Pariah to Messiah: The Engineered Apotheosis of Baruch Spinoza, Part 1 of 3

A recurring theme here at TOO has been the monitoring of ethnic networking in efforts to establish Jewish figures in positions of scientific, academic, artistic or cultural pre-eminence. Erudite studies by several writers, particularly Kevin Macdonald (a major theme of The Culture of Critique) and Brenton Sanderson, have shed light on individual cases (e.g., Boas, Freud, Trotsky, Rothko, Mahler) as well as the more generic processes involved in these efforts (e.g., promotion in the elite media and the academic world). Typically these efforts can be said to begin with the veneration by a group of Jews of a Jewish intellectual or artist, and is followed by the creation of an authoritarian cult-like aura around his or her personality. The process reaches its completion, in some cases after the death of the guru figure, in an aggressive Jewish marketing effort to convince society at large that this figure, together with his or her ideas, is or was of national or international—if not cosmic—significance. It is predominantly by this process that the notion of “Jewish Genius” is perpetuated. 

Although in some respects the pattern is slightly different in the case examined in this article, where the effort only began centuries after the death of its subject, I argue that the essence and goal of the campaign is consistent with previous cases. I explore what is arguably the most ambitious effort yet attempted to create a Jewish icon for the non-Jewish world. In this, the case of Baruch Spinoza, I will outline the history of the Jewish effort to place him at the very heart of the Enlightenment, and to crown him as nothing less than the founder of the modern West, and even of modern democracy itself.

Although I had been aware for some time of the Jewish emphasis on Spinoza as a prominent and significant Enlightenment figure, I only began to appreciate the scale and complexity of the Jewish effort to canonize him recently when Jonathan Israel’s 2001  Radical Enlightenment: Philosophy and the Making of Modernity, 1650–1750 was brought to my attention. In this extravagantly praised tome and its 2006 sequel Enlightenment Contested: Philosophy, Modernity, and the Emancipation of Man, 1670-1752,  Israel rejected strictly national interpretations of the Enlightenment, and argued that it was a single, highly integrated intellectual and cultural movement. At the centre of this single movement he posits the ideas of the 17th-century Jewish philosopher Baruch Spinoza, whom Israel argues we should view above Descartes, Hobbes, Locke, Voltaire, Newton and other non-Jews, as the source of modernity. In Israel’s words: Spinoza and Spinozism were “the intellectual backbone of the European Radical Enlightenment everywhere.”[1]

At least compared with the works of ethnic activists like Anthony Julius, Israel’s work is representative of a more subtle and sophisticated way of shaping ‘ways of seeing.’ Much of what he says is at least factually correct. In some cases his assertions are beyond dispute, and are liberally furnished with references to archival documentation. However, Israel’s basic thesis over-reaches the sum of its parts. While his work is meticulously researched, very detailed, and replete with copious amounts of primary and secondary source material, there remains significant doubt about the basic argument of the book — that the support of over seventy 18th-Enlightenment figures for modern democracy, separation of Church and State, freedom of expression, social justice, equality, fairness, and tolerance can be directly linked only to the ideas of Baruch Spinoza. 

The aim of this essay is not to explore the Enlightenment, nor even to directly challenge Israel’s theory of there being one single ‘Radical Enlightenment’. Instead, this essay simply and modestly aims to demonstrate that the effort to place Spinoza at the center of the Enlightenment is much older than the work of Jonathan Israel, and that it has been, and remains, a specifically Jewish effort. On a deeper level, I explore its mechanisms and the motivations underlying it.

Spinoza the Pariah 

In order to fully understand the Jewish effort to raise Spinoza to such lofty heights, it is first necessary to recount, even briefly, the life and works of the man himself. Far from being the typical Jewish guru, Spinoza’s story begins in a very singular manner, and his path from Jewish reject to Jewish icon is most interesting. Born in Amsterdam to a family of Jewish Marrano immigrants on November 25th 1632, Baruch Spinoza was part of a “prospering” Jewish community of merchants and traders.[2] The Amsterdam community, which was descended from those who had carried on a cryptic Jewish existence in Spain and Portugal until their expulsion in 1492 and 1497 respectively, was particularly authoritarian and was “striving to recover the full Jewish religious life.”[3] Robert McShea argued, in his 1968 Columbia-published The Political Philosophy of Spinoza, that the Amsterdam community was notable for its particularly high level of authoritarianism and a greater “enthusiasm for doctrinal and ritual purity than is usual with more settled groups.”[4] Spinoza was given a Jewish education as a child, but grew troublesome and was visibly vexed by the restrictions imposed on him by his religion and his community. By the age of eighteen, Spinoza had sought out the instruction of Frances van den Ende, a Dutch ex-Jesuit, and under van den Ende he studied “Latin, Cartesian philosophy, mathematics and the science of the day.”[5] Mixing increasingly in a Christian milieu, especially among the Mennonites, Spinoza began to neglect his Jewish religious observances.[6] Pressured into conducting business with his brother, Spinoza was apathetic and lacking in financial “aptitude,” eventually abandoning commerce altogether.[7]

By his early 20s, Spinoza was increasingly outspoken in his antagonism towards the Jewish religion, and formally turned his back on the Amsterdam community by refusing to pay the imposta, the usual contribution and tax levied on traded merchandise by Jewish leaders “for the benefit of the community.”[8] His individualistic behavior was an unwelcome anomaly in a community which was vigorously collectivist and ethnocentric. In A People that Shall Dwell Alone, Kevin Macdonald pointed out that historically the typical treatment of such individuals in Jewish societies involved complete expulsion from the community, which in turn amounted to a eugenic selection against individualist tendencies. In the case of Spinoza, the main consequence of his cumulative indiscretions was an edict of excommunication pronounced by the Amsterdam synagogue on July 27, 1656.[9] The text of the excommunication is preserved, and it is interesting to note how complete the severance was. Jews were banned from speaking to him, from rendering him any service, from reading his writings, and from coming within four cubits of him.[10] It was recalled by one of Spinoza’s Dutch friends that “the hostility of the Jewish authorities persisted” and “an attempt was made on his life one night as he was leaving the theatre.”[11]

Retreating to a life as a lens-grinder on the outskirts of Amsterdam, Spinoza lived out a closeted life. Rejecting Judaism but, on account of his atheism, disinclined to embrace Christianity, Spinoza existed in an associational no man’s land. Robert McShea states that “he lived alone … he was not active in any social or political community.”[12] He performed some teaching at van den Ende’s school where he instructed students in Cartesian philosophy, and gradually he came to write down his own thoughts. The most revealing of these works, in terms of shedding light on his break with Amsterdam Jewry, was his 1670 Tractatus Theologico-Politicus in which he expressed his thoughts on Judaism. According to Spinoza, Judaism “commands the hatred of the enemy,” and is “carnal and particularistic.”[13] Spinoza argued that Mosaic Law was “merely national,” and was “a particularistic and tribal law that serves no other end than the earthly or political felicity of the Jewish nation.”[14] Claims that Judaism was a universal religion were seen as nonsense by Spinoza, who saw in the God of Israel only “a tribal God who is not the God of all mankind.”[15] He stated that, in relation to the Jews “it is the hatred of the Nations that above all keeps them in existence as a people.”[16]

It is crucial to point out here that Spinoza was not excommunicated for atheism, but for his attack on the religious supports for the maintenance of the Jewish race in the Netherlands. In his view “Jewish ceremonies were unnecessary, the religious data of Judaism was dubious.”[17]

By attacking circumcision and other rites intended to mark Jews out as separate, and by denigrating the Jewish claim to ‘chosenness,’ Spinoza was undermining the most vital contemporary pillars of Jewish identity. This was particularly dangerous in an age before the birth of the concept of the ‘secular Jew,’ and the corresponding development of surrogate intellectual and cultural movements in which ‘Jewishness’ could be divorced from Judaism and yet survive post partum. Seen through the lens of “what is good for the Jews,” exiling Spinoza so completely from the community was seen as necessary for the preservation of the Jews as a separate people. 

Spinoza’s Philosophy 

What then of the ideas Spinoza developed after his exile from Jewry? We need recount here only what is necessary for an appraisal of its reception and importance. In relation to his physical speculations, it has been asserted by experts on his work that “Spinoza’s name rarely, if ever, figures in histories of 17th-century science; most philosophical commentators pay little, if any, heed to his physical principles and speculations.”[18] It has been said that Spinoza “had no complete physical system, in the sense of the Cartesian, or later Libenizian system. To think and write otherwise is to build castles in the air.”[19] Some argue that Spinoza’s contribution to physical philosophy amounted to little more than “a number of subtle and sophisticated adjustments, criticisms, and arrangements.”[20]

Dutch expert on Spinoza, Hubertus G. Hubbeling, stated that Spinoza and his ideas on political philosophy were of little importance until long after the peak of the Enlightenment. He has pointed out that most contemporary works of political philosophy “pay hardly any attention to Spinoza.”[21] French philosopher Pierre Bayle (1647–1706) famously wrote in relation to Spinoza: “It is not true that his followers have been very numerous. Very few persons are suspected of adhering to his theory; and among those who are suspected of it, there are few who have studied it; and among the latter group, there are few who have understood it and have not been discouraged by the abstractions that are found in it.”[22] During much of the Enlightenment, Spinoza “was considered to be a great heretic not worth studying in another way than by refuting him,” and that he was only studied with any seriousness in the nineteenth century.[23] When his work was eventually examined with intellectual seriousness, “scholars soon discovered that Spinoza’s philosophy was by no means as original and new as his contemporaries and Spinoza himself had thought.”[24] Most of his political philosophy was derivative of his reading of Machiavelli, Thomas Hobbes, and Hugo de Groot.[25] Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716), who occupies a prominent place in the history of mathematics (for independently inventing differential and integral calculus) and as one of the great rationalist philosophers, once said that Spinoza “only cultivated certain seeds in the philosophy of Descartes,” and that his political philosophy was nothing more than “exaggerated Cartesianism.”[26] Robert McShea writes: “As for the influence of Spinoza’s specifically political thought — it is almost as though he had not written. … His political philosophy, meant to fit all ages, has been accepted, has been taken seriously, by none.”[27]

As a writer, Spinoza’s Latin was replete with grammatical errors, and “he made few attempts at elegant expression.”[28] He lacked creativity in framing his thoughts, and tended “to use the same illustrations again and again, frustrating the student seeking a full grasp of his thought.”[29] His works have been said to lack personality.[30] On Spinoza’s metaphysics, Edwin Curley wrote in his 1969 Harvard-published Spinoza’s Metaphysics: An Essay in Interpretation that “among those who have studied it carefully, there is no general agreement on the meaning of even those doctrines that are most central.”[31] Spinoza’s definitions were “unhelpful,” and his work was “couched in a highly abstract, technical language,” and “open to a wide variety of interpretations.”[32] As will be demonstrated during the course of this essay, the elastic nature of Spinoza’s philosophy —  its ability to be at once everything and nothing — has been most helpful to the activists working on his behalf. 

Hegelians John Caird and Harold Joachim pointed out in the 1970s not only that Spinoza’s application of mathematics to philosophy had been preceded by Descartes, but also that Spinoza’s own effort abounded  with “difficulties,” “obscurities,” and “philosophical errors.”[33] It has been said that “many modern philosophers would find the majority of Spinoza’s axioms dubious, and some of them even false.”[34] Nineteenth century-scholars saw that his “reasoning was too abstract. He had no eye for historical rights and historical situations.”[35] He should, according to H.G. Hubbeling, be seen, at best, as a moderately important “intermediary between Hobbes and Locke.”[36]

Far from being the catalyst for freedom and discovery, Spinoza’s work had been preceded by titanic works of science and philosophy including Johannes Kepler’s New Astronomy or Celestial Physics (1609), William Harvey’s Anatomical Essay on the Motion of Heart and Blood (1628), and Galileo Galilei’s Dialogues on the Two Chief Systems of the World (1632). While Spinoza was polishing lenses on the outskirts of Amsterdam, others were using lenses in the further development of the telescope and the microscope. The Royal Society of London for the Advancement of Experimental Knowledge was founded years prior to the publication of Spinoza’s earliest works.[37]

Rather than being the founder of modern Europe, Spinoza has more often been deemed a mere “product” of the Renaissance and the rise of modern science.[38] He “never founded anything resembling a school,”[39] and there “is not a single thinker of any significance that can really be called a disciple of Spinoza.”[40] The use of the term ‘Spinozist’ in the 17th and 18th century, which activists like Jonathan Israel claim denotes Spinoza’s wider influence, was in fact “applied to anyone who in any way criticized orthodox religious views, rather than as characterizing a single philosophical standpoint.”[41]

If it can be said that there is a specifically Jewish element to Spinoza’s thought, it is not altogether prominent, and it is certainly not to be found in the areas postulated by his Jewish cheerleaders. It is less to be found in his musings on politics and more in his thoughts on psychology. Macdonald has demonstrated that, for Jews, marriage has overwhelmingly been utilitarian. In Jewish intellectual movements, this has manifested itself in representations of romantic love and love within the family as a construct — “an invention of the alien culture and thus morally suspect,”[42] with the result that Freud viewed love as nothing more than a sublimation of the sexual instinct. A similar analysis surfaces in Spinoza’s writings. In his The Ethics, Spinoza argued that love was “nothing else but pleasure accompanied by the idea of an external cause.”[43] Michael Della Rocca writes that this cold interpretation amounts to saying: “There is no feeling of love, no burning feeling of affection over and above the representation of an object as the cause of an increase in power.”[44]

Go to Part 2 of 3.

[1] Quoted in D.B. Schwartz, The First Modern Jew: Spinoza and the History of an Image, (Princeton University Press, 2012), p.83.

[2] A. Donagan, Spinoza, (New York, 1988), p.9.

[3] Ibid.

[4] R. McShea, The Political Philosophy of Spinoza, (Columbia University Press, 1968), p.2.

[5] E. Harris, Salvation from Despair: A Reappraisal of Spinoza’s Philosophy, (The Hague, 1973), p.xii.

[6] Ibid & H.G. Hubbeling (ed) Spinoza’s Methodology (Royal Van Gorcum, Netherlands), p.136.

[7] Harris, Salvation from Despair, p.xii.

[8] D. Garrett (ed), The Cambridge Companion to Spinoza, (Cambridge, 1996), p.15.

[9] Ibid, p.16.

[10] Donagan, Spinoza, p.10.

[11] Harris, Salvation from Despair, p.xiii.

[12] McShea, p.3.

[13] L. Strauss, Spinoza’s Critique of Religion, (New York: 1965), p.18.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Donagan, Spinoza, p.27.

[17] R. Shahan and J. Biro, Spinoza: New Perspectives (Norman, Oklahoma, 1978), p.180.

[18] David Lachterman, “The Physics of Spinoza’s Ethics”, in R. Shahan and J. Biro, Spinoza: New Perspectives (Norman, Oklahoma, 1978), p.77.

[19] Ibid, p.78.

[20] Ibid.

[21]H.G. Hubbeling (ed) Spinoza’s Methodology (Royal Van Gorcum, Netherlands), p.103

[22] E. M. Curley, Spinoza’s Metaphysics: An Essay in Interpretation, (Harvard University Press, 1969), p.2.

[23] Ibid, p.1.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Harris, p.181.

[26] See R.S. Woolhouse, The Concept of Substance in Seventeenth Century Metaphysics: Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz , (New York, 1993), pp1-2 and S. Stich and T. Warfield (eds), The Blackwell Guide to Philosophy of the Mind, (Oxford, 2003), p.2.

[27] McShea, p.10.

[28] McShea, p.4.

[29] Ibid, p.7.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Curley, p.3.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Harris, p.21.

[34] Ibid, p.22.

[35] H.G. Hubbeling (ed) Spinoza’s Methodology (Royal Van Gorcum, Netherlands), p.124.

[36] Ibid, p.123.

[37] Woolhouse, pp.6-7.

[38] Harris, p.5.

[39] H. E. Allision, Benedict de Spinoza, (Boston, 1975), p.212.

[40] Ibid, p.213.

[41] Ibid.

[42] Macdonald, p.124.

[43] B. Spinoza, The Chief Works of Benedict Spinoza: Volume II (London, 1891), p.140.

[44] M. Della Rocca, Spinoza, (Routledge, 2008), p.160