Tractatus Theologico-Politicus

“For from this we can easily judge that [Scripture] requires nothing from men but obedience, and condemns only stubbornness, not ignorance” (13.7, Curley 166).

Well, this is certainly not the Ethics. How I wish I had my Curley volume with me! (I read the latest Curley release of the TTP – winter 2011? – in PDF) But as it is, I’m traveling with 22 books and only a hiking backpack, which is probably 1/20 clothes, 1/2 books and papers, 1/4 medicines, first aid, mosquito netting and spray, and water purifier, and 1/5 miscellaneous stuff like contact lenses and my glasses. The TTP is a long(ish) work, and dense (as is Spinoza’s habit) so I’m just going to write about a few of the things that are important, particularly the ones that are interesting to me or that I’m working on anyway because of a certain paper for a certain someone. (by the way, what do I get for that?)

What was the goal or aim of the TTP? Who was Spinoza’s intended audience?

Spinoza explicitly states several goals in writing the TTP: to oppose prejudices of theologians (see the first section below where I discuss the interpretation of Scripture), to defend the freedom to philosophize (see the first section of the political function of religion), and to separate theology and philosophy.

I think that Jo and I generally disagree about who the intended audience of the TTP was. He insists that it is philosophers, and points out that Spinoza says so explicitly.* However, I don’t think we can assume the answer is so easily given to us. Is the TTP for philosophers? I think in some way, yes. But this left me wondering why – oh Lord WHY – did he write several chapters in the middle of the work that plow tediously through passages of Scripture, giving examples of how to interpret the work, going through details of the use of the Hebrew language, and contesting the interpretations of Jewish scholars before him. Why does he devote an entire chapter trying to prove that Moses could not have authored the Pentateuch? Was this meant for theologians? If it was, it was probably meant for theologians who had philosophical inclinations (or the other way around), and were therefore at great risk of muddling faith and reason, or theology and philosophy. There is no easy answer for this; it could also be argued to have been directed at the theological and political leaders of the Dutch Republic, as the role of the Church in the functions of the State was a contentious issue of Spinoza’s time. Since I’m not writing anything official on this, I will stay neutral as to who the intended audience was for; I have noticed many scholars in secondary literature state that the intended audience was whichever supports their reading and arguments the best.

Speculative matters in Scripture and universal religion or the Divine Law

*By ‘natural light’ Spinoza is referring to reason (and therefore so I am).

“No one who is even slightly attentive can fail to be aware that for a true knowledge of faith it is necessary especially to know that Scripture is accommodated, not only to the grasp of the Prophets, but also to that of the fluctuating and inconstant multitude of the Jews. For those who indiscriminately accept as the universal and unconditional teaching about God everything contained in Scripture, and who do not know accurately what is accommodated to the grasp of the multitude, will be incapable of not confusing the opinions of the multitude with the divine doctrine, of not hawking human inventions and fancies as divine teachings, and of not abusing the authority of Scripture.” (XIV, 1).

One of the most prominent themes in the TTP is Spinoza’s introduction of a novel method of Scriptural interpretation. As Della Rocca has remarked, “For Spinoza, Scripture must be treated like any other collection of writings directed at a specific audience at a specific time.” (Spinoza, 237). Spinoza’s method of Scriptural interpretation relies solely on Scripture and its history – that means understanding Scripture through itself, as we would understand any other book. With a Baconian-natural-history-like approach, we can have an adequate understanding of the Bible and its teachings. That means looking at the historical context, the language and its use, and evaluating contradictory statements – ultimately, using reason as a tool of interpretation (since the natural light brings us to understanding).  Spinoza goes on to show this method in a few chapters; chapters that were tedious for peasants like myself who do not read Hebrew and are not versed in Jewish and Christian Biblical scholarship. I haven’t even read Maimonides…! Curley, thankfully, has informative and thorough footnotes (which, let’s be real here, I also found kind of tedious – this is the result of a childhood full of Catholic CCD). Spinoza sticks mainly to the Old Testament, declaring himself too poorly versed in New Testament scholarship to do the job properly. The basic point of this method is that we have rely on Scripture alone – not on the all the noise that has surrounded it due to centuries of conflicting interpretations.

If we are true to this method, the natural light makes it clear that there are certain things in the Bible that are merely speculative, and other things that are certain and universal. What is crucial to the teachings of the Bible are those universal matters that can be known as the tenets of universal faith. This is the Divine Law, which nonetheless has felt the passing of time: “I claim only that the meaning – the only thing in a statement which gives us a reason for calling it divine – has reached us without corruption even though we may suppose that the words by which it was first signified have very frequently been changed” (XII, 33). However, unlike speculative matters, despite the words or signifiers undergoing translation and corruption, there is no way the meaning could be corrupted. These teachings hold true throughout the Bible and are the heart of Scripture.

Spinoza enumerates the Divine Law, or tenets of universal faith:

  1. “That God exists, i.e., that there is a supreme being, supremely just and merciful, or as a model of true life; for whoever does not know or does not believe that he exists cannot obey him or know him as a Judge;
  2. That he is unique; for no one can doubt that this too is absolutely required for supreme devotion, admiration, and love towards God; devotion, admiration, and love arise only from the excellence of one by comparison with the others;
  3. That he is present everywhere, or that everything is open to him; for if things were believed to be hidden from him, or people were not aware that he sees all, they would have doubts about the equity of his Justice, by which he directs all things, or at least they would not be aware of it;
  4. That he has the supreme right and dominion over all things, and does nothing because he is compelled by a law, but acts only from his absolute good pleasure and special grace; for everyone is bound absolutely to obey him, but he is not bound to obey anyone;
  5. That the worship of God and obedience to him consist only in Justice and Loving-kindness, or in the love of one’s neighbor;
  6. That all and only those who obey God by living in this way are saved, the rest, who live under the control of the pleasures, being lost; if men did not firmly believe this, there would be no reason why they should prefer to obey God rather than their pleasures;
  7. Finally, that God pardons the sins of those who repent; for there is no one who does not sin; so if we did not maintain this, everyone would despair of his salvation, and there would be no reason why he would believe God to be merciful; moreover, whoever firmly believes that God, out of mercy and the grace by which he directs everything, pardons men’s sins, and who for this reason is more inspired by the love of God, that person really knows Christ according to the Spirit, and Christ is in him.” (XIV, 25-28)

Speculative matters seem to make up the bulk of Scripture; these are taught without clarity and often conflict with other matters found throughout the Bible: “But what God is, and in what way he sees all things, and provides for them – [III/103] these and similar things Scripture does not teach explicitly and as an eternal doctrine. On the contrary, we have already shown above that the Prophets themselves did not agree about them. So concerning such things we must maintain nothing as the doctrine of the Holy Spirit, even if it can be determined very well by the natural light” (VII, 97). (You can imagine what Spinoza thinks of theological disputes.) There is a lot more that is here to discuss, such as a the natural light alone being unable to show that obedience is a way to salvation, but I will not go into these other matters here. For those who embrace the dogmatic aspects of religion, Spinoza gives a very clear method for rejecting ceremonies and superstition, and directing the heart towards the Divine Law, which is alone required for salvation.

Political function of religion

Curley writes in a footnote at the end of Chapter XIV: “In the TTP Spinoza pursues two routes to demonstrate the conclusion that we should be free to philosophize: one via considerations about the nature of religion and the nature of philosophy, the other via considerations about the state. Could the second line of argument (developed in chh. 16-20) be an afterthought, in the sense that it wasn’t part of the original conception of the work?” (176). (I know this next sentence sounds ridiculous) Even though the majority of the TTP (preface – ch. 15) are concerned with Scriptural interpretation, superstition, and the nature of religion versus the nature of philosophy (among other things), I’m going to focus on the main ideas of the last five chapters, which concern politics as well as philosophy and religion. I highly doubt that these chapters were added as an afterthought; they had enormous relevance to Spinoza’s time and are consistent with his claims in the earlier chapters regarding the function of the Jewish state and Moses as a Prophet, who instituted laws that were seen as primarily religious doctrine, but in fact operated as civil laws. There are several notable points in these 5 politically-oriented chapters, but I’m only going to look at three of them (and I do truly no justice to any of this topics):

-Freedom of thought and speech, and libertas philosophandi

“If it were as easy to command men’s minds as it is their tongues, every ruler would govern in safety and no rule would be violent. For everyone would live according to the mentality of the rulers, and only in accordance with their decree would people judge what is true or false, good or evil, right or wrong” (XX, 1).

The gist of this important point – one which many point to while labeling Spinoza a liberal thinker** – is that the State cannot, and therefore should not, attempt to control or dictate everything that men think and say:***  “It is impossible for the mind to be completely under another’s control; for no one is able to transfer to another his natural right or faculty to reason freely and to form his own judgment on any matters whatsoever, nor can he be compelled to do so.” As long as no direct harm is done to the State by a man’s words, he should not be persecuted. The State does, however, have the power to control or dictate men’s actions, insofar as they threaten the stability of the State. One of the goals in writing the TTP was defending the freedom to philosophize: by arguing that the State must allow citizens the freedom to think (or not) as they liked, he was doing just that. A government that tries to control the minds of its people will ultimately fail, because doing so is impossible, and a polity so exposed to its sovereign’s weakness(es) will have less respect for its authority. Moreover, freedom of thought and expression are vital to the success of a society; as Nadler writes: “Spinoza also argues for freedom of expression on utilitarian grounds — that it is necessary for the discovery of truth, economic progress and the growth of creativity. Without an open marketplace of ideas, science, philosophy and other disciplines are stifled in their development, to the technological, fiscal and even aesthetic detriment of society.” I think Nadler is taking a little too much liberty with the what the text implies here; but one thing is certain: the State must allow the freedom to think, ipso facto, the freedom to philosophize.

One thing this entails is that people should be able to believe whatever nonsense they want, as long these beliefs aren’t detrimental to the State. This is a flawed example that skims over a lot of complexities, but one thing that I think illustrates religious beliefs as detrimental to the State is the radical American Christian right. I suppose everyone knew I was going there. By seeking to use civic law to establish principles that are found in religious doctrine, or not even in religious doctrine but by some kind of (imo dubious) religious/prophetic authority, they are trying to hold religious law (not the Divine Law, mind you) above all else. This is detrimental to the State because the happiness and flourishing of other people are limited by this (i.e. same-sex marriage, preventing access to contraception and abortion, etc). Such social issues might be clearly dictated by dogmatic religious principles for some in a society, but subjecting everyone to them – when refraining from doing so brings no harm to any third party or the society as a whole – is a manner of limiting freedom that I believe is against general Spinozistic (and humanistic) values. On the other hand, if I chose to worship this beautiful potato I found today, but bring no harm to anyone or the polity as a whole, then I ought to be free to bow to the spud as I will, to celebrate rituals and holidays as my lumpy, earthy guide dictates, and believe what I wish regarding its religious significance. As long as I live by the rules of the State, and the laws of the potato prophet don’t conflict with my obedience to  civic law, I can think whatever I so please.


One of the main points in the first 15 chapters of the TTP is that religion teaches, above all, obedience – obedience to a god portrayed as a king or law-giver; in some cases, this manifests as obedience to a minority of religious prophets who author the doctrinal dictates of religion, such as Moses for the Jewish state. Spinoza writes of this theocracy: “So, in this state civil law and Religion (which, as we have shown, consists only in obedience to God) were one and the same thing. The tenets of Religion were not teachings, but laws and commands… Anyone who failed in his Religious duties ceased to be a citizen, and for this alone was considered an enemy; anyone who died for Religion was considered to have died for his Country, and absolutely no distinction was made between civil law and Religion” (XVII, 31). In a theocracy, obedience to the State and obedience to God were one and the same; for Spinoza, obedience to the State is vital, so even in governments other than theocracies, this level of obedience is necessary – and that means the ultimate religious interpreter must be the supreme powers, because we cannot have citizens answering to anything above the sovereign, for the sake of the stability and welfare of the Republic.

If we step away from the reading of Abraham’s story as presented by Kierkegaard that I discussed previously, we can also see how this story (one of many Biblical tales) stresses obedience to God: if God says kill your only son as a sacrifice to Him, then you better get on the donkey and get to Moriah without a moment of hesitation, never mind that promise about descendants as numerous as the stars. It is a lesson repeated throughout the Bible: Obey him so as not to anger him. Obey him and you will spend eternity in heaven. Obey him and he will watch over you. Spinoza writes of the Jewish state under Moses: “[The Jews] were obliged to do everything according to a determinate legal prescription… Without exception their life was a continual cultivation of obedience” (XVII, 88). We can see this infatuation with obedience perversely manifested in the insanity of Christian extremism today: extreme weather events (and other such ill fortunes) are divine punishments for disobedience. What is backwards here is that these zealots obey religion before the State – and what is even more dangerous, from a Spinozistic perspective, is that religion operates outside the control of the State.

-State control of religion; religious law subordinated to civil law

“…the height of religious duty is that which is performed with regard to the peace and tranquility of the Republic” (XX, 17).

In the discussion above about the Jewish theocracy under Moses, where religious and civil law were one and the same, Spinoza shows what appears to be the only example where these two domains are equal. Outside a theocracy, religious law must always be subordinated to civil law, and for this reason religion and religious figures ought to be under the control of the State: “…we see very clearly: i) how fatal it is, both for religion and for the Republic, to grant the ministers of sacred affairs the right to make any decrees or to handle the business of the state; and on the other hand, that everything is much more stable if these people are held in check so that they don’t give any answers except when asked, and in the meantime teach and put into execution only doctrines which have already been accepted and are very familiar” (XVIII, 22). The sovereign alone has the right to interpret religion, because in doing so he can ensure that religious obligation and works are always beneficial to the State.

Spinoza’s argument for the subordination of religion to the supreme powers goes something like this: (serious oversimplification/omission/possible misrepresentation alert – you could just read ch 19…) In order for the universal tenets of faith, which accord entirely with reason, to obtain the force of law, we as citizens in a State have to surrender, to some extent, our natural rights in a social contract, which means the sovereign alone has the right to enact them as law: “Justice, then, and all the teachings of true reason, without exception (and hence, loving-kindness towards one’s neighbor), acquire the force of law and of a command only by the right of the state, i.e. only by the decree of those who have the right to command. And because (as I have already shown) God’s kingdom consists only in the law of justice and loving-kindness, or of true Religion, it follows, as we claimed, that God has no kingdom over men except through those who have sovereignty” (XIX, 9). Moreover, “no one can obey God rightly if he does not accommodate to the public advantage the practice of religious duty by which everyone is bound, and hence, if he does not obey all the decrees of the supreme power” (XIX, 25).

You get the idea. I think that’s about enough for now. I’ll be coming back to this, I’m sure.

*Jo would like to elaborate on his position: “I think it’s of course for theologians, but especially for the philosophers who could easily misread the Ethics.”

**JVC pointed out to me that Spinoza does have a strain of authoritarianism (i.e. the right of the State to crush a revolution insofar as it has the power, and censoring that which is detrimental to the sovereign – these are my examples, not his); and in considering words as actions, he allows for a potentially radical, and not liberal interpretation.

***See a brief piece in the NYT’s philosophy blog, the Stone, by respected Spinoza scholar Steven Nadler from UW-Madison.


One thought on “Tractatus Theologico-Politicus

  1. Pingback: Wandering in the Himalayas « Watson Weltanschauung

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