BETRAYING SPINOZA: The Renegade Jew Who Gave Us Modernity
By Rebecca Goldstein
Schocken, 287 pages
WITH most people, if they know anything about the philosopher Benedic tus Spinoza, it’s his sensational-sounding excommunication by the Amsterdam Jewish community in 1656 at age 24. But Jewish-style excommunication sounds more awesome than it was. Its impact was merely social. Until the excommunicated person changed his ways, other Jews were forbidden to communicate with him.
In her fascinating and highly accessible new biography, part of the Jewish Encounters series, novelist Rebecca Goldstein brings out a much more interesting but lesser known truth about Spinoza. Arguably, he was the founder of modern secularism.
Defined as the idea that Biblical religion should be kept strictly sequestered from most or all public life, secularism may be viewed as the official philosophy of America’s social and educational elite. And Goldstein is all for it.
Hence her admiration for Spinoza, who formulated a belief system casting doubt on the Torah’s divine authorship and its authority to define right and wrong. He denied that God is transcendent, but rather defined the deity as embodied logic, the necessary working out of the only way, according to that logic, the world could have unfolded.
She also tells the story of Spinoza’s life as just that – a good story, complete with a mystery: the question of what the young philosopher had actually done to enrage Amsterdam’s Jews. After all, at the time of the excommunication he had neither written down nor published his heretical ideas.
I never thought a book of philosophy, for goodness sake, would keep me up reading quite happily late into the night. But Goldstein’s achievement is to make such an obscurely formulated system of thought accessible. But it also raises a question about her admiration for this saint of secularism.
She writes, “The world has been transformed (but not enough) by a long and complicated chain of causes and effects that reaches back to Spinoza’s lonely choice to think out the world for himself.” In other words, secularism is a good thing. Wish we could have more of it.
But consider the moral implications of this wish. Without God or the Bible, people need some other source of ethical guidance. Spinoza proposed one. It was the notion that reality is all woven together by the unifying structure of its own logic. Thus, presto, the importance of your own personal desires, fears and hurts dissolves in the recognition that all is one.
“Virtue follows naturally; supernatural directives are not required,” writes Goldstein.
Goldstein may find this idea inspires her to act ethically. But imagine a society even more secular than our own that depended on Spinoza’s formula for moral instruction.
Picture trying to raise kids to do the right thing with logic as your major moral resource. Not God, just Logic. Imagine the chaos.
That’s the paradise of secularism. Wish we could have more it?
David Klinghoffer is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute and the author, most recently, of Why the Jews Rejected Jesus: The Turning Point in Western History.