Spinoza

The Ethics of an Outlaw

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Ivan Segré
Translator(s): 
David Broder
  • New York, NY: 
    Bloomsbury Academic
    , February
     2017.
     200 pages.
     $29.95.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781350016613.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Spinoza: The Ethics of an Outlaw is a book about the power of hatred—hatred that led to Spinoza’s excommunication, a stabbing attempt leaving a hole in his coat, and one that continues to produce harmful work by “bourgeois” theorists who defend the Law and obedience over knowledge and freedom. It is about the hatred of knowledge and the false view that Spinoza’s search for universal truth and the common good lead to the hatred of the name “Jew.” Author Ivan Segré exposes this misguided hatred and shows that another exegesis is possible, one that can reconcile and commemorate both the names “Jew” and “worker,” and one that ultimately shows that the ethics of the outlaw Spinoza are an ethics of love.

In part 1, “The Philosopher, Election and Hatred: Spinoza and the ‘Bourgeois’ Theorists,” Segré focuses his analysis on Jean-Claude Milner’s Le Sage trompeur (The Deceptive Sage), which presents “a textbook case of the bill of indictment against [Spinoza]” (6). Milner bases his account on the so-called “Hodie Judaei manifesto,” which concludes chapter 3 of Spinoza’s Tractatus Theologico-Politicus (TTP). On Milner’s reading, it is here that Spinoza breaks decisively from Judaism and theorizes “the disappearance of the name ‘Jew,’ such that the universal could easily win through” (9). Milner’s doctrine is significant because it connects “the return of the name ‘Jew’. . . with the disappearance of the name ‘worker’” (11). In other words: “what the theorist of the name ‘worker’ conceives in terms of a common good is, in the last analysis, nothing other than a rationalized form of the persecution of the Jews” (12, emphasis in the original). Spinoza is guilty of initiating this persecution, for on Milner’s account it is the hidden meaning of the TTP.

Segré reveals the troublesome nature of Milner’s interpretation by contextualizing Spinoza’s remarks and elucidating the meanings of key words, such as “election” and “experience.” For Spinoza, the “election” of the Jews is “temporal and applicable only to their commonwealth” (15), such that one’s eternal “‘election’ relates not to ethnic and confessional belonging, but to understanding and virtue” (21). Concerning Milner’s suggestion that Spinoza’s secret agenda was to convert Jews to Islam to effect their disappearance, Segré presents a detailed response supporting his conclusion that “this is a fat piece of nonsense” (20). Spinoza’s true goal, as Segré rightly argues, was “to conquer hatred” (25), such that we can read the TTP as an application of the philosophy of love in Spinoza’s Ethics. Does “the name ‘Jew’ [have] to disappear in order for hatred to be defeated?” (26), Segré asks. Spinoza makes no such claim, and as Segré reasons, “only if the hatred ceases while the name ‘Jew’ endures could we conclude that the hatred of which the Jews are the object has been defeated” (25, emphasis in the original).

In his own exegesis, Segré provides cogent explanations of interesting and sometimes puzzling points from the TTP, from Spinoza’s reference to the Spanish experience of Jews to his analogy between the sign of circumcision and the Chinese topknot. Segré quotes Spinoza to show that the “eternal covenant of God, the covenant of knowledge and love, is universal” (42), thus aligning Spinoza to the central goal of the “worker” theorist, which is “knowledge of what is good” (56). In contrast, “Milner’s exegesis is in the service of the ruling class and is thus a violent one” (56).

In part 2, “Spinoza’s Bible,” Segré focuses his attention on the meanings of the Law and “the spirit of Christ,” and the attack on Spinoza for betraying the former while embracing the latter. The Bible of Maimonides, Hobbes, and Leo Strauss teaches obedience to the Law and thus subjects individuals to the Law “at the expense of knowledge” (153). In contrast, Spinoza’s Bible “is a knowledge of the god who ‘brought the Jews out of Egypt’” (153), teaching that the “true conception of living” is found in understanding and love. Segré motivates this point with a “decisive formula” (64) from Spinoza’s letter to Blyenbergh in 1665, where he writes that “philosophers . . . pursue virtue not as a law but because they love it (non ut Legem sed ex amore) as something very precious” (62). The powerful emotion of Law (63) expressed in the Scripture was designed to enslave people lacking in understanding through obedience, but the philosopher who understands overcomes this emotion with a stronger one—the emotion of love.

Thus, Spinoza embraces the “spirit of Christ,” but how should this be understood? Segré writes: “Spinoza’s ‘unpardonable crime,’ is that he asserts the power of thought, outside the Law. Moreover, in his writing that is the meaning of the name ‘Christ’: it is the name of an outlaw ethics” (80). In the TTP, as Segré explains, Spinoza identifies Christ with the highest degree of perfection, the voice of God, and “the way of salvation” (86), and the single reference to Christ in the Ethics equates him with the “idea of God” and the desire for the good (86). Segré explains that for Spinoza, who rejected miracles, Christ was the “idea of God,” but not the incarnation of a transcendent God. This is a Christ without the passion, “for we have to be consistent: if circumcision is nothing, then neither is the crucifixion” (93).

It is understandable why Segré would identify the “idea of God” with reason and explain Spinoza’s account as a form of rationalized Christianity. However, this is not an entirely complete account for it maintains the questionable rationalist reading of Spinoza without foregrounding the active emotions that lead to the true conception of living. The teaching of Christ has more to do with an adequate idea of love and human emotions than it does with abstract philosophical reason, so while one could argue that for Spinoza the “spirit of Christ” is equivalent to reason, “reason” has to be qualified as interconnected with the active emotions, especially “nobility” or “noble love” (generositas), which expresses the desire to help others in obtaining the highest good.   

Nevertheless, this is a powerful book about hatred, and as Spinoza teaches, hatred can be conquered by love. Thus, while the emphasis of Segré’s excellent interpretative work lies in unraveling a flawed exegesis, his work also helps to begin to reveal Spinoza for what he truly is—an outlaw, yes, but one who is ultimately a philosopher of love.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Michael Strawser is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Central Florida.

Date of Review: 
July 21, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Ivan Segré is a doctor in philosophy and student of the Talmud who lives in Israel. He is the author of Qu'appelle-ton penser Auschwitz? (2009) and co-editor (with Alain Badiou and Eric Hazan) of Reflections on Anti-Semitism (2013).

David Broder has translated numerous works of philosophy and political science from French into English, including What is Subjectivity by Jean-Paul Sartre (2016) and Christine Delphy's Separate and Dominate (2015).

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