“true religion” consists only in a simple moral rule: love your neighbor

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Portrait of a man, thought to be Baruch de Spinoza

Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677) was the first to argue that the Bible is not literally the word of God but rather a work of human literature; that “true religion” has nothing to do with theology, liturgical ceremonies, or sectarian dogma but consists only in a simple moral rule: love your neighbor; and that ecclesiastic authorities should have no role whatsoever in the governance of a modern state.

Preface

Writing in May 1670, the German theologian Jacob Thomasius fulminated against a recent, anonymously published book. It was, he claimed, “a godless document” that should be immediately banned in all countries. His Dutch colleague, Regnier Mansveld, a professor at the University of Utrecht, insisted that the new publication was harmful to all religions and “ought to be buried forever in an eternal oblivion.” Willem van Blijenburgh, a philosophically inclined Dutch merchant, wrote that “this atheistic book is full of abominations . . . which every reasonable person should find abhorrent.” One disturbed critic went so far as to call it “a book forged in hell,” written by the devil himself.

Spinoza excomunicaded

The Treatise was regarded by Spinoza’s contemporaries as the most dangerous book ever published. In their eyes, it threatened to undermine religious faith, social and political harmony, and even everyday morality.


This is not a book on Spinoza’s philosophy as a whole. What I am interested in is simply understanding what Spinoza is saying in the Treatise and why he is saying it, as well as showing why the book occasioned such a harsh backlash. Spinoza has a rightful place among the great philosophers in history. He was certainly the most original, radical, and controversial thinker of his time, and his philosophical, political, and religious ideas laid the foundation for much of what we now regard as “modern.”


The highest form of knowledge, “as difficult as it is rare,” is a thorough understanding of Nature and its ways.(Pg.16)


The Spinoza family was not among the wealthiest of the city’s Sephardim, whose wealth was in turn dwarfed by the fortunes of the wealthiest Dutch. They were, however, comfortably well-off. Spinoza’s father, Miguel, was an importer of dried fruit and nuts, mainly from Spanish and Portuguese colonies. To judge both by his accounts and by the respect he earned from his peers, he seems for a time to have been a fairly successful businessman. (Pg.4)

Overtoon Amsterdam 1660 by Jacobus Storck,

I say that “I resolved at last”—for at first glance it seemed ill-advised to be willing to lose something certain for something then uncertain. I saw, of course, the advantages that honor and wealth bring, and that I would be forced to abstain from seeking them, if I wished to devote myself seriously to something new and different; and if by chance the greatest happiness lay in them, I saw that I should have to do without it. But if it did not lie in them, and I devoted my energies only to acquiring them, then I would equally go without it.9

By the early to mid-1650s, Spinoza had decided that his future lay in philosophy, the search for knowledge and true happiness, not in the importing of dried fruit.(Pg.6)

Still, in essence, a treatise on God, man, and his well-being, the Ethics was an attempt to provide a fuller, clearer, and more systematic layout in “the geometric style” for his grand metaphysical and moral project. When finished, many years later, Spinoza’s five-part magnum opus would offer a rigorous demonstration of the way to human happiness in a world governed by strict causal determinism and filled with obstacles to our well-being, obstacles to which we are naturally prone to react in not entirely beneficial ways.

Spinoza begins the Ethics by arguing that at the most basic ontological level, the universe is a single, unique, infinite, eternal, necessarily existing substance. This is what is most real, and he calls it “God or Nature” (Deus sive Natura). Spinoza’s God is not some transcendent, supernatural being. He—or, rather, It—is not endowed with the psychological or moral characteristics traditionally attributed to God by many Western religions. Spinoza’s God does not command, judge, or make covenants. Understanding, will, goodness, wisdom, and justice form no part of God’s essence. In Spinoza’s philosophy, in other words, God is not the providential, awe-inspiring deity of Abraham. Rather, God just is the fundamental, eternal, infinite substance of reality and the first cause of all things. Everything else that is belongs to (or is a “mode” of) Nature.21 (Pg.13)

Baruch Spinoza 1632-1677

The picture of human life that emerges from Spinoza’s catalogue of the passions is a tormented one in which a person is emotionally tossed about and at the mercy of things and forces beyond his or her control. The remedy for such a life mired in the passions lies in virtue, that is, in the pursuit of knowledge and understanding. No human being can ever be entirely free from the passions, since all beings are necessarily a part of Nature and always subject to external influences. Human beings can, however, achieve some degree of autonomy and freedom from their turmoil to the extent that they are active and guided by reason and thereby acquire an understanding of the way in which everything in Nature must happen as it does, including acts of human volition. In this way, the power of the passive affects is at least diminished. (Pg.15)

There is no such thing as personal immortality; it is a fiction used by manipulative ecclesiastics to keep us in a perpetual condition of hope and fear and thus control us. Rather, “blessedness” and “salvation” consist in the well-being and peace of mind that understanding brings us in this life. The virtuous person sees the necessity of all things, and is therefore less troubled by what may or may not come his way. He regards the vicissitudes of fortune with equanimity, and his happiness is not subject to circumstances beyond his control. (Pg.16)

Every individual, human or otherwise, is subject to the same causal determinism that governs all of Nature’s events. (Pg.14)

There are thus no purposes for Nature or within Nature. Nothing happens for any ultimate reason or to serve any goal or overarching plan. Whatever takes place does so only because it is brought about by the ordinary causal order of Nature. And because God is identical with the universal, active causal principles of Nature—the substance of it all—it follows that the anthropomorphic conception of God that, as Spinoza sees it, characterizes sectarian religions, and all the claims about divine reward and punishment that it implies, are nothing but superstitious fictions. (Pg.14)

WE&P by EZorrilla.

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