For us to truly understand who Baruch De Spinoza was we need to put ourselves in his shoes. One thing that’s really easy to do as you’re trying to learn stuff about history is to look at these people as though they’re just some guy that you met at the mall on a Saturday. I feel like, we learn things about people, we experience their personality and we judge them. Sometimes, and I was guilty of this for a long time, we don’t fully consider the fact that these people might as well be from another planet than us. What frame of reference do we have when looking at someone like Spinoza? At least when you think of primitive man and what it must have been like to live as a hunter gatherer, at least we can look at modern hunter gatherers…Papau New Guinea, the Kalahari Bushmen, people like that, we coexist with hunter gatherers. There is no where on earth today that really mimics the sort of political or religious uncertainty that pervades this time period were talking about and there aren’t many places that can mimic the sort of ruthless, gruesome acts that are being committed in the name of these competing interests.
And it’s entirely complicated because there is SO MUCH change going on in the world at such a rapid pace…there isn’t just one war going on. This time period can’t be characterized by saying two religious views were butting heads…or that faith and reason were butting heads…this intellectual war spread across the entire continent of Europe and there were dozens of battles taking place simultaneously in this sharknado of change.
This rapid change is what makes this one of the most fascinating points in history and it is impossible to list or describe all the different areas where things were changing…and even if it was I wouldn’t do it…that’s not what this show is about. But what I can do, is talk about one of these scenes that took place during Spinoza’s life that illustrates the sort of world that he found himself living in. This event crushed Spinoza and it can give us some insight into how he was forced to act during his lifetime. How the events of his life shaped his behavior. This is the story of Johan De Witt.
So one of these battles that were going on in this larger intellectual war zone had to do with government. What is the role of government in a civilized society? How should the government implement its strategy? How coercive is it justified to be when meeting its goals? Lots of questions. And just like in modern times where there are fights going on between special interest groups and one special interest group may hire a lobbyist to try to influence legislation or they might start an organization that is dedicated to pushing forward their agenda, specific “political” special interest groups back in the time of Spinoza organized in a similar way. Not everybody wanted their government to be a republic, which was becoming an increasingly popular thing around there at the time. One of these “special interest groups” was called orangism.
Now at first glance orangism…sounds pretty good! I mean, what’s wrong with oranges? Well it had nothing to do with the fruit, they were supporters of what was known as the House of Orange-Nassau at the time, essentially a big group of people that wanted a monarchist form of government whose sole purpose was to oppose the other big political group at the time who was trying to erect a republic. The fanaticism of these people. The idea of a mob of people organizing together and willing to conspire and lie and commit terrible acts of violence against someone who just didn’t agree with them about something.
Johan De Witt was the recently deposed leader of the pro-republic political group at the time and he was seen, by some, as one of the most brilliant political minds in the world and by others as an enormous threat. See there was this wave of change going through Europe, but just like many points in history where there are changes going on of this magnitude, what inevitably happens is that not everybody wants to change. No matter how bad things used to be, there are people that BENEFITTED from the way it used to be and they are going to fight to keep things the same. They’re going to rally people. They’re going to organize. They’re going to do whatever they need to do to return things back to normal.
So on August 20th 1672, they did what they had to do. Johan De Witt was visiting his brother in prison who was being held on a charge of attempted murder that was almost unanimously considered to be false. There was a mob of people working on behalf of the House of Orange who were waiting for him when he exited the prison with his brother. There are stories of how the ring leader of the mob told the guard who was supposed to be watching the area during the time…that a couple farmers were stealing stuff and that he needed to go check it out, but it was just to give Johan De Witt zero chance of survival. What happened next is one of the most horrific scenes you’ll ever read about:
“every one of the miscreants, emboldened by his [Johan’s] fall, wanted to fire his gun at him, or strike him with blows of the sledge-hammer, or stab him with a knife or swords, every one wanted to draw a drop of blood from the fallen hero, and tear off a shred from his garments.
And after having mangled, and torn, and completely stripped the two brothers, the mob dragged their naked and bloody bodies to an extemporized gibbet, where amateur executioners hung them up by the feet.
Then came the most dastardly scoundrels of all, who not having dared to strike the living flesh, cut the dead in pieces, and then went about the town selling small slices of the bodies of John and Cornelius at ten sous a piece.”
This mob of people first beat and stabbed them to death, then they stripped them naked, hung their bodies upside down and cut them into pieces and sold them around the town. There are other accounts that they cut out their hearts and either ate them, or put them on display at one of the ring leaders houses…like a souvenir baseball he caught at a baseball game. Let’s keep this in perspective…they did all of this because they didn’t agree with someone.
This is something that we should talk about when thinking about this time period. There are a lot of people that oversimplify what causes gruesome violence like this to occur. They’ll say stuff like “religion should be abolished because, look at all the terrible atrocities that have been committed in the name of religion!” 9/11, the crusades, all the bloodshed during the reformation…what these people fail to realize is that religion is not the problem. Look at this example that we’re talking about with Johann De Witt. This guy was torn apart and eaten by a mob of people for a political cause. Should we abolish government because of that? Dictators have invaded countries and killed millions of people in the name of some nationalistic sentiment. You know, we did this for the good of America! Just like it is possible to have a country that doesn’t commit genocide in the name of nationalism…it is possible to have a religion that doesn’t subjugate, enslave or kill people in the name of their religion. There is an Indian religion whose origins go WAY back to around the 7th century BC and it’s called Jainism. Now if you’re a follower of Jainism, you live by a strict principle of non-violence towards ALL living creatures. That is the ultimate good. It is just a beautiful religion…the promote complete equality among all living things and they wouldn’t ever THINK of mobbing together and disemboweling someone, let alone fly planes into buildings.
My point is not to find an exception to a rule and say that people are wrong…my point is that if it is possible to have a religion like Jainism, and many other religions that don’t have violent extremists, if it is possible for those to exist, then maybe there is something that underlies religion that is the real problem. Maybe that thing can ALSO be found in all of these other things, like the Orangists from the story we just told, or people that commit violence in the name of their country. Maybe the real problem is man’s ability to attach themselves to a tribe and marginalize other groups of people that don’t agree with them. And if you are someone that truly wants the violence to stop and not someone that just has an ax to grind with religion, you can see that abolishing religion doesn’t solve the problem, it just delays it.
We can see this in the example of Johann De Witt.
Spinoza was absolutely devastated when this happened. Leibniz, a contemporary and friend of Spinoza and the third of the great continental rationalists wrote later about Spinoza telling him about the day when the mob attacked them:
I have spent several hours with Spinoza, after dinner. He said to me that, on the day of the massacres of the De Witts, he wanted to go out at night and post a placard near the site of the massacres reading ultimi barbarorum. But his host locked the house to keep him from going out, for he would be exposed to being torn to pieces.
Spinoza was so angry at these people, so mad at them for massacring “reason itself”…that he painted what amounted to a big piece of poster board and wanted to post it at the murder site calling the mob the most ruthless of barbarians imaginable. The only reason he didn’t is because his landlord locked him in his house because he didn’t want him to get killed to. That landlord may be the sole reason I am recording this episode right now.
This story really encapsulates the character of Spinoza throughout his entire life: dedicated to reason. Strong, stood by his beliefs no matter the cost. Living in a world of people who were not his intellectual equal, groups of people willing to commit terrible acts of violence against people that merely disagreed with them, and Spinoza having beliefs that disagreed with almost everybody.
But more than that, Spinoza embodies what this whole time period was about. I mean, the way he made his living was by grinding lenses for telescopes and microscopes. There is no job that is more “scientific revolution” than that. If you were making a movie about someone from this era and his occupation was lens grinder, the writers would tell you that it was TOO over the top.
Spinoza grew up Jewish. He was a proud, card carrying member of the nation of Israel until the age of 22 when his father died and he didn’t need to keep his opinions quiet anymore for fear of embarrassing him. He was living during the time of the Spanish Inquisition which created a pretty interesting and complex situation for you if you were Jewish or any religious authority in the nation of Israel. Above all else, they wanted to keep Spinoza quiet.
See, Spinoza had this long upbringing of what we would equate in modern times to catholic school. He talks about it being this long, monotonous slog through the Jewish religious texts and the old testament and what eventually happens is Spinoza thinks the story is childish. He said this God that is portrayed in the Old Testament, how can anyone honestly believe that this is true? And if it is true, is this the God that you want to exist under? No, God is nothing like this, what some guys wrote about in this really old book that you guys are following. He thought that whoever wrote the Torah wasn’t a bad person, they understandably had no idea about science or cosmology, but let’s not pretend like they did. He said that these miracles that are written about most likely were just natural events that were misunderstood by humans and recorded to be supernatural acts to give credence to the set of behaviors that are attached to them. He talks about how God could never be relegated to a human form…God didn’t say “let there be light”. He doesn’t have a hand that he reaches down with and touches you. God is much, much more than that to Spinoza. God is an infinite being that could never be described in these sorts of terms.
Now, we’re going to do a whole episode on Spinoza’s God because it is an incredibly fascinating and useful worldview, but the significance of this right now is that, with views like this, he obviously wasn’t fitting into a world where the nation of Israel has the Spanish Inquisition going on and would love it if he would just keep his mouth shut. The authority at the synagogue would say, “Just…Cmon Spinoza…keep it down a bit alright. Just don’t say anything.” But he wasn’t going to keep it down anymore. Spinoza was a man of his convictions. They wanted him to be quiet so badly that…in his twenties…they offered him 1000 florens a month to just NOT make his opinions known about stuff. Just for some perspective, most people were surviving back then on about 2500 florens a YEAR, so 1000 florens a month is similar to being paid a six-figure salary in today’s world just to keep your mouth shut. Spinoza turned it down. No instead, what he decided to do is send the Jewish authorities a comprehensive mathematical structured outline of all of his views, what they were and how they are in his opinion irrefutable because they are as self-evident as the mathematical truth that a triangle has three angles that equal 180 degrees.
He left them no choice. In July of 1656 they did this ridiculous ritual where they blow the “great horn”…they all are holding candles that they put out one by one and then they literally tried to curse him. They read this really cryptically worded scary sounding passage that hereby banished Spinoza from . Nobody is allowed to help him. Nobody is allowed to talk to him. He is a marked person who is not part of their group anymore.
What followed for Spinoza was a life of a lot of solitude. Some people say that there were stretches where you wouldn’t see him leave his house for three months at a time. He tells stories about how he would sit alone and collect spiders and watch them fight each other. Or that he would collect flies and put one in a spiders web and just laugh maniacally as it struggled to get away. If he lived today he could just watch animal planet like a normal person…but it is interesting to think about how lonely it must have felt to be so intelligent surrounded by people that mostly can’t relate to you. But he tried his hardest…and he did write a lot of letters throughout his life. One of the most famous and one of the most illuminating of Spinoza and the way that he thought about things is one with an old friend of his named Albert Burgh. Before he was banished from Israel he was really good friends with Albert, but eventually they went their separate ways, Spinoza to a life of solitude and Albert became a Christian.
Well, eventually Albert gets word throug the grapevine of how godless and terrible Spinoza’s views on existence were and he decides to send him a letter, claiming to be doing the Lord’s work and trying to get him to become a Christian. Albert spends a lot of his letter attacking Spinoza’s views and giving the best argument he can for why Christianity is the best choice and why Spinoza should abandon this rootless, selfish existence and join the church of Rome. Now, I’m going to read an excerpt from the letter and just put yourself in Spinoza’s shoes as he is reading this. Just listen to the arrogance. Just imagine getting a letter from what used to be your best friend and they are condemning you and making you feel as though you are inferior to them. Here’s what Albert closes his letter with:
“I have written this letter to you with intentions truly Christian; first, in order to show the love I bear to you, though you are a heathen; secondly, in order to beg you not to persist in converting others.
I therefore will thus conclude: God is willing to snatch your soul from eternal damnation, if you will allow Him. Do not doubt that the Master, who has called you so often through others, is now calling you for the last time through me, who having obtained grace from the ineffable mercy of God Himself, beg the same for you with my whole heart. Do not deny me. For if you do not now give ear to God who calls you, the wrath of the Lord will be kindled against you, and there is a danger of your being abandoned by His infinite mercy, and becoming a wretched victim of the Divine Justice which consumes all things in wrath. Such a fate may Almighty God avert for the greater glory of His name, and for the salvation of your soul, also for a salutary example for the imitation of your most unfortunate and idolatrous followers, through our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, Who with the Eternal Father liveth and reigneth in the Unity of the Holy Spirit, God for all Eternity. Amen.”
So like I said before, we can all imagine how insulted Spinoza must have felt. Especially if we consider that he sees all of these religions as ultimately the same thing and even the one that was crammed into his head throughout his youth wasn’t good enough for him. Listening to this old friend tell him how lucky he is that God is giving him one last chance to accept the narrative..listening to him end his letter like he’s ending a Sunday Mass…you know God for all eternity..Amen. This must have made him pull his hair out of his head. Spinoza replies and both categorically destroys all of the arguments Albert lays out in his letter and does it while mixing in sarcasm that is still funny 400 years later.
“That, which I could scarcely believe when told me by others, I learn at last from your own letter; not only have you been made a member of the Romish Church, but you are become a very keen champion of the same, and have already learned wantonly to insult and rail against your opponents.”
“Yet you seem to wish to employ reason, and ask me, “How I know that my philosophy is the best among all that have ever been taught in the world, or are being taught, or ever will be taught?” a question which I might with much greater right ask you; for I do not presume that I have found the best philosophy, I know that I understand the true philosophy. If you ask in what way I know it, I answer: In the same way as you know that the three angles of a triangle are equal to two right angles: that this is sufficient, will be denied by no one whose brain is sound, and who does not go dreaming of evil spirits inspiring us with false ideas like the true. For the truth is the index of itself and of what is false.
But you; who presume that you have at last found the best religion, or rather the best men, on whom you have pinned your credulity, you, “who know that they are the best among all who have taught, do now teach, or shall in future teach other religions. Have you examined all religions, ancient as well as modern, taught here and in India and everywhere throughout the world? And, if you have duly examined them, how do you know that you have chosen the best” since you can give no reason for the faith that is in you? But you will say, that you acquiesce in the inward testimony of the Spirit of God, while the rest of mankind are ensnared and deceived by the prince of evil spirits. But all those outside the pale of the Romish Church can with equal right proclaim of their own creed what you proclaim of yours.”
Reading this letter from a guy written in the 1600’s is just incredible to me. Spinoza was just an unquestionable genius. You can read this letters in their entirety on the website this week. I will post links to them on the episode page. But just so that we can get a little more insight into the human that was Baruch De Spinoza, lets take a look at one of the arguments that Albert gives him citing the legitimacy of Christianity over the other religions. He says that the reason it has merit is that it spread faster than any other religion and it was spread by a bunch of uneducated Hebrews at that. Now, the point that Albert is making is that the success of something like that cant be just sophistry or word play…it’s not some charismatic priest a little smarter than everyone standing up there and outwitting them. There must be some divine backing to this one. That is Albert’s point.
Spinoza responds to this here:
If, therefore, you had rightly judged, you would have seen that only your third point tells in favour of the Christians, namely, that unlearned and common men should have been able to convert nearly the whole world to a belief in Christ. But this reason militates not only for the Romish Church, but for all those who profess the name of Christ.
But assume that all the reasons you bring forward tell in favour solely of the Romish Church. Do you think that you can thereby prove mathematically the authority of that Church? As the case is far otherwise, why do you wish me to believe that my demonstrations are inspired by the prince of evil spirits, while your own are inspired by God, especially as I see, and as your letter clearly shows, that you have been led to become a devotee of this Church not by your love of God, but by your fear of hell, the single cause of superstition? Is this your humility, that you trust nothing to yourself, but everything to others, who are condemned by many of their fellow men?
Do you set it down to pride and arrogance, that I employ reason and acquiesce in this true Word of God, which is in the mind and can never be depraved or corrupted? Cast away this deadly superstition, acknowledge the reason which God has given you, and follow that, unless you would be numbered with the brutes.”
So if there is something we can take from this episode, aside from diving into the intellect and person that was Spinoza, what we should take from this is that the world Spinoza was living in was both a welcoming place to new ideas and potentially a very dangerous place for new ideas. The fact that holding different opinions could have you ripped limb from limb or cut into pieces and sold around town, that dynamic is ultimately what forced Spinoza to never release his principle work called Ethics. He died in 1677 and that very same year it was released by his friends without his name as the author. Now, you may be wondering, why do I care about some guy from the 1600’s and his interpretation of what God is? Well let me leave you today with a question…if a belief in the Christian or Jewish God justifies a certain set of behaviors…what set of behaviors would Spinoza’s God justify? If we as humans are not all individual unique snowflakes with a God that knows our first name…what are we? And what does that mean about how we should act on this mortal coil? Thank you for listening, I will talk to you next time.