The Heretic Hebrew

By Fraenkel, Carlos | Moment, January-February 2012 | Go to article overview
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The Heretic Hebrew

Fraenkel, Carlos, Moment

A Book Forged in Hell: Spinoza's Scandalous Treatise and the Birth of the Secular Age

Steven Nadler

Princeton University Press

2011, $29.95, pp. 304

As citizens of a liberal democracy, we take for granted that priests and rabbis cannot tell us what to think and what to do, or that we won't face discrimination for belonging to an ethnic or religious minority. The intellectual sources of our democratic political institutions are familiar--among them John Locke ' and John Stuart Mill, Montesquieu and Rousseau or the Founding Fathers.

But Benedict (born Baruch) Spinoza usually doesn't figure on this list--wrongly, according to philosophy professor Steven Nadler from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who argues that Spinoza's contribution to the birth of the secular age is on a par with those of Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson, the main author of the Declaration of Independence. For Nadler, we "are the heirs of Spinoza" insofar as "we are committed to the ideal of a secular society free of ecclesiastic influence and governed by toleration, liberty, and a conception of civic virtue." There is a good deal of plausibility in this claim. After all, many of our political institutions stem from the revolutionary transformation of the relationship between religion and politics that began in the 17th century (just consider that churchmen and kings can no longer claim that a providential God chose them to rule over our souls and bodies).

As its title suggests, Spinoza's Treatise (published in 1670, almost 20 years before Locke's A Letter Concerning Toleration) is centrally concerned with defining the proper roles of church and state, Spinoza vigorously argued that neither ought to interfere with the citizens' freedom of thought and expression, including the freedom of philosophers like himself to debate philosophical issues.

That these concerns loomed large on Spinoza's mind is not surprising. For if he helped to forge the secular age, the age he lived in was deeply religious. In many ways Spinoza's life was marked by violence perpetrated in the name of the all-powerful God of the Bible, Old Testament or New. He was born in 1632, at the end of the religious wars that left: much of Europe in ruins in the wake of the Protestant Reformation. His family had been forced to convert to Catholicism in Portugal, but returned to Judaism after emigrating to the more tolerant Dutch Republic. An important aim of the Treatise is to defend the greater freedom that citizens enjoyed there against the Dutch Reformed Church's political ambitions to impose Calvinist orthodoxy.


But what most defines Spinoza's perception in the Jewish imagination is his excommunication from Amsterdam's Jewish community in 1656. The ban accused him of "abominable heresies" and "monstrous deeds," reflecting a deep rift between Spinoza and 17th-century traditional Judaism. One source reports him as claiming that the Law of Moses "is not true nor is there a God except philosophically." Since Spinoza also came to embody the philosophical ideal of a life guided by reason, his excommunication dramatically raised the age-old question: can faith and reason coexist?

Nadler has already done much to illuminate Spinoza's life and thought and to restore him to the place he deserves among the great philosophers. His 1999 biography, Spinoza: A Life became a standard reference work. He also has written a lucid and accessible introduction to Spinoza's Ethics: An Introduction (2006)--no small achievement given that Spinoza's philosophical masterpiece is generally considered one of the most complex: philosophical works ever written.

His current book is an excellent introduction to Spinoza's views on religion and politics, sketching enough of the historical and intellectual background to bring Spinoza's arguments to life within their original setting without losing sight of what makes them relevant to a present-day audience.

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