Es ist literarisch und wissenschaftlich ein Meisterwerk. Bernard Alexander (in Spinoza, München, 1923, p. 65)
A book with a strange title...?
A curious book entitled Tractatus theologico-politicus (TTP) was probably published in January 1670. The title page of the book mentions no author, an invented publisher, and a fictitious place of publication. Both author and publisher apparently believed that the contents of the book could endanger their safety and possibly even their lives. That opinion was justified: Adriaan Koerbagh, friend and intellectual companion of Spinoza, was sentenced in 1668 for his ideas to 10 years forced labour in the Rasphuis in Amsterdam and died there in 1669 when Spinoza put the finishing touches to the TTP. Caution was therefore more than necessary: the much vaunted ‘tolerance’ of the Dutch (Calvinistic) Republic had its limits: not everything could be said and written ...
A few months after the publication, the Dutch censorship apparatus got underway. However, it would take until 1674 before the book was banned by the Court of Holland, the highest legal authority, along with several others (including Hobbes' Leviathan). In the end, the Catholic Church did not stay behind either, but the Pope took his time: only in 1690 did he put the TTP on the index expurgatorius, the index of forbidden books. Thus, in the United Republic and far beyond, in secular law as well as in canon law (utriusque juris), a legal basis was laid for further TTP curses and maledictions, nourished by intolerance that lies at the very heart of Christianity (and the other book religions). Roughly between 1670 and 1760, more than 250 French anti-TTP writings were published and more than 70 German ...
Fortunately, ‘divine providence’ was unable to stop the distribution of the book. More editions followed and a Dutch translation was soon circulating, probably (in whole or in part) by master translator Jan Hendriksz. Glazemaker. At the express request of Spinoza (audacity and heroism almost were completely alien to him) the translation was not published during Spinoza's lifetime. That only happened in 1693, twenty-three years after the edition of the original. Even then, the path of caution was followed: the book appeared under the concealing title De Rechtzinnige theologant and again did not mention an author and a fictitious place of publication. As early as 1678, the TTP was also translated into French with a fictional title, presumably by Gabriel de Saint-Glain (1662-1684). English and German translations also appeared in the 17th and 18th centuries.
TTP Ch. 9 - Adnotatio 14
Finally, what also makes the TTP in Spinoza's oeuvre special is the fact that the author wrote many explanations after its publication. The many questions from his friends, often first readers, prompted Spinoza to add footnotes to his text. Earlier, he had also added notes to his unpublished first work, his Tractatus de intellectu emendatione (TIE) (Treatise on the Improvement of the Mind). Thirty-nine adnotationes have surfaced to date. Of those 39, 5 have come to us in autograph: together with the 13 preserved autograph letters, they form an exceptional and extremely precious Spinoza treasure.
Spinoza's second publication presented itself in 1670 as a Tractatus theologico-politicus (a Theological-political treatise). The title may sound strange to secularised readers today, but that was completely different in Spinoza's time: theology was a dominant social fact in the 16th and 17th centuries, era of Reformation and Wars of Religion, and then deeply linked with monarch, fatherland and politics.
The historical context of the TTP
Spinoza probably wrote his TTP in the years 1665-1670. The year 1665 is considered terminus a quo based on information in a Spinoza letter of that year, as will be shown below. The terminus ad quem is of course the publication year stated on the title page of the TTP. But (with Spinoza there are always buts) it is considered possible that the book came off the press as early as late 1669.
Spinoza wrote the book when he lived in Voorburg, near The Hague. Research has shown that Spinoza had already made considerable progress with the editing of his Ethics. Here a question arises: why did he put the editing of his Ethics on hold to give priority to the Tractatus theologico-politicus, on which he will be working for another five years? A question easier formulated than answered ...
If you examine the historical genesis of Spinoza's writings, you will notice that the TTP is not in line thematically with his previous writings which can be interpreted as ‘preliminary stages’ of his main work, the Ethica, more geometrico demonstrata. In content and form, the TTP differs radically from the main work. However, this does not alter the fact that TTP and his Ethica are linked on many points. There are only a few reliable historical texts that can be related to the above question.
Henry Oldenburg (1619-1677) Secretary of the Royal Society
The first text... ...is a letter from Spinoza. Spinoza wrote a letter from Voorburg in September 1665 to Hendrik Oldenburg, secretary of the English Royal Society, in which he stated that he was in the process of writing down his ‘views on the Bible’.
Here is Spinoza's answer to why he writes that book:
he wants to expose the prejudices of theologians (understand: their Christian superstition), because they most of all hinder people who are concerned with philosophy.
he feels obliged to challenge the opinion that the people have of him, namely that he is an ‘ongodist’ (atheist).
he wants to defend the freedom to say and write what he thinks because this freedom is trampled on in every way by over-appreciated and audacious pastors.
The 3 reasons given by the letter writer in 1665, approximately 5 years before finishing and publication of the book, can in fact be reduced to 2:
reason (1) and reason (3) finally come down to the same thing: the religious prejudices of the Calvinist preachers hinder and hinder free thinking, the libertas philosophandi.
reason (2) the book must answer the allegation that he is an atheist.
The second text... ...that sheds light on the question ‘why-this-book’ is the subtitle of the TTP itself, (reformulated in the foreword): ‘The book contains a number of expositions showing that the freedom of philosophizing can not only be permitted while preserving piety and peace in the state, but that it cannot be abolished while maintaining peace and even piety in the state.' Spinoza was cautious man. This is already apparent from the motto on his letter stamp: caute! When it came to philosophy, religion, or politics, he probably did not show the back of his tongue. It may therefore be reasonably presumed that other reasons were involved, reasons that he could not or did not wish to make public. Many commentators argue that political motives also played a role in writing and publishing the TTP. However, everything that has been said and written about this is purely speculation because no direct historical sources are known about other motives. This does not detract from the fact that speculations that are sufficiently underpinned with proven historical peripheral information can still approach the historical truth somewhat.
Johan de Witt, 'Raadspensionaris' of Holland in 1652
Let us therefore consider the historical situation in the Dutch Republic in the period 1665-1670.
1 As mentioned, the TTP was written in Spinoza's Voorburg period. Spinoza was a man with both feet in his day and an extraordinary interest in politics. Some Spinoza experts are of the opinion that his move to Voorburg / The Hague had something to do with his political interests: he lived closer to the place where power was exercised, closer to his political friends. I agree with that view. Spinoza, not to forget, was also a ‘party man’ who chose against Orange and the fundamentalist Calvinists and for the party of Johan de Witt and allies. De Witt and Spinoza knew each other: a copy of the TTP was found in the Witts library after he was murdered. The auction catalogue of his estate described the TTP (item 33) as a book ‘written by an apostate Jew, forged in hellwith the devil, withtheknowledge of Mr. Jans (= J. de Witt) and his accomplices’ (not with complicity as S. Nadler incorrectly translated in his A Book forged in Hell, 2011).
2 The editing period of the TTP is situated in the ‘First Stadholderless Period’ (1665-1672). After the death of William II, the states where he had been stadtholder did not appoint a successor. Power fell into the hands of Johan (Jan) de Witt. The party struggle between Orangists /Calvinists and regents-citizens led by de Witt intensified. That battle was eventually won by the Orange Party and paid for with the horrific murder by the Hague mob of the de Witt brothers. in 1672.
3In the first decades of the 16th century it became increasingly clear that the Eighty Years' War (1568-1648) would result in a victory of the insurgents in the north. The need grew for a state doctrine that answered questions such as: what form of government should the future state assume? Is revolt against tyranny justified? What about the free exercise of religion in the new state, one of the core problems over which the war with Philip II of Spain was fought ...? It is evident that Johan de Witt was interested in political publications during the period when he became Grand Pensionary (Prime Minister) of Holland. In 1662, the learned and wealthy textile manufacturer Pieter Van den Hove (Pierre de la Court) published Het interestvan Holland (The Economical Interest of Holland), a book that served de Witt's political ambitions and was not inconvenient for him. Maybe it was even written on his behalf ...
4 The subtitle of the TTP proves that Spinoza also intended to mingle in the political debate of his day: freedom of opinion and the position of religion in state and law dealt with in the TTP were burning political themes at the time: the position of Spinoza on these two issues, as assumed, corresponded with those of Johan de Witt. It is therefore legitimate to assume that Spinoza's TTP contained some theses supporting the politics of the regent party and that his treatise, like the book by de la Cour just mentioned, was surely not entirely unwelcome to the regents.
For whom did Spinoza write this treatise?
At the end of the introduction to the TTP, Spinoza says straightforwardly for whom he writes his book:
‘That is, philosophical reader, (Philosophe lector) what I am submitting to your judgment here (...) I believe that most of what I can add is more than well known to philosophers (...). I have no intention of presenting it to others (reliquis).‘
So, Spinoza clearly envisions a ‘philosophical reader’. But who are they? Commentators who sprinkle salt on almost every Spinoza word have differing views on the identity of his ‘philosophical reader’. For my part: wasted ink and wasted breath. Anyone familiar with Spinoza's philosophical terminology may suppose that he uses the word philosopher in the ancient sense it has had since Plato, but that, as usual, he also adds a special meaning to the old word to integrate it into his philosophical views. Anyone who reads the passage quoted above completely and carefully, will see this assumption true: for Spinoza, a philosophical reader is a philosopher, yes, but one who ‘dares to think’ and who does not allow himself to be hindered by religious prejudices (superstition). Most academic philosophers of Spinoza's day were therefore best off slamming the TTP and joining the ranks of the ‘others’ because, like the people, they were blinded by religious superstition and prejudice. Of course, they did not and fulminated against the TTP and its author...
Spinoza writes in Latin. That proves that he intended to address an audience of docti, of well-educated readers. No one will doubt that Spinoza also counted his most intimate friends, his ‘followers’, to this group: they were often the first to know texts from their ‘master’. Many of them were not proficient in Latin, but enough texts in Dutch translation circulated to closely follow Spinoza's philosophical development. For example, Jarig Jelles, a wealthy grocer and one of his oldest and most loyal friends, may be called a doctus, even though he did not understand Latin.
Based on historical data and the text structure of the TTP, it is possible to somewhat differentiate this reader group from docti.
History tells us that in Spinoza's time in the cities of the Dutch Republic (foremostly in Amsterdam) a class of well-educated citizens flourished: academics, liberal Christians who looked beyond their Bibles, and learned merchants who were interested in art, literature, theology, and philosophy. Spinoza himself can be regarded as the prototype of such a learned merchant, a mercator sapiens, as Caspar Barlaeus, the first rector of the Amsterdam Atheneum illustre called this group docti.
Portuguese text of the ban (July the 27th 1654)
Another group of ‘philosophical readers’ can also be identified based on the structure of the TTP. The first part of the TTP (chapters 1-15) in which Spinoza criticizes the Old Testament is obviously also aimed at Jewish readers and more specifically, first and foremost, to the rabbinic exegetes of the Sephardic Jewish community of Amsterdam. That this was Spinoza's intention may be presumed based on an admittedly not historically proven but plausible story, as if Spinoza would have written an Apology in Spanish after his expulsion from the Jewish Amsterdam community (1656). That document is lost, but he would have incorporated that Apology in the TTP. If that was indeed the case, then that apology (or part of it) has ended up in the first part of the Treatise dealing with matters related to the religious disagreements that were the object of the ban.
A special book with ground -breaking ideas
Spinoza is a giant in philosophy. His world fame rests mainly on his Ethica, more geometrico demonstrata, more praised and quoted than read and understood. The Ethics introduces the reader to Spinoza's world and worldview, which is presented in a geometric line of argument. His TTP remained in the shadow of his Ethics, but that is completely unjustified. The Theological-Political treatise, like the main work, is without any doubt a philosophical masterpiece.
Regarding the structure of the TTP, the following can be noted. The TTP has a title which, as usual at the time, is supplemented by the author by a detailed subtitle indicating what the book will deal with. This is followed by a Preface (Praefatio) that further clarifies the subtitle of the text, exposes superstition and is a steppingstone to the content of the TTP. This Preface is both philosophically and literary a masterpiece that can also be read and enjoyed as a separate essay. In a Table of Contents, Spinoza lists all the chapters, which he provides with a title consisting of a few words, one sentence or a few sentences. The text of the writing consists of 20 chapters. The first 15 form the theological part, the last 5 the political part of the book. Both parts are not explicitly distinguished from each other, but the author marks the transition to the second part by a brief review of what the reader already absorbed. The author thus indicates that both parts, however different in theme, form one coherent whole. Spinoza, aware that his new publication is high-explosive, explicitly underlines in the last paragraph of the last chapter that he is a law-abiding citizen who did his best to avoid mistakes and had only good intentions:
‘I have done my utmost not to make mistakes and have taken particular care that everything I write is in full accordance with the laws of my country, with piety and morality.
The TTP, as the reader will want to see, is a well-structured and completed writing. The latter may be noted because most of Spinoza's writings have an unfinished character.
In terms of content, the TTP in 1670 was a ground-breaking and revolutionary book in more than one area.
1 In this book, Spinoza laid the foundation for a scientific study of the Bible: he is therefore generally regarded as the founder of modern Biblical exegesis. It took until the 19th century before Spinoza's text-critical rules for Bible research were generally accepted and further refined. At the time, this was mainly due to German Protestant theologians, afterwards joined by Catholic biblical scholars. It is no exaggeration to say that in this way Spinoza also made an important contribution to the creation of today's secular Western societies. I would like to add that Spinoza’s text-critical method also had a great influence on the emergence of historical science in the same era.
2 Spinoza put an end to the centuries-long tension in Western thought between philosophy and religion: Spinoza rejects the view of the scholastics, as if philosophy were a ‘maid’ of theology (philosophia ancilla theologiae). Theology and philosophy, he teaches, are both autonomous disciplines with their own finality and do not get in each other's way: the first is based on irrational belief (and prejudices), the other on rational knowledge.
3 Spinoza defends the right to free speech (libertas philosophandi): he considers freedom of conscience necessary to guarantee security and peace in society.
4 Spinoza's argument implies that in a state, religious authorities have no reason whatsoever to claim supremacy in the state, let alone monopolize state power. Religion has a role to play in society, but the state (i.e., the community) takes precedence and therefore the state must impose legal limits on the (permitted) religions and their ministers. These ideas will be more explicitly reiterated in Spinoza's Tractatus politicus, the last (unfinished) writing. The attentive reader will notice in the TTP the genesis of the fundamental idea that church and state must be (absolutely) separated from each other.
5 Spinoza is not in favour of the absolute monarchical state that was the rule in his day and was philosophically defended by Hobbes in his Leviathan. Absolute monarchs have an irrational-sacred character in that they are considered representatives of God on earth and, like the kings in the O.T., are anointed. Spinoza develops a rationalist state and legal doctrine, based on natural law (as he defines it), preferring the democratic form of government, rather than the monarchical or the oligarchic. The democratic form of government, he considers the most ‘natural’, because it is a form of government that grants citizens rights that are closest to those they enjoy in the natural state.
First Dutch translation of Thomas Hobbes' Leviathan (1667) Ex libris W. Schuermans
Is the TTP still worth reading in 2020?
After the polemic that flourished for roughly the first two centuries after the publication of the TTP, a more objective, scientific interest in Spinoza's oeuvre grew during the second half of the 19th century. His writings became almost exclusively owned by philosophers who pursued their business, which did not always contribute to a better understanding of Spinoza's teachings and core philosophical message. Over the course of the 20th century, Spinoza also aroused interest from a general readership. This is already proven by the existence in almost all European languages of pocket editions of, among others, TTP and Ethica.
What has a 17th century philosopher who left us a ‘theological-political’ treatise to tell educated readers of today? Quite a lot, I think, and here is why. Because Spinoza's name is spontaneously associated with his main work, the Ethics, readers often reach for that book. In many cases this does not end well. Perhaps it is therefore more advisable to become acquainted with Spinoza's character and personality, his philosophical universe, and its topicality through his Theological-Political Treatise.
Ets Haim-library in the Portuguese-Israelic synagogue in Amsterdam.
1 In the TTP the reader can become acquainted with the character and the rich but complicated personality of Spinoza, something that is virtually impossible through the reading of the Ethics: the reader experiences from the Preface Spinoza's élan vital and his existential authenticity that flows through the entire text. I would also point out here that the TTP is the only book in which Spinoza deals so extensively with the religious crisis that affected him as a student in Ets Haim and which eventually culminated in his expulsion from the Amsterdam Jewish community in 1656. Spinoza's political argument in the second part of the TTP (chapters 16 to 20) introduces into his political views and enables the reader and enables the reader to situate the author in the party politics of his day.
2 The TTP can serve the educated reader, better than any other writing of his hand, as a first introduction to the philosophical universe of the Amsterdam lens-sharpener-philosopher. During the reading, the good reader will get to know elements of Spinoza's metaphysics (including his conception of God, his naturalism), become familiar with the basic concepts of his constitutional and legal doctrine and moreover discover well-formulated wisdoms. A good reason to start an acquaintance with Spinoza with this book.
3 The ground-breaking character of the book has already been highlighted. Well: the basic ideas that Spinoza defends in the TTP have not lost any of their relevance today:
freedom of conscience: this right is still denied to billions of people by religious leaders and political autocrats. Free speech is also under pressure in Western democracies.
separation of church and state: without this separation it is not possible in a state to philosophize freely. Theocratic Muslim states daily prove themselves a scourge to their citizens, who are persecuted, tortured, and brutally executed in the name of the Supreme Being. But even in Western democracies this separation of church and state is not a fully completed story: these democracies, while constitutionally recognizing the freedom of worship, continue to maintain its financing with the community funds of a predominantly secular population.
the democratic form of government: the text fragments expressing Spinoza's preference for this form of government, read together with what he writes about it in his Political treatise, are used by democrats to add lustre to their political ideal and to underpin it philosophically. They forget all too easily that Spinoza's ‘democracy’ cannot simply be equated with what we mean today by democracy.
Finally, I would like to give a reading advice. Whoever takes the TTP in hand, steps away from the wrong idea that every book should be read from front cover to back cover. Read, without scruple, several capita selecta from the TTP first: use the table of contents as Spinoza wrote it himself. This will make linear reading of the book easier afterwards.
The Spinoza revival, which has been going on roughly since 1970, fortunately also resulted in a considerable increase in interest in the TTP. It is therefore hoped that this Spinoza book, together with his Ethics, will henceforth be the two basic books that will establish Spinoza's fame now and in the future.