Spinozian religion inhabits a strange space somewhere between secular atheism and traditional Abrahamic religion. For this reason, it can seem equally perverse to people in both camps—and despite all their differences from each other, for similar reasons. That is, in the religious life that Spinoza proposes, we take joy in our finitude: in the fact that we’re inescapably dependent on and vulnerable to a world that is utterly indifferent to us. For many secular and religious persons alike, though, our finitude is anything but a cause for joy, let alone joy of any religious sort.
First, to people of a religious bent, Spinoza’s worldview can seem bleaker than damnation. And this is because, as I suggested in last week’s post, for him we live in a radically non-theodical world.
Now, the term “theodicy” is most commonly used in a somewhat narrow sense: to describe attempts to account for God’s reasons for permitting the existence of evil. A theodicy might, for example, tell us that, despite appearances, everything works out for the best in the divine plan, but that in order for it do so, some evil needs to exist. Views that are theodical in this narrow sense presuppose a very specific religious doctrine: monotheism.
However, when I talk about theodicy, what I have in mind is a way of looking at the world that doesn’t, by itself, presuppose the existence of divinities at all, let alone that of a single god: namely, the idea that ‘everything happens for a reason’. When people use this common idiom, they typically have a very particular kind of reason in mind. By itself, to say that something happens for a reason is simply to say that there’s an explanation for why it happened. An epidemiologist might, for example, claim that the reason why a certain disease outbreak happened is that the rainy season caused a spike in the mosquito population. However, theodicists typically mean something quite different: namely, the kind of reason a person might give to justify something she’s done. Thus, they’ll find the epidemiologist’s explanation for the outbreak to be insufficient.
That is, to justify an action of ours, we usually cite some purpose it served, some good that it did, or some ideal or virtue that it embodied. I took the job to save more money. I donated to the campaign because I think the candidate will really turn things around. I ran into danger because it was courageous, or, quite simply, the morally right thing to do.
Theodicists think is that there are reasons of these kinds that account for what happens in the world at large. Theodicies in the narrow sense offer these as God’s reasons for creating the world as he has. A Christian might, for example, say the outbreak served some divine purpose; or that it was just for God to have allowed it. However, you don’t have to profess any traditional religion to be a theodicist in the present, more general sense. In my experience, many people who in fact reject traditional Abrahamic religion are theodicists. Because they’re detached from institutionalized bodies of doctrine—‘spiritual, but not religious’, in common parlance—their theodical views might be much more nebulous and mercurial: some New Agey business about energy and forces, for example. However, they share something quite fundamental in common with those who embrace such doctrines: the sense that we live in a justified world.
What is it that drives theodical views? Theodicies in the narrow sense are responses to the so-called problem of evil: why would God permit there to be evil in the world? But just as monotheistic theodicies are simply one kind thereof, so the problem of evil comes in a generalized form. The driving question of the latter is: why is there evil? The “why” here, again, though, must be understood as requesting reasons that justify. Why, theodicists might ask, for example, do bad things happen to good people? Why, indeed, do they happen at all? When they ask these things, they need not presuppose that the answer to their question will take a particular form—for example, that it will make reference to some one and only God. Rather, insofar as posing a sincere question presupposes hope for an answer, they need only hope for a justified world: a world that ‘make sense’, as people sometimes put it.
In the Appendix to Ethics I, Spinoza imagines a scenario in which we try to answer some theodicists who repeatedly ask “why?” in this spirit:
For example, if a stone falls from the roof on somebody’s head and kills him, by this method of arguing they will prove that the stone fell in order to kill the man; for if it had not fallen for this purpose by the will of God, how could so many circumstances (and there are often many coinciding circumstances) have chanced to concur? Perhaps you will reply that the event occurred because the wind was blowing and the man was walking that way. But they will persist in asking why the wind blew at that time and why the man was walking that way at that very time. If you again reply that the wind sprang up at that time because on the previous day the sea had begun to toss after a period of calm and that the man had been invited by a friend, they will again persist—for there is no end to questions—”But why did the sea toss, and why was the man invited for that time?” And so they will go on and on asking the causes of causes, until you take refuge in the will of God—that is, the sanctuary of ignorance.(I Appendix [p.241])
When explaining why the stone fell and killed the man, Spinoza imagines, we give our theodicist interlocutors reasons of the sort the epidemiologist gave for the outbreak. Yet, they remain unsatisfied. Why, though? Because they live in hope of a justified world, and the reasons we’re giving them provide nothing of the sort.
It’s crucial that Spinoza chooses the kind of example he does: a death that seems ‘senseless’—theodical hope being undermined. This is one common way in which the drive to theodicy becomes manifest: in suffering from its frustration. Most of the time, theodicists live in what Camus calls “the sleep necessary to life” (p.13), and what Spinoza calls “the sanctuary of ignorance” (ibid). They see the world as one that is justified—perhaps even doing so unbeknownst to themselves. They don’t, perhaps, think that they know the reasons—they needn’t, that is, endorse any particular theodical doctrine. Nevertheless, to use the same idiom, they experience the world as one that ‘makes sense’: because of this, they feel safe and secure, as if slumbering in bed, or as if locked behind the doors of a secure fortress.
Then, however, something terrible strikes. As a result, their theodical drive becomes palpable as it announces itself and fixates on the terrible thing. “Why are things this way? Why did this happen?” they ask in agony—even if only in private moments to themselves, and even if only in ways they don’t even realize. Looking out, though, they can’t find any answer of which they can be confident. Consequently, to whatever suffering that is caused by the terrible thing—in Spinoza’s example, the unexpected death—is added suffering of another kind: theodical suffering, the suffering of Job. The world’s refusal to live up to their image of it feels like a nightmare—like being lost, or barren, or completely alone.
Spinoza’s choice of example is important because it makes clear precisely why many will find what he proposes perverse. First of all, he’s telling us: there is no justification for the world! The reasons why things happen just aren’t of this sort. The world, in other words, is non-theodical in character. Or to put it in another way, it’s indifferent to us. Nowhere in it, that is, will we ever find, except in comforting illusions, the world offering us reasons to justify itself.
However, this, by itself, would only raise the usual hackles in most religionists. After all, this is a familiar point of secular contempt for religion: mockery of the religious for holding on to a silly hope. Spinoza, though, is no such garden variety heathen. Instead, he’s something much stranger. For him, that is, people on both sides of this familiar conflict are equally heathens. A non-theodical world doesn’t, as he sees things, give him any reason to waver in his religious convictions. And this is because among these convictions is that the unjustified, so-called senseless world isn’t a barren landscape deprived of the sacred and divine. Rather, that world is God, and the religious life is one led in light of it.
I suspect—in fact, I know from experience—that many religious and secular people alike will find this stupefying. And this is because they think religion—love it or leave it—is of its essence a theodical business. It’s for those who, in their terms, seek ‘sense’ in the world: who want to know that all of it has some point, some purpose, some mission—that it’s ‘headed somewhere’, or has ‘meaning’. Here, then, we come to the first reason Spinoza seems perverse to them. For him, there’s a third way that lies outside the opposition between secularity and traditional religion altogether: neither embracing nor rejecting a religion that’s conceived in these terms, but revolutionizing our sense of what religion’s about. The theodical conception of religion is so deeply ingrained, though, that the very idea tends to fall on deaf ears all around: a monstrous attempt to have to have the impossible—religion and its absence, all at once.
Spinoza’s second perversity runs just as deep. This is because in the religious life he imagines, we don’t simply live in light of a radically non-theodical world. More than this, we take profound joy in our inescapable dependence on and vulnerability to that world. In doing so, he seeks something altogether more extreme.
To see why, we can begin by noting that the very condition in which he’d have us take joy is what prompts the generalized problem of evil in the first place. Spinoza tells the tale in the Preface to his Theological-Political Treatise. Our dependence on and vulnerability to the world makes much of our suffering unavoidable. This, in turn, leads to a distinctive kind of panic. The panic isn’t a matter of attempting to flee the particular causes of our suffering, or to enlarge the scope of our power and understanding in order to accomplish this. Rather, it’s a matter of desperately attempting to flee our dependence and vulnerability altogether.
The kind of confusion that Spinoza describes in the Appendix to Ethics I—confusion about causes: about why things happen—is what commonly besets us in our panicked state. Why, though, does this confusion tend to take a particular, theodical form? There are many ways we might be confused about causes. Why is this one so common?
Because, Spinoza thinks, we tend to flee in a particular direction. We tend, that is, to seek for some agency that has the power and understanding we lack—that seems, in the extreme case, to be utterly limitless—and try to submit ourselves to it in the hopes of enjoying a share of its power and knowledge. This is what we might call the authoritarian impulse: the desire, that is, not to wield authoritarian power, but to become its willing slaves. It is this impulse that is implicit in the generalized problem of evil. When posing this problem, we take up a stance in which we long to know why the world treats us as it does. We approach it, thus, like supplicants pleading for judgment by a sovereign.
Again, though, these points are familiar from standard secular criticisms of traditional religion: traditional religion as escapism. As an alternative to such escapism, secularists typically propose acceptance. We must, that is, learn to accept our finitude: the fact that we’re inescapably bound to the blind vicissitudes of an indifferent world. We must, they tell us, accept it with Stoic calm, or at least resignation, or perhaps the defiant courage of Camus’s Sisyphus. In other words, they agree with Spinoza that we must find our way to something other than theodical escapism.
However, I suspect that many secularists will find Spinoza’s proposed alternative just as perverse as traditional religionists do. It would be nice if we didn’t live in an indifferent world, they might think. Alas, though, we don’t, and we must accept it. Acceptance, yes: but joy? Why would we take joy in our finitude? What is there to celebrate in the indifference of a world we can never fully conquer or comprehend?
A similar bafflement can easily arise from the idea that we ought to rejoice in our status as inescapably dependent, vulnerable beings. Our dependence and vulnerability are what keep us from any hope of completely understanding the world. They make us into fools. Dependence and vulnerability are what make us powerless to ensure the success of our aspirations, and the well-being of the people and things we care about. They’re what sometimes make us unable to keep ourselves from doing wrong. They make us weak.
Why would one take joy in them? To do so would be a curious sort of masochism. This is precisely Lewis Feuer’s charge against Spinoza in his book Spinoza and the Rise of Liberalism. “A slave is a slave,” Feuer exclaims, “even if it is to God, not man, and a slave is a slave even if he is a metaphysical, rather than a political, one” (p.241). Thus, Spinoza’s view is, he thinks, no better than the authoritarian impulse that drives the generalized problem of evil: he wants us to rejoice in our enslavement to an indifferent master—the world as a whole.
These two seeming perversities in Spinoza’s views prompt, then, the following questions:
- In what sense is Spinoza’s view a religious one at all, given that it posits a radically non-theodical world?
- What reason could we have for taking joy in our finitude? Is the Spinozian religious life the expression of a strange sort of masochism?
Next week, I’ll be taking a brief detour, and begin an ongoing series of essays on literature with one on James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. However, beginning the week after that, I’ll begin considering various ways a Spinozian religionist might respond to these worries.
- Camus, Albert. The Myth of Sisyphus, trans. Justin O’Brien. New York: Penguin Books, 1979.
- Feuer, Lewis Samuel. Spinoza and the Rise of Liberalism, New York: Routledge, 2017.
- Spinoza, Benedict de. Complete Works, trans. Samuel Shirley, ed. Michael L. Morgan. Indianapolis, 2002.
- Theological-Political Treatise, trans. Michael Silverthorne and Jonathan Israel. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007.