Ethical or Political Religion? On the Contradiction Between Two Models of Amended Religion in Spinoza’s ‘Theological-Political Treatise’

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Abstract: In his Theological-Political Treatise (henceforth, the Treatise) Spinoza carries out one of the boldest and most comprehensive attacks on traditional religion found in modern philosophy. Spinoza did not seek to destroy existing religion, but merely to re-form it in the model of an amended religion, for in his opinion, only the latter can assure the stability of society, as it alone can guide the irrational masses to adopt behavioral norms consistent with rationality. However, the basic characteristics and organizing principles of the amended religion Spinoza proposed as a substitute for existing religion, are veiled: in addition to using an esoteric style in the Treatise, Spinoza devoted the bulk of the work to a poignant critique of existing religion without offering a thematic and ordered discussion of amended religion. Contrary to the common reading of the Treatise, my central argument will be that in the Treatise Spinoza presents, if only implicitly, two different and contradictory models of amended religion. In the first part (chapters 1–15), he presents an amended religion founded upon the reduction of the religious to the ethical, wherein obedience to God is reduced to obedience to the laws of morality. In the second part (chapters 16–20), however, he presents an amended religion founded upon the reduction of the religious to the political, wherein obedience to God is reduced to obedience to political law. My discussion will focus on the far-reaching consequences of this deep-seated contradiction between the two models of amended religion that Spinoza offers in the Treatise.

Biography: Yuval Jobani is a Fulbright Postdoctoral Fellow under the supervision of Prof. Michael Walzer at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton. Jobani received his Ph.D. (summa cum laude) from Tel-Aviv University in Philosophy. His recent publications include: “Three Basic Models of Secular Jewish Culture”, Israel Studies 13.3 (2008); “The Political Theology of the Ancient Hebrew State according to Spinoza”, Zmanim: A Historical Quarterly 103 (2008) [Hebrew]. Forthcoming, Spinoza’s Emendation of Religion: On the Status of Contradiction in the Concept of God; and “On scholars and soldiers”, The Jewish Political Tradition (Vol.3), Michael Walzer, Menachem Lorberbaum and Noam Zohar (eds.) Yale University Press.

Volume 3, Number 4 (Fall 2008) pp. 396-415