Review: A Book Forged in Hell

Man whose views went too far for his times

By David Conway, December 9, 2011
Spinoza:  "the Godless philosopher"

Spinoza: "the Godless philosopher"

By Steven Nadler
Princeton University Press, £20.95

Philosophers often get up the noses of their contemporaries. For having inveigled his fellow Athenians into philosophical discussion, Socrates was condemned to death, having in their eyes thereby corrupted the city's youth.

While avoiding a similar fate, or even imprisonment, the 17th-century Dutch-Portuguese, Jewish philosopher, Baruch Spinoza, fared little better. In his day, and for long afterwards, his work was banned and his name vilified. Even as a youth, he was subject to a life-long cherem - excommunication - by his Amsterdam co-religionists for having harboured heretical opinions.

The most derided and widely suppressed of Spinoza's published works forms the subject of Steven Nadler's book. This was his Theological Political Treatise. Upon being pseudonymously published in 1670, it quickly earned the sobriquet of being "a book forged in hell", and was promptly banned throughout Europe.

Despite the ban, its deeply unsettling message continued to haunt intellectual circles. In time, many were won over to its central thesis, that, contrary to time-honoured belief, the Bible was a mere work of literature - the product of all-too-human imagination, not of special acts of divine revelation authenticated by miraculous interventions in the workings of nature.

Any genuine insights contained in the Bible, Spinoza contended, were independently discoverable by purely natural human resources. That it did contain a profound moral teaching - namely, the supreme value of the love of God and neighbour - was his only concession.

Consequently, Spinoza concluded, religious authorities should enjoy no special authority to curb the freedom of thought and expression of scientists and philosophers simply because their views conflicted with divine teachings. The only sound religious teaching had nothing to do with science, so could not possibly conflict with it.

If, today, we take such freedom of thought and enquiry for granted, that is in no small measure due to the arguments advanced in the Treatise. What they were, and what led Spinoza to advance them, form the subject of Nadler's accomplished study.

Ironically, it turns out that Spinoza wrote the Treatise to spare another, almost completed work, his Ethics, being banned. He postponed publishing Ethics during his lifetime, yet, when it did appear, it, too, initially suffered widespread suppression for its heretical views.

Few have accepted Spinoza's equation of God with Nature or his determinism. Yet his deconstruction of the Bible remains a towering achievement, a triumph of reason over ecclesiastical obfuscation. Nadler is to be applauded for making this achievement so accessible. God knows, the world still needs such enlightenment.

David Conway is a visiting fellow at the School of Philosophy and Art History at the University of Essex

Last updated: 11:17am, December 9 2011