“The Whole Law Consists Only in Loving One’s Neighbor”: Spinoza on What the Bible Commands of All Mortals

Hasana Sharp
McGill University1

The command in Leviticus (19:18) to love your neighbor as yourself strikes Sigmund Freud as shocking. He finds the propensity for self-love to be self-evident and overwhelming, such that it is only with tremendous social pressure (repression) that we come to accept (or not) the legitimacy of the neighbor’s claim to respect, love, and equality. The neighbor invites our aggression rather than our love, but we spontaneously regard ourselves as meritorious and lovable.2 Despite appearances to the contrary,3 Benedict de Spinoza does not find self-love, at least in its genuine form, to be either self-evident or easily achieved. Among his central concerns in the Theological-Political Treatise is the propensity to “despise reason” and nature, expressed in our fascination with the supernatural, the exceptional, the unknown and the unknowable.4 In the Ethics, Spinoza often condemns human arrogance, pride, and boastfulness, which seems to suggest that humanity is prone to excessive self-love.5 But such pride is based on a false view of what we are. By priding ourselves on imaginary rather than real qualities, we work against our primordial striving toward genuine self-affirmation and self-love, grounded in self-understanding.6 Pride in our illusory qualities is a root cause of personal bondage and social hatred. Human freedom, for Spinoza, is “difficult and rare” precisely because it is not at all easy to love ourselves, and, thus, neither is it easy to love one another. Due to the great importance Spinoza places on love of self and other, he identifies the commandment to love your neighbor as yourself as the complete expression of divine law.

For many, the distillation of divine law into a single imperative—adherence to which is both necessary and sufficient for salvation—was sacrilege. Despite the support from both Jewish and Christian traditions for identifying the commandment to love your neighbor as the fundamental lesson of Scripture, the controversial character of Spinoza’s approach to the Bible and religion continues to obscure the genuine ethical content of what he calls “true religion,” something he recommends for “all mortals.” Spinoza continues to be understood as an unrepentant iconoclast who barely contained his contempt for religion, except insofar as it might be a useful political tool for managing the unruly masses.7 Without denying Spinoza’s considerable challenges to clerical authority and traditional understandings of scripture and its interpretation, I find that the divine imperative to love your neighbor as yourself aligns strongly with Spinoza’s considered ethical prescriptions and philosophical views. There is no reason to see his endorsement of the basis of religious ethics to be a pragmatic concession to the dominant worldviews of his time. Rather, he wholeheartedly endorses the maxim of neighbor- and self-love as a guiding principle appropriate to “all mortals,” and as an antidote to our strong susceptibility to hate our own natures.

I will proceed in this essay to outline Spinoza’s famous and influential prescription for biblical hermeneutics with an eye to its preparation for a life of loving obedience to the divine law. I will then discuss the theological warrant for his reduction of divine law to neighbor love. I will conclude with a brief sketch of how loving our neighbors as ourselves coheres with the project in Spinoza’s magnum opus, the Ethics. When we consider how difficult and rare it is for fragile human beings, tossed about on the waves of fortune, to love ourselves and our neighbors, we will see the salutary force of this prescription for all mortals, ignorant and wise.

Interpretation of Scripture

Spinoza’s relationship to the Bible is controversial. For (the entirely justified) fear of persecution, he published his Theological-Political Treatise anonymously. It was widely condemned by his contemporaries as vile, impious, and dangerous. It was called a “most pestilential book” by virtue of its implied rejection of a supernatural God and its express insistence that the Holy Bible was composed by human hands, filled with human thoughts, and best understood as a part of nature no different from any other finite thing.8 The Treatise’s stated goal is to establish philosophy, religion, and politics as independent domains, which entails designating the proper scope of each one. Philosophy is the activity associated with truth-seeking, politics determines which actions are just and unjust, and religion teaches obedience to a moral code through imaginative narratives. The restriction of the Bible’s role to moral instruction and the inculcation of obedience leads many, including (especially) Spinoza’s contemporaries, to see his ambition as radically deflationary. Spinoza does not see the Bible or the prophets as conveyers of metaphysical truths, and neither does he see either study of the scriptures or observance of particular ceremonies to be universally obligatory for salvation. Yet, anticipating this very objection to his conclusions about the scriptures, he insists that his aim is not to dissolve biblical authority but to enhance it.9 If we keep in mind his sincere approval of the commandment to love our neighbors as ourselves, his defense of his ambition to strengthen the power of the text becomes more plausible.

A cursory glance at Spinoza’s Treatise is sufficient to see why it was shocking, “a book forged in hell.”10 Spinoza presents his techniques of reading as weapons to bring to bear against clerical abuse. Throughout the Treatise, he denounces the “many” who seek to enslave the multitude “under the pretext of religion.”11 Those who sought to preserve clerical power unquestioned were right to see the Treatise as an enemy tract. Against anyone who demands conformity to any number of doctrines or ceremonial practices, Spinoza argues for the legitimacy of an idiosyncratic approach to Scripture. He insists that, knowing herself best, each person is authorized to adapt the word of God to her own temperament and to judge for herself which portrait of God and which religious rites most enable her to practice a life of justice and charity.12 If one understands authority not as immunity to questions and divergent interpretations, but rather as the power of the text to be a source of wisdom, morality, and well-being, Spinoza’s approach to the scriptures can be seen to make the text more rather than less powerful.13 His model of interpretation aspires to confer the maximum benefit to students of Scripture by authorizing them to conceive the doctrines in whatever way most moves them to obedience. Spinoza claims that such responsiveness to particular individuals is the only way for each to practice obedience to the divine law wholeheartedly, which is nothing other than the imperative to love our neighbors as ourselves. Such love is, according to Spinoza, the basis of the greatest power we might cultivate and enjoy. If the Bible can be its source, then it, too, is maximally powerful.14

Spinoza decries how Scripture is so often “twisted.” In particular, he is concerned that it becomes a means to foment hatred when its message is, indisputably, love. The hatred he picks out is not just the hatred of infidels or outsiders, but also the hatred of what makes us the kinds of beings that we are. He accuses “false religion” of teaching us to despise reason and nature, which, for him, amounts to despising ourselves. Since humanity is “a part of nature,”15 true religion and veridical interpretation arouse love of (our) nature and reason by directing us to the source of our mental (and bodily) powers: our neighbors. Spinoza’s reading of the Bible as a natural thing is motivated by the profound importance he places upon learning to see and love ourselves and our neighbors as natural beings. To see ourselves and others this way involves unlearning the dominant model of perceiving humanity as “a kingdom within a kingdom,”16 an exception to the natural order, and seeking God only in the ostensible interruptions of nature’s typical operation.17 An important step, on what he acknowledges to be an arduous journey, is understanding that “the method of interpreting Scripture does not differ at all from the method of interpreting nature, but agrees with it completely.”18

In order to combat our inherited predilection for what is super- or anti-natural, he prescribes a method of reading on the model of natural science, according to which everything is, in principle, ascertainable by “the natural light.” A consequence of understanding the text, the prophets, or the clergy as expressive of some kind of singular and exceptional intelligence is that we worship precisely what is not like us. We imagine a Creator severed from creation, metaphysically distinct, superior, and remote. Accordingly, we divinize only the aspects of humanity that we imagine (falsely, in Spinoza’s view) to be least like that of other beings, least determined by natural laws, and thus most exceptional. But, for Spinoza, veneration of the supernatural is a species of self-hatred. For him, God is nothing other than nature, the totality of power by which all things exist and act. Every part of us, even what we imagine to be most base, is divine because every part of us is natural. We are composed of the universal and infinite power of God/nature, and we act according the divine/natural laws that condition and enable our existence. All beings are aspects of God that express nature’s infinite power in a particular and determinate way.19 Scripture is historically one of the key sources of belief in the supernatural. Insofar as Scripture might encourage passion for what is above or outside of nature, such as miraculous suspensions of the natural order, it works against genuine self-love and self-knowledge. Thus, Spinoza seeks an alternative to styles of explanation that depend upon irrational mystery and the inaccessibility of meaning to the ordinary person.

Spinoza explains that to study nature is to ascertain how it “acts” and what it does, and thereby to discern its patterns of cause and effect. Similarly, he suggests that we seek Scripture’s component parts, its patterns, and its actions. Although there are infinitely many things in nature about which we cannot be certain, we have rules by which to study nature which can assist us in becoming more capable of acting effectively and joyfully in the world. As a part of nature, the Bible is no different:

In examining natural things we strive, before all else, to investigate the things which are most universal and common to the whole of nature – viz., motion and rest, and their laws and rules, which nature always observes and through which it continuously acts – and from these we proceed gradually to other less universal things. In just the same way, the first thing to be sought from the history of Scripture is what is most universal, what is the basis and foundation of the whole of Scripture, and finally, what all the Prophets commend in it as an eternal teaching, most useful for all mortals.20

Spinoza calls “common notions” the features of nature predicable of all beings universally, such as the laws of motion and rest.21 These foundations of reasoning are universally present in everyone since we all participate in these general laws, and it is by becoming aware of them that we come to know anything else.22 Just as everyone can grasp the most fundamental laws of nature, everyone can perceive the universal teachings of Scripture. Thus, although no one can acquire exhaustive knowledge of Scripture’s meaning, “[o]nce [a] universal teaching of Scripture is rightly known,” we can easily discern more specific directives about how to live well, as they “flow from this universal teaching like streams.”23

Spinoza lists among the most common properties of scripture the imperative first expressed in Leviticus 19:18: love your neighbor as yourself. Although many narratives in the Bible describe and address ancient peoples and the ceremonies that are incumbent only upon them to perform, its common notions convey the form of obedience that is “most useful for all mortals.” If and when the Bible helps anyone to observe the divine law of neighborly love, its authority is not only preserved but enhanced. One might think that the Bible enjoys such authority only by virtue of historical accident. Yet, given that Spinoza rejects the notion of an interventionist God, the historical accumulation of authority in people’s lives is no less real or potent by virtue of being historical. Indeed, the only agency Spinoza recognizes is the kind with a natural history. The Bible is, as Warren Montag notes, “both the producer and product of collectivity.”24 As long as it continues to motivate and connect people, and the more it is able to generate love in us for ourselves and our neighbors, it sustains its effective power.

Love Your Neighbor as Yourself

Philosophical as well as theological reasons might have prompted Spinoza to select the commandment to love your neighbor as yourself as the totality of divine law, obedience to which is necessary and sufficient for salvation.25 This section will primarily concern the theological reasons, and in the next we will find them reinforced in Spinoza’s most comprehensive philosophical text, the Ethics. In one way, Spinoza’s selection of the commandment to love your neighbor as a “common notion” and the fundamental teaching of the Bible is not at all controversial. Both Christianity and Judaism recognize the commandment as the foundation of piety. Paul tells the Romans:

Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet”; and any other commandment, are summed up in this one word, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”26

Similarly, in his letter to the Galatians, he asserts that “the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”27

The law is first declared in the Old Testament in what is sometimes referred to as the “ethical” chapter of Leviticus. Chapter 19 outlines how Moses’ people ought to approximate God’s holiness through just treatment of one another. Of utmost importance are the interdiction of hatred and vengeance and the prescription of love:

You shall not hate in your heart any of your kin; you shall reprove your neighbor, or you will incur guilt yourself. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.28

The importance of this commandment to the Jewish tradition is underscored in a well-known story from the Bablylonian Talmud:

It happened that a certain heathen came before Shammai and said to him, “Make me a proselyte, on condition that you teach me the whole Torah while I stand on one foot.” Thereupon he repulsed him with the builder’s cubit which was in his hand. When he went before Hillel, [Hillel] said to him, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbour: that is the whole Torah, while the rest is the commentary thereof; go and learn it.”29

In both biblical traditions, there is strong precedent for the claim that the totality of divine law can be distilled into the single commandment to love your neighbor as yourself. Spinoza is not being especially innovative, let alone “pestilential,” by claiming that the foundation of religion—that is, the common notion shared among each of the fragmentary elements of the Bible—is the imperative to love your neighbor as yourself.30

Yet, in another sense, declaring the command to love your neighbor to be the totality of divine law invites controversy, since there is a history of anti-Jewish polemic associated with this commandment. Spinoza himself seems to adopt the anti- or, at least, post-Jewish presentation of this ethical rule in his analysis of the Hebrew state:

[I]n order for the Hebrews to be able to preserve the freedom they had acquired, and have absolute control over the lands they occupied, it was necessary…for them to adapt religion only to their own state, and to separate themselves from the other nations. Therefore it was said to them: love your neighbor and hate your enemy (Matthew 5:43). But after they lost their sovereignty and were led into captivity in Babylon, Jeremiah taught them to look after the peace (even) of that city to which they had been led as captives [Jeremiah 29:7]. And after Christ saw that they were to be dispersed through the whole world, he taught them that they should treat absolutely everyone in accordance with religious duty.31

Spinoza here invokes popular anti-Jewish Christian polemics contending that Mosaic law is both improved upon and rendered superfluous by Christ’s universalization of the imperative to love your neighbor.32 He cites the contentious passage from Matthew that attributes to Judaism a command to hate your enemies, which is nowhere found in the Jewish moral code.33 In fact, the passage in Leviticus, as we saw, condemns hatred and vengeance and proceeds to urge Jews not only to love their neighbors but to “love the stranger as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”34 Thus, although Spinoza identifies the commandment to neighbor love as the foundation of religion and the only expression of obedience necessary for “all mortals,” he does not present it in a way that harmonizes the two traditions of the Book. Rather, Spinoza appears to weight the scales on the side of Christian universality and even to encourage anti-Jewish sentiment.

Why would Spinoza do this? Marginalizing the Jewish affirmation of the law seems not only to be counter-productive, but also to contravene the imperative of charity and love. I do not have a fully satisfactory answer, but I will venture some observations. We can note, with commentators as diverse as Leo Strauss and Susan James, that the audience Spinoza seeks to persuade is Christian.35 Throughout his Theological-Political Treatise, he freely uses the Jews as a negative example, representing them as “childish.”36 The Hebrews were forced to observe many ceremonies, and their daily lives were subject to rigorous discipline and surveillance because, he contends, they were only just released from slavery. They required oversight and strict education in order to cohere as a people and to acquire the habits of freedom that they could only later exercise on their own.37 The lesson he draws from this is that, in a diverse and modern society like seventeenth-century Holland, such oversight and management of behavior by political or religious leaders is unnecessary. He argues that neither clergy nor government ought to take Moses as a model. Indeed, clergy ought to be more like Jesus and provide strictly moral education, concerning themselves with the hearts and minds of their congregations rather than the outward expressions of their devotion.38 So, although Spinoza forsakes the opportunity to harmonize Jewish and Christian doctrine, he exploits Christian narratives of superiority to assert the imperative to separate political rule and religious teaching. He claims that, while interdictions on behavior are the purview of civil government, religion ought to promote worship in whatever way best enables a particular constituency to observe the command to love their neighbors as themselves. It is therefore important to Spinoza’s case that the theocratic rule exercised by Moses is no longer either legitimate or prudent. The state ought to remove itself from the business of regulating quotidian religious practices and beliefs. Spinoza maintains that life in a religiously diverse society is more suited to an idealized Christian model, according to which the respect for the moral law is internal (written on the tablets of the heart) and divine sovereignty is firmly distinguished from human rulers.39

We have yet to consider more carefully what the command to love our neighbors as ourselves entails. What is love? “And,” as an uppity lawyer is said to ask Jesus, “who is my neighbor?”40 The Talmudic commentary typically interprets the passage in Leviticus as a fundamental lesson in self-restraint, reciprocity, and fairness. The imperative to love your neighbor, according to Nahmanides, is a kind of “overstatement.” The point is less about the importance of warm feelings or affection toward one’s fellows and more about compensating for our spontaneous self-preference and doing our duty. For Nahmanides (and the rabbinic authority he cites), it is not wrong to prefer your life over that of others—for example, in a case of extremely limited resources—but under normal circumstances, we ought to combat our tendency to want goods for ourselves alone. The love that we owe the neighbor refers to the duty to benefit others, to contribute to their spiritual and material well-being. Cultivating such an attitude is not mere benevolence, he counsels, but liberates us from the “degrading jealousy” of others’ goods and virtues which erodes our self-regard and poisons our relationships.41

Similarly, Rashi finds the command to refer to quotidian affairs in interpersonal relationships. His commentary is unconcerned with parsing the precise character of love and focuses instead on the avoidance of hate, through obeying the directive to “reprove your neighbor.”42 When someone acts offensively, one will be inclined to duplicate the offense rather than, as Nahmanides puts it, pursuing the means to erase it from one’s heart.43 By remaining silent, one does not have the opportunity either to correct the other person or to be corrected oneself. One’s hatred could easily be corrected by learning that the other’s reasons were valid, or, as Ibn Ezra notes, by learning that you “hate someone because you suspect him of something which never happened.”44 Loving your neighbor like yourself involves seeking the opportunity to share a point of view on reasons for action and on what is right and wrong. In contrast, coveting the idea that the other is wrong and you are the one wronged (and therefore right) is a recipe for hatred and the perpetuation of injustice. Loving one’s neighbor involves preserving equality among neighbors by sharing hurt feelings and seeking justice in one’s relationships.45

Leviticus commands its readers not only to love their neighbors, but also to “love the stranger as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”46 The Passover holiday and the daily Jewish liturgy remind Jews of their former slavery, the memory of which is to assist them in doing justice and extending love not only to the neighbor but also to the stranger, the unknown and suffering among them. The regular exercise of remembering the servitude of one’s people and their subsequent liberation by God is supposed to help Jews to walk in the ways of God, to imitate divine charity and justice by bringing others out of slavery and into freedom.47

The Jewish commentary does not typically represent others as identical to oneself, be that other a fellow Jew or a stranger. Nahmanides, for example, regards it as acceptable to give one’s own life ultimate value such that the other is not interchangeable with herself, even if she is very much like herself. Loving the neighbor as myself involves an analogy. I strive to relate to you in the same, or a very similar way, as I relate to myself. With analogies, the terms are not interchangeable, but the relationship between them bears some strong similarity. You are not me, but an appreciation of my own high self-regard is entirely unproblematic as long as I am able to extend it, when possible unreservedly, to my neighbor and to the vulnerable in my community. The neighbor is not another self, but another whom I love like myself by virtue of a relevant similarity. What we have in common includes our comparable defects, needs, and sufferings imposed by bondage but also by our potential for liberation through the imitation of God.48

Exaggerating the distinction from Jewish law, Christian teachings insist, “Not only those with whom we have some connection are called our neighbors, but all without exception; for the whole human race forms one body…even those who are most alienated from us, should be cherished and aided even as our own flesh.”49 Christianity represents the universalization of the divine law as a transformation rather than an adoption of Jewish ethics,50 which Spinoza appears to endorse in his preference for a non-legalistic and staunchly universalistic orientation to religious ethics.51 Rather than presenting love as something that is imaginatively extended from oneself to another distinct self, however, the imagery of the Christian scriptures suggests a stronger identification between self and other.52 In the New Testament, individuals are parts of a single whole, members of a single body united by Christ:

For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think too highly of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. For as in one body we have many members, and not all members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one in the body of Christ, and individually we are members of one another.53

Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot would say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. . . . God so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another . . . Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.54

The command to love your neighbor in both traditions is framed as an imperative to counteract our self-preference and our susceptibility to react with hatred to insults and injuries. While the rabbis of the Talmud treat the law as part of a juridical project of instituting justice, it is more typical of Christian writings, especially since Augustine, to point to the problem of self-love as a deadly poison threatening human community as such. Perhaps as a result of this greater concern with the viciousness of pride and self-preference, the Christian counter-measure for self-love is more radical, involving a strong identification with the other as a different part of the same body, necessary not only to my flourishing but to my survival. The other is a necessary part of a whole to which I belong. Loving the other means eliminating any firm distinction between her and myself, while allowing that she appears and acts differently (like an “eye” rather than a “foot”).

Spinoza concludes that the different perspectives on justice in the Old and New Testaments can be explained by the fact that the ancient Hebrews lived in a well-ordered commonwealth that treated equals alike. He represents the ancient Hebrew commonwealth as a strikingly just society in which no one was vulnerable to poverty and property rights were more fairly apportioned than in any society since.55 Spinoza explains that the ancient Hebrews were not counseled by Moses to turn the other cheek because they could expect fair judgment from the appropriate authorities. The early Christians, on the other hand, “were oppressed and living in a corrupt state where justice was completely neglected,” and thus, Christ discouraged them from seeking redress.56 In a society replete with oppression, we endure frequent and often unbearable insults and injuries. This is precisely the situation in which we are most inclined to prefer ourselves and to desire vengeance against our neighbors. In Leviticus, however, love is commanded in a context in which basic material equality, neighborly practices of exchange and resource sharing, as well as just legal institutions are in place. In such a situation, the reactionary self-love born of injury and the corresponding hatred of peers that the divine command aims to overcome are not as intense. With the great oppression suffered by early Christians, the dangers of self-love aroused by social contempt become overwhelming. As a result, the command to love the other as (part of) oneself becomes more vigorous. Both traditions, however, see the imperative to neighbor love as the foundation of a life in the image of God—that is, a life of liberty, wisdom, and communion. There is evident theological warrant for Spinoza’s embrace of obedience to the divine command as the utmost necessity for all mortals. Neighborly and self-love as the foundation of a good life coheres also with Spinoza’s Ethics. The Ethics traverses the passage from bondage to freedom, tracing an exodus from an illusory form of self-love born of powerlessness and suffering to a genuine form of self-love born of agency and community with others.

Love and Ethics

In the Theological-Political Treatise, Spinoza laments the common tendency of people to “thirst for things rare and foreign to their nature” and to “spurn their natural gifts.”57 Rather than finding strength and pleasure in the natural knowledge that is common to all of humanity, people yearn to have their ignorance confirmed by supernatural events and charismatic personalities.58 One of the aims of the TTP is to demonstrate how religion that fosters attraction to the exceptional rather than the common fosters a society of inequality and ignorance. Spinoza advocates instead a universalistic religion that encourages us to worship something common to all (God or nature), but which would also allow such worship to take forms adapted to the idiosyncrasies of individuals and collectives. He suggests a common law as the foundation for all piety—the command to love our neighbors as ourselves—but advocates wide latitude for the rituals, behaviors, and descriptions through which this love is expressed. Spinoza’s ideal of “true religion” maintains a tension between the universal and the singular. Each ought to love herself and her neighbor, but each self and neighbor is a unique expression of divinity or nature. Thus, obedience remains under-defined as whatever allows one to act consistently with the command.

Albeit in a very different idiom, Spinoza’s Ethics presents the life of the finite being as one defined by this tension between the common and the singular.  Like the TTP, the Ethics aims to demonstrate that our power derives from what is common, and yet we must live and act in a way that is sensitive to particularities. A fundamental premise of the Ethics is that involvement with others, dependency on our neighbors and God or nature, is the condition of rather than the obstacle to our freedom (also called “beatitude” or “salvation”). The Ethics culminates in an account of freedom as the “intellectual love of God,” which follows from the transformation of our bodies from a condition of radical dependency to a condition of tremendous capacity and rich consciousness of self, nature, and others.59 This transformation is the fruit of love. Love is precisely the joy that follows from an encounter with another who “agrees with our power.”60 This agreement can be understood as a combination of powers that makes each involved stronger in mind and body.  The journey towards liberation is one from a state of utter vulnerability to external causes to a condition of joy in oneself as a singular expression of divine (or natural) power. This journey is only possible when circumstances are such that our susceptibility to external powers becomes a strength rather than a weakness, as we undergo more and more enabling, loving encounters that make us into increasingly powerful beings.

The life of the finite being is traversed, according to Spinoza, by a constant vacillation between joy and sadness, love and hate. When one loves, Spinoza claims that “one necessarily strives to have present and preserve the thing he loves.”61 Self-love, self-preservation, and self-enhancement describe the basic motive of finite beings.62 Nevertheless, I have argued that humans often strive in ways that undermine our preservation and power, and thus we can be plagued by self-hatred. The imperative to love others, to have present and preserve them, is the means to our own preservation, pleasure, and power. Individuals cannot persevere or thrive outside of human community, but no one can bond to the human community as such. We bond to our proxima, those nearby who care for us and for whom we care. The power to enjoy what we have in common, those powers of mind and body distinctive of humanity, comes through the creative and often challenging effort of adapting ourselves to the common work of building a shared world.

Hate, in contrast, arouses a desire for destruction. We are repulsed by what hurts us, and we seek to “remove and destroy” it.63 It is impossible, however, to live in community with others and to avoid being hurt, and so we need ways to “reprove” our neighbors, to instruct one another in our singular needs. Although we are strengthened by what we have in common, according to Spinoza, each individual and each people differs from one another. There is no single rule by which we could provide what is good for one another: “For one and the same thing can, at the same time, be good, bad, and also indifferent. For example, music is good for one who is melancholy, bad for one who is mourning, and neither good nor bad for one who is deaf.”64 Neighbors provide for one another, but we also harm one another, intentionally or not. In order to avoid destroying that network of exchange, care, and instruction without which we could not exist, we need practices by which we can correct one another and be corrected. We need practices of justice as much as we need those of charity.

Although Spinoza is well-known for his bold criticisms of clerical abuse and his radical revisions of fundamental theological concepts and doctrines, he nevertheless advocates whole-heartedly the ethical command fundamental to both Judaism and Christianity: love your neighbor as yourself. Obedience to this command is not easy, but it leads to the most enabling forms of understanding: “The more we understand singular things, the more we understand God.”65 The more we understand our neighbors and ourselves, the more we participate in “the very love of God by which God loves himself, not insofar as he is infinite, but insofar as he can be explained by the human mind’s essence, sub specie æternitatis.”66


1. The warmest thanks to Julie Cooper, Jacob Goodson, Keith Green, Warren Montag, Will Roberts, Joseph Rosen, Adam Winer, and Yves Winter for their encouragement and feedback on this paper.
2. Sigmund Freud, Civilization and its Discontents, trans. J. Strachey (New York: W.W. Norton, 1989), 66-69.
3. By virtue of his conatus doctrine, the principle that all beings by nature endeavor to preserve themselves and oppose whatever threatens to destroy them, Spinoza appears to be an ethical egoist.
4. He reiterates this concern throughout the Theological-Political Treatise (hereafter TTP), but see, for example, Chapter I, paragraph 2. Citations from the TTP will be from the Israel and Silverthorne translation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007) and will include the chapter in Roman numerals and paragraph number in Arabic numbers (e.g, TTP, I.2). I will also have the benefit of Edwin Curley’s forthcoming translation and editorial notes, for which I am grateful to Professor Curley.
5. See, for example, Benedict de Spinoza, Ethics, Part IV, proposition 57, scholium. All references to the Ethics are to The Collected Works of Spinoza, vol. I. ed. and trans. E.M. Curley (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985). I adopt the following abbreviations for the Ethics: Roman numerals refer to parts; ‘p’ denotes proposition; ‘c’ denotes corollary; ‘def’ denotes definition; ‘d’ denotes demonstration; ‘s’ denotes scholium (e.g., ‘E, IIp38c’ refers to Ethics, part II, proposition 38, corollary).
6. Spinoza’s term for genuine self-contentment is acquiescentia in se ipso. For a careful analysis of this affect as an antidote to pride, see Julie E. Cooper, Secular Powers (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013), ch. 3.
7. The overwhelming majority of readers of the TTP, in his day and ours, interpreted Spinoza as an antagonist of religious ethics, viewing it as a useful tool of social control but superfluous for philosophers and other rational people. Although this view continues to have many advocates, a number of recent scholars have challenged this orthodoxy, including Julie E. Cooper, Eugene Garver, Susan James, and Nancy Levene.
8. For a brief overview of its immediate reception, see Jonathan Israel, in Spinoza’s Theological-Political Treatise: A Critical Guide, edited by Y. Melamed and M. Rosenthal (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010).
9. TTP, XII.2-3.
10. As Steven Nadler emphasizes in his book, “A Book Forged in Hell”: Spinoza’s Scandalous Treatise and the Birth of the Secular Age (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2011).
11. TTP, Pref.8: “Many, with the most shameless licence, are eager…under the pretext of religion to turn the heart of the multitude (who are still at the mercy of pagan superstition) away from the sovereign powers, so that everything may collapse again into slavery” (Curley’s translation).
12. TTP, XIV.13.
13. Nancy Levene interprets Spinoza’s biblical hermeneutics as a kind of liberation theology. See, for example, Spinoza’s Revelation: Religion, Democracy, and Reason (Cambridge: CUP, 2004), 78.
14. Of course, power understood as greater value to individuals and society is a different kind of authority than that sought by those whom Spinoza targets with blistering criticism.
15. E, IVp4s.
16. E, IIpref.
17. Among the most controversial of Spinoza’s arguments in the TTP is his rejection of miracles, understood as suspensions of natural causality. According to Spinoza, divine perfection entails that “the laws of nature are so perfect and so fruitful that nothing can be added to or detracted from them” (TTP, VI.22). True love of God involves not the appreciation of astonishing events that cannot be explained, but the affirmation of nature (including ourselves) as it is, in its lawfulness and regularity.
18. TTP, VII.2 (Curley’s translation).
19. This is a summary of some basic principles from Spinoza’s Ethics.
20. TTP, VII.6 (Curley’s translation).
21. E, IIp38-p39.
22. We might think of this as Spinoza’s naturalist version of Platonic recollection.
23. TTP, VII.7.
24. Warren Montag, Bodies, Masses, Power: Spinoza and his Contemporaries (London: Verso, 1999), 16.
25. I do not in this paper address the content of salvation for Spinoza, which is a source of significant controversy among commentators. For now, I will just point out that salus can also refer to well-being and health as well as spiritual eternity. In my view, living in accordance with the maxim to love your neighbor as yourself is necessary for any measure of salvation, whether it is understood to include the beatitude that accompanies a robust experience of the eternity of mind described in the conclusion to his Ethics or whether it is understood to include only peace and self-contentment enjoyed in this life.
26. Romans 13:8-10. Spinoza himself refers to this passage when he asserts that “obedience to God consists solely in love of our neighbor” (TTP, XIII.3). Spinoza generally used the Tremellius Bible (1590). I am using the New Revised Standard Version, which is what is cited in the recent versions of Spinoza’s TTP.
27. Galatians 5:14.
28. Leviticus 19:17-18. Spinoza cites this passage three times in the TTP (I.39; VII.33; XIX.28). Spinoza’s express citations of the Bible are rather constrained for a book that concerns Scripture and its interpretation. He cites the Hebrew Bible much more often than the New Testament (103 direct). Among NT citations, he cites Paul’s letter to the Romans most frequently (8/26).
29. b.Shabbath 31a, ed., I. Epstein, trans. H. Freedman,: http://www.come-and-hear.com/shabbath/shabbath_31.html (accessed 19 June, 2014).
30. See TTP, V.10, VII.27, XII.34, XIII.8, XIV.9, XIV.14-18, XIV.24, XVI.52, XVII.86, XIX.9.
31. TTP, XIX.29-30.
32. Daniel Lasker analyzes Spinoza’s invocation of medieval anti-Jewish and anti-Christian polemics in the TTP. The anti-Jewish tropes in the TTP are easily discernible. The anti-Christian arguments, when they are not directed at corrupt preachers, are more subtle, but it is clear that Spinoza is critical of aspects of both doctrines. See Lasker, “Reflections of the Medieval Jewish-Christian Debate in the Theological-Political Treatise and the Epistles.
33. Although, as Curley points out in his edition, the Old Testament “does sometimes represent God as commanding the Jews to take harsh vengeance on their enemies” ( e.g, 1 Samuel 15:3), vengeance and hatred are nowhere presented as moral precepts and are expressly condemned in the ethical and legal writings of the Torah.
34. Leviticus 19:34. See also, Exodus 23:9.
35. Leo Strauss, Persecution and the Art of Writing (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988) and Susan James, Spinoza on Philosophy, Religion, and Politics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012).
36. TTP, III.2.
37. TTP, XVII.25.
38. Steven Fraenkel, “The Invention of Liberal Theology,” Review of Politics 63.2 (2001), 287-315.
39. This is not to say that Spinoza was a “secularist” in the strong sense that demands total separation of church and state. He advocates a national religion and acknowledges the importance of a set of basic beliefs for (at least) social harmony. Yet, he is a secularist in the weak sense of denying the unity of divine and human legislation in every case, except for that of Moses.
40. Luke 10:29.
41. Nachmanides, Commentary on the Torah (Leviticus), trans. C. B. Chavel (New York: Shiloh Publishing House, 1974), 292-293.
42. Torah Reading for Kedoshim (with Rashi Commentary): http://www.chabad.org/parshah/torahreading.asp?aid=15582&p=1&showrashi=true (accessed 19 June, 2014).
43. Nahmanides, 292. In further support of instruction as an antidote to grudge-bearing, he cites Proverbs 6:23: “For the commandment is a lamp, and the teaching a light, and reproofs of instruction are a way of life.”
44. The Commentary of Abraham ibn Ezra on the Pentateuch, vol. 3: Leviticus, trans. J.F. Schachter (Hoboken, NJ: Ktav Publishing House, 1986), 103.
45. I thank my research assistant Adam Winer for his invaluable assistance with the Talmudic commentary.
46. Leviticus 19:34. Although “the stranger” has more recently been interpreted as a recent convert to Judaism, the ger of the Bible refers to stranger in the generic sense, especially the suffering widows, orphans, etc.
47. Cf. Psalms 146:7-9.
48. Deuteronomy 10:12.
49. John Calvin’s commentary on Leviticus 18.
50. See Kenneth Reinhard’s contribution to The Neighbor: Three Inquiries in Political Theology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013).
51. According to Graeme Hunter, Spinoza endorsed the theology of radical Christian movements, members of which he counted among his friends and political allies. Spinoza himself does not appear to have adopted Christianity, but we can see affinities between Spinoza’s account of true religion (TTP, XII) and radical Christians in the seventeenth-century, like Quakers and Collegiants. (Radical Protestantism in Spinoza’s Thought, [Hampshire: Ashgate Publishing, 2005]).
52. One could find examples in Jewish mysticism of a doctrine of the insignificance of the individual self in relationship to the divine. One would not, however, find divine communion mediated by a third term, like the figure of Christ.
53. Romans 12:3-5.
54. 1 Corinthians 12:14-27.
55. TTP, 17.25.
56. TTP, VII.7.
57. TTP, I.2.
58. TTP, VI.1.
59. E, Vp39s.
60. E, IVp31-35.
61. E, IIIp13s.
62. E, IIIp6-9.
63. E, IIIp13s.
64. E, IVpref.
65. E, Vp24.
66. E, Vp35.

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