TGIF: Spinoza – A Man for Our Troubled Times

TGIF: Spinoza – A Man for Our Troubled Times

In these interesting times, we all need someone to admire. I have found such a one in Benedict de Spinoza (1632-1677), the 17th-century rationalist liberal philosopher who advocated freedom of thought and expression, toleration, and simple kindness.

Spinoza lived in what at the time was the most liberal place on earth, the Dutch Republic, his Jewish Portuguese family having moved there after Portugal expelled its Jewish population in 1497. He seems to have been a free thinker at an early age, and it apparently got him into trouble with the Jewish community of Amsterdam. In 1656, at the tender age 23, his synagogue banned him for life from the community for “abominable heresies … and … monstrous deeds.” The excommunication decree — the charem — left no doubt about how the Jews of Amsterdam were to regard the young man:

By decree of the angels and by the command of the holy men, we excommunicate, expel, curse and damn Baruch de Espinoza, with the consent of God, Blessed be He, and with the consent of the entire holy congregation, and in front of these holy scrolls with the 613 precepts which are written therein; cursing him with the excommunication with which Joshua banned Jericho and with the curse which Elisha cursed the boys and with all the castigations which are written in the Book of the Law. Cursed be he by day and cursed be he by night; cursed be he when he lies down and cursed be he when he rises up. Cursed be he when he goes out and cursed be he when he comes in. The Lord will not spare him, but then the anger of the Lord and his jealousy shall smoke against that man, and all the curses that are written in this book shall lie upon him, and the Lord shall blot out his name from under heaven. And the Lord shall separate him unto evil out of all the tribes of Israel, according to all the curses of the covenant that are written in this book of the law. But you that cleave unto the Lord your God are alive every one of you this day.

It ordered “that no one should communicate with him neither in writing nor accord him any favor nor stay with him under the same roof nor within four cubits [six feet] in his vicinity; nor shall he read any treatise composed or written by him.”

Spinoza was not upset with this development; he apparently thought his excommunication merely saved him the trouble of leaving the community on his own initiative. So he changed his name from the Hebrew word for blessed, Baruch,  to the Latin equivalent, Benedictus. However, he lived in a time and place in which being unaffiliated with any community had its disadvantages.

What had he done to deserve this treatment? No one is really sure because he had not yet written a word, and he would not publish a book for several years. But he must have been talking to friends about the philosophy he was formulating. If so, we should have no problem understanding why Spinoza would have outraged the Jewish authorities, who feared anything that might jeopardize the community’s relatively free status in the Protestant republic. His writings, published between those of Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, would reject the immortality of the soul and the divine origin of the Bible, while arguing that God was nothing more than nature, or existence, itself without a consciousness or will with which to command, reward, punish, or listen to human beings. His famous phrase was Deus sive Natura, God or/as Nature. For Spinoza, nothing could be beyond nature and logic; thus, no supernatural being or realm existed.

When I (along with others) nominate Spinoza for hero status, I am thinking specifically of his political philosophy, which he expressed in his anonymously published A Theological-Political Treatise (1670), condemned as “a book forged in hell.” The authorship of the book soon became an open secret, and all but his book on Descartes were banned in the Dutch Republic and elsewhere. Spinoza also lived in interesting times, which were no doubt on his mind as he formulated his political philosophy: the Thirty Years’ War ended in 1648 and the English Civil War raged from 1642 to 1651.

As the libertarian philosopher Douglas Den Uyl notes in God, Man, and Well-Being: Spinoza’s Modern Humanism (2008), Spinoza was very much in the tradition of Greek philosophy, but he went the Greek thinkers one better by rejecting the state as a shaper of souls and promoter of virtue. What Spinoza called “blessedness” cannot be achieved through external forces but only through an internal process that individuals undertake. (Den Uyl reconciles seemingly contradictory liberal and authoritarian passages in his 1983 book on Spinoza, his doctoral dissertation, Power, State, and Freedom: An Interpretation of Spinoza’s Political Philosophy.)

For Spinoza (alas, no anarchist, but see Daniel Garber’s lecture at 44:00), the socially contracted democratic-republican state had one task: to produce security — full stop. Security enables individuals to 1) live in safety, 2) pursue understanding, which is the key to activeness, power in the sense of efficacy, virtue, and excellence, and 3) enjoy the benefits of cooperation with others through the division of labor. But, properly, number two is neither the state’s direct nor indirect goal. Against the claim that Spinoza looked to the state to promote virtue if only indirectly, Den Uyl refers to Spinoza’s unfinished Political Treatise, where he writes, “The best way to organize a state is easily discovered by considering the purpose of civil order, which is nothing other than peace and security of life.” Virtue is not even an indirect goal? No, because, Den Uyl points out, the failure of people to become more virtuous would not indicate a deficiency in the state. Virtue is a private internal matter.

As an aside, I note that for Spinoza, living actively according to reason (understanding), rather than passively according to appetites and (other) “external” forces, enables one to accomplish more than one’s own flourishing directly; it also encourages others to live according to reason, which in turn further promotes one’s own flourishing.

Another Spinoza scholar who finds this political philosophy especially worth studying today is Steven Nadler. In his 2016 Aeon article “Why Spinoza Still Matters” (from which many of the Spinoza quotes below are taken), Nadler writes:

At a time when Americans seem willing to bargain away their freedoms for security, when politicians talk of banning people of a certain faith from our shores, and when religious zealotry exercises greater influence on matters of law and public policy, Spinoza’s philosophy – especially his defence of democracy, liberty, secularity and toleration – has never been more timely. In his distress over the deteriorating political situation in the Dutch Republic, and despite the personal danger he faced, Spinoza did not hesitate to boldly defend the radical Enlightenment values that he, along with many of his compatriots, held dear. In Spinoza we can find inspiration for resistance to oppressive authority and a role model for intellectual opposition to those who, through the encouragement of irrational beliefs and the maintenance of ignorance, try to get citizens to act contrary to their own best interests….

The political ideal that Spinoza promotes in the Theological-Political Treatise is a secular, democratic commonwealth, one that is free from meddling by ecclesiastics. Spinoza is one of history’s most eloquent advocates for freedom and toleration.

In his treatise, Spinoza was quite clear: “The state can pursue no safer course 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.”

And: “Freedom to philosophise [on all things –SR] 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.”

Further: “A government that attempts to control men’s minds is regarded as tyrannical, and a sovereign is thought to wrong his subjects and infringe their right when he seeks to prescribe for every man what he should accept as true and reject as false, and what are the beliefs that will inspire him with devotion to God. All these are matters belonging to individual right, which no man can surrender even if he should so wish.”

Nadler elaborates: “No matter what laws are enacted against speech and other means of expression, citizens will continue to say what they believe, only now they will do so in secret. Any attempt to suppress freedom of expression will, once again, only weaken the bonds of loyalty that unite subjects to sovereign. In Spinoza’s view, intolerant laws lead ultimately to anger, revenge and sedition.”

For Spinoza, it was not enough to have the freedom to think any thoughts. “The more difficult case,” Nadler writes, “concerns the liberty of citizens to express those beliefs, either in speech or in writing. And here Spinoza goes further than anyone else in the 17th century”:

Utter failure will attend any attempt in a commonwealth to force men to speak only as prescribed by the sovereign despite their different and opposing opinions.… The most tyrannical government will be one where the individual is denied the freedom to express and to communicate to others what he thinks, and a moderate government is one where this freedom is granted to every man.

Alas, Spinoza was not what we would call a modern libertarian, although (as Nadler emphasizes) he was a far better liberal than John Locke, whose Letter Concerning Toleration did not extend the courtesy to the beliefs, not to mention the public activities, of atheists and Catholics.

Spinoza thought one can be free “in any kind of state.” How so? The free person is guided by reason, he wrote, and reason favors peace; therefore, the reasonable person obeys the state’s laws because “peace … cannot be attained unless the general laws of the state be respected. Therefore the more he is free, the more constantly will he respect the laws of his country, and obey the commands of the sovereign power to which he is subject.” Now Spinoza might have been thinking of a commonwealth in which the laws are perfectly appropriate to rational persons — except that he says we can be free in any kind of state. Does it follow that ignoring unjust statutes really risks general civil strife? I think Spinoza would reply, in a Hobbesian way, that “justice is dependent on the laws of the authorities.” However, while civil strife is not conducive to the good life, neither are unjust statutes that prohibit or regulate peaceful conduct.

Spinoza drew a line between the expression of thoughts and actions. As Nadler points out (in this video), Spinoza thought the secular authority had a right to dictate how religion was publicly practiced in order to safeguard the peace. Practitioners of alternative religions should be free to think and say what they please, but their public rites were to be permitted only within prescribed limits. As one can see, Spinoza is in some respects a Hobbesian though he was more liberal because Hobbes, unlike Spinoza, had the sovereign serving as the arbiter of right opinion in religious and other matters — for the sake of civil peace, of course. The one time that Spinoza mentions Hobbes is in a note in his treatise: “Now reason (though Hobbes thinks otherwise) is always on the side of peace, which cannot be attained unless the general laws of the state be respected.”

Spinoza wrote:

The rites of religion and the outward observances of piety should be in accordance with the public peace and well-being, and should therefore be determined by the sovereign power alone. I speak here only of the outward observances of piety and the external rites of religion, not of piety, itself, nor of the inward worship of God, nor the means by which the mind is inwardly led to do homage to God in singleness of heart.

Moreover, Nadler says, “Spinoza does not support the absolute freedom of speech. He explicitly states that the expression of seditious ideas is not to be tolerated by the sovereign. There’s to be no protection for speech that advocates the overthrow of the government, disobedience to its laws, or harm to fellow citizens.”

Citizens should be free to argue for repeal of laws, but that’s about it; they may not rebel or even express ideas that implicitly call for rebellion because it would undermine the social contract and the peace. Nadler acknowledges that, despite Spinoza’s definition of seditious beliefs, the vagueness of that phrase and his notion of implicitly inciting rebellion properly trouble civil libertarians.

Nevertheless, Spinoza ends his treatise on a high note: “The safest way for a state is to lay down the rule that religion is comprised solely in the exercise of charity and justice, and that the rights of rulers in sacred, no less than in secular matters, should merely have to do with actions, but that every man should think what he likes and say what he thinks.” Not bad for 1670.

Spinoza knew he was not entirely politically safe in the world’s freest state. (Friends had been persecuted by the state for their ideas.) Besides not putting his name on the book, which was written in Latin rather than the vernacular, he wrote in his final paragraph:

It remains only to call attention to the fact that I have written nothing which I do not most willingly submit to the examination and approval of my country’s rulers; and that I am willing to retract anything which they shall decide to be repugnant to the laws, or prejudicial to the public good. I know that I am a man, and as a man liable to error, but against error I have taken scrupulous care, and have striven to keep in entire accordance with the laws of my country, with loyalty, and with morality.

Whatever his limits, we have much to learn from and admire about Spinoza, especially these days.

TGIF: Trump, Spinoza, and the Palestinian Refugees

TGIF: Trump, Spinoza, and the Palestinian Refugees

As though we had any ground for doubt heretofore, we can now clearly see — in light of his end to $350 million in annual humanitarian assistance to five million Palestinian refugees — Donald Trump’s cruel and spiteful nature.

It was not enough to stack the so-called peace process against the Palestinians in every possible way, not least by appointing unabashed Israeli partisans as his envoys. It was not enough to give Israel a pass when it murdered noncombatants in Gaza and practiced apartheid in the West Bank. It was not enough to rub the Palestinians’ noses in their powerlessness by mocking their dream of East Jerusalem as the capital of a future Palestine.

No, he also had to deny the hapless and homeless refugees — victims of the Nakba, Israel’s systematic ethnic cleansing and expulsion of the Palestinians from their ancestral home in 1948 and again in 1967 — food, medicine, and, for their children, education through the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, UNRWA. (This is a reversal of Trump’s position of last year.) Just before that he cut $200 million in other Palestinian aid, including to the Israeli-besieged Gaza Strip prison, where half the population is under 18.

Indeed, Trump went still further by seeking to have most refugees declared nonrefugees (and therefore ineligible for a right of return to Palestine), defining them out of existence with the wave of a hand. He’s attempted, as Geoffrey Aronson put it, to “remove Palestinians from the diplomatic and humanitarian equation.” Of course, if he were to accomplish this end, it would relieve Israel’s rulers and military, as well as its pre-independence leaders and militias, of culpability for their crimes.

Some blame victims; others — like Trump and his ilk — pretend the victims don’t exist. Anyone who attempted something like this with respect to, say, Jews would properly have been denounced by all decent people.

Donald Trump is many things. What he is not is a mensch. But we knew that. This is the same guy who seizes children from parents (who lack government papers), seeks to kick people out of the country who were brought here “illegally” many years ago as children, and strives to deport even Americans with papers whom his administration eyes with suspicion.

A mensch does not act as though millions of people disappear merely because he chooses to ignore them. But Trump acts just that way, just as he acts as though the issue of East Jerusalem could be expected to go away simply by his moving the American embassy to Jerusalem and decreeing it the unified and eternal capital of the State of the Jewish People (anywhere and everywhere), that is, by taking Jerusalem, as he says, “off the table” — as though he had the power to do that. (“So let it be written. So let it be done.”)

Bear in mind that Trump’s move is a spending redirection, not a spending cut. Moreover, I plead no case for UNRWA. Again, as Aronson writes, “Palestinians are of two minds about the organization. No one can deny the health and educational benefits it provides, but the price paid for being wards of the international community is considerable, indeed for many unbearable.” He paraphrases what a woman in Gaza told him: “UNRWA was an abomination…, responsible for breeding complacency and fatalism among Palestinians and offering an excuse and a means for powers great and small to let the Palestinian problem fester.”

But UNRWA’s many failings cannot be used to justify Trump’s action. He’s not punishing UNRWA’s personnel; he’s punishing the Palestinians. He’s not looking for a better way to ease their dire situation. He’s looking to erase them in order to help Israel, although of course the resistance his actions will surely provoke will not be viewed favorably by all Israelis. But, yes, I’m implying that some Israelis, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu among many, will welcome the resistance because they will use it to justify past and future brutality, oppression, and apartheid.  

Axios reports that Netanyahu asked Trump to end U.S. funding of UNRWA. Netanyahu has thus also changed his position from the one that had the backing of Israel’s security apparatus, which favored a gradual reduction in funding but no cuts for Gaza out of security concerns. The thinking until now has been that succor for the refugees would keep them quiescent and take their minds off their right of return, even if that is revised to mean homes in the now-occupied Palestinian territories (the future Palestine) or cash compensation.

Unsurprisingly, Israel Hayom reports, “Israeli officials [i.e., politicians] welcomed reports Sunday indicating that U.S. President Donald Trump plans to act to end the Palestinian demand for a right of return and to cut hundreds of millions of dollars in funding for the U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees, a move they say is in line with Israeli policy.” The publication added, “A diplomatic official dismissed the criticism of a defense official who had been quoted as saying the U.S. decision ‘could set the area, which is already on the verge of a conflict, on fire.’” Jerusalem Affairs Minister Zeev Elkin praised Trump’s move, saying it “finally speaks the truth to the Arab lie that has been marketed all over the world for decades.”

What lie is that? That the Palestinians were terrorized by the Zionist militias and then Israeli army into fleeing their homes in 1948 and 1967? No serious person has doubted this since Israel’s New Historians scoured the government archives in the 1980s and documented the Nakba, the catastrophe. Long before that, however, scholars had debunked the lie that the Palestinians left voluntarily only when neighboring Arab rulers requested them to do so as a temporary wartime necessity. (But of course, even under that scenario Palestinian property owners would have a right to return to their homes.)

Let’s be clear: Trump has no intention of actually addressing the refugee situation, and Israel has no intention of treating any Palestinian justly. The criticism of UNRWA is simply a ruse for once again sticking it to the Palestinians. Why? Because Trump, like the rest of America’s ruling elite, favors Israel for geopolitical, domestic political, and cultural and ethnic reasons having nothing to do with justice, and he’s miffed that the Palestinians have rejected his “deal of the century,” which proposes to bribe them with Saudi economic aid to drop their grievances against Israel and abandon their longing for independence from the self-styled Jewish State. (See my “The Trump-Kushner Delusion on Palestine.”)

Trump’s die-hard supporters like to say his extreme measures and tweets are merely opening moves in his art of deal-making. So let’s go with that: he’s holding five million desperate people hostage in order to convince the corrupt Palestinian Authority to take his deal. That’s reassuring.

The “peace process” is and long has been a sham, and the United States has never been an “honest broker.” An authentic and promising peace-through-justice process would begin, quite literally, with an Israeli apology to all the victims who once lived in Palestine. Then all concerned may go about the business of establishing the terms for coexistence.

To bring this back to Trump (and Netanyahu, among others, I venture to say) and to end on a philosophical note, lately I have been reading Benedict Spinoza and some of his modern commentators. The 17th-century Portuguese-Dutch radical liberal rationalist wrote in the Ethics that persons for whom reason is not fully in the driver’s seat are to some extent passively driven by feelings and are therefore slaves rather than masters: “Human infirmity in moderating and checking the emotions I name bondage: for, when a man is prey to his emotions, he is not his own master, but lies at the mercy of fortune.” (Douglas Den Uyl [see reference below] points out that this statement does not fully capture Spinoza’s position because in his view, to the extent a person is guided by reason, he has no self-sabotaging emotions that need checking; rather, his emotions propel him in a virtuously rewarding direction. Perfection, of course, is never achieved, but only striven for.) 

Reason and understanding thus constitute a person’s path to freedom:

We shall readily see the difference between the man who is guided only by emotion or belief and the man who is guided by reason. The former, whether he will or not, performs actions of which he is completely ignorant. The latter does no one’s will but his own, and does only what he knows to be of greatest importance in life, which he therefore desires above all. So I call the former a slave and the latter a free man….

Spinoza further observed of the rational person, “His prime endeavor is to conceive things as they are in themselves and to remove obstacles to true knowledge [and hence to freedom, virtue, and “blessedness”], such as hatred, anger, envy, derision, pride, and similar emotions….”

Also, “Therefore he who aims solely from love of freedom to control his emotions and appetites will strive his best to familiarize himself with virtues and their causes and to fill his mind with the joy that arises from the true knowledge of them, while refraining from dwelling on men’s faults and abusing mankind and deriving pleasure from a false show of freedom.”

Completely ignorant … hatred angerenvyderisionpridedwelling on men’s faultsabusing mankind … deriving pleasure from a false show of freedom.

Remind you of anyone?

Douglas Den Uyl, in his God, Man, & Well-Being: Spinoza’s Modern Humanism, writes, “The spiteful, the envious, the small-minded, and the jealous are particularly grievous under Spinoza’s philosophy. These negative emotions or patterns of conduct retard both the individual as well as the society around her.”

Have we a better description of Donald Trump? Indeed, the man who occupies the White House is the personification of Spinoza’s passive, weak, and hence self-enslaved man.

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