Monday, May 07, 2012


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 points.
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 democratic”.

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.**

But straightaway, 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 ‘illuminations’.

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) adherents.

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 … the oiler.

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 into chaos.

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.

Especially since 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 Stance?

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 Age.

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 take-off.

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 invention.

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 shopping.

Oy gevalt.

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 Judeo-Christian God.)

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 Catholic Church.

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 those needs.

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.

Maimonides had 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 complete.

None of this is available to humans in Spinoza’s system, nor in the Modern nor certainly the Postmodern approaches.

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”.

Just so.

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 genuine faith-life.

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 place.)

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 reality.

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 reason.

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 or 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 subjects.

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 well qualify.

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 Leviathan.

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.

Spinoza’s “monistic 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.

Thursday, May 03, 2012


It was several years ago that Leon Wieseltier, writing in ‘The New Republic’, observed that that there had once upon a time been an era “before the panicked society-wide attempt to expel contingency from American life”.

He had a point then and he most certainly still has a point now.

Where did this come from, this effort to abolish “contingency”?

A powerful synergy was created by the combination of Victimism and organized Advocacy. The Victimist approach is that many (many many, if you tote up the putative constituencies that the organized Advocacy interests claim to represent) are ‘victimized’ by this or that ‘structural’ element in the make-up of societies and cultures – and wouldn’t be (and I agree) wonderful if all this ‘victimization’ could be gotten rid of?

The organized Advocacy approach – drawing deeply from Alinsky and Gramsci (both of whom drew deeply from the Marxist-Leninist universe) – was that since a) the dominant and oppressive and hegemonic forces in culture and society pretty much sustained the status-quo against the ‘marginalized’ (Gramsci’s term) and since b) only political power would solve the problem – that power to be achieved by whatever means necessary to wield a counter-power to the elements of the status-quo, then you had to force the government to work in the interests of the ‘marginalized’ and the ‘victimized’.

In the service of such a good Cause – and soused with the ‘revolutionary’ approach to politics (you don’t seek to ‘understand’ but rather you work to ‘change’; and you don’t let yourself be sidetracked from your plan by ‘facts’ or worries about consequences or by deliberating and consulting with people who ‘just don’t get it’ in the first place) – then whatever force or pressure you can manage to exert by whatever means you can achieve it is ‘baptized’. (Long before Bush-Cheney, this country’s politics had started to walk on the dark side.)

Coincidentally, in those late 1960s Italian radical students (also soused with Gramsci but even more with Mao) were chanting the mantra: Where violence reigns, only violence will help. Over here there was some overt violence, but what escaped notice was the tremendous amount of violence done to the Framing Vision by the adoption of major and fundamental elements from the Marxist-Leninist-Gramscian-Maoist political universe.

Flowing into the powerful stream of American can-do-ism (LBJ was especially noted for it, and with a hefty Texas helping of brawn and brass), and driven by demographic desperation by the dissolution of the almost 40-year old New Deal coalition, the late-60s and early-70s Beltway simply started accepting whatever agendas were pushed their way, aimed at eradicating as many of the ‘oppressions’ of American life as might be identified by this or that among a burgeoning roster of organized Advocacies now sensing broad sunlit uplands in the distance and a clear path opened for them through the corridors of the Beltway.

In this, the Beltway quickly adapted what Theodore Lowi had identified in March of 1967 as the well-established postwar Beltway strategy Lowi called “interest group liberalism”: the Beltway would allow major interest groups (at that time big labor, big business, and big agriculture) to write up the regulations and laws that they could all live with, the administration sort of refereeing the production sessions.

Extending this already-established procedure to the now burgeoning roster of organized Advocacies, We wound up with what I would call “advocacy group liberalism”, and those groups too were allowed to almost literally write the laws and regulations they wanted to see implemented forthwith.

Combined with this was a growing tendency toward a secularism that eschewed any reliance on any Beyond to support folks or assist them in dealing with the difficulties of ‘life’, or what Shakespeare had called “the slings and arrows of outrageous Fortune”.  In fact – and as Marx had said – ‘religion’ simply blunted the desire of the masses to work toward improving their own situation (and as Lenin added, the masses can’t be relied upon to help themselves, and the vanguard-elite cadres would have to mount up and herd the cattle … for their own sake).

Having gotten into the game for what it may have thought was a dime, the Beltway was now in it for a dollar. And the dollars and the demands added up quickly and began to exert a cumulative force – I would say an increasingly intensifying  deranging force – on all aspects of government (legislation, jurisprudence, enforcement) and on increasingly broad sectors of American life, society, and culture as well.

And – having now put itself in the position of getting rid of any Beyond that might assuage and assist folks – the Beltway found itself increasingly taking over functions formally ascribed to the Divinity.

Which could and can only forebode lethally ominous developments for any constitutional, limited, republican and democratic form of government.

As We have seen now for the past forty Biblical years and more.

Thus too the ancient spirit of Leviathan, called back to life by its newly-created robust mate, Leviatha from the new Left, once again began to stalk the land and – more dangerously – the corridors and streets of the Beltway.

Fortified as well by a hefty infusion of legal ‘positivism’: ‘positivism’ is a poorly named term. It stems from the Latin ponere, to place or to put in place. ‘Positivism’ is the translation in English, but it’s a poor choice because in English it’s associated quickly in the mind with something ‘positive’ and thus ‘good’.

 But what the term is actually describing is a government that puts its laws in place; it ‘posits’ them.

The ‘-ism’ stems from the assumption that whatever law a government puts in place is ipso facto valid and inarguable simply because the government has done it, has put it in place.

There is no Higher Law (from any Beyond) to which the law must conform and by which it must be judged, and there is no Higher Law to which a positing-government need answer or to which it must conform or by which it might be judged.

‘Positivism’ effectively removes any law put in place by the government from any limiting factor whatsoever, beyond such political power as the Citizenry might exercise (that same political power that the vanguard-elites of the organized Advocacies had been working so hard to grasp for their own purposes and agendas).

You see how things began to go.

As the government and the Beltway became increasingly indentured to the new client-constituencies, and fortified by a healthy fear of having Alinsky-type demonstrations organized against this or that pol outside his/her office, then “advocacy group liberalism” increasingly became a powerful force demanding that the government resolve or eradicate (or – more ominously – prevent) an ever-expanding panoply of misfortunes and ills and sufferings.

Government began to get into the God-business big-time, and – worse – began to assume the God-role.

And in so doing it began to depart from the Framing Vision big-time: the most basic rights now (to privacy and to property) have come now to be considered in Correct and elite thought – as in Marx’s thought – as nothing but obstructions designed to maintain the status-quo hegemony of the dominant oppressors, and if the government ‘granted’ them (the Framers thought they were merely ‘recognizing’ them) then the government can taketh-them-away. No questions asked, or ask-able.

Thus Wieseltier – hardly alone in his observation – notes that the political and cultural energies and consciousness of the country (government and citizenry, culture and society) was geared toward the expectation that government would not simply manage the big corporations more equitably but that it would – through various broad and forceful and imposed re-jiggering of ‘structural’ causes – eradicate just about anything that some organized Advocacy insisted was a pain, or a problem, or a ‘victimization’.

And here We are.

All too often too many people look to the government to solve all the problems of life; they see themselves as the victims of ... something; they want the road smooth and the American Garden freed from all the toils and tribulations. People with a life-stance like this aren't going to be up to the task of being The People, the ultimate governors of their government. They are, rather, in mind and heart, its clients and dependents.*

Yet ‘life’ remains stubbornly painful. As the novelist Marguerite Duras put it through one of her characters: “Very early in my life, it was already too late”. Just so.

This ‘secularist positivism’ is of course averse to being judged by any Higher Law. And that, I strongly think, is part of the reason for the general and almost-instinctive government animus to the Catholic Church, which stands as a major obstacle to its agenda and its very existence as a political vision and a political force in this country.

The Church stands as an obstacle because she stands precisely and faithfully (some will say obstinately, stubbornly, and obstructively) for that Higher Law. The Church herself is imperfect, not being “divine” herself and comprised of humans constructed – as is everybody – by the “crooked timber of humanity”. But the stands for that Higher Law and no secular-positivist government, no Leviathan (or Leviatha) can tolerate that type of ‘threat’ to its hegemony and dominance (and – I am sure We shall see – ‘oppression’).

One does not need to be a Catholic to be concerned or to be ‘empowered’ as a Citizen to do something about all this.

One need only believe as a rock-bottom first principle that the single monoplane of this earthly existence is not the only Plane of Existence and that there is a Higher Plane of Existence, wherein dwelleth principles, or Principles, and perhaps the Source of all such Principles as the nation was founded-upon.

That position is philosophically quite viable and enjoys a heritage that goes back to Plato and Aristotle.

And though they may be classic ‘dead white European males’, yet at this point We need all the help We can get.


*You think of the Brits in the Blitz and throughout that war, even when in summer ’44 that V-1’s and V-2s started a second Blitz: ‘we’ll manage’. You think of Americans here on the homefront, asking themselves all the time: ‘Is this trip necessary?’ You think of the country – either in uniform or under the discipline and challenges of the homefront, to say nothing of absorbing the losses of loved ones in combat … where is that capacity among Us now? So many are not only too young to recall or to even have parents who can pass on such capacities of character, but are also ‘clients’ of the parent-God government, in a national culture increasingly corroded both by consumerism and victimism.