Book Preview – A Book Forged in Hell by Steven Nadler

Books, Book (P)reviews, In the Author's Own Words

Writing in May, 1670, the German theologian Jacob Thomasius fulminated against a recent, anonymously published book. It is, he claimed, “a godless document” that should be immediately banned in all countries. His Dutch colleague, Regnier Mansveld, a professor at the University of Utrecht, insisted that the new publication was harmful to all religions and “ought to be buried forever in an eternal oblivion.” Willem van Blijenburgh, a philosophically inclined Dutch merchant, wrote that “this atheistic book is full of abominations … which every reasonable person should find abhorrent.” One disturbed critic went so far as to call it “a book forged in hell”, written by the devil himself.

[Steven Nadler, University of Wisconsin-Maddison, previews his book, A Book Forged in Hell: Spinoza’s Scandalous Treatise and the Birth of the Secular Age (Princeton University Press, 2011; paperback 2013)].

Writing in May, 1670, the German theologian Jacob Thomasius fulminated against a recent, anonymously published book. It is, he claimed, “a godless document” that should be immediately banned in all countries. His Dutch colleague, Regnier Mansveld, a professor at the University of Utrecht, insisted that the new publication was harmful to all religions and “ought to be buried forever in an eternal oblivion.”  Willem van Blijenburgh, a philosophically inclined Dutch merchant, wrote that “this atheistic book is full of abominations … which every reasonable person should find abhorrent.”  One disturbed critic went so far as to call it “a book forged in hell”, written by the devil himself.

The object of all this attention was a work titled Tractatus Theologico-Politicus (Theological-Political Treatise), and its author an excommunicated Jew from Amsterdam:  Baruch de Spinoza.  The Treatise was regarded by Spinoza’s contemporaries as the most dangerous book ever published. In their eyes, it threatened to undermine religious faith, social and political harmony, and even everyday morality.  They believed that the author – and his identity was not a secret for very long – was a religious subversive and political radical who sought to spread atheism and libertinism throughout Christendom.  The uproar over the Treatise is, without question, one of the most significant events in European intellectual history, occurring as it does at the dawn of the Enlightenment. While the book laid the groundwork for subsequent liberal, secular and democratic thinking, the debate over it also exposed deep tensions in a world that had seemingly recovered from over a century of brutal religious warfare.

The Treatise is also one of the most important books of Western thought ever written.  Spinoza was the first to argue that the Bible is not literally the word of God but rather a work of human literature; it consists of a collection of writings by various authors, handed down through generations, and compiled, in a somewhat haphazard and politically motivated way, in the Second Temple period by an editorial committee (led by Ezra). Moreover, the authors of those texts adopted as “Scripture”, and especially the Hebrew prophets, were not highly educated individuals; they knew little of philosophy or science, and their views on the cosmos, human beings, history, and God were the contingent product of their personal background, environment, and occupation. Much of what they believed is best classified as superstition. However, the prophets were outstanding in moral character and endowed with gifted imaginations, and so their writings, if not necessarily to be taken at face value when it comes to matters of truth (philosophical, scientific, theological, or historical), are nonetheless excellent guides to moral behavior and offer valuable lessons in true “piety” – the essence of which consists in a simple moral principle: Love your neighbor and treat others with justice and charity. If the “divinity” of Scripture consists in anything, it is in the remarkable capacity of its stories to inspire such piety and morally edify its readers.

Spinoza thus argues in the Treatise that “true religion” has nothing to do with theology, liturgical ceremonies, or sectarian dogma, but consists only in that simple moral rule; and that ecclesiastic authorities should have no role whatsoever in the governance of a modern state, much less in controlling peoples’ lives, in so far as they only foster division in the polity by creating divided loyalties. Sectarian faiths set people against the state and against each other, and so represent a pernicious presence in society. For this reason, religion, and especially forms of public worship, should be closely controlled by the civil authorities, in whose bailiwick all activities impinging upon public welfare fall. Least of all should religious authorities have any say over intellectual matters.

Elaborating on a theological theme that he explains and argues for at greater length in the metaphysical parts of his philosophical masterpiece, the Ethics, Spinoza also insists – in what may be the most incendiary (to his contemporaries) claims of the Treatise – that “divine providence” is nothing but the laws of nature; that miracles (understood as violations of the natural order of things) are metaphysically impossible, and that the belief in them is simply an expression only of our ignorance of the true causes of phenomena. The book’s political chapters present as eloquent a plea for toleration (especially “the freedom to philosophize” without interference from the authorities) and republican democracy as has ever been penned. In Spinoza’s ideal state, people are “free to think what they want and say what they think” – a remarkable statement for its time.

* * *

The reputation of a philosopher from the past is often at the mercy of what is popular among contemporary practitioners.  The “canon” of classic philosophers, while relatively stable at its core for a long time (like the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council), has seen its share of additions and dismissals. And for a long time, especially in the Anglo-American philosophical world in the first half of the twentieth century, Spinoza did not make the cut.  While he may have continued to enjoy honorary status as one of the great Western thinkers, he was not considered to be a relevant one, and his works were rarely studied even in survey courses in the history of philosophy.  It certainly did not help that the Ethics, while composed in the “geometric style”, was extremely opaque (contrary to the clarity of thinking and writing prized, at least in principle, by analytic philosophers), and that in that work he propounded doctrines that seemed to many to border on the mystical.

Spinoza’s rehabilitation in the latter half of the twentieth century progressed as metaphysics and epistemology came to dominate academic philosophy.  The metaphysics in fashion was not the system-building kind of earlier periods, including that of Spinoza or the idealist sort favored by the latter-day Hegelians of Cambridge in the late nineteenth- and early twentieth centuries, but rather precise analytic investigations into mind, matter, causation, and universals.  Meanwhile, modern epistemologists, like Plato and Descartes before them, inquired into the nature of belief, truth, justification, and knowledge.  And these were all topics on which, it was believed, Spinoza (despite his grander pretensions) had something interesting and relevant to say.  Moreover, his unorthodox view on God and his ingenious approach to the mind-body problem made him seem, in some respects, much more “modern” than his more religiously inclined seventeenth-century contemporaries.

The somewhat problematic result of this was that Spinoza (again, like Descartes) came to be seen as someone who was primarily engaged in metaphysics and epistemology, and who was interested only in such questions as the nature of substance and the mind-body problem and in addressing the skeptical challenges to human knowledge.  The focus, in teaching and in scholarship, was on the first two parts of the Ethics, in which are found Spinoza’s monistic view of nature, his account of understanding and will, and the mind-body parallelism that is supposed to be his response to the difficulties faced by Descartes’s dualism.  Parts Three, Four, and Five of the Ethics – his theory of the passions and his moral philosophy – were seldom discussed at all (and even less frequently taught). This produced a very incomplete and misleading picture of Spinoza’s philosophical project; one was left wondering why the work is called Ethics.

The Theological-Political Treatise received even worse treatment in this period; indeed, it was all but ignored by philosophers in the twentieth century. The neglect came not only from those working in metaphysics and epistemology, but (more surprisingly) from scholars of political philosophy and of religion. Very few histories of political thought discuss Spinoza, and works in the philosophy of religion rarely mention his name. Even to this day, one is hard-pressed to find the Treatise taught in a philosophy course. (It was disappointing to see that Alan Ryan’s recently published, two-volume survey of the history of political thought – On Politics: A History of Political Thought from Herodotus to the Present [K1] (Norton, 2012) – does not discuss Spinoza at all.)

Despite all this, outside the walls of academia there continued to be widespread fascination with Spinoza’s thought.  And the interest was not so much in what he has to say about substance or mind-body relations, which may be topics that only professional philosophers can get excited about, but in his views on God, religion, miracles, the Bible, democracy and toleration.  Non-philosophers – the kind of people who will show up in great numbers on a Sunday afternoon for a public lecture about Spinoza – are deeply curious about his radical ideas on these questions, especially in the light of his well-known excommunication from Judaism.  They may have some passing familiarity with – as well as a good many romantic and innocent notions about – what Spinoza had to say, but few have actually read the Treatise, even though it is a much more accessible work than the intimidating and heavy-going Ethics.

The last two decades have been much kinder to the Treatise.  There have been a number of important books and many fine articles devoted to elucidating its theses and arguments, as well as its historical context.  Most of these works, however, are of a specialized nature, and they tend to be devoted to this or that aspect of Spinoza’s religious and political thought.  Useful as they are in furthering our understanding of the Treatise, these scholarly studies are directed to an academic readership. Thus, they seem to have done little to sate what appears to be a real longing among general readers for information on a book about which they have heard or read such extraordinary things.

With this book, my hope was to bring Spinoza’s Theological-Political Treatise to a larger audience.  The focus of the book is broad:  the composition, contents and context of the Treatise.  What exactly does Spinoza say in this work that so scandalized early modern Europe? What moved him to write such an incendiary treatise? What was the reaction to its publication and why was it so vicious? And why is the Treatise, almost three and a half centuries after its publication, still of great relevance?

This is not a book on Spinoza’s philosophy as a whole. Nor is it even a study of Spinoza’s religious and political philosophy; I have considered the philosophical theology and political themes of the Ethics, as well as his late and unfinished Political Treatise, only insofar as they are relevant to my project of elucidating the Theological-Political Treatise.  Nor do I investigate the considerable and very important reception of the Treatise beyond the immediate response to it by Spinoza’s contemporaries.  The legacy of the Treatise – from 1670 to our own time – is a rich and fascinating topic, one deserving thorough study in its own right.

What I am interested in is simply understanding what Spinoza is saying in the Treatise and why he is saying it, as well as showing why the book occasioned such a harsh backlash.  Spinoza has a rightful place among the great philosophers in history. He was certainly the most original, radical and controversial thinker of his time, and his philosophical, political and religious ideas laid the foundation for so much of what we now regard as “modern”. But if we do not give the Theological-Political Treatise the attention it deserves, then we do not really know Spinoza.

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