Graeme Hunter

The Conrad Grebel Review 25, no. 3 (Fall 2007)


Thomas Nagel devotes the final chapter of The Last Word, his defence of philosophical realism, to a fascinating phenomenon he calls “the fear of religion.” He admits to knowing such fear from the inside. “It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God,” he writes, “It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.”1 Nagel conjectures that anti-religious sentiments like his own are quite common among living philosophers, though seldom subject to philosophical scrutiny or indeed even acknowledged. Moreover, he suspects subterraneous religious antipathies of having philosophical consequences, including being “responsible for much of the scientism and reductionism of our time.”2

Of course Nagel is familiar with the genetic fallacy. He does not suppose that philosophical arguments are automatically disqualified if they turn out to have extra-philosophical motivations. He is only pointing out that anti-religious sentiments are part of the common currency of academic writing today. They are often shared by reader and writer, and can thereby escape scrutiny even in cases where it is warranted. A prudent reader who suspects writers of being motivated by anti-religious commitments is well advised to read with care any of their arguments on which religious opinion has a bearing.

I begin with this point of Nagel’s because fear of religion comes in a historiographical as well as a philosophical flavor. I notice it frequently in Spinoza studies, particularly in connection with Christianity. Fear (or at least dislike) of Christianity is often palpable in the literature and is usually given an easy critical ride. Scholars hostile to Christianity regularly look for the same hostility in Spinoza and applaud him – and so, indirectly, themselves – for the courage and insight implied in holding such a position.

Some of these writers feel distaste for (or possibly, like Nagel, fear of) all religions. Others combine a rigid hostility toward Christianity with enthusiasm for an elusive form of mysticism they think is found in Spinoza.

I first articulated my suspicion that Spinoza might have had a positive attitude to radical Protestantism in a conference paper several years ago. I tried to account for his many favorable pronouncements about Christianity on the assumption that he intended to make them. The paper generated a high level of analytic discussion from the discerning audience to which it was presented. But it also gave rise to something no other paper I have given ever has: cordial but firm expressions of concern that what I was saying was somehow not clubbable, inconsistent with the bon ton of the academy. A number of my hearers took the opportunity to tell me privately that papers of this sort were a little unseemly, that they might stir up passions I would regret inflaming.3 Bewildered at first, I eventually realized this was the twentieth century’s version of odium theologicum, though in our enlightened age the odium is administered not to those wandering from the path of orthodoxy but to those straying into it.

The dark hints of my well-meaning critics of course produced a reaction equal but opposite to their intent. They made the possibility of Spinoza’s Protestant leanings no less plausible to me but immensely more exciting. I began to explore the idea more systematically, and the result was the book that the present conference has graciously agreed to discuss. Today I would like to return to its central contention, but from a new point of view. I want to consider Spinoza’s two major works, the Ethics and the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, as a response to a central event in Spinoza’s life: his excommunication.

However, before taking up this theme, I owe you some concrete examples of the misunderstanding of Spinoza’s attitude toward Christianity that I say is so noticeable in the secondary literature.

Views of Spinoza’s Attitude to Christianity

Spinoza was understood (or rather, misunderstood) in his own time to have rejected not just Judaism but all religion, including Christianity. This imputed anti-Christian stance made him tremendously unpopular, except with religious dissenters seeking guidance about what to believe. And so, as early as the mid-seventeenth century Spinoza became a magnet for dissent. In France, for example, he was a dominant figure amid “the disarray of the French libertines, who were desperate for a leader.”4

Also in that same century Pierre Bayle, whose own faith has been called “impoverished, empty of religious substance, stretched to the breaking point,”5 created the mystique of Spinoza’s “virtuous atheism.”6 It was a new and challenging thought to suggest that atheism could be anything other than vicious. Bayle’s encomium made Spinoza a guru to those who wanted to throw off the shackles of tradition and divine commandments while still retaining a good opinion of themselves.

Spinoza the virtuous atheist continued to exert his influence throughout the 18th century. Willi Goetschel, in Spinoza’s Modernity, points to ways Lessing found this Spinoza congenial, as did the Jewish deist Mendelssohn and the unbeliever Heine.7 Goetschel interestingly points out how these thinkers were simultaneously influenced by the residual Jewishness of Spinoza’s thought.

Jonathan Israel paints on the broad canvas of Europe as a whole, showing how “Spinoza and Spinozism were in fact the backbone of the European Radical Enlightenment everywhere, not only in the Netherlands, Germany, France, Italy and Scandinavia, but also Britain and Ireland.”8 By “radical” Israel means to connote whatever is “incompatible with the fundamentals of traditional authority, thought and belief.”9 In a word, a radical is one who opposes the hierarchical order of Christendom.

Hegel says Minerva’s owl flies by night, meaning that the appearance of histories of any subject is a sign the sun has already set upon it. But for the anti-Christian Spinoza, documented so thoroughly by historians of ideas like Goetschel and Israel, Hegel’s maxim seems not to hold. For him it still appears to be high noon. Consider a few of his more recent appearances.

The outspoken atheist Bertrand Russell, in his History of Western Philosophy (1946), called Spinoza “the noblest and most lovable of the great philosophers.”10 He found in Spinoza’s “principle of thinking about the whole” something like an alternative to traditional religion. There are times, Russell says,

when it is comforting to reflect that human life, with all that it contains of evil and suffering, is an infinitesimal part of the life of the universe. Such reflections may not suffice to constitute a religion, but in a painful world they are a help towards sanity and an antidote to the paralysis of utter despair.11

Kenneth Blackwell has shown that Russell’s quasi-religious attachment to Spinoza was not a passing enthusiasm but a major and enduring shaper of his ethical thinking. Russell’s own “ethic of impersonal self-enlargement,” as Blackwell calls it, arose from prolonged reflection on Spinoza’s notion of the intellectual love of God.12

Not many years after the appearance of Russell’s History, Stuart Hampshire presented a Spinoza who was blunter in his dismissal of Christianity. Spinoza, he tells us:

... has a direct interest in freeing others from the passive emotions and from the blind superstitions which lead to war and to the suppression of free thought.... The free man therefore will criticize Christian doctrine or orthodox Judaism or any other religious dogma, first, when it is represented as philosophical truth, secondly, on purely pragmatic grounds, if it in fact leads its votaries to be troublesome in their actual behaviour.…13

Hampshire rightly ascribes both points to Spinoza but leaves the impression that they summarize his attitude to Christianity. It is as if he had pointed out that the Vatican police normally do not interfere with Catholic pilgrims as long as they are not drunk or immolating themselves in St. Peter’s Square. While strictly true, the statement nevertheless creates a false impression.

In her introduction to a 1954 French translation of Spinoza’s Short Treatise, which appears as part of an edition of his works, Madeleine Francès is careful to assure readers that any apparent concessions to Christianity found in the Short Treatise are not to be taken at face value. They are merely intended to lead readers “step by step toward accepting notions that are less anthropomorphic.”14 Francès is perfectly at liberty to interpret Spinoza this way if she wishes. But why should readers accept without argument the implication that Christianity is an anthropomorphic religion?

In the 1970s E.E. Harris penned a manifesto for those who seek in Spinoza an ersatz religion and who, like Harris, would find solace in a kind of scientistic religiosity. “Today,” he says,

we turn to science for the solution of all our problems – not always wisely, but at least because we have come to believe, as we should, that nothing is reliable which has not been demonstrated and reasoned out on strict scientific principles. Religion today has lost its hold on many because it cannot, or does not, establish its doctrine scientifically and cannot, so they think, be made consistent with what science has established. This modern scientific attitude is precisely Spinoza’s; but where he excels is in combining it completely with what can only rightly be called a religious outlook and in developing by strictly rational argument a religious conclusion. So he addresses himself to both of our most urgent and most significant modern needs. He provides an answer (and no trivial one) to our moral and religious perplexities, and he does so in a way which satisfies our demand for scientific precision and reliability.15

“This modern scientific attitude is precisely Spinoza’s,” Harris says, illustrating how some contemporary scholars find it unsurprising when Spinoza’s views coincide so nearly with their own while so much at odds with the thinking of his own generation.

Also in the 1970s was published the unusual, in fact bizarre, article by Robert Misrahi called “Spinoza and Christian Thought: A Challenge.” Though Misrahi does not cite a single example of Christian interpretations of Spinoza, he nevertheless implies that they are ubiquitous and menacing, and that he intends to explode their slender foundations with his own devastating dialectical skills. “Our present study,” Misrahi says,

aims to unmask [such] Christian interpretations of Spinoza’s philosophy, our purpose being to restore, in the face of such distortions, the genuine features of Spinozism – that is indeed of a practical atheism and of an ethical and political doctrine which was at that time subversive.16

“Subversive” for Misrahi, as for some other admirers of Spinoza,17 is a term of praise. Sometimes “heretic” is used in the same inverted sense. Yirmiyahu Yovel, in his 1989 book Spinoza and Other Heretics, coyly admits as much. “As for the word heretic, it should be taken with a grain of salt,” he says. “I use it to designate thinkers who, when properly understood, must be deemed heretical in terms of their own orthodox tradition. Again, no derogatory undertones are intended; if anything, a reader discerning a shade of ironic sympathy in the title will not be totally mistaken.”18

The same oxymoronic transformation of the heretical into the heroic is evident in Matthew Stewart’s highly readable but not very scholarly bestseller, The Courtier and the Heretic (2006), in which Leibniz is cast in the role of stuffy courtier while Spinoza plays the sprightly and lovable heretic.

An Impartial Reader’s View of Spinoza

Except for Misrahi’s peculiar article, all the works I have cited have merits, and I am not attempting to detract from them. But I am drawing attention to a fault they have in common that I believe is related to what Nagel calls “the fear of religion.” All these authors project onto Spinoza a negativity toward Christianity that they give every appearance of sharing and do not think needs much defence. I am not denying the existence of evidence in favor of the view they attribute to Spinoza. There’s quite a bit of it. The claim of my book, however, was that there is not enough evidence to sustain that view.

But I would like to ask a different question. How would an impartial reader view Spinoza? I mean a reader who approaches Spinoza’s major works without projecting Enlightenment atheism or contemporary distaste for, or fear of, Christianity onto them. My answer is the reader would find Spinoza at once a more attractive philosopher and a more unsettling one. This Spinoza would no doubt be less trendy, but more profound and more challenging for readers today.

If we stopped looking in Spinoza’s writings for encrypted anticipations of the thought of the French Enlightenment or the radical thought of still later periods, we could recover a philosopher rooted in his own time, though at crucial points also transcending it with reflections of enduring value. We could begin by allowing Spinoza to be the man he was: an excommunicated Jewish businessman in a socially precarious position in seventeenth-century Holland, but one who was at the same time a philosopher of unusual depth.

Spinoza’s excommunication cut him off from the Jewish community that had first nurtured and educated him and later provided him with his livelihood. It shut the door forever on family, friends, the synagogue, and his former occupation, thrusting Spinoza with all possible ill will into the larger Dutch society where, apart from business connections, he was a stranger.

Everyone faces the big moral question: quod vitae sectabor iter, what should I do in life? Philosophers know that the price of neglecting it is to lead an unexamined, and therefore worthless, life. But excommunication put that inescapable question to Spinoza with unusual brutality and urgency. As the door closed on his Jewish past, the question of what to do was immediate and existential. He also had before him the tragic example of Uriel Da Costa, illustrating the bleak consequences to which excommunication could lead.19 No doubt that is partly why Spinoza exercised exceptional prudence in this phase of his life. He may not have anticipated many of the progressive ideas scholars pretend he did, but he certainly foresaw his own excommunication. He prepared the way for it and seems never to have regretted it.20 Unlike poor Da Costa, Spinoza had somewhere else to go after his ordeal.

Spinoza had made friends in the wider Dutch community. They were the only kind of people who would have been interested in an excommunicated Jew in that period. Jewish friends were ruled out by the harsh conditions of the herem [Hebrew: ban, expulsion]. His new friends were the kind of Gentiles who rose above the common religious bigotry of their age. It was not that they were all remarkably broad-minded. They were themselves religious extremists, suspicious of the Calvinist mainstream, and previously acquainted with Spinoza through business channels. A number of this group of radical Protestants were Collegiants, whose Christian faith was expressed in orthopraxy, right conduct, rather than orthodoxy, doctrinal correctness. The Collegiant ideal involved living a life of holiness in a Christian community rather than adopting any particular creed.21

We have confirmation that virtue and community were also Spinoza’s preoccupations after his excommunication. We can date our confirming text that early if we agree with Steven Nadler in supposing the Tractatus de intellectus emendatione to go back at least as far as the late 1650s.22 There Spinoza says that henceforward his twin aims will be to perfect his own character and to bring about the kind of society that will be most conducive to that end.23 I take his major works, the Ethics and the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus (henceforward often TTP), to unfold his mature design for achieving those goals. The Ethics I view as his mature reflection on character, while the TTP deals with wider questions of religion, politics, and community.

The Ethics and the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus

The Ethics addresses the prudential and moral problems of individual salvation. It is a story of how salvation of a kind consistent with the orthopraxy of his radical Protestant friends can be achieved by someone who reflects carefully about God and the world. One must begin by recognizing God as the perfect, changeless subject of all change, and the immanent indweller of all that is. All particular things, including ourselves, we must see as finite (and therefore imperfect) expressions of the infinite and perfect reality of God. Our one chance of happiness (more precisely, beatitude) and selffulfilment depends on acquiescence in the role that God has determined us to play. Attainment of this beatitude both increases and is increased by our identification with God through intellectual love of him.

However, there is one towering obstacle in everyman’s path to the intellectual love of God. In order to achieve it he first must learn to recognize and manage his emotions, and so free himself from bondage to them. It is in the measure we become free that we can open ourselves to the intellectual love of God, whose only right and full expression is in the love of neighbor.24 The reward for attaining this vision of God, expressed in charity, is beatitude in this life, and even a kind of immortality, though what the latter amounts to is a subject of considerable disagreement among scholars.25

Such was Spinoza’s plan for the development of character. Not until he was well along in writing the Ethics did the scope of the political problem of salvation began to worry him. The “society” necessary to facilitate development of our character could not consist of just a few broadminded Collegiants, he realized. It would need to have the scope of at least a whole city and respect the complexities of city life. That meant a city with laws enshrining freedom of belief, something Spinoza thought he saw dimly prefigured in the Amsterdam of his own day.26

Respect for freedom of thought did exist in Spinoza’s Amsterdam, but it had arisen for contingent and historical reasons, like some precarious biological mutation. Like such mutations it was likely to prove ephemeral unless it found a welcoming environment. In such a religiously militant and divided city, the survival of liberty of opinion was far from guaranteed.

Spinoza hoped to exploit the freedom contingently available in his day in order to work out, if only on paper, the means of institutionalizing it in Dutch society. Sensing the urgency of this task, he put aside completing the Ethics to write and publish the TTP. His fine words in defence of liberty deserve a place beside the better-known ones of John Stuart Mill. “Liberty of thought,” Spinoza says in TTP’s subtitle, “can not only be permitted without injury to piety and to the peace of the republic, but it is impossible to suppress it without likewise suppressing the peace of the republic and piety itself.”

If the Ethics addresses the personal question of what we ought to do, the TTP covers the still more general matter of what ought to be done. Now the big thing that needs doing, according to Spinoza, is to fortify, not to weaken, the religious character of Amsterdam. But the means he sees for doing this is not the establishment of some sect to the exclusion of others. Nor does he favor complete disestablishment of religion and the consequent secularization of the state.

Spinoza’s solution to the political problem of religion is so radical it has never yet been tried. He advocates imposing a doctrinally minimal Christianity, admitting of innumerable sectarian expressions. As I attempted to show in my book, this state religion would be based on seven broadly Christian principles and would accord equal rights to any sect that agreed with them, as few Christian sects could fail to do.27 Christian sects would be free to add to these dogmas any further ones consistent with the seven. However, they would not be free to use coercive measures to proselytize. The state would also tolerate religions that were not Christian even in the minimal sense of embracing the seven dogmas, though such religions would be tolerated only as long as they remained without political power.28

What Spinoza is advocating is not the abolition of Christianity but a second reformation of it. He seriously (though unrealistically) hoped that Amsterdam would enshrine in law the kind of reformed religion he envisioned. If it did, he contended, it would perpetuate the very liberty the Netherlands was beginning to enjoy, and anchor it securely in the practice of true justice and charity. In the TTP Spinoza presented a plan for stabilizing the political order of the republic while undergirding in law the practice of genuine piety.

Spinoza was not seeking separation of Church and State. He was seeking reformation of the Church within the State. He advocated building the State on some kind of Christian foundation, albeit a very liberal one.29 Like most other philosophers of his generation, he believed, as TTP’s subtitle implies, that the state should be used to buttress, not undermine, religious expression.

If you begin with Spinoza as a Jewish-Dutch businessman of great philosophical ability thrown into an existential crisis by excommunication, you will arrive, I suggest, at some such evaluation of his major works. His Ethics is significant because it shows how to find beatitude in life, even if you must start without the props of security, community, and prosperity. His TTP is also enduringly significant because it brings into focus one of the chief concerns of every society: how to reconcile the necessary security of the state with people’s legitimate demands for freedom of thought and religious expression.

To treat Spinoza as responding in the first instance to his own contingent and singular position does not preclude finding in his response a level of universality that is the touchstone of great philosophy. Dressing Spinoza up in fashions of later (and usually less religious) periods seems to me to have the opposite effect. It makes less of him than he made of himself.

The same is true of those who read him in the light of exotic religions or trendy ideologies. When, for example, Antonio Negri writes: “Spinoza’s innovation is actually a philosophy of communism, and Spinoza’s ontology is nothing other than a genealogy of communism,”30 I cringe. Even if there were anything admirable or believable in Negri’s favorite ideology, I do not think Spinoza would require its adventitious gilding in order to be important. Spinoza’s modest, sober philosophy is sufficient in itself and already has the distinction of having outlived communism.

I am similarly underwhelmed by the claim of Jon Wetlesen that Spinoza’s philosophy is a species of Mahayana Buddhism,31 or that of the eccentric Norwegian ecologist Arne Ness, who says “[n]o great philosopher has so much to offer in the way of clarification and articulation of basic ecological attitudes as Baruch Spinoza.”32 I am also disappointed with scholars who flatter Spinoza by claiming he anticipates the likes of Einstein, Darwin, Freud, or William James.33 Doesn’t the apparent compliment really assign Spinoza to a second philosophical tier? Why does he have to anticipate such people in order to merit our attention, when they are only required to be themselves?

The book in which Antonio Damasio raises Spinoza to these anticipatory heights is called Looking for Spinoza. The title itself suggests what is wrong with a certain kind of Spinoza studies. To look for Spinoza in times and places and issues that are not his own is to preclude ever finding him. If he still deserves reading today, it is not because we find him in exotic places but because he articulated enduring answers to enduring questions of ethics, politics, and religion.


1 Thomas Nagel, The Last Word (Oxford/New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1997), 130.

2 Ibid., 131.

3 A reader interested in verifying whether this was so can consult the published version: “Spinoza: A Radical Protestant?” in The Problem of Evil in Modern Philosophy, ed. Elmar J. Kremer and Michael J. Latzer (Toronto: Univ. of Toronto Press, 2001).

4 Paul Vernière, Spinoza et la pensée française avant la révolution, vol. 1, XVIIe SIÈCLE (Paris, Presses universitaires de France, 1954), 15.

5 So described by Jean-Pierre Jossua, quoted in Thomas M. Lennon, Reading Bayle (Toronto: Univ. of Toronto Press, 1999), 18.

6 Pierre Bayle, Pensées diverses sur la comète, Tome 2, §181 (Paris: Droz, 1939), 134f.

7 Willi Goetschel, Spinoza’s Modernity: Mendelssohn, Lessing, and Heine (Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 2004).

8 Jonathan Israel, Radical Enlightenment: Philosophy and the Making of Modernity (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2001), vi.

9 Ibid., 4.

10 Bertrand Russell, A History of Western Philosophy, third ed. (London: Unwin, 1948), 592.

11 Ibid., 603.

12 Kenneth Blackwell, The Spinozistic Ethics of Bertrand Russell (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1985), 168.

13 Stuart Hampshire, Spinoza (London: Penguin, 1951), 202.

14 Spinoza, Oeuvres complètes, trans. Roland Caillois, Madeleine Francès, Robert Misrahi (Paris: Gallimard/La Pléiade: 1954), 7f.

15 E.E. Harris, Salvation from Despair (The Hague, Nijhoff, 1973), 11.

16 Robert Misrahi, “Spinoza and Christian Thought: A Challenge,” in Speculum Spinozanum, ed. Siegfried Hessing (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1977), 367.

17 For example, Antonio Negri, Subversive Spinoza, trans. T.S. Murphy et al. (Manchester: Manchester Univ. Press, 2004).

18 Yirmiyahu Yovel, Spinoza and Other Heretics, 2 vols. (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1989), xi.

19 See Graeme Hunter, Radical Protestantism in Spinoza’s Thought (Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2005), 24ff.

20 Ibid., 34ff.

21 The best study of the Collegiants is that of Andrew Fix, Prophecy and Reason: The Dutch Collegiants in the Early Enlightenment (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1991).

22 Steven Nadler, Spinoza: A Life (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1999), 171, 175.

23Tractatus de intellectus emendatione [Emendation of the Intellect] in Spinoza, Opera, ed. C. Gebhart, vol. 2 (Heidelberg: Carl Winters, 1925), 8f.

24Ethics V, Prop. 36, corollary and scholium, in Spinoza, Opera, ed. C. Gebhart, vol. 2 (Heidelberg: Carl Winters, 1925), 303: clare intelligimus, qua in re nostra salus, seu beatitudo, seu Liebertas consistit, nempe in constanti, & aeterno erga Deum Amore, sive in Amore Dei erga homines.

25 For a good introduction to the issues see the essays by David Savan, James Morrison, and Leslie Armour in Spinoza: The Enduring Questions, ed. Graeme Hunter (Toronto: Univ. of Toronto Press, 1994).

26TTP, 20, in Spinoza, Opera, ed. C. Gebhart, vol. 3 (Heidelberg: Carl Winters, 1925), 245f: urbs Amstelodamum exemplo fit, quae tanto cum suo incremento, & omnium nationum admiratione hujus libertatis fructus experitur.

27 Hunter, Radical Protestantism, 130ff.

28 Ibid.,132.

29TTP 4: 60: quomodo [ex lege divina] optimae reipublicae fundamenta sequantur ... ad universalem ethicam pertinet.

30 Antonio Negri: Subversive Spinoza, 100.

31 Jon Wetlesen, The Sage and the Way (Assen: Gorcum, 1979).

32 Arne Ness, “Spinoza and Ecology” in Speculum Spinozanum, 418-25 at 423.

33 Antonio Damasio, Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow and the Feeling Brain (Orlando: Harcourt/Harvest, 2003), 260f, 280f.

Graeme Hunter is a professor of philosophy at the University of Ottawa in Ottawa, Ontario.