The Clare Spark Blog

September 2, 2010

Spinoza as culture critic

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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


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