Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677) has long appealed to skeptics and secularists. In the 18th century, “Spinozism” was a synonym for atheism. Shelley channeled him in his own arguments for atheism, George Eliot translated him, Hegel and Marx admired him, and he was one of Nietzsche’s favorite philosophers. Yet in his major philosophical works, he can hardly stop talking about God, whose existence never seems to be in doubt—prompting the German poet Novalis, one of the many Romantic poets enchanted with him, to call him “that God-intoxicated man.”
Einstein’s answer to a New York rabbi clears things up a bit. The rabbi cabled him in 1929 to ask him if he believed in God. Einstein replied, “I believe in Spinoza’s God, who reveals himself in the orderly harmony of what exists, not in a God who concerns himself with the fates and actions of human beings.”
It’s clear what Spinoza’s God is not. He isn’t the God of the Bible, the personal God of Spinoza’s own Jewish tradition, or of Christianity, the one whose job description includes closely monitoring human affairs and miraculously intervening in them. What he is isn’t so clear.
Spinoza used the provocative formulation Deus sive natura—“God, or nature”—but he actually regarded nature as just the visible, comprehensible aspect of God’s infinite, incomprehensible being. One consequence is that everything that happens in nature, and everything that nature’s lawful order dishes out to us personally, is necessary—the way the conclusion of a logical or mathematical demonstration is necessary.
Everything is determined, not by God’s will—He doesn’t have one—but by our being, with everything else, an integral part of God’s being. Nothing happens by chance. And there are no miracles. Asking God for one, asking that He suspend natural law for our benefit, is asking God to trip up God. But once we recognize this inexorable order as God’s only providence, we arrive at a serene acceptance of the world, combined with a virtuous immunity to its petty distractions and snares, thus partaking of the true freedom which belongs to God.
Pantheistic mysticism? Cold deterministic rationalism? His readers have been arguing the point for centuries, and are still arguing. Spinoza first made his views generally known in the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, published anonymously in Latin in 1670 but quickly attributed to him. While he was at it he also demolished the Bible’s claim to be the word of God, seizing on its inconsistencies and anachronisms, reduced religion to the simple moral imperative to love our neighbor (the rest being merely organized superstition), and called for a maximum freedom of thought and an end to all ecclesiastical authority over society. The book was a bit too much for tolerant but still Calvinist Holland, where it was denounced as blasphemous and dangerous.
Steven Nadler’s lucid book about Spinoza’s shocking book takes its title from a contemporary pamphlet that described it as “a book forged in hell.” Nadler’s own book was forged in Madison, where he is a professor of philosophy at the University of Wisconsin. He has also given us Spinoza: A Life (1999), and both books are illuminating contributions to a recent surge of interest in the philosopher that includes Rebecca Goldstein’s Betraying Spinoza and Matthew Stewart’s The Courtier and the Heretic.
Nadler does an excellent job of summarizing Spinoza’s sometimes convoluted arguments in the Tractatus and making clear how original they were, stressing his departures from influences like Maimonides, Descartes, and his older contemporary Hobbes, whose tough-minded raison d’état realism he adopted in the political part of the book before steering toward unheard-of democratic conclusions. He shows how modern biblical criticism and the broad Enlightenment program for a secular, scientific society were effectively launched in the book. And he gives us the historical context of Dutch Golden Age politics and culture, which usually allowed the tolerant cosmopolitanism of its merchant class to prevail over clerical indignation. Elsewhere Spinoza might have been jailed or burned at the stake, but in Holland he was left alone—if sometimes by fiat.
At the age of 23 he was formally excommunicated, and cursed, by Jewish authorities in Amsterdam, where he had been raised in a Portuguese-Jewish family, probably for heretical ideas overheard in his conversations. His fellow Jews were thereafter forbidden to speak to him or even go near him. Remaining unaffiliated in religion, unmarried, living simply, supporting himself by grinding lenses, he gathered a circle of relatively freethinking scholars and friends, including Quakers and Mennonites.
The Tractatus, Nadler points out, is a more readable and urgent book than his posthumously published magnum opus, the Ethics, with its rigorously Euclidean, axiomatic format, but the books have a common aim: “liberation from bondage, whether psychological, political, or religious.”
Exactly. There is, after all, that famous chapter head in the Ethics, “Of human bondage, or the strength of the emotions.” In the Tractatus Spinoza compares the arbitrary divine power exercised in the Bible to “the rule of some royal potentate.” He wants to liberate us from a heavenly despot whom we abjectly petition for miraculous favors or reprieves, from clerics who claim to be his agents and intermediaries, and from the powerful and capricious emotions, especially hope and fear, that those clerics exploit. Unlike the ancient Stoics whom he somewhat resembles, Spinoza thought emotions are best taken care of when they are fully understood, not when they are fully extinguished. Freedom means minimizing our emotional subjection to things outside ourselves.
Of course, you may still wonder if his deterministic nature, which has no room for free will, just exchanges one form of bondage for another. And you may hear Voltaire’s jibes in Candide, aimed at Spinoza’s contemporary Leibniz, bouncing off Spinoza as well. If everything comes from God just being God, then all would seem to be for the best in the best of all possible worlds, and our calamities are, so to speak, simply divine. But that’s why secularist readers (Nadler among them) have always seen Spinoza’s God as a thin disguise for an orderly, perhaps awe-inspiring, but purposeless and indifferent nature. And why we’re less interested now in Spinoza’s logic than in his peace of mind.
Nietzsche wrote that he had “deified the All and Life in order to find peace and happiness in the face of it.” Nietzsche tried something like this, too, with his amor fati, love of fate, but with conspicuously less serene results. Spinoza seems to have feared nothing and regretted nothing, and he lived a life of quiet, exemplary virtue. On the last day of his life, before his death at the age of 44 from lung disease, he was calmly conversing with his friends about philosophy, the same as always.
Like Einstein, we can likely use some of his soothing sense of cosmic harmony, whether or not we pay it the compliment of calling it Spinoza’s God.
Lawrence Klepp is a writer in New York.