Spinoza on Superstition

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Spinoza was thrown out of the Amsterdam Jewish community, was almost assassinated, and some of his works could not be published during his lifetime. This mild-mannered man had the most uncompromising of attitudes when it came to his philosophical works, and this is demonstrated very well in his Theological-Political Treatise. He starts this work by claiming that people would never bother themselves with religion or superstition if their lives were always pleasant and that pain was simply not a possibility. Here is the first paragraph from this work:

Men would never be superstitious, if they could govern all their circumstances by set rules, or if they were always favored by fortune: but being frequently driven into straits where rules are useless, and being often kept fluctuating pitiably between hope and fear by the uncertainty of fortune’s greedily coveted favors, they are consequently, for the most part, very prone to credulity. The human mind is readily swayed this way or that in times of doubt, especially when hope and fear are struggling for the mastery, though usually it is boastful, over-confident, and vain.

He goes on to report that people who have been lucky in life, possibly becoming wealthy, famous or powerful, are keen to dispense their wisdom, even when they have none to dispense. On the other hand, those who experience adverse circumstances will believe any old rubbish if it is seen as a way of escaping their troubles. And in a particularly brutal statement, he claims that it is those who favor fortune’s favors the most, are those who are most susceptible to superstition. He says:

Thus it is brought prominently before us, that superstition’s chief victims are those persons who greedily covet temporal advantages …

A great deal of New Age superstition is concerned with material advantage – gaining wealth simply through the power of the imagination, magical practices that might endow power, and even some parts of the Christian Church have degenerated into the Church of Abundance (Dear God, please give me money). And Spinoza is no less scathing when it comes to the kind of person who might assume religious authority. He states:

The spread of this misconception (respect for religious authority) inflamed every worthless fellow with an intense desire to enter holy orders, and thus the love of diffusing God’s religion degenerated into sordid avarice and ambition. Every church became a theatre, where orators, instead of church teachers, harangued, caring not to instruct the people, but striving to attract admiration, to bring opponents to public scorn, and to preach only novelties and paradoxes, such as would tickle the ears of their congregation.

All-in-all, Spinoza would rather see a world without superstition and religion, but he does concede that without religion the ‘mob’ as he calls them, would degenerate into brutality. He quotes from Curtius – “The mob has no ruler more potent than superstition” , and concludes that religion is necessary to ensure the ‘mob’ does not break down the modest levels of order we possess.

As far as Spinoza is concerned, the man of reason does not need religion and can approach the divine through reason. He details how this might be achieved in The Ethics, but he buries the bone very deep. Spinoza did not want the ‘mob’ corrupting the message contained in The Ethics and so he made it virtually inaccessible to them. On the difficulty of understanding his message Spinoza concluded his Ethics with:

But all things excellent are as difficult as they are rare.

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By MB

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