Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Benedictus de Spinoza & Rita Verdonk

"There is no God", so runs a popular adage, that might have sounded heretic a few hundred years ago but that today is such a common place that no one is any longer specifically disturbed by it, including a vast array of theologians, particularly within the Protestant spectrum. There was a time, in the course of the 18th and 19th century when the non-existence of God became such a worldly and undeniable reality for hairsplit intellectuals in the cosmopolitan capitals of the world (bear in mind that at the time the world meant barely Europe and cosmopolitan did not mean the already infamous "multikulti" palette of colours of today but barely the toleration of certain not-too-unorthodox opinions), whereas the Christian eternity remained unhampered in its advance toward salvation in nearly all the European provinces stretching all the way from Rotterdam to Koenigsberg and beyond, with the exception of an eccentric preacher or the sudden breach in a state-national boundary that placed vassals at the service of a new ruler, to whom they were already culturally associated. Perhaps the only worldly reminder of the new theological reality were the ocassional European wars that in themselves didn't manage just as much, to shake the foundations of European provincialism until the 20th century was already well advanced. God was still a living reality for millions of Christians in reformed and non-reformed Europe and if anything, the first bits of atheism, sparked by the philosophies of Hegel and Nietzsche (Kant couldn't have gone that far, although this could have been widely tolerated in Prussia), were self-conceived within the despair and tragic feeling of Romantic impulses. Few people, learnt on matters religious and philosophical, would stand up to refute the widespread idea that it was them, the major cultural heretics of all times, who for the most part, formed the last batch of Christian pathos looking for a Christ, even if the locus of this search was the vast arena of godlessness; Heidegger himself pointed to the case of Nietzsche as being the last searcher for the Christian truth (which then makes no wonder that he went mad, going beyond the Romantic pathos involved in the idea of the madman... no longer an amusing situation for modern men and women). The pagan philosophies of the end of the 19th century could not be anything but profoundly Christian and they set the mood for a radically re-worked version of the Enlightenment that heralded the new century with the strongest Messianic political impulse seen in Western mankind since the Christening of heathen Europe.

That people today agree by political consensus that there's no God is hardly surprising, because we have been primarily shaped by the worldview of science and technology that has apparently consumed faith in its shattering-all tour de passage through public life, and the divinization of Utilitarianism as the political philosophy of Modernity. This "simple" step however, had its outburst into the world from within the confines of academic philosophy, which as a discipline subject to theology since immemorial times, has been found guilty of all charges of atheism, of course, until the time when atheism was no longer punishable and the fear of hell, which had formed the political identity of Western politics, vanished forever. Contrary to the commonplace opinions, when Hegel declared the "death of God" (and he was the first, not Nietzsche) in the "Phenomenology of the Spirit", he, as a conservative Christian, declared defuncted not the Christ that would be enshrined forever after in Golgotha at the end of his major work, but rather, he shattered the idols and kissed good-bye to the pagan idols of Oriental (symbolic) and Greco-Roman (figurative) art; opening the gates of Golgotha for the unfolding of Romantic or Germanic art, that conceptually would supersede, overcome and overthrow the Oriental despot God (here no one is free) and the Greek gods (only some are free) for a new world, rooted in Europe, in which freedom would be afforded to all of mankind modelled upon the image of the Gospels. The Nietzschean turn, far more radical and less sustained by the edifice of Imperialism and institutional Christianity, declared officially the death of God in Zarathustra as the death of moral custom and of an order of truth that relies exclusively upon the principle of moral traditions. It is unlikely that anyone should have declared himself an atheist on the basis of these philosophers alone and the turn toward godlessness, which the Enlightenment set free, with Kant as a refferee, occured nowhere else that in the pulpits and the theological academies that themselves declared the death of the official God and resorted to a style of theology which reduced all Christian mysteries to ethics and history.

The Age of Reason and the Enlightenment, that just like the wisemen of the Renaissance, was heavily indebted to and embedded in scholasticism, was furnished within a more sober mood in which reason unfolded from within the wombly entrails of natural and dogmatic theology, that didn't rule out religion altogether. Kant argued from the perspective of pure and practical reason that reason had to be denied in order to make space for faith -an absurd theism in reverse, and his forebearers, much mora at home in the world of scholasticism didn't attempt to vye with the Christian mysteries into which they found rooted the founding principles of reason, hearkening back to the philosophy of Aristotle and most probably embedded in the Arabian philosophy of the Middle Ages that the wisemen of the Renaissance themselves, had rejected as outright atheism. Descartes and Leibniz did not only write treatises on the principles of mathematics and rationality, but were just as much, occupied by mariologies, soteriologies, principles of dogmatic theology, providences, holy spirits, eschatologies, ecclesiologies and pneumatologies. The foundations of reason that they settled upon, were a far cry from the enterprise that the early Greek thinkers set themselves upon and were rather distant at the same time, from, for example, the project of Renaissance humanism as embodied by Petrarca or Eramus of Rotterdam, nonwithstanding the deliberate Christian intent of both cultural revolutions that seems primarily overlooked today and rather frown upon; "they were not really Christians", runs the current secular prejudice.

Erasmus was far from a godless man, although his piety has been for long a matter of debate and there's definitely no insight that could lead us to believe that he was a godless man. Perhaps we wouldn't be too misled if we assumed that the first truly godless instinct that defined the Age of Reason came from the liberal city of Amsterdam in the name of the Jew Benedictus Spinoza. One could be easily given to mischance in understanding this liberality in the same terms that we read today what it is called political liberalism which is at least a few centuries older than Spinoza and that if at all, could have seated pretty well among the English but never in the then unstable Dutch Republic that acquired its current shape only in the generation of Hegel, time by which Spinoza had been integrated already into nearly all the philosophical ambitions of German Idealism and contextualized much beyond the rather simple demands of Spinoza's philosophizing. Liberality could have meant in Amsterdam in those days nothing more than the possibility to express certain opinions without having the risk of losing one's life while at it, and certainly the emancipation of the Jews and of the secular powers (de Regenten) came about very slowly and was often tainted by the ever changing power discrepancies. Spinoza produced a system of philosophy completely consistent with the aspirations of the Netherlandic society of his times in which tolerance was viewed as the free exchange of opinions from within rather clustered segments of society that remained largely unchanged by the opinions expressed by one or the other.

That his philosophy was atheistic can't be denied when juxtaposed to the Leibnizian and Cartesian projects in their sworn alliegance to the theological powers that be, and in turn, to the secular arm of the political powers that found in rationality a defense from the ecclesiastical powers themselves and therefore, the perfect excuse for imperial politics, whenever and wherever they were deemed necessary. Spinoza's philosophy was by no means indebted to scholasticism and if any, the roots were founded upon an impressive knowledge of the Hebrew Bible and an acute observation of the world, typical of the Greek philosophers that would set themselves to think the first principles from scratch up, and thus provide a rather systematic account of philosophical thought and withal, of a truly humanistic instinct that would shape the cultural and political future of the High Modernity, upon whose spell, we are still bound. There's little doubt that Kant realized upon the basis of Spinoza the "best" of all Enlightenment philosophies in that it endeavoured to "relieve" man from the serfhood of clumsy metaphysics and to establish an order of universal values that would make possible to think of morality in terms of categories and not in terms of mere theosophies; however it was the philosophy of Spinoza and its demands for a separation of secular and ecclesiastical powers what defined the political future of the European Enlightenment. Not at any price, though...

The Netherlands at the time blended in a mixture of social freedom and political absolutism; this occurred perhaps because the country had never been truly reformed (religiously) as some many noble visitors at the time pointed out and reported and also because the imperial powers were unevenly divided between the aspirations of the royalty and the economic interests in the Indies and of the Regenten. More than anything, Spinoza aspired more than justly to plain tolerance in matter of religion and opinion, perhaps influenced by the heretical ideas of his friend Franciscus van den Enden, who, if not his philosophy, might have doubtless shaped his political thought in the redundantly liberal atmosphere of the Latin school he founded in Amsterdam and which Spinoza attended that was branded as a think-tank for the spread of atheistic ideas. But it was in this same city that afforded a tolerant environment to the Sephardic Jewish diaspora that escaped from the Iberian peninsula, and that allowed them to revert to Judaism and to thrive culturally and economically; where at the same time a highly polemical absolutism developed among the Jewish leadership that would eventually excommunicate Spinoza; perhaps with no other intent than to follow suit with the demands of the Catholic church.

This tolerance of intolerance based on religion has by no means disappeared from Amsterdam and even more, it has been enacted time after time by the most diverse new groups and within all the scope of Western religions that settled in the city. Nowadays the roots of the Enlightenment have run way too deep over the whole of Europe and have definitely made themselves at home in both the believing and non-believing Dutchmen, so that they were not entirely mistaken in 2003, when the Dokumenta exhibit in Kassel asked the artists and visitors the question of whether it was Modernity our new Antiquity; what has been over and over elaborated by the most important bourgeoise philosophies ever since Hegel and that the predominantly secular states of Western Europe have adopted without asking too many questions. That this would have been entirely felicitous for an Spinozist, it is something we welcome now with with a bit of glee even, for it is so completely taken for the granted now. Times have changed though, and today, Rita Verdonk, not unlike Spinoza, is making a call for tolerance grounded in ultimate political motifs of utmost importance for the people of the Netherlands. The "pillars of our society" have definitely been transformed under the aegis of two particular situations; first the disappearance of religion from the dialogical sphere of public life and second by the disinterest of people in politics following suit with the deliberately modernist understanding of politics not as a world-building activity but as mere matters of public administration. This could potentially mean that the tolerance which Spinoza advocated was a purely political affair and that the tolerance that Mrs. Verdonk is demanding, in turn, is nothing more than the most reckless form of worldlessness in which the public space has been continously destroyed by completely personal affairs and turned into a circus where the rule is but the exhibitionism of the most uninteresting private affairs of politicians, business personalities and religious communities under the rubric of a policy, of a pseudo-politics, whose only purpose is to exploit a naive nationalistic narrative with the slightest afterthought about the consequences; refurnishing the Tweede Kamer with couches and coffee tables typical of the social salons where the likes of Pim Fortuyn and Geert Wilders would love to pave themselves around in fur coats, surrounded by journalists, lovers and James Bond style martini shakers.

The great misunderstanding of Mrs. Verdonk and of the very intelligent political elites of the Netherlands is precisely that tolerance can't come as a constitutional imposition on the people and at best, they might be unveiling the unpleasant truth that in private affairs -the locus par excellence of contemporary politics, such tolerance has never existed and in the absence of a truly public and political space, it is absolutely pointless and to no avail. Spinoza might have been godless in Christian terms but certainly not at the core of Judaism; he understood with the foresight of a secular prophet that that God, whatever his name or current state of health is, that God, was a living reality for millions of Christians, Muslims and Jews, the world over -and at present no one better than Ayaan Hirsi Ali to have pointed out the radical nature of this truth - no less than also understanding that Enlightenment and Modernity belong perfectly well in the history of a Christian Europe. There's something deeply problematic with the vicious historical circle of Amsterdam society offering a "Mokum" to all brans of religious absolutism which until now, hadn't been dangerous, whereas now it certainly is. Taking away Hirsi Ali's passport and going to shop around for journalistic fights with the most radical Muslim leaders is no solution whatsoever, and seems as delusional as showcasing amateurish films to reeducate people in the pride of being Dutch. A much more radical re-working of the nature of politics and of the secular but European legacy of the Netherlands is needed. This doesn't begin in the Tweede Kamer, but in the households of the Dutch people, testing their willingness to accept those willing to integrate into Dutch society as a part of their own, and also challenging their reluctance to open their mouths and condemn the suicidal paradoxes of a political tolerance which is by no means political and touches upon the life of the everyday citizen at the most private and intimate level of the household.

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