Spinoza, Leibniz and Teabaggers

Spinoza, Leibniz and Teabaggers May 1, 2011

Reading Matthew Stewart’s The Courtier and the Hereticis proving most fascinating. It is illuminating to me how genuinely modern Spinoza and Leibniz were in their thinking, and then again how sometimes backward Leibniz could be. For Spinoza, it’s as though his conception of the modern state is a reaction to today’s teabagger Christianists. From the book:

In the closing sections of his Tractatus, Spinoza sketches the outlines of a radical and quintessentially modern political theory. His fundamental aim is to replace the reigning, theocratic conception of the state with one founded on secular principles. According to the theocrats, the state is the temporal representative of a divine order. The purpose of the state, in other words, is to serve God; and the role of the ecclesiastics is to tell the people just what it is that God wants. Spinoza says, in a nutshell, that the purpose of the state is to serve humankind; and it is up to the people to tell the state what they want.

What ties this so firmly to our current political climate is that instead of a direct connection between church and state, between the government and religious authorities, the founders have been deified as The Founders, divinely-touched men who somehow channeled the mind of Jesusinto the most holy (if totally misread or ignored) Constitution, itself an allegedly infallible “book” like the Bible. Stewart reveals Leibniz as a man consumed with his own advancement, so much so that he panders to European political leaders’ vanity and religious fervor by suggesting such absurdities as intentionally launching a holy war in Egypt, and in general working to justify the nonsensical claims of the Bible. But much of that may have been smoke and mirrors, bringing Leibniz, too, into the realm of modernity in the best sense of the word:

There is good reason to suspect that Spinoza’s hardheaded critique of revealed religion found a sympathetic listener in Leibniz. It is a fact worthy of notice that, although he lived in a century noted for its Bible thumping, Leibniz rarely bothered to cite the scriptures in his philosophical works. His grandest aim, after all, was to build the republica Christiana on a foundation of pure reason, not of biblical interpretation. According to Eckhart, furthermore, the philosopher often claimed that he saw nothing in the New Testament “that is not part of simple morality,” and he frequently described himself as a “priest of nature”—sentiments that are clearly in tune with those of the author of the Tractatus.

This notion is intriguing, that of a state founded upon Christianity, but not in such a way as, say, the GOP would have it, but founded on a philosophical Christianity. One that reveres the scriptures, but uses them as a basis for rational, decent behavior among the otherwise-ungovernable rabble. I wonder if this is where Jefferson was coming from. I’m looking forward to delving further into this book, learning more about these two men of whom I know almost nothing, save for that Spinoza was Einstein’s spiritual role model, and that Leibniz was a good conversational companion to the fictional Daniel Waterhouse.

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