Anthony Gotlieb over de TTP (en Spinoza’s God)

Elke week brengt de website Five Books - The best books on everything - een interview waarin een schrijver of wetenschapper zijn of haar aanbevolen vijf boeken toelicht. Zo verwees ik al eens in een blog naar zo’n interview dat door Anthony Gotlieb werd gedaan met Jonathan Israel en in een blog over de door Rebecca Goldstein aanbevolen vijf Best Philosophical Novels; zij werd door Nigel Warburtonz geïnterviewd. Nu zie ik vandaag (op Spinoza Now) dat in op 7 mei 2009 zo’n interview op Five Books werd geplaatst waarin “Anthony Gottlieb recommends the best books on God.” Het eerste boek dat hij aanbeval was de Tractatus Theologico-politicus. Dat deel van het interview neem ik hier over. 


Anthony, we’re going to talk about five books which weigh religion and secularism. I think that’s how we’ve decided to frame this discussion?

The first book that I’ve chosen is from a long time ago: 1670. It was written by Spinoza and published after his death [sic!]. It’s called “Tractatus Theologico-Politicus” and there are a number of reasons why I think people should read it.

One is that it is way ahead of its time in its understanding of the human nature of traditional religion, and on the place of religion in society. Another reason, which has nothing particularly to do with religion, is that it’s intelligible, unlike Spinoza’s “Ethics“, which you really need to have studied quite a lot of philosophy to understand. The “Ethics” is the work of Spinoza’s that people try to read, but most of them get very little out of it. His “Tractatus“, by contrast, is intelligible to everybody, doesn’t require any philosophical background, and does give you many of the main themes of Spinoza’s thought.

And what are those themes?

Well, with regard to God, I suppose the most famous ideas expounded in the “Ethics” is that God is equivalent to nature, in some sense, and so should not be thought of as a personal being.

So God is not like us?

God is certainly not like us: he doesn’t have emotions and wishes in the normal sense. So that’s one thing. But the first task Spinoza set himself in the “Tractatus” is to undermine the traditional notion of the Bible as the inerrant word of God. (In fact, the “Tractatus” is arguably the first serious work of biblical criticism.) He takes the five so-called books of Moses and shows why they probably aren’t by a single person, and certainly not by Moses.  As he goes through the various books of the Old Testament, what he’s out to establish is that these writings reflect human ideas, and that they are  the ideas of particular people expressed at a particular place and a particular time. Most educated people accept that now, but it was a horrifying idea to the religious establishment in Spinoza’s time.

So the Bible is man-made, and for this reason, nobody can use it to claim ownership of a divine authority.

No, and certainly not the Jews. Spinoza was Jewish by birth, though he was famously excommunicated by his synagogue, and one of the things he sets out to do in the book—and does, I think, very well—is attack the idea that the Jews were the chosen people, or more beloved by God than anybody else.

I think his books were also banned by the Catholic church?

Yes, because he was generally thought of as an atheist, though he certainly wouldn’t have described himself as one. He thought he was just trying to show what God was really like, and in fact the German poet Novalis called him a “God-intoxicated man,” with some justice, because Spinoza never stops talking about God. Well, you can’t be both God-intoxicated and an atheist.  But you can, of course, be both God-intoxicated and yet unimpressed by traditional Judaism. Spinoza thought that the rules by which Jews lived, as derived from the bible, merely reflected the circumstances of the early state of Israel, and because Israel no longer existed, and times had moved on, he thought these rules had become irrelevant. The dietary laws and so forth, that bound the religious community of his time, and which continue to bind the orthodox, were all based, he felt, on a misunderstanding. It was a mistake to suppose that God wanted you to go on living like that even today.

Didn’t he choose circumcision in particular to exemplify the man-made nature of divine law?

Yes, and interestingly he thought that circumcision was actually key to the survival of the Jews: it was a way in which they marked themselves out and bound themselves together.  This was shocking at the time. Another thing that people found shocking was Spinoza’s notion of religious toleration and of the separation between church and state. So whether or not you think he was an atheist or a theist, he was certainly a secularist. He thought that religion had no part to play in politics. He was, by the way, writing in one of the most secular states at the time, where there was most religious freedom: Holland.

Can you tell me briefly how Spinoza did conceive of God?

He thinks of God as identical with nature, which is a slight simplification of what he said, but will do for now. That is a radical reinterpretation of the idea of God, but on the other hand Spinoza thinks that there is a supreme being who is omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent—which are the traditional attributes of God. Because he does not think of God as a personal being, however, morality ends up being secularised—because if God is not like a person, then we should not think of him as having desires in the ordinary sense, or as issuing commands, so we have to think of the relation between God and morality in a new way. And Spinoza’s way is to say that God’s law is justice, charity and the love of one’s neighbour, and if you let those things govern your life, then you are in fact following God’s law. That’s all it takes to be godly. One thing that follows from that, of course, is that you can live a godly life while being an atheist. You might just want to do those things anyway, even if you think there is no God. Just so long as you are living a just and loving life, that’s the important thing about being godly. And I think it’s pretty plain that educated, moral, people today who are not religious would say, yes, that’s roughly what I think: if you want to talk about “God’s will”, you can say that living a moral life and doing God’s will come to the same thing. So Spinoza was a very modern thinker, a long, way ahead of his time.

Before we talk about Hume, who is the author of the next book you’ve chosen, one of the things that interested me about Spinoza was his rejection of Descartes’ mind/body dualism. He collapses the difference between the material and the spiritual world and in doing so he invites us to reject divine providence – the notion of a God who is different from nature and who is organising nature from outside. And by the same token he invites us to see that our own freedom is not so much the freedom to change what happens to us as to understand why it happens. Spinoza argues that once we understand this properly, we will understand that reality is the only perfection, and this is also what it means to become more godly.

Spinoza certainly had an unusual conception of freedom. To be free, for him, is to understand the ways in which you are determined. That is one of the hardest things to understand in Spinoza.