‘Spinoza’s ‘Atheism’, the Ethics and the TTP

In Spinoza: Reason, Religion, Politics: The Relation Between the Ethics and the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus (forthcoming)
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The impermanence of human affairs is a major theme in Spinoza’s discussions of political histories, and from our present-day perspective it is both intriguing and ironic to see how this very theme has played out in the evolving fate of Spinoza’s association with atheism. While Spinoza’s contemporaries charged him with atheism in order to impugn his philosophy (and sometimes his character), in our times many lay readers and some scholars portray Spinoza as an atheist in order to commemorate his role as a founder of modern secularism. In this paper, I will argue that Spinoza deserves neither vilification nor praise for being an atheist, for the simple reason that he was not one (unless one employs the term ‘atheism’ in a very peculiar sense). I have chosen the current topic as my contribution to a volume focused on the TTP, the Ethics, and their interrelations because it is precisely these two books which brought about the common reactionary accusation of atheism by Spinoza’s contemporaries. Addressing Spinoza’s 1663 book, Descartes’ Principles of Philosophy, Bayle writes: “Spinoza appears as orthodox in that book about the nature of God.” As we shall shortly see, Descartes too was accused of atheism by some of his contemporaries (though not so by Bayle). The latter designates his target quite explicitly: “[Spinoza’s] Tractatus Theologico Politicus, printed in Amsterdam, in the year 1670, is a pernicious and execrable book which contains all the seeds of the Atheism he plainly discovered in his Opera Posthuma.” François Lamy, in his 1696 Le nouvel athéisme renversé, also focused on the Ethics and the TTP in his attack on Spinoza’s atheism. Bayle’s reference to the Opera Posthuma is ostensibly targeting the Ethics at least primarily, if not uniquely. Even the most suspicious and distrustful mind would have to labor hard in order to find atheism in the Hebrew Grammar, or even in the Tractatus Politicus where Spinoza argues that it is not within the power, and hence right, of the commonwealth to induce people to adopt utterly absurd beliefs, such as “that the whole is greater than its part or that God does not exist.” The TTP and the Ethics are the works where Spinoza launches his merciless attack on anthropocentric thinking and anthropomorphic religion. Spinoza’s panentheism (“quicquid est, in Deo est”) constitutes the metaphysical foundation of the Ethics, and it is repeatedly and clearly alluded to in the TTP. Since it is these two elements – (1) Spinoza’s open assertions of panentheism and (2) his critique of andromorphic conceptions of God – which are the historical grounds for the atheism charge, it seems natural that the merit of this charge should be decided primarily by examination of these two foundational works. I will proceed in the following manner. In the first part of the paper, we will make our first acquaintance with the imputation of atheism by Spinoza’s contemporaries and Spinoza’s response to the charge (or lack thereof). In the second part, I discuss three broad strategies, or hermeneutic avenues, that have been pursued to impute atheism to Spinoza. The first of the three was dominant in Spinoza’s time, while the latter two were employed more recently. These strategies are not mutually exclusive and we can find occasionally various combinations of different shades of these three strategies. In this part, I will also raise some preliminary questions about the cogency of the hermeneutics employed by each strategy. In the third and fourth parts of the paper, I will discuss a small selection of key texts from the Ethics and the TTP, respectively, and argue that the atheist readings fail to make sense of these key passages (unless one adopts an extreme hermeneutics of suspicion which could allegedly find any view harbored in any text). Let me stress that this selection of passages is far from comprehensive, and that dozens of other passages can be adduced to establish the very same point. I hope by the end of the fourth part to convince the reader of the deep problems besetting the atheist readings. In the fifth and last part, I show that both panentheism and the critique of anthropomorphic religion and anthropomorphic conceptions of providence were quite common within rabbinic discourse. Thus, I will argue that if we are not in the business of announcing that both Maimonides and the Kabbalists were atheists, we should avoid the same imputation to Spinoza. Underlying my argument in this final part is the claim that at least some perceptions of Spinoza as an atheist are instances of what could be termed conceptual colonialism, i.e. the enforcement of the categories of a hegemonic culture (in this case, Western Christianity ) on minority cultures (in the current case, rabbinic Judaism). To be clear, this attitude need not be motivated by ill intentions or racism. It is always tempting and easy to explain the unfamiliar through the familiar, but conceptual stagnation and insistence on imposing the categories of the familiar on other cultures may quickly lead to deep distortion and blindness, despite one’s best intentions. Unless one is exceedingly careful to avoid the – completely natural – temptation to impose one’s own categories on a foreign culture (and to look for the coin only under the street light), one is likely to end up with distorted conceptions of the relevant alien culture, despite one’s best intentions.
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