Destroyer and Builder: Spinoza’s Scandalous Treatise and the Birth of the Secular Age
IN THE SUMMER of 1674, officials of the Dutch court carried out the recommendation of the States of Holland to ban the Theological-Political Treatise, a book that one of its more spiteful antagonists described in an anonymous pamphlet as “forged in hell by the apostate Jew working together with the devil.” It was an inauspicious debut for a work that Steven Nadler calls “one of the most important books of Western thought ever written.”
Poor Spinoza. So noble in intention, so reviled and misunderstood. Born into a Portuguese-Jewish family in Amsterdam during the flourishing years of the newly autonomous Dutch Republic, the brilliant young student “Bento” (or Baruch, as they called him at the synagogue) was only twenty-three years old when, on July 27, 1656, his own congregation on the city’s Houtgracht canal presented him with a formal ban of excommunication for his “abominable heresies” and “monstrous deeds.” The absurdity of this herem,the Hebrew term for the rabbinic ban, is that its recipient had not yet published any of the works that would eventually draw down upon his head violent accusations of atheism and immorality. The Ethics, the genuine masterpiece of speculative metaphysics that would earn him an eternal place in the canon of Western philosophy, did not appear until 1677, when its author was no longer alive. But well before this, rumor had already spread that young Bento doubted the law and denied the existence of God except in the “philosophical” sense, which is to say in the most minimal or heterodox sense that carried a whiff of heresy.
In early January of 1670, the mature philosopher published his most aggressive statement of political and religious criticism, under the compound Latin title Tractatus Theologico-Politicus. Anxious to avoid personal reprisals, he published it anonymously and with a cover page that misstated its place of publication as Hamburg. The measures were prudent, but ineffective. Within about three years its author was exposed and plans were afoot for seizing and suppressing all copies of his book. By the end of the 1670s the Catholic Church, eager not to be outdone, decided that the Treatise deserved a place on the Index of Prohibited Books, together with the Ethics and other opera posthuma, including his correspondence.