statements which can be shown to be true, but which cannot be proved within the bounds of reason? Are we here entering the Kierkegaardian leap of faith described in Philosophical Fragments and The Concluding Unscientific Postscript?

Chapter 7—On the Interpretation of Scripture. Spinoza emphasizes that the interpretation of Scripture requires a knowledge of the languages of the Scriptures. He points out that Hebrew, as it is used in the Torah and other books of the Bible, is written without vowels. He also emphasizes that some of the Hebrew consonants can be substituted for one another. I know enough Hebrew to say “Shalom” when I go to someone’s house and they have a mezuzzah on the doorpost, but that’s it. However, the discussion of missing vowels does anticipate at least one of the insights of structuralist linguistics.

Consider the consonantal combination “ht.” Of the five English vowels “a, e, i, o, u,” four of them (“a, i, o, u”) make up words in combination with “ht.” If you read the sentence “Th by sw th ht.” You can fill in most of the letters, but when you get to “ht,” it’s obvious that “o” doesn’t fit, as it is an adjective, but did the boy see a “hat,” a “hit,” or a “hut?” It’s obvious that your interpretation of the text will depend on which vowels you insert to form the final word.

In Chapters 8 through 10 Spinoza deals with the authorship of the Old Testament. His primary contention here is that Moses did not write the Pentateuch, and that the various books after the Pentateuch were written by various authors at a time much later than the events described.

Chapter 11—The Apostles. Spinoza asks whether the Apostles wrote as prophets or as teachers. He concludes that the Apostles were primarily teachers rather than prophets.

Chapter 12—On the true original text of the divine law. Spinoza declares that certain things are fundamental: the existence of God, His providence, his omnipotence, and that salvation is dependent upon His grace alone.

Chapter 13—Teachings of Scripture very simple. Spinoza’s chapter heading reads in full as “Where it is shown that the teachings of Scripture are very simple, and aim only to promote obedience, and tell us nothing about the divine nature beyond what me may emulate by a certain manner of life.” Maybe I’m alone in thinking this, but it seems to me that if that were all that Scripture is, we might as well cut out about 90% of the two thousand or so pages, and just publish and read little Bible compendia. It is Spinoza’s contention that Scripture teaches us piety and obedience. He states “We should certainly not accept, therefore that beliefs considered as such and without regard to actions, entail anything of piety or impiety at all. We must rather assert that a person believes something piously or impiously only in so far as they are moved to obedience by their beliefs or, as a result of them, deem themselves free to offend or rebel” (177).

How does this fit in with our usual notions of piety and devotion? How does it fit in with human actions? It seems to me that it operates in a vacuum. It ignores the basic fact that ideas have consequences. If you hold that people have no inherent right to property, then you will probably act, in either the personal or the political realm, in such a way as to take other people’s property. If you hold that God wills the destruction of a state, then you will act to destroy that state. Spinoza’s argument seems to rest on the idea that until the idea is transformed into action that it should be tolerated.

Chapter 14—What faith is. The Bible “is adapted to the understanding not only of the prophet but also of the fickle and capricious common people among the Jews” (178). I have to admit that “the Jews,” especially when it is used in somewhat pejorative passages, such as this one, is somewhat disquieting, but Spinoza is referring to the flock of Moses, and the Kings of Israel. The Bible is pretty unsparing with regard to the infidelities, and general failing of Israel to adhere to God and His law. Whether it is lamenting the loss of the cucumbers, leeks, and garlic in Exodus, or comparing Israel to the whore who was Hosea’s wife, there is a lot of Israel being told to shape up, though it is never told to ship out.

Spinoza reduces the contents of faith to a series of propositions:

Spinoza contends that there is a separation between faith (theology) and philosophy. He specifies the aim of philosophy as truth, and that of theology as obedience and piety.

Chapter 15—Theology not subordinate to reason; reason not subordinate to theology. Spinoza here maintains that theology deals with matters of piety and obedience, while reason “reigns over the domain of truth and wisdom” (190). Spinoza doesn’t state it, but the implication here is that theology, or faith, has nothing in common with truth. Now it may be that Spinoza means that the statements, or propositions put forward by theology cannot be proved by reason, and that’s a different matter, but the underlying idea seems to be that there is a sharp divide between the two. Now it is true that reason cannot lead to the doctrines of the Trinity or the Incarnation, but reason is certainly used in theology. The starting point may be Scripture, but a host of scholars and theologians have used reason to elicit a variety of dogmas, some erroneous, from the scriptural text.

Chapters 16–20 deal with the state. Spinoza contends that the process of the formation of the state involves each person in a transfer of his right to direct himself as he pleases in a state of nature. Certain things cannot be given away. These are those that are private to each individual, and include the person’s thoughts and beliefs. Spinoza argues that the state which tries to direct a person’s thoughts will be a violent state, and will be subject to internal stress. Have oppressive states been violent? I don’t know if you can draw up a matrix and assign scores for repression and violence, but the record does not look good. There is everyone’s favorite, Nazi Germany, which was oppressive and violent; Franco, I suppose was somewhat oppressive, but I don’t think his regime was particularly violent after it was in power; Lenin and Stalin were oppressive, as were Mao and Castro. On the other hand the Saudis are oppressive, and don’t seem to be beset with civil strife and disorder. It seems to be a pretty mixed bag, but I could be wrong.

I should do Leibniz next, but I’m going to take a break and do a medieval mystery next.