Hugo Grotius and the Jewish Question – II Grotius and Spinoza

Galileo, I had argued, set up the premises for the secularization of religion, that is, the separation of religion from a universal discourse rooted in civil society and underpinned by science. This was a foundation for the Enlightenment as well as the basis for a modern Jewish identity. Baruch Spinoza would make that explicit in his Theologico-Political Treatise. The emancipation of the Jews presumed human emancipation, that is the basic common nature of all humans as a precondition for political emancipation. The civic emancipation of the Jews  was based on a radical separation of civil and political society. As I hope I made clear, there was no such separation in Galileo’s political environment.

I will not consider Spinoza’s cosmology and the unity of substance as an arguable pantheistic premise. Nor will I be concerned with Spinoza’s views of the mind-body problem, a preoccupation of René Descartes. Rather, I will use Spinoza as background for understanding Hugo Grotius’ contribution to the emancipation of Jews, notably both as individuals and as a nation. As you will see in subsequent weeks, both Thomas Hobbes and John Locke also pioneered in separating church and state, civil and political society and rooting those separations in nature. But unlike these thinkers, both Spinoza and Grotius made the interpretation of the Torah a foundation stone for these differences, Spinoza by unpacking and unveiling the hidden lessons of the world as the complement to unravelling the hidden lessons of the word that claimed to be divine, Grotius by unpacking and unveiling the hidden lessons of the divine word as the complement to unravelling new lessons for the political world.

Galileo took on the battle with the Aristotelians in both science as well as theology. In contrast, Spinoza acknowledged a debt to Maimonides, by far the most important Aristotelian in Judaism, but with whom he had very fundamental differences. But unlike Galileo, who came on bended knee before the all-powerful Inquisitional Court, Spinoza had the advantage of a tradition that a) had little power over the individual and b) had a strong tradition of tolerating diverse opinions. Spinoza built on those two factors to create the foundation for a modern Jewish identity free from any of the authoritative strictures of tradition.

Spinoza provided the foundation for the very model of a modern liberal Jew to free Jews from the chains of prescribed Halachic Judaism. Jews had used law to keep Jews repressed. The Roman Catholic Church relied on coercion and institutional power to keep Catholics in line. Spinoza would use the belief in the rule of law to free Jews from the oppression of law in favour of law that liberated Jews. Spinoza, using critical hermeneutics, demonstrated that Judaism both held back modernity but also provided the philosophical foundation for modernity just as Grotius in his own way contended. A dialectic was at work: liberalism was rooted in Jewish sources and Jewish sources provided a ground for liberalism.

Why? Precisely because Jews believed in the rule of law and Grotius would make the rule of law the centerpiece of a modern and free society. What about transcendence? What about revelation? Immanence replaced transcendence. The revelations of nature and natural history replaced the revelation from above. Judaism was ideal for founding modernity. In turn, modernity allowed Jews to free themselves from obscurantism in favour of liberalism and the rule of reason for Spinoza and the rule of law for Grotius.

Why law? Because law was about practical, immediate and day-to-day matters. And law would provide a basis for living in society whether one was a Jew or a Christian, a Jew or a Muslim, and even for a so-called atheist Jew. This new view of a state was not the French version where secularism or laïcité would become the non-traditional religion of the new state, a new state that, in the name of laïcité, would ban religious head coverings and crosses by teachers, students and civil servants. In this case, the state replaced the Catholic institutions dedicated to preserving and perpetuating accepted traditions, only this time the traditions were devotedly anti-clerical.

Both Spinoza and Grotius introduced a liberalism not of mere tolerance, but a liberalism of recognition, a liberalism that respected differences. Instead of simply and primarily ceremonial law, which Spinoza rejected, Grotius made the whole body of law relevant to shaping the body politic. At the same time, both thinkers banished any preoccupation with other-worldly realms as a source for applying law to this world and ensuring the freedom of both individuals and nations. That meant that the divine origins of both the word and the world had to be both incorporated and overcome in the vision of a world unfolding. For Grotius it would reveal itself primarily in time. For Spinoza, the revelation would be primarily spatial.

For Spinoza, Mosaic law was dynamic and variable as it revealed itself over time to develop a world of civic equality in a new Promised Land rooted in liberalism and the rule of law, but a new, more encompassing and more far reaching rule. This was the New Jerusalem. But was this new utopia a stepping stone from emancipation to assimilation? One has to look at and read Grotius to find the answer, which was negative. For liberation was not just individual but collective. National self-determination, and not just individual emancipation, was the other leg on which modernity stood. Without the balance of national self-determination, individuals were reduced to an atomistic, isolated and alienated state incapable of engaging in a collective enterprise that made responsibility the complement to rights, accountability the social counterpart to individual initiative, and the rule of law the method for avoiding anarchy or apocalyptic solutions relying on creating a new world ex nihilo or merging with the dominant social world through assimilation.

Like Spinoza, Grotius also developed his political views from the study of the Torah. Grotius’ Argumenti Theologici, Iuridici Politici and his Defense of the Catholic Faith Concerning the Satisfaction of Christ were the foundational building blocks for his political theology. This would be the first story of his intellectual home focused on the principle of sovereignty in his Commentarius in Theses XI: An Early Treatise on Sovereignty, the Just War, and the Legitimacy of the Dutch Revolt, and his second story theory of the laws of just war within the rule of international law in Prologomena to the Law of War and Peace and The Rights of War and Peace. These are the complements to Spinoza’s Theologico-Political Treatise.

Spinoza and Grotius were both republicans and democrats. Democracy meant individual rights and majority rule. Republicanism implied duties more than rights and meant the rule of law and the protection of minorities. Democracy meant self-determination and the belief that sovereignty rests in a people as a whole and not a sovereign person such as a monarch or emperor.Republicanism explicitly was anti-monarchical as well as anti-clerical in regimes where clerics were given authority over speech and religion.

Further, the marriage of democracy and republicanism meant the primacy of civil society over the body politic, of self-interest over collective national interests – without devaluing either the political life of the state or the importance of national interests. That did not mean that the body politic was rooted in individual self-interest or the possessive individualism of Thomas Hobbes or John Locke. This was neither Spinoza’s nor Grotius’ liberalism, which meant a respect for human dignity rather than either a respect for political or business authority (Hobbes) or freedom of speech and expression rather than the reduction of speech to transactionalism (Locke). If Spinoza was the intellectual founder of political Zionism, Grotius discovered the foundations for the self-determination of the Dutch free from Spanish imperial rule that resided in the classical nation-state of the Jews.

With the loss of religious certainty, the populace turned to a mad gold rush to search for certainty in science. And they ended up in the twentieth century only with probability – that is, uncertainty. Instead of a religion rooted in the rule of law, such as Judaism, Christians and their secular heirs ended up with a religion of faith, of inwardness, of mainstream, especially evangelical, Protestantism. They did not turn towards a religion based on an adherence to tradition rooted in a body of law and sacred texts. People turned towards communities of faith where truth was found from within rather than from without. With the turn inwards, Judaism became for many Christians the embodiment of bad faith, of heresy, of a set of behavioural practices at odds with both a coercive social order and a so-called tolerant one free of the dominance of any sacred text. Man-made secular texts, like constitutions and declarations of independence, were to take the place of sacred religious texts for both Grotius and Spinoza.

Hence the new secular religion. Hence, toleration as the only alternative to a religious faith in a single institution. Hence a new foundation, a New Jerusalem free of religious sectarian zealotry in exchange for a religion of volunteer organizations of believers who were born again and transformed into faithful servants of a human rather than divine order. Religious minorities could be tolerated. Jews could thrive in the interstices of these realms of toleration.

Holland, in opposition to Tuscany, was a centre of this realm of tolerance and respect for the rights of both individuals and minorities. In America, through New Amsterdam that became New York, the new doctrine would appear in Article 6 of a constitution that ruled out religious tests for entry into public office and a First Amendment that prohibited Congress from passing any law “respecting the establishment of religion” and preventing the free exercise of belief. Awe became a refugee from public life. Mystery was reserved for an exploration of nature. Religion, banned from public life, went underground and inward – at least until new forms of religious zealotry burst open periodically, but especially strongly in the beginning of the twenty-first century. Secularism in promoting a culture of skepticism and disbelief, a culture which rejected public expressions of devotion and sentiment, left a vacuum in which dogmatism could periodically burst forth.

And when it did, the “deep state,” the secular state of non-partisan and objective minions, would mount the ramparts of secularism to once again do battle with the forces of irrationality who believed in a messianic leader of fantasies immune to any tests of truth. But why was this necessary? Where did we go wrong? Perhaps a return to origins, a return to Spinoza and Grotius can provide the answer.

Before I develop this theme more thoroughly, I offer the metaphor of the pendulum clock and the belief that politics is a process of moving to an extreme and then moving back through a mid-point to an opposite extreme. Then the pendulum would again move back towards the centre. The pendulum clock was one of the most important metaphors for early modern political philosophers. Based on Galileo’s principle of isochronism, Christiaan Huygens (1629-1695) created his pendulum clock in 1656. The ideological background included the principles of his father, Constantijn Huygens, as well as Andreas Colvius (1594-1671), Elie Diodati (1576-1661) and, most of all, Hugo Grotius (1583-1645). Spinoza (1632-1677) was also influenced by Huygens’ development of the synchronization of the pendulum clocks in his views on the complementarity of motion of bodies in the universe. (See Filip A.A. Buyse (2017) Society and Politics, “Spinoza and Christiaan Huygens: The Odd Philosopher and the Sympathy of Pendulum Clocks.”)

Both Grotius and Spinoza would introduce to both theology, but from very different points of view, and to political theory, but this time from complementary points of view, the principle of both change and balance. Rather than the effort of Aristotelians to avoid extremes for the sacred middle, both Grotius and Spinoza accepted the dynamic principle as primary, that movement towards an extreme was an integral part of obtaining balance. A radically inverted view of balance, compared to Aristotle and his seventeenth century disciples, underpinned the philosophical opinions of both Spinoza and Grotius.

With the help of Alex Zisman


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