The Excommunicant

Richard Popkin

  • The God of Spinoza: A Philosophical Study by Richard Mason
    Cambridge, 272 pp, £35.00, May 1997, ISBN 0 521 58162 1
  • Spinoza, Liberalism and the Question of Jewish Identity by Steven Smith
    Yale, 270 pp, £21.00, June 1997, ISBN 0 300 06680 5

Shortly after the end of World War Two, a young American professor submitted an article to a leading philosophical journal, explaining a difficult point in one of Spinoza’s arguments. In short order he received his manuscript back with the news, written on it by hand, that ‘we are not now and never will be interested in Spinoza.’ Spinoza had been dropped from the Anglo-American canon.

The positivists regarded him as one of the worst examples of a metaphysician. For Spinoza, God or Nature is everything and is everywhere, and whatever is, is an aspect of God or is in God. God is the cause of whatever takes place. Whatever happens follows necessarily from the nature of God, and nothing can be different than it is. Spinoza made it clear that he was not talking of the Judaeo-Christian deity, but a purely philosophical being. He then worked out a stoic-like ethical system in which the highest good for man is to see the world from the aspect of eternity, and to achieve the intellectual love of God. As Richard Mason reminds us, Spinoza’s neglect of epistemology made him of little interest to those who insisted that the problem of knowledge as set out by Descartes defined what philosophy was properly about. Spinoza found a little room for that problem only at the end of the second book of the Ethics. A decade ago, when I offered a course on Spinoza at UCLA, I was told it was years since one had been given. A senior colleague told me he had never read Spinoza, but knew he could not be all bad since he had been expelled from the Amsterdam Synagogue.

This attitude is now dated. We have recently been getting much new information about Spinoza’s background, the context in which he worked out his philosophy, and his influence. There is now an international journal, Studia Spinoza, and Spinoza societies exist in various Western countries. Above all, two new English-language editions of his writings are now appearing, one from Princeton, translated by Edwin Curley, of the entire corpus, the other from Hackett, translated by Samuel Shirley, of the Ethics, the Theologico-Political Tractatus and the Letters.

Much new material has also become available about the Jewish community of Amsterdam in Spinoza’s day, about events connected with his excommunication, his involvement with various radical Christian groups, the writings of his Latin teacher, a revolutionary ex-Jesuit, and about his place in the intellectual world of the time. The old picture of the solitary philosopher devoting his life to the pursuit of truth is now being replaced by a very much richer one.

These two new books focus on Spinoza’s theological and religious views. They seek in opposite ways to show the great significance of the Tractatus. Richard Mason starts from the Ethics, then carefully expounds Spinoza’s theological metaphysics, going on to interpret his critique of existing religions and his justification for complete religious toleration. Steven Smith starts from Spinoza’s role as the first secular Jew (after his excommunication), and the way it is reflected both in his critique of religion, especially Judaism, and in his political theory.

In both books, the excommunication of 1656 is the turning point, when Spinoza rejected his Jewish heritage and stepped into modernity. This is an event we now know much more about than we did. It was not a clear-cut case of rigid Orthodox Jews throwing out a free-thinking rebel. Indeed, it is not at all obvious why Spinoza was excommunicated. Details uncovered by the late I.S. Révah show that in 1659, three years after the excommunication, Spinoza attended a theological discussion group in Amsterdam, along with another former member of the synagogue, Juan de Prado, at which he is reported to have said: ‘God exists, but only philosophically.’

In 1656, three people had been accused of heterodoxy: Spinoza, Juan de Prado and Daniel Ribera, all accused of teaching questionable views in their Sunday school classes. (One can date the point at which Spinoza became unhappy with the synagogue from the records of his financial contributions, which had been substantial until one week in 1655 when they dropped to one cent.) The synagogue apparently did what it could to get the three miscreants to recant and apologise. Ribera just disappeared. Prado was a doctor and had been a Catholic theology student in Spain, where he was said to have been a deist, whatever that might then have meant. The synagogue leaders wanted to resettle Prado and his family if he did not recant his heterodoxy; they offered to drop the charges against Spinoza if he would come to the High Holiday services, and keep quiet. Prado recanted, but Spinoza did not.

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