Appalling the pious

The Cambridge Companion to Spinoza

January 30, 1998

This volume contains ten essays by Spinoza experts on the whole range of Spinoza's thought: his metaphysics, his epistemology, his psychology, his ethical and political thought, and his theology and biblical investigations.

Benedict de Spinoza (1632-76) was born in Amsterdam, a Marrano Jew whose parents had emigrated there from the increasing persecution of Jews in Portugal. As a young man he was expelled from the synagogue for his heretical opinions and had no further relations with Jews but formed many close relationships with progressive Christians.

In and near his own time he was reviled for his demythologising interpretation of the Bible (both testaments) and for his identification of God and Nature, which was seen as veiled atheism. While philosophers such as Cartesians and even Gottfried Leibniz distanced themselves from him in pious horror wherever their thought was similar. Later Spinoza became the hero villain of 18th-century deism, especially in England, in its campaign against revealed religion. Then again he was seen as a mystical pantheist by key figures in the Romantic movement both in Germany and Britain.

Georg Hegel saw Spinozism as an essential phase through which any philosopher worth his salt must pass and later absolute idealism tended to claim him as its own. In more recent times Spinoza scholarship has flourished and interpretations of him have been a little less flamboyant but still quite various. In the last essay in this volume P. F. Moreau charts the history of Spinoza's reception and influence over three centuries or so and relates it to the peculiar concerns of each period.

In the first essay W. N. A. Klever gives a detailed account of Spinoza's life, our knowledge of which has been much enlarged by his own researches. Klever argues that Spinoza was more a scientist than a philosopher. One is inclined to respond that it is not just us, but surely Spinoza himself, who saw his greatest achievements as metaphysical, ethical and political.

This issue is clarified, and Klever's position partly challenged, by Alan Gabbey in the fourth essay on "Spinoza's natural science and methodology" by relating Spinoza's work to the intellectual taxonomy of his time. In his contribution Jonathan Bennett summarises the controversial interpretation of Spinoza's metaphysics which he presented in his book on Spinoza. Spinoza's God is, on its physical side, he claims, essentially space conceived as necessarily existing, while the existence of a physical thing at any place within it consists in the character space temporarily assumes there. Though this seems essentially right, it so plays down the status of the individual thing that the conatus, the effort of each finite thing to exist in as full a form as possible for as long as possible, seems somewhat lost sight of. (More controversial still is Bennett's interpretation of the attributes of extension and thought - the respectively physical and mental aspects of every individual in Spinoza's system.) Margaret D. Wilson's essay concerns Spinoza's puzzling theory of knowledge and shows how closely involved this is with his view of the divine mind. Like many modern commentators she seems unduly puzzled as to how to reconcile Spinoza's realisation that our own thoughts tend to be inadequate and false, and yet that our minds are parts of a divine mind all of whose thoughts are true. While some aspects of Spinoza are probably better understood by 20th-century than 19th-century commentators, the latter had the advantage that it was a commonplace of Hegelian thought that the very same thought is false seen in a limited context and seen in a more comprehensive one. Surely the right image (almost stated by Spinoza) is that our thoughts are like components of true propositions which would be false on their own, as P may be in "It is in (some specified way) as though that P".

Michael Della Rocca contributes an elaborate and helpful exploration and evaluation of Spinoza's attempt to analyse human psychology as a special case of the principle supposed to apply throughout nature that each thing strives to persist in its own being.

In his essay on Spinoza's ethical theory, Don Garrett shows how Spinoza saw the text of his Ethics as calculated to encourage moral behaviour, not by persuasion but by promoting clear and distinct ideas in appropriate readers which would show them what was in their true interest. Some other aspects of his interpretation rather surprise me. Edmund Curley, Spinoza's most scholarly English translator, and a rightly influential commentator, considers the "Machiavellian" aspects of Spinoza's political thought and raises the question why, despite his dim view of the "mob" he favoured a "republican government in which the people act as a check on their masters".

Alan Donagan contributes a paper on Spinoza's theology, showing how his partly Cartesian view of the natural world exhibited it as uniquely answering to the more abstract characterisations of God in mature monotheism - namely as a single infinite and eternal substance from which all finite individuals derive their being. On this basis he called it "God" and pointed the way to a novel religious outlook in which any more personal relationship with God is replaced by the possibility of participating in his eternal grasp of the necessity by which all things follow from his essence.

Spinoza is often described as the first exponent of the "higher criticism" of the Bible and in the last essay Richard H. Popkin considers his role in the development of biblical scholarship. He concludes that, while his more purely historical proposals had been anticipated by several others, he was an innovator in treating the Bible as a compilation of texts whose genesis was to be explained in purely naturalistic terms.

This collection contains valuable and challenging essays on each of the main topics on which Spinoza presented his highly individual and permanently interesting opinions. Naturally not all ways of looking at him are represented, but this is an excellent sample of current interpretation.

T. L. S. Sprigge is emeritus professor of philosophy, University of Edinburgh.

The Cambridge Companion to Spinoza

Editor - Don Garrett
ISBN - 0 521 39235 7 and 0 521 39865 7
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £40.00 and £12.95
Pages - 465

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