Sunday, October 29, 2006


As our species’ weapons technology dangerously outstrips our humanity, more and more Americans look for divine intervention. Yet despite this trend, we’re now experiencing a rebirth of interest in a philosopher who denied the existence of a supernatural God. Somehow, this secular sage is emerging as the philosopher of the 21st century.

Baruch Spinoza wasn’t always popular. During his lifetime and for a century after his death in 1677, he was reviled as an “atheist” and heretic. By the late 18th century, however, Novalis praised Spinoza as “a God intoxicated man,” and Goethe called him the ultimate Christian. Bertrand Russell later termed Spinoza “the noblest and most loveable of the great philosophers.”

Spinoza’s notoriety waned during the latter half of the 20th century, but the pendulum has swung back. Since 2003, Spinoza has been the subject of several popular books. Recently, Cornell West and Rebecca Goldstein paid tribute to Spinoza to mark the 350th anniversary of his excommunication by the Amsterdam Jewish community on July 27, 1656. Spinoza is emerging as a lone voice of reason and universalism in a hostile and divided world.

Spinoza’s philosophy begins with God and the notion that God must be understood through logic and intuition, not revelation. Spinoza’s God refers to nature generally, and particularly its eternal and infinite dimensions. He applied no limits to God and saw all of nature as being in God, not as sculpted from the outside. Scoffing at the idea that people are made in the image of the Biblical God, when the truth is just the opposite, Spinoza wrote that if we were triangles, our God would be triangular.

Combine Spinoza’s religious views with his essentially Jeffersonian politics and you’ll find an antidote to the fundamentalism threatening our planet. All fundamentalists view truth through the lens of revelation. Armed with their own “word of God,” the most extreme fundamentalists approach geopolitical issues with arrogance. Christians exhibited that arrogance when converting “infidels” at gunpoint. Jews do the same by invoking their Bible to ignore Muslim claims to land that Arabs have populated for over a millennium. Muslims display arrogance when they cite God’s will as commanding them to murder innocent people.

Just as Goethe saw Spinoza as the most Christian of people, I, being Jewish, see him as among the most Jewish. Spinoza’s values – individual autonomy, democracy, rationality, open-mindedness and reverence -- lie at the heart of Jewish ethics. But Spinoza was no Jewish tribesman in the parochial sense. He was a universalist. As such, he’d surely respond to Middle Eastern bloodshed not as a partisan but as a citizen of the world.

When Spinoza encountered hatred, he strove to understand its causes and replace it with love. In the Middle East, that emotion cannot seize the day unless Arabs and Jews come together and talk, rather than continuing to preach to their own choirs. America does Israel no favors by encouraging Israel to demonize its neighbors with the label of “terrorist” without even attempting to open a dialogue. The leaders of Hamas, for example, need to break bread and exchange ideas with the Israeli leadership. Eventually, I suspect, they’d come to recognize that their welfare lies in working with the Israelis and sharing the disputed land, even if that means a two-state solution without a Palestinian right of return to whatever land is assigned to Israel.

In the meantime, Jews who emulate Spinoza must respect the power of Palestinian arguments: Was it fair for Europeans to commit genocide and then pay the Jews back with Palestinian land? Isn’t it hypocritical to demonize Holocaust deniers while denying the existence of “Palestinians” simply because that word is of relatively recent vintage? Similarly, Palestinian Spinozists must spread the word that the U.N. didn’t create a Jewish state for nothing: after a history marked by centuries of persecution, the Jewish claim to a “peace of oith” the size of Jersey is hardly the supreme act of chutzpah.

Have no fear. We can solve these problems – but first, we need willing leaders on all sides. If perchance any future leader is reading this, here’s my advice: steep yourself in Spinoza before it’s too late.


Grammie said...

Great post, as always.
FYI I listed your blog as one of my favorites, you may get a few new visitors.
: )

Daniel Spiro said...

Thanks so much, Grammie!