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Monstrous Spinoza

Sunday, 5 Aug 2018

Spinoza rejected on Dr John Dunn. In 1656, the leaders of Talmud Torah of the Marrano-Jews in Amsterdam issued the harshest writ of excommunication ever pronounced upon a member of their community. It would be doubtful if a more condemnatory piece of prose could have been penned by anyone. It is almost poetic in its excommunicative zeal.

Cursed be he by day and cursed be he by night; cursed be he when he lies down and cursed be he when he rises up. Cursed be he when he goes out and cursed be he when he comes in. TheLord will not spare him, but the anger of the Lord and his jealousy shall smote against that man, and all the curses that are written in this book shall lie upon him, and the Lord shall blot out his name from under heaven…1

The individual so damnably condemned was Baruch Spinoza - but why? What had he done? He was only 22. He had not even begun to conceptualise the philosophy for which he was later famed, let alone write or even publish the works for which he became celebrated posthumously.

The writ of excommunication purposefully omits all reference to the actions for which Spinoza was to be forever cursed. Neither have the reasons for which the ‘Lord will not spare him’ leaked out into the historical record from Spinoza himself or his correspondents. We only know from the writ of excommunication that his opinions, acts and ways were condemned as ‘evil’ and ‘wicked’, and that the ‘heresies which he practiced and taught’ were considered ‘abominable’ and ‘monstrous’.2

The usual speculations focus on the philosophical positions that became apparent years after the writ of excommunication was issued in Spinoza’s published works, most notably the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, published anonymously in 1670 and The Ethics, finished 1674, but published posthumously. These works certainly do contain radical theses that would have been condemned as scandalously heretical by orthodox Judaism.

Prior to his excommunication, Spinoza might well have been sharing something of these as yet unformulated philosophical treatises, but what were the ‘evil’ acts and ‘wicked’ ways that he ‘practised and taught’ as a young man? My answer is - Kabbalism and Messianism.3

At least the first part of this speculation has a long history.

By the time that the Cambridge Platonist Henry More had finished his last kabbalistic critique in 1675 he had read Spinoza and was soon making connections. He was profoundly disturbed by the pantheistic implications of both Spinoza’s philosophy and the Kabbalah, criticising then both in almost identical terms:

Whence if there is no Substance which is God, or a being entirely and absolutely perfect, but only matter, as Spinoza would have it, then this Spinozist God is like a Goose among Geese, as Ass among Asses, a Toad among Toads, a Louse amongLice, a Tortoise among Tortoises, a man among Men, a Fool among Fools, aManiac among Maniacs, a Spinoza in Spinoza (Demonstrationis duarum…, Opera Omnia, p.627)4

Already by 1699, Jacob Wachter had published a book entitled Der Spinozismus im Jüdenthumb (Spinozism in Judaism), where he argued that it was possible to read back Spinozist ideas in the kabbalah.

Wachter used the idea that Spinoza’s heretical ideas had originated in the kabbalah to assault Judaism.5 (See Salvation Through Spinoza: A Study of Jewish Culture in Weimar Germany, By David Wertheim p.68)

Jacques Basnage (1653 – 1723), celebrated French Protestant divine, preacher, linguist, writer and man of affairs, also accepted that Spinoza was a systematiser of the kabbalah, from which he derived his axiom ex nihilo nihil fit and his determination to reduce everything to a single Substance.6

My view is that More, Wachter, Basnage and others, were right but, if so, what interest would a Jew have in assaulting Judaism?

Spinoza would have been an avid and ferocious reader of the Lurianic kabbalah that was newly available to readers in mid-sixteenth century Amsterdam. No young, enquiring and rebellious mind would have missed this opportunity.

A reading of ‘mystical’ writings at such a young age, before he had fully mastered intricacies of the Torah, would have been considered sinful enough by the rabbis in his community.

ButI believe that Spinoza went further. Spinoza rejected the religion of his community, because to follow the ‘logic’ of Luria’s kabbalistic metaphors was to see rabbinic Judaism as a force for the sustenance of evil on this earth.

But even more than this, I believe too that his youthful zeal to fulfil the ‘logic’ of the Lurianic kabbalah led him rashly to self-proclaim himself as the Messiah.

The sinful reading of kabbalah, a condemnation of Judaism as evil and pretensions to messiahship, these I contend were the ‘evil’ acts and ‘wicked’ ways that he ‘practised and taught’. It was for these acts that the writ of excommunication stated ‘the Lord will not spare him’. Neither would the orthodox Jewish community of Amsterdam. Whilst we are in the dark about what had damned Spinoza to hell, we do know that he was attacked at knife point in the year immediately preceding his banishment. Spinoza must have been silenced under pain of death. Caution had to be his watchword.

A chastened Spinoza would sign his letters with the image of a rose and the word ‘caute’ (Latin for caution, carefully, beware). It was a signet ring that he wore.

The rose was an image of secrecy. The Rosicrucian movement was prevalent at that time, an esoteric vision of the world in which mathematics played a part.

This is not to say that Spinoza’s Rose was Rosicrucian, even though mathematical logic was prominent in his philosophical writings. However, the image holds something of the occult in the literal sense, that every physical thing keeps in its heart causal consequences which are hidden, a secrecy of effects. The Rose was an image pun, in that Spinoza’s name holds the Portuguese word for ‘thorn’ espinoza. The ring had not only the image and word ‘caute’ but also his initials. It implies - ‘I am a rose, beware the thorns’.

The thorns were those of a self-proclaimed Messiah. The causal consequences of his survival of the knife attack would be a world turned upside-down. (I am one with Jonathan Israel in appreciating the world changing impact of Spinoza in this way. Israel described ‘Spinoza and Spinozism’ as ‘the intellectual backbone of the European Radical Enlightenment everywhere’.7And at the core of Spinoza’s impact upon Enlightenment thinking lies the materialist’s paradox, that the pathway to freedom lies in a denial of ‘free will’ and an acceptance of necessity.

Spinoza deliberately set out to destroy the vision of human nature prevalent in Renaissance humanism, of which the classic proponent was Dante, based on the belief that ‘man disturbs, rather than follows, the order of nature, that he has absolute power over his actions, and that he is determined only by himself.’8

A conflation of Spinoza’s pseudo-Rosicrucian secrecy, self-proclaimed messianism and a proto-Marxist radicalism is evident in the words of Jonathan Israel who writes of Spinoza that ‘he intimates at the end of the Korte Verhandeling, to teach the path to “salvation” to others, his object being, to paraphrase Marx, not just to mediate but to change the world, a goal in which eventually - and in a most extraordinary manner - he succeeded. Bayle remarks that Spinoza’s friends claimed after his death that “par modestie il souhaita de ne pasdonner son nom a une secte”. But whether or not he believed this to be true, Bayle notes that Spinoza unquestionably aspired, as Toland and others also remarked later, to found a (necessarily) clandestine philosophical “sect” through the endeavours of which his philosophy, like that of his adolescent hero Descartes, would ultimately transform the world.’

Transform the world he did, but I contend that the ‘salvation’ on offer from Spinoza was the Kabbalist's Tikkun and cannot be separated from the goal of restoring the shattered prestige and economic interests of his own Marrano-Jewish community.

1 S. Nadler, Spinoza: A Life, Cambridge University Press, 2001, p.120

2 In the late 20th century it was discovered that the herem (writ of excommunication) pronounced against Spinoza used a formulation that was given to the Amsterdam Jewish community by the Venetian Jewish community in 1617 and was specifically intended for heretics.
See Nadler, Spinoza, p.128

3 Perhaps I'm not the only one who thought along these lines. Steven Smith wrote that Spinoza saw himself as “the harbinger of a new theologico-political dispensation” in which Spinoza himself “assumes the place that had previously been accorded to Christ.” S. B. Smith, Spinoza, Liberalism, and the Question of Jewish Identity, Yale University Press; New edition edition, 1998, p.110.

4 Quoted in A. P. Coudert, The Impact of the Kabbalah in the Seventeenth Century: Life and Thought of Francis Mercury van Helmont (1614-1698), Brill’s Series in Jewish Studies, Leiden, 1999, p.235

5 D. Wertheim, Salvation Through Spinoza: A Study of Jewish Culture in Weimar Germany, Brill, Leiden 2011, p.68

6 A.Sutcliffe, Judaism and Enlightenment, Cambridge University Press 2003, P.163

7 J. I. Israel, Radical Enlightenment: Philosophy and the Making of Modernity 1650-1750, OUP Oxford, New Ed edition, 2002,

8 B. Spinoza, The Collected Works of Spinoza, trans. and ed. E. Curley, vol. I, Princeton University Press, Princeton 1988, p.491

© John Dunn.

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