- A Book Forged in Hell: Spinoza’s Scandalous Treatise and the Birth of the Secular Age
Spinoza’s Theological-Political Treatise is a difficult book for the modern reader. Unlike the Ethics, whose geometrical form was supposed to appeal to all rational men, Spinoza wrote the Treatise as an intervention in a particular political and religious struggle in the Netherlands in the late 1660s. Steven Nadler uses his considerable knowledge of Dutch history and the broader philosophical context to guide the reader through the arguments of the book and explain the nature of the scandal it provoked. But while it is systematic, this is hardly a dry tome. Nadler begins each chapter with an anecdote—from Spinoza’s correspondence or reception of the work, or an apt parallel—that illuminates the intent [End Page 129] of the argument. Nadler uses these stories to reveal the often personal motivations of the philosophical arguments.
Nadler begins with a discussion of the “theological-political” problem as it developed in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, a problem that was felt acutely in the Netherlands. He also addresses the problem of the intended reader of the text and the kind of discourse that Spinoza employed. Unlike Leo Strauss, who made much of the distinction between the exoteric meaning intended for the multitude (vulgus) and the esoteric meaning hidden for the philosopher or potential philosopher, Nadler simply points out that the Treatise’s audience was broader than that of a specialized work like the Ethics, and so he had to be careful with his language. The entire second chapter is devoted to telling the story of Spinoza’s friend Adriaan Koerbagh, who wrote a book in Dutch inspired by his friend Spinoza and was promptly put in prison, where he died. The third chapter provides a clear exposition of Spinoza’s idea of God, his theory of knowledge, and the deflationary account of prophecy that is central to the Treatise.
Nowhere are Spinoza’s radical intentions clearer than in his critique of miracles, and Nadler gives us a wonderful chapter that explains how Spinoza is willing to go beyond the positions of other contemporary natural philosophers, like Descartes, Huygens, Hobbes, and Boyle, to the outright refutation of the metaphysical possibility of miracles. At the same time, he shows us how Spinoza adopts the medieval distinction between general and special providence to the terms of his naturalistic system. Most of his earliest readers and later interpreters believed that Spinoza was trying to undermine religion, by revealing the superstitions that produce it, and replace it with a completely secular society governed by reason. Nadler presents a more nuanced view. In the chapter on Scripture, he shows how Spinoza tries to balance between reason and faith. If we attend to Scripture alone, we find that it does have a clear message, one surprisingly free of theological dogma: pursue justice and loving kindness in our actions. Nadler admits that while Spinoza’s goal is often to strip the theological aura from religion, his method is “not meant to rob the Bible of all its authority” (141). Instead, it gives the Bible a new authority, which is exclusively moral.
Nadler does not neglect to discuss Spinoza’s political theory based on a modification of Hobbes’s idea of the institution of a state out of the state of nature. And he gives us a nice account, free of anachronistic distortions, of the heralded freedom of philosophizing with which Spinoza ends the work. Nadler himself chooses to conclude with a fascinating discussion of the early reception of the book and the outrage it provoked. It helps underscore the transformative potential that later generations of readers helped unleash.
Of course there are a few points on which I would disagree with Nadler’s interpretation. He notes that Spinoza is highly critical of Judaism throughout the Treatise, but he neglects the sense in which the ancient Israelite state was exemplary to its mostly Protestant readers. Spinoza...