A Book Forged in Hell: Spinoza’s Scandalous Treatise and the Birth of the Secular Age
by Steven Nadler
Princeton, 304 pages, $29.95
The author of several well-received scholarly works on Spinoza, Steven Nadler has taken a step closer to the mass market with his new, tantalizingly titled study of the Theological-Political Treatise. A Book Forged in Hell is, to be sure, the product of a prestigious university press and definitely not in any respect dumbed down, but it has very few footnotes and is clearly designed for the general—although not the innocent—reader. Anyone who picks it up hoping to be scandalized is most likely going to be disappointed.
As Nadler, who teaches philosophy at the University of Wisconsin, represents it, the Theological-Political Treatise is not a demonic tract at all but a well-intentioned contribution to the construction of a more humane and tolerant world than the one in which its author lived. Nadler relates in detail the gruesome punishment inflicted by the Amsterdam city council upon one of Spinoza’s friends, the freethinking Adriaan Koerbagh, who had written a book intended to criticize, even mock, nearly all organized religion, including the Dutch Reformed variety. It was partly in response to this personal tragedy, Nadler reports, that Spinoza took the trouble to write the Theological-Political Treatise.
Spinoza’s advocacy of freedom of religious belief did not encompass complete freedom of religious practice, since he considered such actions to fall œwithin the public domain and, thus, within the sovereign’s sphere of authority.” But he is still, Nadler insists, œone of history’s most eloquent proponents of a secular, democratic society and the strongest advocate for freedom and toleration in the modern age.
Only the benighted defenders of traditional religion, it would seem, could think the Treatise a sinister work. From their point of view, its author was indeed a dangerous man, for he claimed that one could sweep away all of their dogmatism and superstition while still upholding the essence of the Bible’s teachings, and mapped out a future in which they would be deprived of their earthly power.
Nadler thus makes it amply clear why retrograde thinkers would find Spinoza detestable. What he doesn’t make similarly clear is the lengths to which Spinoza went to placate them in order to get out his basic message. Spinoza, he writes, is so bold as to proclaim in the preface to the Treatise that Judaism and Christianity are basically nothing but organized superstition. In fact, Spinoza, who described himself as a cautious man, was by no means so audacious. What he actually does in the preface is lament the ways in which pagan superstition has twisted and distorted the true religion spelled out in what he repeatedly refers to as the sacred books of Scripture and the divine law revealed through the prophets and the apostles.
There is much in these first few pages of the Treatise that is designed to make pious Christian reformers nod in agreement. They wouldn’t do so, of course, if they knew what Nadler knows—not from the preface itself but as a result of his grasp of Spinoza’s entire teaching—that Spinoza doesn’t really intend to exclude Judaism and Christianity from the category of superstition. But they’re not supposed to realize that, at least not at first, and in most cases, not at all.
Nadler’s procedure here and elsewhere is in tandem with his explicit resistance to the idea
that there is, as [Leo] Strauss calls it, a hidden teaching in the Treatise; that Spinoza, out of fear of persecution and concern for the piety of the masses, is trying to hide the truth from many readers (while surreptitiously communicating it to the cognoscenti) and that the Treatise is therefore an esoteric work that demands reading between the lines.
At times, however, Nadler in effect confirms the thesis that he is here contesting. He does so most notably in his discussion of Spinoza’s exposition of the tenets of the Scripture-based universal religion he wishes to see propagated.
In chapter 14 of the Treatise, as Nadler notes, Spinoza enumerates the basic beliefs necessary for obedience to God’s law. œStrictly speaking—that is, Spinozistically speaking—several of them are false (which is not surprising, given that Scripture’s authors were not learned men). God (or Nature) is not just and merciful; it does not stand in judgment over us or issue pardon and punishment.
The question that has to be asked, however, is whether Spinoza intended the readers of chapter 14 (especially those who lived in the years before the publication of the Ethics) to understand that he is here speaking Spinozistically, and that the universal religion he outlines and seeks to propagate is intertwined with propositions that are not true but that are nevertheless useful for maintaining œthe piety of the masses. It seems to me that the answer has to be no, and that Strauss is in fact correct.
If Nadler is less than completely helpful as a guide to Spinoza’s rhetorical strategy, he provides a very useful analysis of Spinoza’s relationship to subsequent tendencies in the Jewish world with which his name is often identified. Spinoza is currently being celebrated by many proponents of a purely secular Judaism as the first secular Jew. But Nadler will have none of this.
The œmature Spinoza, he tells us, having utterly repudiated the Jewish religion and denied that the Jews are in any sense a special people, seems to have had practically no residual sense of Jewish identity. Being Jewish evidently played no role whatsoever in his self-image. Spinoza simply did not envision secular Judaism. Contrasted with the ongoing efforts to recruit Spinoza for a cause he never would have endorsed, this is refreshingly direct and fully convincing.
As someone who argued that Jewish law is no longer binding on contemporary Jews, Spinoza could perhaps be regarded, Nadler observes, as having œunwittingly opened the door for a secular or even Reform Judaism. But this doesn’t mean that he could be seen as the first Reform Jew. He œmay have been a religious reformer, but what he envisioned was not reform within Judaism. His goal was to promote œa universal rational religion that eschewed meaningless, superstitious rituals, and focused instead on a few simply moral principles, above all to love one’s neighbor as oneself. But why can’t that be done within Judaism, and didn’t the creators of Reform Judaism come very close to doing it?
It is true that Spinoza wanted to reduce religion to nothing other than ethical monotheism. But his hostility to ritualism had less to do with its lack of real significance than with the insistence of its ardent practitioners in his own day that conformity to their particular regimens constituted the only path to salvation.
A revealed religion that evinced no such confidence, that accorded ritual only secondary importance, as Reform Judaism does, and was therefore fully disposed to be tolerant of other faiths, as Reform Judaism is, would almost certainly have obtained Spinoza’s only slightly grudging approval. If the universal religion could contain a heavy mixture of false ideas, why couldn’t it also capture a revealed religion from within, preserving only a few of its trappings? As long, of course, as this didn’t interfere with anyone’s freedom to philosophize, which was, as Nadler makes quite clear, Spinoza’s paramount concern.
From the beginning to the end of his book, Nadler demonstrates his unqualified sympathy with Spinoza’s overall aims. A Book Forged in Hell concludes with this ringing affirmation:
To the extent that we are committed to the ideal of a secular society free of ecclesiastical influence and governed by toleration, liberty, and a conception of civic virtue; and insofar as we think of true religious piety as consisting in treating other human beings with dignity and respect, and regard the Bible simply as a profound work of human literature with a universal moral message, we are the heirs of Spinoza’s scandalous treatise.
Whether this inheritance is an entirely beneficial one or has also brought with it some untoward results is a question beyond the scope of this volume, but it needs to be fully considered in any thoroughgoing analysis of Spinoza’s legacy. For we have more than enough reason to wonder whether a Bible shorn of its divine authority can continue to serve as a useful support for any moral message whatsoever. Spinoza’s enemies may not, in the end, have been as narrow-minded and shortsighted as Steven Nadler would like us to believe.
Allan Arkush is professor of Judaic studies at Binghamton University and the senior contributing editor of the Jewish Review of Books.