Baruch Spinoza revisited – pantheism, rational thinking and the chosen people

Baruch Spinoza (1632-77) is an under-appreciated philosopher and ethicist, a rationalist whose place in the Enlightenment is assured, but whose ideas are largely sidelined. It is with great happiness that we welcome a renewed discussion of Spinoza’s ideas on god, pantheism, and rationalism on the Australian Broadcasting Commission’s (ABC) The Philosopher’s Zone, authored by David Rutledge. Spinoza’s body of work has important relevance for today’s understanding of religion, political philosophy and notions of god.

Let’s disentangle this vast subject.

Born in Amsterdam of Portuguese Jewish origin, the Dutch Spinoza was raised in a traditional Talmudic community, but later grew up to rebel against the theological and ethical doctrines of the Jewish community. A philosophical renegade and innovator, he redefined the notion of god as inherent in nature, in contradiction to the monotheistic god of Moses and the biblical prophets. Denounced as a heretic, he was excommunicated in 1656 by Amsterdam’s Sephardi Jewish authorities.

Pantheism and combining the spirit with the material

Spinoza rejected the theological underpinnings of religion, and rebuffed notions of one eternal supernatural god. His notion of a god was a far cry from the god of Abraham, but rather a pantheistic vision – god was the universe and nature. Spinoza rejected the divine origin of the Torah, advocated the scientific method to understand the natural world, and rejected the Old Testament notion of Jews as a ‘chosen people.’

Spinoza insisted that the natural world was understandable to human reason and investigation, rather than the product of some divinely ordered creation. This claim was revolutionary at the time, and was opposed by religious authorities. Science was undergoing a revolution of its own at the time, and further areas of nature were being opened up to investigation by scientists.

Breaking with previous philosophers, Spinoza proposed that the mind, rather than being an immaterial soul, was itself the product of the material brain. Mind and matter, while traditionally discussed as opposites, are actually complimentary – the mind is the product of, and can comprehend, the material forces which constitute nature. By equating the notion of god as nature, Spinoza effectively neutralises the theological god of the monotheistic religions.

According to Spinoza, the god of the pantheist does not make pronouncements, perform miracles, or tell people how to behave. A noninterventionist in human and natural affairs, Spinoza’s god does not have any of the attributes described in the Torah. Neither supernatural nor transcendent, the god is nature interpretation landed Spinoza in huge trouble. After excommunication, Spinoza left Amsterdam, but remained in Holland. Unlike other renegade Jews, he never converted to Christianity to restore his career.

The Chosen People

Spinoza criticised the theological concept of the Jews as a chosen people. Proceeding from a materialist philosophical basis, he posited that claims of a ‘godly-elected’ chosen people were untenable. Even if one were to suggest the ‘chosen-ness’ of the Jewish people, that notion is borne of historical necessity, referring to a prosperous period in Israelite history.

The ‘chosen-ness’ of the Jewish people, derives from the social organisation of a state, a society that is run for the benefit of its people. Any notion of a theologically superior people, selected by god to be an example for the rest of the world is nonsense, according to Spinoza.

The philosopher elaborated that:

Nations, then, are distinguished from one another in respect to the social organization and the laws under which they live and are governed; the Hebrew nation was not chosen by God in respect to its wisdom nor its tranquility of mind, but in respect to its social organization and the good fortune with which it obtained supremacy and kept it so many years.

What Spinoza was saying is that every people is unique, in the sense of its own internal organisation and social structure, and the Jewish people are no exception. Natural laws govern the development of state structures, not divine or supernatural authority. The laws of nature are universal, and they apply equally to all nationalities. Far from being theologically privileged as a ‘chosen’ or ‘elected’ people, the Jews achieved their own distinguishing national trajectory, no better or worse than any other people.

Not a nationalist

We should be careful, in this regard, to avoid portraying Spinoza as a kind of proto-Zionist advocating the formation of a nationalistic Jewish state in Palestine. David Ben Gurion, the first prime minister of Israel, attempted to cast Spinoza’s statements on state formation as a philosophical forecasting of an eventual Israeli state in Palestine.

Spinoza was hardly advocating a solid Jewish identity suitable for appropriation by modern nationalistic thinkers. He was not some secular saint of Zionism, but rather a rationalist philosopher who understood that nations are formed according to socioeconomic and political forces. Challenging religious authority, Spinoza defined, if it is possible, a rational god in contrast to the fire-and-brimstone version found in the monotheistic tradition.

When asked whether or not he believed in god, Einstein always responded with the ‘god of Spinoza’. That response is a kind of tactical manoeuvre, avoiding the strident confrontation with religious people usually encountered by Dawkins-type atheists. The pantheistic god, the god of Spinoza, is a bit similar to intellectual wallpaper – nice to have in the background to placate your guests, but having no real impact or influence on your life.

Let’s have a renewed appreciation for Spinoza, and use rationality to achieve a greater understanding of ourselves and our world.

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