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What We Should Learn From Baruch Spinoza

Baruch Spinoza
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Baruch Spinoza was a radically innovative philosopher of his time, so radical to see the harshest ban ever pronounced upon a member of the Portoguese-Jewish community in Amsterdam being called on him. However, many of his tremendously powerful ideas are still of the utmost importance.

“By decree of the angels and by the command of the holy men, we excommunicate, expel, curse and damn Baruch de Espinoza […] Cursed be he by day and cursed be he by night; cursed be he when he lies down and cursed be he when he rises up. […] No one should communicate with him, not even in writing, nor accord him any favor nor stay with him under the same roof nor [come] within four cubits in his vicinity; nor shall he read any treatise composed or written by him.”

It was 1656 when the Amsterdam Jewish community ostracized Baruch Spinoza trough issuing the most severe writ of herem (i.e. Jewish ban) ever pronounced upon one of its members. The staggering impact of this document derives from the unprecedented brutality of the words that marked his exclusion from any kind of social interaction, to the point of preventing anyone from staying any closer than four steps away from the philosopher. One could ironically define this as an ad-hoc version of the social distancing rules the world is now learning to observe meticulously. The key matter is to figure out what made Spinoza’s conduct so unforgivable though, what precisely triggered Orthodox leaders’ rage as nothing ever did before. With regards to that, the document makes clear reference to Spinoza’s “evil opinions” and “abominable heresies”.

Despite the thinker hadn’t composed his two masterpieces yet, namely the Ethics and the Theological-Political Treatise, Spinoza was likely uttering the cornerstones of his thought already in the ‘50s. In light of the radical ideas expressed afterwards, the growing scandal among the Jewish community of the time should come as no surprise. The crucial element of Spinoza’s metaphysics stands indeed in his conception of God, effectively summarized by the phrase “Deus sive Natura” (God or Nature). While the majority of monotheist religions conceive the existence of God as transcendent, that is to be posed in a divine exterior dimension from which ours is created, Spinoza asserts that the “eternal and infinite being we call God, or Nature, acts from the same necessity from which he exists” (Part IV, Preface of the Ethics). In other words, Spinoza’s God is nothing but nature itself. This immanent conclusion, which might sound somehow intuitive, implies a lot of powerful theoretical consequences, especially in view of how profoundly religion was perceived in the XVII century.

Metaphysically speaking, to overlap God with nature means ruling out the presence of any superior nor divine world, therefore denying the immortality of the soul. If God coincides with nature, then God merely exists in our dimension because it corresponds exactly to the universe we’re living in. Nature generates and is generated by Nature itself, thus rejecting the traditional religious rationale behind Creation. In addition, since Nature purely responds to the laws of physics, Spinoza’s God entirely lacks any anthropomorphic qualities, will making no exception. Given that Nature is devoid of will, it would be meaningless to affirm for instance that Jews are “the chosen people” (since Nature couldn’t choose any human being in particular) or to attribute any superior significate to the Torah, as well as to the Bible or the Koran. Miracles could not take place as they would entail Nature overthrowing its own governing laws under certain circumstances. Eventually, the very purpose of traditional religion ceases to exist due to the absence of a superior God to be worshipped. As a matter of fact, the furious reaction of Spinoza’s belonging community was quite predictable.

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The answer to the question of whether Spinoza was a pantheist or even an atheist would probably be that, unlike many atheist authors such as Feuerbach, he did not deny the existence of God per se, nor did he reckon God is the mere projection of human ambitions; Spinoza rather understood God and Nature to be the same. Furthermore, although he shared some theoretical features with classical pantheism, Spinoza did not ascribe any mystical traits to Nature like pantheists do. On the other hand, he believed philosophy and science to be the most suitable tools to comprehend natural phenomena.

However, Spinoza’s philosophy has even more to offer. Besides the pivotal role attributed to nature, Spinoza stood out among the first democrats of modern philosophy, if not the very first. In his Treatise, the thinker advocates in favor of the importance of freedom of speech, freedom of religious belief and, most importantly, freedom of philosophical speculation. Spinoza asserts that freedom itself is necessary to achieve political stability. As a consequence, democracy is considered the “most natural regime” since it is the type of government more likely to protect autonomy, to issue reasonable laws and to fulfill the aims for which the government is instituted. It is remarkable how Spinoza was among the first intellectuals who openly supported liberal democracy despite such positions were punishable by persecution or even death.

Given that almost three centuries and a half have passed since Spinoza’s death, one could legitimately be expecting that humanity embraced his heritage concerning the centrality of nature and the need for democracy along the way. However, this may not be the case.

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This year, the Earth Overshoot Day fell on the 22nd of August. By that date, humans had already ran out of the ecological resources and services the Earth could naturally regenerate during 2020, marking the imaginary point beyond which human demand exceeded natural supply. This could be interpreted as a promising result at first glance, given that the same event occurred on the 19th of July last year, but that would be a misleading conclusion. In fact, humanity’s ecological footprint during 2020 was somehow toned down due to the pandemic, but hoping to continuously incur natural disasters to reduce the unsustainability of the global economy might not be an ingenious way forward. What should catch our attention is that, while in 1970 there were only three days’ worth of resource demand that went beyond Earth’s biocapacity, the humankind is now consuming the equivalent of 1.6 Earths. Nevertheless, there is no sign of environmental policies changing significantly in the foreseeable future, since the pandemic overshadowed the climate crisis among governments’ priorities and slowed down the growing social awareness towards climate issues. This is not the only concerning signal though.

Earth Overshoot Day
Credits: Global Footprint Network www.footprintnetwork.org.

The Democracy Index, an annual measure of the state of democracy in 167 countries compiled by the Economist Intelligence Unit, recorded the worst global results in 2019 since its first publication in 2006, with the most alarming drops in democratic freedom occurring in China and India. Each country is classified as either one of four types of governing system: full democracy, flawed democracy, hybrid regime and authoritarian regime. Results show that more than a third of the world population was still subjected to authoritarian control from their governments during last year, while only 22 countries were ranked as full democracies. At the same time, Western liberal democracies and supranational organizations are blandly condemning, if not looking the other way from authoritarian tendencies and human rights violations such as those taking place in Belarusian elections and in China towards the Uyghurs, showing little interest in preserving democracy and safeguarding fundamental liberties.

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What would Baruch Spinoza say if he came back to life? He would probably express his disappointment about the oblivious way we are treating God (or Nature) and the scarcity of functioning democratic systems around the globe. “The highest activity a human being can attain is learning for understanding, because to understand is to be free”, he used to say. It seems like there is still a lot to be understood.

Article taken from Tra i Leoni n. 92, October 2020. You can read the whole edition here.

Cover image by Ted McGrath, Flickr. Freely available under the Creative Commons CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 license.

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As a European citizen born in Portici, I'm interested in whatever deals with the economics and politics of our Continent. Sometimes I also pretend to understand philosophy.

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