Wednesday, October 25, 2006


Overdrawn Correlations

I was thinking about how to respond adaquately to a previous conversation thread (my response: John Locke ... if that doesn't work: Thomas Hobbes ... how 'bout Spinoza?) and this got me thinking: given the number of philosophers from the European continent who thought in the analytic vein, to what degree is the correlation between Continental vs. Anglo with Rationalistic/Existential vs. Analytic philosophy overdrawn? To what degree are the underlying distinctions themselves overdrawn?

Are you talking about the arrival of empiricism in France and its meet up with rationalism in the mid-18th century? If so, I have a couple good Jacques Barzun, From Dawn to Decadence, passages to quote. Or are you referring to the twentieth century schools of Analytic and Continental philosophy? If so, I got nothing.
I'm referring to the latter ... although the former is relevent to my claim that the correlation and distinction are both over-drawn.

Anyway, this post was indeed directed at you. You promised (or was that threatened?) to ask me a question if I brought up another 17th century philosopher. So I figured I would write a post which, with no real context or anything that would require thought (although alas I ended up thinking anyway), brought up one or more philosophers flourishing in or around the 17th century.
Here is my question. There was a delay in posing it because it turns out it was a little harder to formulate than I had expected.

Will Durant in The Story of Philosophy discusses of Spinoza's Tractatus Theologico-Politicus and summarizes a thesis of the treatise:

...there is no reason the philosophic Jew and the philosophic Christian, when all the nonsense is discarded, should not believe sufficiently in creed to live in peace and cooperation.

The first step towards this consummation, Spinoza thinks, would be a mutual understanding about Jesus. Let improbable dogmas be withdrawn and the Jews would soon recognize in Jesus the greatest and noblest of the prophets. Spinoza does not accept the divinity of Christ but he does put him first among men. "The eternal wisdom of God...has shown itself forth in all things, but chiefly in the mind of man and most of all in Jesus Christ." "Christ was sent not only to teach the Jews but the whole human race" hence "he accommodated himself to the comprehension of the people...and most often taught by parables." He considers the ethics of Jesus almost synonymous with wisdom; in reverencing him on rises to "the intellectual love of God."

To Spinoza it must have appeared that during his short life Jesus arrived at an advance level of understanding. Now here's my question. If Spinoza neither thought that Jesus was divine nor a 17th century rationalist philosopher what was Spinoza's explanation for the source of Jesus's understanding? What exactly would Spinoza have meant by "Christ was sent" and "the prophets" if he did not believe that God intervened in the affairs of man and if Spinoza did not believe revelation was the source of knowledge?

I guess Spinoza thought the Old Testament was developed by the intelligentsia over generations before being committed to print but that would not have been the case with the teachings of Jesus. One of Spinoza's assertions in the Ethics was "[t]he human mind has an adequate knowledge of the eternal and infinite essence of God" but doesn't it follow that the most direct way to find that knowledge is with Spinoza's rationalism?
No problem, cmike ... you're not under any obligation to ask me questions. So it turns out that I mentioned the correct philosopher?

Now for an attempt at a response (hope it's good enough):

My guess would be (and this is just completely off the top of my head) is that Spinoza figured that Jesus simply was some ultra-smart, in touch with the indwelling spirit of God individual who was wise-beyond his years ... but who did know what he knew due to rationalism, the distinction of which from true revelation was, to Spinoza, an over-drawn distinction.

Also, since Spinoza at some level believed in pre-destination, of course, it's possible that Jesus "was sent" (is the passive voice used in the original?) ... and since God permiates the universe, of course, the question of "by whom?" is answerable by God.

Then again, I suspect some of the coloratura of Spinoza's prose is less about what Spinoza actually believed and more about trying to meet, rhetorically, the Christians half-way on the issue of Jesus. From a Jewish point of view, it's easy to just write off the New Testament depiction of Jesus' wisdom as an amalgamation of the Jewish wisdom of the day from several sources: the famous quotes attributed by Q to Jesus are misquotes (and, as Nietzsche would tell you, very problematic misquotes) of Hillel, when Jesus is not able to dodge stating an opinion on an explicit matter of Halacha, his approach is textbook Shammai, and the movement from which Jesus arises seems to be one of the many sectarian Jewish movements of the time. Though Jesus likely was a real person, a leader and wise-person, it's likely the depiction of his wisdom in the Gospels is a depiction of an amalgamation of Jewish sources.

But saying that would hardly have endeared Spinoza to the Christian community he was trying not to offend (even if he was booted out of the Jewish community 'cause they were afraid his ideas would offend the Christians, he personally was not trying to so offend) ... so he's arguing that Jews should meet Christian belief half way by at least acceeding to the idea that Jesus was a great prophet.

I wonder if his views on this were also influenced by Islam: Spinoza was, after all, from the Sephardic community then recently expelled from Iberia when Iberia switched from being Islamic to Christian.

Hope this helps ...
Post a Comment

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?