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Spinoza's Theologico-Political Treatise: Exploring 'The Will of God' (review)

From: Journal of the History of Philosophy
Volume 45, Number 2, April 2007
pp. 334-335 | 10.1353/hph.2007.0046

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Theo Verbeek, an eminent historian of Dutch Cartesianism, uses his considerable knowledge of the philosophical and political context to examine with a critical eye Spinoza's Tractatus Theologico-Politicus (TTP). His aims are mostly deflationary. First, he argues that Spinoza does not "defend toleration in general" but rather has the narrower aim of vindicating his own philosophy. Second, Verbeek underlines Hobbes' significant influence on Spinoza and claims that the TTP ought to be read as a "reaction or commentary" on the Englishman's work. In contrast to those who extol Spinoza's originality in either Biblical criticism or political theory, Verbeek suggests that Hobbes made the same points earlier or more clearly. What Spinoza did achieve was the translation of Hobbes' political theory into the Dutch context (60), but Verbeek thinks that the result is often confused in presentation or content (125). Third, in perhaps the richest part of the work, Verbeek offers detailed readings of Spinoza's ideas of "religion," "piety," and "faith." He argues convincingly that Spinoza's definitions of these terms must be understood dialectically, and that Spinoza's goal is to present his own philosophy as a natural alternative to the traditional meanings of these terms. Verbeek's discussion of morality without the will of a divine legislator is particularly nuanced and rich.

Still, I would take issue with several of his conclusions. Verbeek demonstrates Spinoza's debt to Hobbes but underestimates the extent to which Spinoza has systematically criticized and transformed his source. He recognizes that Spinoza is a more thorough naturalist than Hobbes, but does not draw the conclusion of what this means for his political theory (46). For instance, Spinoza offers a more consistent and radical theory of natural rights that grounds his preference for a democratic, rather than absolutist, regime. Verbeek also claims that the TTP is not a coherent work but rather, as Spinoza himself put it, "several dissertations" (6). But here we can compare the TTP to Hobbes' Leviathan, which is equally diverse. The various parts of the work are linked together in service of resolving a deep but pressing problem in the Dutch state. Spinoza attacks the clergy's politics through a critique of its interpretation of Scripture, which in turn opens the path to a new understanding of the state in relation to its citizens and their beliefs. What leads Verbeek to this reading of the form of the TTP is his view of its narrow argumentative scope. He argues that, despite the fanfare to the contrary, Spinoza is really not interested in toleration, but rather in the more limited defense of freedom of philosophizing. (Somewhat surprisingly, the chapter on freedom of philosophizing is devoted not to an analysis of the TTP's argument, but to a comparison of the philosophical methods of Spinoza and Descartes.) Verbeek is right that Spinoza does not offer anything like a modern defense of toleration based on skepticism, in which the state respects and accepts a plurality of religious beliefs and practices. However, in the context of seventeenth-century views of the relation of church and state, Spinoza offers us a strong defense of limited state interference in religion, and a model of a non-skeptical and pragmatic theory of toleration.

Despite these criticisms, Verbeek has written an important work, whose strength lies in its many detailed readings of key concepts and passages, which forcefully challenge the claims of whiggish, esoteric, or simply careless readers of the text.


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