Spinoza; drawing by David Levine

Spinoza and Other Heretics is a useful and important book because it points to a probable connection between some distinctive features of Spinoza’s thought and a particularly interesting episode in the history of the Jews. Marranos were former Jews living in Spain and Portugal who had been converted to Christianity, at least nominally, by the threats and penalties of the Inquisition. Many Marranos secretly preserved their Jewish faith, and sometimes their Jewish customs and rituals, under a covering of Christian observance. Consequently they tended to develop an unusually sophisticated attitude not only to religious belief, but to the phenomenon of belief itself. Can one change one’s moral and religious beliefs at will, and as prudence or public policy require? Marranos could not avoid asking themselves such philosophical questions, even if they were not otherwise drawn to philosophy.

Spinoza, living in Holland from 1632 to 1671, was descended from Marranos and belonged to the community of Portuguese Jews in Amsterdam. His father was a merchant prominent in civic affairs and a leader in the Jewish community. Spinoza knew Hebrew and Latin, which was for him the language of philosophy. He probably spoke Portuguese at home, and he read Spanish literature, and he wrote an early work, “The Short Treatise,” in Dutch. He was a polyglot who did not have an obvious natural language. He had his roots in two international communities: the community of educated and learned Europeans, who usually communicated with one another in Latin, and the community of men educated in the Jewish tradition, who had studied Hebrew and Scripture and the Talmud.

At the age of twenty-four he was famously expelled from the Jewish community. The text of the fierce sentence of excommunication, in which he was “banned, cut off, cursed and anathematized,” survives. For the remainder of his life he belonged only to the community of learned Europeans who exchanged scientific and philosophical ideas principally by letter. He lived detached from the shelter of any religion and without the support of any institution or community, unlike Montaigne, Hobbes, Leibniz, and Locke, who all had, in varying degrees, a clear linguistic inheritance and their own original attachments.

Spinoza’s isolation as a secular intellectual in an age of religious loyalties has always been stressed by Spinozists, and sometimes deliberately imitated, as by Santayana, who pursued in solitude in Rome the detached life of reason, which was the way of life recommended by Spinoza. Yovel’s originality is to have greatly complicated the story by bringing Spinoza’s ancestors into the foreground. His intuition is that Spinoza did not cease to be influenced by the history of the Marranos in Spain in spite of the rupture that separated him from the Jewish community. Under the heading of “Marranos in Mask and a World without Transcendence” Yovel describes some representative writing of the Marranos, and he stresses the ironies and the many levels of intention that became natural to them. He distinguishes some of the various subtle variations in their attitudes to Christianity and to Jewish observances.

Spinoza, he thinks, must have known about the varieties of belief and half-belief to be found in Marrano circles. It would certainly not be Spinoza’s style, or consistent with his philosophy, to allude to his own past in any of his formal works, whether published or unpublished. There ecumenical reason must prevail, and subjectivity of any kind is banished. But beneath the austere evenness of his prose personal pre-occupations do sometimes make themselves felt, particularly in The Tractatus Theologico-Politicus. I think that Yovel’s intuition is probably correct and that the strange duality of Marranos’ beliefs and faiths plays some part in at least two places in Spinoza’s philosophy: first, in his distinctive theory of belief, a theory that is directed against Descartes. Secondly, he argues that it will always be necessary to draw a distinction between an acceptable truth when one is speaking with the vulgar and an acceptable truth when one is speaking philosophically.

Yovel devotes a chapter to this important distinction between levels of truth under the heading “Spinoza, the Multitude, and Dual Language.” We must not expect, according to Spinoza, that these two kinds of acceptability or truth will ever coincide; to suppose that they might is the politically dangerous illusion of those who misunderstand the limits of enlightenment because, committed to a false theory of belief, they have misunderstood the causes of error and of superstition.

What is that false theory of belief? In Descartes’s philosophy belief necessarily involved an act of will in affirming a proposition; and the path of reform, leading to rationality and enlightenment, consisted of a discipline of the will. We have constantly to regulate the acts of our minds and we must resist the natural impulses to credulity, particularly the impulses associated with plausible and familiar imagery. It is, for Descartes, the weakness of our incontinent minds to assent to propositions when the ideas, taken one by one and meticulously distinguished, are far from clear to us. Without discipline we become confused, and, in the dark, stumble and grope on the frontiers between natural science and religion. Metaphors drawn from light are very important to Descartes, and some of them survive in Spinoza, but without the suggestion that the full illumination of our minds depends upon a prior discipline of the will.


He accepted Descartes’s program of clearing away the remnants of Aristotelian science to create a space for the new physics, which would reveal a mathematically coherent structure throughout the natural world. But he took one step beyond Descartes’s demand for clear thinking in the style of modern mathematics. Owing no loyalty to Christian beliefs about the privileged human soul, Spinoza argued in the Ethics, which were posthumously published, that the human knower, both observer and agent, must himself be as much a part of the permanent structure of nature, and also of its changing order, as any other observed and known object. A person’s perceptions and beliefs can be evaluated as more or less right or wrong on a scale of coherence and rationality; but they can also be explained and understood as having their place within the natural order of causes. Improvement of understanding depends, not on a discipline of the will, pictured as standing outside the natural order, but rather as a process of inner reflection, which is itself a necessary part of the natural order itself.

This, for Spinoza, is the natural peculiarity of human beings, linked to the peculiar complexity of their bodies and brains: they possess, to varying degrees, the inner power to reflect on their own processes of thought. The function of philosophy is to stir them to reflection and to make them always think again about the origins of any particular belief they happen to have formed. The history of religions and political history, taken together, show that powers of inner reflection are very irregularly distributed among populations, just as our physical capacities are very unequally distributed. There is the philosophical minority, whose members are capable of intellectual rigor in forming their beliefs, and then come the great multitude of orthodox citizens who will always follow familiar associations of ideas. The art of government therefore requires a two-tier system of persuasion, and on the lower tier the statesman must learn to speak with the vulgar, as Moses and the Jewish prophets did.

There is an ancient tradition, pagan, Christian, and Jewish, of speaking with the vulgar. Early in the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, published anonymously in 1670, Spinoza discusses at some length the nature of prophecy, as in the Old Testament, and the relation of the prophets, and of the biblical stories, to conventional morality. Fables, vivid and terrible stories, as in the Mosaic books of the Bible, images of divine punishments and rewards, conveying contrary notions of God’s nearness to mankind (He is within speaking distance) and also of his inconceivable grandeur and remoteness from his creatures—all these elements enter into the prophetic imagination of the moral order, pictured as founded in God’s transcendent majesty and domination. In periods of optimism before the last few decades, it often seemed retrograde and unreasonable of Spinoza to begin his treatise on political power and political consent with an essay on the interpretation of the Bible. Locke and other precursors of liberalism do not dawdle among sacred texts, and they mock the authors such as Filmer who did.

But Spinoza’s point is not a purely Jewish one, or a mere repetition of Maimonides’ Guide for the Perplexed, as is sometimes suggested. In his metaphysical account of the human mind the imagination is, and will always be, the principal engine in the uncontrolled formation of our loyalties and of our moral and political beliefs. Spinoza knew that imagination is fed by unconscious and conscious memories of songs and prayers, of words, of sacred images and rituals, of celebration and meals, and of the hushed gatherings of the faithful. In its original, uncorrected form, belief—whether moral, political, or religious—is an offshoot of a loyalty to our memories and to the unique associations of sights and sounds arising from any one person’s upbringing. The original person is constituted, with a distinct identity, not by the affirmation of a set of propositions in a creed, but by the communal observances and pieties that are manifestations of his origins and of his moral heritage.

Mankind, in Spinoza’s view, will not be improved by substituting clear and true propositions for false and confused propositions, as Descartes and Bertrand Russell hoped. It is true that a conversion is required for the life of reason to begin; but the conversion takes the form of putting brackets, or inverted commas, around the original imaginative beliefs, which are still unavoidably there, even after the conversion; but they are now to be relegated among childish things, and are not to be taken seriously when one is alone in the study; and Spinoza, maliciously described by Nietzsche as “a sick hermit,” was normally alone in his study. The astronomers who know the true relations between the sun and the earth still see the sun as a small disc in the sky and can still talk to the peasant in the geocentric terms of ordinary language.


The account of a philosophical conversion as the “bracketing” of original and naturally formed beliefs plainly fits the Marrano experience very well, even when the bracketed Jewish and secret beliefs were taken more seriously than the public Christian ones. That there are multiple levels of belief is a central part of Spinoza’s philosophy, as Yovel explains, and, for both political and metaphysical reasons, Spinoza insisted that the ladder by which one ascended to rationality was always kept in place. It was not to be kicked away, as in the false enlightenment of materialist philosophers.

At this point a qualification of Yovel’s thesis will occur to a skeptical reader. First, while it is true that Spinoza’s forefathers suffered and survived as Marranos, his father and family were unrepenting members of the visible Jewish community. Secondly, the dominant experience of Spinoza’s personal life must have been his actual expulsion from the Jewish community in Holland, and this expulsion was a response to his failure to follow Jewish observances. It was not a response to the Jewish equivalent of heresy, to the promulgating of wrong beliefs. Spinoza had deliberately taken up an altogether independent position; in view of his family’s status, this was both shocking and challenging. Probably in most places, at most times, religion essentially consists in a commitment to the proper public observances within a clearly marked community, and the metaphysical beliefs of particular individuals, and the private history of their beliefs, play an altogether secondary role. Paris was worth a Mass to Henri IV, and for him and others who abjured one form of belief for another, a public affirmation of faith was sufficient, without much probing into the probable laughter in the soul.

By contrast, “atheists” in the seventeenth century were people who ostentatiously stood aside from the rites and religious practices of their community, and thereby made themselves a threat to that community. Spinoza was immediately so labeled and dismissed from polite philosophy until Lessing, Jacobi, and Goethe took an interest in him. In his own life, he had taken the opposite path to his Marrano forefathers, because he had wished to isolate himself as a philosopher, a man of reason living the life of reason, talking in small groups to other free-thinkers gathered in Holland, writing to the leading scientists and intellectuals of the time, and offering political advice when he was consulted.

But he agreed with his Marrano ancestors that only a small minority of persons at any time should act as he had acted and should publicly cut themselves off from a shared life in the surrounding community in pursuit of absolute truth and of purified beliefs. If threatened, as the Jews in Spain and Portugal had been, they should certainly conform in order to survive. They should not in any case undermine conventional morality for the sake of philosophical truth, when conventional morality is sustaining a measure of social harmony and good order. Philosophic truth belongs in the room where a few like-minded free-thinking friends, Jews and Gentiles, meet and argue.

It is a virtue of Yovel’s book to stress the political tendencies of Spinoza’s epistemology within the life of the Jews in Europe and later in Israel. In all periods of history good philosophy has been written with one or both of two purposes in mind. First, with a moral and political purpose to indicate the best way of life, the path to human improvement, and, secondly, to indicate the path to genuine knowledge and to sound science. From time to time philosophers turn inward on themselves, refining their own instruments of inquiry, and they may then have the illusion that philosophy is an autonomous discipline, in the sense that it carries its own justification within itself.

This illusion is naturally fostered by the regular teaching of philosophy to thousands of students in universities and by the consequent proliferation of professional journals. Just as there used to be academic painting and architecture, as an offshoot of Beaux Arts training, so there is now academic philosophy; as a product of universities, a useful product that keeps bad metaphysics and other spiritual impostures at bay. But Spinoza, like Descartes, Leibniz, and Hobbes, in his thought and writing was directly confronting real political threats and the scientific needs of his time, as he conceived them, and he was not a university teacher. He began his book On the Correction of the Understanding with a solemn statement of his aim in the study of epistemology: it was human happiness and salvation. The Wars of Religion were destroying human happiness. Once emancipated by argument from the Judeo-Christian belief that God is more interested in human beings than in anything else in Nature, a free man will see stories about the creator’s relations with men as no more than a necessary prop for the weak-minded.

Spinoza’s principal work, The Ethics, could only be published posthumously. He devoted his last years to the unfinished Political Treatise, which advocates complete toleration of beliefs, intellectual freedom, and a balanced and mixed constitution, all necessary means to peace and good order. But he was also involved in the new physics promoted by Galileo and Descartes. His point of attachment was optics, a dominant science in the century of the microscope. His livelihood was grinding lenses. The notions of perspective, and of actively changing points of view, in perception and belief, permeate his theory of mind and his theory of freedom.

He was to be accused, not without reason, of being a materialist, which was taken to entail a rejection of the freedom of a person to choose for himself between God and perdition. And yet Parts IV and V of the Ethics present a picture of the free man’s escape from “bondage” into his final “freedom of mind.” Because he was primarily a moralist, intent upon the hope of peace, he did not fall into the trap that catches ordinary materialists, then and now. Impressed by the necessary completeness of physical laws covering all physical movements, including the movements of persons, they usually fail to ask themselves the question: How does a convinced materialist, perhaps a Marrano in Spain, represent to himself his decision, after anxious deliberation, to go to Holland?

Spinoza takes it for granted that all thinking at any level is embodied and realized in bodily processes. But from the standpoint of the active subject, wondering whether to move from Spain to Holland, his thinking is also an activity governed by laws of thought, as well as being an embodied process explicable by physical causes. Not only in persons and human minds, but throughout nature, we are compelled by philosophical reflection to recognize two orders of explanation: explanations in terms of an order of thought, governed by laws of thought, and explanation in terms of the laws of physical motion. The more we reflect upon the order and coherence of our own thoughts, the more active and therefore the more free we are. This is the sense of freedom as power and agency which will be of interest to Hegel, Marx, and to many other thinkers in the nineteenth century, who are reviewed in the second volume of Yovel’s work.

In his second volume Yovel surveys the responses to Spinoza’s theory of liberation from Kant to Freud, as his denial of the distinction between God and Nature gradually came to be understood, or at least not dismissed with horror, as it was during most of the eighteenth century. I found this volume rather less original than the first. It is the first rather than the second that enlarges the picture of Spinoza’s appearance in history as the first secular Jew, aggressively secular, and yet entirely Jewish in habits of thought and in range of reference. In Israel the question “Who is a Jew?” is widely and passionately discussed, and Yovel’s book has brought Spinoza and his dualities into the center of this controversy. In spite of the title of his major work, commentators have often seen Spinoza as a glacial, inhumanly detached, and impartial metaphysician. But Yovel is surely right that a political and moral urgency can be felt in all his writing, no less than in Machiavelli, Hobbes, and Locke. This urgency is not incompatible with writing in a more geometric, formal style. In this century Rudolf Carnap and Otto von Neurath, philosophers of science in the Vienna circle, associated their stern and reductive philosophy with visions of “a new society” incorporating the ideals of Bauhaus and of modern planning.* Political vision was combined in this work with an abstract and impersonal style of argument.

Yovel dwells on Spinoza’s influence upon the second great secular Jew, Heine, who rejoiced that, reading Spinoza, “one inhales the air of the future,” because he places “Holy Matter” on the same level with the “Holy Spirit.” Again, he explains how Nietzsche followed Spinoza in totally rejecting the supernatural and the transcendent, tearing aside all their modern disguises. But Nietzsche congratulated himself on going far beyond Spinoza in the unrelenting pursuit of freedom of mind. Spinoza had still clung to the ancient distinction between an active and strong love of the eternal structure of nature and a weak and passive love of transient things in the common order of nature. There is this unpurged residue of gravity and of reverence in the Ethics, while for Nietzsche the free man should be light-hearted, irresponsible, and satirical in the face of the meaningless necessities and the natural repetitions that surround him. He has no snobbish concern with Eternity.

Nietzsche claims that Spinoza feared transitoriness and change, a fear that reveals “a straightened soul full of mistrust” with bitter memories of persecution, still demanding compensation in a better world. The truly emancipated person finds his salvation in the recognition of uncertainty and of contingency and in the triumphant acceptance of the transient as sufficient in itself, as the wheel of fate turns. Appearances, intensely seen, should be enough, and the philosopher’s compensation, residence on a superior plane, is no longer needed. To all this a Spinozist has an answer: Nietzsche speaks only to “the happy few,” never to the vulgar, and, unlike Spinoza, he finds a salvation for individuals that is unconnected with boring, compromising, practical politics: he finds a hermit’s salvation.

Some mystery still surrounds Spinoza’s personality and intentions and perhaps always will. Even in his few surviving letters we do not catch his tone of voice, as, in reading Aubrey’s Brief Lives, we can hear Hobbes’s voice, his style and manner. Living and writing in Jerusalem, where all forms of Judaism survive, Professor Yovel has filled in a part of the background of this self-created and elusive man.

This Issue

May 17, 1990