A Book Forged in Hell: Spinoza's Scandalous Treatise and the Birth of the Secular Age






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Publication: The Humanist
Author: Lamal, Peter
Date published: March 1, 2012

A Book Forged in Hell: Spinoza's Scandalous Treatise and the Birth of the Secular Age by Steven Nadler (Princeton University Press, 201 I) 270 pp; $29.75

Review by Peter Lamal

In Steven Nadler's view, Baruch Spinoza was the most original, radical, and controversial thinker of his time, and what we consider "modern" philosophical, political, and religious ideas owe much to the work of the excommunicated Jew from Amsterdam.

The focus of Nadler's Book Forged in Hell is Spinoza's Tractatus Theologico-Politicus (or Theological-Political Treatise) published in 1670. At the time it was regarded as the most dangerous book ever published, and in the view of Spinoza's contemporaries it threatened religious faith, social and political harmony, and everyday moral behavior. Its publication, Nadler says, was unquestionably "one of the most significant events in European intellectual history, occurring as it did at the dawn of the Enlightenment."

In mid-seventeenth century republics like the Netherlands and a constitutional commonwealth like England there was growing suspicion of ecclesiastic influence in civic life. (Sound familiar?) Although they were members of the Reformed Church, Dutch liberals were concerned about the attempts of their conservative countrymen who were seeking to make the Republic a strictly Calvinist state. At the same time, church leaders viewed themselves as losing control over the lives of the Republic's citizens.

Nevertheless, philosophers and scientists of this period were not about to adopt the idea of a world governed by blind, nontheistic necessity. The treatment of Dutch scholar Adriaan Koerbagh is an example of what could happen to you if you criticized and denied the validity of organized religion as he did in his books. After a series of interrogations, Koerbagh confessed to being the author of said books. As a result, the city magistrates sentenced him to prison for ten years, after which he was to be banished from Amsterdam for ten years, and pay a fine of 4,000 guilders. It was a lenient sentence compared to that proposed by the sheriff, who wanted Koerbagh's right thumb cut off and his tongue pierced by a hot iron in public, followed by thirty years in prison.

For Spinoza and like-minded thinkers, the treatment of Koerbagh was an ominous sign of things to come. Freedom to philosophize was under threat because the civil authorities had succumbed to pressure from the ecclesiastics. And indeed Spinoza was right to be concerned, as the response to the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus would prove.

The treatise opened with Spinoza asserting that religion is nothing more than "organized superstition." Ecclesiastics, he asserted, prey on ignorant people and take advantage of their hopes and fears to gain control over them. He then attacked the standard ways of thinking about miracles, prophecy, and the Bible. According to Nadler, Spinoza's boldest and most shocking conclusion (to his contemporaries) may have been that Holy Scripture is a work of human literature. We thus need to examine the Bible anew to find the moral imperative that we love others and live just and charitable lives. Importantly, Spinoza did not advocate the disappearance of religion, rather he called for a proper relationship between the state and religion.

One point that greatly offended Spinoza was the accusation that he was an atheist. He didn't believe in an anthropomorphic God but he insisted that he believed in "true religion," consisting of the rational principles that result in humans' flourishing to "blessedness" and "salvation." So indeed there is a God for Spinoza: a God who is identical with nature. One result is that all human knowledge is natural and is thus divine.

By living according to reason alone, the "free" and virtuous person's understanding of his place in the world results in his happiness and true peace of mind. Our flourishing as individuals depends on our knowledge of nature. Thus the rituals of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are neither necessary nor sufficient for achieving the highest human good and salvation. At the same time, Spinoza believed that people should be left alone not only to believe whatever they want, but to freely express their religious beliefs. No one should be prosecuted for heresy or for being irreligious.

A sign that Spinoza was well aware of the likelihood of a very negative reaction to the publication of Tractatus Theologico-Politicus is that no author's name was given on its cover page. Moreover, the city of publication was falsely listed as Hamburg, not Amsterdam. Upon the publication of the treatise, Spinoza was excoriated as a blasphemer and a "formal atheist," and the book was described as "pestilential... forged in hell by the apostate Jew working together with the devil." In 1674 the treatise was officially banned in the Dutch Republic. And even long-standing friends turned on him after reading it. But the available evidence shows that Spinoza dealt with the attacks on the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus with what Nadler says was "his usual stoic equanimity."

A positive feature of this book is the inclusion of numerous quotations from Spinoza's writings. In my view, however, somewhat too much space is devoted to Spinoza's friend, the Dutch physician, scholar, and playwright Lodewijk Meijer.

Worth noting is that Spinoza's concern about church control over people's public and even private lives is relevant in today's United States, where some strongly support control of important aspects of our lives by religious doctrine.

Author affiliation:

Peter Lamal is an emeritus professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte, a fellow of the Division of Behavior Analysis of the American Psychological Association, and member of the Association for Behavior Analysis International.

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