The term Spinozism has almost invariably been used, by both defenders and detractors, to refer to doctrines held or allegedly held by Benedict de Spinoza. Unlike “Platonism,” for example, it has not generally been used to refer to a developing doctrine arising out of Spinoza’s philosophy. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the term was frequently used to disparage various types of atheistic doctrines that were held to be attributable to Spinoza.
For almost a century after his death, his work was neglected by philosophers, execrated by orthodox theologians of diverse denominations, and slighted even by freethinkers. It is not always possible, however, to distinguish between those genuinely opposed to Spinoza’s alleged atheism and those who really espoused atheism while pretending to disparage it.
Bayle and the “Philosophes”
Spinoza’s early reputation rested almost entirely on the long article in Pierre Bayle’s Dictionnaire philosophique (1697), for some time the only readily accessible account of Spinoza’s system. Bayle, like many others, admired Spinoza’s life but abhorred his doctrine.
|Bayle and the “Philosophes”|
In Spinoza he saw an application of his own thesis that atheism may coexist with the highest moral excellence. All agree, he wrote, that Spinoza was a “sociable, affable, friendly, and thoroughly good man.
This may be strange, but no stranger than to see a man lead an evil life even though he is fully persuaded of the truth of the Gospel.” But Bayle described Spinoza’s philosophy as “the most absurd and monstrous hypothesis that can be envisaged, contrary to the most evident notions of our mind.”
Bayle’s antagonism to Spinoza’s philosophy arose primarily from his dissatisfaction with monism as a solution to the problem of evil. That such an extreme evil as war could exist among men who are but modes of one and the same infinite, eternal, and self-sufficient substance seemed particularly outrageous to him.
Voltaire, like Bayle, expressed esteem for Spinoza’s life but had misgivings about his philosophy, although he did accord a measure of praise to the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus. Voltaire’s understanding of Spinoza’s Ethics, however, may be questionable, for he quoted from the inaccurate, popularized version by the Count de Boulainvilliers, published under the title Réfutation de Spinoza (Brussels, 1731).
According to Voltaire, Spinoza’s system was built on complete ignorance of physics and was the most monstrous abuse of metaphysics. In regarding the universe as a single substance Spinoza was, as he put it in his Le philosophe ignorant (Geneva, 1766), “the dupe of his geometrical spirit.”
Denis Diderot, in the Encyclopédie, also closely followed Bayle’s article in his criticism of Spinoza’s philosophy, yet his own views unmistakably reveal Spinozist elements in denying the existence of a being outside, or separate from, the material universe.
“There is,” he wrote in Entretiens entre d’Alembert et Diderot, “no more than one substance in the universe, in man or in animal.” Diderot’s monism was not quite the same as Spinoza’s metaphysical monism, for it was more pragmatic in nature.
His “one substance” was merely material substance, not substance in Spinoza’s sense of “that which is in itself, and conceived through itself ... (and) of which a conception can be formed independently of any other conception (Ethics, Part I, Definition 3). The universe, for Diderot, was monistic in its material unity. Nonetheless, Spinoza’s metaphysical monism could be considered as the logical basis for Diderot’s materialist monism.
While Voltaire’s and the Encyclopedists’ interpretation of Spinoza was gaining currency in France, attempts were being made in Germany to reappraise his philosophy. This reexamination was an integral part of the German Enlightenment that, while sharing with its French and English counterparts the affirmation of the individual’s right to question established truths, also sought to link this affirmation with religious faith rather than with skeptical disbelief.
In the course of this quest Spinoza’s image underwent a distinct change. From David Hume’s ironically labeled “universally infamous” atheist, Spinoza became Novalis’s gottbetrunkener Mensch. A number of leading German thinkers came increasingly to see in Spinoza’s pantheism a profoundly religious conception and interpretation of the cosmos.
To some extent, the reversal in Spinoza’s fortunes was also a corollary of the developments in science. Few of Spinoza’s contemporaries who accepted the new scientific theories realized their theological implications.
The intellectual reorientation in eighteenth-century Germany, on the other hand, was accompanied by a corresponding change in theological thinking. In the light of these changes Spinoza’s philosophy appeared much less inimical to the essential truths of religion.
PANTHEISMUSSTREIT. Probably the strongest factor contributing toward the revival of interest in Spinoza’s thought was the controversy that raged over Gotthold Lessing’s alleged Spinozism. This dispute, sparked by the disagreement between Moses Mendelssohn and F. H. Jacobi, came to involve almost every notable figure in the German literary world.
Jacobi, in his account of a conversation with Lessing, claimed that the latter had been a Spinozist. According to this account Lessing said that the orthodox conceptions of deity were no longer satisfactory for him and that, if he were to call himself after any master, he knew of no other than Spinoza.
Although Jacobi conceded that Spinoza’s philosophy was logically unanswerable, he found it unacceptable on religious grounds; in religion, he felt, he had to take refuge in an act of faith, a “salto mortale” as he called it. Lessing sardonically replied that he was unable to trust his old limbs and heavy head for such a leap.
It should not, however, be inferred that Lessing’s philosophical outlook was in every detail or even in essentials merely a reflection of Spinozist ideas. Lessing was far too independent a thinker to be subject to any single pervasive influence. He was also far less metaphysically oriented than Spinoza, and his faith in man’s perfectibility was tempered by a shrewder realization of man’s limitations than that of his world-shunning precursor.
Nor must it be assumed that Lessing’s exchanges with Jacobi can be taken at their face value. Lessing was fully aware of Jacobi’s misconceptions in his approach to Spinoza and hardly took him seriously. He may have been speaking with tongue in cheek, and it would therefore be unwise to attach too great an importance to the views he espoused.
Lessing did succeed in eliciting Jacobi’s admission that Spinoza’s philosophy was the most rigorous and consistent intellectual enterprise ever attempted and in inducing him to study it more deeply. Although Jacobi’s further studies did little to alter his conviction that Spinoza was an atheist and that final truths were to be found in the philosophy of the heart rather than in that of the understanding, they nonetheless helped to focus attention on Spinoza to an unprecedented degree.
|F. H. Jacobi|
Two men in particular, Johann Gottfried Herder and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who were both on intimate terms with Jacobi, were the most directly affected. Herder openly called himself a Spinozist, although his ontology and cosmology had much more in common with the Earl of Shaftesbury’s and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz’s than with Spinoza’s.
Yet he insisted that by substituting his concept of Kraft for Spinoza’s substance he was not fundamentally departing from Spinozist premises. Herder clearly did not realize how very different were his metaphysical presuppositions in postulating an ever-changing Kraft in place of Spinoza’s unchanging substance and hence how profoundly at variance was his brand of monism with that of his great precursor, despite superficial similarities.
|Johann Gottfried Herder|
Goethe, too, in his autobiography and in his correspondence with Jacobi, acknowledged a far greater debt to Spinoza than he really owed. In Book XIV of his Dichtung und Wahrheit he paid his eloquent tribute to Spinoza’s influence:
After I had looked around the whole world in vain for a means of developing my strange nature, I finally hit upon the Ethics of this man.... Here I found the serenity to calm my passions; a wide and free view over the material and moral world seemed to open before me. Above all, I was fascinated by the boundless disinterestedness that emanated from him. That wonderful sentence “he who truly loves God must not desire God to love him in return” with all the propositions on which it rests, with all the consequences that spring from it, filled my whole subsequent thought.Yet Goethe’s pantheism had far greater affinity with Herder’s—and thus with Shaftesbury’s and Leibniz’— than with Spinoza’s. Like Herder’s confessed Spinozism, Goethe’s was much more the result of a poetical imagination and of an emotional craving than of logical analysis and philosophical understanding.
|Johann Wolfgang von Goethe|
Indeed, although G.W. F. Hegel regarded Spinoza’s philosophy as philosophy par excellence and although Johann Gottlieb Fichte and Friedrich von Schelling took it as their starting points, the general nature of the Spinozist revival in Germany was literary rather than philosophical.
Much the same was true of the Spinozist renaissance in England and to a lesser extent in France during the nineteenth century. Admittedly, deism in England had already displayed marked Spinozist characteristics, even if one cannot agree with Leslie Stephen that the “whole essence of the deist position may be found in Spinoza’s Tractatus.”
Few deists were consciously aware of the Spinozist heritage, and it was not until German thought had begun to make itself felt in the English literary world that Spinozism acquired significance as a subject of intellectual discourse.
|Johann Gottlieb Fichte|
Samuel Taylor Coleridge was undoubtedly the chief link in this transmission. To judge from Henry Crabb Robinson’s account, Coleridge, when receiving from him Spinoza’s Ethics, kissed Spinoza’s face on the title page, said the book was his gospel, but—almost in the same breath—proclaimed his philosophy false and hence incapable of affecting in the slightest his faith “in all the doctrines of Christianity, even of the Trinity.”
The ambivalence in Coleridge’s attitude toward Spinoza, whom he praised as the “Hercules’ pillar of human reason” and simultaneously assailed for his moral and religious views, followed a pattern characteristic of many Spinozists before him, most notably Jacobi. Like Jacobi, Coleridge paid tribute to the rigor of Spinoza’s logic and commended his works as “medicinal” reading, while deploring their inadequacy as a philosophical basis of religious belief.
Spinoza’s unica substantia, Coleridge maintained, was not an object at all but a mere notion, a subject, of the mind. Spinoza committed the “most grievous error” of seeing God “in his Might alone ... and not likewise in his moral, intellectual, existential and personal Godhead.”
In the Biographia Literaria Coleridge related that he had talked much to William Wordsworth about Spinoza, which would help to account for the undeniably Spinozist elements in Wordsworth’s poetry. But like Coleridge and other English writers of this period, Wordsworth added nothing new to the conception of Spinozism.
|Friedrich von Schelling|
The reception of Spinoza in nineteenth-century France also witnessed no startling reinterpretations except that, as in Germany, the charge of atheism appeared to many to be quite unfounded. Like Lessing, Herder, and Goethe, Victor Cousin and his followers decisively dismissed the accusations to which Spinoza’s Ethics had been subjected by orthodox Christians.
Nonetheless, Théodore Jouffroy and Émile Saisset, both disciples of Cousin, had serious misgivings about Spinoza’s pantheism, for it seemed to absorb the individual in too determinate a manner in the cosmic forces of the whole and thus to threaten the very possibility of human freedom. Paul Janet echoed these misgivings and declared that “the genius of Spinoza was therefore not well adapted to the French mind.”
But Jouffroy’s detailed attention in his lectures at the Sorbonne to Spinoza’s thought, and Saisset’s publication of a French translation of Spinoza’s works, helped to create an intellectual climate in which Spinoza’s philosophy could no longer be ignored or lightly dismissed.
Thenceforth very many French writers of note, from Edgar Quinet, Alphonse-Marie-Louis de Prat de Lamartine, and Jules Michelet to Georges Sand, Ernest Renan, and the Saint-Simonians felt impelled to grapple with Spinozist ideas.
The spread and proliferation of interest in Spinozism could not help making its imprint on Russia, a country whose thinkers had for some time been increasingly fascinated by Western philosophical thought.
Even more remarkable is the extent to which Russia maintained its preoccupation with Spinoza despite—or perhaps because of—the Bolshevik Revolution. No other pre-Marxian philosopher, with the possible exception of Hegel, has received as much attention in the Soviet Union.
From 1917 to 1938, 55,200 copies of Spinoza’s works were published in the Soviet Union, compared to 8,000 in the period from 1897 to 1916. Prerevolutionary literature on Spinoza had for the most part been critical and negative, but what non-Marxists considered Spinoza’s chief philosophical defects later appeared to many Soviet writers as his strong points.
Spinoza’s political doctrines particularly appealed to the Marxists. Georgi Plekhanov came to see in Spinozism, when freed from its theological wrappings, a historical forebear of dialectical materialism, and he spoke of Marxism as a “variety of Spinozism.”
Following Marx and Engels, many Soviet writers credited Spinoza with having correctly solved the fundamental ontological problem concerning the relation of consciousness to being, and of thought to things. Indeed, admiration for Spinoza prompted some to call him “Marx without a beard.”
Spinoza’s rejection of an act of creation, his denial of a continuing intervention in the governance of the world by a supernatural being, his acceptance of nature as something ultimate, self-caused, and “given,” without limits of time or space, were all features not lost upon dialectical materialists.
No less congenial was the determinism and naturalism of Spinoza’s ethical and social philosophy that, while insisting on the possibility of arriving at objective and absolute truth, had analyzed the moral concepts of good and evil in terms of human desire and judgment.
Finally, and most important, the allegedly passive role of thought in Spinoza’s system, which several prerevolutionary writers had critically commented upon, was regarded in the Soviet Union as the most convincing proof of Spinoza’s profound understanding of the historical process.
Even if it is conceded that the Marxists revealed as many differences of emphasis in their positive appraisal of Spinoza’s thought as did the non-Marxists in their negative approaches, the essentials of Spinoza’s doctrines substantially engaged Russian philosophical thinking since the nineteenth century.
Spinozism, then, embodies no single consistent school of thought. Many who professed to admire and accept Spinoza’s philosophical premises were as apt to misunderstand and misinterpret them as those who despised them. Yet despite the diversity of meaning that the term underwent in different intellectual contexts and periods, its catalytic significance cannot be gainsaid.