Popkin, R., 1998. The Excommunicant. Review of The God of Spinoza: A Philosophical Study by Mason, R. and Spinoza, Liberalism and the Question of Jewish Identity by Smith, S. London Review of Books [Online] vol. 20 no. 20 pp. 38-42. Available from http://www.lrb.co.uk/v20/n20/richard-popkin/the-excommunicant [Accessed 24 April 2011].
The God of Spinoza: A Philosophical Study by Richard Mason
Cambridge, 272 pp, £35.00, May 1997, ISBN 0 521 58162 1
Spinoza, Liberalism and the Question of Jewish Identity by Steven Smith
Yale, 270 pp, £21.00, June 1997, ISBN 0 300 06680 5
Shortly after the end of World War Two, a young American professor submitted an article to a leading philosophical journal, explaining a difficult point in one of Spinoza’s arguments. In short order he received his manuscript back with the news, written on it by hand, that ‘we are not now and never will be interested in Spinoza.’ Spinoza had been dropped from the Anglo-American canon.
The positivists regarded him as one of the worst examples of a metaphysician. For Spinoza, God or Nature is everything and is everywhere, and whatever is, is an aspect of God or is in God. God is the cause of whatever takes place. Whatever happens follows necessarily from the nature of God, and nothing can be different than it is. Spinoza made it clear that he was not talking of the Judaeo-Christian deity, but a purely philosophical being. He then worked out a stoic-like ethical system in which the highest good for man is to see the world from the aspect of eternity, and to achieve the intellectual love of God. As Richard Mason reminds us, Spinoza’s neglect of epistemology made him of little interest to those who insisted that the problem of knowledge as set out by Descartes defined what philosophy was properly about. Spinoza found a little room for that problem only at the end of the second book of the Ethics. A decade ago, when I offered a course on Spinoza at UCLA, I was told it was years since one had been given. A senior colleague told me he had never read Spinoza, but knew he could not be all bad since he had been expelled from the Amsterdam Synagogue.
This attitude is now dated. We have recently been getting much new information about Spinoza’s background, the context in which he worked out his philosophy, and his influence. There is now an international journal, Studia Spinoza, and Spinoza societies exist in various Western countries. Above all, two new English-language editions of his writings are now appearing, one from Princeton, translated by Edwin Curley, of the entire corpus, the other from Hackett, translated by Samuel Shirley, of the Ethics, the Theologico-Political Tractatus and the Letters.
Much new material has also become available about the Jewish community of Amsterdam in Spinoza’s day, about events connected with his excommunication, his involvement with various radical Christian groups, the writings of his Latin teacher, a revolutionary ex-Jesuit, and about his place in the intellectual world of the time. The old picture of the solitary philosopher devoting his life to the pursuit of truth is now being replaced by a very much richer one.
These two new books focus on Spinoza’s theological and religious views. They seek in opposite ways to show the great significance of the Tractatus. Richard Mason starts from the Ethics, then carefully expounds Spinoza’s theological metaphysics, going on to interpret his critique of existing religions and his justification for complete religious toleration. Steven Smith starts from Spinoza’s role as the first secular Jew (after his excommunication), and the way it is reflected both in his critique of religion, especially Judaism, and in his political theory.
In both books, the excommunication of 1656 is the turning point, when Spinoza rejected his Jewish heritage and stepped into modernity. This is an event we now know much more about than we did. It was not a clear-cut case of rigid Orthodox Jews throwing out a free-thinking rebel. Indeed, it is not at all obvious why Spinoza was excommunicated. Details uncovered by the late I.S. Révah show that in 1659, three years after the excommunication, Spinoza attended a theological discussion group in Amsterdam, along with another former member of the synagogue, Juan de Prado, at which he is reported to have said: ‘God exists, but only philosophically.’
In 1656, three people had been accused of heterodoxy: Spinoza, Juan de Prado and Daniel Ribera, all accused of teaching questionable views in their Sunday school classes. (One can date the point at which Spinoza became unhappy with the synagogue from the records of his financial contributions, which had been substantial until one week in 1655 when they dropped to one cent.) The synagogue apparently did what it could to get the three miscreants to recant and apologise. Ribera just disappeared. Prado was a doctor and had been a Catholic theology student in Spain, where he was said to have been a deist, whatever that might then have meant. The synagogue leaders wanted to resettle Prado and his family if he did not recant his heterodoxy; they offered to drop the charges against Spinoza if he would come to the High Holiday services, and keep quiet. Prado recanted, but Spinoza did not.
Recant what, however? No specific charges appear in the excommunication statement, which looks so forceful and fearsome, and reads as if the community really hated the young Spinoza, but was in fact a form statement. Back in the early days of the Amsterdam Jewish community, when they wanted to throw out an obnoxious member, they did not know how to do it. They sent the future Chief Rabbi, Saul Levi Mortiera, to get the advice of Venetian rabbis, who gave him the form of words. It appears that during the 17th century over two hundred and eighty members were excommunicated from the Amsterdam Spanish and Portuguese Jewish community, for non-payment of dues, failure to keep a marriage contract, insulting one of the Board of Directors, buying a chicken from an Ashkenazi butcher instead of a Sephardic one, and so on. Only five ideological cases are recorded. Almost all excommunications were withdrawn when the penitent paid a fine, and/or made promises of future good behaviour. Spinoza is one of the very few who did not recant, or get received back into the good graces of the community.
The old hagiographical picture is of the brilliant young Spinoza opposed by a community that wanted nothing to do with new ideas. The Amsterdam community was not like this, however. It consisted of people who had lived as Christians in Spain, Portugal, France, Italy and Belgium. Some had studied at higher educational institutions, and knew about the science, philosophy and theology taught in them. They tried to keep up their Iberian heritage by training students in similar subjects, and ran Spanish poetry societies and put on Spanish plays. Few had any Jewish training before coming to Amsterdam. The members of the Jewish community were also involved generally in business, and were well aware of the different beliefs held in the city.
It is hard to imagine what Spinoza could have said or thought that would be so shocking to these people, most of whom regarded the Amsterdam synagogue as a business club for Marranos returning to Judaism. The excommunication seems to have occurred in the midst of a crisis about how to take care of thousands of Jewish refugees from Brazil and from Eastern Europe. It was pronounced privately, in the office of the Chief Rabbi, without Spinoza being present. In fact, he had already left the community, and started on his new life, the excommunication being simply a way of acknowledging this. It did not shut him off from the world, maybe not even from the Jewish world, since he had friends among former and fringe Jews in the Netherlands. (There were many partial Jews in Amsterdam who attended the synagogue but were also involved with various churches.) Spinoza himself never brought up the issue of his excommunication. He told people he had left Amsterdam because somebody tried to murder him with a knife – he kept a coat which had knife holes in it, and showed it off to people. He lived peaceably in the Netherlands and eventually died of natural causes, in spite of his radical views.
The so-called ‘Jewish Question’, as to whether and how Jews could fit into a modern ‘secular’ state, was first raised in Amsterdam early in the 17th century, when Hugo Grotius was asked to define the legal status of the emerging Jewish community. His proposal, involving many restrictions on Jewish life, was never acted on; instead, a de facto agreement was reached, whereby Jews could live as legal residents provided they did not cause scandal, and did not require government aid for their indigent members. The local community was as emancipated as any Jewish group in the world at the time, but Jews were not Dutch citizens. They could participate in making policy as stockholders in the India companies, but not as citizens.
The arguments about Jewish emancipation went on in France and Germany from the end of the 18th century. The Jews living in the Netherlands were offered Dutch citizenship by the French Revolutionary army that conquered the territory. Two groups opposed giving the Jews citizenship, the orthodox Calvinists and the Jews themselves. The Calvinists insisted that the Jews had to remain just Jews in order to fulfil their Providential role in world history. The Jews expressed gratitude for their treatment in the Netherlands but did not wish to be Dutch citizens because they might have to leave at any moment if their Messiah arrived. So they opted for temporary residency rather than citizenship.
Discussion of the place of Jews in modern society hardly starts with Spinoza, except for his attempt to play down the significance of Jewish customs and practices in post-Biblical society, and his advocacy of toleration of all religious groups which accept that their role is to persuade their members to obey the laws of the state. Spinoza’s Tractatus-Theologico Politicus, which most likely grew out of his unpublished answer to the Synagogue, starts by arguing that there is no special religious knowledge, neither by prophecy nor miracles. The purported Providential history of the ancient Jews has to be understood in context. The Jews had escaped from Egypt and had no legal society. Moses formed one for them, and reinforced its claim on them by attributing his laws to God. The ancient Jewish state was based on theocratic beliefs, which can be understood and evaluated in terms of the circumstances of the time. Now, centuries later, it is just a curious ancient history, having no claims on the present world. Those who want to re-create a Hebrew Republic, like some of the Dutch Protestants, do not understand that the Biblical world is over and done with. The Bible is just a set of human documents which were written and preserved over time. What is binding in them is only what a rational person would comprehend as the basis for modern human society. Churches should realise that their function is to make people obey the laws of the state, and to tolerate everyone.
The real debates about Jewish emancipation began in 18th-century France and Germany, culminating in Napoleon’s calling a Sanhedrin to decide whether Jews could be law-abiding citizens in an Enlightenment state. Spinoza is not responsible for the fact that emancipation did not lead to the acceptance of Jews as political and social equals. It is perhaps in the United States that something close to what Spinoza envisaged has developed, beginning with the founding Constitution and the Bill of Rights, the form of which may have been influenced by the 1729 English translation of the Tractatus that was in Benjamin Franklin’s library, a collection used for reference by the framers of the Constitution.
Spinoza’s prospectus for a post-Jewish and post-Christian world was part of his plan for ending human servitude by inducing all those who can to live a rational, free life. The new rational religion he proposed in the Tractatus, needing no Scriptures, has only seven principles, relating to an acceptance of God’s existence, and the need to show charity and a love of one’s neighbours. If this became the religion of the state, then everyone should be accepted as equal, even those who still adhered to Jewish or Christian religious groups, provided these inculcated obedience to the state and charity to others. Had Spinoza’s liberal state come into being, would there have been any ‘Jewish Question’?
Smith tries to make too much of Spinoza as the father or inspirer of Jewish emancipation, and also lends too much weight to his probably ironic statement in the Tractatus that if the Jews have not been made too effeminate by circumcision and by emulation of their neighbours, God might someday redeem them by re-establishing them in their homeland. Thus, Smith contends, Spinoza became the first political Zionist.
The re-establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine loomed large in 17th-century thought. Millenarians and Messianists like Isaac La Peyrère, John Dury and Peter Serrarius expected the recall of the Jews to Palestine any minute, where they would rebuild the Temple and set up a government. Arguments about whether they would return as Jews or as converts to Christianity were common. Menasseh ben Israel seemed to believe they would return as Jews; La Peyrère as Jewish Christians. Spinoza’s contribution to this debate is trivial. He was living in a world where Christian Millenarians both in England and the Netherlands were trying to establish a New Israel. Spinoza was worried by the violence that had accompanied the Puritan Revolution in England, and that the same might happen in his homeland. He had lived through the frenzy of the Sabbatai Zevi episode, when almost all Dutch Jews came to believe that the Messiah had arrived and would lead them back to the Holy Land.
Some Christians, too, believed this, and Christian political Zionists have played an important role, both then and now. Present-day ones, like Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell and Hal Lindsey, accept a Jewish state as a necessary pre-condition for the rebuilding of the Temple, to be followed by the return of Jesus and the conversion of the Jews. Spinoza, however, played hardly any role in the development of such thought. The current attempt in Israel to make him a Zionist hero reveals more about the political situation there than about Spinoza’s thought.
Mason says more than once that, where Spinoza’s metaphysical system is concerned, he is trying to ‘get it right’. Part of this involves making modern readers realise that he was not concerned with whether it is factually the case that God exists. Spinoza starts with God as a given, and then explicates what this implies. Mason goes on to reconcile this with his discussion of religion, principally in the Tractatus, where Judaism and Christianity, and their different conceptions of God, are among the main topics. Mason argues over and over that Spinoza has to be understood in the context of contemporary religious discussion.
Mason helps greatly to remove some misunderstandings by stressing that Spinoza was writing before the Enlightenment, for which he was a major source. The possibilities of agnosticism, deism and even atheism were just then being formulated, partly as a result of Spinoza’s own work. The idea that Moses, Jesus and Muhammad were frauds and fakers was soon to be known as ‘l’esprit de M. Spinosa’, even if it was not put about by him (though his good friend Henry Oldenburg worried about how to refute it). Even the radical consequences of his Biblical criticism only started to emerge in full after his death, in the writings of Father Richard Simon and Reimarus. Spinoza saw the Bible as growing out of the special political ‘religious’ circumstances of the ancient Hebrews. In order to understand how they had developed, the texts had to be studied historically, philologically and contextually. The end result of this kind of interpretation was to see the Bible as a literary-historical collection of documents, rather than as writings reporting divine truths.
The final aim of Spinoza’s examination of Hebrew history was political, to re-interpret it in order that a secular, tolerant state might come into being. His substitution of his own deconstructed Judaeo-Christianity for the avowed beliefs of existing churches and synagogues is intended to separate religion from the state. Only a rational religion can lead to the religious experience portrayed at the end of the Ethics, which views the world as if from eternity and teaches an intellectual love of God.
A footnote to this is that, in the Tractatus, Spinoza presents Jewish history and beliefs, and the significance of Jewish survival, in the way that would most jar his Jewish contemporaries in the Netherlands. Most of them had been raised in a world in which the Inquisition was the great enemy, and they tried in various ways to preserve some remnants of their Jewish roots. They all had friends and relatives who had been victims of the Inquisition. They had fled to Amsterdam because of fear of the Inquisition and because they wanted freely to express their Jewish feelings and beliefs. Henri Méchoulan has shown how Spinoza’s revisionism would have offended the sensibilities of the Marranos who had returned to Judaism, and who regarded this return to be of the greatest significance to themselves personally, as well as to Judaism and the future history of the world. Spinoza may have been tone-deaf to the Weltanschauung of his family and his original community.
It always surprises me when present-day interpreters of philosophers contend, as they often do, that they are the first properly to understand them, and can safely ignore earlier interpreters. In Spinoza’s case, by the end of the 17th century three now almost totally ignored interpretations had appeared which were to dominate evaluations of his thought for years afterwards: those of Pierre Bayle, Jacques Basnage and J.G. Wachter. Bayle debunked some of the hagiography and stressed Spinoza as a noble and systematic atheist, who, contrary to the claims of many theologians, was not corrupted by his disbelief, but was actually more moral than most Christians. Enlightenment readers came to see Spinoza in the light of Bayles’s interpretation. It was in keeping with this view that the manuscript entitled Les Trois Imposteurs, Moses, Jesus et Muhammed, ou l’esprit de M. Spinoza, appeared towards the end of the 17th century. There are well over two hundred copies of Les Trois Imposteurs in libraries all over Europe and America.
A quite different interpretation of Spinoza was offered by Bayle’s close friend, Jacques Basnage, in his Histoire des Juifs. Basnage sought to find out about Spinoza from people who had known him. In particular, he questioned a rabbi (probably Isaac Aboab, who had read out the excommunication sentence) and was told that Spinoza had plagiarised his ideas from the Kabbala, putting them into Cartesian dress to make it appear that he was original.
At first glance, Basnage’s interpretation seems preposterous, especially since Spinoza dismissed the Kabbalists as triflers. However, the same interpretation was offered by J.G. Wachter, who visited Amsterdam at the end of the 17th century. What caught the eye of both Basnage and Wachter was the partial similarity of Spinoza’s theories to those of Abraham Cohen Herrera, the great Neo-platonic kabbalist whose classic, Porta de Cielo, had appeared in Latin in 1677, at the same time as Spinoza’s Opera posthuma. Herrera, who had studied with Florentine Platonists and with one of Isaac Luria’s disciples, ended his life in Amsterdam, where he wrote his masterpiece. He belonged to the Spanish-Portuguese synagogue, and was the teacher of both Isaac Aboab and Menasseh ben Israel. It seems perfectly plausible that Spinoza would have read this kabbalistic classic. Wachter, however, carried his interpretation to the point of contending that Spinoza’s thought is the essence of Judaism, and not a recent heresy. To convert the Jews one would therefore have to make them realise that they are all Spinozists.
Spinoza has been read in many different ways at different times: as the consistent Cartesian who demolished Descartes’s theory of substance; as a late medieval Jewish thinker who abandoned the medieval framework; as the first systematic atheist; as a secret Kabbalist; as a pantheist; as a ‘god-intoxicated’ man; as the first secular Jew, or secularist tout court; as the first political Zionist; as a self-hating Jew; as a quasi-Buddhist; as an early feminist. All of these have been proposed. Which is right?
Many new possibilities of deciding that question now exist, based on our much greater knowledge of the Jewish community of the Netherlands and Dutch intellectual and religious history. We are at the opening of a new era, as we find out more about the issues Spinoza was discussing and the people he might have discussed them with. We know that he was involved with members of Collegiant and Mennonite groups, and probably some Quakers and former Jews, like Juan de Prado, from before the excommunication until the 1660s. He then seems to have become involved with serious thinkers abroad, like Henry Oldenburg and Robert Boyle. We know that in The Hague he discussed philosophy with the libertines Charles Saint-Evremond and Henry Morelli, with Leibniz, and with people around the Prince de Condé. In the last four years of his life, when he was living in the home of the painter Hendrik van der Spijk, we are told that he spent most of his time working and studying, but also found time to make at least two hundred charcoal drawings of his visitors – many learned and eminent persons, including ‘ladies of quality’ and some Jews. Van der Spijk showed them to people as late as 25 years after Spinoza’s death. I have always hoped that they still exist and may yet be found.
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