Bacon & Spinoza

(Based on Will Durant's The Story of Philosophy)

Francis Bacon (1561-1626)


Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677)

The philosophical career of Baruch Spinoza, a Dutch Jew, seems to have been launched by the disintegration of a budding romance with the daughter of his Latin instructor. Certainly the seeds of philosophic endeavor, however, had been sown through the earlier unsettling reading of Maimonides's Guide to the Perplexed. Later he was influenced by Bruno's notion that mind and matter are one, and that every particle of reality is composed inseparably of the physical and the mental. Spinoza would soon be excommunicated from the synagogue for his heretical pantheistic views.

Spinoza was careful to distinguish, however, between natura naturans (nature begetting) and natura naturata (nature begotten)-the former equated with Deity, the latter distinguished from Deity. The former was tantamount to Bergson's elan vitale and consisted of the laws of nature. This life process which he termed natura naturans was the eternal substance or the "I AM" associated with the ancient Hebrew name for Deity and of which everything else was a transient form or mode. Both mental and molecular processes were a singular substance which was God.

Applying this metaphysical concept to religion, Spinoza regarded the miraculous in the Old and New Testaments (which he regarded as a continuous whole) as adaptations of eternal truths to the public mind--supernatural imagery designed to impress upon others that the Jews were the favorites of Deity. Understood in this way, the Bible contained nothing contrary to reason, but if taken literally, then the Bible was full of contradictions, errors, and impossibilities. Spinoza insisted that, if these improbable doctrines of the miracles of Jesus were to be withdrawn, then the Jews would soon recognize Jesus as the greatest and best of the prophets. "The eternal wisdom of God . . .," he argued, has shown itself forth in all things, but chiefly in in the mind of man, and most of all in Jesus Christ." "Christ was sent to teach not only the Jews, but the whole human race"; hence "he accommodated himself to the comprehension of the people . . . and most often taught by parables."

From Spinoza's viewpoint, the learned philosopher had an advantage over the common man in understanding the nature of Jesus' ministry and teaching. From Jesus' standpoint, the very opposite was true. God had "hidden these things from the wise and learned" and "revealed them to little children" (Matthew 11:25; cf. Acts 4:13). In fact, the parables themselves, to which Spinoza referred, were designed to hide (in a manner of speaking) the truth of the Kingdom of God from those who persisted in their skepticism in the face of overwhelming evidence (Mark 4:11)  Yet reason played a role in judging the truth of a matter by comparing it with the touchstone of the Hebrew prophetic writings (Acts 17:11), and, and once the truth of the New Testament was recorded in written form, that itself became the doctrinal standard for evaluating religious and philosophical ideas (2 Peter 1:19-22).

Spinoza's suggestion that the Old Testament was designed to impress others that the Jews were the "favorites" of Deity is quite misleading and betrays Spinoza's ignorance concerning the meaning of grace as portrayed by both the Old and New Testaments.  The calling of God's grace left no room for human flattery or boasting; accordingly, Israel was never considered special in and of herself.  This fact is made crystal clear by the following quotation pertaining to God's command to drive out the Canaanite nations from their land.  

No, it is not because of your righteousness or your integrity that you are going to take possession of their land; but on account of the wickedness of these nations, the LORD your God will drive them out before you, to accomplish what he swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  Understand, then, that is not because of your righteousness that the LORD your God is giving you this good land to possess, for you are a stiff-necked people (Deuteronomy 9:5-6).

The Dutch Jewish philosopher's denial of the miraculous represented a philosophical assault on both the Jewish and Christian religions.  Ironically, an earlier assault on the Christian religion by a Jew of the second century discredits Spinoza's argument. Origen's treatise Against Celsus describes this attack on the Christian faith. The Jewish man, to whom the heretic Celsus referred, claimed that Jesus' extraordinary deeds were accomplished by magic which he purportedly learned in Egypt. And while this argument is a bit absurd, since Jesus' only recorded journey to Egypt was as an infant, it does remarkably attest to the fact of extraordinary deeds in Jesus' ministry. The Jew whom Celsus quoted apparently knew that it would be useless to deny these deeds being so close to the time of the events themselves. The only thing he could hope to do was to put a "spin" on Jesus' extraordinary deeds in order to discredit them.   Even the Muslim Koran affirms the miraculous deeds of Jesus, though it puts a Muslim "spin" on those deeds (Sura v. 11).

From Spinoza's metaphysical concept rooted in the order of Nature there followed also the ethical principle so associated with his name, namely sub specie aeternitatis ("under the look of eternity"). Yet according to his view, man per se, or standing alone, had no ethical obligation to anyone. Only as he was associated with other human beings was there a moral obligation imposed upon him. God had no interest in the private affairs of a man, but only in ordering the parts in relation to the whole--and for Spinoza, the whole seemed to be the order and process of Nature, however he equated that process with Deity. For Spinoza, there was virtue in modesty but not in humility which he associated with femininity. There was no room in his ethical system for repentance, which, according to the Greek metanoia, represented a "change of mind."

And though man was "under the look of eternity," his soul was not immortal, and so eternity did not concern man after his earthly demise.

His ethic was essentially Greek rather than Christian: "the endeavor to understand is the first and only basis of virtue." Love was valued only because it could be demonstrated that hatred could more easily be overcome by it than by reciprocated hate. Self-preservation was the foundation of virtue dictated by reason.

As for his political philosophy, Spinoza, perhaps influenced by his Dutch environment, would have made a good American constitutionalist: "If actions could only be made the ground of criminal prosecutions, and words were allowed to pass free, sedition would be divested of every semblance of justification."