Religion, Morality, and Politics. Examining “The Theological-Political Treatise” by Baruch Spinoza.

Spinoza, Theological-Political Treatise, Cambridge University Press, 2007, xlvi +280 pp. Link to purchase here.

TPT spinozaThis is not really a review. The Treatise is not something that can be “reviewed” by a modern reader. It has already established itself within intellectual history, and specifically within the dawn of the Enlightenment, as a chief work of philosophy by one of the most beloved early-modern thinkers. Spinoza (1632-77) came from a Jewish immigrant family, and grew up in Amsterdam. His stature might not be on par with Descartes or David Hume, and as such, is an unlikely study within an intro to philosophy course, but his ideas had an extremely broad reach shortly after his lifetime, an influence that historians have just recently unearthed within the past few decades.

Spinoza is known mostly for his work, The Ethics. It is Spinoza’s metaphysics in which he describes, in logical step by step format, his theory of God, nature, and ethics. It is from this work that Spinoza is normally considered a pantheist (a claim that is disputed by those who really know his works). Nonetheless my favorite of his writings is the Theological-Political Treatise. This was published during his lifetime, unlike The Ethics, and sparked more outrage and controversy than nearly all other books throughout history. It was originally published anonymously in 1670 for fear of reprimand, but was quickly traced back to Spinoza. He was excommunicated from the Jewish faith (slightly before the publication of the Treatise) due to “heretical” ideas, and was both hated and admired throughout his lifetime. In the work, Spinoza sets out to argue that the freedom to think and believe what one wishes is a necessary component of any state or religion, and that censure of this freedom would result in the eventual destruction of any state or religion.

“Human beings have very different minds, and find themselves comfortable with very different beliefs; what moves one person to devotion provokes another to laughter… I concluded that everyone should be allowed the liberty of their own judgment and authority to interpret the fundamentals of faith according to their own minds …”

spinoza portraitNowadays, we might call this freedom of speech, thought, or expression. However, 17th century Europe was an entirely different story. There were state run churches and governmental regimes that thrived on controlling their populations through intolerance for dissent. Though Spinoza’s native Amsterdam was much more progressive with its freedoms, he would soon discover that it too was not ready to hear his call for personal liberty of belief.

Why was this book so controversial? It was labeled one of the most evil books in history by both Jewish and Christian leaders along with leaders of nation states. People called it many things, perhaps most famously: “A book forged in Hell” (this, incidentally, is the title of an important secondary work on the Treatise by Steven Nadler, which can be found here). There are three primary reasons why this book was hated in Jewish and Christian circles. Note the application to our time that many of his thoughts possess.

First, Spinoza ridiculed the state church as well as the masses of people that were led, in his opinion, as blind leading the blind. He thought that fear was the root of every superstition that plagued the church, and he decried the pomp that characterized the church of this period.

“…God’s religion degenerated into sordid greed and ambition. Churches became theaters where people went to hear ecclesiastical orators rather than to learn from teachers. Pastors no longer sought to teach, but strove to win a reputation for themselves while denigrating those who disagreed with them, by teaching new and controversial doctrines designed to seize the attention of the common people.”

He likewise spoke out against superstition, and the brain-washing like behavior of many religious leaders.

“Believing as they do that it is wicked even to argue about religion, they fill the minds of every individual with so many prejudices that they leave no room for sound reason, let alone doubt… They turn rational men into brutes since they completely prevent each person from using his own free judgment and distinguishing truth from falsehood. They seem purposefully designed altogether to extinguish the light of the intellect.”

Second, Spinoza was one of the first thinkers to apply a historical-critical method to scripture. He is famous for making popular the view that Moses did not write the Pentateuch (now a majority consensus among biblical scholars). But he went beyond this as well. He gives numerous natural explanations of miracles recorded in scripture (and concludes that miracles never happen contrary to the laws of nature), interprets many stories as parables (that had previously been understood as historical), redefines prophecy, and tries to develop a hermenuetic based upon reason. He thinks that his contemporary theologians and preachers “…have sought to extract their own thoughts and opinions from the Bible and thereby endow them with divine authority” (a lesson we should be eager to learn in our own time).

Third, Spinoza reduces religion to outward morality. For him, it does not matter what one believes. The only thing worthy of attention is one’s outward actions. The prophets of the scriptures should be given weight only in their insistence upon moral behavior. One should not worry about their musings about God and the future. “The piety or impiety of each person’s faith should be judged by their works alone.” This, he thinks, will allow people to live together in a society without hate towards others’ beliefs while at the same time promoting a more universal concept of justice and morality that is not hindered by what he thinks are the ignorant speculations of improper faith.

For all of these reasons, this book is an awesome read, not because I agree with everything he says, in fact, I disagree with a lot, but because he argues with such passion and humor that I cannot help but pay attention to what he writes. Spinoza diagnosed a problem, one that was marked by anti-intellectualism and conflict between persons. He did his best to solve this by showing that freedom of thought was the most crucial building block for any society. Though you or I may disagree with the methods he used to get there, one cannot help but admire Spinoza’s end goal. He was a thinker who prized truth as more valuable than any worldly possession or reputation regardless of how much trouble exposing the irrationality of others got him in (similar in theory to the Socratic Method, but without its trademark dialogue form), and for that reason, continues to be my favorite philosopher of all time.

As a Christian, I can appreciate what Spinoza tries to do, and I can even take joy in the fact that he approached scripture through a historical-critical method. He started a long line of thinkers, that continues to this day, who want to understand what the scriptures have to say in themselves, unhindered by our own prejudices and superstitions. I certainly do not agree that religion should be reduced to morality because I recognize the action-forming character of all religious beliefs, but I love Spinoza’s end goal of promoting a more just society that bases the piety of each individual upon their good actions. Especially in our situation today, we could use a little reminder from Spinoza that our actions speak much louder than our beliefs or creeds.

This text is part of the “Cambridge Texts in the History of Philosophy” series. They are the most valuable scholarly editions of historical philosophy works available. Though most of the texts, including this one, can be found online for free, these edited versions are priceless in my opinion. Besides, its much more satisfying to read the most significant texts in western philosophy in paper format than online through a computer screen.


One thought on “Religion, Morality, and Politics. Examining “The Theological-Political Treatise” by Baruch Spinoza.

  1. Pingback: Early Church Christology. “On the Incarnation” by Athanasius of Alexandria. | School of Religion


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