Spinoza and the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus

5 Apr

We choose our joys and sorrows long before we experience them. – Kahlil Gibran [1]

Konstatiert ist es, das der Lebenswandel des Spinoza frei von allem Tadel war,und rein und makellos wie das Leben seines gbttlichen Vetters, Jesu Christi. Auch wie Dieser litt er fiir seine Lehre wie Dieser trug er die Dornenkrone. Ueberall, wo ein grosser Geist seine Gedenken ausspricht, ist Golgotha. – Heinrich Heine

Scientists face every day the problem of the origin of being. From where all things came from? But due to the frugality of information we possess, of our knowledge and experiences in this world, the temptation to believe that there is a God at the source of all that exists is enormous. We do not intend here to quest this possibility since we cannot “prove” it. That is a question of faith. In my humble opinion, we are too far away to really understand what is God (we do not even know who we are, human beings, and the proof is the lack of respect we submit to the other human fellows permanently around the globe). Hence, in the West, our temptation resides in to see God as an old man, sat above the clouds (this is the image that, we, Catholics, we learn at school) and which in my viewpoint not even minimally respectable it is.

In this text, I am concerned about a man who thought about this fundamental quest, Benedict de Spinoza. His family were natives from Portugal, as I am, and this condition allows me to draw some conclusions, since, in my viewpoint, the actual mentality pervading all our activities in the actuality is not much different from the one that Spinoza felt, when he lived in the bosom of the Portuguese Jewish Community of Amsterdam. His parents bestowed on his only son (they had also two girls), the best education at the Jewish High School, with the guidance of a learned Talmudist, Morteira. He was introduced to the learning of the Hebrews, the mysteries of the Cabala and the Talmud, the Old Testament, commented by Ibn Ezra and Maimonides. He had knowledge of Portuguese, Spanish, French, Italian, and German. He wrote in Dutch with difficulty, which is quite surprising. He studied Latin by himself {FN2}, and after with Francis Van den Ende, a physician, with whom he gained knowledge of physical sciences, «which so largely leavened his philosophy» (in the Introduction of Ref. [3]).

But his thoughts collided with the wall of incomprehension. As referred by R. H. M. Elwes, one of the best scholars on Spinoza, “[…] hence with curious irony his works, which few read and still fewer understood, became associated with notions of monstrous impiety, and their author, who loved virtue with single-hearted and saintly devotion, was brand as a railer against God and a subverter of morality, whom it was a shame even to speak of.» [3]

The grinding lathe for optical lenses. Spinoza’s house in Rijnsberg near Leiden, Netherlands. Spinoza (1632-1677) lived in Rijnsberg between 1660 and 1663. Image credit: http://www.lessing-photo.com

The Jewish doctors tried to retain him in their community, even offering to him a yearly pension of 1,000 florins,, but Spinoza rejected. It is told that Spinoza’s life was threatened, one day when he was coming out of the Portuguese synagogue. Finally, he was then excommunicated [2].

He then had no reason to stay in Amsterdam, and he leaves this city to work manually polishing glasses and studying with his mind in an acquaintance house, in a place situated in the road that links Amsterdam to Auwerkerke. When he finishes his polishing, his friend takes care of them, sell them and remit the money to him [2]. Spinoza engages in the activities of trade in order to provide means for life’s necessities. Trade is a basic aspect of human’s life.

One episode shows a characteristic of his personality. On the death of his father, his sisters wanted to deprive him of the inheritance (sustaining that he was a heretic). Spinoza claim his rights on the court of law, he gained the process, but at the end he gave back all the inheritance to his sisters, only retaining one bed…

Interior of the Portuguese Synagogue of Amsterdam.

The best biography of this great thinker is probably the one of Johannes Colerus, The Life of Benedict de Spinoza [2].

Coleridge expressed the opinion that Ethics, the Novum Organum, and the Critique of Pure Reason were “the three greatest works written since the introduction of Christianity [1]. Despite the rigorous character of his writings, recurring to a kind of geometric exposition (influence of Euclid), numerous poets and imaginative writers embraced his philosophical exposition and study him deeply. Among them, we may refer Goethe, Novalis (who celebrated him as “the man intoxicated with Deity”) [4], Lessing, Lord Byron, Heine, Auerbach, Coleridge, Shelley, George Eliot.

Benedict de Spinoza. Image credit: Wikipedia.

In the preface, Benedict de Spinoza immediately starts to situate the problem with a fact we already know: «Men would never be superstitious, if they could govern all their circumstances by set rules, or if they were always favoured by fortune: but being frequently driven into straits where rules are useless, and being often kept fluctuating pitiably between hope and fear by the uncertainty of fortune’s greedily coveted favors, they are consequently, for the most part, very prone to credulity. The human mind is readily swayed this way or that in times of doubt, especially when hope and fear are struggling for the mastery, though usually, it is boastful, over-confident, and vain.» [3]

He also gave a clarified example: «Superstition, then, is engendered, preserved, and fostered by fear. If anyone desires an example, let him take Alexander, who only began superstitiously to seek guidance from seers when he first learned to fear fortune in the passes of Sysis; whereas after he had conquered Darius he consulted prophets no more, till a second time frightened by reverses. When the Scythians were provoking a battle, the Bactrians had deserted, and he himself was lying sick of his wounds, “he once more turned to superstition, the mockery of human wisdom, and bade Aristander, to whom he confided his credulity, inquire the issue of affairs with sacrificed victims.” [Note 1]. Very numerous examples of a like nature might be cited, clearly showing the fact, that only while under the dominion of fear do men fall a prey to superstition; that all portents ever invested with the reverence of misguided religion are mere phantoms of dejected and fearful minds; and lastly, that prophets have most power among the people, and are most formidable rulers, precisely at those times when the state is in most peril. I think this is sufficiently plain to all, and will, therefore, say no more on the subject”. »

Alexandre the Great. Image credit: http://www.howarddavidjohnson.com

Superstition and fear makes people dependent on charlatans, and their freedom, life and well-being is seriously menaced, as you can infer from the video here, showing a bishop from the Church “Igreja do Reino de Deus”, teaching other acolyte how to rob people with the easy talk about “religion”, not Religion, a way for Man to get in touch with higher qualities of Nature. And he becomes a very wealthy man…Nowadays, it is easy to find people with such a greed everywhere, as the financial crisis has shown to everyone.

One aspect of his system of philosophy stays in the spirit of the times when people believed that truth was something definite and relatively simple to grasp with a thinking brain, diligence, and a sound method. In times we can read works with a tone of confidence, that nowadays is fade away since Kurt Gödel and others have shown to us, how fragile are our systems of thought. Spinoza chooses a system of geometric presentation, in the way of Euclides, believing to get rid of error. “It is the part of a wise man, not to bewail nor to deride, but to understand”. Descartes is also present in his system of philosophy.

Einstein’s had a great admiration for his philosophy, and he told to Rabbi Herbert Goldstein when inquired about God: “I believe in Spinoza’s God who reveals himself in the orderly harmony of what exists, not in a God who concerns himself with fates and actions of human beings.”{FN3}. Also, Richard P. Feynman, one of the best minds of the last century, also intended to clarify the idea of God, a major purpose in the work and life of Spinoza {FN4}, as it is clear on this video below, sustaining that “our Gods are too provincial”. Feynman stresses too, in one of his talks, that science can’t prove if flying saucers exist, but science can tell us if they likely or unlikely exist…

The work of Spinoza benefited from science method of thinking, his thoughts are organized in a kind of geometric way. He inherited from the Hebrews the taste of freedom (conquered through science, magic, and knowledge), as it is understood by the writings of the Old Testament, which runs through the whole struggle of the Israelites – actually an amalgam of tribes, – the liberation from bondage, as it is clearly transmitted in the Exodus, an important part of the Bible. His life gives us examples which can be an inspiration for all of us in the actuality, in the actuality of this immensely beautiful, but miserable world, too. Anybody who understood Baruch Spinoza, that really understood his message, knows that we all must strive to be free…


[1] Kahlil Gibrain

[2] Joannes Colerus, The Life of Benedict de Spinoza

[3] Benedict de Spinoza, Tractatus Thelogicus-Politicus

[4] Novalis, This Life, Thoughts and works, edited and translated by M. J. Hope


{FN1} Here, Spinoza, apparently cites Curtius, Vol. 4, see also p.4 of Ref. [3] by yourself.

{FN2} Interestingly, we can read in a footnote of p.xi: «A translator has special opportunities for observing the extent of Spinoza’s knowledge of Latin. His sentences are grammatical and his meaning almost always clear. But his vocabulary is restricted; his style is wanting in flexibility, and seldom idiomatic; in fact, the niceties of scholarship are wanting. He reminds one of a clever workman who accomplishes much with simple tools.»

{FN3} This answer was given to the Rabbi Herbert Goldstein of the Institutional Synagogue, New York, April 24, 1921, published in the New York Times, April 25, 1929; from Einstein: The Life and Times, Ronald W. Clark, New York: World Publishing Co., 1971, p. 413; also cited as a telegram to a Jewish newspaper, 1929, Einstein Archive 33-272, from Alice Calaprice, ed., The Expanded Quotable Einstein, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000, p. 204. THIS REFERENCE WAS OBTAINED IN THE SITE OF STEPHEN JAY GOLD.

{FN4} Here I thank M. Garber for calling my attention to the opinion that Feynman had about Spinoza:

“My son is taking a course in philosophy, and last night we were looking at something by Spinoza and there was the most childish reasoning! There were all these attributes, and Substances, and all this meaningless chewing around, and we started to laugh. Now how could we do that? Here’s this great Dutch philosopher, and we’re laughing at him. It’s because there’s no excuse for it! In the same period there was Newton, there was Harvey studying the circulation of the blood, there were people with methods of analysis by which progress was being made! You can take every one of Spinoza’s propositions, and take the contrary propositions, and look at the world and you can’t tell which is right.”

Richard P. Feynman, The Pleasure of Finding Things Out


(1) the Jewish Virtual Library


2 Responses to “Spinoza and the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus”

  1. m. garber October 25, 2012 at 9:34 pm #

    Your comments about Feynman (….shared the same feeling toward Spinoza views…..) are bizarre and misleading. If you haven’t taken the trouble to read “The pleasure of finding things out” you can find Feynman’s opinion at http://memexplex.com/Meme/194/ .

    • Mario J. Pinheiro October 26, 2012 at 9:28 am #

      Hello M. Garber! You drew attention to an important point, and I’m certainly grateful. I read this paragraph of Feynman long ago, where he discusses the weakness of the arguments made by Spinoza. I wanted to mention this aspect in this post, the “provincial” notion that usually people have about God, and I think that on this specific point, both Feynman and Spinoza intend to offer a better understanding of God.

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