A Book Forged in Hell
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A Book Forged in Hell

Spinoza's Scandalous Treatise and the Birth of the Secular Age

Steven Nadler

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  2. English
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eBook - ePub

A Book Forged in Hell

Spinoza's Scandalous Treatise and the Birth of the Secular Age

Steven Nadler

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The story of one of the most important—and incendiary—books in Western history When it appeared in 1670, Baruch Spinoza's Theological-Political Treatise was denounced as the most dangerous book ever published—"godless, " "full of abominations, " "a book forged in hell... by the devil himself." Religious and secular authorities saw it as a threat to faith, social and political harmony, and everyday morality, and its author was almost universally regarded as a religious subversive and political radical who sought to spread atheism throughout Europe. Yet Spinoza's book has contributed as much as the Declaration of Independence or Thomas Paine's Common Sense to modern liberal, secular, and democratic thinking. In A Book Forged in Hell, Steven Nadler tells the fascinating story of this extraordinary book: its radical claims and their background in the philosophical, religious, and political tensions of the Dutch Golden Age, as well as the vitriolic reaction these ideas inspired.It is not hard to see why Spinoza's Treatise was so important or so controversial, or why the uproar it caused is one of the most significant events in European intellectual history. In the book, Spinoza became the first to argue that the Bible is not literally the word of God but rather a work of human literature; that true religion has nothing to do with theology, liturgical ceremonies, or sectarian dogma; and that religious authorities should have no role in governing a modern state. He also denied the reality of miracles and divine providence, reinterpreted the nature of prophecy, and made an eloquent plea for toleration and democracy.A vivid story of incendiary ideas and vicious backlash, A Book Forged in Hell will interest anyone who is curious about the origin of some of our most cherished modern beliefs.

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Chapter 1


On the morning of July 28, 1670, Philips Huijbertsz1 said goodbye to his wife, Eva Geldorpis, and left his home on the Nieuwendijk in Amsterdam. On this summer day, however, the fifty-six-year-old silk merchant was not on his way to the shop he had inherited from his father. It was Sunday, and he had more spiritual matters to attend to—matters of grave concern to the religious and moral well-being of his community.
Just four days earlier the consistory, or church council, of Amsterdam’s Reformed Church had commissioned Brother Huijbertsz and his colleague, Brother Lucas van der Heiden, also in the silk trade, to represent it at the upcoming meeting of the Amsterdam regional classis.2 This was the larger district synod at which preachers from local church communities in Amsterdam and surrounding villages would regularly gather to address issues of common interest. (The Amsterdam classis was one of fourteen in the province of Holland.) Philips and Lucas were given the responsibility of making the members of the district synod aware of the Amsterdam consistory’s worries, expressed at their meeting of June 30, about some recently published materials:
Because some grievances now confront our church, an inquiry was undertaken in order to bring these forward to the district synod and accordingly to the provincial synod, should that be approved by the district synod and it has agreed that there is nothing new in this matter. Our church requests only that, under [the rubric of] the old grievances [gravamina], attention should especially be paid to the impudence of the papacy, Socinian and licentious book publications, and in particular the harmful book with the name Theological-Political Treatise.3
The “old grievances” that the consistory is now asking the Amsterdam classis to refer to in considering these new publications is an edict that the States of Holland—the chief legislative body of the province, and arguably the most powerful body in the nation—enacted in 1653 forbidding the printing and dissemination of certain “irreligious” books. The Amsterdam church elders would like the preachers sitting in the district synod to declare that the 1653 ban should be applied in this new case. The classis should then refer the matter to the Synod of North Holland, the provincial church council—there was another for South Holland—in whose jurisdiction the Amsterdam district, along with five others, lay.
Amsterdam was not the first Reformed consistory to take notice of “a profane, blasphemous book titled Theological-political treatise concerning the freedom of philosophizing in the state.” Already by May 1670 the church consistories of Utrecht, Leiden, and Haarlem had asked their town councils to seize any existing copies of the work and to take steps to prevent further publication or distribution. And the book had been published only in January of that year! Amsterdam was a bit slower in responding. However, as the most important city in the Netherlands, an urgent appeal brought forward from its Reformed leaders would certainly have great influence with the predikanten in the district and provincial synods.
Philips Huijbertszoon (“Huijbert’s son”) may have been charged with this important diplomatic task because he was a person of some reputation and trust in the community. Twenty years earlier he had acted as warranty for an exchange of Dutch citizens who, while abroad, had been captured as slaves and were being ransomed for a large sum of money.4 Or, as a member of the local church leadership, he may have been among those who were particularly upset by the writings in question. He was familiar with at least some of the contents of the Theological-Political Treatise that the consistory was asking the synod to consider. Soon after his arrival that day in the Nieuwe Kerk, where the Amsterdam classis held its meetings in the same room as the local consistory, he would read to its members some of the particularly offensive passages, in the hope of getting them to see the danger.
The presentation had its desired effect. That very afternoon, the Amsterdam district synod came to the conclusion that
licentious book publishing and especially the harmful book titled Theological-Political Treatise should be dealt with under the old grievances [i.e., those covered by the 1653 edict]. . . . The classis, having heard from its committee various enormous and abominable samples contained in that book, has proclaimed that book to be blasphemous and dangerous.5
It then forwarded the matter to the North Holland Synod, which was due to meet one week later. On August 5, the provincial body issued its own judgment:
The classis of Amsterdam desires that . . . licentious book publishing and especially the harmful book titled Theological-Political Treatise should be dealt with under the old grievances. . . . Regarding the blasphemous book, the Theological-Political Treatise, the deputies have taken all the necessary steps against that book with the first council in the Court [of Holland], and are awaiting the outcome. The Christian Synod, heartily abominating that obscene book, gives its thanks to the honorable gentlemen from Bennebroeck for their offer to suppress this writing as much as they can, and to the Brothers from Amsterdam for their reading of their extracts from the book. Thanks also to the deputies for their performed service, and [the synod] entrusts them together with the deputies from South Holland to present all this to their honorable Mightinesses [the States of Holland] and to seek their help against [the book] with powerful suppression of it, and also to seek an edict to forbid this and all other blasphemous books.6
It was just the result Philips Huijbertszoon and his colleagues from Amsterdam’s consistory were hoping for.
While these machinations were taking place in Amsterdam, the author of the scandalous book that so troubled the city’s church leaders was leaving behind life in the peaceful countryside and relocating to the city of The Hague, the administrative and legislative capital of the Dutch Republic. There, in some rooms on the upper floor of a house owned by the widow Van der Werve on a back wharf called De Stille Verkade (the Quiet Ferry Quay), he would quietly continue his philosophical and political writing.
Bento de Spinoza was born on November 24, 1632, to a prominent merchant family among Amsterdam’s Portuguese Jews.7 This Sephardic community was founded by former New Christians, or conversos—Jews who had been forced to convert to Catholicism in Spain and Portugal in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries—and their descendants. After fleeing harassment by the Iberian Inquisitions, which doubted the sincerity of the conversions, many New Christians eventually settled in Amsterdam and a few other northern cities by the early seventeenth century. With its generally tolerant environment and greater concern for economic prosperity than religious uniformity, the newly independent Dutch Republic (and especially Holland, its largest province) offered these refugees an opportunity to return to the religion of their ancestors and reestablish themselves in Jewish life. There were always conservative sectors of Dutch society clamoring for the expulsion of the “Portuguese merchants” in their midst.8 But the more liberal regents of Amsterdam, not to mention the more enlightened elements in Dutch society at large, were unwilling to make the same mistake that Spain had made a century earlier and drive out an economically important part of its population, one whose productivity and mercantile network would make a substantial contribution to the flourishing of the Dutch Golden Age.
The Spinoza family was not among the wealthiest of the city’s Sephardim, whose wealth was in turn dwarfed by the fortunes of the wealthiest Dutch. They were, however, comfortably well-off. Spinoza’s father, Miguel, was an importer of dried fruit and nuts, mainly from Spanish and Portuguese colonies. To judge both by his accounts and by the respect he earned from his peers, he seems for a time to have been a fairly successful businessman.
Bento (or, as he would have been called in the synagogue, Baruch) must have been an intellectually gifted youth, and he would have made a strong impression on his teachers as he progressed through the levels of the community’s school. He probably studied at one time or another with all of the leading rabbis of the Talmud Torah congregation, including Menasseh ben Israel, an ecumenical and cosmopolitan rabbi who was perhaps the most famous Jew in Europe; the mystically inclined Isaac Aboab da Fonseca; and Saul Levi Mortera, the chief rabbi of the congregation, whose tastes ran more to rational philosophy and who often clashed with Rabbi Aboab over the relevance of kabbalah, an esoteric form of Jewish mysticism.
Spinoza may have excelled in school, but, contrary to the story long told, he did not study to be a rabbi. In fact, he never made it into the upper levels of the educational program, which involved advanced work in Talmud. In 1649, his older brother Isaac, who had been helping his father run the family business, died, and Spinoza had to cease his formal studies to take his place. When Miguel died in 1654, Spinoza found himself, along with his other brother, Gabriel, a full-time merchant, running the firm Bento y Gabriel de Spinoza. He seems not to have been a very shrewd merchant, however, and the company, burdened by the debts left behind by his father, floundered under their direction.
Spinoza did not have much of a taste for the life of commerce anyway. Financial success, which led to status and respect within the Portuguese Jewish community, held very little attraction for him. By the time he and Gabriel took over the family business, he was already distracted from these worldly matters and was devoting more and more of his energies to intellectual interests. Looking back a few years later over his conversion to the philosophical life, he wrote of his growing awareness of the vanity of the pursuits followed by most people (including himself), who gave little thought to the true value of the goods they so desperately sought.
After experience had taught me that all the things which regularly occur in ordinary life are empty and futile, and I saw that all the things which were the cause or object of my fear had nothing of good or bad in themselves, except insofar as [my] mind was moved by them, I resolved at last to try to find out whether there was anything which would be the true good, capable of communicating itself, and which alone would affect the mind, all others being rejected—whether there was something which, once found and acquired, would continuously give me the greatest joy, to eternity.
He was not unaware of the risks involved in abandoning his former engagements and undertaking this new enterprise.
I say that “I resolved at last”—for at first glance it seemed ill-advised to be willing to lose something certain for something then uncertain. I saw, of course, the advantages that honor and wealth bring, and that I would be forced to abstain from seeking them, if I wished to devote myself seriously to something new and different; and if by chance the greatest happiness lay in them, I saw that I should have to do without it. But if it did not lie in them, and I devoted my energies only to acquiring them, then I would equally go without it.9
By the early to mid-1650s, Spinoza had decided that his future lay in philosophy, the search for knowledge and true happiness, not in the importing of dried fruit.
Around the time of his disenchantment with the mercantile life, Spinoza began studies in Latin and the classics. Latin was still the lingua franca for most academic and intellectual discourse in Europe, and Spinoza would need to know the language for his studies in philosophy, especially if he planned on attending any university lectures. He had to go outside the Jewish community for instruction in these disciplines, and found what he needed under the tutelage of Franciscus van den Enden, a former Jesuit and political radical whose home seemed to function as a kind of salon for secular humanists, arch-democrats, and freethinkers. (Van den Enden himself was later executed in France for his participation in a republican plot against King Louis XIV and the monarchy.) It was probably Van den Enden who first introduced Spinoza to the works of Descartes, who would prove so important to Spinoza’s philosophical development, and of other contemporary thinkers. While pursuing this secular education in philosophy, literature, and political thought at his Latin tutor’s home, Spinoza seems also to have continued his Jewish education in the yeshiva (or academy) Keter Torah (Crown of the Law), run by Rabbi Mortera. It was probably under Mortera that Spinoza first studied Maimonides and other Jewish philosophers.
Although distracted from business affairs by his studies and undoubtedly experiencing a serious weakening of his Jewish faith as he delved ever more deeply into the world of pagan and gentile letters, Spinoza kept up appearances and continued to be a member in good standing of the Talmud Torah congregation throughout the early 1650s. He paid his dues and communal taxes, and even made the contributions to the charitable funds that were expected of congregants.
And then, on July 27, 1656, the following proclamation was read in Hebrew before the ark of the Torah in the crowded synagogue on the Houtgracht:
The gentlemen of the ma’amad [the congregation’s lay governing board] hereby proclaim that they have long known of the evil opinions and acts of Baruch de Spinoza, and that they have endeavored by various means and promises to turn him from his evil ways. But having failed to make him mend his wicked ways, and, on the contrary, daily receiving ever more serious information about the abominable heresies that he practiced and taught and about his monstrous deeds, and having numerous trustworthy witnesses who have reported and borne witness to this effect in the presence of the said Espinoza, they have become convinced of the truth of this matter.
The board, having consulted with the rabbis, consequently decided that the twenty-three-year-old Spinoza
should be excommunicated and expelled from the people of Israel. By decree of the angels and by the command of the holy men, we excommunicate, expel, curse, and damn Baruch de Espinoza, with the consent of God, Blessed be He, and with the consent of the entire holy congregation, and in front of these holy scrolls with the 613 precepts which are written therein; cursing him with the excommunication with which Joshua banned Jericho and with the curse which Elisha cursed the boys and with all the castigations which are written in the Book of the Law. Cursed be he by day and cursed be he by night; cursed be he when he lies down and cursed be he when he rises up. Cursed be he when he goes out and cursed be he when he comes in. The Lord will not spare him, but then the anger of the Lord and his jealousy shall smoke against that man, and all the curses that are w...


  1. Cover
  2. Half title
  3. Title
  4. Copyright
  5. Dedication
  6. Contents
  7. Preface
  8. Acknowledgments
  9. Chapter 1 Prologue
  10. Chapter 2 The Theological-Political Problem
  11. Chapter 3 Rasphuis
  12. Chapter 4 Gods and Prophets
  13. Chapter 5 Miracles
  14. Chapter 6 Scripture
  15. Chapter 7 Judaism, Christianity, and True Religion
  16. Chapter 8 Faith, Reason, and the State
  17. Chapter 9 Libertas philosophandi
  18. Chapter 10 The Onslaught
  19. A Note on Texts and Translations
  20. Abbreviations
  21. Notes
  22. Bibliography
  23. Index