Thinking the Divine II: The Satisfaction of an Easy Answer, Jamming, 04/11/2014

Continued from previous post . . . Last week’s post about the Spinoza that I’d been reading ended with a ridiculously jarring transition, from talk of Spinoza’s theological arguments against Biblical literalism and in favour of more nuanced concepts of the divine to the definitive feminist conflicts of this year. Here's how that transition works. 

Biblical literalism, really literalist belief about the teachings and texts of any religious tradition, doesn’t deserve the name of religion. Spinoza doesn’t call literalism religion; he calls it superstition, and he’s right. You believe that magic voices, magic tablets, and magic causality is how the world really works. How does God act to a superstitious mind? He reaches down with his finger and stops the sun from moving long enough for his favourite military commander to defeat his enemies. 

Literal depictions of God are for fables and parables, not
metaphysics. The holiest among us sits at the right hand
of God. Your right hand, Hashem, glorious in power.
Spinoza’s Tractatus Theologico-Politicus is a weird, difficult read for a reader with modern philosophical sensibilities. The entire first half is a slog through Scriptural interpretation, mostly concentrating on the Pentateuch, the books of Moses, what Jews call the Torah and what Christians call the Old Testament. Spinoza spends over 100 pages cataloguing passages in the Bible that make no sense on their own and make less sense when compared to other passages that contradict what they say. Math in genealogies describe four or five generations passing in just over a decade. A prophecy that a king will die in peace comes true as that king is forced to watch his children’s throats cut by an invading army before being murdered himself. 

Spinoza’s Ethics is a difficult book, because it’s an extremely dense philosophical work that’s written in the form of a long set of geometric proofs, corollaries, and marginal notes and interjections. It covers everything from the fundamental nature of reality, God, and nature, to the basic psychology of organic creatures and humans in particular, and offers a materialistic path to enlightenment that’s more inspirational than the easy answers of money-grubbing, superficial television preachers could ever be. Those shysters peddle superstitions. To achieve enlightenment, you have to think.

What does all this have to do with contemporary feminism? It’s about the concept of the easy answer. Who doesn’t love an easy answer? You have a question, someone gives you an answer, you understand that answer perfectly, and it makes you happy. 

Superstition is like that. What made the world? A magic man in the sky built the whole mess in a week. A guy writing a book of chronicles and prophecies thousands of years before the invention of contemporary astronomical technology said it, it’s easy to read, so it must be true. I’ve spoken with too many philosophers who think that an argument is self-evidently true if it’s easy to understand. This is one of the things I hate about modern academic philosophy.

Now, here’s a moral question. What should I do about inequality? Here’s an easy answer: treat people nicely when you see them. To take one example from a conversation I had with a friend a while ago, if you go to a gym, don’t ogle or hit on women. They’re there to work out, so are you, so be respectful and nice. You’ve done your duty. There’s your easy answer. 

That’s a moral superstition, that all there is to making the world a better place is to be nice yourself. The problem with easy answers is that the world doesn’t really work like that. It isn’t enough to be nice to make the world better. It isn’t enough to be the one guy in a gym (or a CBC studio) who isn’t being a jackass. 

If you have the power to act to make the world better, you should figure out how your situation makes your act most effective and do it. It’s the material articulation of what in Jewish theology is called tikkun olam. It’s not enough to read about, for example, female video game designers being harassed after a jilted ex-boyfriend writes a whiny post about his breakup with one and feel sad about how messed up people are. That’s the easy way out. At least get in one Twitter fight with some “ethics in journalism” morons; send some supportive messages to some of the prominent people who take most of the heat. You can't fix the whole mess on your own, but you can make some beneficial gestures from where you are now.

If a statement denouncing Biblical literalism as the idiotic superstition that it is, which the TTP is, got Spinoza excommunicated from the Jewish community of Amsterdam, then so much the worse for people who made their beliefs about the fundamental divinity of the universe so simple and easy. The world isn’t actually simple or easy, and we shouldn’t rest satisfied with such answers just because they put our mind at ease. A mind at ease is a mind in atrophy. To be continued . . .


  1. You've over-simplified Spinoza's being put into cherem. He denied a lot more than just the biblical literalism, but also rejected the mitzvot and concepts like the eternal soul in this world and the next. He drew no meaning from tradition, and that combined with elements of living during the Enlightenment distanced him from Torah practice and his community.

    There is also speculation that the community was trying to protect themselves from further persecution, so getting rid of him was an easy solution for them.

    I love you, Adam, but I'll be the first to say you have no idea what you're talking about when you make such a bold claim that the Jewish people of that time made their beliefs about the divinity of the universe so simple and easy. The practice of intense study and debate of Torah in yeshivot has been a tradition for millenia in Judaism. You've heard it yourself when I played for you that shiur and the students were all arguing with their rabbi.

    -Your loving girlfriend

    1. Well, you got me there.

      I think what most shocked me when I was reading through the first half of the TTP was how much of his intellectual energy was devoted to refuting literalist interpretations of the Torah and Bible. There were way more complicated politics involved in his excommunication, not only everything you said, but the way the Jewish community was squeezed in the conflict in Holland between the republicans and the monarchists.

      I'm writing something for tomorrow that will look at more detail in the religious attitudes that were popular at his time and in the couple of centuries after Spinoza's death. TTP has an argument for religious pluralism with what strikes me as a very pious foundation, that in the context of his own time (and a lot of attitudes in ours) would have been called apostasy or worse.