Durant 1926: The Treatise on Religion and the State (Spinoza)

Reference: The Story of Philosophy

This paper presents Chapter IV Section 2 from the book THE STORY OF PHILOSOPHY by WILL DURANT. The contents are from the 1933 reprint of this book by TIME INCORPORATED by arrangement with Simon and Schuster, Inc.

The paragraphs of the original material (in black) are accompanied by brief comments (in color) based on the present understanding.  Feedback on these comments is appreciated.

The heading below is linked to the original materials.

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II. The Treatise on Religion and the State

Let us study his four books in the order in which he wrote them. The Tractatus Theologico-Politicus is perhaps the least interesting of them to us today, because the movement of higher criticism which Spinoza initiated has made into platitudes the propositions for which Spinoza risked his life. It is unwise of an author to prove his point too thoroughly; his conclusions pass into the currency of all educated minds, and his works no longer have that mystery about them which draws us ever on. So it has been with Voltaire; and so with Spinoza’s treatise on religion and the state. 

The conclusions reached by Spinoza in his first book has now become quite common place.

The essential principle of the book is that the language of the Bible is deliberately metaphorical or allegorical; not only because it partakes of the Oriental tendency to high literary color and ornament, and exaggerated descriptive expressions; but because, too, the prophets and the apostles, to convey their doctrine by arousing the imagination, were compelled to adapt themselves to the capacities and predispositions of the popular mind. “All Scripture was written primarily foran entire people, and secondarily for the whole human race; consequently its contents must necessarily be adapted, as far as possible, to the understanding of the masses.” “Scripture does not explain things by their secondary causes, but only narrates them in the order and style which has most power to move men, and especially uneducated men, to devotion. … Its object is not to convince the reason, but to attract and lay hold of the imagination.” Hence the abundant miracles and the repeated appearances of God. “The masses think that the power and providence of God are most clearly displayed by events that are extraordinary, and contrary to the conception which they have formed of nature. … They suppose, indeed, that God is inactive so long as nature works in her accustomed order; and vice versa, that the power of nature, and natural causes, are idle so long as God is acting; thus they imagine two powers distinct from one another, the power of God and the power of nature.”

(Here enters the basic idea of Spinoza’s philosophy—that God and the processes of nature are one.) Men love to believe that God breaks the natural order of events for them; so the Jews gave a miraculous interpretation of the lengthening of the day in order to impress others (and perhaps themselves) with the conviction that the Jews were the favorites of God; and similar incidents abound in the early history of every people. Sober and literal statements do not move the soul; if Moses had said that it was merely the East wind (as we gather from a later passage) that cleared a path for them through the Red Sea, it would have made little impression on the minds of the masses he was leading. Again, the apostles resorted to miracle stories for the same reason that they resorted to parables; it was anecessary adaptation to the public mind. The greater influence of such men as compared with philosophers and scientists is largely attributable to the vivid and metaphorical forms of speech which the founders of religion by the nature of their mission and their own emotional intensity, are driven to adopt. 

The basic idea of Spinoza’s philosophy is that God and the processes of nature are one. Prophets used miraculous interpretations of events because that move the soul of man, sober and literal statements do not.

Interpreted on this principle, the Bible, says Spinoza, contains nothing contrary to reason. But interpreted literally, it is full of errors, contradictions, and obvious impossibilities—as that the Pentateuch was written by Moses. The more Philosophical interpretation reveals, through the mist of allegory and poetry; the profound thought of great thinkers and leaders, and makes intelligible the persistence of the Bible and its immeasurable influence upon men. Both interpretations have a proper place and function: the people will always demand a religion phrased in imagery and haloed with the supernatural; if one such form of faith is destroyed they will create another. But the philosopher knows that God and nature are one being, acting by necessity and according to invariable law; it is this majestic Law which he will reverence and obey. He knows that in the Scriptures “God is described as a law-giver or prince, and styled just, merciful, etc., merely in concession to the understanding of the people and their imperfect knowledge; that in reality God acts … by the necessity of his nature, and his decrees … are eternal truths.”

The more Philosophical interpretation reveals, through the mist of allegory and poetry, the profound thought of great thinkers and leaders, and makes intelligible the persistence of the Bible and its immeasurable influence upon men.

Spinoza makes no separation between Old and New Testament, and looks upon the Jewish and the Christian religion as one, when popular hatred and misunderstandings are laid aside, and philosophical interpretation finds the hidden core and essence of the rival faiths. “I have often wondered that persons who make boast of professing the Christian religion—namely, love, joy, peace, temperance, and charity to all men—should quarrel with such rancorous animosity, and display daily toward one another such bitter hatred, that this, rather than the virtues which they profess, is the readiest criterion of their faith.” The Jews have survived chiefly because of Christian hatred of them; persecution gave them the unity and solidarity necessary for continued racial existence; without persecution they might have mingled and married with the peoples of Europe, and been engulfed in the majorities with which they were everywhere surrounded. But there is no reason why the philosophic Jew and the philosophic Christian, when all nonsense is discarded, should not agree sufficiently in creed to live in peace and cooperation. 

Spinoza looks upon the Jewish and the Christian religion as one. He sees no reason why the philosophic Jew and the philosophic Christian, when all nonsense is discarded, should not agree sufficiently in creed to live in peace and cooperation. 

The first step toward this consummation, Spinoza thinks, would be a mutual understanding about Jesus. Let improbable dogmas be withdrawn, and the Jews would soon recognize in Jesus the greatest and noblest of the prophets. Spinoza does not accept the divinity of Christ, but he puts him first among men. “The eternal wisdom of God … has shown itself forth in all things, but chiefly in the mind of man, and most of all in Jesus Christ.” “Christ was sent to teach not only the Jews, but the whole human race” ; hence “he accommodated himself to the comprehension of the people … and most often taught by parables.” He considers that the ethics of Jesus are almost synonymous with wisdom; in reverencing him one rises to “the intellectual love of God.” So noble a figure, freed from the impediment of dogmas that lead only to divisions and disputes, would draw an men to him; and perhaps in his name a world torn with suicidal wars of tongue and sword might find a unity of faith and a possibility of brotherhood at last. 

The first step toward this consummation, Spinoza thinks, would be a mutual understanding about Jesus.

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