By adapting his message to the understanding of his audience, Spinoza sought to obtain a more favorable hearing for a truth.

The Practical Considerations Underlying His
Tractatus Theologico-Politicus

Wayne Ferguson
Phil. 227, Dr. Rice
Marquette University
November 2, 1992
Minor Revisions Jan. 2005

INTRODUCTION: Spinoza as a Prophet of Reason
According to Spinoza, a prophet is one who is endowed by God with a more vivid imagination and a more resolute devotion to that which is good (TTP 65, 70, 71). The certainty of the prophets, we are told, was based on three considerations:

1. That the things revealed were most vividly imagined, just as we are wont to be affected by objects in our waking hours.
2. The occurrence of a sign.
3. Lastly, and most important, that the minds of the prophets were directed exclusively towards what was right and good (75).

Furthermore, we are told that the form in which the messages of the prophets were cast varied according to the imagination and temperament of each and according to the beliefs in which they had been brought up. These messages were adapted, as well (whether intentionally or not), to the particular audience of each, with the ultimate intention of the prophet being to inspire the people to obedience--to inspire them to "the true life" (73, 86). As I considered Spinoza's analysis of these visionaries and their messages, it began to dawn on me that in writing the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus (TTP), and, indeed, in his life in general, Spinoza actually comports himself in a manner that is somewhat analogous to the very prophets and apostles about whom he writes. Now certainly, Spinoza cannot be understood as a prophet in the first sense, insofar as his conclusions are the product of ratio--not imaginatio. Furthermore, insofar as human beings understand themselves and God according to the natural light of reason, there is no room for doubt, rendering any accompanying sign at best superfluous.1  Nevertheless, Spinoza's mind is, in a manner of speaking, "directed exclusively toward that which is right and good," and, in his pursuit of his vision of the good, he does adapt his message to the imagination and temperament of those to whom it is directed, i.e. according to the beliefs in which they had been brought up, with a view to exerting a practical influence on the course of events in his historical, social context.2  It is the purpose of this paper to elaborate on these two points of comparison by considering, first, Spinoza's understanding of "the good," and his devotion to it, and second, by illustrating the way in which he adapts his message, in TTP, to the understanding of those to whom it is directed, with a view to persuading them to his vision of the good.

PART ONE: A Mind Directed Exclusively Towards What is Right and Good

If there is a single point which Spinoza attempts to drive home throughout TTP, it is the fact that truth of scripture is its moral teaching and that the bond that holds it all together is the fact that its many authors, however they might differ in their imaginings of God and the proper way to serve him, all sought to inspire their audience to obedience-- that is (ultimately) to justice and charity --and were themselves men whose minds were always directed toward that which was right and good. Spinoza, likewise, was especially characterized by his virtue and his constant devotion to the good.

For Spinoza, however, there is no such thing as an external, objective good in-itself; rather, good and evil are relative terms. In the Ethics, he writes

By "good" I understand . . . every kind of pleasure and furthermore whatever is conducive thereto, and especially whatever satisfies a longing of any sort. By "bad" I understand every kind of pain, and especially that which frustrates a longing. For I have demonstrated above [E3, P9, Schol.] that we do not desire a thing because we judge it to be good; on the contrary, we call the object of our desire good, and consequently the object of our aversion bad . . . Thus every man judges a thing good or bad, advantageous or disadvantageous, according to his own emotion (E3, P39, Schol.).

Consistent with his judgement in this regard, Spinoza (following Hobbes) argues that our right is coextensive with our power, such that we may rightly pursue anything we please, to the best of our ability, employing any means within our power.3  This is the case inasmuch as our power is an expression of the power of god or nature:

Nature's power is the very power of God, who has sovereign right over all things. But since the universal power of Nature as a whole is nothing but the power of all individual things taken together, it follows that each individual thing has the sovereign right to do all that it can do; i.e. the right of the individual is co- extensive with its determinate power (TTP 237).

Furthermore, it makes no difference whether or not individuals judge correctly as to what turn of events would be good (i.e. would affect them positively). With respect to men, Spinoza argues, the wise and the ignorant alike have the same sovereign right to pursue the good according to their own judgement:

just as the wise man has the sovereign right to do all that reason dictates, i.e. to live according to the laws of reason, so, too, a man who is ignorant and weak-willed has the sovereign right to do all that is urged on him by appetite, i.e. to live according to the laws of appetite (TTP 238).

And here, as well, Spinoza reiterates the relative nature of good and evil inasmuch as

that which our reason declares to be evil is not evil in respect of the order and laws of universal Nature, but only in respect of the laws of our own nature (239).

And the most basic, universal, law of nature is that one will always choose the greater good (as perceived) over the lesser:

everyone will choose of two goods that which he judges the greater, and of two evils that which seems to him the lesser. I say expressly "that which in his belief is the greater or lesser;" I do not say that the facts necessarily correspond with his judgement (239-40).

However, the fact that one can judge correctly or incorrectly concerning that which is good or evil indicates that despite the fact that these are relative terms, Spinoza nevertheless conceives of a real, honest to goodness good, but one that cannot be understood or described apart from the perspective of the individual (which includes, of course, the individuals subjective emotional experience). He speaks of his own pursuit of such a good in his Treatise on the Emendation of the Intellect (hereafter TEI):

After experience had taught me the hollowness and futility of everything that is ordinarily encountered in daily life, and I realized that all the things which were the source and object of my anxiety held nothing of good or evil in themselves save in so far as the mind was influenced by them, I resolved at length to enquire whether there existed a true good, one which was capable of communicating itself and could alone affect the mind to the exclusion of all else, whether, in fact, there was something whose discovery and acquisition would afford me a continuous and supreme joy to all eternity (233).

As readers of the Ethics are well aware, this "true" or, more precisely, "supreme good" comes to light as the intellectual love of God. Those of us with strong religious instincts must restrain ourselves at this point, insofar as God and nature are, for Spinoza, equivalent, and to know and love God is nothing more than to understand our place in nature, according primary causes, based on our knowledge of physical and mental laws. And while it is impossible for us to comprehend nature in its entirety, one gets the impression that Spinoza does not preclude the possibility of very rapid and very profound advances in human knowledge that would-- in his lifetime --revolutionize the understanding of the relationships that obtain between individual human beings and nature as a whole. In any event, such an understanding would be the highest good, and anything that contributes towards such an understanding is a true good. This, I take it, is what he has in mind in TIE when he writes:

human weakness fails to comprehend [the eternal order and fixed laws of Nature] in thought, and meanwhile man conceives a human nature much stronger than his own, and sees no reason why he cannot acquire such a nature. Thus he is urged to seek the means that will bring him to such a perfection, and all that can be the means of his attaining this objective is called a true good, while the supreme good is to arrive at the enjoyment of such a nature, together with other individuals, if possible . . . namely, the knowledge of the union which the mind has with the whole of Nature (235).

The view presented in TIE is not a great deal different then that we find in the Ethics. In Part IV of the Ethics, for example, Spinoza once again reiterates that "good" and "bad" are relative terms which he declares are useful, nonetheless, as we attempt to evaluate those things which help and hinder us in our effort to attain to "the model of human nature which we set before ourselves" (E4, pref.). And, just as, in TIE, he characterizes as a "perfection" the "stronger nature" which we in our weakness imagine, so in the Ethics, with regard to the "model we set before ourselves", he says

we shall say that men are more perfect or less perfect in so far as they are nearer to or further from this model (E4, Pref.).

He explains what he means by "nearer to or further from" perfection, as follows:

it is important to note that when I say that somebody passes from a state of less perfection to a state of greater perfection, and vice versa, I do not mean that he changes from one essence or form to another . . . but that we conceive his power of activity, in so far as this is understood though his nature, to be increased or diminished (E4, pref.).

Note that Spinoza, in TIE, seeks "to arrive at the enjoyment of such a nature, together with other individuals, if possible" (235, italics mine). This is not merely because he realizes that the highest good, rather than being an objective good, is a subjective experience arising out of our knowledge of and love for our particular relationship to god or nature--a good which is, therefore, attainable, at least in theory, by all. This is the case, but there is another reason as well. The following paragraph in TIE provides a clue:

This, then, is the end for which I strive, to acquire the nature I have described and to endeavor that many should acquire it along with me. That is to say, my own happiness involves my making an effort to persuade others to think as I do, so that their understanding and their desire should entirely accord with my understanding and my desire (35-36).

Note that Spinoza is not merely interested in the abstract, merely theoretical, possibility that a good number of people might work together toward a common end. Rather he is concerned with his own happiness--that his own power of activity might be preserved and enhanced. As such, it behooves him to persuade others in his historical social context to think as he does so that their pursuit of the good will not be working at cross purposes to his own.4  This is the primary reason that he wants the understanding and desires of others to accord with his own--although it is quite certain that he really believes that what will lead to his happiness, will lead to the happiness of others, as well.5  To bring all this about, he lists five things that are necessary, which can be paraphrased as follows (cf. TIE 236):

1. To understand as much about Nature as suffices for acquiring the aforementioned nature.
2. To establish a social order which is conducive o such an end.
3. To attend to moral philosophy and education.
4. To develop the science of medicine.
5. To develop the science of physics.

Of course, number one is all that is really necessary, but we may view numbers 2-4 as necessary to it. This same idea is presented more generally in TTP where he enumerates "worthy objects of desire" which are equivalent to "true goods" in TIE (i.e. that which contributes to the acquisition of the supreme good):

All worthy objects of desire can be classified under one of these three general headings:

1. To know things through their primary causes.
2. To subjugate the passions; i.e. to acquire the habit of virtue.
3. To live in security and good health (90).

Now Spinoza, if anyone, knew how to subjugate the passions--indeed, the demonstration of that very knowledge is his main concern in the Ethics. And, it is probably the case that Spinoza felt, as did many enlightenment thinkers, that humanity was on the verge of a scientific revolution that would provide extraordinary advances in our knowledge of primary causes--it would be just a matter of time. Unfortunately, the third item on the list-- living in security and good health --remained problematic insofar as ecclesiastical leaders continued to influence political policy (directly and indirectly) in nearly every european country. As such, freedom of thought was greatly restricted, and censorship of controversial works was the rule, not the exception. Not only was it particularly risky to resist these restrictions, but there was considerable political and social unrest, due to conflicts between various religious and political factions, which, no doubt, rendered less secure the life of the public at large as well as that of the "free thinker." In addition, there was the further consideration that the advance of science-- including medical science --was retarded considerably by the aforementioned restrictions. Thus it was clearly in Spinoza's interests to do what he could to change the prevailing political winds in such a way that greater freedom of speech, and, as a result, greater freedom thought, would be possible. Such a change would contribute considerably towards realizing his desire to live in security and good health by encouraging tolerance (if not respect) for individuals articulating new ideas. Furthermore, this increased tolerance would allow for the intensification of scholarly communication, which would, in turn, facilitate the general advance of science and medicine. These, it seems to me, are the basic motives and objectives behind the writing of TTP. As such, the conclusions reached in that work are hardly surprising:

the state can pursue no safer course than to regard piety and religion as consisting solely in the exercise of charity and just dealing, and that the right of the sovereign, both in religious and secular spheres, should be restricted to men's actions, with everyone being allowed to think what he will and to say what he thinks (299).6 

We have seen, then, that Spinoza's mind, like the prophets of old about which he writes in TTP, is directed exclusively towards what is right and good--albeit, not some objective good in-itself, but his own good. A good which, however, if it is to be obtained, requires that he persuade others to think as he does, so that their understanding and their desire should entirely accord with his own. With that end in view-- a "true good" and "worthy object of desire" --he interrupts his work on the Ethics and sets down to write TTP. If he is to be successful, however, he must, like the prophets of old, adapt his message to the imagination and temperament of those to whom it is directed, i.e. according to the beliefs in which they had been brought up, with a view to exerting a practical influence (as described above) on the course of events in his historical, social, context.

PART TWO: A Message Adapted to the Understanding of His Audience

As indicated above, the form in which the messages of the prophets were cast varied according to the imagination and temperament of each and according to the beliefs in which they had been brought up. These messages were adapted, we said, to the particular audience of each, with the ultimate intention of the prophet being to inspire the people to obedience. The Apostles, as well, Spinoza argues,

chose such methods of teaching as they thought best adapted to those whom they wished to instruct at the time (210).

Spinoza distinguishes between the Prophets and the Apostles, insofar as the latter, at least when writing, were reasoning, and not relating a vision accompanied by a sign. The minds of both, however, were directed exclusively towards what was right and good, and the messages of both were adapted to the audience to which they were directed--the latter intentionally, the former, in some cases at least, unintentionally. We concluded, in part one, that Spinoza's mind, like the prophets and apostles, was directed exclusively towards what was right and good. And we saw further that reason dictates to Spinoza that he, in the pursuit of what he understands to be "true goods" or "worthy objects of desire," attempt to influence his historical, social, context in such a way as to encourage the powers that be to value freedom of thought and speech. Now those who would attempt to exert such an influence have basically two alternatives: They may start a "grassroots" movement, by taking their case directly to the people, or, they may attempt to influence those in positions of leadership. Both alternatives require that the message be adapted to the understanding of the audience, and Spinoza was especially aware of this fact in relation to the public at large. In TIE, for example-- with regard to his desire to bring the desire and understanding of others into agreement with his own --he writes:

But since we have to continue with our lives while pursuing this end and endeavoring to bring the intellect into the right path, our first priority must be to lay down certain rules for living, as being good rules. [The first of them is] as follows: To speak to the understanding of the multitude and to engage in all those activities that do not hinder the attainment of our aim. For we can gain no little advantage from the multitude, provided that we accommodate ourselves as far as possible to their level of understanding. Furthermore, in this way they will give a more favorable hearing to the truth (236).

In TTP, as well, he observes that because most people are unable or unwilling to attend to a long deduction from intellectual axioms to logical conclusions, it is therefore the case that one who wishes to teach some doctrine to a nation-- not to mention the whole of mankind --must above all

adapt his arguments and the definitions relevant to his doctrine to the understanding of the common people, who form the greatest part of mankind (120).

In light of these texts, and in light of our consideration (in part one) of Spinoza's desire to persuade others to think as he does, there can be no doubt that he envisioned, and wished to contribute to, a virtual revolution in respect to the most practical aspects of religious, political, and educational affairs. The only question was how--how might he best contribute to such a revolutionary end? It is my thesis that TTP was Spinoza's answer to that question. Now it is fairly clear that TTP was never intended for the popular press. It was published in latin, and Spinoza went to some pains to prevent a (rumored) Dutch translation from being published (cf. Letter 44). Indeed, Spinoza explicitly addresses "learned readers" in his preface to the work, and, with respect to the masses, writes:

To others [the unlearned] I seek not to commend this treatise, for I have no reason to expect them to approve it in any way. I know how deeply rooted in the mind are the prejudices embraced under the guise of piety. I know, too, that the masses can no more be freed from their superstition than from their fears. Finally, I know that they are unchanging in their obstinacy, that they are not guided by reason, and that their praise and blame is at the mercy of impulse. Therefore I do not invite the common people to read this work, nor all those who are victims of the same emotional attitudes. Indeed, I would prefer that they disregard this book completely rather than make themselves a nuisance by misinterpreting it after their wont (56).

It seems, then, that Spinoza intended the work primarily for an educated-- perhaps scholarly --audience, but with the hope, ultimately, that the conclusions reached would become current enough to affect the desired change-- current, if not in the minds of the common herd, at least in the minds of the shepherds whom they were wont to follow.

But despite the fact that the work is directed towards educated readers, it seems that Spinoza, nevertheless, feels compelled to "accommodate [himself] as far as possible to their level of understanding" so that "they will give a more favorable hearing to the truth" (TIE 236). Furthermore, it is quite clear that he "[adapts] his arguments and the definitions relevant to his doctrine to [their] understanding" (TTP 120). Illustrating just how he does these things will constitute the remainder of our discussion.

That Spinoza is writing out of the desire to persuade his audience-- by what ever means he judges to be most effective --is indicated even in the preface where he speaks so scornfully of the unlearned. His caustic remarks appeal to the readers's vanity, encouraging them to identify with the learned--i.e. those that are guided by reason rather than impulse; those who do not conceal prejudices beneath a facade of piety; those who are not bound by superstition and fear (56). Certainly, it is not imagined that by writing such a preface Spinoza would actually discourage anyone from continuing once they had proceeded that far. Rather, he hopes to set a tone at the beginning which will work to counteract the very prejudices and superstition which continues to haunt the minds of even learned men. For even the most educated among his contemporaries tended to remain at least somewhat imprisoned by the chalk circle of Christian dogma.7  As such, Spinoza is forced to write in a style much different from that found in the Ethics, where, for the most part, he depends on reason alone to persuade the reader.

It seems that there are three main respects in which Spinoza, in TTP, adapts his message to the imagination and temperament of those to whom it is directed. First, in his analysis of the prophets, he seems to give special treatment to Moses and Jesus, apparently in deference to the veneration popularly accorded to each as the founders of the traditions of Judaism and Christianity. Second, he continues to employ traditional, religious language, but in a very untraditional way--describing what are, for him, very natural occurrences in terms which gives them a religious and (sometimes) even a supernatural cast. And third, he judges that we should accept as true something that cannot be demonstrated, viz. the salvation of the ignorant. I will, with respect to each of the items indicated, show why each of them constitutes an accommodation and why, as I see it, Spinoza feels justified making such accommodations.

One need not read far in TTP before realizing that Spinoza rejects the ordinary conception of the prophet as one imbued with a special wisdom from on high. Rather, than having a superior mind or superior wisdom, Spinoza describes the prophet as having a more vivid imagination and a more intense devotion to piety and virtue. And anything of which the Jews were ignorant of the causes, or anything that seemed extraordinary, was attributed to God--not excepting those qualities which were characteristic of the prophets (67). For when scripture says that the spirit of the Lord was upon a prophet, or that they were filled with the spirit, it merely means that "they were endowed with an extraordinary virtue exceeding the normal and that they devoted themselves to piety with especial constancy" (70). Further, as we will discuss in more detail below, Spinoza denies that any miracle or sign accompanying the prophets message is anything more than a coincidental effect of natural causes that functions to confirm the prophets message and to inspire obedience. Finally, Spinoza, indicates that the visions and voices perceived by the prophets were nothing more than the product of their hypertrophic imaginative faculty (73, 64-5). While the foregoing account is typical-- indeed, of almost universal application --there are two interesting exceptions, viz. Moses and Christ. Spinoza argues that, of all the prophets, God manifested himself to Moses alone through an audible voice and that Christ alone communed with God mind to mind (64). The reverence with which he describes these two exceptions is striking, particularly so with reference to Christ:

a man who can perceive by pure intuition that which is not contained in the basic principles of our cognition and cannot be deduced therefrom must needs possess a mind whose excellence far surpasses the human mind. Therefore I do not believe that anyone has attained such a degree of perfection surpassing all others, except Christ. To him God's ordinances leading men to salvation were revealed not by words or by visions, but directly, so that God manifested himself to the Apostles through the mind of Christ as he once did to Moses through and audible voice. The Voice of Christ can thus be called the Voice of God in the same way as that which Moses heard (64).

Spinoza emphasizes that his assertions in this regard are neither an affirmation nor a denial of traditional doctrines regarding Christ which he claims not to understand (64). Rather, he says,

Nowhere have I read that God appeared to Christ or spoke with him, but that God was revealed to the Apostles through Christ, that Christ is the way of salvation... Therefore, if Moses spoke with God face to face as a man may do with his fellow (through the medium of their two bodies), then Christ communed with God mind to mind (65).

But the very fact that Spinoza makes both Moses and Christ exceptions to his general rule concerning the prophets would seem to be extremely significant. With respect to Moses, he presents a rather careful analysis of scriptural texts in the process of coming to his conclusion, but one wonders if this effort would have been expended on a less noteworthy prophet. With regard to Christ, his conclusion, though almost divorced from any scriptural analysis (save the very general reference to Christ as the revelation of God), is thoroughly incredible. Can anyone imagine that Spinoza really believes that Jesus of Nazareth had such an extraordinary mind? I think not and cannot help but conclude that in both cases he is genuflecting the religious leaders of both Jews and Christians, adapting his message to their understanding by giving special treatment to Moses and Jesus. He does this quite obviously in deference to the veneration popularly accorded to each as the founders of Judaism and Christianity. Since Christianity is the dominant force he must deal with, his genuflection toward Christ is understandably more pronounced. But in both cases, he goes to considerable length to arrive at conclusions which he knows will make his overall message more agreeable his audience, many of which-- for all their education --held great stock in their particular religious traditions.

With regard to the second point-- his use of traditional, religious language in untraditional ways --six examples come readily to mind (though there are others, as well): His use of the words "God," "Miracle," "Chosen," "Prophesy," "Faith," and "Salvation."8  While Spinoza's usage of all these terms is not entirely new, it remains the case that in the context of conventional scripture interpretation, he is using them in a radically unorthodox way. To illustrate my point, I will first consider explicitly his use of the words "God", "Miracle", and "Chosen." His use of the remaining words-- "prophesy," "faith," and "salvation" --will then become clear in the discussion of the salvation of the ignorant which follows. Spinoza's notion of God, as we pointed out in part one, has no connotation of a personal, supernatural, being that is concerned exclusively with the good of human beings. Instead, as Spinoza points out over and over in The Ethics as well as TTP, the power of God and the power of nature are one and the same, and the order of nature is not oriented, per se (that is especially or exclusively) toward the good of human beings. For example, when discussing the difficulty the prophets had in reconciling their notion of god's providence with vicissitudes in the lives of men, he observes that this is not a problem for philosophers insofar as they realize that

true happiness lies solely in virtue and peace of mind, and they strive to conform with Nature, not to make Nature conform with them; for they are assured that God directs Nature in accordance with the requirements of her universal laws and not in accordance with the requirements of the particular laws of human nature. Thus God takes account of the whole of Nature, and not of the human race alone (130-131).

This naturalization of god requires the further naturalization of miracles. Whereas miracles are conceived of both popularly and theologically as the intervention of God in the world in a way that opposes the natural course of things, for Spinoza they are merely natural effects which excite wonder in observers insofar as they are ignorant of their causes and ignorant of anything similar for which they could give a causal account:

the word miracle can be understood only with respect to men's beliefs, and means simply an event whose natural cause we-- or at any rate the writer or narrator of the miracle --cannot explain by comparison with any other normal event (127).9 

Similarly, Spinoza gives a natural account of what it means to be "chosen" of God.

Both Christians and Jews consider themselves to be a "chosen" of God, and Spinoza agrees. But rather than being a decision on the part of God, analogous (in any religiously significant sense) to a "choice" made by a human being, "chosenness," for Spinoza, means nothing more than being determined according to the fixed laws of nature:

since no one acts except by the predetermined order of Nature-- that is, God's eternal direction and decree --it follows that no one chooses a way of life for himself or accomplishes anything except by the special vocation of God who has chosen one man before others for a particular work or a particular way of life (90).

On this view, everyone is chosen. As far as the Jews are concerned-- as a nation --Spinoza considers them to have been chosen only with respect to the (temporary) preservation and material prosperity of their state (91). And while he does not discuss the Christian notion of election, per se, it is clear that he would reject any such claims insofar as they go beyond the temporal preservation and material prosperity of the individual.

It is interesting to note that in employing such traditional language in new ways, Spinoza is attempting to do something in this work which he knows to be extremely difficult. In chapter 7, discussing the possible attempts by some to corrupt the meaning of a passage of scripture, Spinoza indicates that such an attempt, indeed, could readily be conceived of with regard to an entire passage, but that the same could not be said of an attempt to change the meaning of individual words (148). Although his concluding remarks in this regard refer (properly) to the editing of scriptural texts, they nonetheless indicate a dynamic operative in TTP:

if anyone should wish to change the customary meaning of a word, he would find it difficult to maintain consistency thereafter both in his writing and in his speaking (148).

But despite the difficulties involved in "maintaining consistency," we have seen that Spinoza does change the customary meaning of many words. Now this is in no way implying that Spinoza intended to deceive his readers, per se, by his use of such traditional language in untraditional ways--indeed, he explains quite clearly what his definition as each old word is used in a new way. However, I think it is obvious that such untraditional usage of traditional language functions to accomodate the perspectives of those who continue to be affected by its emotive force. In other words, Spinoza reasons that by continuing to use traditional language, the emotional reaction of the reader will be more favorable, making it possible for them to suspend judgement on individual claims until they have a sense of his work as a whole--at which time, he hopes, a more purely rational response will be possible. Such a response, requires, however, that they be somewhat seduced, emotionally, at first.

Spinoza's arguments regarding the salvation of the ignorant and the conclusions which he reaches in that regard (chapter fifteen) are perhaps the most perplexing in the entire work. That the blessedness which he describes in The Ethics is not accessible to the ignorant is evident from his closing remarks in that work:

The ignorant man, besides being driven hither and thither by external causes, never possessing true contentment of spirit, lives as if he were unconscious of himself, God, and things, and as soon as he ceases to be passive, he at once ceases to be at all. On the other hand, the wise man, insofar as he is considered as such, suffers scarcely any disturbance of spirit, but being conscious, by virtue of a certain eternal necessity, of himself, of God and of things, never ceases to be, but always possesses true spiritual contentment. If the road I have pointed out as leading to this goal seems very difficult, yet it can be found. Indeed, what is so rarely discovered is bound to be hard. For if salvation were ready to hand and could be discovered without great toil, how could it be that it is almost universally neglected? All things excellent are as difficult as they are rare (E5, P42, Schol.).

Two things must be noted about "salvation" as Spinoza conceives of it in the passage above. First, it has virtually nothing in common with the Christian notion of salvation insofar as the latter is imagined to involve personal immortality or the resurrection of the body. Second, as noted above, this type of "blessedness" is clearly inaccessible to the ignorant. And not only does Spinoza disparage the idea of the ignorant attaining "salvation" in The Ethics, in TTP, as well, he continuously refers to the "multitude" in almost contemptuous terms as virtually condemned to a miserable existence. For example, in the preface, where he elaborates on the proclivity of the masses for superstition, Spinoza observes that

Men's readiness to fall victim to any kind of superstition makes it correspondingly difficult to persuade them to adhere to one and the same kind. Indeed, as the multitude remains ever at the same level of wretchedness, so it is never long contented, and is best pleased only with what is new and has not yet proved delusory (50).

Elsewhere, he speaks of the Jewish multitude as those who "knew not blessedness" and of the observances and ceremonies of Jews and Christians alike as being a form of bondage that contribute nothing to blessedness (88, 119). Indeed, blessedness is, in the strictest sense, attainable only through the intellectual love of god which is a state of mind totally divorced from obedience to any ceremonial observance or externally imposed law--a salvation available only to those who "know god aright," i.e. through "the guidance of reason":

love of God is not obedience but a virtue necessarily present in a man who knows God aright, whereas obedience is the will of him who commands, and not [obedience] to necessity and truth. . . . Furthermore, we have shown that the divine commandments appear to us as commandments or ordinances only as long as we do not know their cause. Once this is known, they cease to be commandments, and we embrace them as eternal truths . . . that is obedience forthwith passes into love which arises from the knowledge by the same necessity as light arises from the sun. Therefore by the guidance of reason we can love god, but not obey him (307-8, Note 34 to page 246).

But for all the exclusivity in terms of which salvation, in this strictest sense, is described by Spinoza, and despite his many allusions to the "wretchedness of the multitude," he nonetheless speaks of the salvation of the ignorant through obedience--a truth which cannot, he says, be demonstrated, but which we are justified, nevertheless, in believing. Indeed, even before he explicitly addresses this question in chapter fifteen, he often indicates that some such "salvation" is possible. As early as chapter five, he writes:

He who abounds in these fruits [of the spirit (Gal. 5:22)] . . . whether he be taught by reason alone or by Scripture alone, is in truth taught by god, and is altogether blessed (123).

And in chapter seven, he writes:

as to the common people for our own time, we have already shown that whatsoever is necessary for salvation, even though its rational justification be not understood, can be readily grasped in any language, because it is couched in ordinary and familiar terms (157).

Now despite the fact that he says "we have already shown" certain things concerning the salvation of the common people, the question has not, at this point, really been addressed (beyond a few bare assertions like the one's above). It is not addressed in any detail until chapter fifteen and even there it is remains unclear just what Spinoza means by salvation in this context. As indicated above, it cannot be the same as the salvation of the wise, nor can it involve the notion of personal immortality or bodily resurrection. It seems, in the end, little more than an empty ideal.10  However that may be, to better understand the conclusions reached in chapter fifteen, we must review briefly Spinoza's position with regard to prophets and prophesy. We must remember that, for Spinoza, a prophet is one who is endowed by god not with a superior mind but with a more vivid imagination and a more resolute devotion to that which is good (65, 70, 71). And since prophesy is a product of the imagination, it does not carry with it its own certainty, but requires a sign, from which it derives a species of certainty, viz. "moral certainty," which is, however, inferior to the mathematical certainty accompanying the knowledge of eternal truths arrived at through the natural light of reason (74). Furthermore, the devotion of the prophet to piety and virtue had to be evident--i.e. even an accompanying sign (for example a miracle or the fulfillment of a prediction) was not a sufficient confirmation of the prophets admonition if he was seeking to introduce new gods or to contravene established laws. Thus, as indicated above, the unity of scripture rests in the fact that all the prophets (including the apostles) were attempting to inspire the people to the "true life"--a life of justice and charity. Their messages were not an attempt to convey eternal truths, but to persuade to obedience. And it is obedience-- rather then the belief in any particular dogma or the performing of any ritual --that Spinoza considers to be a necessary and sufficient indication that one has true faith. The aim of scripture is to teach obedience and the entire law consists in love of neighbor. It is not necessary to believe anything beyond what is necessary for the fulfilling of this commandment (221). Thus "faith" is defined as follows:

the holding of certain beliefs about God such that, without these beliefs, there cannot be obedience to God, and if this obedience is posited, these beliefs are necessarily posited (222).

As it is further argued that

if [one's] works are good, he is a believer, however much he may differ in religious dogma from other believers; whereas if his works are evil, he is an unbeliever, however much he may agree with them verbally (222)

On this basis, Spinoza is able to argue that true faith does not require true dogmas so much as pious dogmas, i.e. dogmas which are believed, indeed, but dogmas which move one to obedience, as well. And since each man's faith should be regarded as pious or impious not in respect of its truth or falsity, but in respect to whether or not it is conducive to obedience or obstinacy, it follows that a universal faith, endorsed by the powers that be, should contain no dogma's that are controversial to good men (223-4).11  Now Spinoza goes on to enumerate "all the tenants" of such a universal faith (seven of them), only one of which concerns us here (# 6):

All who obey God by following this way of life, and only those, are saved; others, who live at pleasure's behest, are lost. If men did not believe this, there is no reason why they should obey God rather than their desires (224- 5).

Now Spinoza considers this proposition (that men can be saved simply by obedience) to be a "fundamental principle of theology"--a principle, however, which reason cannot demonstrate (233). Nevertheless, he argues, we can accept it with "moral certainty" on the basis of judgement. His judgement in this regard can be summarized as follows: The prophets taught-- with sincere conviction confirmed by signs --that men may achieve blessedness by obedience and faith. Furthermore, all their moral teaching is in full agreement with reason. Therefore, we can accept this proposition without our judgement being called into question (234). He concludes, then, that

It would be folly to refuse to accept [for lack of certainty] that which is abundantly confirmed by the testimony of the prophets, that which is the source of so much comfort to those less gifted with intelligence, and of considerable advantage to the state, and which we can believe without incurring any peril or hurt (234).

This argument-- as to why we should accept the notion of the salvation of the ignorant --is perhaps the weakest in the entire work. Not only do we have no clear idea as to what Spinoza really means by "salvation" in this context, but we are asked to accept it as probably-- or, at any rate, possibly! --true, merely because of its practical value. But while this may be the weakest link in Spinoza's overall argument, it provides strong evidence for the thesis that Spinoza is seeking to accommodate his message to the understanding of his audience. What hope would he have of persuading even the most erudite of Christians that many of the particulars of Christian dogma were superfluous, unless he can provide strong evidence that his "catholic faith" can do everything their's does, only better? It would be disastrous to state explicitly that there can be no salvation for the ignorant. And yet this is virtually the conclusion to be drawn from his closing remarks in The Ethics.

We have seen, then, three basic ways in which Spinoza adapts his message to the understanding of his audience. First, he quite clearly accords special treatment to Moses and Christ in deference to the veneration in which both are held as the founders of Judaism and Christianity. Second, we saw that he employs traditional language in very untraditional ways. We discussed in some detail his use of the words "God," "Miracle," and "Chosen," and we saw in our discussion of salvation, that he means something quite different by the words "salvation," "prophesy," and "faith," as well. Finally, we saw that he introduces the notion of the salvation of the ignorant, not because he believes it to be demonstrably true, but because of its practical value--let's pretend it is true, he says in effect. We said that by making these accommodations to the prejudices of his listeners, he is not trying to deceive so much as to seduce them, as it were, insofar as such accommodations would serve to minimise his readers's adverse emotional reactions so as to allow for a more favorable hearing of the truth. When the work has been entirely digested, and the light of reason switched on, as it were, such accommodations would have served their purpose and could be cast aside. The reader would then be ready, perhaps, for his Ethics.


We have seen, then, that Spinoza can be considered as a sort of prophet of reason insofar as his mind is, in a manner of speaking, "directed exclusively toward that which is right and good," and insofar as he does, in his pursuit of his vision of the good, adapt his message to the imagination and temperament of those to whom it is directed, i.e. according to the beliefs in which they had been brought up. We argued that the good which Spinoza is pursuing is his own, individual, good, and that the rational pursuit of his good required that he attempt to exert a practical influence on the course of events in his historical, social context. The writing of TTP, I argued, was his attempt to persuade others to think as he did so that their pursuit of the good would not be working at cross purposes to his own. I argued further that, despite the fact that TTP is directed towards an educated (possibly scholarly) audience, he was still required to accommodate his message to their understanding--for even the well educated in the seventeenth century remained emotionally bound to Christian dogma. He did this, I argued, in three basic ways: by means of his deference to the traditional veneration of Moses and Christ; by retaining the use of traditional terms because of their emotive force; and by arguing for the acceptance of the notion of the salvation of the ignorant. By accommodating his audience in these ways, Spinoza sought to obtain a more favorable hearing for a truth which he hoped would lead, eventually, to some very revolutionary changes.


1. At best superfluous, insofar as any apparently miraculous occurrence, rather than revealing God to us, is indicative of our ignorance of God. [Return]

2. Brad Gregory, in section II of his "Introduction" to Shirley's Translation of TTP, also discusses the practical emphasis of Spinoza's philosophy, and touches, as will I, upon the relationship of TIE and TTP to The Ethics. [Return]

3. Den Uyl indicates the influence of Hobbes on Spinoza, but points out several important differences between the two, one of them being that Spinoza, unlike Hobbes, does not see any loss of natural right "consequent on one's entrance into society." One still has the right to do all one can do in civil society (10). [Return]

4. Spinoza falls within the classical, rather than the modern, tradition insofar as his first concern is with the attainment of individual blessedness. Like Aristotle, he sees the community as essentially a means to an end, which is the good of the individuals in it. Whereas non-classical philosophers (e.g. Mill, Hegel, and Marx), see the social good as paramount--the individual being a means to this higher good (I am indebted to Dr. Lee Rice, of Marquette University, for this insight). [Return]

5. In the Ethics, he writes:

Men, I repeat, can wish for nothing more excellent for preserving their own being than that they should all be in such harmony in all respects that their minds and bodies should compose, as it were, one mind and one body, and that all together should endeavor as best they can to preserve their own being, and that all together they should aim at the common advantage of all. From this it follows that men who are governed by reason, that is, men who aim at their own advantage under the guidance of reason seek nothing for themselves that they would not desire for the rest of mankind (165). [Return]

6. This text is the final segment of the last in a series of four concluding remarks which Spinoza enumerates at the end of TTP (298-299). [Return]

7. Nietzsche describes the typical "victim" of Christianity as follows: "from now on he is like a hen imprisoned by a chalk line. He can no longer get out of this chalk circle: the invalid has been transformed into "the sinner" (III, 20). [Return]

8. Brad Gregory discusses a few of these, very briefly, in his Introduction to Shirley's Translation of TTP (42). [Return]

9. Rice, following Collins, observes that Spinoza distinguishes between three meanings of miracles which he refers to as "factual ignorance," "opposition," and "transcendence." The last one, he indicates, is ultimately reducible to a version of the oppositional concept (Rice 190). [Return]

10. My primary concern is to point out Spinoza's practical motives for accepting this notion. However, the question must at some point be raised: In what sense, if any, is "the salvation of the ignorant" described in TTP analogous to the "salvation of the wise" such that Spinoza is theoretically justified in using the same term to apply to both? While it is beyond the scope of this work to address this question, I would suggest the following as a possible approach: Both that which individuals acquire for themselves and that which is provided for them is said to be provided solely by the divine power. The former is God's internal help, the latter is God's external help (89-90). The happiness and peace of those who cultivates their natural understanding (i.e. the wise) depend not on the sway of fortune (God's external help) but on their own internal virtue (God's internal help) [111]. Perhaps the ignorant experience a salvation of sorts insofar as their actions accord with what would be their rational duty to themselves (the dictates of right reason). However, the benefit thus received would involve merely their temporal preservation and the satisfaction of their most basic needs and would not entail the sense of inner peace and freedom characteristic of the intellectual love of God. Since such temporal, material benefit, can be construed as the external help God, it constitutes a salvation of sorts, but it is experienced passively rather than actively.[Return]

11. Of course, Spinoza take the position that individuals should be free to adopt personally whatever beliefs they find to inspire within themselves devotion to justice and charity. [Return]


Den Uyl, Douglas J. Power, State and Freedom: An interpretation of Spinoza's Political Philosophy. Assen, The Netherlands: Van Gorcum & Company, 1983.

Rice, Lee C. "Piety and Philosophical Freedom in Spinoza." Spinoza's Political and Theological Thought (Amsterdam: North Holland Publishing Company, 1984) 184-204.

Gregory, Brad S. "Introduction." Tractatus Theologico-Politicus. Trans. Samuel Shirley. New York: E.J. Brill, 1989.

Spinoza, Baruch. Correspondence. Trans. A. Wolf. London: George Allen & Unwin LTD, 1928.

__________. The Ethics. Treatise on the Emendation of the Intellect. Trans. Samuel Shirley. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1992.

__________. Tractatus Theologico-Politicus. Trans. Samuel Shirley. New York: E.J. Brill, 1989.


Allison, Henry E. Benedict de Spinoza: An Introduction. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987.

Donagan, Alan. Spinoza. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988.

Force, James E. "Spinoza's Tractatus Theologico-Politicus: A New Way of Looking at the World." The Southern Journal of Philosophy (Fall 1974, Vol. 12, No. 3) 343-355.

Lang, Berel. "The Politics of Interpretation: Spinoza's Modernist Turn." The Review of Metaphysics (Dec. 1989, Vol. 48, No. 2) 327-356.

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