An Introduction to the Work of Spinoza

Baruch (Latin: Benedict) Spinoza (1632-1677) was one of the premier founders and defenders of the modern project of religious liberalism and freedom of speech and thought, and of Dutch commercial republicanism.

Biblical Criticism

Spinoza claimed to be the first writer to take a “scientific” approach to understanding the Bible and what it teaches. For Spinoza, all intelligent interpreters of the Bible must consider how to read it. Because the Bible is accessible to all literate adults, what, then, differentiates an impious reading from a reading consistent with what God intends? Spinoza claims that a correct understanding of the Bible’s teachings requires that we be liberated from all legacies of superstition, from all the unconscious or unexamined historical doctrines and prejudices that have come to dominate orthodoxy. Once liberated from those prejudices, one can face the fact that the Bible, as is true of any other product of human artfulness, is full of contradictions and difficulties. The contradictions of the Bible are a product of imperfect human consciousness. Any proper understanding of the Bible will therefore need to disentangle the influence of human “corruption” from the Bible’s perfectly coherent and intelligible teaching.

In order to carry out this project, the interpreter requires a method. One needs to take stock of the linguistic and historical bases of all the major teachings of importance because the intended meaning of a word or phrase is rooted in the variable historical and even personal experience of each author. One cannot assume that because the Bible is traditionally understood as a unified work with a coherent teaching that it has a single author or that its different authors are all human beings with the same passions and capacity for interpreting “revelatory” experience. The intelligent and open-minded interpreter of the Bible must work backwards from the seeming textual difficulties and contradictions in the Bible’s works to what the authors must have meant on the basis of the universal character of the natural world of which the Bible is a part.

When read properly, the Bible elicits a teaching that moves away from worshipful, awestruck obedience to one of charitable and good-natured kindness. Living in accord with God’s teachings means to model oneself on a God whose defining characteristic is his perfect and unfailing rationality. That general teaching has the effect of counseling an unconcern with adhering to the minutiae of Biblical law in favor of focusing upon the content of one’s behavior. One must ask: does my life conform to the reason-directed charitableness that God himself practices? Spinoza wishes to establish this question as the fundamental one and thus provides the basis for a nascent teaching of toleration and anti-sectarianism.

In his Theological-Political Treatise—the only major work to be published in his lifetime, in 1670—Spinoza claims that a properly naïve and fresh reading of the Bible reveals that its teaching is identical with that of rationalism. But, as Spinoza moves from a critique of prophecy generally to the specific prophecies of the Old and New Testaments, he presents what he regards as a decisive critique of biblical revelation from the perspective of modern scientific rationalism. It is a critique in the name of “the freedom to philosophize.” Spinoza seeks to establish the freedom to philosophize as the best way of life.

Metaphysics and Political Science

Spinoza conceived of political philosophy and all human sciences as deriving from a universal science of metaphysics modeled on mathematics. The eternal character of the world—adequately described by laws and axioms—is discoverable by the human mind. The mind discovers that everything exists in nature by virtue of necessity: “free will” does not exist. The human passions are therefore in and of themselves neither good nor evil; they simply compel us by the power of their activity within us. By means of reason, we can educate our passions and thus control them, through the vehicle of argument or speech. It is this property of reason that raises man above the animals.

God himself is not free from this natural order. His intellect is identical with his will. Thus, everything he creates, including those passions which have a compelling power, flows from a divinely ordained and sanctioned plan. Spinoza deduces from this teaching what he regards as the fundamental political fact: whatever human beings can do in the state of nature, they do according to right or justice. The natural state, however, is intolerable to human beings because it leaves us insecure and anxiously uncertain of our future fortune. Thus, human beings require the guidance of reason to help found a political state. This state is founded on the basis of passions common to all men, passions that are conquerable by the new, universal, and realistic science of which political science is a part.

Spinoza’s political science is based on his view of human psychology: Human beings are irreducibly power-hungry creatures who respond not simply to the momentary or passing need to avoid pain and stay alive. We are future-oriented and experience anxiety in the face of uncertain future fortune. We cling to and vacillate between the hope for future attainment and fear of vulnerability and privation. It is only the philosopher—the man ruled by reason and not by superstitious hopes and fears—who can both properly discern what goods he really needs (the power over himself and nature predicated upon rationality) and found the political order most consistent with seeking those goods.

The Foundations of Modern Liberal Republicanism

Spinoza sees in the city of Amsterdam—the richest, most prosperous, and tolerant city in all of seventeenth century Europe—a new possibility for republican life, one that would solve Europe’s theologico-political dilemma. The key to resolving it involves exploring the following question: How should the earthly kingdom be reconciled to the so-called heavenly kingdom, that kingdom which claims ultimate and universal allegiance from men’s hearts? Spinoza’s description of Amsterdam at the conclusion of his Theologico-Political Treatise serves as a vehicle for highlighting what the new republican future portends:

Take, for example, the city of Amsterdam, which, to its considerable enhancement and with the admiration of all nations, experiences the fruits of this [religious] freedom. For in this most flourishing Republic and most outstanding city, all human beings of whatever nation and sect live with the utmost harmony; and for them to trust their goods to someone, they care to know only whether he is rich or poor and whether he usually acts in good faith or by a ruse. Otherwise, Religion or sect does not move them at all, since it does not help at all in winning or losing a cause before a judge. And no sect is so altogether hateful whose followers (provided they hurt no one and pay each what is his and live honorably) are not protected by the public authority and enforcement of the magistrates (20.6.4).

Spinoza’s highlighting of the great good of religious toleration within the commercial society of Amsterdam points beyond the historical situation of his day to the possibilities of the future. Spinoza provided a powerful defense of the social contract, freedom of speech, and toleration as consistent not only with the dictates of a new conception of justice, but also with the dictates of rationality, theology, and philosophy. In so doing, Spinoza helps lay the foundations for a liberal revolution in the West, a revolution that would see the uncoupling of religious orthodoxy from the state, an explosion of theoretical publications, and prosperous commercialism.

Spinoza’s thought is one of the clearest expressions of the ground of the liberal, republican way of life, especially in its defense of free speech and religious toleration. For Spinoza, the core of the republican project and the foundation of modern liberalism must be located in the promise of intellectual freedom:

“The aim of a Republic is not, I say, to make human beings from rational beings into beasts or puppets, but, on the contrary, it is for their mind and body to function safely in their functions and for them to use free reason and not struggle in hatred, in anger, or with a ruse, and not bear an inequitable spirit toward one another. The aim of a Republic, therefore, is really freedom” (20.4.2-3).

For further introductory reading, see also:

Stanley Rosen, “Benedict Spinoza” in History of Political Philosophy, Eds. Leo Strauss and Joseph Cropsey, Chicago: 1987.

Roger Scruton, Spinoza: A Very Short Introduction, New York: 2002.