Reasonable Doubt By REBECCA NEWBERGER GOLDSTEIN NYTimes.com Homepage: July 29, 2006
Spinoza’s reaction to the religious intolerance he saw around him was to try to think his way out of all sectarian thinking. He understood the powerful tendency in each of us toward developing a view of the truth that favors the circumstances into which we happened to have been born. Self-aggrandizement can be the invisible scaffolding of religion, politics or ideology. Against this tendency we have no defense but the relentless application of reason. Reason must stand guard against the self-serving false entailments that creep into our thinking, inducing us to believe that we are more cosmically important than we truly are, that we have had bestowed upon us — whether Jew or Christian or Muslim — a privileged position in the narrative of the world’s unfolding... For Spinoza, democracy was the most superior form of government — only democracy can preserve and augment the rights of individuals...The Declaration of Independence, that extraordinary document first drafted by Thomas Jefferson, softly echoes Spinoza. John Locke, Spinoza’s contemporary — both were born in 1632 — is a more obvious influence on Jefferson than Spinoza was. But Locke had himself been influenced by Spinoza’s ideas on tolerance, freedom and democracy. In fact, Locke spent five formative years in Amsterdam, in exile because of the political troubles of his patron, the Earl of Shaftesbury.
Though Spinoza was already dead, Locke met in Amsterdam men who almost certainly spoke of Spinoza. Locke’s library not only included all of Spinoza’s important works, but also works in which Spinoza had been discussed and condemned. It’s worth noting that Locke emerged from his years in Amsterdam a far more egalitarian thinker, having decisively moved in the direction of Spinoza. He now accepted, as he had not before, the fundamental egalitarian claim that the legitimacy of the state’s power derives from the consent of the governed, a phrase that would prominently find its way into the Declaration.
Locke’s claims on behalf of reason did not go as far as Spinoza’s. He was firm in defending Christianity’s revelation as the one true religion against Spinoza’s universalism. In some of the fundamental ways in which Spinoza and Locke differed, Jefferson’s view was more allied with Spinoza. (Spinoza’s collected works were also in Jefferson’s library, so Spinoza’s impact may not just have been by way of Locke.)
If we can hear Locke’s influence in the phrase “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” (a variation on Adam Smith’s Locke-inspired “life, liberty and pursuit of property”), we can also catch the sound of Spinoza addressing us in Jefferson’s appeal to the “laws of nature and of nature’s God.” This is the language of Spinoza’s universalist religion, which makes no reference to revelation, but rather to ethical truths that can be discovered through human reason.
Spinoza had argued that our capacity for reason is what makes each of us a thing of inestimable worth, demonstrably deserving of dignity and compassion. That each individual is worthy of ethical consideration is itself a discoverable law of nature, obviating the appeal to divine revelation. An idea that had caused outrage when Spinoza first proposed it in the 17th century, adding fire to the denunciation of him as a godless immoralist, had found its way into the minds of men who set out to create a government the likes of which had never before been seen on this earth.
Spinoza’s dream of making us susceptible to the voice of reason might seem hopelessly quixotic at this moment, with religion-infested politics on the march. But imagine how much more impossible a dream it would have seemed on that day 350 years ago. And imagine, too, how much even sorrier our sorry world would have been without it. « Previous Page Rebecca Newberger Goldstein is the author, most recently, of “Betraying Spinoza: The Renegade Jew Who Gave Us Modernity.”