The Clare Spark Blog

September 2, 2010

Spinoza as culture critic

Filed under: Uncategorized — clarelspark @ 8:48 pm
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Toying with Spinoza

I have been reading Paul Johnson’s A History of the Jews (1987), and his account of Baruch Spinoza’s critical method leaped off the page, not least  because he identified a major cause of antisemitism in the Europe that Spinoza’s rationalism helped to transform. Here is the Johnson excerpt, along with a quote from Spinoza himself:

[Paul Johnson, p.291] The origin and substance of Spinoza’s quarrel with the Jewish authorities is not entirely clear. He was accused of denying the existence of angels, the immortality of the soul and the divine inspiration of the Torah. But an apologia for his views, which he wrote in Spanish soon after the the herem, has not survived. However, in 1670 he published, unsigned, his Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, in which he set out his principles of Biblical criticism. Therein lay his essential heterodoxy. He argued that the Bible should be approached in a scientific spirit and investigated like any natural phenomenon. In the case of the Bible, the approach had to be historical. One began by analysing the Hebrew language. Then one proceeded to analyse and classify the expression in each of the books of the Bible. The next stage was to examine the historical context:

[Spinoza:] the life, the conduct, and the pursuits of the author of each book, who he was, what was the occasion and the epoch of his writing, whom did he write for and in what language…[then] the history of each book: how it was first received, into whose hands it fell, how many different versions there were of it, by whose advice was it received into the Canon, and lastly how all the books now universally accepted as sacred were united into a single whole.

[Paul Johnson, cont.:] Spinoza proceeded to apply his analysis, discussing which parts of the Pentateuch were actually written by Moses, the roll of Ezra, the compilation of the canon, the provenance of such books as Job and Daniel, and the dating of the works as a whole and its individual parts. In effect, he rejected the traditional view of the origin and authenticity of the Bible almost completely, providing alternative explanations from its internal evidence. He thus began the process of Biblical criticism which, over the next 250 years, was to demolish educated belief in the literal truth of the Bible and to reduce it to the status of an imperfect historical record. His work and influence were to inflict grievous and irreparable damage on the self-confidence and internal cohesion of Christianity. They also…raised new, long-term and deadly problems for the Jewish community.

[Comment by Clare Spark:] Almost all of Herman Melville’s religious doubts can be traced to this development in European intellectual history. As for the critical method advocated by Spinoza, it was music to my ears, for not only was such a method my own guide in researching the revival of Herman Melville in the interwar period of the twentieth century, but Melville himself recommended a similar (if abbreviated) approach to understanding art in his “Lecture on the Statues of Rome.”   He also mentioned Spinoza as a “visionary” in his long poem Clarel.  Take note scientists! The labor-intensive work of the competent historian should be obvious from the Spinoza quote.

Some readers may recall the “canon wars” of the 1980s and 1990s, wherein the artistic production of dead white males was pushed aside in favor of  “subaltern” authors and artists who had been ignored owing to “white male supremacy.” Did these trendy academics use the Spinoza method or did they imagine a limited space for art and artists that necessitated the decapitation of those supposedly in “the canon?” My work on the Melville revival strongly suggests that Melville as canonical figure is a joke: he was way too radical then and now. A different “Melville” was constructed by his erstwhile revivers for reasons that were strictly ideological. (For details see



  1. […] It appears that the culture wars have done their job: to most of the responders, “secular” signifies atheism, which may indicate narcissism, nihilism, and amorality to them. But in its older meaning, pre-culture wars, “secular” simply referred to matters of this world, as opposed to other-worldliness in religions that emphasized heaven and hell. But more significantly, secularism is a political science term that refers to the separation of church and state, meaning that no religion has priority over others, and that no religion is the established state religion. In the U.S. we enjoy religious pluralism. But triumphalist religions have managed to minimize the Founding Fathers’ commitment to the separation of church and state. And culture warriors such as Bill O’Reilly, Glenn Beck, and Newt Gingrich have turned “the secularist” into the bogey man, insisting that the Constitution, like the Declaration of Independence before it, was divinely inspired, rather than the institutionalization of natural rights. But read the Federalist papers and see that Hamilton puts ultimate authority in the people, which is another word for popular sovereignty. Just as (later) in the French Revolution, power, knowledge and virtue had passed from Kings and Church to the People, who would then comprise the red specter to this very day, at least in the U.S. The U.S. Constitution was written to create a strong and effective national government, and owed its inception to epistemological materialism and to the Enlightenment. (See […]

    Pingback by Secularism and the Affordable Care Act « YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — April 3, 2012 @ 3:48 am | Reply

  2. Clare–
    After reading the mission of you blog and this post, I’d like to invite you to check out a blog/podcast that I do with two colleagues: We recently completed two episodes on Spinoza, focused mainly on his Ethics. While our focus is more on Philosophy than History, I believe we approach the marketplace of ideas as ‘genuine liberals’ in your sense of the term.

    Spinoza’s biblical criticism did have a tremendous impact on subsequent generations. To your point that he advocated a historical approach to interpreting the Bible, I’d like to add that there was always a metaphysical element in his interpretation, tied to his single-substance ontology and impersonal idea of God. To him, an anthropomorphic conception of God was irrational, and thus it was irrational to suppose that some specific individuals could be given divine inspiration from said God. So in his analysis of the Prophets, he points out that they were merely men and women of ‘unusually vivid imagination’ and goes to some length to point out how their visions closely correlated with their surroundings and experience.

    While a long history of close textual analysis existed in the Jewish community prior to Spinoza, it certainly was constrained by certain beliefs which bounded interpretation. As you point out, Spinoza was the first to radically challenge the belief-structure for biblical interpretation and treat Tanakh in a broader context as a ‘text’. He paved the way for the later secular hermeneutics movement that contributed so much to 20th century thinking.

    As an aside, you might be interested in Gilles Deluze’s “Spinoza: Practical Philosophy” in which he argues that Spinoza’s herem was politically motivated due to Spinoza’s sympathies with Republicanism against the House of Orange.

    Comment by Seth Paskin — September 3, 2010 @ 2:53 pm | Reply

    • Seth, that was very interesting. Re your last paragraph, I believe that is the argument of Jonathan Israel and before him, Lewis Feuer, who wrote a book long ago on Spinoza as the founder of democratic republicanism.

      Comment by clarespark — October 27, 2010 @ 2:03 am | Reply

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