Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Spinoza's preface to the reader

We're reading sections of Spinoza's Tractatus Theologico-Politicus in Tanner's class this week, "wherein it is shown that freedom to philosophise can not only be granted without injury to Piety and the Peace of the Commonwealth, but that the Peace of the Commonwealth and Piety are endangered by the suppression of this freedom." (this abstract from the title page is ironically followed by a quote from the New Testament- I suppose the anonymous author was seeking to divert some attention from his own religious commitments)

Towards the end of Spinoza's introduction he discusses who his intended readers are, and who would be better off not giving the book any mind:

Such, learned reader are the topics which I here submit for your consideration, topics which I am sure you will find interesting by reason of the great importance of the issues discussed in the entire work and in each separate chapter. I would say more, but I do not want my Preface to expand to a volume, especially since its main points are quite familiar to philosophers. To others I seek not to commend this treatise, for I have no reason to expect them to approve it in any way. I know how deeply rooted in the mind are the prejudices embraced under the guise of piety. I know, too, that the masses can no more be freed from their superstition than from their fears. Finally, I know that they are unchanging in their obstinacy, that they are not guided by reason, and that their praise and blame is at the mercy of impulse. Therefore I do not invite the common people to read this work, nor all those who are victims of the same emotional attitudes. Indeed, I would prefer that they disregard this book completely rather than make themselves a nuisance by misinterpreting it after their wont. For without any advantage to themselves they would stand in the way of others for whom a more liberal approach to philosophical questions is prevented by this one obstacle, that they believe that reason must be the handmaid of theology. These latter, I am confident, will derive great profit from this work.
(Brill, 1991, p. 56)

The final bolded sentences are of greatest interest to me. The opinions of Enlightenment savants and cultured despisers should be of little concern to serious theologians, but it is comforting to see that Spinoza- who was quite sensitive to religious life- recognizes what might be described as two tiers of religious thinking. He makes an interesting distinction between "the common people" and "others for whom a more liberal approach to philosophical questions is prevented by this one obstacle, that they believe reason must be the handmaid of theology." In a day when the theological imperative is usually understood as itself a sign of "fundamentalism" or "superstition", it's refreshing to read an assessment that recognizes the possibility for fruitful interaction between those who use reason, albeit in different ways with regard to the theological task. Unfortunately we remain heathens for Spinoza, who have still not quite seen the light of "a more liberal approach to philosophical questions."

I'm sure we're losing a ton of sleep over that. :)


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  2. Pssssh - Spinoza is SUCH an elitist... and he's not a REAL American (although that's primarily because he was Dutch).

    OK - so I hope you probably agree with Spinoza more than you think.

    Do you really think reason "must be" the handmaiden of theology? Doesn't reason have wider applications than just that? I'm pretty sure you think it does. I think you're discounting the extent to which the modern world is the liberal, enlightened world, and the extent to which your perspective is the same as Spinoza's. After all - Spinoza did use reason as the handmaiden of theology - he just didn't think that was it's exclusive use... which I think is your perspective as well.

    Put it this way - you indulge my application of reason to economic questions. I'm assuming you find that appropriate.

    I don't think, in the modern world, we can really claim to conceive of a time when all intellectual pursuits lead invariably back to the Church. When astronomers were jailed simply for applying reason to data because it didn't conform to Church teachings, etc.

    I hate to break it to you, dude, but you are an enlightened, modern, liberal. Not that that means that you have to agree with Spinoza on everything - but I think on the foundational role of reason, you do.

  3. Oh, I don't think Spinoza presents a very accurate picture of reasonable religious thinking. That doesn't change the fact that whether you or I consider myself a modern liberal on some level, Spinoza would probably understand my mode of theological inquiry in terms of reason as mere handmaiden.

    Upon reading at least the sections of the tractatus that we were concerned with, I found myself enjoying Spinoza a great deal. Throughout the class discussion, however, I lost a bit of that enjoyment. More seemed to come out over time about his philosophical agenda as it related to his Ethics. But there's no question that even if one doesn't agree with Spinoza in the end, his interaction with religious thought is less flat that many other Enlightenment thinkers.

  4. Right - but I think you're missing my point!

    Clearly you and Spinoza disagree on things religious. But the point is that you DON'T think reason must be theology's handmaiden. You use it as theology's handmaiden, but I don't think that's what Spinoza's liberalism revolted against. I think he was truly revolting against a world in which reason did nothing but serve the Church. You don't live in that world. You accept that reason does other things. You're an enlightened liberal! You're just going to have to get used to it :)

    It's like the way we use the words "right" and "left" and "conservative" and "liberal". The fact is - we are ALL liberals. We can't even conceive of a world where "conservative" meant that you thought the people should have no say over how they are governed.

    I really think when Spinoza talks about the "liberal" perspective - he's talking about the perspective that you have wholly adopted - regardless of differences on religion that you two may have. Maybe I'm being naive, but that's how I read it.