Spinoza’s Theological-Political Problem

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Abstract: This article analyzes Spinoza’s unique version of the theological-political problem, which he sought to address in his classic treatise. By elucidating Spinoza’s relation to his main interlocutors – Maimonides, Machiavelli, and Hobbes – the article extrapolates Spinoza’s concepts of religion and politics. According to Spinoza, religion and politics are the two most basic human responses to the instability of human existence and fortune. Religion connects phenomena by omens that it then interprets and stabilizes by means of ritual, whereas politics seeks causal connections culled from experience in order to create political structures that would provide peace and security. Politics is more rational than religion in its mode of connecting events, but it is still not a science in the sense that metaphysics is. Contrary to the common reading of Spinoza, it is argued here that his concept of politics cannot be deduced from his Ethics and that the Theological-Political Treatise provides a model of political reasoning for conditions of relative ignorance. Metaphysics deduces causal connections from the essence of things, but due to the incompleteness of human knowledge there is no escaping the need for politics as an empirical resource for conducting our lives in relative ignorance regarding the interconnectedness of phenomena. This duality of the human response to the contingencies of fortune explains the ongoing need for a political theology.

Biography: Menachem Lorberbaum is chair of the Department of Hebrew Culture Studies at Tel Aviv University and a research associate at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. He is the author of Politics and the Limits of Law: Secularizing the Political in Medieval Jewish Thought (Stanford, 2001), and coeditor with Michael Walzer and Noam Zohar of The Jewish Political Tradition, vol. 1, Authority (Yale, 2000) and vol. 2, Membership (Yale, 2003).

Volume 1, Number 2 (Winter 2006) pp. 203–223