Marcelo Dascal
Baruch-Benedictus: From uprooted roots
to root-independent ideas?

Marcelo Dascal

Tel Aviv University

My brief contribution to this volume is not, strictly speaking, historical. No careful analysis of documents will be offered, no critical apparatus will be supplied, and some measure of descriptive inadequacy is likely to lurk behind it. Yet, it is historical in a broader sense. For it is a reflection – to some extent speculative, I admit – on the rather mysterious paths that connect personal, social, political, and other historical circumstances, on the one hand, to the emergence of new ideas in a particular human mind, on the other. In a sense, this is a reflection on the singularity of the kairós that, though entirely contingent, invites as it were a mind to endeavor to transcend the boundaries of its contingency. And some minds, such as Spinoza’s, are able to take full advantage of this invitation.

In closing the “Uprooted Roots” conference, I pointed out that a meeting devoted to the cultural resurgence of Jewish life in Amsterdam (and elsewhere) after the expulsion from the Iberian Peninsula could not fail to refer to the most famous son of the Portuguese Jewish community in that city. It turns out, however, that this is not so obvious as it seemed to me when I brought up this topic in the conference. After all, Baruch or, as he later preferred to be called, Benedictus, abandoned the Jewish community and as an adult took no active part in its material and spiritual life. Instead of cultivating the newly planted roots, he deliberately chose to uproot himself, for the third consecutive time in the history of his family. Furthermore, his personal and intellectual trajectory was not typical of the members of that community, nor can it be taken as representative of the destiny of immigrants in general.

It is precisely this atypical character of Spinoza’s life choices that has drawn my attention, especially in the context of a conference where the root metaphor looms so large. For he in fact called into question – both through his life and through his thought, with remarkable courage – the apparent naturalness of this widespread metaphor. Here you have someone who displays an ostensive lack of concern for roots, at a time when everybody else, especially in his community, is very much concerned with them. Here you have a man who does not take part in the preservation and development of his community’s renewed roots, at a time when, as a rule, immigrants undertook, with immense effort, to reconstruct their communities and traditional forms of life by creating new roots in new soil. Here you have an individual who opts for a rootless life and ends up living in nearly complete isolation, at a time when it was virtually impossible to live without belonging to some community, even in the liberal Amsterdam under Jan de Witt.

It is exactly the unusual departure by this particular individual from all these expectations that seems to me to deserve close scrutiny. On the one hand, because it may reveal deeper aspects of the phenomenon of immigration, of community belonging in a liberal society in the making, and of the limits to freedom such a belonging, no matter in what kind of society, sets up. On the other, because it expresses profoundly and very early, what would later become a central topos of the debate between the Enlightenment and its detractors: the valuation of the universal vs. that of the particular point of view – the former based on reason alone, the latter, on tradition and birth. In what follows I will briefly explore some of these aspects of Spinoza’s thought and life. My purpose here, however, is not to find out what actually caused Spinoza’s singular life and thought choices, but to reflect about what might have provided the opportunity for them and what may be their lasting significance.

The fact that in his mature behavior and thought Benedictus not only distanced himself from his Jewish roots, but also severely criticized their theological, historical and textual underpinnings does not mean, of course, that Baruch was not influenced by those roots in his formative years as well as later. In the last decades, intensive research has shown the extent of the Jewish, Marrano, Spanish, and Portuguese influences upon his mind, which undoubtedly left their imprint in his mature work. Nevertheless, the more we know about this influence, the greater the puzzle, for the gap between what he seems to have borrowed from these sources and the actual content of his philosophy remains unbridgeable. Likewise, although his views were undoubtedly influenced by the philosophy and by the political debates of his time, as well as by his friends, they have an originality and independence that makes it futile to try to account for them principally in terms of their roots. It is as if Spinoza’s thought, having gathered all the energy it could muster from its formative sources, took off and left these sources far behind. To be sure, these sources provided the initial impulse which opened before him regions towards which none of them nor their combination could have led him by themselves – towards a cosmic realm where indeed the very idea of particular roots would seem to be entirely irrelevant.

Benedictus became interested exclusively in that realm where the true laws of the world can be found and formulated. This is the realm that acknowledges as its ruler only the power of knowledge, i.e. of adequate ideas and necessary truth. “It is not in the nature of Reason to consider things as contingent; it rather considers them as necessary” – he says in Proposition xliv of the Second Part of the Ethics. It is the exercise of this power of Reason that yields true explanations of whatever happens in the world; it is from it that the norms that human institutions and human behavior should follow derive. No wonder that the ruler of such a realm can be viewed as infinitely superior to any other power, and thus well deserves to be described as “divine” in the proper sense of the word. In so far as it encompasses everything by revealing its inherent lawfulness, it is immaterial whether it is called ratio, deus or natura.

What is not immaterial, of course, is to taint its absolute universality with particular characteristics, such as those attributed to the “personal” deities of various religions. Once the uncompromising universal point of view had been adopted, sooner or later the critique of particularized religions that purport to reveal “the truth” would have to follow. In a century of profound religious disagreement, where the bloody wars of religion decimated entire nations, such a critique could only be expected and welcomed. The peculiarity of Benedictus’s critique of religion, however, lies in the fact that, unlike that of the vast majority of his contemporaries, it was not addressed against other, competing religions, in an attempt to demonstrate the superiority of his own or of any particular one. On the contrary, he began with a critical examination of his own religion, the one he knew best, and concluded with a critique of the institution of religion as such.

Not all that he found in Judaism, particularly in Hebrew history, was completely worthless in his eyes, though. True to his roots perhaps, in the Tractatus Theologico-politicus, which contains a sharp critique of the Old Testament, Baruch also finds something to praise in the legacy of the ancient Jews. In particular, in Chapters 18-19, he analyzes at length the virtues of the first Jewish state, which he describes as a theocracy based on a direct pact between the totality of the Jewish people and God, who thereby is empowered as the people’s supreme and only ruler. Among these virtues, he points out the separation of powers between the religious and civil authorities, the egalitarian division of property, the democratic nature of the people’s decision to accept the pact with God, and the federative character of the bonds uniting the twelve tribes, which allowed them to preserve their relative autonomy. He even compares the first Hebrew state with the United Provinces of the Netherlands of time (especially in connection with their federative organization). But he makes clear that there is no room for seeing in that state an ideal model of a political regime, for the simple reason that it was appropriate only under very special historical and geopolitical conditions.

The adoption of the universal point of view, thus, does not mean blindness to valuable characteristics of the particular; nor does it mean forgetfulness to the lessons of history. More important than the merits of the first Jewish State, what mattered for Spinoza was to draw the lesson from its debacle, which was – according to him – the consequence of the careless modification, by greedy power-holders, of its original constitution. The conclusion of Chapter 18, “Political lessons drawn from the organization of the Republic of the Hebrews and its history” is, accordingly, quite conservative: “… every state must conserve the type of regime under which it lives, which should not be modified without risking complete ruin”.1 Such an extremely careful statement echoes the solemn declaration at the end of the TTP’s Preface: “I gladly submit the whole of my text to the examination and judgment of the High Powers of my country. If, according to them, any of the claims I will argue for contradicts the national laws or damages the general interest, I withdraw it. […] I have made all effort […] not to write anything that does not conform to the laws of my country, to the most demanding [religious] fervor, and to the most respectable customs”.

These cautious remarks notwithstanding, Spinoza was no conservative at all. The main thesis of the Tractatus was definitely anti-religious and libertarian. He accepted honest and pure religiosity, provided it remained pure – which meant: (a) not in the hands of “administrators” of religious services (such as excommunication, explicitly mentioned in the TTP, Chapter 17); (b) keeping religion and politics apart; and (c) keeping religion and reason apart – the former in charge only of revealed matters, the latter of the knowledge of nature – “so that none would be the servant of the other”. None of these conditions was easy to fulfill, since: (a) the clergy always manages to take over the administration of the religious needs of men; (b) human fear and credulity usually leads to a blend of religiosity with superstition, which certain political regimes manipulate to their benefit and use as a handy tool to control the masses: “[…] the biggest secret of the monarchic regime and its vital interest consist in misleading men by disguising as religion the fear through which one desires to control them; in this way, they will battle for their servitude, as if they were acting for their salvation, and they will believe they are not vilifying themselves but rather highly honoring themselves by spilling their blood and sacrificing their lives for the sake of the pride of a single individual” (TTP, Preface); and (c) by stipulating criteria for determining the reasonableness of religious practices, wasn’t reason in fact arrogating the role of indisputable master?

The proper exercise of reason, in turn, requires liberty. For “it is impossible […] that one’s soul be entirely subjected to another, since nobody can transfer to another person his natural right or faculty to reason freely and to hold beliefs about anything, nor can he be forced to do so” (TTP, Chapter 20). Furthermore, such a free exercise of reason and judgment “not only can be granted without damage to piety and peace, but if it is suppressed it will suppress with it the supreme peace of the State as well as piety” (TTP, Preface). The reason for this lies simply in the fact that “a powerful and autonomous society is the one which is governed by reason” (Tractatus Politicus, Chapter 5).

Such passages could be read, especially in the light of Spinoza’s ‘conservatism’ mentioned above, as nothing but a defense of the liberal constitution in force at the moment in the United Provinces. Benedictus’s commitment to the republican regime and his worries about the eventual return of the House of Orange to power were no doubt sincere. And Baruch’s previous experience with the “administration” of the Jewish religion in Amsterdam, as well as with the prevalent bigotry of the various Christian confessions were sufficient grounds for his generalized critique of religion.

But the reference to these contingencies seems to me somehow insufficient, precisely because they are unable to account for the strength, breadth and depth of Spinoza’s systematic drive to free his theoretical vision from these as well as from any other contingencies. For him, the possibility of using reason not only depends upon a political regime that grants the liberty necessary for it: using reason is being a free and autonomous being, and a free political order is a rational political order. The combination of the relative liberty Baruch-Benedictus could enjoy in Amsterdam, Leiden or Den Haag, the access he had to new philosophical and political ideas, and his personal disenchantment with the Judaism practiced in the Portuguese synagogue of Amsterdam certainly provided the unique opportunity, the kairós, for his mind to look for – and to create – new horizons of thought. The latter, rather than the former, have certainly been the reason for Spinoza’s ever lasting influence upon so many minds in so many different places and times.

Benedictus’s uncompromising and exemplary quest for universality provides, however, a poignant example of a familiar paradox and raises a fundamental question that is still with us today. The paradox, of the tu quoque variety, lies in the apparent contradiction between the content of his doctrine and his own life. His extreme rationalism, as is well known, required everything – the universal as well as the singular – to be fully determined by the lawfulness of the world. This includes the will: “The mind has no absolute or free will; the mind is rather determined to will this or that by a cause, which is itself determined by another, this one, in turn, being determined by another cause, and so on to infinity” (Ethics, Second Part, Proposition xlviii). But doesn’t this exclude the radical liberty Spinoza himself was able to demonstrate by the very creation of such a radical doctrine?

The fundamental question Spinoza’s case confronts us with is whether a universality of the kind he sought, i.e., free of all contingency, is at all possible. Certainly ideas, especially of the kind Spinoza developed, are the best possible candidates for breaking free from their surrounding circumstances and for displaying a mode of justification dependent only upon logic and rationality. But can this world of ideas, through which we are supposed to attain “adequate” and “necessary” knowledge, be entirely decontextualized or “uprooted” from the “real world”? In fact, Spinoza’s own principles provide a sweeping negative answer to this question: just as there is no “absolute or free will”, so too there are no context-free or cause-free ideas, for “the will and the understanding are one and the same thing” (Ethics, Second Part, Corollary to Proposition xlix). His principles, therefore, imply that the contents of his own thought must be ultimately accountable for in terms of their causal “roots”. If this is the case, then his doctrine – like any other doctrine – results from a particular historical conjuncture and is doomed to occupy forever a particular “place” in the history of ideas whose mark it bears. But then, what right does it have to proclaim its own universal truth?

In his radical, courageous and uncompromising way, Spinoza presented us with a fundamental dilemma. In our endeavor to know the world and to act rationally, the only possibilities he considered are either to admit the full contextual determination or the full autonomy of our understanding and will. To escape this dilemma, we must be able to elaborate a tertium that breaks this cruel dichotomy – a “softer” notion of rationality capable of granting both the causal power of the context and the autonomy of reason their share in accounting for whatever knowe may acquire. Spinoza, of course, should not be blamed for not envisaging (or not wanting to reveal to us his thoughts about) such a tertium. Conceptual revolutions such as the one he performed risk to become blurred if they do not appeal to sharp contrasts. For this reason, their value lies not so much in their doctrinal legacy as in their showing to later generations that there is nothing sacred in previously entrenched conceptual habits, methods, and doctrines. We should forever be grateful to Spinoza for having taught this to us.2



1. All translations are mine. In what follows, the Tractatus Theologico-politicus will be referred to as TTP.
2. I am grateful to Pedro Lomba, Noa Naaman, Cristina Marras, and for Genéviève Brykman for their helpful comments and suggestions.