Below are a pair of letters exchanged between the philosopher Baruch Spinoza and a young friend who had converted to an evangelical form of Catholicism (so evangelical that the young man almost sounds like a modern day Evangelical Christian, especially at the end of one paragraph in which he tells Spinoza, “Give in, turn away from your errors and your sins; put on humility and be born again,” or in another place when he compares the evidence for the truth of his beliefs with the evidence that “Julius Caesar lived,” or when he writes of the “wretched and restless life of Atheists”).
Their exchange — on the topic of Christianity versus Spinozaʼs philosophy — parallels todayʼs feisty (at times fiery) debates on the internet (and in places makes one chuckle at the young manʼs endorsement of a few supernatural tales no longer heard these days, such as “the restoration of plants and flowers in a glass phial after they have been burnt; Sirens; pygmies very frequently showing themselves, according to report, in mines.” (I mean who can explain that last one? Perhaps the translator messed up and should have used the word “dwarf” — as in the dwarfs who lived in mountains per “Lord of the Rings” — instead of “pygmies?”) Goethe, the famed German poet and natural philosopher, declared that Spinozaʼs correspondence with his friends and disciples was “the most interesting book one could read in the world of uprightness and humanity.” But first… a little background before presenting Burghʼs letter and Spinozaʼs reply.
Born in 1632, Spinoza lived most of his life at The Hague, earning a bare subsistence as a lens grinder, yet his works influenced Descartes, Leibnitz, Hobbes and many among others (even Einstein compared his “God” to Spinozaʼs ideas of God). Spinoza helped give birth to modern biblical criticism and to the idea of separation of church and state. He was also focused on philosophy so much that neither wealth, fame, nor even marriage, could tear him away, much like some ancient Greek philosophers.
When a prince, the Elector of Palatine, offered Spinoza a professorship in philosophy at the University of Heidelberg and thus promised him freedom from financial cares, Spinoza, unwilling to make any promise to refrain from “disturbing the publicly established religion,” graciously but firmly refused. When Louis XIV of France offered him a pension, in return for the dedication of his next book, he again refused. Obstinately, but quietly, serenely, even graciously and elegantly, Spinoza rejected the advice of “worldlings and careerists” and spurned “the spurious immortality of popular acclamation.” The easy security of a comfortable post offered by His Electoral Highness or His Imperial Majesty could not lure him. The truth Spinoza sought would be found only in solitude — and besides he needed every year, every day, every precious hour to finish his Ethics, undistracted by fame, free from royal favor.
Spinozaʼs integrity met the supreme test when he was cast out from the Jewish religion and reviled by the synagogue of his forefathers for heresies springing from his thirst for truth. His denial of immortality won him the hatred alike of Jews and Christians.
The only books published by Spinoza in his lifetime were The Principles of Cartesian Philosophy (1663) and Tractatus Theologico-Politicus: A Critical Inquiry Into the History, Purpose, and Authenticity of the Hebrew Scriptures, which appeared anonymously in 1670. This was promptly honored with a place in the Index Expurgatorius — a list of books banned by the Catholic Church; it dates back to 1559 and was prompted not so much by the occult but by the rise of Protestantism.
Spinoza had many friends among the influential governing classes at The Hague. Among them was Conrad Burgh, one of the wealthiest citizens of Amsterdam, who in 1666 (the “666” being merely a coincidence) held office as Treasurer General of the United Netherlands. His son, Albert Burgh, was a pupil of Spinoza. Young Burgh continued his study of philosophy in Italy, and finally turned to the Catholic faith with fanatical zeal. Burghʼs family was disturbed by this and persuaded Spinoza to write to Albert.
When Spinozaʼs books were banned by the civic authorities, many of his friends and disciples carried on the resulting theological controversy both in person and by correspondence. Spinoza received many letters “intended to reform him.” Typical of them was the one he recʼd from young Albert Burgh, his old friend and former pupil — a letter telling some students of church history believe was officially prompted or at least encouraged by the ecclesiastical authorities of the time.
Young Albert Burgh To Spinoza:
“…You Wretched Little Man, Vile Worm Of The Earth, Ay, Ashes, Food For Worms…”
To The Very Learned and Acute Baruch Spinoza:
When Leaving my country, I promised to write to you if anything noteworthy occurred during my journey. Since, now, an occasion has presented itself, an one, indeed, of the greatest importance, I discharge my debt, and write to inform you that, through the infinite Mercy of God, I have been restored to the Catholic Church, and have been made a member thereof [later Burgh even entered the Franciscan Order—E.T.B.]. You may learn the particulars of the step from a letter which I have sent to the distinguished and accomplished Professor Craanen of Leyden. I will therefore, now only add a few remarks for your special benefit.
The more I formerly admired you for your penetration and acuteness of mind, the more do I now weep for you and deplore you; for although you are a very talented man, and have received a mind adorned by God with brilliant gifts, and are a lover of truth, indeed eager for it, yet you suffer yourself to be led astray and deceived by the wretched and most haughty Prince of evil Spirits. For, all your philosophy, what is it but a mere illusion and a Chimera? Yet you stake on it not only your peace of mind in this life, but also the eternal salvation of your soul. See on what a miserable foundation all your interests rest.
You assume that you have discovered the true philosophy. How do you know that your philosophy is the best of all that ever have been taught in the world, are now being taught, or ever shall be taught? Passing over what may be devised in the future, have you examined all the philosophies, ancient as well as modern, that are taught here, and in India, and everywhere throughout the whole world?
Even if you have duly examined them, how do you know that you have chosen the best? You will say: “My philosophy is in harmony with right reason; other philosophies are not.” But all other philosophers except your own followers disagree with you, and with equal right say of their philosophy what you say of yours, accusing you, as you do them, of falsity and error. It is clear therefore, that before the truth of your philosophy can be made manifest you must put forth arguments not common to other philosophies, but which can be applied to yours alone. Otherwise you must admit that your philosophy is as uncertain and as worthless as the rest.
However, restricting myself to that book of yours with an impious title (Tractatus Theologico-Politicus) and taking your philosophy together with your theology, for you yourself blend them altogether with diabolic cunning, you pretend to show that each is separate from the other, and that they have different principles, I proceed thus—
Perhaps you will say: “Others have not read Holy Scripture so often as I have; and it is from Holy Scripture, the acknowledgment of which distinguishes Christians from the rest of the world, that I prove my doctrines.” But how? “By comparing the clear passages with the more obscure I explain Holy Scripture, and out of my interpretations frame dogmas, or else confirm those that are already produced in my brain.”
But I adjure you seriously to consider what you say. How do you know that you have correctly applied your method, or again, that your method is sufficient for the interpretation of Holy Scripture, and that you are thus interpreting Holy Scripture on a sound basis? Especially since Catholics say, and it is very true, that the whole Word of God is not given in writing, so that Holy Scripture cannot be explained through Holy Scripture alone, I will not say, by one man, but not even by the Church itself, which is sole authorized interpreter. For the Apostolic traditions must likewise be consulted. This is proved from Holy Scripture itself, and by the testimony of the Holy Fathers, and it is in accord not only with right reason but also with experience. Thus, as your first principles are most false and lead to perdition, what will become of all your doctrine, built up and supported on so rotten a foundation?
So then, if you believe in Christ crucified, acknowledge your most evil heresy, recover from the perversion of your nature, and be reconciled with the Church.
For do you prove your views in a way that is different from that in which all the Heretics who have left Godʼs Church in the past, or are leaving it now, or will leave it in the future, have done, do, or will do? For they all employ the same principle as you do, that is they make use of Holy Scripture alone for the formation and confirmation of their dogmas.
Do not flatter yourself because, perhaps, the Calvinists, or the so-called Reformers, or the Lutherans, or the Mennonites, or the Socinians, etc., cannot refute your doctrine: for all these, as has already been said, are as wretched as you are, and, like you, are seated in the shadow of death.
If you do not believe in Christ you are more wretched than I can say. But the remedy is easy. Turn away from your sins and consider the deadly arrogance of your wretched and insane reasoning. You do not believe in Christ. Why? You will say: “Because the teaching and the life of Christ, and also the Christian teaching concerning Christ are not at all in harmony with my principles, nor is the doctrine of Christians about Christ consistent with my doctrine.” But I repeat, do you then dare to think yourself greater than all those who have ever arisen in the State or Church of God, than the Patriarchs, Prophets, Apostles, Martyrs, Doctors, Confessors, and Holy Virgins innumerable, and in your blasphemy, even than Our Lord Jesus Christ Himself? Do you alone surpass all these in doctrine, in manner of life, in every respect? Will you, wretched little man, vile worm of the earth, ay, ashes, food of worms, dare, in your unspeakable blasphemy, to put yourself above the Incarnate, Infinite Wisdom of the Eternal Father? Will you alone, consider yourself wiser and greater than all those who from the beginning of the world have belonged to the Church of God and have believed, or still believe, that Christ would come or has already come? On what do you base this bold, made, pitiable and inexcusable arrogance?
You deny that Christ is the son of the living God, the Word of the eternal wisdom of the Father, made manifest in the flesh, who suffered and was crucified for the human race. Why? Because all this does not correspond to your principles. But, besides the fact that it has now been proved that you have not the true principles but false, rash and absurd ones, I will now say more, namely that even if you had relied on true principles and based all of your views on them, you would not be more able to explain, by means of them, all things that exist, or have happened, or happen in the world, nor ought you to assert boldly that something is really impossible, or false, when it seems to be opposed to these principles.
For there are many, indeed innumerable things that you will not be able to explain, even if there is some sure knowledge of natural things; you will not even be able to remove the manifest contradictions between such phenomena and your explanations of the rest, that are regarded by you as quite certain.
From your principles you will not explain thoroughly even one of those things that are achieved in witchcraft and in enchantments by the mere pronunciation of certain words, or simply by carrying about the words or characters, traced on some material, nor will you be able to explain any of the stupendous phenomena among those who are possessed by demons, of all of which I have myself seen in various instances, and I have heard most certain evidence of innumerable happenings of the kind from very many most trustworthy persons, who spoke with one voice.
How will you be able to judge of the essences of all things, even if it be granted that certain ideas that you have in your mind, adequately conform to the essences of those things of which they are the ideas? For you can never be sure whether the ideas of all created things exist naturally in the human mind, or whether many, if not all, can be produced in it, and actually are produced in it, by external objects, and even through the suggestion of good or evil spirits, and through a clear divine revelation.
How, then, without considering the testimony of other men, and experience of things, to say nothing now of submitting your judgment to the Divine omnipotence, will you be able, from your principles, to define precisely and to establish for certain the actual existence, or nonexistence, the possibility, or the impossibility, of the existence of, for instance, the following things (that is, whether they actually exist, or do not exist, or cannot exist, in Nature), such as divining rods for detecting metal and underground waters; the stone that the Alchemists seek, the power of words and character; the apparitions of various spirits both good and evil, and their power, knowledge, and occupation; the restoration of plants and flowers in a glass phial after they have been burnt; Sirens; pygmies very frequently showing themselves, according to report, in mines; the Antipathies and Sympathies of very many things; the impenetrability of the human body, etc.?
Even if you were possessed of a mind a thousand times more subtle and more acute than you do possess, you would not be able, my Philosopher, to determine even one of the said things. If in judging these and similar matters you put your trust in your understanding alone, you no doubt already think in this way about things of which you have no knowledge and no experience, and which you, therefore, consider impossible, but which in reality should seem only uncertain until you have been convinced by the testimony of very many trustworthy witnesses. Thus, I imagine, would Julius Caesar have thought, if someone had told him that a certain powder could be made up, and would become common in subsequent ages, the strength of which would be so effective that it would blow up into the air castles, whole cities, even the very mountains, and such too that wherever it is confined, which ignited, it would expand so suddenly to a surprising extent, and shatter everything that impeded its action. Julius Caesar would in no wise have believed this; but he would have derided this man with loud jeers as one who wanted to persuade him of something contrary to his own judgment and experience and the highest military knowledge.
But let us return to the point. If you do not know the aforementioned things (divining rods, alchemy, etc.), and are unable to pronounce on them, why will you, unhappy man swollen with diabolical pride, rashly judge of the awful mysteries of the life and passion of Christ that Catholic teachers themselves pronounce incomprehensible? Why, moreover, will you rave, chattering foolishly and idly about the innumerable miracles, and signs, which, after Christ, his Apostles and Disciples and later many thousands of Saints performed in evidence and confirmation of the truth of the Catholic Faith, through the omnipotent power of God, and innumerable instances of which, through the same omnipotent Mercy and loving kindness of God, are happening even now in our days, throughout the whole world? If you cannot contradict these, as you surely cannot, why do you object any longer? Give in, turn away from your errors and your sins; put on humility and be born again.
But let us also descend to truth of fact, as it really is the foundation of the Christian religion. How, if you give the matter due consideration, will you dare to deny the efficacy of the consensus of so many myriads of men, of whom some thousands have been, and are, many miles ahead of you in doctrine, in learning, in true and rare importance, and in perfection of life? All these unanimously and with one voice declare that Christ, that incarnate son of the living God, suffered, and was crucified, and died for the sins of the human race, and rose again, was transfigured, and reigns in heaven as God, together with the eternal Father in the Unity of the Holy Spirit, and the remaining doctrines which belong here; and also that through the Divine power and omnipotence there were performed in the Church of God by this same Lord Jesus, and afterwards, in his name, by the Apostles and the other Saints, innumerable miracles, that not only exceeded human comprehension but were even opposed to common sense (and of these there remain even to this day countless material indications, and visible signs scattered far and wide throughout the world) and that such miracles still happen.
Might I not in like manner deny that the ancient Romans ever existed in the world, or that the Emperor Julius Caesar, having suppressed the Liberty of the Republic, changed their form of government to a monarchy, if I disregarded the many monuments evident to all, that time has left us of the power of the Romans; if I disregarded the testimony of the most weighty authors who have ever written the histories of the Roman Republic and Monarchy, wherein they particularly treat of Julius Caesar; and if I disregarded the judgment of so many thousands of men who have either themselves seen the said monuments, or have put, and still put, their trust in them (seeing that their existence is confirmed by countless witnesses) as well as in the said histories, on the ground that I dreamed last night that the monuments, that have come down from the Romans, are not real things, but mere illusions; and similarly, that those stories that are told of the Romans are just like the stories that the books called Romances relate, puerile stories about Amadis of Gaul and similar Heroes; also that Julius Caesar either never existed in the world, or if he existed was a melancholic man, who did not really crush the Liberty of the Romans, and raise himself to the Throne of the Imperial Power, but was induced to believe that he had performed these achievements, either by his own foolish imagination or by the persuasion of friends who flattered him…
Lastly, reflect on the very wretched and restless life of Atheists, although they sometimes make a display of great cheerfulness of mind, and wish to seem to spend their life joyfully, and with the greatest internal peace of mind. More especially consider their most unhappy and horrible death, of which I have myself seen some instances and know with equal certainty of many more, or rather of countless cases, from the report of others, and from History. Learn from their examples to be wise in time.
Thus you see, or at least I hope you see, how rashly you entrust yourself to the opinions of your brain (for if Christ is the true God, and at the same time man, as is most certain, see to what you are reduced; for by persevering in your abominable errors, and most grave sins, what else can you expect but eternal damnation? How horrible this is, you may ponder for yourself) how little reason you have for laughing at the whole world with the exception of your wretched adorers; how foolishly proud and puffed up you become with the knowledge of the excellence of your talents, and with admiration for your very vain, indeed quite false, and impious doctrine; how shamefully you make yourself more wretched than the very beasts, but depriving yourself of the freedom of the will; nevertheless, even if you do not actually experience and recognize this, how can you deceive yourself by thinking that your works are worthy of the highest praise, and even of the closest imitation?
If you do not wish (which I will not think) that God or your neighbor should have pity on you, do you yourself at least take pity on your own misery, whereby you endeavor to make yourself more unhappy than you are now, or less unhappy than you will be, if you continue in this manner.
Come to your senses, you Philosopher, and realize the folly of your wisdom, the madness of your wisdom; put aside your pride and become humble, and you will be healed. Pray to Christ in the Most Holy Trinity, that he may deign to commiserate your misery, and receive you. Read the Holy Fathers, and the Doctors of the Church, and let them instruct you in what you must do that you may not perish, but have eternal life. Consult Catholics profoundly learned in their faith and living a good life, and they will tell you many things that you have never known and whereat you will be amazed.
I, for my part, have written this letter to you with truly Christian intention, first that you may know the great love I bear you [Did Burgh forget that earlier in the same letter he illustrated his “great love toward Spinoza” with the words, “…You Wretched Little Man, Vile Worm Of The Earth, Ay, Ashes, Food For Worms”—E.T.B.] although a Gentile [since I guess in Burghʼs day “Gentiles” did not normally bear “great love&rduqo; toward Jews like Spinoza]; and secondly to beg you not to continue to pervert others also.
I will therefore conclude thus: God is willing to snatch your soul from eternal damnation if only you are willing. Do not hesitate to obey the Lord, who has so often called you through others, and now calls you again, and perhaps for the last time, through me [how humble of Burgh to think so—E.T.B.], who, having obtained this grace [again how humble of Burgh to think heʼs obtained Godʼs special approved grace through the Catholic Church and believing what it tells him, while everyone else is going to catch hell come judgment day—E.T.B.] through the ineffable Mercy of God Himself, pray for the same for you with my whole heart [“…You Wretched Little Man, Vile Worm Of The Earth, Ay, Ashes, Food For Worms”]. Do not refuse, for if you will not hear God now when He calls you, the anger of the Lord Himself will be kindled against you, and there is the danger that you may be abandoned by His Infinite Mercy, and become the unhappy victim of the divine Justice that consumes all things in its anger. May the omnipotent God avert this fate to the greater glory of His name, and to the salvation of your soul, and also as a salutary and imitable example for your most unfortunate Idolaters, through our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, who with the Eternal Father lives and reigns in the Unity of the Holy Spirit as God for all eternity. Amen. [Why did Burgh stop repeating the liturgy formula there? Why didnʼt Burgh just end his letter by writing down the WHOLE liturgy of the Catholic Mass? Kind of like an exorcism Mass in letter form to try and “save” Spinozaʼs soul from “the Evil One” whom Burgh mentioned earlier had power over Spinoza?—E.T.B.]
Florence, (Sept. 3, 1675.)
“…How Do You Know That You Have Chosen The Best?”
Baruch Spinoza Send Greetings
To the Very Noble Young Man Albert Burgh:
What I could scarcely believe when it was related to me by others, I at least understand from your letter; that is, that not only have you become a member of the Roman Church, as you say, but that you are a very keen champion of it and have already learned to curse and rage petulantly against your opponents. I had not intended to reply to your letter, being sure that what you need is time rather than an argument, to be restored to yourself, and to your family, to say nothing of other grounds that you once approved when we spoke of Stenonius (in whose footsteps you are now following). But certain friends who with me had formed great hopes for you from your excellent natural talent, earnestly prayed me not to fail in the duty of a friend, and to think of what you recently were rather than of what you now are, and similar things. I have been induced by these arguments to write to you these few words, earnestly begging you to be kind enough to read them with a calm mind.
I will not recount the vices of Priests and Popes in order to turn you away from them, as the opponents of the Roman Church are wont to do. For they are wont to published these things from ill-feeling, and to adduce them in order to annoy rather than to instruct. Indeed, I will admit that there are found more men of great learning, and of an upright life, in the Roman than in any other Christian Church; for since there are more men who are members of this Church, there will also be found within it more men of every condition. You will, however, be unable to deny, unless perhaps you have lost your memory together with your reason, that in every Church there are many very honest men who worship God with justice and charity; for we have known many men of this kind among Lutherans, the Reformers, the Mennonites, and the Enthusiasts, and to say nothing of others, and know of your own ancestors who in the time of the Duke of Alva suffered for the sake of their Religion every kind of torture with both firmness and freedom of mind. Therefore you must allow that holiness of life is not peculiar to the Roman Church, but is common to all.
And since we know through this (to speak with the Apostle John, the First Epistle, Chapter 4, verse 13) that we dwell in God and God dwells in us, it follows that whatever it is that distinguishes the Roman Church from others, it is something superfluous, and therefore based merely on superstition.
For, as I said with John, justice and charity are the only and the surest sign of the true Catholic faith, and the true fruits of the Holy Spirit, and wherever these are found, there Christ really is, and whence they are lacking, there Christ also is not. For by the Spirit of Christ alone can we be led to the love of justice and of charity. If you had been willing duly to ponder these facts within yourself, you would not have been lost, nor would you have caused bitter sorrow to your parents who sorrowfully lament your lot.
But I return to your letter in which you first bewail the fact that I suffer myself to be deceived by the Prince of evil Spirits. But I beg you to be of good cheer, if I am not mistaken, you used to worship an infinite God, by whose power all things absolutely come into being, and are preserved, but now you dream of a Prince, an enemy of God, who, against the will of God, misleads and deceives most men (for good men are rare), whom God consequently delivers up to this master of vices to be tortured for all eternity. Thus divine justice permits the Devil to deceive men with impunity, but does not permit the men who have been miserably deceived and misled by this same Devil to go unpunished.
These absurdities might still be tolerated if you worshiped a God infinite and eternal, and not one whom Chastillon in the town of Tienen gave with impunity to the horses to eat. [Spinoza is speaking about a consecrated host from a Catholic Mass being fed to horses — by a Protestant I presume. Catholics believe during Mass the host becomes consecrated, turning into the literal (but invisible) body and blood of Jesus. I might add for my Protestant friends that even the apostle Paul writing to the earliest Christian churches took the idea of the Lordʼs Supper so seriously as to believe God was punishing “many” Corinthian Christians with “illnesses” and even striking some “dead” for not celebrating the Lordʼs supper the right way. See 1 Cor. 11:27-30: “Whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner, shall be guilty of the body and the blood of the Lord. But a man must examine himself, and in so doing he is to eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For he who eats and drinks, eats and drinks judgment to himself if he does not judge the body rightly. For this reason many among you are weak and sick, and a number sleep. But if we judged ourselves rightly, we would not be judged.” I also assume from Spinozaʼs story about the horse being fed the host that both rider and horse survived. Otherwise Iʼm sure that Catholics living back then, including Burgh, might have cited the illness or deaths of horse or rider as yet another reason to become a Catholic.—E.T.B.]
And do you, unhappy one, weep for me? And do you call my Philosophy, which you have never seen, a Chimera? O brainless youth, who has bewitched you, so that you believe that you swallow the highest and the eternal, and that you hold it in your intestines? [Spinoza is again speaking about a consecrated Catholic host.—E.T.B.]
Yet you seem to want to use your reason, and you ask me, how I know that my philosophy is the best among all those that have ever been taught in the world, or are taught now, or will be taught in the future? I could ask you the same question with far better right. For I do not presume that I have found the best Philosophy, but I know that I think I have found one that pursues truth. If you ask me how I know this, I shall answer, in the same way that you know that the three angles of a triangle are equal to two right angles. That this is enough no one will deny whose brain is sound, and who does not dream of unclean spirits who inspire us with false ideas that are like true ones, for the truth reveals itself and the false.
But you who presume that you have at last found the best religion, or rather the best men, to whom you have given over your credulity, how do you know that they are the best among all those who have taught other Religions, or are teaching them now, or will teach them in the future? Have you examined all those religions, both ancient and modern, that are taught here and in India and everywhere throughout the world? And even if you have duly examined them, how do you know that you have chosen the best? For you can give no reason for your faith. But you will say that you assent to the inward testimony of the Spirit of God, while the others are cheated and misled by the Prince of evil Spirits. But all those outside the Roman Church make the same claims with the same right for their Churches as you do for yours.
As to what you add about the common consent of myriads of men, and of the uninterrupted succession of the Church, etc., this is the same old song of the rabbis/Jewish teachers/Pharisees. For there also, with no less confidence than the adherents of the Roman Church, produce their myriads of witnesses, who relate what they have heard about, with as much pertinacity as do the witnesses of the Romans, just as if they themselves had experienced it.
They trace back their lineage to Adam. They boast with equal arrogance that their Church maintains its growth, stability, and solidity to this very day, in spite of the hostility of the Heathen and the Christians. Most of all do they take their stand on their antiquity. They declare with one voice that they have received their traditions from God Himself, and that they alone preserve the written and unwritten word of God.
No one can deny that all heresies have left them [the Jews were fairly well united in doctrine, moreso than the Christians, generally speaking—E.T.B.], but that they have remained constant for some thousands of years without any imperial support or compulsion [such as Christianity received after Constantineʼs conversion to Christian and also received from the Christian Emperors that followed in his wake—E.T.B.], but rather through the mere power of superstition. The miracles they [the Jews] relate are enough to weary a thousand gossips. But what they chiefly pride themselves on is that they number far more martyrs than any other nation and daily increase the number of those who with extraordinary constancy of mind have suffered for the faith that they profess. And this is not untrue. I myself know [have heard], among others, of a certain Judah, whom they call the Faithful, who in the midst of the flames, when he was believed to be dead already, began to sing the hymn that begins, “To Thee, O God, I commit my soul,” and died in the middle of the hymn. [The person to whom Spinoza is referring was a Spanish nobleman who was converted to Judaism via the study of Hebrew and who had adopted the named “Judah” as his Hebrew name. His given name was Don Lope de Vera y Alarcon de San Clemente, and he was burnt at Valladolid, July 25, 1644 according to Gratzʼ book Gesch. der Juden x. 101. This reminds me also of the famous story of a rabbi facing the Inquisition who was asked to deny his faith. He requested time to think it over. The next morning he said, “I will not become a Catholic, but I have a last request — before Iʼm burnt at the stake my tongue should be cut out for not replying at once. To such a question ‘No!’ was the only answer.”—E.T.B.]
The order of the Roman Church, which you so greatly praise, I confess, is politic and lucrative to many. I should think that there was none more suited to deceive the people and to constrain the minds of men, were there not the order of the Islamic Church, which far surpasses it. For from the time that this superstition began there have arisen no schisms in their Church. [Spinoza means I suppose that in the history of Christianity there have been many major ruptures — from early church theological differences resulting in violence like the Arian vs. the Athansians, or the Catholics vs. the Donatists — to such major schisms as the Catholic-Orthodox split that arose after the whole eastern half of the Christian Roman Empire excommunicated the entire western half, and vice versa — to the Great Schism within Catholicism itself whereby two and then three popes existed simultaneously — to the Reformation — and a host of other “heresies” arising during each age. While Islam like Judaism has never complicated its central formula though even in Islam a big schism (the Sunni-Shia schism) occurred when the Islamic prophet Muhammad died in the year 632, leading to a dispute over succession to Muhammad as a caliph of the Islamic community. Over the years Sunni-Shia relations have been marked by both cooperation and conflict. Today there are differences in religious practice, traditions, and customs as well as religious belief. Though the Shia now only constitute about 15% of all Muslims. —E.T.B.]
If therefore, you calculate correctly, you will see that only what you note in the third place is in favor of the Christians, namely, that unlearned and common men were able to convert almost the whole world to the faith of Christ. But this argument militates not only for the Roman Church, but for all who acknowledge the name of Christ.
But suppose that all the arguments that you adduce are in favor of the Roman Church alone. Do you think that you can thereby mathematically prove the authority of the Church? Since this is far from being the case, why then do you want me to believe that my proofs are inspired by the Prince of evil Spirits, but yours of God? Especially so, as I see and your letter clearly shows that you have become a slave of this Church, under the influence not so much of the love of God as of the fear of hell, which is the sole cause of superstition. Is this your humility, to put no faith in yourself, but only in others, who are condemned by very many? Do you regard it as acquiesce in that true Word of God that is in the mind and can never be depraved or corrupted? Away with this deadly superstition, acknowledge the reason God has given you, and cultivate it, if you would not be numbered among the brutes. Cease, I say, to call absurd errors mysteries, and do not shamefully confuse those things that are unknown to us, or as yet undiscovered, with those that are shown to be absurd, as are the horrible secrets of this Church, which, the more they oppose right reason, the more you believe they transcend the understanding.
For the rest, the basis of the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, namely, that Scripture must only be explained through Scripture, which you so boldly and without any reason proclaim to be false, is not merely assumed, but apodictically proved to be true or well established, chiefly in Chapter 7 [On the Interpretation of Scripture], where the opinions of opponents are also refuted. Add to this what is proved at the end of Chapter 15 [Theology Does Not Assist Reason, Nor Does Reason Aid Theology. Of the Grounds Of Our Belief in the Authority of the Sacred Scriptures].
If you will consider these carefully, and also examine the Histories of the Church (of which I see you are most ignorant), in order to see how false are many of the Pontifical traditions, and by what fate and with what arts the Roman Pontiff, six hundred years after the birth of Christ, obtained sovereignty over the Church, I doubt not that you will at least come to your senses. That this may be so, I wish you from my heart. Farewell, etc.
B. d. Spinoza [the Hague, Dec. 1675]
What Became Of Spinoza And Burgh?
Spinoza died two years later, in 1677, at the age of forty-five. Albert Burgh died in a monastery in Rome [I wonder, was he ever reunited with his family?]. A little over two hundred years later, in 1882, a statue was unveiled of Spinoza at The Hague, and Renan (the French theologian and author) gave an address at its unveiling, calling Spinoza, “The greatest Jew of modern times,” adding, “Ages hence, the cultivated traveler, passing by this spot, will say in his heart, ‘The truest vision ever had of God came, perhaps, here.’”
While Einstein wrote: “I believe in Spinozaʼs God who reveals himself in the orderly harmony of what exists, not in a God who concerns himself with the fates and actions of human beings.” [Albert Einstein, following his wifeʼs advice in responding to Rabbi Herbert Goldstein of the International Synagogue in New York, who had sent Einstein a cablegram bluntly demanding “Do you believe in God?”]
How much do I love that noble man
More than I could tell with words
I fear though heʼll remain alone
With a holy halo of his own.
Spinozaʼs portrait was featured prominently on the Dutch 1000-guilder banknote, legal tender until the euro was introduced in 2002. And the most generous and prestigious scientific award of the Netherlands is named the Spinoza prijs (Spinoza prize).
To Find Out More, See This Great Little Commentary On Tne Burgh-Spinoza Exchange.
See Also Spinozaʼs Wikipedia Page, And Also This Online Book Review: Michael Dirda, Expelled from the Jewish community of his day, Spinoza went on to construct a lasting philosophy. A review of Rebecca Goldsteinʼs 2006 work, Betraying Spinoza: The Renegade Jew Who Gave Us Modernity.
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