Thinking the Divine I: Pushing The Limits of Understanding, Research Time, 28/10/2014

This weekend, I started diving into Spinoza’s Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, the radical political-religious work of philosophy with probably the coolest-sounding name in the Western tradition. I’m still going through the early chapters and weeding out some of the fascinating philosophical ideas from the scriptural analysis. 

Cornelius de Witt, along with his brother Jan,
were the republican rulers of Holland and close
friends of Benedict Spinoza. They were
considered dangerous radicals in 1600s Europe
for ruling Holland as a country without a king.
The House of Orange eventually overthrew
them, murdering the de Witt brothers and
many figures in their government, forcing
their supporters like Spinoza into internal exile.
I can definitely understand why TTP was so provocative in the 1600s; just what I’d expect from a radical anti-monarchist in that era. Benedict, I’d say you’re a man after my own heart, but you’ve pretty much got it already. His argument in these early chapters is essentially against Biblical literalism, an argument that many devout people in my own era need to hear and take seriously. At first, it sounds like an argument against religious belief, but it’s actually a very pious perspective: how the divine manifests to us depends on our ability to understand God.

We’ll never be able to form a genuinely adequate understanding of God. In a Spinozist perspective, humans only consist of two attributes of the divine, thought and matter, so can only understand divinity in these contexts, not any of the infinite other ones, whatever they might be. But our ability to understand divinity can improve with our intellectual abilities. Basically, as we better understand the fundamental structure of the world, we are capable of a more nuanced understanding of the divinity whose expression is reality.

Spinoza describes the early tales of Exodus, particularly the intellectual capacities of the Hebrew tribes of the time. We shouldn’t be too impressed. They had such a difficult time grasping the basic idea that their god could be immaterial that as soon as their main prophet Moses too an extended break from shouting laws at them for some sustained transcription with the divine presence, they all freaked and started dancing around a cow statue.*

* I think if I had learned religion through descriptions like this, I’d have been a more dedicated believer. Still wouldn’t have been able to take Christianity, though. I’d probably just have figured out that I felt most comfortable with Jewish theology a little sooner than I have.

Why would you freak, Hebrew masses? asked Spinoza, if he had been able to get into outdated hip-hop slang. Because their society hadn’t yet developed a ubiquitous intellectual and educational capacity to understand a God that wasn’t incarnate (let alone substance itself) and a morality that didn’t have a basis in an authority analogous to a king. Only a simpleton, relatively speaking, goes this line of thought, is moral from fear of divine retribution if you slip up. Only a fool believes that the basis of morality is your people’s god barking orders at you.

But if this is all you can believe in, then this is the best understanding you can come to of the divine: a giant policeman in the sky who’ll beat you senseless for all eternity with a transcendent billy club if you don’t follow his orders.** Spinoza spends the early chapters of TTP arguing very well against this juvenile conception of religion and morality. A more advanced understanding of morality behaves ethically for its immanent, worldly benefits: a peaceful society of free people who help each other when they’re in need. 

** This idea that how God manifests to you depends on your intellectual and ethical capacity to understand divinity is actually fairly common in more contemporary Talmudic scholarship. I don't know enough of the history of the scholarship to know if it was specifically an eventual reaction to the critiques of Spinoza in the TTP. I first learned this in my mid-20s from my friend Arnold Bennett, a retired documentary filmmaker who lived just outside St. John's, and who I knew through Jockey Club, the regular discussion group of Memorial University's philosophy department. Arnold regularly got into arguments with the local rabbi at the synagogue in St. John's over theological matters like these, but he knew his Talmud to a comparable level through independent study. He died nearly four years ago now, while visiting his family in Washington DC.

We are sorely in need of this kind of behaviour today, and Spinoza’s approach to ethics, integrating ethical improvement with improvement of how you understand the physical world, is especially important in our modern world. I’m thinking especially of the conflicts of the contemporary feminist movements, particularly the #YesAllWomen and #NotAllMen debates on our social media platforms, and the hideousness of #Gamergate. To be continued . . .

No comments:

Post a Comment