Monday, October 31, 2011




Outline of Talk by Fred Hallberg

For the Cedar Falls Town and Gown Club

At Bourbon Street Café, Cedar Falls, Iowa, 6:00 p.m., Tuesday, Oct. 18, 2011.

I. Introduction: I wish to introduce you to Baruch Spinoza, a Dutch Jew of Portuguese descent, living in Holland in the 17th Century.

Why is Spinoza of interest today?

A. I had not dealt with Spinoza for several decades, when I last taught a course at UNI entitled “History of Philosophy: Renaissance and Enlightenment.”

1. Spinoza was recalled to memory for me, by the events of the “Arab Spring” beginning in Tunisia last December. The unrest spread to Egypt, where I saw on television a phalanx of women carrying a banner displaying words in Arabic. The words (when translated by the TV announcer) said “Peace” and “Solidarity.” The announcer then explained the women were a mixture of Coptic Christians and Sunni Muslims, who were agitating for a world in which they could live together in “Peace” and “Solidarity,” as their sign said.

2. Suddenly Spinoza began rattling his cage from deep within my memory. He was insisting that “I have something to say to those women!” I had lost most of my Spinoza books during the move from Janesville to Eisenach Village, so I bought a half dozen new books on Spinoza from, and began to get reacquainted with the man. I wanted to find out what Spinoza might have wanted to say to these women in such circumstances.

3. I re-discovered that Spinoza was for me a very attractive person. His first name means “Blessed,” and I grant that he was. He succeeded in making his philosophy a positive way of life, as well as a set of arguments and doctrines. I am probably most attracted to him because he showed me how one can find a sense of belonging in almost any social circumstance, as I shall explain shortly.

B. Spinoza has in my view been inadequately recognized in the history books for:

1. His defense of freedom of conscience and of speech as universal human rights.

2. His advocacy of the toleration of religious diversity within a secular state as an alternative to religious war.

3. And for his having invented modern Biblical criticism 200 years before Graf and Wellhausen made it an acceptable academic discipline.

II. Life and Times. (Born 1632. Died 1677 at the early age of 45). (The Treaties of Munster and Westphalia, which brought the main Religious Wars in Europe to a close, were signed 1648, when Spinoza was 16 years old.)

A. The 17th Century marked the Dawn of the Enlightenment, but it was a terribly violent time.

1. John Milton called it “the century of iron.” It was a time of religious wars: the 30 Years War in Germany; the 80 Years War in the Netherlands; the civil religious wars in France and England. The 30 Years War was especially destructive. Large regions of Germany lost between 1/5 and 2/3 of their population.

2. By time of Spinoza’s death (1677) religious wars had become largely a thing of the past, at least in Europe. Religious uniformity was no longer given as a motive for war. Toleration of religious diversity became much more common.

3. I believe Spinoza’s ideas helped to justify this transition toward more liberal and tolerant societies.

III. Why was a man with a Spanish name (d’Spinoza) living in a Portuguese Jewish community in Amsterdam?

A. Spinoza’s family had lived in Spain perhaps for centuries. Beginning in 1492 Jews began to be persecuted as Ferdinand and Isabella attempted to purify Spanish culture by eliminating non-Catholic-Christian influences.

1. The Spinoza family first sought refuge in Portugal, where the Inquisition was not yet operating. But then Portugal became part of Spain in 1580, which brought along the Inquisition. So the Spinoza family had to flee again. They happily accepted the Dutch invitation to Portuguese Jews that they move to a suburb of Amsterdam, and carry on their international trading activities from there.

2. Spinoza’s father became a reasonably successful shipping trader in Amsterdam.

3. The young Spinoza proved to be very good at learning Biblical Hebrew at his synagogue school. His teachers hoped he would become a prominent rabbi.

4. During his early 20's, Spinoza began quarreling with his teachers over the meaning of many Biblical texts. He was offered a stipend to teach Hebrew but to keep his own views about what it all meant, hidden from the students. Spinoza refused. One early biographer reported he was attacked by a man with a knife on the synagogue steps. In 1656, at age of 24, he was brought before a tribunal and formally excommunicated from the Amsterdam synagogue. This ban endured for his entire life.

5. Spinoza’s response to this ban (which forbade contacts with any Dutch Jew,

including members of his own family) is part of what has made him so attractive to me. I have been searching all my life for a special sort of community which would provide a truly authentic home. I had memories of life in such an idyllic community from my life as a child in a small town in western Minnesota in the 1930's and 1940's. But that community disappeared with the advent of large scale industrial agriculture, and the destruction of the traditional family farm. Spinoza’s response to his ban showed me how it is possible to find a support community in almost any circumstances, if you can share a commitment to some sort of positive values or interests. You simply have to be open to these values or interests being shared across more ordinary tribal forms of identity.

D. Spinoza’s relationship with Dutch gentiles.

1. Spinoza developed a circle of friends and admirers among dissenting religious groups within his predominately Calvinist Christian society. These included the Remonstrants (who denied the Calvinist doctrine of predestination to salvation), the Collegiants (who tried to live a simple religion of the heart like that of the American Quakers), and the Socinians (who denied the post-Biblical doctrine of the trinity). He also befriended a publisher in Amsterdam (Jan Rieuwertsz), along with others in the Amsterdam publishing community, and he participated in various discussion groups concerned with the new sciences. A life-long friend and correspondent (Henry Oldenburg) later became Secretary to the British Royal Society, which kept him connected with what was happening there. Spinoza was a popular figure in all of these groups. He may have been rejected by his original home community at the Amsterdam Synagogue. But managed to develop a robust, if informal, support community among other dissenting Christian and secular groups. His example says to me; “Go forth and do likewise!”

E. Spinoza taught himself the craft of lense grinding as a way to earn a living after his excommunication. It seems fitting that a philosopher would commit himself to a craft which would enable him to see things more clearly. He was soon able to support himself making magnifying glasses, reading glasses, and later compound microscopes and refracting telescopes. He was also offered support remittances by wealthy friends. He accepted a small fraction of these offers, but turned down most of them. One acquaintance said he subsisted comfortably on “pennies a day.”

F. Spinoza mastered Latin by working with a tutor, then traveled from Amsterdam to a suburb of Leiden, a university town about 25 miles to the southwest of Amsterdam. He spent a couple years there (1655-57) studying the philosophy of Descartes. He then moved to a suburb of The Hague, called Voorburg, which is about 20 miles further southwest of Amsterdam. He published an exposition of Descartes’ philosophy there in 1663. It was the only thing published under his name during his lifetime.

G. While at Voorburg Spinoza began working on his two master works, his Tractatus Theologico-Politicus and his Ethics. The first of these two works, the Treatise on Theology and Politics, which I am calling the “Tractatus,” was finished first, and was published clandestinely and anonymously in Amsterdam in the winter of 1669-70. It was written in Latin to make it less accessible to the masses (and their often intolerant and trouble-making clergy). The title page said it was published “In Hamburg,” which was untrue, and the author’s name was never stated.

III. Why Was the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus Important?

A. I claim the Tractatus is Spinoza’s most influential work, even though it is seldom discussed at any length in standard histories of philosophy. The book consists of 20 chapters, of which 15 are devoted to biblical scholarship. He discusses the alleged uniqueness of Jewish law, the role of prophesy in the Bible, and whether the Bible can be accepted as the inerrant Word of God. He then unexpectedly shifts to political issues in the last five chapters. He shows how the foundational ideas of the modern liberal democratic state can be derived from elements of the very Biblical material he had criticized so severely in the preceding 15 chapters.

B. My claim that the Tractatus had a greater cultural impact than did his more ambitious Ethics, is controversial. I make my claim because the Tracatus achieved the following effects: He succeeded in “denaturing” the Bible. No serious person could take the Bible as inerrant after reading the Tractatus. He simultaneously provided a persuasive rationale for a secular state which could protect human rights and religious diversity. I find the Ethics to be much more difficult to read than is the Treatise. The Ethics was, however, much more important in Spinoza’s eyes, as well as in the eyes of most historians of philosophy. It was organized in a rigorous deductive way, like a gigantic mathematical proof. It spelled out his world-encompassing metaphysical system, as well as his detailed discipline of personal salvation. It may be of greater interest to professional philosophers. But I do not believe his Ethics had nearly the impact on 17th and 18th Century European Enlightenment culture, as did his Tractatus.

C. Spinoza began his Tractatus by criticizing certain hoary self-congratulatory claims Jews have commonly made about their own religion. He denies that the Jews are the only people to have received knowledge of the Law from God, and he denies that the Jews have been the only people to have been enlightened about the Law of God by means of prophesy.

1. Concerning the first claim, that the revelation of the Law of God was given uniquely to the Jews, Spinoza refutes it by reference to the Biblical material itself. He refers to Genesis 14, where Abram is portrayed as accepting the religious authority of King Melchizedek of Salem. (Abram was not called “Abraham” until after he received his commission from God.) The city would become (Jeru) Salem later, after the Jewish religion was created. The king was, of course, not yet a Jew. Yet he is called a priest of the God most high, which is the same name used to designate the God who called Abram to his mission. The king also provided a blessing for Abram in the name of this God, even though all these events occurred long before Moses first encountered God at Mount Sinai. Spinoza also lists proof texts to the effect that the Law of God is mainly about personal moral virtue, and is therefore accessible to any morally upright person. Spinoza is a universalist concerning the content and applicability of the Law of God. According to Spinoza, the authentic Law applies to all persons everywhere, and it has been made available to persons across the earth by a variety of means, including both prophecy and critical reason.

2. What Grounds Does Spinoza give for Denying the Bible is Inerrant?

a. Spinoza catalogues many sorts of factual and formal errors in the Biblical texts. I shall describe just one such type, which I call errors of “redundancy and contradiction.”

b.c. Spinoza has a heyday with examples of Biblical redundancy and contradiction. The Biblical texts are filled with them. Stories which we can recognize as being about the same event are often told more than once. But the content of these two recitations of the same story often differ in significant details, so the entire narrative becomes contradictory.

c. Spinoza discusses one such example of special importance to Jews, namely the story of Moses’ first encounter with God on Mount Sinai to receive the Law. The story of this first encounter is told twice, once in Exodus beginning at Chapter 19, and again in Deuteronomy beginning at Chapter 4. But the unfolding details of these two accounts of the giving of the Law by God, and of the reception of this Law by Moses and by the Jews, differs significantly in these two contexts. So the whole narration cannot be a literally true account of what actually transpired. These difficulties are compounded by the fact that the content of the Law is given a third time in Exodus Ch.34, after the first edition of the Law was destroyed as result of the Golden Calf incident (Ch.32). This third version of the Law is nowhere near identical with either the first one in Exodus or with the later one in Deuteronomy.

IV, How Did Spinoza Derive Liberal Political Principles from such Ambiguous Biblical Material?

A. The Two Great Commandments provide the key to Spinoza’s positive interpretation of the Bible.

1. The last five chapters of the Tractatus come as a surprise to the reader. (They certainly did to me.) After 15 chapters of unrelieved negative Biblical criticism, we are suddenly informed that there are gems of unsurpassed value buried in this deeply flawed material.

a. Spinoza defends a version of progressive revelation. He portrays the Old Testament writers as groping through the darkness and fog of their primitive religious consciousness, toward the light of progressive modern awareness.

b. There is no evidence Spinoza ever converted to Christianity, so we are further surprised to learn what this progressive light reveals about the Old Testament and the New. The fog of the Old Testament lifts in the New, to allow a much more clear and illuminating vision of moral reality. The point of the New Testament stories is not, according to Spinoza, the revelation of Christ as our cosmic savior. It is rather that Jesus, acting as our rabbi (that is, as our teacher), reveals to us the inner essence of the Law of God highlighted by the Two Great Commandments.

c. The two Great Commandments are first, that we love the Lord our God with all our heart, all our mind, and all our soul. The second is that we love our neighbor as our self.

2. This specific version of the Two Great Commandments is asserted in all three of the Synoptic Gospels, namely, in Matthew Ch. 22:34, in Mark Ch. 12:30-31, and in Luke Ch. 10:25-28. The only difference is that Jesus himself asserts the two commandments in Matthew and Mark, whereas he elicits this assertion from his interlocutor (said to be “a lawyer”) in Luke. But the order and content of these formulations are identical in all three instances.

a. Both commandments can be found in the Old Testament, but they occur there in entirely unrelated contexts, in entirely separate books. The First Commandment occurs in a number of different forms in the Old Testament, but it is stated in the specific form quoted in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, only in Deuteronomy Ch. 6:5. The Second Commandment, or anything remotely like it, occurs but once in the entire Old Testament. It occurs in Leviticus 19:18. It appears there amidst a hodge-podge of largely unrelated prohibitions about how to treat women during their menstrual cycle, how to treat one’s relatives and members of one’s household, and those with whom one may or may not have sex.

3. The New Testament affirmations of these Two Great Commandments meet Spinoza’s requirements for an authentic element of the Law of God. They are very simple, so anyone can understand them. And they can be ratified by discursive reason as well as by prophetic revelation. That makes them universal in a way that can be applied to all persons everywhere, regardless of their cultural differences. According to Spinoza, if people are smart enough to do arithmetic, they are smart enough appreciate the validity of these two Great Commandments.

B. Can the Two Great Commandments really be ratified by Reason alone?

1. Many contemporary philosophers would deny that they can be ratified by reason alone. I am not myself such a skeptic. Those of you who heard my paper entitled, “My Search for Absolutes,” know that I claim there is a close analogy between the Second Great Commandment and what Immanuel Kant called the Categorical Imperative. Both involve norms of mutuality and reciprocity. Kant held that such norms should govern our relations with one another. He provided arguments in support of the validity of such norms, as have such contemporary philosophers as John Rawls and Jurgen Habermas, among many others. My own arguments supporting this component of the Categorical Imperative are most similar to those given by Habermas. We both argue that the procedures by means of which beliefs are ratified, presuppose something like the Second Great Commandment as a background condition of our being consistent in thought and action. So I do believe the Second Great Commandment can be plausibly defended by discursive reason alone.

2. The First Great Commandment appears to present more of a problem, especially in the face of trenchant assertions of atheism by prominent contemporary philosophers such as Daniel Dennett. (You may have heard that Dennett calls atheists “the brights,” whereas he calls religious believers “not bright.” In other words religious people are, according to Dennett, just plain dumb.) Spinoza, on the other hand, had no problem affirming the existence of God, because he accepted what is called the “ontological argument.” This argument allegedly proves God’s existence as follows: God is an infinite being, so God must have all consistent attributes, including the attribute of existence itself. The conclusion is that God exists necessarily, the way, say, the number “3" exists necessarily. That is the so-called “ontological argument” for God’s existence.

3. I do not accept this argument for a number of technical reasons which I shall not burden you with here. But I still accept the claim that the First Great Commandment can be ratified by reason alone, so long is God is conceived of in a Spinozistic way. For Spinoza, the conception of God is purged of all anthropomorphic attributes. Spinoza denies, for example, that God could have either a face or a back side, as asserted in Exodus Ch. 33:23, or that God could “walk” with Enoch (Genesis, Ch. 5:22).

4. God, for Spinoza, is the infinite substance (that is, “something, I know not what”), which has created all present and past events, and which is creating future events. I take this doctrine to imply that we should take a realistic and affirmative stance toward our ongoing tasks of inquiry. Spinoza and I both deny the skeptical claim that the procedures of inquiry might simply be futile. I would argue that our very consciousness requires that there be a created world to be discovered and treasured. So I can accept this Spinozistic ratification of the First Great Commandment.

5. I suspect Daniel Dennett could accept it as well, if only he would cease viewing inquiry as a competitive, zero-sum game. If he could allow himself to become open to alternative points of view, I am confident he would see that accepting Spinoza’s argument would not require that he surrender his philosophical integrity.

E. How Can The Two Great Commandments Provide a Basis for

Universal Human Rights?

1. Spinoza is able to generate a surprising amount of substantive political theory from the Two Great Commandments. The Second Commandment requires that we internalize and enact norms of mutuality and reciprocity. I must risk opening my self and my basic beliefs to your inspection and possible criticism, and you must risk opening yourself to me. But I cannot thus open myself to you unless I have such an inner conscious life which I am able to articulate to you. The same must be true of you. That is why we must both have the basic rights of freedom of conscience and of freedom of expression if we are to be able to function as responsible persons in a community of inquiry.

2. Spinoza further argues that persons who share certain basic beliefs will tend to gather together in groups where they can share and celebrate these beliefs. This “flocking together” of “birds of a feather” is what generates the religious diversity characteristic of modern societies.

3. The rulers of early-modern nation-states often tried to secure social stability by

enforcing uniformity of basic beliefs at the point of a sword. But this has proven to be a self-defeating policy. The connection between outer behavior and inner belief is a weak one, so physical coercion cannot really get at what these rulers wanted to control. And second, such efforts always violated the victim’s sense of identity and integrity. That is why such efforts typically stimulated the very unrest and instability they are supposed to eliminate.

4. Spinoza argued it is much better to allow groups with differing basic beliefs to meet and function under the protection of a government which remains neutral with respect to such ultimate issues. That is what the United Provinces (what we now call the nation of “Holland”), had done during the 80 Years War with Spain (1568-1648). Calvinists, Catholics, and Jews were all allowed to live in contiguous communities within the United Provinces, and they generally did so in peace and harmony. This proved to be the form of social organization which would finally end the nihilistic Wars of Religion in Europe.

5. That was how Spinoza purported to “derive” the principle of separation of church and state from the New Testament formulation of the Two Great Commandments. It may not have been a strictly logical derivation. But history has proven to be on Spinoza’s side in this matter. Institutionalized separation of church and state has proved to be the only way we know to avoid irreconcilable sectarian conflicts. The lessons Spinoza taught us is what is being so painfully re-learned in the Islamic world today during the so-called “Arab Spring.”

V. How Was the Tractatus received?

1. Spinoza hoped the Tractatus would not stir up any great controversy. He could not have been more wrong. His publisher produced two printings over the winter of 1669 and 1670. They sold like hot cakes. But then the authorities got wind of what was happening, and the book was abruptly banned. Neither the author nor the publisher were publicly identified until after Spinoza’s death in 1677. So the author and publisher avoided being sent to prison. The book was soon published without his permission in other countries, often translated into the vernacular. Before long most of the influential philosophers of the Enlightenment had a copy of the Tractatus in their library.

2. I cannot claim Spinoza’s pioneering philosophy of the Enlightenment was what brought the 17th Century European Wars of Religion to a close. But he was an early and influential source of the modern idea that the state should remain religiously neutral, and thus render religious warfare pointless.

4. The positive facts of the Arab Spring, as well as the negative facts of 9/11 and of the rise of the religious right in this country, all show that Spinoza’s pioneering efforts in defense of the modern, secular, liberal democratic state, are far from complete. With the street demonstrations of the Arab spring ringing in my ears, I can still hear his voice calling on us to help complete the world-historical task of cultural change which he began 350 years ago.