Gabriel Malchik

Spinoza and the Secular


ISSUE 49 | ARGUMENT | FEB 2015

How is a secular state possible? The question has been answered for so long in the West de facto that we have forgotten how to ask it de jure, but nevertheless it’s in the news again. The question has two sides, entails two kinds of internal critique: not only the critique of state power, which must deny itself the right to judge for its citizens in matters of religion, but the critique of religion, which must abandon any claim to judge for itself concerning the state’s legitimacy. The compromise according to which religion is a private matter between the individual citizen and his God entails the construction of a sphere of “privacy” whose boundaries must not be breached from either side: the state must not invade the private sphere, but by the same token religion must renounce any direct claim to political power. If religion would be political it must do so within the institutional framework prescribed by the (secular) state; it can never appeal above this framework, much less attempt to reshape it in the image of religion. One might even say that the religious side of the contract is primary: the sovereign can safely tolerate religion if and only if religion recuses itself from questions of sovereignty, acknowledging the absolute legitimacy of the state’s decisions in questions of governance. The secular state is an event not only in the history of politics but in the history of theology.

This settlement between God and Caesar is fundamental to the modern state which emerged from the wars of the Reformation—but how mystifying it is! The Reformation, after all, provided abundant evidence of the dangers religion posed to any possible political order: religious strife locked most of Europe into a cycle of revolutions and religious wars lasting more than a century. And naturally so: Christianity is founded on the idea that the law of God absolutely transcends any human fidelity. The relation between religious authority and secular power can be one of opposition (cf. the thousands of martyrs to pagan emperors among Catholic saints) or one of delegation (the king is God’s representative on earth, and to obey the king is to obey God)—but one of neutrality? How could such a thing be permitted, much less enjoined? Historically, tolerance emerged as the counsel of exhaustion: as it became clear in various places that the wars of religion could not be won, they ended in uneasy truces. But exhaustion passes, truces end, and the secular state has remained one of the most enduring, least controversial institutions of the modern West. How?

Perhaps the earliest attempt to answer this question with due rigor is to be found in Benedict de Spinoza’s Tractatus Theologico-Politicus (published anonymously in Amsterdam, 1670; banned in Calvinist Amsterdam, 1674; banned by the Catholic Inquisition, 1678). The subtly esoteric work of an excommunicated Jewish philosopher attempts to prove directly from Scripture the possibility and desirability of the secular state.


Illustration by Jo Hylton

On Superstition

Spinoza opens his treatise in defense of freedom of speech and religious tolerance with a powerful and subtle account of the opposing argument: that no government can long maintain itself without controlling its subjects’ beliefs. This counterargument turns on religion’s evil twin, superstition. According to Spinoza, almost all human beings spend their lives chasing after goods (wealth, honor, love) whose attainment is intrinsically out of their control and subject to chance. Since they don’t believe that there exist other goods or other goals, what else can they do? Unable either to gain genuine control over these goods or to finally renounce them, humans devote themselves to devising illusory means of controlling chance—superstitions. “Reason they call blind, because it cannot reveal a sure way to the vanities that they covet, and human wisdom they call vain, while the delusions of the imagination, dreams, and other childish absurdities are taken to be the oracles of God.”

This incorrigible tendency to superstition has a paradoxical political consequence: it makes men easy to dominate and yet impossible to govern. Easy to dominate, because anyone who comes along with one weird trick to make everyone secure and wealthy will gain adherents; ungovernable, because “the multitude remains ever at the same level of wretchedness”—that is, ever chasing after vain and inconstant goods—and so “is never long contented, and is best pleased only with what is new and has not yet proved delusory.” The apparent means, superstition, can be no more stable than the end it serves, and so insofar as superstition is a means of rule it is also a means of revolution.

Here’s where religion comes in. “To counteract this unfortunate tendency, immense efforts have been made to invest religion, true or false, with such pomp and ceremony that it can sustain any shock and constantly evoke the deepest reverence in all its worshippers.” Spinoza here conforms to a traditional rhetoric opposing religion to superstition, but he also undermines it: the fact that religion can displace superstition indicates that they are similar in kind, that they respond to the same innate tendency in human beings. Does religion, too, promise access to illusory goods? Is it merely superstition institutionalized in the service of politics?

Spinoza lets this question linger, but it raises another one: If what Spinoza says is true, why would an intelligent person say so? It’s not as though Spinoza believes that human beings can be reformed so as to stop chasing illusory goods; if the only means to render this tendency politically neutral is state-sanctioned, established religion, then the best course for those who know this is to remain silent about it. To do otherwise would be to invite, not rational public discourse, but civic strife.

In other words, the interpretation of religion implied in this line—suggested throughout the TTP, but never uttered in so many words—justifies religion in its function while undermining its claim to truth. More than that: what the pious person believes of religion, the philosopher knows to be true. The pious person believes that religion can secure him happiness as he understands it, and the philosopher knows that (as Spinoza will say later in a different context) there is “no surer means [to the attainment of lasting worldly happiness] than to organize a society under fixed laws.” The pious person believes that his piety will grant him happiness, and Spinoza agrees—he merely quietly indicates that this “granting” occurs not by God’s grace but through the laws of politics. Religion is the sole “true” superstition—true in the sense that it can deliver what it promises, superstitious in its appeal to imaginary causes. It is truth in the form of a fiction.

Sola Scriptura

None of this is said directly in the TTP—on the contrary, Spinoza casts himself as the defender of “true religion” and never directly denies the central dogmas of Christianity. Nonetheless he offers sufficient clues to allow the careful reader to deduce that he does not believe them. But why write about the subject at all? Why not let religion stand as a necessary illusion?

The answer is the danger and opportunity presented by the Reformation. Spinoza explains that his motivation for writing is the endless civil unrest arising from religious disputes—he hopes to “purify” religion of the false doctrines which had caused untold strife. His meaning would have been abundantly clear to his readers: in 1670, much of Northern Europe had been locked in apparently endless wars between different sects of Christianity. Even Spinoza’s own Dutch Republic, one of the most religiously tolerant regimes then in existence, had executed theologians within living memory for backing the wrong side in intra-Calvinist disputes over the precise nature of predestination so subtle as to be largely incomprehensible to a modern reader. In 1517, Martin Luther had sought to reform the catholic (universal) church by referring back beyond its hierarchy to the word of God as revealed in Scripture, but the attempt had backfired badly, because nothing universal could easily be drawn from a book as radical and self-contradictory as the New Testament: not only did Luther fail to conquer the existing church, but a dozen heresies promptly bloomed within the Protestant ranks with concomitant persecutions. Religion, by becoming directly textual, had become politically poisonous—an unmediated source of legitimacy for anyone who could read. Spinoza quotes a Belgian proverb to this effect: “Geen ketter sonder letter” —no heretic without a text.

Yet this very circumstance offers an opportunity: by 1670 it was obvious to many in a Europe exhausted by war that the existing theologico-political settlement wasn’t going to cut it. And if the zealots referred directly to God’s word, two could play at that game: Spinoza himself could adopt the rhetoric of sola scriptura. As he says in the preface, “because merely human suppositions are regarded as divine doctrine and credulity is looked upon as faith… I deliberately resolved to examine Scripture afresh, conscientiously and freely, and to admit nothing as its teaching which I did not most clearly derive from it.” Spinoza will attempt to close the book on the Reformation through a repetition of its founding gesture: the appeal from human speech to the word of God.

Such an appeal must contend first of all with the problem of prophets—the human links between the word of God and human speech.

Idolatry of the Prophet

Spinoza explains what he means by prophecy with a quote from Exodus:

The Hebrew word for prophet is nabi, speaker or interpreter, but in Scripture its meaning is restricted to interpreter of God, as we may learn from Exodus 7:1, where God says to Moses, “See, I have made thee a god to Pharaoh, and Aaron thy brother shall be thy prophet;” implying that, since in interpreting Moses’ words to Pharaoh, Aaron acted the part of a prophet, Moses would be to Pharaoh as a god, or in the attitude of a god.

This verse of Exodus is striking: God has just said to a human, “I will make thee a god.” And God is here repeating himself: three chapters earlier, at Exodus 4:15-16, God tells Moses:

And you shall speak to him [Aaron] and put the words in his mouth; and I will be with your mouth and with his mouth, and will teach you what you shall do. He shall speak for you to the people; and he shall be a mouth for you, and you shall be to him as God.

God is here responding, somewhat irritably, to Moses’ concern and uncertainty about his prophetic calling. Moses worries that when he returns to Egypt to announce to the Jewish people that after a lapse in attention of four centuries’ duration, God has suddenly become concerned about their enslavement and plans to lead them to salvation in defiance of the Pharaoh, the Jewish people will laugh him out of town. God initially responds by teaching Moses a few pocket miracles, but Moses isn’t satisfied—and indeed we later learn that Pharaoh’s magicians are perfectly capable of turning a rod into a snake and so forth, so the power to perform such tricks is by no means an airtight argument for divine inspiration. Moses suggests that God in his infinite wisdom has chosen the wrong guy, that what God really needs for this job is a smooth talker, a rhetorician who can talk people into things. “Oh, my Lord, send, I pray, some other person” (4:13). “Then the Anger of the Lord was kindled against Moses,” for his doubts, but God nonetheless acknowledges the problem by assigning Aaron to the job of smooth talker. When Moses talks to the Jewish people (per 4:17) and to Pharaoh (per 7:1), he will be as God, and Aaron will be his prophet.

The radicalism of God’s statement suggests the depth of a problem which will be the central concern of Exodus and of the Theologico-Political Tract: how does religious truth become political power? What regime of mediation allows the divine will to become manifest among kings and peoples? From the beginning of Exodus we see the chain of representations extending: God does not talk to His people, he talks to Moses; Moses does not talk to his people, he talks to Aaron. The people encounter the divine light as the reflection of a reflection. What are the risks of such mediation? The text of Exodus abundantly suggests them.

Most famously, when Moses climbs the mountain to speak with God, the Israelites (Exodus 32) quickly come to believe that he has abandoned them, and demand of Aaron: “Up, make us gods, who shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him” (32:1) Aaron complies, apparently without hesitation; he makes a golden statue, and the people say: “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!”

Scarcely has Moses turned his back when the people turn to idolatry. But can we blame them? It is even as God said: Moses is God to them. They believe that Moses (not God) brought them out of Egypt; when Moses abandons them, they think God is gone too, and that they need a new God. And who do they turn to in their trouble? To Aaron, of course, their link to the divine, the prophet of Moses the God, who can and does become the prophet of the new, golden god. In other words, it’s not that when Moses was present the people worshipped the true God, and when he leaves they turn to idolatry; rather, they were already worshipping an idol (Moses), and not even the man himself but the man as presented by his speaker, Aaron; in the chain of mediated revelation (God  Moses  Aaron  the people), the people never really saw beyond the first link.

Here’s the rub, though: how could they have? For Moses, believing in God means trusting the words spoken by a burning bush; for the people, believing in God means believing what Aaron says that Moses says that the bush says. Believing in God means believing in Moses; absent direct manifestation on the part of the Lord, to worship God is to worship His prophets, and to doubt them is to doubt Him. As Spinoza says: “A prophet is one who interprets God’s revelations to those who cannot attain to certain knowledge of the matters revealed, and can therefore be convinced of them only by simple faith.”

Faith in whom? In the prophet, of course. In a footnote, Spinoza explicitly contrasts prophetic speech with philosophical teaching:

An interpreter of God is one who has a revelation of God’s decrees which he interprets to others who have not had this revelation, and who accept it solely in reliance on the prophet’s authority and the confidence he enjoys. Now if those who listen to prophets were themselves to become prophets, just as those who listen to philosophers become philosophers, the prophet would not be an interpreter of divine decrees; for his hearers would rely not on the testimony and authority of the prophet but on the divine revelation itself and on their own inward testimony, just as the prophet does.

Prophetic speech sustains a hierarchical relationship which philosophical teaching overcomes: those who believe the prophet will always be subject to the prophet.

Divine Rhetoric and the Critique of Prophetic Knowledge

The problem of the prophet who stands in for God is endemic to the Judeo-Christian tradition: after all, the crime for which Moses is barred from entering the Promised Land (Numbers 20) is quite simply performing a miracle in his own name, thus taking the place of God. But Spinoza radicalizes this problem: after all, what’s the fundamental difference between a golden calf and a burning bush?

It seems quite alien to reason to assert that a created thing, dependent on God in the same way as other created things, should be able to express or display, factually or verbally, through its own individuality, God’s essence and existence, declaring in the first person, “I am the Lord thy God”… What if God had manipulated the lips of Moses—but why Moses? The lips of some beast—so as to pronounce the words “I am the Lord?”

It’s not immediately clear how God could possibly manifest Himself in His “essence and existence,” but it is clear that the ways He manifests Himself to Moses and the other prophets (created objects, voices, dreams) are not adequate to the purpose. Prophets receive their knowledge of God through the imaginative faculty (not the faculty of fantasizing, in Spinoza’s conception, but the faculty which permits receptivity to images); since this faculty is inadequate to grant clear knowledge of God’s essence, it is clear that the prophets lack such clear knowledge.

Does this render the testimony of the prophets suspect? Spinoza explicitly denies the inference. On the contrary, the prophets’ mediated access to God solves an important hermeneutic problem in the study of Scripture: why do the prophets appear to contradict each other on central points of theology? For instance, some Old Testament prophets appear to believe that God has a body and lives in the sky (whereas educated opinion among Jews and Christians alike had for centuries agreed that God was a being of pure spirit and omnipresent); likewise, some Old Testament prophets argue that God can repent and change his mind (deciding to destroy the world and then relenting, etc.) whereas some agree with the central Calvinist tenet that His will is eternal and unchangeable. To believe that every prophet possesses perfect knowledge of God would be to risk finding the most glaring contradictions both within the Bible and between the Bible and the universally held beliefs of the educated faithful.

How, then, are we to understand the testimony of prophets? On Spinoza’s reading, God delivers his teaching to prophets in a language they can understand, the language of images; He adapts Himself to their limited understanding. When they see Him embodied, as a king with a house in the sky, it’s merely a figure of speech, a metaphor meant to communicate His main point. And what is His main point? Spinoza argues that it is a simple moral teaching on which all prophets agree, whatever their disputes concerning theology: that we should practice justice and charity. This, according to Spinoza, is “the law and the prophets,” the Bible’s main message: not facts concerning the nature of God, but commands about how to obey Him.

Spinoza thus presents a “critique” of revelation in the sense of the word later taken up by Kant: he sets limits within which revelation is valid, and shows how in transgressing them religion would destroy itself. Revelation is valid in the sphere of morality, but if it attempts to claim adequate knowledge of God it will destroy itself through its own contradictions and through the endless schisms that result. This critique likewise preserves the domain of philosophy: revelation aims only at obedience, reason aims only at truth.

The Posited God

Immediately a problem arises: if we are to obey the moral commands of the Bible, mustn’t we believe they are given by God? And if so, doesn’t this require a concept of God? Spinoza is quick to acknowledge that it does, and he goes on to lay out “the dogmas of the universal faith, the basic teachings which Scripture as a whole intends to convey,” dogmas concerning God’s nature. They are seven:

  1. God exists and is just and merciful.
  2. God is one.
  3. God is omnipresent.
  4. God rules all things.
  5. Obedience to God entails loving one’s neighbor and practicing justice and charity.
  6. All who obey God by doing justice and charity are saved; everyone else is lost.
  7. God forgives the repentant.

In each case, he infers these dogmas “backward” from the necessity of obedience to the nature of the divine: no one can obey God who does not believe in him, no one would bother to obey a God from whom sins can be hidden, no one would obey God without the promise of salvation, etc. To the modern reader they might seem to constitute a sort of common denominator of Judeo-Christianity: who could disagree with them? But there’s one important exception: Point 6 surely entails that human beings can be saved by works, while Luther and Calvin taught that salvation is through faith alone. And here’s the strange thing: Spinoza agreed with them, more or less.

The Esoteric New Testament and the Philosophers’ God

Ten chapters before laying out the dogmas of the universal religion, Spinoza argues that those who know God in his essence understand his commandments not as commandments but as eternal truths; they do not obey, but are autonomous. To obey God is to misunderstand Him. He approvingly quotes Paul’s Epistle to the Romans 7:6: “But now, by dying to what once bound us, we have been released from the law so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code.” He continues:

Yet he, too, is unwilling to speak openly, but, as he says in the same Epistle chapter 3 v. 5 and in chapter 6 v. 19 he speaks only after the manner of men. This he expressly states when he calls God just, and it was undoubtedly in concession to the frailty of the flesh that he also ascribes to God mercy, grace, anger, and so forth, adapting his words to the character of the common people, or (as he also says in the First Epistle to the Corinthians, chapter 3 v. 1, 2) to the character of carnal man. For in the Epistle to the Romans chapter 9 v. 18 he tells us outright that God's anger and mercy depend not on man's works but on God's vocation, that is, his will; and further, that no one is justified from the works of the law, but only from faith (see Epistle to the Romans chapter 3 v. 28), by which he surely means nothing other than the full consent of the mind. Lastly, he says that no one becomes blessed unless he has in himself the mind of Christ (Rom. ch. 8 v. 9), meaning that he would thereby perceive the laws of God as eternal truths.

We therefore conclude that it is only in concession to the understanding of the multitude and the defectiveness of their thought that God is described as a lawgiver or ruler, and is called just, merciful and so on, and that in reality God acts and governs all things solely from the necessity of his own nature and perfection, and his decrees and volitions are eternal truths, always involving necessity.

God is not merciful or just, nor does he reward those who obey; those who know God adequately do not obey him. Despite his best efforts, Spinoza has apparently found a contradiction in the New Testament: while the entirety of Scripture is concerned with obedience, Paul’s teaching entails no such thing. Not only that, but Spinoza sides with Paul concerning true religion against the “universal religion” whose dogmas he lays out. How to explain this?

In essence, Spinoza appears to believe that Christ’s teaching is quite close to his own, and that it similarly entails a double implication: obedience for those who cannot understand, love of God for those who know. Paul speaks openly at times of the former doctrine because he speaks “as a Jew to Jews, as a Greek to Greeks,” and adapts his words to the philosophically inclined gentiles of his day; the last words of his very brief discussion of the New Testament are as follows:

Thus none of the Apostles did more philosophising than Paul, who was called to preach to the Gentiles. The other Apostles, preaching to the Jews who despised philosophy, likewise adapted themselves to the character of their listeners (see Galat. ch. 2 v. 11 etc.), and taught a religious doctrine free from all philosophic speculation. Happy indeed would be our age, if we were to see religion freed again from all superstition.

The parallel between philosophy and superstition is striking, and the target is Luther, who believed he had understood Paul, and who produced such a politically volatile form of religion. The New Testament contains a truth which must be suppressed for the purpose of politics.

Critique of State Power

Having produced “from Scripture alone” a religion freed of the explosive force of inwardness, Spinoza must explain why the state should refrain from enforcing any religion at all. He does so, surprisingly, not through an appeal to the rights of man but on the basis of Hobbes’s theory of absolute sovereignty.

Hobbes, too, was a political theorist writing in light of the wars of the Reformation; he had seen England torn apart by religiously-inflected civil war turning on the question of the king’s legitimacy, and he sought to produce a theory which would once and for all close that question. Famously, he began from the state of nature as the “war of all against all”—without sovereignty no right and no moral action could exist, and only when all men submitted themselves to a sovereign could any tolerable order exist. Thus there was no right before the existence of the sovereign, and after a sovereign came to power all right flowed from him. The question of whether a king was the true king was meaningless: the right to rule was proven in the fact of ruling. In Hobbes’s view, subjects retained absolutely no rights against their sovereign, with one exception: if the sovereign chose to kill them, they might withdraw from a contract which no longer benefitted them and run for their lives. Beyond that, the question of the legitimacy of this or that sovereign or this or that law was to him laughable: the sovereign’s will is the sole source, criterion and interpreter of justice. Logically enough, Hobbes explicitly granted the sovereign the absolute right to decide in matters of religion and speech, and thought it laughable to do otherwise.

Spinoza, who read Hobbes closely, largely agreed to this. In the state of nature, humans have a “natural right” coextensive with their power: if it can be done, they have a right to do it, just as “fish have a right to swim in the sea, and the big ones to eat the little ones.” However, for the sake of self-preservation, humans alienate their right to a sovereign, and afterwards they are obligated to obey the sovereign in all things. The sovereign has an absolute right to, among other things, determine religion and censor speech.

And yet they would be unwise to—this for two reasons. First, Spinoza thinks certain rights, and most prominently the right to freedom of thought and to a lesser degree speech, are inalienable—though not at all in the sense we’re familiar with from the Declaration of Independence. Spinoza would think it quite silly to claim that the rights to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” are inalienable—many humans’ liberty is alienated (placed in the hands of another) in every prison in the world every day. Not so with freedom of thought: humans are quite literally incapable of parting with this, even through conscious effort, never mind by force. In other words, the sovereign’s right does not extend this far for the simple reason that his power does not extend this far. A government which writes a law condemning a given thought writes a dead letter: it might as well order its subjects to levitate. And passing unenforceable laws is a dangerous game: it breeds disrespect for the law.

Still, as Spinoza acknowledges, a government can at least influence thought to a significant degree—with enough pomp, circumstance, and auto da fes, one can more or less establish a state religion. Would this be desirable? He thinks not, for an interesting reason. To establish a religion is to imply that one’s political power stands or falls on the strength of that religion; a government which needs such a religion has left the domain in which its rule is a proof of its right to rule. Conversely, a government which tolerates any religion is announcing that its right to rule is not subject to priestly veto.

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