Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Spinoza's opinion concerning God

I'm starting this now, hoping to finish it later. I know I can save as draft, but I'm not good at taking up and finishing off drafts.

I'm fascinated with Benedict de Spinoza. As aleady mentioned, I've been reading his letters, concentrating mostly on those with Henry Oldenburg. Oldenburg was secretary to the Royal Society. He conducted a vast correspondence, on his own behalf and on behalf of the RS. Much of it was with natural philosophers, mathematicians, and metaphysicians (all one group actually) on the Continent.

In writing to Spinoza, Oldenburg repeatedly asks for clarification of philosophy regarding religion. Spinoza had published one book on the subject and promised more. Because of opposition he was not able to publish further in his short lifetime. When he lived, governments and state churches had joint responsibility for controlling religious observance and belief and his arguments were seen as subversive to the state as well as to moroality and religion.

Oldenburg acknoledges that Spinoza's writings could be taken as subversive and he, Oldenburg, says he will keep secret anything that Spinoza wishes. However, Oldenburg must have known he could not keep this promise. Both men used personal couriers to convey letters when they could, but both must have known that spy networks made it pretty unlikely that their letters were secure. In addition, Oldenburg was official representative of an official body: the RS was chartered by King Charles II and had members of the King's court among its members. Holland, where Spinoza resided, and Oldenburg's England were both relatively free of religious persecution, but also relatively far from the toleration that would come in later centuries.

Like many in his time, Spinoza attempted to reconcile faith and reason. Unlike most others, he in effect discarded religion; kept God. He defended himself against impiety, immorality, and atheism, but also sought a way of life that was moral but without religious strictures. I think he was personally offended by unreason, credulity, and justification of faith via wonder, the miraculous, and awe.

Here is one letter he wrote Oldenburg out of many. I read it this morning over breakfast and decided it was worth blogging since it summarizes one main aspect Spinoza's thought and is unusually concise and clear in presentation. I've linked to my source. Also see this annotated version. both are translations from Spinoza's Latin.
Spinoza to Oldenburg. Nov. or Dec.,1675

Distinguished Sir, -I received on Saturday last your very short letter dated 15th Nov. In it you merely indicate the points in the theological treatise, which have given pain to readers, whereas I had hoped to learn from it, what were the opinions which militated against the practice of religious virtue, and which you formerly mentioned. However, I will speak on the three subjects on which you desire me to disclose my sentiments, and tell you, first, that my opinion concerning God differs widely from that which is ordinarily defended by modern Christians. For I hold that God is of all things the cause immanent, as the phrase is, not transient. I say that all things are in God and move in God, thus agreeing with Paul, [N1] and, perhaps, with all the ancient philosophers, though the phraseology may be different; I will even venture to affirm that I agree with all the ancient Hebrews, in so far as one may judge from their traditions, though these are in many ways corrupted. The supposition of some, that I endeavour to prove in the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus the unity of God and Nature (meaning by the latter a certain mass or corporeal matter), is wholly erroneous.

As regards miracles, I am of opinion that the revelation of God can only be established by the wisdom of the doctrine, not by miracles, or in other words by ignorance. This I have shown at sufficient length in Chapter VI [TPT06]. concerning miracles. I will here only add, that I make this chief distinction between religion and superstition, that the latter is founded on ignorance, the former on knowledge; this, I take it, is the reason why Christians are distinguished from the rest of the world, not by faith, nor by charity, nor by the other fruits of the Holy Spirit, but solely by their opinions, inasmuch as they defend their cause, like everyone else, by miracles, that is by ignorance, which is the source of all malice; thus they turn a faith, which may be true, into superstition. Lastly, in order to disclose my opinions on the third point, I will tell you that I do not think it necessary for salvation to know Christ according to the flesh: but with regard to the Eternal Son of God, that is the Eternal Wisdom of God, which has manifested itself in all things and especially in the human mind, and above all in Christ Jesus, the case is far otherwise. For without this no one can come to a state of blessedness, inasmuch as it alone teaches, what is true or false, good or evil. And, inasmuch as this wisdom was made especially manifest through Christ Jesus, as I have said, His disciples preached it, in so far as it was revealed to them through Him, and thus showed that they could rejoice in that spirit of Christ more than the rest of mankind. The doctrines added by certain churches, such as that God took upon Himself human nature, I have expressly said that I do not understand; in fact, to speak the truth, they seem to me no less absurd than would a statement, that a circle had taken upon itself the nature of a square. This I think will be sufficient explanation of my opinions concerning the three points mentioned. Whether it will be satisfactory to Christians you will know better than I. Farewell.

[Note N1]: See Acts 17:28. Cf. 1 Cor. 3:16, 12:6; Eph. 1:23.

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