Steven Nadler, A Book Forged in Hell:
Spinoza’s Scandalous Treatise and the Birth of the Secular Age
17th century Amsterdam was known as a liberal and tolerant city, as it is today. But tolerance during what was sometimes called the Dutch Golden age had its limits and, in 1670, an anonymously-published Tractus Theologico-Politicus, or Theological-Political Treatise, crossed well over the line of what the city’s dominant Dutch Reformed Protestant authorities deemed appropriate. Over the next four years, those authorities sought to convince various local governing bodies within the United Provinces of the Netherlands, as it was then known, to ban the Treatise. During this time, the text’s author was somehow identified as one Baruch de Spinoza who, two decades previously, had been ignominiously ex-communicated from Amsterdam’s thriving Portuguese-Jewish community.
In December 1673, the Treatise was published together with another work, Lodwjik Meijer’s Philosophy, Interpreter of Holy Scripture, in a single volume that bore the false title of a medical treatise. This ruse provided a sufficient basis for Holland’s highest court, the Hof, to enjoin dissemination of both. Describing the two as “harmful poison” which “overflow with blasphemies against God” and appeared designed to “introduce doubt into weak, unstable minds” (p.230), the court officially banned the two works throughout the United Provinces. Shortly thereafter, an implacable foe described the Treatise as having been “[f]orged in hell by the apostate Jew working together with the devil” (p.231).
This description provides Steven Nadler with the title to his cogent and captivating analysis of the apostate Jew Spinoza’s heretical thinking, A Book Forged in Hell: Spinoza’s Scandalous Treatise and the Birth of the Secular Age. In a work which should appeal to general readers and specialists alike, Nadler also ably captures the 17th century Dutch Golden Age environment in which the Treatise and Meijer’s now largely forgotten work appeared and then officially disappeared. Nadler characterizes the Treatise as “one of the most important and influential books in the history of philosophy, in religious and political thought, and even in Bible studies” (p.240). Further, while often overlooked in books on the history of political thought, the Treatise also has a “proud and well-deserved place in the rise of democratic theory, civil liberties, and political liberalism. The ideas of the Treatise inspired republican revolutionaries in England, America and France” (p.240).
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It is not difficult to see why the Treatise’s pronouncements on religion and theology rankled Amsterdam’s ecclesiastical authorities. Spinoza’s work, as Nadler summarizes it, “denied the divinity of the Bible, ruled out the possibility of miracles, identified God’s providence with the laws of nature, deflated the revelations of the prophets, and reduced religion to a simple moral code” (p.222). For Spinoza, religion as practiced in the 17th century was “nothing more than organized superstition” (p.31). In the Treatise, Spinoza presented his case for what he considered “true religion,” which had “nothing to do with theology or elaborate church liturgy; it consists only in obeying the Golden Rule” (p.xii). Spinoza saw God not as the “providential, awe-inspiring deity of Abraham” but quite simply the “fundamental, eternal, infinite substance of reality and the first cause of all things” (p.13). It is “not what you believe but what you do that matters,” Spinoza argued in the Treatise. Religion requires us to “know and love God by pursuing the knowledge of nature and to love human beings as ourselves, by acting toward them with charity and justice . . . In short, the divine law commands only virtue” (p.156-57).
More than any other work, the Treatise laid the foundation for modern critical and historical approaches to the Bible. Perhaps Spinoza’s “most influential, and (to his contemporaries) most shocking conclusion in the Treatise is that Holy Scripture is, in fact, a work of human literature” (p.32), Nadler contends. With “astonishing boldness” (p.131), Spinoza’s Treatise proposed a scientific approach to scripture, working methodically with textual and historical material. Spinoza thus “ushered in modern biblical source scholarship” (p.107). Spinoza’s attack on the belief in miracles also shocked 17th century sensibilities. For Spinoza, miracles were an “‘absurdity’ and the belief in them sheer ‘folly’” (p.83).
Separating philosophy from religion was the “ultimate goal” (p.207) of the Treatise, Nadler argues, so that “philosophers might be free to pursue secular wisdom unimpeded by ecclesiastic authority” (p.65). The subtitle which Spinoza gave to his Treatise revealed his intention to demonstrate that “freedom to philosophize may not only be allowed without danger to piety and the stability of the republic, but that it cannot be refused without destroying the peace of the republic and piety itself” (p.207). The end of philosophy is truth and knowledge, whereas the end of religion is pious behavior and obedience. Philosophical truth and religious faith thus have “nothing in common with one another, and one must not serve as the rule of the other. Philosophy should not have to answer to religion, no more than religion should have to be consistent with any philosophical system” (p.65). Spinoza’s plea for the freedom of philosophizing became a political argument for a civil state almost unimaginable in the 17th century, in which sectarian religious authorities were tightly confined, with “no influence over public affairs, including intellectual and cultural matters” (p.187).
In the Treatise’s chapters on governance, Spinoza’s appeal for the separation of philosophy from religion led him to an extended argument for freedom of thought and expression. Spinoza advanced the audacious argument for his day that state efforts to control belief and opinions should be regarded as “tyrannical” (p.208). Matters of opinion and belief belong to “individual right, which no man can surrender even if he should wish to” (p.208), Spinoza argued. He advocated freedom of opinion and belief on utilitarian grounds as “necessary for progress in the discovery of truth and the growth of creativity” (p.209). The state can pursue no safer course, Spinoza wrote in the penultimate paragraph of the Treatise, than to “regard piety and religion as consisting solely in the exercise of charity and just dealing, and that the right of the sovereign, both in religious and secular spheres, should be restricted to men’s actions, with everyone being allowed to think what he will and to say what he thinks” (p.213-14).
Spinoza thus argued in the Treatise that the purposes of the state are best served by something closely resembling modern liberal democracy. Democracy, Spinoza wrote, represents the “most natural form of state, approaching most closely to that freedom which nature grants to every man. For in a democratic state nobody transfers his natural right to another so completely that thereafter he is not to be consulted; he transfers it to the majority of the entire community of which he is a part” (p.195). In Spinoza’s ideal commonwealth, the “right to determine what is in the common interest, issue laws, and enforce them is given to the people-at-large” (p.193). Under the auspices of the state, the people have the “opportunity to increase their freedom and virtue” (p.197).
It is unclear how Spinoza was identified as the author of the Treatise. Once recognized, Spinoza was particularly disappointed that many of his closest associates and most liberal allies, those who had the most to gain in the campaign for religious tolerance in 17th century Holland and across Europe, sought to put distance between themselves and the Treatise. Rather than opening the door to greater liberty to philosophize, as he had hoped, Spinoza “seems mainly to have succeeded in mobilizing the entire world, including Dutch liberals, against himself” (p.240) and in bringing the Dutch Golden Age to a close, Nadler wryly observes.
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Surprisingly, Nadler indicates that until recently Spinoza has been largely ignored in the study of 17th century political philosophers. While it is very difficult to see how this could have been the case, today Spinoza is anything but underappreciated. Few of Nadler’s readers are likely to take issue with his portrayal of Spinoza as “certainly the most original, radical, and controversial figure of his time . . . [whose] philosophical, political, and religious ideas laid the foundation for much of what we now regard as ‘modern’” (p. xv). Nadler’s incisive dissection of the Treatise and his illuminating depiction of the 17th century environment in which it appeared should provide an added boost to the attention and respect accorded to Amsterdam’s apostate Jew.
Thomas H. Peebles
Silver Spring, Maryland
May 23, 2015