Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

Spinoza Sinicus: An Asian Paragraph in the History of the Radical Enlightenment

Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

Spinoza Sinicus: An Asian Paragraph in the History of the Radical Enlightenment

Article excerpt


In the entry "Japan" to Pierre Bayle's Dictionaire historique et critique (Rotterdam, 1702), an unexpected mention is made of a western philosopher: Spinoza. The lemma describes the forms of government and religion of the Japanese isles and epitomizes a branch of their religion:

those that seek internal and insensible reality, they reject paradise and hell, and teach things that are very similar to the philosophy of Spinoza . . . they say . . . that knowledge is no different from ignorance; that good and bad are not two entities, but that the one is not separated from the other. ... It is very certain that [Spinoza] has taught together with these Japanese Preachers, that the first principle of all things, and all beings that constitute the Universe, are nothing else but one and the same substance.1

Bayle compares Spinoza's alleged metaphysical monism and ethical naturalism to the world view of several Japanese Buddhist sects. The connection made by the "Philosopher of Rotterdam" between Spinozism and eastern thought is a neglected topic in the history of the diffusion of new philosophical ideas which, since Jonathan Israel's study, has by general scholarly agreement been known as the "Radical Enlightenment."2 In this essentially philosophical movement, which had originated in the Dutch Republic after the breakthrough of Dutch Cartesianism, Bayle's comparison eventually gained some popularity; the association of Spinozism not only with Japan, but China in particular, is made by Leibniz and Malebranche as well. Later in the eighteenth century it is repeated by serious experts on Chinese philosophy, such as Niccolô Longobardi and Nicolas Fréret.3

This article will elucidate how Bayle's remarks were the outcome of a debate in which the intricacies of the East were connected to the intricacies of radical thought. Knowledge about Far Eastern civilizations posed acute challenges to forms of established authority in the West, not only in the field of philosophy, but also in those of sacred history, scriptural scholarship and political thought. The following will examine the context of the presumption of an "Asian Spinozism" through a polemic between the Dutch scholars Isaac Vossius (1618-89), son of the more famous Gerard Vossius, and Georg Hornius (1620-70), his main opponent. Vossius's ideas were well known to Bayle who stated that he could hardly be called a Christian thinker.4 The scholar belonged to an intellectual network that included Spinoza. No other author testifies so clearly as Vossius to the connection between the Dutch debate on radicalism and Sinophilia; his polemic with Hornius demonstrates how this connection evolved from a growing need to classify different kinds of unknown and potentially dangerous territory. Except for ceramics, philosophy was in the seventeenth century probably the most important cultural "import" from the Far East to the West-and remained so for quite some time.5 Vossius's and Hornius's real enthusiasm for Asia was inspired by many writings on the subject that were published in the Netherlands, which had witnessed an unprecedented influx of information on this remote part of the world. This interest culminated in the translation of Confucius's works into Latin, first in 1673 and more extensively in 1686 in the compendium Confucius Sinarum Fhilosophus.6

I will not delve further into discussions of whether Spinoza may have been influenced by Confucian ideas (as was optimistically suggested by Lewis Maverick)7 or what Spinoza's attitude towards other cultures was. Neither will this article provide an in-depth examination of the philosophical validity of Bayle's comparisons, eloquent as they are, between SinoJapanese Buddhism and Spinoza's thought. Yuen-Ting Lai's analysis has shown that these comparisons were based on nothing more than a superficial knowledge of oriental philosophy.8 Bayle returns to Buddhism in his entry on Spinoza in an exemplary way. …

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