- Philosophical Religions from Plato to Spinoza: Reason, Religion, and Autonomy by Carlos Fraenkel
As the title makes clear, this book is about a tradition that runs from Plato, primarily the Plato of the Laws, all the way to Spinoza. Other figures include Philo, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Alfarabi, Averroes, and Maimonides. In one way or another, all these people subscribed to the idea of a rational religion that promotes development of the intellect as the best way to worship God and become like God. When such development succeeds, the worshipper will act in a just and temperate manner not because he fears divine vengeance or seeks to court divine favor but because he recognizes on his own that justice and temperance are needed if human beings are to reach their full potential. The result is a form of autonomy: the worshipper will do God’s will as if it were her own because she will see that God’s law has human perfection as its end. On the macro level, she will try to oversee an orderly and harmonious state just as God oversees an orderly and harmonious universe.
The problem is that most people are not able to perfect their intellects in this way and need the concept of a God who rewards virtue and punishes vice in order to control their behavior. To a proponent of a philosophical religion, the laws, stories, exhortations, and practices that constitute the religion of the average worshipper are all ways of inducing rational behavior in people who either cannot or have not yet achieved the level of understanding achieved by philosophers. In this way, theology becomes the handmaid of philosophy. This allows proponents of a philosophical religion to say that behind the literal meaning of sacred texts is the true allegorical meaning, which affirms the truths established by philosophic inquiry. As Maimonides tells us, the prophets were themselves philosophers, and we would see this if only we knew how to read them correctly. The reason the laws, stories, exhortations, and practices of various religions differ is that the founders of these religions needed to accommodate different cultural or historical contexts.
As Fraenkel sees it, this tradition reached a crisis in the person of Spinoza, who was pulled in opposite directions. On the one hand, he was a strong proponent of philosophical religion, who was convinced he had uncovered the truth and was eager to subject Scripture to reason. On the other hand, his critique of religion required him to say that the prophets were not philosophers, that we have no right to foist our own philosophic views on them, and that much of what they assert about God and the structure of the world is simply false. Fraenkel maintains that the motivation for the latter was Spinoza’s contempt for the view that reason is weak and must be subjected to Scripture, in particular Scripture as interpreted by a particular church or tradition. Interestingly enough, both philosophical religion and religious fideism rest on a common assumption: that Scripture is true. In Fraenkel’s opinion, Spinoza was so opposed to the latter that he was willing to undermine his original commitment to the former.
No reasonable person can fail to be impressed by the breadth of learning Fraenkel displays in this study and the care and subtlety with which he approaches his sources. As [End Page 171] indicated above, “philosophical religion” includes thinkers from ancient, medieval, and early modern philosophy as well as three separate religious traditions—four if you include paganism. I am not aware of any other book that takes on so ambitious a project and executes it so well. As with any book that covers this much territory, one can always raise questions with parts of it. Did Plato distinguish between theoretical and practical reason? When the Timaeus (30a–b) says that the Demiurge deliberated before creating the world, should we take this as an anthropomorphic characterization of divine activity intended to appeal to non-philosophers, or did Plato really think...