Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Spinoza, Theologico-Political Treatise, Continued

The political part of this book is much smaller and less convincing than the theological part.  Spinoza tries to outline an entire theory of politics in far too little space.  He begins with a Hobbesian state of nature in which everyone has a "right" to do anything:
every individual has sovereign right to do all that he can; in other words, the rights of an individual extend to the utmost limits of his power as it has been conditioned. (16:8) Now it is the sovereign law and right of nature that each individual should endeavour to preserve itself as it is, without regard to anything but itself.
It seems odd to assign everyone a "right" to do whatever they want.  What is the point of such a right?  If I have a right to shoot you, and you have a right to shoot me, then it seems to me that rights are pointless.  Of course, this is a pre-social setting, so there is no judge to decide rights in any case; but it seems like a more sensible starting point would be a right to defend oneself against an imminent threat.

I don't know how influenced Spinoza was by Hobbes, but he sounds very similar:  "It follows from what we have said that the right and ordinance of nature, under which all men are born, and under which they mostly live, only prohibits such things as no one desires, and no one can attain: it does not forbid strife, nor hatred, nor anger, nor deceit, nor, indeed, any of the means suggested by desire."

He proceeds to describe how people come together and cede power to a sovereign authority for the purpose of gaining greater security; but even then, the law of the jungle still holds.  Since "everyone has by nature a right to act deceitfully and to break his compacts, unless he be restrained by the hope of some greater good, or the fear of some greater evil," it follows that a king will retain his sovereign right "only so long as he can maintain his power of enforcing his will; otherwise he will totter on his throne, and no one who is stronger than he will be bound unwillingly to obey him."  This is very different from Hobbes, for whom the power of sovereignty, once alienated, can never be regained.

While a government is in power, subjects "are obliged to fulfil the commands of the sovereign power, however absurd these may be," whereas "wrong is conceivable only in an organized community: nor can it ever accrue to subjects from any act of the sovereign, who has the right to do what he likes."  The only mitigating circumstance that Spinoza admits is that a sovereign will not want to rule despotically because it will put his own life and reign at risk; but what constitutes "despotism" is for each individual to judge, and the final arbiter is only that those who successfully overthrow the government had a right to do so, whereas those who fail are justly punished for treason.  For someone looking for a theory of political association based on something other than power, this is barren ground indeed.

On the whole, I found Spinoza's political commentary rushed and superficial, in contrast to his thorough analysis of Scripture in the rest of the book.  I was particularly struck by the following passage about laws proscribing certain opinions:

Moreover, such laws are almost always useless, for those who hold that the opinions proscribed are sound, cannot possibly obey the law; whereas those who already reject them as false, accept the law as a kind of privilege, and make such boast of it, that authority is powerless to repeal it, even if such a course be subsequently desired.
This reminds me closely of one of the arguments that Thomas Aquinas addresses concerning laws.  He asks what purpose laws can serve, when the bad will disobey them anyway, and the good don't need laws to behave properly.  He answers (I'm paraphrasing :) ) that it is the marginal case, the one where someone is not wholly good or bad, who will be swayed by the existence of a law.  [I might add that there are circumstances when it is not entirely obvious what is the right thing to do without a law to instruct, but that is another matter.]  Spinoza seems to have taken up the objections that Aquinas posed without taking the next step of considering where the objections might fail.

The purpose of the whole treatise is to commend allowing people to think and argue whatever their reason leads them to think in matters of religion, since the Bible is not so literal or so sacrosanct in all matters as is generally supposed.  He adds the condition that this freedom is only valid so long as a person doesn't promote rebellion or bad behaviour, but I think that his qualification undermines his whole case.  What could promote rebellion to the early modern state more than disagreeing with the government's view of religion?  All the more so in monarchies that are buttressed by an established Church hierarchy; to deny the established Church is halfway to denying the authority of the monarchy.  And, as for good or bad behaviour in general, I don't think it would be hard to make a case that deviating from the standard line on religion, even if not immediately harmful, opens the way to deviating in all sorts of ways that could create harmful behaviour.  In short, Spinoza's political analysis is decidedly unconvincing.

There is one thing that I would like to call attention to, which Spinoza says "ought to be counted among eternal truths and axioms":  "everyone will, of two goods, choose that which he thinks the greatest; and, of two evils, that which he thinks the least. (16:29) I say advisedly that which he thinks the greatest or the least, for it does not necessarily follow that he judges right."  It wasn't new to say that people followed their own interest, but Spinoza phrases it in a way that makes it sound like the fundamental tenet of modern economics.  And he goes beyond that, by pointing out that people are not always perfect in their judgements, but will always choose that which they perceive to be better.  This, I think, is a welcome hint to people who, like Dan Ariely, think they have overthrown traditional economics when they find people misjudging their own good.  I have enormous respect for Daniel Kahneman, Amos Tversky, and their advances in economics, but I don't think what they accomplished changes the basis of fundamental economics at all; and I think that Spinoza was not the last person before the 1980's to realize that people could be rationally consistent in choosing what they see as the greater good without always judging properly.

Monday, April 4, 2016

Spinoza, The Theologico-Political Treatise

Spinoza is a famous philosopher about whom I have heard very little.  I had a vague notion that he believed the world to consist of monads, and that he conceived of "God" as the same as natural laws.  Apart from that, I couldn't have told you anything about his ideas.  I used to think that this relative obscurity was because Spinoza did not influence other philosophers to a great extent, but I am learning that some people admired him greatly.  I suppose that he is not associated with a single idea that makes him easy to locate in the history of philosophy, the way Hume means scepticism, Kant means "thing-in-itself," and Decartes means dualism.  Or, it could be because his philosophy is too obscure to sum up.

This particular work is certainly not obscure.  It is about as clear as anything could be, which is something that I appreciate, having no stomach for writers who try to enhance their fame by writing in a way that no one understands.  In fact, the "Theologico-Political Treatise" isn't really about philosophy in the sense that I conceive it, i.e. it isn't about ontology or epistemology or even really morals.  It isn't even much about politics, although the whole point of it leads to a political conclusion.  The bulk of the book concerns the meaning of the Bible as interpreted through a critical analysis.  In fact, it makes me think of the Renaissance and Lorenzo Valla's critical interpretation of the Donation of Constantine, and also of the Reformation and its (Luther's and Calvin's) insistence that every believer should read the Bible for himself and not rely on received interpretations.

Spinoza puts no faith in the interpretative tradition of the Bible, either Jewish or Christian.  He cites the text relentlessly to prove that many commonly received interpretation are wrong, and he is not shy to show that the Bible is inconsistent in many places.  He begins with the premise that the Bible is the word of God, but sometimes one wonders whether he is saying this only to get his book past the censors and doesn't really believe it himself.  At other times, though, his belief seems sincere enough.  My impression in the end was that Spinoza indeed believed what he said, but there is no doubt that his critical reading opened the door to even more sceptical views and indeed to atheism.

Spinoza begins by arguing that prophets, although authentic, received messages tailored to their own understandings.  Thus, Moses believed that God could not be seen, therefore God appeared to him in the form of a burning bush; other prophets, however, saw physical embodiments of God, including human features.  Instead of asserting that this is a problem with the Bible, Spinoza argues that prophets were able to see only what their minds were prepared to see, and therefore we cannot take their prophecies too literally outside of the core message that God was trying to deliver.  In fact, one of the key points throughout the book is that God's message is intended for the lowest common denominator, and therefore must be simple and easy to understand.  Theologians who try to make a mystery out of otherwise plain language in Scripture are creating a religion that would be beyond the reach of most of humanity, which is clearly not God's intent.

On this point, I agree with Spinoza:  I have trouble understanding why central Christian dogma should include such paradoxical matters as the Trinity.  To insist on this belief seems to me, as it seems to Spinoza, to be throwing a stumbling-block in the path of other believers, and it is hard to accept that God would approve.

On the other hand, surely there must be some irreducible content to Judaism or Christianity, some things which one must believe in order to adhere to these faiths.  Spinoza sums up the core message of the Bible as "love your neighbour," or, essentially, be nice to other people.  I have trouble accepting a message quite so limited.  Can the whole Bible really be reduced to being nice to others?  Is that really the best way to deliver the message, if that is what God intended?  But if the message is more than that, where does one stop?  On what basis should I exclude the Trinity, the components of which are certainly a major feature of the New Testament?  Deciding where to the draw the line is, unfortunately, not something that one can easily come to a consensus on.

Actually, Spinoza himself seems ambivalent.  He gives different definitions of the core message of the Bible in different places.  In one place, it is love your neighbour; in another, it is that plus worship one single God; in still another place, he includes the belief that justice is rendered in this world.  That one took me aback in particular, because I have always felt certain that it is a false conclusion that many people draw from the Bible.  (The entire book of Job, several passages in Ecclesiastes, and Jesus's account of Lazarus and the rich man -- in addition to abundant experience -- all indicate to me that we can't expect divine justice to be rendered on earth.)  In other places, Spinoza seems to acknowledge this.  Since my summary here is based on a single reading, I can't argue in detail exactly what Spinoza's position is, only that I think he states different things at different points in his argument.

Spinoza has great faith in "natural reason," to which he appeals on virtually every page.  On the other hand, he does not try to create a perfectly rational approach to religion.  He argues that we must judge the truth of Scripture solely from Scripture, and he believes that revelation is an essential part of religion.  Spinoza defines faith as "that which leads to obedience to God."  At first, I found this a poor explanation of faith, but on reflection, I think it is brilliant.  It is precisely analogous to the Pragmatic axiom that what one really believes is that upon which one is prepared to act.  If one truly believes in God, it would be foolish to disobey.  I wouldn't rule out the possibility of a Dostoevskian Underground Man, who would insist that 2+2 is not equal to 4, but even in that case, one could argue that it is because he doesn't truly grasp the nature of God.

One interesting feature of this book is that Spinoza analyzes the New Testament as well as the Old, even though he is Jewish.  (He actually refrains from a close linguistic analysis of the New Testament because his Greek is not as strong as his Hebrew, but he nevertheless devotes significant parts of his book to the New Testament.  One of his interesting points is that Apostles are not prophets, a conclusion that he draws based on several differences in how they approach their subjects.  Prophets speak with divine certainly; Apostles argue based on logic; prophets speak of particular people and places where they have been sent to prophesy; Apostles are sent generically into the world to spread the word of God to everyone.

The first 4/5ths of the book are heavily theology; only in the last fifth does Spinoza take up political issues.  I will save a few comments on that for another entry.