Paolo Sarpi early in the seventeenth century had analysed the Venetian constitution as the expression of mercantile interests. ‘The Spaniards,’ he wrote, ‘who have so little kindness for the Venetian Government have not a more odious name than to call it, ‘A Republick of Merchants.’ Sarpi, like Spinoza, warned that democratic tendencies were deleterious to a merchants' aristocratic republic. ‘But all Assemblies of numerous Bodies are to be avoided as the Plague, because nothing can sooner overturn the Commonwealth, than the Facility the People may meet with in getting together to confer or debate about their Grievances. . . .’ Sarpi's philosophy of government was a forerunner of Spinoza's realism; the Italian held ‘that all is just which is any ways necessary for the maintaining of the Government’, and he advised always feeding the people cheaply, ‘For the nature of the rabble is so malicious. . . .’ The worldly-wise and struggle-weary political scientists of the seventeenth century could not muster much enthusiasm for the common man. Sarpi, furthermore, felt that a common bond of economic interest and hostility to Spain joined the Venetian and Dutch Republics. ‘It is greatly for the interest of the Republick, to cultivate a strict Friendship with the seven united Provinces of the Netherlands. . . .’
Sarpi urged more trade with the Dutch, and felt that the wills of both commonwealths would easily be united because ‘they are eager Pursuers of Merchandise’.1
If Sarpi was the consummate statesman for ‘A Republick of Merchants’, then Spinoza was his counterpart in philosophy, as banking and mercantile interests moved from Venice to Amsterdam, later to dominate the world through the Anglo-Dutch empire.
Spinoza’s was a counter-Renaissance philosophical system that took its lead politically from Sarpi, as the latter’s ideas spread to Amsterdam along with Venetian banking.
Spinoza’s pursuit of esoteric kabbalism clothed in the exoteric form of rationalism combined well with Sarpian political objectives. This potent mixture was inseparable from an oligarchical and increasingly financialised economy in which the realisation of human potential was sacrificed to the realisation of profit. It reflected the amalgam of Marrano-Jewish business experience and Venetian banking, which made Amsterdam the crucible from which the modern world of finance and commerce emerged.
In such an environment, creativity per se came a poor second to an understanding and manipulation of what existed already.
Spinoza attacked the humanist position in which he believed ‘the ignorant violate the order of nature rather than conform to it; they think of men in nature as a state within a state [imperium in imperio]’.2 Spinoza’s accusation that humanist thinkers formed a state within a state famously appears also in the preface to Ethics III, where Spinoza characterised the non-naturalist view that he opposed.
In both of these passages, Spinoza criticised the assumption that man can strive for an existence outside the laws that govern the rest of nature.It is precisely this position that Spinoza undercuts when he writes in the Ethics that ‘the laws and rules of nature…are everywhere and always the same’3 and in the Tractatus Politicusthat ‘whether man is led by reason or solely by desire, he does nothingthat is not in accordance with the laws and rules of nature’.4
It was with these words that Spinoza reduced the status of mankind to that of an animal amongst others. In Spinoza, the counter-humanist, counter-Renaissance, project of the Enlightenment attained its coldest rationality. The subject was left with no role other than to submit to necessity. This was a fatalist, determinist and necessitarian philosophy.
Spinoza began his Ethics with definitions, starting with the ‘cause of itself’ or ‘causa sui’. Definition 3 says: ‘By Substance (substantia) I understand that which is in itself and is conceived through itself: that is, that, the conception of which does not depend on the conception of another thing, from which conception it must be formed.’5
This ‘Substance’ is the sole order of nature. It is Spinoza’s great kabbalistic presupposition. It is Luria’s metaphor, Ein Sof. It is the ultimate hypostasis. With Spinoza, Zeus and the gods of a transcendent, external world order reappeared. And Spinoza would chain us again to a rock of external reality, which is opposed to the human thought which thinks it.
Within Lurianic kaballah, the Shevirat Ha Keilim- ‘The Shattering of the Vessels’ - resulted in a broken, or fallen world, the irrational world, which to Spinoza was concomitant with the Renaissance humanism that exiled his people.
Central to this ‘fallen world’ was the Promethean humanist view that in his capacity for creative spontaneity and play, frivolity even, man is the ‘living image of God’ (imago viva Dei) and has the capacity to be a ‘human god’ and a ‘second creator’ (capax Dei).
Rationality and play are polar opposites in terms of world views. Spinoza held the counter-Renaissance position. His self-imposed challenge was to determine how to mend the injury suffered by the Godhead, how to reverse the fall, how to return to oneness from a shattered world.
It would be through reason that Spinoza would lead his people home. Reason would equate to the Tikkun of the Lurianic kaballah. It would be through reason that a return to the divine perfection of Ein Sof, the undifferentiated ‘Substance’, would be achieved.
It was the Ein Sof metaphor that would equate to the undifferentiated and, ultimately, globalised, ‘Republick of Merchants’.
Spinoza was not prepared to trifle with the Kaballah. His rationalising of Kabbalah had a deadly serious purpose.
In the ninth chapter of the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, he wrote, ‘I have read and known certain Kabbalistic triflers, whose insanity provokes my unceasing astonishment’.6Far from trifling with the kabbalah, he secularised it, rationalised it and applied it to a specific socio-economic and political end.
Subjectivity would be once more enfolded into Substance, never allowing for a clear differentiation between the two.
Complete tikkun would undo the material, differentiated and individuated world we know.The answer to ‘What am I?’ would be reduced to - ‘you are what you have to be’. It would mean the elimination of the self.
There would be a denial of subjectivity, creativity and deviation. All you could do is understand the system, not influence it. To maximise your potential, you must understand the motivations of others and work the system; Machiavellian perhaps, but very definitely Sarpian. The Ein Sof to whichSpinoza led his people was Sarpi’s ‘Republick of Merchants', or modernity. This was probably his self-proclaimed ‘Messianic’ role, the one for which he was excommunicated.
Assuming the universal applicability of the principle of sufficient reason, a consistent rationalism must be deterministic and fatalistic. Spinoza’s self-caused God, or Substance, is incompatible the freedom of the will. Not surprisingly, both Sarpi and Spinoza feared democracy. ‘Just keep the masses cheaply fed’, insisted Sarpi, whose words probably applied to ideas, as well as food.
The politicised seculariser of Kabbalah, who saw the unity or monism of all things, also espoused the unity and oneness of leadership. Spinoza’s toleration, which resulted from his monism, had limits that should be troubling, even for a radical pacifist.
In a Spinozist world, sovereign alone would have the right to determine not only the state’s laws but also religious law:
It is the duty of the sovereign alone to decide what is necessary for the welfare of the entire people and the security of the state, and to command what it judges to be thus necessary, it follows that it is also the duty of the sovereign alone to decide what form piety towards one’s neighbour should take, that is in what way every man is required to obeyGod. From this we clearly understand in what way the sovereign is the interpreter of religion.7
1 Quoted in L. S. Feuer, Spinoza and the Rise of Liberalism, Beacon Press, Boston, p.291, note 59
2 B. Spinoza, Political Treatise, trans. S. Shirley, Hackett, Indianapolis, 2000, 2/6
3 B. Spinoza, Ethics. trans. G H R Parkinson, OUP, Oxford, 2000, Part 3, Preface.
4 Political Treatis, trans. Samuel Shirley, 2/5
5 Ethics, trans. Parkinson, definition 3
6 Quoted in A. Sutcliffe, Judaism and Enlightenment, pp.163-4.
7 B. Spinoza, Theological-Political Treatise, trans. S. Shirley, 2nd ed, Hackett, Indianapolis, 2001, pp.215-16