What would Spinoza say?

Philosophy and comics team up to tell the story of one 17th-century thinker who, though despised in his own time, may be an antidote for today's ills.

page from Prof. Steve Nadler’s book depicts the 1656 ban against the 17th-century philosopher Baruch de Spinoza. (photo credit: PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS)
page from Prof. Steve Nadler’s book depicts the 1656 ban against the 17th-century philosopher Baruch de Spinoza.
Who is the biggest Jewish bad boy you can think of? No, this isn’t a poll for the National Enquirer based on the hottest celebrity gossip. By “bad boy” I mean the pre-“cool” connotations of “bad.” Let’s say someone raised in the Jewish tradition, but who – putting it colloquially – ticked off quite a few people.
Surely the 17th-century philosopher Baruch (Benedict) de Spinoza ranks high on the list. His ideas caused such a stir within the Portuguese-Jewish congregation of Amsterdam that in 1656 its leaders excommunicated the then-23-year-old with the harshest punishment of herem (ban) ever issued by that community. Without bothering to detail their charges, they accused him of “abominable heresies and monstrous deeds,” declaring that he is to be “cast out from all the tribes of Israel” and his name is to be “blotted out from under heaven.”
Today, Spinoza’s fortunes have reversed somewhat. He has attracted a following both within the Jewish world and beyond. His admirers ardently believe he got it right with ideas one can and should live by. For some Spinozists, it’s never too late to correct a historical injustice; it’s time, they say, to lift the ban.
The issue became the focus of a conference held in Amsterdam a few years ago. Scholars were invited to weigh in and many members of the public turned out to witness the proceedings. Prof. Steve Nadler was one of a few experts asked to offer an opinion on lifting the ban. A professor of philosophy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Nadler has written extensively on Spinoza, and, despite his scholarly detachment, seems to count himself among the philosopher’s devotees.
I spoke recently with Nadler via Skype not only about the herem, but also about his new book, “Heretics! The Wondrous (and Dangerous) Beginnings of Modern Philosophy.” It focuses on 17th-century thinkers with Spinoza at the forefront of the era’s misfit intellects. I was curious to know why the Dutch-Jewish philosopher continues to attract admirers, what he believed about God, and what he might say if he were miraculously resurrected and paid a visit to Trump’s America and today’s Israel. What would Spinoza say about our angst-filled, angry times?
What most conspicuously sets “Heretics!” apart from most books on philosophy is its comic-book format. Working with his son, Ben, a trained graphic artist, the tandem opted to tell the story of Spinoza and other early-modern thinkers in this highly accessible (perhaps the most accessible?) form.
Yet to many, this marriage of comics and philosophy is one destined for divorce, as it clearly admits a lack of gravitas. During my chat with Nadler I showed him two books I bought in a Jerusalem bookshop a few years ago. One was on Martin Heidegger and the other on Ludwig Wittgenstein, notoriously difficult thinkers, but rendered less daunting in comic-strip form. (Now, whether this heroic “pow!” format can reverse the image of philosophers as scrawny types who, if thrown into nature, would surely be the first to be gobbled up by lions, is another matter.) What I forgot to tell Nadler is what transpired when I purchased these books. Handing over my selections to the cashier, I noticed a grudging look on his face as he scanned the barcodes. Then, unable to hold back his thoughts, he said, “These aren’t serious. If my professor caught me with these, he would flunk me right away.”
But Nadler is of a different view. “Any form that brings philosophy to a wider audience, and especially introduces it to younger people, high school and elementary students, can only be a good thing,” he says.
But how do you sketch your way out of philosophy’s often abstract world? For example, want to try your hand at a monad? This was German philosopher Gottfried Leibnitz’s term for the basic individual substances that make up the universe. Sounds like an atom, except Leibnitz conceived of these “things” as immaterial. And speaking of metaphysical entities, what about the soul? “That was the difficult thing,” says Nadler. “What does a soul look like?”
It makes one wonder who had the more demanding task – Ben, the illustrator, or his father, the narrator. Nevertheless, the book’s aim is not to wallow in difficult ideas, but to introduce them and excite curiosity. “Why not take a first approach to these really opaque, complex and difficult ideas, one that opens them up in an accessible, visually appealing and entertaining way?” Nadler asks.
Turning to Spinoza, one discovers that his ideas were not as labyrinthine as Leibnitz’s monad or the ideas of René Descartes. They were fairly straightforward, and, because of this, combined with a highly flammable choice of subjects and a penchant for challenging convention, such ideas caused a great upheaval in his congregation and beyond.
Although the herem does not list Spinoza’s supposed transgressions, Nadler uses the philosopher’s later works and other documents to piece together what that list might have looked like. For the time, his ideas were nothing short of extremely disturbing. Where to begin? For a start, Spinoza denied the providential God of Abraham. The idea that God intervenes in human life with miracles, commands, rewards or punishments, is but a mere fiction. The supernatural therefore does not exist. There is only nature and God is just nature; nature, by the way, is not programmed toward some purpose.
Next, Spinoza calls into question the bible as the literal word of God. All scripture, he says, is just a work of human literature. When it comes to science or philosophy, the authors of Scripture were fairly ignorant and naïve, but they were seasoned storytellers who had much to impart about justice and morality. Next, Spinoza said halacha or Jewish law was no longer valid. It was utilized for the all too political aim of uniting the Jewish tribes amid the machinations of ancient empires. But after the Romans destroyed the second temple in 70 CE, it lost its purpose and became a set of superstitious ceremonies.
Furthermore, the Jews, Spinoza argued, are not God’s chosen ones. There is no inherent reason for the distinction that Jews like to make between themselves and the gentiles, for every human being is equally part of nature.
And lastly, Spinoza doubted the immortality of the soul. He believed this pernicious belief held people hostage to the whims of religious authorities who could dangle divine rewards or punishments before them to ensure a submissive flock. Spinoza saw this as a life in shackles, without the selfemancipation that reason offers.
Returning to Spinoza’s beliefs about God, many scholars and non-specialists alike have grown accustomed to labeling him a “pantheist,” someone who believes God is everywhere and in everything. Nadler takes issue with the characterization and sees Spinoza as essentially an atheist, though he does admit the philosopher’s writings are peppered with references to the divine.
“I would still stand by my atheist reading, because the only alternative is to think of God as something distinct from the world. And that certainly cannot be Spinoza’s view,” Nadler says.
“The reason I think pantheism is the wrong way to think of Spinoza is because pantheists may agree with atheists that there is nothing outside of nature, but pantheists still believe there is something divine about nature.” Such a belief, he explains, entails worshipful awe or religious reverence, something far from Spinoza’s view. The proper attitude to take toward nature for Spinoza is intellectual understanding – trying to achieve knowledge of the causes of things.
But still, why does God show up throughout Spinoza’s writings? “He needs a way of drawing the reader in,” answers Nadler. “I think what he is doing is saying, look, we agree on the definition of God, that God is an infinite, eternal substance, now follow me and I’ll show you that what we really mean by that is God is just nature.”
And in Spinoza’s philosophy, there is nothing divine about nature in any meaningful sense, Nadler explains. Because nature acts with absolute necessity, Spinoza views it as something we can and should strive to know, not kneel before. “The wise man,” Spinoza once said, is one who “seeks to understand Nature, not gape at it like a fool.”
It’s easy to see how these ideas caught fire and earned Spinoza his ban, placing him far beyond the boundaries of acceptable thought in the Jewish world. Some have argued that he cannot conceivably fall within the realm of “Jewish philosophy.” Nadler disagrees.
“Unlike many philosophers in early modern Europe, Spinoza had an additional tradition he was wrestling with, the Jewish philosophical tradition, being himself well-versed in Ibn Ezra and Maimonides.” We see a lot of what he says about human beings, God and nature already in Medieval Jewish thought. He also may have attended one of Amsterdam’s yeshivot, Nadler adds.
So, if Nadler puts Spinoza into the “Jewish philosopher file,” what did he decide about the ban? His conclusion may surprise you.
After considering the arguments from all sides, the current rabbi of the Portuguese- Jewish congregation of Amsterdam said “no” after all, the herem would not be lifted.
“The rabbi was right,” says Nadler, “not that I’m in favor of excommunication; one should not be ostracized for ideas. But at the time, those rabbis and leaders of the community in the 17th century knew what Spinoza was saying, and Spinoza knew the rules of the game. Given the political, religious, and historical circumstances, all we can conclude is that it was, by the rules of the game at the time, a justified decision.”
Furthermore, Nadler explains that there is really no sense in lifting a herem against someone after that person’s death. “When you’re dead, I suppose, you’re permanently ostracized. What’s the point of lifting an ostracism against a dead person?”
Also, was Spinoza devastated about being booted out of the community, unable to cope with life outside it? “Spinoza’s response would surely be, ‘Hey I couldn’t care less. Do whatever you want.’”
The whole herem episode taught Nadler how extraordinarily broad the interest in Spinoza is, especially when it brings several hundred people to a stuffy auditorium in Amsterdam to hear about the intricate arguments. “Leibnitz, Descartes, or John Locke would never get that many people.”
We conclude the interview on a hypothetical note: What would Spinoza say if he suddenly appeared in Trump’s America?
“I think he would be appalled by our stupidity,” Nadler responds. “I mean our failure to lead rational lives, to make rational decisions on momentous events.
“Just to take the most recent political example, when the American electorate can put somebody like Trump in office, somebody who is so obviously unprepared, and temperamentally unsuited for the office, even dangerous, despite all the evidence that this man should not be president, I think the only explanation for that is stupidity.”
Nadler clarifies that by stupidity he doesn’t mean a lack of knowledge or education, for it’s not a class issue. “I mean a certain philosophical notion, namely an inability to tailor your beliefs to the evidence you have. We should only really believe things for which we have good reason, and in the face of contradictory evidence, we should give up those beliefs.”
This is why Plato believed philosophers should be rulers, Nadler adds, because they are the ones who have investigated the nature of justice, truth and virtue. “Why shouldn’t we want the people who are leading us as governors to be people who have given a lot of thought to what justice is, how to balance equality and freedom, how to institute a just society and how to make corrections so that the distribution of wealth is fair?
“Philosophers – not necessarily professional philosophers – but people who have studied philosophy would be much better prepared as politicians and leaders. And I think on this point, Spinoza couldn’t agree more with Plato, though he was, unlike Plato, committed to democracy.”
And if Spinoza jumped on an El Al flight to Israel – what would he say about the situation here?
“A good deal of Israeli society represents a kind of theocracy, where public policy decisions are not made by religious authorities, but are nonetheless directed by them,” Nadler says. “The Likud and the Right seem to be answering to the demands of a religious and highly Orthodox electorate.
“Here is what Spinoza’s take would be: To the extent that public policy is a reflection not of rational decision making, but of superstitious beliefs, you really are in deep trouble, the state is in deep trouble. To the extent that the politicians are answering to religious voters, you are approaching theocratic decisions.”
These are ideas that undoubtedly cause political friction, a reason philosophers throughout history were routinely persecuted. While some might find Spinoza’s ideas uselessly destabilizing or too radical, others may take comfort in them. Nadler says that Spinoza’s clear-eyed philosophy can offer us “a perspicuous view of what we are as human beings, how we fit into nature, and the necessity of all things. It’s a very Stoic philosophy in that respect.”
By following Spinoza’s lead, Nadler concludes, “you will diminish the power of the passions and you’ll be more likely to live life according to reason, rather than the emotions. That would bring consolation, peace of mind and equanimity in the case of good and bad fortune.”