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«12 Charitable Interpretations and the Political Domestication of Spinoza, or, Benedict in the Land of the Secular Imagination Yitzhak Y. Melamed A ...»



Charitable Interpretations and the

Political Domestication of Spinoza,

or, Benedict in the Land of the

Secular Imagination

Yitzhak Y. Melamed

A fool hath no delight in understanding, but that his heart

may discover itself.

Proverbs, XVIII 2

1. Introduction

In a beautiful recent essay, the philosopher Walter Sinnott-Armstrong

explains the reasons for his departure from evangelical Christianity, the religious culture in which he was brought up. Sinnot-Armstrong contrasts the interpre-

tive methods used by good philosophers and fundamentalist believers:

Good philosophers face objections and uncertainties. They follow where arguments lead, even when their conclusions are surprising and disturbing. Intellectual honesty is also required of scholars who interpret philosophical texts. If I had distorted Kant’s view to make him reach a conclusion that I preferred, then my philosophy professor would have failed me. The contrast with religious reasoning is stark.

My Christian friends seemed happy to hide serious problems in the Bible and in their arguments. They preferred comfort to intellectual honesty. I couldn’t.1

1. Walter Sinnott-Armstrong (2007), 73; italics added.

12_Laerke_CH12.indd 258 3/9/2013 3:57:08 PM OUP UNCORRECTED PROOF – FIRSTPROOFS, Sat Mar 09 2013, NEWGEN Charitable Interpretations 259 To what extent can we, historians of philosophy, claim the virtue of intel- lectual honesty? Speaking frankly, I do not find the practice criticized by Sinnot-Armstrong’s philosophy professor rare or unusual at all. We very fre- quently distort the views of past philosophers in order to reach the conclu- sions we prefer. We just call it “Charitable Interpretation.” In this essay, I discuss and criticize the logic behind so-called charitable interpretations in the history of philosophy. This phenomenon is ubiquitous and is not at all restricted to a particular philo

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2. Unless otherwise marked, all references to the Ethics, the early works of Spinoza, and Letters 1–29 are to Spinoza (1985) (abbreviated C). In references to the other letters of Spinoza I have used Spinoza (2002) abbreviated S). I have relied on the Spinoza (1925) critical edition for the Latin text of Spinoza (abbreviated G). I use the following standard abbreviations for Spinoza’s works: DPP = Descartes’ Principles of Philosophy [Renati des Cartes Principiorum Philosophiae Pars I & II]; CM = Metaphysical Thoughts [Cogitata Metaphysica], KV = Short Treatise on God, Man, and His Well-Being [Korte Verhandeling van God de Mensch en deszelfs Welstand], TTP = Theological-Political Treatise [Tractatus Theologico-Politicus], TP= Political Treatise [Tractatus Politicus], Ep. = Letters. Passages in the Ethics will be referred to by means of the following abbreviations: a(-xiom), c(-orollary), p(-roposition), s(-cholium) and app(-endix); “d” stands for either “definition” (when it appears immediately to the right of the part of the book), or “demonstration” (in all other cases.) Hence, E1d3 is the third definition of part 1 and E1p16d is the demonstration of proposition 16 of part 1.

–  –  –

The association of Spinoza with modern liberalism is commonplace among

today’s writers (especially among Jewish writers). Thus, Steven Nadler argues:

“Spinoza was an eloquent proponent of a secular, democratic society, and was the strongest advocate for freedom and tolerance in the early modern period.”17 According to Leo Strauss, Spinoza is responsible for “the decisive impulse toward... modern republicanism which takes its bearings by the dignity of every man,”18 and if we believe Rebecca Goldstein, “Spinoza fundamentally insisted on the separation of church and state,” thus anticipating and indirectly influencing the founding fathers of America.19 Obviously, I cannot provide here a comprehensive account of Spinoza’s political thought. Still, before joining this “Spinoza Got It Right!” celebration of Benedict the secularist, feminist, liberal, humanist, democrat, and egalitarian, let me suggest a preliminary and cursory fact-checking. In the following few pages, I will concentrate on the “package of basic values” suggested by Israel, since it seems to present in a condensed and transparent manner a very common recent image of Spinoza. Was Spinoza indeed a champion of “toleration, personal freedom, democracy, equality racial and sexual, freedom of expression, sexual emancipation, and the universal right to knowledge and ‘enlightenment’”? Let’s see.20 A. “Separation of Church and State.” In the TTP, Spinoza argues that the state’s “supreme powers [should be] the interpreters of religion and religious

16. Israel (2006), 11; italics added. Cf. Israel (2010), vii–viii, for a restatement of the very same basic values of the so-called Radical Enlightenment. Anticipating the response that perhaps Israel intended to ascribe these values only to Spinoza’s followers in the Radical Enlightenment and their interpretation of Spinoza (and not to Spinoza himself ), let me note, first, that if indeed (as I will shortly show) Spinoza was very far from advocating Israel’s “basic values of the Radical Enlightenment” it is not at all clear in what sense Spinoza can be associated with the “Radical Enlightenment” (whatever this term means). Second, let me point out that Israel actually attributes this package of values directly to Spinoza. For the ascription to Spinoza of support for democracy and egalitarianism, and objection to oligarchy, see Israel (2010), 2, 92–94, and Israel (2006), 231, 252, 561. For descriptions of Spinoza as a champion of “comprehensive toleration,” “freedom of worship,” and “liberty of expression,” see Israel (2006), 155, 157, 231, 252, and Israel (2010), 92. This is merely a small selection among many similar passages.

17. Nadler (2012).

18. Strauss (1965), 16.

19. Goldstein (2006), 11.

20. For a complementary overview of Spinoza’s critique of metaphysical humanism, see Melamed (2010a).

–  –  –

Along the same lines, Spinoza argues that in a monarchy—one of the three legitimate forms of government according to Spinoza—“under no circumstances should daughters be permitted to inherit the state.”34 The exclusion of women from the polity is just one feature of a broader attitude toward women in Spinoza’s work. In general, for Spinoza, the adjective “womanish” is strongly pejorative, as, for example, in his description of vegetarianism as an “empty superstition and womanly compassion [muliebri misericordia]” (E4p37s1).35 D. “Universal Right to Knowledge and Enlightenment.” Discussing Maimonides’s attempt to reinterpret Scripture so that it agrees with philosophical truth, Spinoza scolds Maimonides’s “excessively audacious” method and criticizes him for depriving the masses of the opium of anthropomorphic religion.36 Spinoza does not believe in educating the masses in a transparent

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12_Laerke_CH12.indd 277 3/9/2013 3:57:11 PM

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