- A Book Forged in Hell: Spinoza’s Scandalous Treatise and the Birth of the Secular Age by Steven Nadler
Steven Nadler’s A Book Forged in Hell: Spinoza’s Scandalous Treatise and the Birth of the Secular Age is an elegantly written and enormously helpful introduction to one of Spinoza’s most important yet underappreciated works, the Theological-Political Treatise. While the importance of the Treatise is now beginning to gain recognition, it was initially abominated as “godless” and “soul harming” and banned throughout Europe. By placing the chief arguments [End Page 148] and objectives of the Treatise in both philosophical and sociopolitical relief, Nadler makes it possible to understand the severity of the backlash against it as well as the abiding interest the Treatise has for those living with the secular political arrangements on behalf of which it presents such a powerful plea.
Nadler makes the point that the Treatise was written for a much broader audience than the work for which Spinoza is best known, the Ethics. Whereas the Ethics presumes a philosophically trained readership, the Treatise was intended to be accessible to most anyone with education and an open mind. In retrospect, however, it is the Ethics that has found the wider audience, at least over time, and that is because its arguments are timeless, composed as they were, to use Spinoza’s phrase, sub specie aeternitatis; the Treatise, by contrast, was written to achieve a specific agenda at a particular time, namely, to win the right “to think what one wants and to say what one thinks.” Designed to be accessible for seventeenth-century readers, the Treatise is less so for their twenty-first-century counterparts.
Perhaps the biggest hurdle for today’s reader is understanding Spinoza’s hyphenated treatment of the theological and the political. Someone who picks up the Treatise to learn about Spinoza’s political philosophy, expecting something in the vein of Locke’s Second Treatise, will be surprised to find that much of it is devoted to biblical hermeneutics and extended analyses of biblical passages, right down to technical ambiguities in the original Hebrew. In a helpful chapter on “The Theological-Political Problem,” Nadler outlines the power struggles between religious and secular authorities that raged in Europe at the time and made the theological and political a hyphenated affair. If the Bible is the ultimate source of truth—a widely held view at the time—clerics can claim a vital role to play in propagating and safeguarding its authority. The question of ecclesiastic political power, therefore, is tied to how the Bible is interpreted.
In the chapters “Gods and Prophets,” “Miracles,” and “Scripture,” Nadler places Spinoza’s biblical interpretation in context, making it possible to see clearly where its innovations (and provocations) lay. Spinoza rejected any interpretation of the Bible that made a priori assumptions about its truth. For Spinoza, the Bible has to be interpreted on its own terms. This means that determining the meaning of a biblical passage is not a matter of reconciling it with reason, for example (as it was for Maimonides and, interestingly, Spinoza’s friend, Lodewijk Meijer), but rather of understanding the times and language in which it was written, the character of its author, [End Page 149] his intentions, and so on. In this light, the Bible is seen to be a document composed mostly by men whose chief distinction lay not in their intellectual acuity but rather in the vivacity of their imaginations and in their ability to inculcate obedience and moral rectitude. Aside from simple precepts, such as love of neighbor and obedience to God, religious texts, for Spinoza, are not a source of philosophical or scientific truth. As long as their views do not undermine justice and charity, therefore, there is no cause to restrict what philosophers can say on any doctrinal grounds. Moreover, as a matter simply of obedience and moral behavior, religious faith is something that secular authorities can mind at least as well as ecclesiastic ones. Like Hobbes...