Horrible Heresies

Jonathan Rée

  • The Collected Works of Spinoza Vol. II edited and translated by Edwin Curley
    Princeton, 769 pp, £40.95, June 2016, ISBN 978 0 691 16763 3

Baruch Spinoza was fascinated by human follies, and in the Ethica he set out to examine them dispassionately. ‘These turmoils move me neither to laughter nor even to tears,’ he said, ‘but to philosophising.’ With philosophy’s help he cast a cold eye on servitus humana, or ‘human bondage’, arguing that our ‘vices and absurdities’ were not anomalies or aberrations but, like the rest of our ‘affects’, part of the ordinary course of nature. He presented his analysis in terse, impassive Latin, beginning with explicit axioms and definitions, proceeding through numbered propositions and scholia, and drawing conclusions ‘in the geometric style’. Here, for example, is his account of ‘ambition’, or the yearning for public approval:

From the fact that we imagine others to love or hate something, we shall love or hate it too (by P27), i.e. (by P13S), we shall thereby rejoice in or be saddened by its presence; and so (by P28) we shall strive to do whatever we imagine others to love or to look on with joy, etc., QED.

The heroic mismatch between Spinoza’s style and his subject matter can take some getting used to, but – like Krafft-Ebing’s deadpan accounts of the uses of boots, whips and spurs – it also has a quirky kind of charm.

Spinoza was born into the family of a Jewish merchant in Amsterdam in 1632. He spoke Portuguese at home, along with some Spanish and Dutch. He also attended a synagogue school where he learned Hebrew (he would eventually write a Hebrew grammar) while picking up what he called ‘traditional opinions concerning the Bible’ – notably that it is the word of God and that the first five books were written by Moses. Around the time of his bar mitzvah he started work in his father’s dried fruit business, which gave him the opportunity to sample the cosmopolitan glories of Amsterdam: an ‘outstanding city’, and ‘the wonder of all nations’, where – so he said – anyone could converse with anyone else ‘in the greatest harmony, no matter what their nation or sect’. He then gave up his religious training, in defiance of his father, and went through the kind of mental crisis that seems to be obligatory for anyone hoping to become a philosopher: he convinced himself that good and evil do not exist ‘in themselves’ but only ‘insofar as the mind is moved by them’, that conventional morality and religion are a sham, and that ‘the everyday occurrences of ordinary life are empty and futile.’

As a Jew he could not enrol at a university, but he took private Latin lessons and before long he was reading the works of René Descartes, a local celebrity (he had lived mainly in Holland until his death in 1650) and ‘the brightest star of our age’. Descartes had always presented himself as a good Christian, content ‘by the grace of God’ with ‘the religion of my nurse’. But he was also a leading advocate of mathematical, mechanistic approaches to the natural world, as opposed to the Aristotelianism favoured by the Church, and was often accused of deviating from theological orthodoxy and neglecting the distinctive dogmas of Christianity. To use a recently minted term, he was suspected of being a deist – of believing in a God of reason rather than revelation – and in the opinion of many of his contemporaries, deism was just a mealy-mouthed form of atheism.

Spinoza also used his newly acquired Latin to read the New Testament. He was intrigued by Christian doctrines of forgiveness and universal love, and got involved with a society of puritanical reformers in Amsterdam called the Collegiants. After his father’s death in 1654 he started to lose touch with his Jewish friends, but rumours of his heterodoxy found their way back to the synagogue. In 1656 he was denounced for ‘horrible heresies’, and his fellow Jews were instructed not to ‘come within four ells of him’, or ‘communicate with him in any way’ or ‘read anything he writes’.

Excommunication seems to have come as a relief. After more than ten years as a half-hearted businessman, Spinoza disposed of the family firm and swapped the bustle of Amsterdam for a life of rural seclusion. But he already had a reputation as an incisive thinker, and in 1661 he was tracked down to a village near Leiden by Henry Oldenburg, who was a leading figure in the Royal Society of London. They pledged themselves to a philosophical friendship based on ‘every kind of good will’, and their subsequent correspondence, on topics ranging from mechanics and optics to general philosophy, brought Spinoza international recognition. Oldenburg tried to persuade him to write a proper book. ‘I shall never stop exhorting you till you grant my request,’ he said, but Spinoza kept putting him off. Spinoza also turned down an offer of financial patronage, preferring to top up a small private income by grinding lenses, building scientific instruments and giving private instruction in mathematics and philosophy. To support his teaching he wrote a pedagogical guide to Descartes, which was printed in Amsterdam in 1663 with a long appendix on the prospects for truth, free will and providence within the new philosophy. But the book was not what Oldenburg had been waiting for. ‘I wish you would finally reveal the fruit of your own talent,’ he said. ‘Get on with it; finish it … What’s stopping you, my friend?’

Spinoza’s big idea was to devise a moral philosophy that took account of the new natural sciences: a system in which virtue would be pursued not from self-centred fear of punishment, human or divine, or in expectation of personal rewards, but out of sheer delight in ‘the knowledge and love of God’. He shared some manuscripts with friends back in Amsterdam, and they responded with comments, requests for clarification and expressions of admiration. They were not disinterested scholars, however: they regarded themselves as part of an insurgency of rational Christians, at ease with Descartes and the new philosophy and exasperated with the Reformed Church for what they saw as compromises with Catholic superstition. Whether Spinoza liked it or not, they were determined to adopt him as their leader, in the hope, as they put it, that ‘under your guidance we may be able to defend the truth against those who are superstitiously religious.’ The manuscript of the Ethica was more or less complete by 1665, but Spinoza was wary of controversy and refused to publish it.

Meanwhile, he was at work on another project: a book in which, as he told Oldenburg, he proposed to discredit the ‘prejudices of the theologians’, vindicate ‘the freedom of philosophising and saying what we think’, and above all refute the critics who ‘never stop accusing me of atheism’. The principal argument of the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus was that the Bible is not a systematic set of theological propositions but a patchwork of different documents, written by miscellaneous authors ‘of different mentalities, and of different ages’ who addressed themselves to ‘ordinary people’, and tended to treat them as if they were ‘children lacking in all reason’. Passages that portray God as an irascible patriarch, for instance – ‘now angry, now merciful … now seized by jealousy and suspicion’ – were simply scare stories, designed to frighten ‘the fluctuating and inconstant common people of the Jews’. In his closing chapters Spinoza veered somewhat unexpectedly into politics, arguing that there can be no ‘peace and piety’ without ‘freedom of philosophising’, and that the most rational form of government is not aristocracy or monarchy but open democracy.

The Tractatus was published in Amsterdam in 1670, under cover of anonymity and with a false Hamburg imprint, and Spinoza blocked a proposed Dutch translation; but despite his precautions he was soon unmasked and accused of being an atheist. He defended himself by pointing out that atheists do not usually rhapsodise about the love of God, and that they are supposed to ‘seek honours and riches immoderately’, which everyone knew was not true of him; but even so he found himself ostracised by leaders of the Reformed Church and several old friends and former students.

He still had his admirers, however, and in 1673 he was offered a professorship at Heidelberg. The initiative seems to have come from high up – not from the university itself, where many were not keen on having him as a colleague, but from the local prince, Karl Ludwig, Elector Palatine, or more probably from his sister the Princess Sophia, a spirited freethinker who read the Tractatus and described it as ‘extraordinary and entirely reasonable’. Spinoza must have been flattered by the offer, but he feared that as a professor he would not be free to speak his mind, and that the cares of public teaching would prevent him from ‘advancing in philosophy’. He preferred to persevere with his ‘private and solitary life’, and concentrate on revising his book on moral philosophy and improving his arguments for democracy. But his health was beginning to fail – Sophia suspected that he was being poisoned by partisans of ‘faith without reason’ – and he died in 1677, at the age of 44, lucid, calm and apparently content.

Within a few months, his friends brought out a five-volume edition of his writings, including the much anticipated Ethica, which quickly became notorious: the states of Holland denounced it as ‘profane, atheistic and blasphemous’, and the Holy Office put it on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum. Towards the end of the century, Pierre Bayle’s Dictionnaire historique identified Spinoza as the architect of ‘the most monstrous hypothesis imaginable’, namely ‘systematic atheism’, and denounced him as the founder of a disreputable sect. But Bayle was not too worried: anyone who read Spinoza’s works would realise, he said, that they were so ridiculous as to be self-refuting – ‘a poison’, in short, ‘that is its own remedy’.

Bayle turned out to be mistaken: Spinoza’s notoriety grew, and he was soon launched on a posthumous career as the figurehead of the atheistic movements that Jonathan Israel likes to call the ‘radical enlightenment’. Subversive Spinozism was still being championed in plebeian London as late as the 1830s, when – as G.H. Lewes would recall – a poverty-stricken German Jewish watchmaker called Cohn (‘a man of astonishing subtlety and logical force’) spent his Saturday evenings in a tavern on Red Lion Square, guiding a ‘small club of students’, including Lewes, through the works of the ‘theological pariah’. Later, Spinoza enjoyed a second afterlife within Soviet Marxism: Engels had once described him as a ‘brilliant exponent’ of dialectics, and millions of communists around the world were taught to revere him as ‘essentially a great atheist and materialist’, whose system – in the self-assured language of the time – ‘found its historical and logical fulfilment precisely in dialectical materialism’.


Atheistic appropriations of Spinoza have never quite rung true: in the Tractatus he presented himself as a rational Christian, and the first book of the Ethica was devoted to proving the existence of God. On top of that, close friends commemorated him as a paragon of ‘true piety’ whose doctrines corresponded to ‘the law of Jesus Christ’, while his attacks on ‘superstition’ – especially the ‘ridiculous opinions of the Jews’ – echoed the anti-Catholic polemics of pious Protestants. His works were destined to ‘live through all the ages’, they said, and ‘nothing else can offer us such beautiful ideas of the deity.’

The religious interpretation received new impetus with the publication in 1802 of a fragment by Novalis in which Spinozism was equated with ‘a surfeit of divinity’, while Spinoza himself was described as Gott-trunken or ‘drunk on God’. Thirty years later, Heinrich Heine observed that Spinoza was rising to ‘supreme eminence’ as the prophet and pioneer of a mystical Naturphilosophie:

The mathematical style makes him appear harsh; but it is like the shell of an almond, which makes the kernel even more delectable … a forest of heavenly thoughts whose blossom-laden branches sway in the wind while their roots reach deep into the eternal earth … Spinoza lived an irreproachable life, as immaculate as that of his divine cousin Jesus Christ, and he too had to suffer for his teachings and wear a crown of thorns … To describe his doctrines as atheistic is sheer malice and stupidity: no one has spoken of divinity more sublimely.

Thomas Carlyle popularised the new Spinoza in an essay on Novalis in 1829, and his version of the ‘God-intoxicated man’ became popular with a generation that wanted to distance itself from traditional beliefs about God without abandoning the moral wisdom implicit in religion. Inspired by Carlyle, a young Warwickshire autodidact called Marian Evans worked her way through the Tractatus in 1849, and found in it something of herself. ‘How exquisite,’ she said, ‘is the satisfaction of feeling that another mind than your own sees precisely where and what is the difficulty.’ She started to translate the Tractatus into English, but after a few months she gave up: ‘For those who read the very words Spinoza wrote,’ she said, ‘there is the same sort of interest in his style as in the conversation of a person of great capacity who has led a solitary life, and who says from his own soul what the rest of the world is saying by rote; but this interest hardly belongs to a translation.’ A few years later she translated the whole of the Ethica, but her publisher lost interest and the project was shelved. The months she spent working on it were not wasted, however: they persuaded her that everything that comes to pass should be considered – in the words of her translation – ‘under the form of eternity’. They encouraged her to cultivate the ‘intellectual love’ that supplies ‘the highest kind of pleasure’ and ‘the highest possible repose’, and to see the humblest details of human existence as having significance within the great pattern that is ‘God (or Nature)’. In short, they enabled her to become George Eliot, and she continued her inquiry into the ‘incalculably diffusive’ effects of ‘unhistoric acts’ for the rest of her life, from Adam Bede and The Mill on the Floss to Middlemarch and Daniel Deronda.

A two-volume selection of Spinoza in English appeared in 1883 and held the field until the 1960s when the American philosopher Edwin Curley started work on a comprehensive new translation in two volumes: the first came out thirty years ago, and the second has now joined it.[*] The Collected Works of Spinoza has been the labour of a lifetime, and it provides us with a fluent, meticulous, consistent and usefully annotated English version of everything Spinoza wrote (except the Hebrew grammar), and a fresh opportunity to see his arguments in detail and to see them whole.

The starting point has to be Spinoza’s response to Descartes’s attempt to redraw the map of knowledge in the light of the new sciences. Bacon, Galileo and Gassendi had all argued that human sensibilities are, at best, a very rough guide to scientific truth. Descartes agreed: for him, the colours, sounds, flavours, scents and textures that dominate our immediate experience are a sideshow – a distraction from the fundamental truth of tiny nondescript particles moving through space in obedience to mathematical rules that he called ‘laws of nature’. There was ‘nothing in matter but mechanical constructions and operations’, as Spinoza put it in his book on Descartes, and nature did not give a damn about how things might appear to us. The intentions that we sometimes ascribe to it – water seeking its own level, for example, or fire reaching for the sky – were ‘nothing but human fictions’, and in reality everything took place as it had to, ‘according to the laws of mechanics’.

But how can the mind detach itself from its ‘fictions’ and get to know the world as it really is? Descartes believed that the mind or soul is distinct from the body; but in itself this opinion was utterly unoriginal, and of no great interest to Spinoza. As far as he was concerned, Descartes’s achievement lay in his suggestion that the traditional dichotomy between sensibility and reason, considered as separate faculties with separate fields of operation, needed to be replaced by a new notion of ‘ideas’, broad enough to cover all kinds of knowledge and all sorts of objects. Ideas, according to Descartes, ranged from the obscure and confused impressions left by the bodily senses and passions to the clear and distinct propositions of mathematics; and progress in knowledge was not a qualitative leap from perceptual opinion to immaculate science but a gradual process of refining our ideas.

Spinoza accepted Descartes’s proposal but took it further. In the first place, he gave it an ethical dimension by maintaining that when we clarify our ideas we are also taking rational control of our lives, so that our efforts at intellectual self-improvement are also part of a process of moral self-emancipation. ‘Insofar as the mind has inadequate ideas,’ he wrote in the Ethica, ‘it necessarily undergoes certain things,’ and is therefore consigned to continued moral bondage; but ‘insofar as it has adequate ideas, it necessarily does certain things,’ and so gets closer and closer to the self-determining spontaneity that is the highest form of freedom. Moreover, if our ideas are ‘inadequate’, or tainted by ‘random experience’, then the remedy lies entirely ‘in ourselves’. Our mind ‘makes intellectual tools for itself’, and we must allow it to work its ideas over, thus acquiring ‘further powers for further intellectual tasks’, and advancing ‘by stages, until it reaches the pinnacle of wisdom’.

The mind, according to Spinoza, has an innate yearning for perfection, and a vivid sense of its own shortcomings: ‘It wants nothing other than to understand.’ It cannot settle for a view of nature derived only from individual bodily experiences, and will seek satisfaction in generalised scientific knowledge. Before long, however, it will get restless again, eventually escaping the finitude of natural science and breaking through to a ‘third kind of knowledge’ – a rapturous intuition in which nature reveals itself as a single, integrated ‘substance’ that embraces the entire universe, past, present and future.

From another point of view, the object of our intellectual adoration can be seen as God rather than nature. The traditions that have come down to us have imagined divinity in different ways, but most of them have at some point postulated an array of rival gods, conceived as scaled-up people, powerful but temperamental and, in Spinoza’s words, ‘as mad as human beings’. Once we start to engage our intellect, however, we will see that the idea of fickle, feuding divinities is no more than a projection of our idiosyncratic imaginations, rather like the idea that the sun is stronger and higher in summer than in winter. We will realise that we can never arrive at a satisfactory notion of God by drawing up a polytheistic shortlist and narrowing it down until we are left with the strongest candidate. Divinity is essentially ‘a being absolutely infinite’, or ‘the greatest thing the mind can understand’. It is essentially unique, and has no distinctive qualities, such as sex or age or affect; and as Spinoza put it, ‘there follows only the existence of one God, QED.’

Spinoza’s theology is not just about God: it is also a theory of the human condition. Humanity, for Spinoza, was characterised by a self-annihilating drive to see the world from a non-human perspective. It was perpetually in flight from ignorance, but could never achieve perfect enlightenment. Human existence was neither a presence nor an absence but a matter of degree, and Spinoza was unable to describe it without frequent recourse to the word quatenus, meaning ‘insofar as’. The repetition can get on the reader’s nerves, but where some translators might try a little elegant variation, Curley opts for consistency:

The human mind is part of the infinite intellect of God. Therefore, when we say that the human mind perceives this or that, we are saying nothing but that God, not insofar as he is infinite, but insofar as he is explained through the nature of the human mind, or insofar as he constitutes the essence of the human mind, has this or that idea; and when we say that God has this or that idea, not only insofar as he constitutes the nature of the human mind, but insofar as he also has the idea of another thing together with the human mind, then we say that the human mind perceives the thing only partially, or inadequately.

But just as God stoops to our level to think our human thoughts, so we reach up to his insofar as we think divine ones. Our ‘intellectual love of God’ carries us closer and closer to ‘the very love of God by which God loves himself’, and eventually we undergo a ‘rebirth’: the best of our thoughts survive the death of our body to be embraced by the ‘one mind’ that is common to the whole of humanity, before being absorbed into the loving self-knowledge of the universe as a whole. The ultimate consummation obliterates our distinct individual human identities – but ‘what a union!’ and ‘what a love!’

Before being dissolved into infinity, however, our intellectual aspirations will seek expression in democratic politics, based on the principle that everyone ultimately wants to be reasonable. For the time being, some of us may cling to an individualistic idea of freedom as the right to ‘yield to lust’, and to that extent we will continue to be at odds with ourselves and with one another. But once we allow ourselves to be guided by reason, we will begin to see that the ‘greatest good’ must be ‘common to all’, and ‘enjoyed by all equally’. We will realise that no one will live happily without ‘mutual aid’, and that the only guarantor of freedom is a ‘state’ in which everyone agrees to be ‘led as if by one mind’ and to abide by the ‘common decision’. In the meantime the wise will have to wait, but – ‘insofar as they are wise’ – they will know that in the long run things are bound to get better.

[*] While Curley was still at work, he was overtaken by the good but comparatively unscholarly Spinoza: The Complete Works, translated by Samuel Shirley et al., edited by Michael L. Morgan (2002).