Pariah to Messiah: The Engineered Apotheosis of Baruch Spinoza, Part 3 of 3
The Apotheosis of Baruch Spinoza
Influenced by the sentiments of their own people, the majority of Jewish academics have long held and advanced a view of Spinoza strikingly at odds with that held by non-Jewish academics. Over time, however, the internal intellectual consistency and dedication of a core of Jewish academics has steadily worn away academic resistance to its objective of elevating Spinoza to a level of supreme importance, and the group is now closer than ever to achieving its goal of making Spinoza not merely a messianic figure for Jews, but a Jewish icon for non-Jews. Beginning in the 1930s with Harry Wolfson’s two-volume The Philosophy of Spinoza, through the 1950s with Joseph Dunner’s Baruch Spinoza and Western Democracy and Lewis Feuer’s Spinoza and the Rise of Liberalism , the 1960s with Leon Roth’s Spinoza, Descartes, and Maimonides, the 1970s with the many works of Richard Popkin, the 1980s with Margaret Jacob’s The Radical Enlightenment and Marjorie Glicksman Grene’s Spinoza and the Sciences, and the early 2000s with Steven Nadler’s Spinoza: A Life and his Spinoza’s Heresy: Immortality and the Jewish Mind, there has been a concerted and persistent Jewish effort to reframe Spinoza as a product of purely Jewish thought, and to raise him to the summit of Enlightenment significance. Maurice Mandelbaum, Professor of Philosophy at The Johns Hopkins University, wrote in 1975 that he hoped to one day see the recognition of Spinoza as a major Enlightenment figure “flourish in the English-speaking world.”
More recently, the pace of the effort has quickened and has been pushed with even greater intensity, bringing Mandelbaum’s dream ever closer to fruition. In the past four years alone we have seen the publication of Jonathan Israel’s Radical Enlightenment: Philosophy and the Making of Modernity, 1650–1750, Michael Mack’s Spinoza and the Specters of Modernity: The Hidden Enlightenment of Diversity from Spinoza to Freud, Steven Nadler’s A Book Forged in Hell: Spinoza’s Scandalous Treatise and the Birth of the Secular Age, and Rebecca Goldstein’s Betraying Spinoza: The Renegade Jew Who Gave Us Modernity. These books have been in addition to a huge number of academic articles. Nadler, Professor of Jewish Studies at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, has been one of the most prolific activists in pushing Spinoza in scholarly journals. There is a high level of consensus and intellectual consistency within this group, and its influence and success can be said to derive substantially from this solidarity and cohesion, the consistency of its message, the access the group has had to elite publishing outlets, and sympathetic reviews in influential journals and media channels. These are precisely the characteristics of all Jewish intellectual movements, including Boasian anthropology, psychoanalysis, radical political ideology, the Frankfurt School, the New York Intellectuals and neoconservatism.
Jewish reviewers of these hagiographic accounts have been full of the usual platitudes, and there has been a copious amount of mutual citation and admiration within the group. For example Nadler described Israel’s books as “magnificent and magisterial.” Praise has also come from influential Jews outside the immediate group. Laura Miller at Salon described Goldstein’s book as “elegant” and “splendid,” and gushed that “Spinoza speaks to modern thinkers with an immediacy no philosopher of his time can match.” Miller, it needs to be said, is a tried and tested ethnic cheerleader. A senior writer and book reviewer for Salon, her “Best nonfiction of 2006” was composed solely of Jewish writers. Macdonald has noted that Jewish ethnocentric biases have been endemic in both scientific and literary circles. He writes that “Jewish group cohesiveness was implied by Truman Capote and Gore Vidal who complained about the ability of Jewish intellectuals to determine success in the literary world and to their tendency to promote Jewish writers.”
The ethnocentric review pattern has been accompanied by the establishment of an academic journal dedicated to Spinoza and the formation of Spinoza societies in the United States, Italy, Brazil, France, Germany, Great Britain, and even Japan. The Washington D.C. Spinoza Society has its origins in the local Jewish Study Centre. Spinoza has also made a comeback in fiction for the first time since the Weimer era, with one Jewish author bizarrely intertwining the story of Spinoza with National Socialist Germany. In France, Spinoza has an annual bulletin published just to track the rapidly expanding bibliography on his life and work. In Germany, the Universities of Marburg and Hannover have collaborated on an online Spinoza bibliographical database. In Canada, radio shows have been dedicated to the discussion of his ‘greatness.’
The totality of these developments has been described by Willi Goetschel, of the University of Toronto, as representing “a stunning transformation” of the way in which Spinoza is seen, and Goetschel adds that Spinoza is now discussed on a level “we could only dream of for other philosophers.” In fact, we are currently seeing an explosion of enthusiasm for Spinoza not seen since Weimar Germany. The only way to see this is as a marker for Jewish power in the contemporary intellectual world.
The singularly Jewish character of the effort has been noted much earlier than in the essay you are presently reading, though the proportion of the problem has increased exponentially since it was last discussed with any clarity. Writing in the 1970s, Dutch Spinoza expert, Hubertus G. Hubbeling, expressed awareness of the fundamental and longstanding difference between Jews and non-Jews in interpretations of Spinoza’s importance. Hubbeling had long since taken an objective view of his subject, and with barely concealed irritation on the specifically Jewish character of the effort to exaggerate his significance, Hubbeling wrote towards the end of his Spinoza’s Methodology that:
there are some Jewish writers who emphasize very strongly the importance of Spinoza’s contribution to the development of democratic ideas. Joseph Dunner, for example, places him above Locke in this respect. L. Feuer makes of Spinoza the first democratic political philosopher: ‘The political philosophy of Spinoza is the first statement in history of the standpoint of democratic liberalism’…..According to the opinion of the present writer Spinoza’s importance is exaggerated here.
In order to fully understand this effort to present Spinoza as a ‘light unto the gentiles’, it is of primary importance to become familiar with its basic structure. Essentially, the modern, English-speaking effort to raise the status of Spinoza encompasses two distinct, but occasionally overlapping, elements. The first element is a radical revision of the received narrative of Spinoza’s life and background in order to present him as a fully Jewish intellectual. For these academics, retaining the received narrative of an exile from the Jewish community who was immersed in a non-Jewish intellectual milieu, whose engagement with Enlightenment ideas was only made possible by his break from Jewry, and who possessed a seething hatred for his people, is incompatible with the desire to create a Jewish icon. His Jewishness is therefore emphasized, the disharmony between the Jewish and non-Jewish world is minimized, and his open antagonism towards Judaism is simply ignored.
The second element proceeds from the first. With Spinoza’s unblemished Jewishness established, efforts begin to crown him the founder of modern civilization.
Some of the works I have listed, particularly the early ones, are devoted entirely or in part to the goal of establishing an exaggerated narrative of Spinoza’s Jewishness. Others, mainly the later works, have focussed mainly or entirely on the second element. Although in a different order, the process is completely identical to that outlined by Brenton Sanderson in his discussion of Jewish efforts to portray Mahler as a cultural figure of global importance. Sanderson writes: “Firstly, inflate the significance of a Jewish figure’s intellectual or artistic achievement to the point where it is held to be of ‘world changing’ magnitude. Secondly, accentuate the Jewish origins and affiliations of the figure so that his ‘world-changing’ achievement is held to be the natural expression of his Jewish origins and identity.”
In the English-speaking world, the reclamation of Spinoza for the Jewish world began in the 1930s in the works of Harry Wolfson and was advanced later by Leon Roth. Roth and Wolfson attempted to strip non-Jewish elements from the Spinoza narrative, focussing less on the influence of Hobbes, de Groot, Descartes, van den Ende and the Dutch Mennonites, and instead attempting “to show Spinoza’s relation to medieval Jewish thought.” Daniel Schwartz writes that Jewish scholars from Harry Wolfson in the 1930s to Steven Nadler today have “pointed to a medieval Jewish template for much of Spinoza’s thought.” In this way, the effort to raise Spinoza to a central place in our perception of the Enlightenment has been accompanied by an effort to place Judaism itself at the centre of the Enlightenment.
To the instructed reader, this notion is patently absurd. However, like many efforts such as this, it has survived and thrived on the ignorance of the masses. Leaving aside the issue of when, or indeed if, Jewry became enlightened, medieval Jewish philosophy was no fertile wellspring of ideas of freedom, or indeed, any original ideas at all. It was an intellectual desert; an insipid wasteland.
This sterility had its roots in the earliest Jewish thought. Isaac Husik writes in his 1974 A History of Medieval Jewish Philosophy that Talmudic literature could “scarcely lay claim to being rationalistic or philosophic, much less to being consistent.” Jewish attempts at questioning the meaning of life, other than the “rambling” and “mostly negative” Ecclesiastes, “had no further results. They did not lead, as in the case of the Greek Sophists, to a Socrates, a Plato, or an Aristotle.” Even the most modest Jewish successes were accomplished, according to Husik, “with the help of Hellenism.” Important for our discussion of Spinoza, Husik argued that “there have appeared philosophers among the Jews in succeeding centuries, but they philosophized without regard to Judaism and in opposition to its fundamental dogmas.”
It was due to the complete intellectual bankruptcy of these efforts from Wolfson and Roth that Robert McShea commented in his 1968 The Political Philosophy of Spinoza: “Attempts to establish a specifically Jewish element in Spinoza’s mature thought have not produced strikingly successful results. … All of Spinoza’s important ideas are part of, or a development of, the general European philosophic tradition.”
These realities did not hinder the desire of Wolfson, Roth, and later activists from pursuing their agenda to uproot Spinoza from a non-Jewish philosophical milieu and plant him in the tradition of medieval Jewish philosophers, particularly Maimonides. In his 1934 The Philosophy of Spinoza: Unfolding the Latent Processes of his Reasoning, Wolfson openly admitted to the unscholarly methods employed by Jewish academics in trying to link Spinoza to medieval Jewish texts. Wolfson admitted that “before quoting a passage we do not stop to ask ourselves whether that book was known to Spinoza. In several instances we rather suspect that the book in question was unknown to him. But that makes no difference to us.”
More than forty years later Richard Popkin (1923–2005), a Manhattan-born Jew, while working on raising the profile of Spinoza, employed equally questionable methods and arguments to raise the profile of another Enlightenment era Jew, Isaac La Peyrere. Popkin wrote: “I have tried for over a decade to make him one of the central figures in modern thought, but have not yet succeeded in completely rescuing him from obscurity.” Popkin was at the forefront of efforts in the 1970s to displace Thomas Hobbes with La Peyrere as the most influential and significant critic of the idea of Mosaic authorship of the Old Testament, an attempt which ultimately failed because of a resolute scholarly consensus on the “archetypal originality” of Hobbes’ critique of religion. Popkin later turned his attention to linking La Peyrere to Spinoza, even though he admitted “no document attesting to this has been found,” and that in relation to Spinoza’s supposed use of La Peyrere’s works “one can only speculate.”
More recently, I was entertained by the comments of some readers of Jonathan Israel’s work. Many rightly pointed out that one of the main problems with his panegyric is his habit of hiding the bankruptcy of his arguments behind a veil of mere verbiage. One reviewer vividly commented on the obscure nature of Israel’s arguments: “I’d rather have my groin pummelled by Spinoza’s femur than subject myself to yet another page of flat, turgid, conceited, repetitious enumeration of which new pamphlet created immediate outcry in which Dutch city. Instead, please tell me what the pamphlet said. Please, Jonathan, what was the radical content of the Enlightenment that we must witness hundreds and hundreds of pages of reaction to?”
In reviewing these works it becomes ever clearer that truth, objectivity, and scholarly integrity are rare commodities indeed among this group of charlatans. Time and again ethnocentrism rises to the surface as the directing force behind their studies, their ideas, and their efforts.
One of the more revealing insights into the mechanics of the Jewish effort to revise Spinoza’s Jewishness is Popkin’s 1978 chapter Spinoza and La Peyrere in Robert W. Shahan and John I. Biro’s Spinoza: New Perspectives. Popkin was by now rapidly becoming one of the most significant post-war Jewish academics in the push for a higher status for Spinoza. He worked ceaselessly to promote Spinoza as an entirely Jewish philosopher, and he was extremely antagonistic to the prevailing idea that Spinoza and his ideas owed nothing to Judaism and his Jewish origins. Like many Jewish ethnic activists with a weak argument, Popkin appealed to ‘fear of the smear.’ He argued that the view that “it was only after Spinoza’s excommunication from the Jewish community that he had the opportunity to learn Latin and discover modern philosophy,” had “more than a tinge of antisemitism to it.” No evidence was, or ever has been, produced to suggest that Spinoza learned Latin or engaged with Enlightenment ideas while part of the Amsterdam Jewish community. In fact, following a lengthy study, English philosopher and historian James Martineau had confirmed as early as 1882 that “in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries even the higher Jewish schools made no provision for the study of Greek or Latin.” Martineau attributed Spinoza’s seeking for Latin education outside the community to his “thirst for Gentile culture.”
Popkin’s argument, if we can call it that, was really nothing but a blatant attempt to undermine the received narrative by intimidation, leaving any scholar who retained this account in their analysis of Spinoza’s works open to accusations of bigotry. On the weakness of his stance, Popkin conceded only that “I may have presented the common picture of Spinoza and his influences with a bit of bias.”
His tactics, while contemptible, have been successful. Of the works on Spinoza that I have examined, published since the 1980s, none retain the view that Spinoza’s engagement with Enlightenment ideas was made possible by his break from Jewry. Popkin, and later writers pursuing the same agenda, ignored all evidence to the contrary, and side-stepped Spinoza’s own invectives against Judaism and the community he was born into. This egregious behavior has been accompanied by a certain arrogance. Popkin frequently and unashamedly conceded that his work was merely the latest in a number of “serious attempts to reclaim Spinoza for the Jewish world and to claim that he is the major Jewish figure in modern thought [italics in original].”
In making these claims, Popkin ignored fellow scholars, such as Edwin Curley, who believed that in relation to Spinoza’s metaphysics “among those who have studied it carefully, there is no general agreement on the meaning of even those doctrines that are most central.” Instead, and without any attempt to expound upon or defend his thesis, Popkin claimed that Spinoza developed “the first full-fledged naturalistic metaphysics of modern times.”
Moreover, it should be stated that Popkin was a typical Jewish intellectual in that he had a small cadre of enthralled non-Jewish followers. MacDonald has written that “once Jews have attained intellectual predominance, it is not surprising that gentiles would be attracted to Jewish intellectuals as members of a socially dominant and prestigious group and as dispensers of valued resources.” These non-Jewish followers often viewed their Jewish ‘guru’ with a certain level of awe. One of Popkin’s non-Jewish followers, Sarah Hutton, said after his death that he was “inspirational.”
By the 1980s, Spinoza studies were dominated by Jewish academics. Macdonald writes: “Once an organization becomes dominated by a particular intellectual perspective, there is enormous intellectual inertia created by the fact that the informal networks dominating elite universities serve as gatekeepers for the next generation of scholars.” Along with high levels of indoctrination at the undergraduate and graduate level, aspiring intellectuals are then put under pressure to accept the intellectual assumptions of the gatekeepers in order to obtain access to valued resources in the form of jobs and research opportunities. While Jews like Israel continue to dominate discussion of the importance of Spinoza, recruited non-Jews have been increasingly active in supporting roles. For example, Hutton later devoted herself to furthering Popkin’s work on raising Spinoza to prominence, as well as contributing to the works of Steven Nadler. O corruptio optimi pessima!
The baton carried by Richard Popkin was passed on to later writers. In her 1981 The Radical Enlightenment: Pantheists, Freemasons, and Republicans, Margaret Jacob ignored the balance of evidence, including testimony from Spinoza and other Jewish outcasts, in support of the view that Amsterdam Jewry was authoritarian, dogmatic, and insular. Instead Jacob argued that far from being an enclosed, ethnocentric community, Amsterdam Jewry was notable for its “remarkable degree of assimilation.” Jacob wants us to imagine there were no real boundaries between Jew and non-Jew in the city, and that ideas flowed freely between the two communities. Logically following from this is the notion that Spinoza was fully capable, and did, formulate most of his ideas before his exile. Although Jacob offers absolutely no evidence in support of this statement, the implication is that Spinoza did not have to break from Jewry to engage with Enlightenment ideas, and that Amsterdam Jewry itself was open and ‘enlightened.’
Predictably, Jacob combined her revision of Spinoza’s Jewishness with an exaggeration of his importance. She writes “just as important for the Radical Enlightenment, if not more important than the natural philosophy of Descartes, stands the philosophy of Spinoza.” In Steven Nadler’s entry on Spinoza for the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, he writes that “Spinoza is one of the most important philosophers — and certainly the most radical — of the early modern period. … Of all the philosophers of the seventeenth-century, perhaps none have more relevance today than Spinoza.”
And thus we are back to Israel’s thesis that Spinoza and Spinozism were “the intellectual backbone of the European Radical Enlightenment everywhere.”
Conclusion and Reflections
As we look back at the long lineage of this effort, it is clear than Jonathan Israel’s work is a mere part of a larger project that has been ongoing for more than a century. Baruch Spinoza’s journey from pariah to messiah is an unusual, though significant one. Even forty years ago, discussion of Spinoza’s alleged ‘greatness’ and world significance was still viewed as ‘exaggeration’ and ‘building castles in the sky.’ However, the concerted efforts of a core of Jewish academics had steadily worn away and outlasted any and all resistance. I have detailed the life of Spinoza, and provided some insight into the true level of significance of his work. We have come to see that long before he was presented to us as a figure of towering genius, he had long since come to have special meaning for the Jews and was the subject of their cult-like adoration long before Wolfson sat at his typewriter and Strauss set sail for these shores. We have followed the ebb and flow of the academic struggle that was fought from the 1950s to the 1980s, in which the Jewish character of the effort to exaggerate Spinoza’s importance was, admittedly meekly, noted. We noted that the effort had all the hallmarks of a typical Jewish intellectual movement, and we hinted at some of the links and relationships between the Spinoza cult and other Jewish intellectual movements. We finished by recording the victory of this campaign, and the resurgence of the Spinoza cult to a level not seen since Weimar Germany. We are now well into an age of iconoclasm against the West in which our own traditions and even the recognition of our role in establishing and maintaining those traditions are being swept away. It is in this wasteland that Spinoza’s apotheosis will be made complete.
Admittedly, the tone of this article is pessimistic. In many ways, there almost seems to be an oppressive inevitability about this development and others like it. Moreover, it is difficult to see how this kind of behavior can be successfully disrupted. Readers may gaze over the references and citations here in complete horror at the number of Spinoza-cult texts coming out under the imprint of elite publishing houses and university presses. In the final part of my review of Anthony Julius’ Trials of the Diaspora I noted the same occurrence in my discussion of Jewish publishing in the area of English Literature.
It is important not to see any of this in isolation. One of the major talking-points here at TOO over the past year has been Ron Unz’s discussion of Jewish over-representation at elite universities. It is essential to maintain the discussion of Jewish over-representation as affecting the ability of Whites to secure places at those institutions.
But there is another side to this story. Jewish over-representation at undergraduate level has the knock-on effect of Jewish over-representation at graduate level. In fact, the level of over-representation at the graduate level may be even higher. Over-representation on both levels is conducive to over-representation on faculties. As the work of Macdonald has demonstrated, Jewish over-representation in academia, particularly in the social sciences and humanities, is typically in opposition to the interests of Whites. In the worst cases, it leads to the formation of intellectual movements, such as psychoanalysis and the Frankfurt School, which disseminate harmful ideologies. Even in the more benign cases, it leads to ethnocentric citation biases and the disproportionate use of public or university funds for ethnocentric areas of research.
In short, Jewish academics have a tendency not to behave like other academics but behave much more like ethnic activists in whatever field they are in, particularly in the social sciences, the humanities, and even in the natural sciences as they relate to issues of race and ethnicity.
A practical solution to deal with this, still less a practical solution acceptable to the powers that be, is difficult to arrive at. Inevitably, Jews will adopt the stance they adopted with Napoleon — to present themselves as individuals while continuing to act as a group. Any reasonable person reading this article has to accept that the Jewish academics pushing Spinoza have acted as a group and have been motivated by their Jewishness. Whites can remain divided or ignorant, and accept this situation along with its rancid fruits, or they can unite and recognize their interests. They first need to be made aware that these problems exist, and that’s what TOO and The Occidental Quarterly are here for.
 H. Wolfson, The Philosophy of Spinoza, (Harvard University Press, 1934).
 J. Dunner, Baruch Spinoza and Western Democracy: An Interpretation of his Philosophical, Religious, and Political Thought, (Philosophical Library, 1955).
 L.S. Feuer, Spinoza and the Rise of Liberalism, (Boston, 1958).
 L. Roth, Spinoza, Descartes, and Maimonides, (New York, 1963).
 There are many works on Spinoza from this author but one of his earliest is R. H. Popkin, ‘Spinoza and La Peyrere’ in R. Shahan and J. Biro, Spinoza: New Perspectives (Norman, Oklahoma, 1978).
 M. Glicksman Grene, Spinoza and the Sciences, (Kluwer, 1986).
 S. Nadler, Spinoza: A Life, (Cambridge University Press, 2009).
 S. Nadler, Spinoza’s Heresy: Immortality and the Jewish Mind, (Oxford University Press, 2002).
 M. Mandelbaum, Spinoza: Essays in Interpretation, (Illinois, 1975), p.5.
 J. Israel, Radical Enlightenment: Philosophy and the Making of Modernity, 1850-1750, (Oxford University Press, 2002).
 M. Mack, Spinoza and the Specters of Modernity: The Hidden Enlightenment of Diversity from Spinoza to Freud, (Continuum, 2010).
 S. Nadler, A Book Forged in Hell: Spinoza’s Scandalous Treatise and the Birth of the Secular Age, (Princeton University Press, 2011).
 R. Goldstein, Betraying Spinoza: The Renegade Jew Who Gave Us Modernity, (New York, 2009).
 See for example, S. Nadler, ‘The Jewish Spinoza’, Journal of the History of Ideas, 70:3 (2009), 491-510, and S. Nadler, ‘Spinoza and Consciousness’, Mind, 117 (July 2008), 575-601.
 See MacDonald, The Culture of Critique, Ibid., Ch. 6.
 Macdonald, Culture of Critique, p.210.
 Ibid, p.218.
 http://www.amazon.com/The-Spinoza-Problem-A-Novel/dp/0465029639, http://www.jewishjournal.com/twelve_twelve/article/psychotherapy_and_philosophy_intersect_in_spinoza_problem_20120307
 H.G. Hubbeling (ed) Spinoza’s Methodology (Royal Van Gorcum, Netherlands),, p.103.
 Hubbeling, p.181.
 Schwartz, p.6.
 I. Husik, A History of Medieval Philosophy, (New York, 1974), p.xv.
 Ibid, p.xvi
 Ibid, p.431.
 McShea, p.2-3.
 See for example H. A. Wolfson, The Philosophy of Spinoza: Unfolding the latent processes of his reasoning, Volume Two (New York, 1969 reprint), p.118, 132, 134, 160, 317.
 H. A. Wolfson, The Philosophy of Spinoza: Unfolding the latent processes of his reasoning, Volume One, (New York, 1969 reprint), p.15. The book is available to view here: http://archive.org/details/philosophyofspin033315mbp
 Popkin, p.182.
 L. Strauss, Spinoza’s Critique of Religion, (New York, 1965), p.86-7.
 Popkin, p.189.
 R. H. Popkin, ‘Spinoza and La Peyrere’ in R. Shahan and J. Biro, Spinoza: New Perspectives (Norman, Oklahoma, 1978).
 Ibid, p.177.
 J. Martineau, A Study of Spinoza, (London, 1882), p.12.
 Popkin, p.178.
 Ibid, p.180.
 Curley, p.3.
 Popkin, p.191.
 Macdonald, p.3.
 Macdonald, p.220.
 See for example her chapters in R. Popkin The Columbia history of Western philosophy. (Columbia University Press, 1999), and S. Nadler, A companion to early modern philosophy. Malden, Mass, Blackwell Pub, 2002).
 M. Jacob, The Radical Enlightenment: Patheists, Freemasons, and Republicans (Boston, 1981), p.49.
 Ibid, p.3. See also p.52.
 Quoted in D.B. Schwartz, The First Modern Jew: Spinoza and the History of an Image, (Princeton University Press, 2012), p.83.