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Today a colleague tweeted this Spinoza quote from the Political Treatise:

“Those who take an oath by law will avoid perjury more if they swear by the welfare & freedom of the state instead of by God.”

It made me aware of why Spinoza’s habit of putting things in a conditional manner has always appealed to me so much. To my knowledge he is one of the few philosophers who does this so consistently. And not in order to be vague, but to be precise. Spinoza understood from experience what it was to live under repressive regimes – and he saw two main vehicles for oppression: religion and politics. The main insight from his TPT was that humanity cannot free itself (its mind, its heart) without adressing both institutions – in their entanglement. Both play on our animality – our sensitivity to danger – by promising safety. Politics promises safety of the body, religion safety of the soul. And either one of them may use the other’s reach over our vulnerabilities to intensify their own claim. This happens all the time: when states urge us to trust a certain religion over another – because the ‘strange’ religion threatens our safety. Or the other way round: when religions urge their believers to trust a certain state power – for it safeguards them from instability and chaos.

The entanglement between the two institutions may also lead to an imagined conflict between them. We see it in so-called ‘religious’ attempts to end state power (think IS) or in political movements that try to end the power of religion (all forms of strict secularism). Both movements are confused, for they fail to see that the boundaries between politics and religion are porous. Both overlap. They both play into our natural fear of bad things that might happen, and appeal to our natural hope that this can be solved. To free oneself, therefore, Spinoza held we should address religion and politics in their entanglement and mutual dependency. They can not be separated, but can work together in more and less destructive ways. Their connectedness would be most beneficial to a good life, Spinoza concluded, when religion – albeit in a purified form – would inform politics, and not the other way round. A good life he defined as a life in friendship with others, with freedom of mind and peace of heart. To attain this one should not have religions do political things (then politics would inform religion), but political power play should rather let itself be inspired by religious things, trying to promote justice and charity. This was at least the (contested) upshot of the interpretation I gave in my 1996 PhD thesis on the TPT.

The citation I read on twitter underlines the above. Spinoza was convinced that it was easier to keep true to one’s pledge of allegiance to freedom and welfare, than to one we make to God. God is just too much above human fallibility, one could say, as He is one and ultimately just. Freedom and welfare of the state is a relative thing, and we can more easily remain true to it. My reading of Spinoza was contested as it followed a long period of Hegelian and Marxist interpretations of his work (and combinations of them) – which all aimed to reconstruct it to be progressivist, and teleological. This led to a Spinoza who claims the telos of mankind’s efforts to be absolute freedom of religious oppression – embodied in true philosophy – the mental realization that frees us from irrational fetters.

Such interpretations however overlook how Spinoza did things with words: how he made any philosophical judgements conditional. In his Ethics he mostly uses the formula: ‘in so far as…’. Here, in the PT, he allows himself to be rethorical – without losing precision. Perjury is our condition, he says indirectly. We cannot be completely true to our better nature, to freedom, to friendship – we will always fail if we aim to be ‘good’. To make our failing as minute as possible, Spinoza warns us, we better aim not too high. Freedom and welfare of the state is very important, looking up to them can keep us from doing too bad things – trying to emulate God, however, is so far removed a goal that it will automatically make us fail – and fall into desparation as a consequence.

Being truly religious then, for Spinoza, meant to claim as little as possible about God. It would better show itself in living in accordance with the two main virtues: charity (love of one’s neighbor) and justice (treating others fairly). When we practice those, we do the utmost. Aiming higher is moral pride. However, despite the humility in his philosophy, he was a believer in the modern state, as being the best guardian of the good, free, and peaceful life. A then new political form he helped to carve out philosophically. Living in the 21st century the belief in the state as the guardian of shared and equally distributed wellbeing has tarnished, to say the least. The inescapable awareness we now have of the infinite potentialities of state violence and repression make Spinoza appear not morally humble enough. The modern state tramples justice and charity with ease, even while making its citizens believe they are righteous and good. But where can we find a hold, if we better not even pledge an oath on the freedom and welfare of the state? Where can we look to anchor morality?

What inspired me to ask these questions? It were reflections ignited by the announcement of one of my students, last week, that she wants to write her thesis on evil. During the first discussion we had on her chosen theme I started to wonder why philosophers’ writing on evil had always somehow irritated me. And the Spinoza quote made me understand: speaking of evil creates a fog. It is a conjuring act. It aims to exorcize the bad things we inevitably experience in this life, as well as the bad things we do to others. Using the word ‘evil’ helps us to abstract from real life, and to rise to a metaphysical realm where things promise to be clear and well-defined. Thus we conjure ourselves away from nature’s forces – which play through us, sensitive creatures, when we feel fear and hope. We hope to lose our fear, to be absolutely safe, which inevitable means we will have to bend reality – for safety is not here in this world (not even in the religious beliefs we can have in this world). Bending reality, we will inevitably harm what is in our way.

Perhaps we should loose the concept of ‘evil’, and realize that we just do bad things, as well as good things. Perhaps philosophy cannot even meaningfully define them – as it failed badly at earlier attempts. Wouldn’t we be more true to Spinoza’s caution by abstaining from swearing oaths at all? And would we, in our present times, not better give up belief in the state as the natural guardian of peace and welfare?

Perhaps we should not swear anymore. Nor speak of evil. But attempt to do the right thing on the most inconsiderable playing field. The field without flags. Without honor. Without deaths of honor over flags. In order to be ready for such a post-idealistic politics we should overcome just one thing: the fear of fear. And its denial. Fear is real. As well as bad things. Let’s not clothe them in the solemn, metaphysical concept of evil. It makes us too easily forget those who are hurt by them. The ones that we should mourn, as well as the ones we should – now – try to protect. Only by accepting that the bad things are always already happening, and that we are inevitably involved in them, can we avoid the false consciousness we create when condemning certain acts as ‘evil’. And avoid perjury a little more.

The research I did for my PhD thesis on Spinoza’s Theological-Political Treatise, in the late eighties and the early nineties, left me with an aversion for the idea of an esoteric philosophy. I had set myself to reading the works that were seen as authoritative studies on the TTP in those days, and among them were those that made a lot of work of discovering the esoteric philosophy that would be hidden in the so called exoteric texts of Spinoza. I could understand that the deep and difficult roads travelled by Spinoza inspired readers to imagine that there would be something even deeper and more mysterious between the lines – hidden kabbalism for instance. The problem was, however, that those same interpretators ignored some very obvious and explicit things Spinoza said about religion. It didn’t make sense, as he had risked a lot to be so open about what was important to him.

Just the other day, however, the idea of an esoteric philosophy came up in another context. I was attending a lecture of a Dutch colleague, who was speaking about studies he had done which were somewhat outside the field of ‘official’ academic philosophy. He said that he would not write the insights they had given him down until he was more certain about what he wanted to claim, and he joked this to be (for now) his esoteric philosophy. The idea not to write on things before one can give more than just an opinion on them is close to my heart, so I could relate to his statement very well. It reminded me of the ten, fifteen years that I worked to say something well-founded on what I have called here anim(al)ism, a concept I am still exploring further. It is a broad term for relating with the world while recognizing ourselves to be among animals as among relatives, and even among other non-human souls, and to be able to communicate with them in other ways than the rationalist and empiricist epistemologies recognize.

I thought that I had come far in this respect. Until just yesterday, when I had an unexpected experience. I was with academic friends, the theologians with whom I have been sharing research on ethics over the past 15 or more years, in our research group on theological ethics. Being, I think, the only non-theologian by training in the group, I am always very careful not to claim anything ill-founded on religion, and because of that I try to stay very close to my personal discoveries in the field. One of the nice colleagues asked my views on ‘revelation’ – which made me quite uncertain. As a philosopher one tends to think of Heidegger and Husserl on hearing that word, but I was certain that he was hinting in another direction – and he was, more in the direction of Karl Barth. I could not position myself in the academic theological debate on the matter, but still wanted to answer him meaningfully. I tried to word very carefully how my intuitions on ‘anim(al)ism’, on shamanism, and my encounters with the different ‘Abrahamic’ and some Asian religions had formed my views, and how this all made me see the Christian idea of ‘revelation’. I confessed that I had thought about this for quite some time, and would love to write more extensively on it, but wouldn’t know how to ‘sell’ the plan – being an academic philosopher and not a theologian of Christianity.

Then, slowly, it dawned on me… there was some esoteric part in my own philosophical existence too… but I don’t like that. Speaking and writing have a different format, and academic writing has quite a few demands which sometimes forces one to let some part of one’s thinking remain ‘esoteric’ for now. The aim is to study, however, just as long as necessary to be able to write one’s insights down properly, in a discussion with the relevant and knowledgeable authors. So much still to be done!