In ‘The New Republic’ Peter Gordon reviews
a new book* by Stephen Nadler about Spinoza’s philosophy initiating the
secular Stance toward life and marking thus the beginning of “the secular age”.
It raises some meaty
Spinoza, in the mid-17th
century, was – it has been asserted – “the first ‘secular Jew’”. It earned him
the disapprobation of Jewish religious authorities and, once they realized
where his thinking might well lead, the Catholic Church as well.
After all, a thinker
who only believed in God ‘philosophically’ (i.e. as a necessary conceptual Ground
for human thought) was reducing the dense, living and actual complexity of
human existence lived in relationship with a benevolent and omnipotent Creator
(the Catholic Vision, especially as synthesized by Aquinas in the 13th
century) to a mere shell and almost caricature of that Vision’s rich conception
of what human existence was all about, and how it operated, and toward what
purpose and meaning it was geared and aimed.
His book marks “the
birth of the secular age”. You could make a case for it.
Spinoza, like so many dissatisfied
thinkers after him, occupied a position in his world and his society that
‘marginalized’ him from the get-go, and in a profoundly personal and deeply
deranging way. He was a ‘Marrano’, a person of the Jewish faith living in
Christian Europe who had abjured Judaism and taken on formally a
Christian-Catholic identity in order to avoid the numerous penalties and disabilities
imposed upon Jews. Thus, in the very core of his being, he was a divided being.
Worse, that division
undermined any sense of ultimate identity and loyalty to any religious belief,
driving him to look ‘beyond’ (but not Beyond, as it were) any religious
identity and any religious reality. (And perhaps also drove him to doubt the
existence of a God – Jewish or Christian – that would putatively preside over
and approve of or at least permit such inflictions upon humans.)
Not situated – as it
were – in any commonly accepted identity, he was ‘free’ to look around or
‘beyond’. He did so, using what resources were available to him: his own mind
and power of thought (the assistance of Grace having gone out with his belief
in a personal and benevolent God).
In this he is a
“harbinger” of the “modern secular individual”, “materialist” and “radically
By this Nadler means
that Spinoza does not resort to any non-material explanations in his concept of
human existence and in his Stance toward that existence; and that through his
own travails Spinoza both embodies the reliance on one’s individual resources
to develop and explain that Stance and also sets the example for all thinkers
who (must) rely on their own resources in assessing the human situation and
developing their Stance toward it; and that since there is no certain authority
to any individual’s Stance thus derived (since there is no Authority that
commands such fundamental or common consent) then the whole process is – seductively,
especially to Americans – fundamentally and “radically” a “democratic” undertaking:
anybody and everybody can construct or adopt whatever Stance s/he thinks best
works for him/her.**
Spinoza runs into a ‘grounding’ (or Grounding) problem: systematic thinking and
conceptualization by humans about human existence requires some solid starting
point or grounding (or Grounding) point. Otherwise, there is no bedrock of
solidity upon which to anchor and build the conceptualization or any
conceptualizing activity at all. So that at the very best one can achieve mere
speculations or – at the lower end of that range – mere excitements and
This, of course, was
precisely the problem for Protestantism during the Reformation and since,
although at least Protestantism retained the general common faith-belief in a
God Who remained somehow the commonly accepted Judeo-Christian God, albeit with
such variations as occurred to this and that Reformer and his (less often: her)
So Spinoza quickly
winds up having to ‘arbitrarily’ declare some ground-point. He chooses to do so
by declaring that ‘god’ (as a purely but oh-so-necessary conceptual thing) is
“immanent” in Nature. This means that ‘god’ is simply identified with Nature
and its processes and workings and laws (those immutable and reliable laws
which Newton would soon do so much to discover and demonstrate).
Thus there is really no
need for a religiously-conceived and asserted God, since the workings of Nature
and its laws pretty much does the heavy-lifting (or grounding) previously
ascribed to God and His Grace and Providence.
This is rightly
characterized as a “materialist” approach, since it relies upon purely natural
(or Nature-al) grounds upon which to anchor its conceptual system. I would call
it a Monoplanar approach, since it seeks to comprehend and explain human
existence using merely the resources of this ‘earthly’ Plane of Existence (POE)
rather than seek a solid and Authoritative anchoring bedrock in a Multiplanar approach,
in another POE.
And a POE, I would add,
that is not only Authoritative, but also Benevolent as well as Omniscient and
Omnipotent (however mysterious are the ways of that Benevolent Authority in the
day-to-day working-out of that Guidance and Grounding). Think of the Stance
adopted by American Naturalism and Realism in the late 19th century,
vividly exemplified in Stephen Crane’s 1897 short-story The Open Boat: several men find themselves in a lifeboat after
their ship sinks / they must struggle against the implacable Sea / they handle
their situation each according to his own character, and not always
impressively or heroically / there is a crewman, an oiler, who alone seems both
competent as a sailor and concerned for the good of all of them / they approach
a shore, although the beach is battered by powerful and large open-ocean
rollers that create a monstrous surf / they decide to make their run in to land
/ they do so successfully, against the monstrous and potentially lethal power
of the Sea’s waves / they finally make it to shore / but the Sea has taken …
Spinoza’s approach –
ancestral ground of Crane’s vision – provides only the bare bones of
philosophical and conceptual ground; it does not and cannot provide to human
existence any consolation or assurance of any Benevolence (however mysteriously
such Benevolence might work out) operating in human affairs. Do the best you
can, be all that you can be, rise to the heights of heroism and heroic altruism
– it makes no difference in the end because Nature (Spinoza’s chosen ‘Ground’)
really doesn’t give a damn; the human is merely meat and eventually, and
perhaps sooner rather than later, the meat will go to the grinder, the cow to
the abattoir. This gives a dark spin to “meat-space”.
And it works as a
lethal obstruction to any individual human motivation toward the project and
task and challenge of human existence. (Let
alone what havoc it wreaks on any common societal motivation toward that
project and task and challenge.)
This is a problem that
Camus faced – courageously but with precious little powder in his charge – by
insisting that humans strive to be the oiler – as it were – simply out of a
dedication to achieving the best that they can be, by ceaselessly striving to
become ‘authentic’ and most richly and humanly genuine in the deepest and
highest sense of those terms. Which makes for an absorbing (if fundamentally
and ultimately hopeless) drama or agon for those individuals hardy (or
foolhardy?) enough to undertake and embrace it, but such an approach clearly
can’t support a wide and common human Stance, especially if – by the workings
of a thorough-going and ‘radical’ democratic approach - every human being has the
right to take the high and hard road or to just say No or to choose a far less
strenuous mode of conducting his/her life and its affairs.
The prospects for
‘materialism’ and ‘individualism’ and a certain type of ‘freedom’ are
tantalizing, perhaps. But the prospects for a commonly-embraced ‘team effort’ or
commonly-held Stance such as might motivate and ground a society and a culture
and a civilization are pretty much nil. As perhaps We begin to see nowadays.
Thus what Jonathan
Israel in 2002 called “radical enlightenment” and in 2011 “democratic enlightenment”
provides little light and even less heat. This is a democracy of loose if not
also addled electrons (although I am perhaps dating myself here with my
conception of sub-atomic particles).
In that sense, Nadler’s
effort to characterize Spinoza’s major work, his Tractatus Theologico-politicus, as one of the most “exhilarating”
and “revolutionary” works of modern philosophy offers – I would say – far less
cause for rejoicing than might meet the eye. Boomers, with especial notoriety,
were easily susceptible to the excited illumination that ‘change’ was always
and purely a good thing and that ‘freedom’ – existing as a free-standing value
– was always going to lead to broad sunlit uplands.
(One of the great
mistakes of the Boomer generation, as the late Tony Judt observed of his peers,
was that they were part of so large a demographic wave that they were the first
birth-cohort of youth in human history to presume without thinking that ‘the
world’ and ‘life’ was made for youthiness; and that ‘age’ offered no useful qualities
that were inaccessible to them in their naturally unripe condition; and that if
just given the ‘freedom’ they could do the job and do it better than any prior
generations in human history. Nor, being youthy, did they give much thought to consequences
– foreseen or otherwise – or costs. As perhaps We are seeing nowadays.)
Why, asks Nadler, did
Spinoza get so much grief for his book? What would possess him to write so
“scandalous” a book? This latter question being merely a set-up for the Correct
answer: because he was a heroic and democratic individualist who kicked-free of
the oppressive traces of imposed religion and sought freedom to think things
through himself and do it his way!
More sober and
life-tested minds might come up with other, different, explanations.
Spinoza, for his
troubles, was “excommunicated” by his Jewish co-religionists. Which is a sly
stretch since the Jewish religion doesn’t have a formal mechanism for
excommunication (it is – by the most amazing coincidence – a Roman Catholic
term and practice).
And in that Roman
Catholic tradition, excommunication – a rather drastic resort – was used to
flag ideas that, like a bad bridge, invited you to cross an abyss but bid fair
to collapse under you when you were out there hanging over the precipitous drop
Being a Marrano,
Spinoza ran afoul of both Jewish and Roman Catholic religious authorities. Who
doubtless saw clearly – with that X-ray vision that accrues to genuinely religious
thinkers who have been honing their best skills – that Spinoza, whatever his enticing
bits might have been, would ultimately lead to some form of chaos that would
serve only to seduce and complicate and ultimately strand or drop into an abyss
everyone who embraced his Stance and the conceptual system that underlay it.
Spinoza was also interested – as the title of his work clearly indicates – in
the political ramifications of his ‘theological’ concepts. What sort of polity
would best embody and enable his conceptual system and his vision and his
Spinoza here saw with
some clarity that a polity must indeed reflect, and needs, a political
grounding (not to say Grounding) in a common understanding of the ‘religious’
and of the role (or not) of God or some ‘god’.
The Framers saw as much
in 1787. But as I have said on this site, they could neatly solve their problem
(the vital role of commonly-held religious belief versus the need for a
separation of church and state) by surfing the Afterglow of the Medieval
theological-philosophical synthesis: the Framers could easily separate
organized religion formally from the political workings of the state because
they could quietly but with certainty assume a common cultural formation in a generally
Christian vision and Stance among the Citizenry. There could be a) a separation of organized
religion from the state without b) separating ‘religion’ from ‘politics’ (two
very distinct propositions indeed, and not congenial to the simplistic cartoonery
of contemporary Western and American political discourse).
Spinoza wanted to
“free” political discourse from the oppressive limits of “theologians” and the
clearly inaccurate assertions religion made about how things worked in this
world*** and how much a more robust intellectual “freedom” could contribute to
the human condition and one’s Stance toward it. He was making the first
assertion of ‘academic freedom of inquiry’ that would characterize the Modern
In that regard, I would
propose a framing of the situation different from the now-conventional (and
Correct) narrative: if ‘freedom’ would mean that engineers who felt that
airplanes could be flown in reverse and didn’t require airflow over the wings were
allowed to exert major influence in aircraft design and production companies
and in running airlines, then a whole
lotta unnecessary and avoidable human grief and suffering would necessarily
ensue as planes started to fall out of the sky or crash on their attempts to
This, of course,
presumes that human nature and the human situation – humans created in the
Image of God and human life designed for the purpose of deepening the
individual’s embodiment of that Image in each person’s life and in societal
common life – is accurately described by the Church’s Vision. What’cha think?
Spinoza has his own
take on the question and the answer, although he still believes that some
systematic conceptual comprehension is possible. Although his is a Monplanar
rather than Multiplanar solution.
Spinoza will ground his
answer/solution and vision by slyly divinizing Nature: there is a ‘god’,
immanent in Nature. That is to say, he will assert that “the universe is a
single substance, unique, infinite and absolutely necessary, but without any
anthropomorphic and transcendent ‘God’; but it is still, he insists, an order
“without contingency or division “and its order is utterly eternal”.
So then, all the
Ground-ing advantages (he thinks) of God without having all the
freedom-threatening boundaries that such a God will set upon human thought and
The German gets at this
more pithily than the English: Grenze und
Grunde, boundaries and grounds. They are sort of inseparable. First, if
something is going to have a ‘shape’ (or a Shape) then by definition there are
boundaries that define that thing such that it is identifiable as itself and as
not-something or anything else. Identity as a specific entity or being, that is
to say, automatically ‘limits’ that entity or being in some vital ways.
And second, if one is
going to have a Grund or Foundation
to support some structure that one constructs (conceptual as well as actual)
then one has to remain – like Antaeus – in constant contact with that
Foundation or one is going to derange and undermine the entire structure.
When considering the
advantages of utterly unfettered ‘freedom’, one has to take these dangers and
(potentially catastrophic costs) into account. Which is not something Americans
– until, perhaps, very recently – ever really gave much thought-to. Like
bombing to the Imperial Japanese, costs and consequences were things that
happened to other people.
And third, Spinoza’s
assertion that his ‘order’ is “utterly eternal” stands as nothing but that: a
bald and arbitrary assertion. But one which he had to make in order to come up
with some substitute ‘ground’ that would provide the reliability and
predictability necessary to give his conceptual scheme some credibility and
authority as an explanatory system and vision and Stance.
This would become
brutally obvious in the early 20th century when the discoveries of
quantum-mechanics demonstrated that ‘Nature’ can be and is radically non-linear
and unpredictable at its deepest, sub-atomic level. Which led not long after (as
intellectual history goes) to the Postmodern assertion that nothing about
anything can be reliably and predictably known, and humans are pretty much
facing the Sea of human existence (and that Abyss) by themselves, each
individual a confused and frightened (if s/he has any sense) monad utterly
‘free’ to be at the mercy of the “slings and arrows of outrageous Fortune” and
happenstance and arbitrary Nature or (Marx from Hegel) History. Oy.
And so God’s ‘Order’ is
merely Nature’s Order with a whole bunch of sentimental anthropomorphic
fantasizing tossed in. Instead, says Spinoza, you can select as your Ground “Deus sive Natura”, God or Nature. Sure, feel free to choose.
And to consume whatever you decide to purchase with your life’s meaning and
purpose and spiritual blood. Choose and consume away! You are freeeeeeeeeeee!
Gordon bravely makes a
stab at trying to save Spinoza here. It’s not that he says you can live life
without any Ground at all, but just that you are free to choose either God or
Nature (or History, since Hegel and Marx) as that Ground. Ain’t but a thang. Yah.
But also, Spinoza
wasn’t trying to “divinize Nature” into some sort of ‘god’ like a (pagan)
Nature-God. Spinoza’s use of Nature as a ‘god’ is merely conceptual, a
philosophical use of ‘god’ so that you can have a conceptual Ground.
That’s mighty thin gruel
for sustaining the human self (and human society) on the long desert trek
though History and its often nasty and painful (and ‘victimizing’) bounces and
eddies and swirling currents. Human beings thus (meagerly) equipped are not
only alone but utterly Alone, having to “walk that lonesome valley” not only
without a benevolent if sometimes mysteriously inscrutable God, but also
without each other through the bonds of a commonly-shared consensus and
rock-solid assurance that the whole human enterprise – and each human’s life –
isn’t just a fool’s errand, sound and fury and suffering signifying nothing.
Think of Camus’s citizens of that sore-bethump’t city in The Plague.
If this is ‘progress’
and ‘liberation’ and ‘freedom’ then one has to ask, with the Americans of the
homefront in World War 2: Is this trip necessary? Is it even going to be worth
it? The current Correct answer, channeled most pithily and with savage irony by
G.W. Bush (aka Bush the Lesser, if such a Bush there might be): Just go
Again, Gordon tries to
ease the point by saying that Spinoza doesn’t really try to divinize Nature as
if it were a personal and self-conscious entity; Spinoza didn’t go all goo-goo
like the German Romantics such as Goethe. That’s nice. It’s just a ‘philosophical
god’, actually a sort of hypothetical conceptual construct or quantum that you
need just to make the equation work. A ‘god’ like this you can’t build a life
on; a ‘god’ like this doesn’t give you the strength and confidence to conduct a
decent human life in the face of all of life’s frakkeries and difficulties. A ‘god’
like this you can’t build a civilization or a culture on, nor sustain one.
And yet this is
precisely the type of ‘god’ that you get with Modernism and secularism today.
This is what We will be left with. And worse, really, because on top of that Postmodernism
not only has no use for a ‘God’ or even a ‘god’, but denies that it is possible
for humans (who are themselves now knowable, either to each other or to
themselves) to know – much less master or work with – any reality because there
is no coherent reality (let alone Reality) to know.
And while Spinoza may
never have intended all of this, yet this is the end-point to which his
conceptual system has led.
And so when Nadler says
that all Spinoza did was to make ‘God’ and ‘Nature’ equally useful options, yet
they are not at all equal options. Spinoza’s ‘god’, Nature, is a thin,
conceptually-derived gruel. Merely comparing them on paper, Spinoza’s ‘god’
does not and cannot provide the relationship, the support, the Accompaniment
that ‘God’ provides. (And then you get into the question of faith and the type
of relationship that humans over the past millennia have developed with the
Gordon notes that “one
of the most startling consequences” of Spinoza’s approach is that you wind up
without the possibility of miracles. Surely not in the Hollywood sense, but far
more vitally, not in the sense of the ongoing daily miracle that a life lived
in cooperation with God’s Grace and Providence provides (however mysterious
those ways of His may be).
This may seem at first
glance to be ‘progress’: up from the superstitious sentimentality,
emotionalism, and phantasmic escapism (so the Moderns and Postmoderns insist)
that accompanies so much traditional organized religion, especially in the
But the Church had
discovered something about human beings quite a while ago that is too messy a matter
for Modern and Postmodern elites to dare consider: human beings have a very
sentimental, emotional capability – indeed a need for such experiences – and they
don’t work well when living under a system that does not address and satisfy
Throughout Europe in
the Dark and Middle Ages – and beyond – the Church discovered that her
sacramental and saint systems were constantly being penetrated by far more
primal emotions and – yes – superstitions to which people stubbornly clung. Parish
priests would discover their parishioners who were suffering a malady throwing
dung at a saint’s statue, hoping that if they hit the exact same spot on the
statue’s torso that corresponded to the physical ailment they had, then the
malady would be cured.
This was not part of
Church dogma or theology; rather it was a pervasive characteristic of the human
beings whom the Church had come to serve. And like Romans or Chinese building
their great walls, these immovable features of the ‘terrain’ had to be taken
into account if the ‘wall’ were to be built successfully at all.
The Modern rationalist
illusion that humans can be thoroughly cleansed of emotions and operate like
Spock’s Vulcans is just that: an illusion, and a lethal one. (Interestingly,
given that Postmodernism formally has no confidence in rationality whatsoever, it
will be interesting to see if the old emotionality, unbounded by any rational
elements (e.g. the Church’s complex and comprehensive systems of thought,
philosophical, theological, sacramental and so forth), will re-assert itself
and grow again like kudzu.
And what sort of
government will long last that does not take the emotionality of its Citizens
into account? Kirk’s Federation could accommodate
the Vulcans among a host of other planets and civilizations, but a government
that seeks to impose a Vulcan culture upon human Earthlings is not going to
fare anywhere near as well.
unwittingly laid some groundwork conceptually by asserting – and hardly
inaccurately – that you cannot use human language and expect to fully
comprehend the mystery that is God. But Spinoza went far beyond Maimonides by
asserting – in an almost Postmodern way – that ‘thought’ is itself merely a
process of Nature and is thus limited and shaped by Nature. And completely so:
there is nothing beyond-Nature that thought can reach.
This is precisely
contrary to the Aquinian insistence – building on the Classical insights – that
human reason is capable of at least helping humans to comprehend at least
partially their world, their lives, and themselves. And Aquinas went further:
given the Christian revelation, human reason – guided by the Holy Spirit – can reach
some workable comprehension of God and of His ways, even if it is not at all
None of this is
available to humans in Spinoza’s system, nor in the Modern nor certainly the
Nor is it anything but
fudging when Spinoza effectively ‘divinizes’ Nature by claiming that Nature and
its ways are “infinite and necessary and eternal”, thus arbitrarily declaring a solid ‘ground’
simply in order to have some conceptual basis for the all the rest of his
system. There is no way of demonstrating that Nature is either ‘infinite’ or ‘necessary’ or 'eternal'.
And when the Sun begins – as it most surely will – to end its life and expands
to consume the planets of its solar system, then just how ‘infinite’ and ‘necessary’
and 'eternal' Nature ultimately is will become brutally obvious.
So Spinoza is
attempting to bridge a very real existential Abyss, and to do so by building a
conceptual bridge from the human side alone. Whereas the Judeo-Christian system
seeks only to respond to the initiative from the Other Side of that Abyss,
wherein dwelleth a far more competent Bridge-Builder.
Gordon notes that
historians of early-Modern philosophy consider Spinoza to have merely developed
a form of “secular theology” and that to assert that Nature’s ‘laws’ are
universally valid across all of time and all of space is simply to “secularize
the Divine perfection”.
Worse, as I was getting
it in the matter of Medieval humans and their emotionality, Spinoza ignores
much of the wisdom about being-human that the Classical philosophers had
already developed. Plato, for example, saw humans as possessing three distinct
aspects: Logos, Thumos, and Epithumia.
These three aspects
describe the powers of (and need for) Reason, Spiritedness, and Desire. And –
remarkably considering how he is usually portrayed – Plato considered that
Spiritedness was the most essential: the human capacity for actively embracing
life and engaging in relationships.
In Catholic theology,
most recently seen in the work and life of John Paul II, this wisdom is
reflected in that Pope’s primary devotion to Mary: he saw that it is the
spirited love flowing from an actual and personal relationship to God (through Mary)
that is the utterly indispensable and primary reality for Christians. Not
primarily the conceptual embrace of Church theology, not some unreliable and
transient ‘desire’ stemming purely from oneself. Rather, the Christian and
Catholic believer is most vitally enlivened and quickened by the personal
relationship of love with the Divine.
Yes, Logos and even Epithumia have their place, and they cannot be ignored. But it is Thumos that fuels the core dynamic of
Spinoza then brings all
of his system to bear on the Bible (both Hebrew and Christian versions): it is
merely a human document, a compendium of human foibles and “imperfections” and
all manner of inconsistencies and incoherences.
But what Spinoza – and so
many of his intellectual descendants – fails to realize is that the Bible is
first and foremost a record of a
relationship, and not a formal conceptual theological manual or textbook. (It
was for that precise reason that the Church feared what the Reformation would
unleash: people who would seek to ground full and absolute theological
positions merely by ‘reading the Bible’ and ‘looking in the Bible’ without any
awareness of the Bible’s true nature and
without, perhaps, a mature and ripened relationship to the Divine in the first
Thus too the oh-so-contemporary
assertion that the Hebrew concept of ‘election’ – of being somehow chosen by
God for a relationship – is merely a ‘myth’ devised by a certain people in a
given place and time. But especially when taken in conjunction with the New
Testament, the Bible is a testament to the marvelous (miraculous?) reality that
God wishes to enter into a relationship of love with all His children.
If this is a ‘myth’, it
is a myth in the best sense of the term: an image that reveals a profound
All of this doesn’t
even begin to appear on Spinoza’s conceptual radar because he is working purely
with Logos and nothing else (like a
perfect Vulcan). Spinoza fails because
his system does not adequately address the full reality of being human.
And systems based on
his original thought fail and will continue to fail for exactly the same
And to what extent are
his own images of Nature not also ‘myths’, although in the lesser sense of that
word: they are products of human thought or imagination that do not correspond to some profound reality
Thus Spinoza gets
around to applying all of his thought to politics, and specifically to the
question: what political arrangement or polity best serves to platform his
philosophy for the human beings who conform to his philosophy?
The best form of
political system and government, he decides, is that which allows individuals
(his type of individuals) to exercise rationally-directed human willpower.
This is not progress
beyond, say, Aquinas. This is a regression back beyond the level of
comprehensiveness that Aquinas had achieved. Aquinas fully supported and
demanded the exercise of human freedom, rationality, and will – but he presumed
that all of those human capabilities would be conformed to and shaped by the
Image of God in which each and every human-being is Created.
What’s the use of
having the ‘freedom’ to fly a plane if you don’t know how to operate the
machine? Is the exercise of such a freedom really going to do you any good? Or
any others who rely on you to ferry them or all the people over whose heads you
are going to be flying and upon whose heads you might well crash?
So too, a secularist
Modernism or Postmodernism that ‘valorizes’ freedom but rejects any efforts to
Shape the humans who will be exercising it … is going to lead to more crashes
than successful and fulfilling flights. As perhaps might be becoming increasingly
clear as time goes by.
And a government that
subscribes to such un-Shaped freedom is not going to be assisting the genuine fulfillment
of its Citizens. (And I say this in full cognizance that the current Correct
dogma is that there is no such valid concept of ‘genuine freedom’ and everybody
just has to be ‘free’ and see what happens.) Just do it!)
Indeed, a case could be
made – as it was in Medieval political theology – that any such government
would be illegitimate and did not deserve nor command the adherence of its
Further, it would be
difficult to characterize Spinoza as a ‘liberal’ avant la lettre, if by ‘liberal’ you mean classical Liberal of the 19th century.
But if you mean the neo-liberal New Left of the post-1972 era, then Spinoza may
Because, as Gordon put
it, by “collapsing religion into a civil religion fully directed by the state” (especially
when buttressed by the ‘positivism’ whereby whatever a government legislates is
ipso facto valid and inarguable on any grounds of conformity (or lack of it) to
any Higher Law) I would say that Spinoza
has laid the groundwork not only for a political but a theologico-political
The current question
about the Separation of Church and State is completely left in the dust if the state
or government itself takes over the religious aspect of the lives of its
Citizens, erecting itself into that creature Mussolini described: “nothing
outside the state, nothing against the state, nothing above the state”.
But, Gordon continues,
Spinoza was not so much interested in political freedom as in the “freedom to
philosophize”. But again, what good is ‘freedom’ if it leads you to cross a
truly existential Abyss on a rickety and unreliable bridge? And while this may
be merely collateral-damage and an acceptable-loss if this or that individual
does it, what are the consequences when an entire culture or civilization, led
by its government, does it?
In concluding, Gordon
notes, and not inaccurately, that so many of Spinoza’s themes “lost precision
as they gained in influence”.
This is a vital and
serious human reality. So many thinkers who have constructed complex and
nuanced systems have suffered – often posthumously – the fate of having their
carefully calibrated thoughts ‘popularized’ in the minds of people who can’t
quite bring themselves to master the whole system, but glean (or are fed) handy
and selected snippets for quick reference. (Look at what happened to the Church when her profoundly
nuanced and complex Vision was shared with the rest of the world, and even with
her own believers and adherents.)
But Spinoza’s system –
even when it was fresh from his pen – was seriously deficient. And things have
not gotten better with the passage of centuries, especially in Modern and
Postmodern America, where the deforming pressures of ideology and politics have
sought to enlist him in the development of a ‘secularism’ that will surely fail
both as theology and as political theory.
naturalism” does not obviously have any impact on human beings’ “experience of
themselves as moral agents”, Gordon opines.
But this is hardly
accurate. Spinoza’s “monistic naturalism” does not take the moral aspect of
human-being into account at all. And in weakening the Ground provided by any
Beyond and certainly by the Judeo-Christian God, Spinoza undermines substantially
any moral Ground that can both anchor and nourish human moral agency such that
it can direct human ‘freedom’ to a genuinely fulfilling life and purpose.
Because ideally, the
human being, made in the Image of God, must be engaged in some deep and vital
relationship with that God or – at the very least – allow him/herself to be
Shaped by the requirements flowing from that Image and that Creation.
Otherwise, We are regressed back to pilots who don’t know how to fly planes,
and an Orchestra that rejects Composer, Conductor, and Score and simply hopes
to ‘feely’ saw and tootle and bang away at its instruments, in the hope –
perhaps – that like the proverbial million monkeys typing for a million years,
some decent story might be made, some decent tune stumbled upon.
Which brings Us, I
would say, right back to the here and now.
*”A Book Forged in
Hell: Spinoza’s Scandalous Treatise and the Birth of the Secular Age”, by
Stephen Nadler. Princeton University. ISBN: 9780691139890
**It seems to me that
“radically democratic” echoes and perhaps lays the groundwork for recent
assertions by thinkers such as Chantal Mouffe and her “radical democracy”.
Although by now, several centuries later, Mouffe’s thought displays some of the
ominous political dangers inherent from the get-go in Spinoza’s approach: in
her “radical democratic” politics, those who ‘just don’t get it’ must – for the
sake of any common public ground and Stance – not be allowed to participate in
the common public discourse, since their putative obtuseness will merely
obstruct the Knowledge held by those vanguard-elites who do ‘get it’.
***The Church had had a
bad early-Modern era. When her rather vigorous support of scientific research
in the Renaissance led to Copernicus’s astronomical discoveries it posed a
profound problem: Copernicus demonstrated that Aristotle’s cosmology was wrong.
Fair enough. But the Church – through the Aquinian synthesis of classical
philosophy and Christian revelation – had based her comprehensive and
dynamically interlinked and interlocking moral and ethical system and Vision on
Aristotle’s (and Plato’s) moral and ethical systems. Would not the disproving
of Aristotle’s cosmological thoughts open the door to undermining his moral
and ethical system as well? It took a while to work through this, and in the
meantime the Church hoped to hold Copernicus and Galileo at bay, lest they rip
up the Score (the Reformation had already dispensed with the Conductor) and
leave the Orchestra of humanity ‘democratically free’ to play whatever tune(s)
the individual players felt the Composer might like or should have written.