A Book Forged in Hell: Spinoza's Scandalous Treatise and the Birth of the Secular Age

Susan James is impressed by an admirable study of a thinker who retains the power to disturb

November 24, 2011

Knowing that the publication of the Theologico-Political Treatise was likely to cause trouble, Baruch Spinoza and his printer, Jan Rieuwertsz, agreed that it should appear anonymously. However, as the Treatise itself observes, very few people are capable of keeping secrets. Within a few months of its publication in 1670, the identity of its author became known, and a storm of opprobrium broke over Spinoza's head. In Germany, the theologian Jakob Thomasius fulminated against a godless document and was congratulated by his student, Gottfried Leibniz, "for dealing with the intolerably licentious book in the way it deserved". From the safety of their university chairs, indignant Dutch professors denounced Spinoza as an "ex-Jew, blasphemer and formal atheist". Even some of his friends turned against him, in one case vilifying him as the author of a doctrine that "banishes and thoroughly subverts all worship and religion, prompts atheism by stealth, or envisages such a God as cannot move men to reverence for his dignity". In no time, the consistories of the Dutch Reformed Church embarked on the lengthy process of getting the work suppressed, and in July 1674 it was eventually banned by the States of Holland. According to the States' counsellors, it was a "blasphemous and soul-harming book, full of groundless and dangerous opinions and abominations that injure true religion and true worship".

Why did the Treatise provoke such outrage? Steven Nadler, the author of what is now the standard biography of Spinoza and an outstanding scholar of 17th-century philosophy, is ideally placed to explain. In A Book Forged in Hell, he draws on his immense knowledge of Dutch history and European philosophy to produce a characteristically rich and accessible analysis of the Treatise, which respects Spinoza's identity as a 17th-century thinker while bringing his arguments to life. There is no other book like it, and it is a delightful read.

In the Treatise, Spinoza sets out to address two questions that remained extremely controversial during his lifetime. First, should philosophers be free to teach conclusions that conflict with the revealed doctrines of Scripture? Or, as the Dutch Reformed Church tended to argue, should they be subject to theological authority? Second, were there some areas in which the Church could rightly limit state policy, or should the state hold power over the Church? Spinoza was not alone in arguing against ecclesiastical power on both counts; philosophers should be given the freedom to philosophise and religion should be controlled by the state. In the process, however, he rigorously and comprehensively attacked a range of cherished religious doctrines, and according to Nadler it was this, rather than his political views, that made the Treatise so outstandingly offensive.

Although primarily directed against Calvinism, Spinoza's onslaught is aimed at all forms of Christianity and Judaism, and focuses on the deepest theological commitments of these religions. His first and most telling target is the assumption that the Bible is the word of God, and contains divine revelations the truth of which is beyond all doubt. To contest these claims, Spinoza sets out to show that the Old Testament is a compilation of texts written by various human authors over a considerable period of time. Contributing to a growing debate about the history of Scripture and laying the basis of modern biblical hermeneutics, he argues that we cannot simply assume that what the Bible says is true. To grasp its meaning, and put ourselves in a position to assess its veracity, we must employ the same interpretative techniques that are used to decode texts of other kinds.

Taking up this project, Spinoza rejects a series of central Christian doctrines, of which Nadler emphasises those concerning prophecy and miracles. Although revelation is generally regarded as a supernatural process, careful study of the Bible reveals that it is a natural one. Prophets possess exceptional imaginative gifts that enable them to arrive at unusual moral insights; but since they are not great intellects, we are free to reject their claims about matters such as the nature of God or natural philosophy in the light of our independent philosophical knowledge. Equally, so-called miracles must have a natural explanation. Rather than illuminating the ways of God, they merely testify to our ignorance of natural causes.

By draining theology of the mystery surrounding revelation and insisting that religious phenomena can be explained in natural terms, Spinoza parted company with the God of the Bible, causing indignation and dismay among many of his readers. The deity, as the Treatise conceives of him, has no anthropomorphic properties and does not act on behalf of humankind; instead, nature is governed by deterministic laws that are not adjusted to human welfare. How, then, should God be worshipped? Here, Spinoza administers a further shock. As biblical interpretation reveals, true religion is simply a matter of obeying the divine law by loving one's neighbours. Moreover, as long as one's beliefs about God motivate one to live cooperatively, it does not matter whether or not they are true. Unlike dogmatic theologies, replete with official doctrines and ceremonies, true religion aims at cooperation rather than truth, and allows for a great deal of pluralism. One way and another, it is not surprising that the Treatise seemed to many of its readers to spell the end of religion as they knew it, and to be tantamount to atheism.

In politics as well as in religion, Spinoza's outlook has a modern feel that has prompted some commentators to describe him as a liberal. Nadler deftly avoids this anachronism: the Treatise's account of the state and religion is, he claims, too multifaceted to be pigeonholed. Moreover, since it is a response to a specific historical situation, "we do not do it justice by trying to make it fit some transhistorical category of theories". To be sure, the Treatise advocates a form of government that is democratic and also secular in the sense that the sovereign controls religion. But whereas liberal states are meant to remain relatively neutral between competing conceptions of the good, Spinoza is a republican. The task of his state is to promote the common good by cultivating a form of rational understanding that both empowers human beings and brings them happiness. Like Thomas Hobbes, Spinoza is convinced that if the sovereign is to be capable of achieving this end, it must possess absolute authority to decide what activities are consistent with public welfare. There is to be no liberal-style protection of speech, and it is up to the sovereign to determine whether or not a given speech act is seditious.

Nadler notes with regret that there is thus a rather hazy boundary between legitimate dissent and sedition, just as there is no equivalent of the US Constitution's First Amendment. "One can hope that perhaps Spinoza himself was uncomfortable with the restriction he had placed on freedom of speech, and that deep down he was really an absolutist on this matter." Perhaps. But for Spinoza this issue does not come in liberal guise. Facing up to a problem that liberals often prefer to skirt, the Treatise acknowledges that speech can sometimes be genuinely dangerous. There are no hard and fast rules that will tell us when it needs to be suppressed, and part of the art of democratic government lies in limiting it when necessary, while giving citizens as much freedom as possible to express themselves. More than 300 years after his death, as Nadler's admirable book makes clear, Spinoza retains his power to disturb and challenge.

The Author

As an undergraduate at Washington University in St Louis, Steven Nadler majored in philosophy but also studied art history, English and dance. He went on to complete an MA and a PhD in philosophy at Columbia University, but says he might well have pursued art history at college and been happy.

Nadler's fluency in French and ability to read Latin, ancient Greek, German, Dutch, Hebrew and Yiddish also suggest that he has a flair for languages, and he confesses to a love of Paris and Amsterdam. He has spent several weeks in each city for research purposes and recalls first travelling abroad aged 17 on a four-week bicycle trip to France and Switzerland - "a glorious and transformative experience".

In his spare time, he enjoys long-distance running and bicycling, and has completed two Ironman triathlons. He has taught at the University of Wisconsin-Madison since 1988 and often plays ice hockey on nearby frozen lakes in winter, observing that "you need to do something outdoors to stay sane and healthy in those long, cold months".

A Book Forged in Hell: Spinoza's Scandalous Treatise and the Birth of the Secular Age

By Steven Nadler

Princeton University Press 304pp, £20.95

ISBN 9780691139890

Published 9 November 2011

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