Sunday, 25 November 2012

Tractatus Theologico-Politicus by Spinoza

I’m reading Spinoza’s Tractatus Theologico-Politicus and I’m having to question the received assessment of Spinoza as a model of calm and rational resistance to perfervid sectarianism and religious obscurantism not of course that I blame him for his views because as he would himself say he is as subject to passive emotion as all men are. That characterisation of the gentle lens grinder is just an indication of how culture heroes are allowed an indulgence which they themselves would never seek and also perhaps a basic misunderstanding of his philosophy. It is human nature to be so swayed and Baruch Spinoza was a man, a brave and beset one who if he occasionally sounds like a boy atheist, has cause.
He allows himself some irony:

Now, seeing that we have the rare happiness of living in a republic, where everyone's judgement is free and unshackled, where each may worship God as his conscience dictates, and where freedom is esteemed before all things dear and precious, I have believed that I should be undertaking no ungrateful or unprofitable task, in demonstrating that not only can such freedom be granted without prejudice to the public peace, but also, that without such freedom, piety cannot flourish nor the public peace be secure.

He states that it is the respect that is accorded to ministers of the church that has made it a haven for blackguards:

The spread of this misconception inflamed every worthless fellow with an intense desire to enter holy orders, and thus the love of diffusing God's religion degenerated into sordid avarice and ambition.

It’s that rationalist tendency to generalise, to strive for thoroughgoing principle which brings all instances under its aegis that is at work here. It was then as it is now ahistorical if not anahistorical that is to say positively hostile to the idea of the power of historical conditions in the creation of rebarbative attitudes. Obviously this is the great weakness in Spinoza’s system namely the assimilation of nature to maths physics, a cosmic parallelogram of forces. This is less obvious in his metaphysics where we are accustomed to a single unifying unity but in politics it is naive.

The practical danger of his conclusions are evident:
I show that justice and charity can only acquire the force of right and law through the rights of rulers, I shall be able readily to arrive at the conclusion (seeing that the rights of rulers are in the possession of the sovereign), that religion can only acquire the force of right by means of those who have the right to command, and that God only rules among men through the instrumentality of earthly potentates.
(from Chap.XIX: On the outward forms of Religion)

Justice, therefore, and absolutely all the precepts of reason, including love towards one's neighbour, receive the force of laws and ordinances solely through the rights of dominion, that is (as we showed in the same chapter) solely on the decree of those who possess the right to rule. Inasmuch as the kingdom of God consists entirely in rights applied to justice and charity or to true religion, it follows that (as we asserted) the kingdom of God can only exist among men through the means of the sovereign powers; nor does it make any difference whether religion be apprehended by our natural faculties or by revelation: the argument is sound in both cases, inasmuch as religion is one and the same, and is equally revealed by God, whatever be the manner in which it becomes known to men.

Moral authority is situated in the power of the state. Struggle with it as they may, those who regard Spinoza as a sort of lay saint of the first church of Socrates must recognise that only in the good old U.S.S.R. was it thoroughly carried through.

Addendum 26/11:
My guess about the U.S.S.R. was a good one. It seems that Spinoza was a major figure for early Soviet philosophy who took his materialist atheism, as they saw it, in an age of religious control, to be wholly admirable. Here is a review by Isaiah Berlin of of book by George L. Kline on just that subject.Berlin I also note that there was a call for papers for a conference last May: papers

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