Monday, January 21, 2008

Steven Nadler's "Spinoza: A Life"

Most annoying: my secondhand copy has pages 211-242 missing, and in their place a duplicate of pages 147-178. So I have not read Nadler's discussion of the appendix "Metaphysical Thoughts" Spinoza added to his Descartes' Principles of Philosophy, nor his discussion of Spinoza's Ethics. The latter is what I was especially eager to read in this biography, my introduction to the seventeenth century philosopher.

So little is known of Spinoza's early life that the first chapters of this book are more historical than biographical, more speculative than documentary. Nadler makes the case that Spinoza was banned or excommunicated at the age of 24 from the Portuguese Jewish community in Amsterdam for his unorthodox views on God, the Bible, and the human soul. Consistent throughout his life, and developed in his writings, his views were, very roughly, that God is Nature which is all that is, that the Bible is a compilation of human writing with the moral message of "Know and love God, and love your neighbor," and that the human soul will die with its body. Innocuous they may sound today, in his day, Spinoza's ideas were condemned not only by the Sephardim but also by the Dutch Reformed Church, and their political allies in the States General.

One of the book's many revelations to me is the controversy over Cartesian philosophy. Descartes' philosophical skepticism, separation of mind and matter, and mechanistic explanations of the natural world challenged religious world views. My own slight reading of postmodern theory has seen him as some kind of naive rationalist, and it's nice to see him a little better in his own historical context. While Cartesian ideas strengthened Spinoza's belief in human reason and his interest in the physical sciences, Spinoza seemed to have gone further than Descartes in naturalizing religious ideas, and opposing institutional religion.

In his discussion of Spinoza's Theological-Political Treatise, Nadler argues:

Central to Spinoza's analysis of the Jewish religion--although it is applicable to any religion whatsoever--is the distinction between divine law and ceremonial law. The law of God commands only the knowledge and love of God and the acions required or attaining that condition. Such love must arise, not from fear of possible penalties or hope for any rewards, but solely from the goodness of its object. The divine law does not demand any particular rites or ceremonies such as sacrifices or dietary restrictions or festival observances. The six hundred and thirteen precepts of the Torah have nothing to do with blessedness or virtue. They were directed only at the Hebrews so that they might govern themselves in an autonomous state. The ceremonial laws helped to preserve their kingdom and ensure its prosperity, but were valid only as long as that political entity lasted. They are not binding on all Jews under all circumstances.


Spinoza writes in his Treatise:

A catholic faith should therefore contain only those dogmas which obedience to God absolutely demands, and without which such obedience is absolutely impossible`.`.`. these must all be directed to this one end: that there is a Supreme Being who loves justice and charity, whom all must obey in order to be saved, and must worship by practicing justice and charity to their neighbor. . . .

[As for other dogmas], every person should embrace those that he, being the best judge of himself, feels will do most to strengthen in him love of justice.


This, as Nadler comments, "is the heart of Spinoza's case for toleration, for freedom of philosophizing, and for freedom of religious expression." And Spinoza makes clear in the Treatise that the political entity that best suits, or, even, guarantees, these freedoms is the secular democratic state.

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