The Secret Life of Modernity: The Case of Spinoza – Introduction

“WHEN THE LORD, also known as god, realized that adam and eve, although perfect in every outward aspect, could not utter a word or make even the most primitive of sounds, he must have felt annoyed with himself, for there was no one else in the garden of eden whom he could blame for this grave oversight, after all, the other animals, who were, like the two humans, the product of his divine command, already had a voice of their own, be it a bellow, a roar, a croak, a chirp, a whistle or a cackle.”

 – Jose Saramago,  Cain

“No one can have lived in the world without observing that most people, when in prosperity, are so over-brimming with wisdom (however inexperienced they may be), that they take every offer of advice as a personal insult, whereas in adversity they know not where to turn, but beg and pray for counsel from every passer-by.”

– Baruch Spinoza


Johnathan Israel’s Radical Enlightenment series is provacative and spot on concerning his estimation of Spinoza and his influence on the thinkers of his age. As Ann Talbot in a recent exploration of Israel’s work tells us “Spinoza was part of an international ideological movement. It has become customary to view the Enlightenment from various national perspectives, so that we have the French Enlightenment, the German Enlightenment or the Scottish Enlightenment. In rejecting this approach Israel is standing out against the prevailing academic attitude to the Enlightenment in which each national tradition has its own source material, its own secondary sources and its own body of professional specialists. And in doing so he finds a coherence that the period often lacks in other more national oriented treatments. (Spinoza Reconsidered)”

This was the Age of the Enlightenment in which natural philosophers travelled across the boundaries of nation states and corresponded with each other in an international mileau and regarded themselves as part of a global Republic of Letters. For Israel it was Spinoza who first waved the banner of a new form of materialism. Spinoza rejected Descartes dualism between body and soul and instead regarded the whole of nature, including mankind, as consisting of a single substance. For Spinoza, man’s thinking, just as much as his bodily nature, is a property of substance and is not the activity of an immaterial soul that animates the body as it was for many of his contemporaries.

It was during this age that science, philosophy, and politics took on new meanings and sponsored the radical tendencies within society that lead to the democratic struggles of the late eighteenth-century of the French and American Revolutions. Out of the kernel of Spinoza came the egalitarianism, republicanism, and morality without Revelation that “were the fruits of a long process, engineered by an army of thinkers and writers stretching back for over a century” (717).1 At the heart of this revolution was Spinoza’s deep rooted materialism. As Antonio Damasio remarks “by refusing to ground mind and body on different substances, Spinoza was serving notice of his opposition to the view of the mind-body problem that prevailed in his time… more intriguing, however, was his notion that the human mind is the idea of the human body… Spinoza might have intuited the principles behind the natural mechanisms responsible for the parallel manifestations of mind and body.”2

It was Gilles Deleuze in his short monograph  Spinoza: Practical Philosophy who once remarked:

Writers, poets, musicians, filmmakers – painters, too, even chance readers – may find that they are Spnozists; indeed, such a thing is more likely for them than for professional philosophers. It is a matter of one’s practical conception of the “plan”. It is not that one may be a Spinozist without knowing it. Rather, there is a strange privelege that Spinoza enjoys, something that seems to have been accomplished by him and no one else. He is a philosopher who commands an extraordinary conceptual apparatus, one that is highly developed, systematic, and scholarly: and yet he is the quintessential object of an immediate, unprepared encounter, such that a nonphilosopher, or even someone without any formal education, can recieve a sudden illumination from him, a “flash” (128).3

It was the philosopher John Toland, in the early 18th century who first insisted that ‘Spinozism’ and ‘pantheism’ are synonymous. – Toland stated “Moses was, to be sure, a Pantheist, or, if you please, in more current terms, a Spinosist” – while Spinoza’s pantheism was taken for granted by such philosophers as Moses Mendelssohn, Gotthold Lessing and Friedrich Jacobi, in their famous Pantheismusstreit of 1785 others have questioned this appraisal. As the modern philosopher and biographer of Spinoza Steven Nadler would have it “the problem with calling Spinoza a ‘pantheist’ is that pantheism is still a kind of theism” (Spinoza the atheist). For while atheists and pantheists might agree that ontologically there is nothing else to the world but nature, they would part company when the pantheist goes on to insist that the identification of God with nature makes it appropriate to hold the religious psychological attitudes demanded by theism. In effect, the pantheist who asserts that ‘God is nature’ is divinising nature and claiming that the world is in some sense holy or sacred, and that therefore one’s attitude towards nature must be akin to a religious experience. Nature is properly regarded with worshipful awe, perhaps even fear and dread. (ibid.)

Against such a reading Nadler tells us that Spinoza does not believe that worshipful awe is an appropriate attitude to take before God or nature. There is nothing holy or sacred about nature, and it is certainly not the object of a religious experience. Instead, one should strive to understand God or nature, with the kind of adequate or clear and distinct intellectual knowledge that reveals nature’s most important truths and shows how everything depends essentially and existentially on higher natural causes. The key to discovering and experiencing God/nature, for Spinoza, is philosophy and science, not religious awe and worshipful submission. The latter give rise only to superstitious behaviour and subservience to ecclesiastic authorities; the former leads to enlightenment, freedom and true blessedness. Spinonza is an atheist not a pantheist. (ibid.)

* * *

Over the next year I’ll be conducting an investigation into the secret history and intellectual life of modernity and materialism in respect to the thought and life of Baruch Spinoza. It was Yirmiyahu Yovel the author of a two-volume study on Spinoza,  Spinoza and Other Heretics: The Marrano of Reason and The Adventures of Immanence who described Spinoza not as the first secular Jew but as “a lost and suspended Jew, his existential case preceding his explicit ideas and prefiguring forms of Jewish existence in which he could not himself participate.”  In Spinoza’s work, Yovel concluded, we are witnesses to an inaugural event of both history and philosophy that passed “from the world of revealed religion into a world of secular reason and immanence.” 4

Peter Gorden reflecting on Spinoza’s atheism and naturalist materialism distinguishes Spinoza’s philosophy most of all from this traditional solution is that he no longer endorses its conception of a radically transcendent and anthropomorphic God. From this follows a new conception of nature and a novel proposal as to how we should understand Scripture, with all of its imaginative tales of miracles and prophecies. All of these new ideas ultimately inform Spinoza’s understanding of what is the best way to lead one’s life and how the political world must be arranged so as to make this life possible.(ibid.)

It is this materialim and atheism within Spinoza’s philosophy of life, politics, and ethics that like a deep river silently runs its course through the secret life of secular modernity. I hope to convey only a glimpse into that shadow world where Spinoza’s philosophical thought and its relation to modernity provides us a path toward a New Materialsm that may ultimately offer us way forward from the Kantian dilemnas that have bounded our philosophical heritage for two centuries and more.

So begins the long process of writing my first draft toward a future book, The Secret Life of Modernity: Toward a New Materialsm.


1. Israel, Jonathan I. (2001-02-08). Radical Enlightenment:Philosophy and the Making of Modernity 1650-1750. Oxford University Press.
2. Antonion Damasio. Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow, and the Feeling Brain. Mariner Books (December 1, 2003)
3. Gilles Deleuze. Spinoza Practical Philosophy. City Lights Publishers; First Edition in English edition (January 1, 2001)
4. Peter Gordon. Destroyer and Builder. New Republic Review (May 3, 2012)

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