Sunday, January 10, 2016

Our Debt to Spinoza

I have just finished reading Irvin Yalom's The Spinoza Problem.
I am not inclined to review the book, save to say that while I found it very interesting and learnt a lot from it, I also found it contrived, pretentious and anachronistic. The author is a well-known psychiatrist and much of the substance of the book indulges his psychiatric predilections in an ultimately unconvincing way. Still, the interested reader will definitely learn a lot about Spinoza and about the monster Alfred Rosenberg, the ideologue of the Third Reich, who seems to have had an interest in Spinoza. So reading this book provoked thoughts about Spinoza, his ideas and the time and context in which he lived by contrast with our own time and context. And it is this that I want to deal with here. 
Living in Amsterdam in 1656, Baruch (Benedict) Spinoza was brutally excommunicated by a committee of Jewish leaders and forbidden any kind of interaction with members of that community. For him, one of the greatest philosophers of the Western tradition, indeed perhaps the first 'modern' thinker, it was a disaster. He was caught between his love for his community and his inability/refusal to dissemble about his true beliefs. He was cast into a social wilderness, forever sad and lonely – but not completely so, for he lived the rest of his short life in the stimulating company of like-minded thinkers. But his life as a Jew was over.
Today large numbers of Jews (who knows how many?) hold views that in large part agree with those held by Spinoza and they do not lie about them (not to suggest that they comprehend the profundity of his work). They live comfortably within Jewish communities and participate in communal affairs in many ways according to their choice, according, one supposes, to whatever they feel comfortable with and enjoy doing. Secular Jews have come to revere Spinoza, the Jew, - a prominent street in Israel is named after him.
Meantime these secular Jews are the targets of diverse religious Jewish outreach groups who, far from excommunicating them - which would carry no practical consequences for them - seek to attract them to their congregations; never questioning their beliefs or their right to have them and write and speak about them.
The Amsterdam Jewish leaders got their power from tradition, but, moreso, from the government of the Netherlands. The government that welcomed Jewish refugees from the hell of the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisitions into Holland, was a government that was, in part, driven by religious (Calvinist) laws. They placed conditions upon the tolerance of the Jews and gave their leaders the power to enforce those conditions - among which was the punishment of heresy - indeed the leaders had an obligation to punish it. The Dutch would tolerate Jews, within limits, but not atheists or Catholics. So Spinoza had to be banned. The survival of the Jewish community was seen to depend on it.
Today the survival of these religious-orthodox outreach groups depends on their ability to attract adherents, including non-believers, upon whom they must be careful not to make too many demands. The difference? They have no power and obligation to compel. Religion and state are separate and religious beliefs are seen as personal matters.
It is hard to overestimate the importance of this development - the 'secularization' of society - a development recommended by Spinoza whose thinking contributed mightily to it. Without it the transition from a zero-sum to a positive-sum society might have been impossible.
Is it not this that holds back much of the Islamic world today?

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