Radical Enlightenment: Philosophy and the Making of Modernity, 1650-1750

By Jonathan I. Israel | Go to book overview

12

MIRACLES DENIED

No other element of Spinoza's philosophy provoked as much consternation and outrage in his own time as his sweeping denial of miracles and the supernatural. In fact, Spinoza stands completely alone among the major European thinkers before the mid-eighteenth century in ruling out miracles. Hobbes had ventured to cast doubt on them, stressing that 'ignorant and superstitious men make great wonders of those works, which other men, knowing to proceed from nature… admire not at all,' underlining the 'aptitude of mankind, to give too hasty beleefe to pretended miracles'.1 But equally, Hobbes grants there have been, and may be, miracles, that 'a miracle, is a work of God (besides his operation by way of nature, ordained in the Creation) done, for the making manifest to his elect, the mission of an extraordinary minister for their salvation,' and that only the public Church can rightly judge what is, and what is not, a miracle.2 It is worth noting in passing that Hobbes does not rule out magic either, acknowledging the likelihood, affirmed by the account of Pharoah's magicians in the Book of Exodus, that wondrous events can also occur through the operations of magic.3

Between the rise of Christianity and the mid-eighteenth century then, only Spinoza categorically denies the possibility of miracles and supernatural occurrences wrought by magic. Equally, he was by far the best-known denier of miracles. Thus, the Lutheran professor Johann Heinrich Müller, in his inaugural lecture on the subject of miracles in the university of Altdorf (Nuremberg) in 1714, declared among those who bring miracles into question 'Benedictus Spinoza, the most renowned restorer and propagator of the myth that God is not distinct from the universe, is by far the most prominent.'4 According to Spinoza, he notes, neither the Incarnation nor the Resurrection, nor any miracle attributed to Christ, ever occurred, and nor did any other miracles recounted in Scripture: indeed, according to him there have never been any 'miracles'. The Wolffian Wittenberg professor, Friedrich Christian Baumeister (1709–85), writing in 1738, speaks of 'Spinoza Atheorum pessimus' (Spinoza the worst of atheists), in the first place because he

1 Hobbes, Leviathan, ch. xxxvii.

2 Ibid.; Martinich, Two Gods, 236–44.

3 Hobbes. Leviathan, ch. xxxvii; Martinich, Two Gods, 237, 244.

4 'inter quos facile eminet Benedictus Spinoza, celeberrimus ille mysterii, de Deo ab hoc universo non
distincto, restaurator et propaguator'; Müller, Dissertatio, 13; see also Hulsius, Spinozismi Depulsio, 3.

-218-

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