MY TOP SHELF
[These are serialised extracts of all the fifty books referred to in a book published in 2015 called ‘The Top Shelf, or What Used to be Called a Liberal Education’. The extracts are as originally published, and they come in the same order.]
Benedict de Spinoza (1670)
Translated R H M Elwes Second Edition, Revised; George Bell and Sons, Covent Garden, 1889; republished in facsimile by Kessenger Publishing, U S; rebound in half yellow leather and yellow cloth with black label embossed in gold.
Superstition then is engendered, preserved and fostered by fear.
The main text that the Inquisition invoked against Galileo was the miracle of the sun standing still for a day to enable Joshua and the Israelites to kill a lot more of the indigenous people whose land God had promised to his chosen people. This is one of those parts of Scripture that makes a lot of people very nervous about miracles and an all too human God – nor did it do much for Galileo. Do we really want a God who intervenes in Middle Eastern wars by suspending his own laws to help one tribe kill more of others because he has chosen them as his favourite? Do we want a God who is so exclusive and so lethal? If you do not, you may wish turn to Spinoza and Kant.
For some, the only black mark against Spinoza is that Bertrand Russell said that he was ‘lovable.’ This is what Russell said. ‘Spinoza (1632-77) is the noblest and most lovable of the great philosophers. Intellectually, some others have surpassed him, but ethically he is supreme. As a natural consequence, he was considered, during his lifetime and for a century after his death, a man of appalling wickedness. He was born a Jew, but the Jews excommunicated him. Christians abhorred him equally; although his whole philosophy is dominated by the idea of God, the orthodox accused him of atheism. Leibniz, who owed much to him, concealed his debt, and carefully abstained from saying a word in his praise; he even went so far as to lie about the extent of his personal acquaintance with the heretic Jew.’ That is a fair summary. Good people, saintly people, can have that kind of effect on others.
Spinoza’s parents were Portuguese Jews forced to ‘confess’ Christianity by the Inquisition. They migrated to Amsterdam where Baruch (or Benedict) was born. He was very bright as a child and so intellectually precocious that his own community eventually excommunicated him. The terms of the cherem chill the blood. He was described when young as having a beautiful face with a well formed body and ‘slight long black hair.’ He polished lenses by day and wrote philosophy at night. He died young of a lung condition that was not helped by his work.
The Tractatus was published anonymously and was immediately condemned on all sides. His master-work, Ethics, was not published until after his death. He lived alone, and frugally – although he enjoyed a pipe and a glass of wine, he could go for days on milk soup made with butter and some ale. There is no evidence that he ever sought to harm another, but plenty to suggest that he died in a state of peace, if not grace.
The Ethics contains his full world-view, made up of geometric propositions. One is: ‘God is without passions, neither is he affected by any emotion or pleasure or pain.’ That is a large part of the Tractatus. Spinoza says that his chief aim in the Tractatus is to separate faith from philosophy. He says that Moses did not seek to convince the Jews by reason, but bound by them a covenant, by oaths, and by conferring benefits. This was not to teach knowledge, but to inspire obedience. He then says, ‘Faith consists in a knowledge of God, without which obedience to Him would be impossible, and which the mere fact of obedience to Him implies’. Spinoza supports this assertion with reference to both Testaments. He then goes on to say that he has ‘no further fear in enumerating the dogmas of universal faith or the fundamental dogmas of the whole of Scripture.’
As doctrinal dynamite goes, there is enough in his exposition for believers and unbelievers of all kinds to inflict a lot of damage on each other. And Spinoza gives intellectuals another slap in the face: ‘The best faith is not necessarily possessed by him who discloses the best reasons, but by him who displays the best fruits of justice and charity’. You might think that a lot, or even most, believers of good will would go along with that proposition, but Plato and Aristotle would have been very, very unhappy, and deeply shocked.
Spinoza holds that if Moses spoke with God face to face as a man speaks with his friend, Christ communed with God mind to mind. Elsewhere, he puts it that Christ was not so much a prophet as ‘the mouthpiece’ of God; Christ was sent to teach not only the Jews, but the whole human race. He condemns those who stick to the letter: ‘If a man were to read the Scripture narratives believing the whole of them, but were to give no heed to the doctrines they contain, and make no amendment in his life, he might employ himself just as profitably in reading the Koran or the poetic drama.
Reason, Spinoza said, was ‘the true handwriting of God.’ His belief is evidenced by the following extracts from the Tractatus.
I have often wondered that persons who make a boast of professing the Christian religion … should quarrel with such rancorous animosity, and display daily towards one another such bitter hatred, that this, rather than the virtues they claim, is the readiest criterion of their faith.
Piety, great God! and religion are become a tissue of ridiculous mysteries; men, who flatly despise reason, who reject and turn away from understanding as naturally corrupt … are never tired of professing their wonder at the profound mysteries of Holy Writ; still I cannot discover that they teach anything but speculations of Platonists and Aristotelians, to which (in order to save their credit for Christianity) they have made Holy Writ conform; not content to rave with the Greeks themselves, they want to make the prophets rave also….
The Bible leaves reason absolutely free…it has nothing in common with philosophy; in fact, Revelation and Philosophy stand on totally different footings….I pass on to indicate the false notions, which have arisen from the fact that the multitude – ever prone to superstition, and caring more for the shred of antiquity than for eternal truths – pays homage to the books of the Bible, rather than to the word of God.
Spinoza corresponded widely on a very high plane, but some letters show homely insights from the least sect-bound of men. Christ gave ‘by his life and death a matchless example of holiness’; if the Turks or other non-Christians ‘worship God by the practice of justice and charity toward their neighbour, I believe that they have the spirit of Christ, and are in a state of salvation’; the ‘authority of Plato, Aristotle, and Socrates does not carry much weight with me’; and ‘Scripture should only be expounded through Scripture.’ He also asked question similar to one asked by Darwin: whether ‘we human pygmies possess sufficient knowledge of nature to be able to lay down the limits of its force and power, or to say that a given thing surpasses that power?’
In The Cambridge Companion to Spinoza, the late Professor Alan Donaghan contributed a paper called Spinoza’s Theology. Theology is the study of God. If Spinoza was studying God, you would think that he believed in God. Sane people do not devote large portions of their lives to discussing something that they do not believe exists. Spinoza said that he believed in God. He was emphatic about it. When you get to his Ethics, published after his death, God is fundamental to his whole world view – to the whole universe. Yet the other members of his community expelled him on religious grounds. They said that he did not believe in God. They said that Spinoza was an atheist.
In the Ethics, you come across propositions that run slap, bang into the face of the Bible. We have already seen one proposition denying passion to God. It is fundamental to Spinoza that he takes humanity out of God and identifies God with Nature. Then Spinoza incorporates the Sermon on the Mount into his metaphysical edifice. Part IV, Proposition 45, says: ‘Hatred can never be good’. A corollary is that envy, contempt, derision and revenge are bad. Then you get Proposition 46: ‘He who lives under the guidance of reason endeavours, as far as possible, to render back love, or kindness, for other man’s hatred, anger, contempt etc, toward him’. This is the doctrine of turning the other cheek in logically modelled Latin. And later comes a little gem of humane wisdom in Part 4, Proposition 55: ‘Extreme pride or dejection indicates extreme ignorance of self’. It is not at all hard to see why Spinoza appealed to the mind of Einstein.
It is fundamental for some that the existence of God can be and has been demonstrated (proved). Well, even if you accept that this may be the case, or is the case, that proof must leave open the question of which, if any, model of God that is presently on the market has been proved to exist. The model put forward by Spinoza was not satisfactory to most Jews or Christians, but it is inherently unlikely that any logical proof of the existence of God could lead necessarily to the proof of a god whose characteristics are defined by revelation and in very human terms. And do not forget that Spinoza, brought up in the Jewish tradition, was not just a great mind. He was a first-rate Bible scholar – in both Testaments.
Spinoza holds that the sphere of reason is that of truth and wisdom; the sphere of theology is piety and obedience; ‘I consider the utility and the need for Holy Scripture or Revelation to be very great … the Bible has brought a very great consolation to mankind. All are able to obey, whereas there are the very few, compared with the aggregate of humanity, who can acquire the habit of virtue under the unaided guidance of reason’. Reason, as he had said, was ‘the true handwriting of God.’
The little Dutch Jewish outcast also said:
Every man’s true happiness and blessedness consist solely in the enjoyment of what is good, not in the pride that he alone is enjoying it, to the exclusion of others. He who thinks himself the more blessed because he is enjoying benefits which others are not, or because he is more blessed or more fortunate than his fellows, is ignorant of true happiness and blessedness, and the joy which he feels is either childish, or envious and malicious.
Many of those words will ring true for those who have become estranged from religion, and just as many who are struggling to stay with it. The last citation alone would justify the whole life and work of this very great and holy man. That sentiment should be put up in neon lights outside every exclusive institution in the land.
Spinoza was a very holy man who crossed on to the turf of less holy men. Turf wars are the scourge of religion. The great gift of Spinoza and Kant to mankind was to stand up and stare down those clever and subtle men – alas, they were all men – who claimed to have exclusive rights to the box of tricks without which the rest of us could not get near God or enjoy the grace of true religion. They both should be remembered as two of our greatest liberators. Their legacy is worth so much more than the brackish howls of those bothered God-deniers whose very loudness bespeaks the bankruptcy of philosophy. Just what does philosophy have to show for itself? And, just before dawn, did Bertrand Russell see himself as one of those who were intellectually superior to Spinoza?