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Au miroir de l’anthropologie historique

Juan Carlos Garavaglia
Jacques Poloni-Simard
Gilles Rivière

En guise d’ouvertures

Spain’s Empire, “Superstitio” and “Enlightened” Networks in Spinoza’ philosophical System of Subversion

Empire espagnol, « superstition » et réseaux « éclairés » : le caractère subversif du système philosophique de Spinoza

Jonathan Israel


Cette contribution examine un aspect de la pensée de Spinoza, marqué par le contexte culturel ibérique dans lequel celle-ci s’inscrit mais rarement discuté par les spécialistes : la façon dont il traite de l’histoire de l’Espagne dans son œuvre. Cet essai discute en particulier, à partir du Tractatus theologico-politicus (1670) et de la correspondance de Spinoza, ses remarques sur Philippe II, le secrétaire du roi et historien aragonais Antonio Pérez, la révolte aragonaise contre Philippe II en 1590 et la révolte des Provinces-Unies contre l’Espagne. Si les critiques de la thèse de Leo Strauss sur la tendance à la dissimulation de Spinoza sont globalement justes, il est néanmoins des cas où celui-ci masque le sens de ses propos, pour des raisons de prudence politique, comme on peut le voir dans ses commentaires, particulièrement évasifs, sur la révolte des Provinces-Unies. Ma conclusion est que la discussion que fait Spinoza de l’histoire de l’Espagne conforte l’impression qu’il était un philosophe bien plus engagé que ce que l’on considère habituellement, et que cela constitue un aspect essentiel de la dimension subversive de sa pensée.

Texte intégral

1Was a Spinoza an essentially abstract philosopher who helped bring on the cultural revolution of the Enlightenment unconsciously and by accident, as it were, or was there an element of strategy and calculation in his activity which designedly sought to subvert existing structures of authority? The dominant image of Spinoza in the historiography and modern culture as a highly reclusive and isolated philosopher is so much at odds with his huge and deeply disturbing impact on, as well as centrality to, almost all major Enlightenment debates, for over a century from the international controversy surrounding his Tractatus Theological Politicus (1670), in the early 1670s to the Pantheismusstreit in the 1780s, that it is undoubtedly worth at least considering the possibility that the image of his personality and manner of philosophizing constructed by much of the modern historiography is in this regard somewhat inadequate.

  • 1 Smith S. V., Spinoza, Liberalism and the Question of Jewish Identity, New Haven, (...)

2It cannot be denied that Spinoza was in some sense a recluse who devoted his life wholeheartedly to philosophy. Nevertheless, his conception of philosophy, and his way of philosophizing, arguably, was in reality far more politically and socially “engagé” than we are accustomed to think. While the prevailing image of him captures part of the reality of Spinoza the philosopher, room has to be found for elements, at least, of a quite different image, namely that of Spinoza as an active subversive who consciously set out to change the world as he found it. The highly abstract style of Spinoza’s philosophy and his preference, in his writing, to stick to generalities rather than discuss particular things—apart, that is, from the Bible and the history of the ancient Hebrew commonwealth—have, without doubt, reinforced the interpretation of him as a lofty, remote and austere thinker with only a minimal connection with the social context around him and also a thinker whose political thought is both abstract in itself and in some sense secondary and non-essential to understanding his metaphysics and ethics. These notions of Spinoza’s remoteness and marginality are no doubt also the chief reason why Spinoza, (already treated as marginal by many philosophers), has generally also been left aside by historians of political thought. “Only rarely,” as one scholar aptly expressed it, “is Spinoza regarded as someone who thought long and deeply about the fundamental problems of political life.”1

3In Spinoza, the generalized assault on “superstition”, miracles, theology and ecclesiastical authority is so pervasive and intense, that it is easy to suppose that, for him assailing what he considered to be the irrational belief-structures which dominate human societies was just a generalized end in itself. But it is important to ask what were the consequences and, as he saw it, practical social benefits, likely to follow from his systematic attack on “superstition”? My argument in this article is that Spinoza seems to have believed several of the most intractable, oppressive and troublesome problems affecting the society in which he lived—and which at first sight appear to be only very loosely connected—could all be solved or mitigated by means of a single subversive strategy. Moreover, these three pervasive problems as he saw them, namely divine right monarchy as a political ideology, the destructiveness of war between the European powers, and the victimization and persecution of the Jews, had at the time a particular connection with the Habsburg Iberian world empire.

4Spinoza’s antipathy to absolutist monarchy as such, and preference for republican forms, are well-known features of his philosophy and general outlook. Both in the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus and the Tractatus Politicus he contends that it is natural for monarchies to deceive their subjects and foment strife and war. Equally, he claims that among the chief virtues of democratic republics is that they foster freedom of judgment and discussion and promote peace. Supporting liberty and toleration in the republic, furthermore, as well as furthering public peace favours the progress of knowledge and science, and greatly assists the curtailment of intolerance and “superstition”. At the same time, none of these things can be fostered without the participation of some citizens and the democratic republic itself cannot survive without allowing free expression of men’s differing views. In this respect it is certainly the case, as Quentin Skinner observed, that Spinoza is a political thinker who conceives of “liberty” as a positive good, something that needs to be shaped and supported by the citizenry, or at least some of the citizenry, namely those who are sufficiently aware, rather than something that is a purely negative good as it is conceived, for instance, by Hobbes.

  • 2 Spinoza, Tractatus Politicus, Id., The Political Works, ed. by A. G. Wernha (...)
  • 3 Curley E., “Kissinger, Spinoza and Genghis Khan”, D. Garrett (ed.), The Cambridge Compa (...)
  • 4 Ibid., p. 315.

5Spinoza, then, undeniably sought to put his philosophy to practical use and improve human society. At the same time, our picture of him as an isolated thinker, without influence or contacts, sits rather uncomfortably with his extraordinary boast, echoing Machiavelli, at the beginning of his Tractatus Politicus, a text written during the last months of his life (1676-7) and left unfinished at the time of his death, in 1677, that where virtually all previous writers on politics—presumably even including Machiavelli and Hobbes— “numquam politicam conceperint quae posit ad usum revocari; sed quae pro chimaera haberetur, vel quae in Utopia, vel in illo poetarum aureo saeculo, ubi scilicet minime necesse erat, institui potuisset (never conceived a political system which can be put to any use but have produced either obvious fantasies, or schemes that could only have been put into effect in Utopia, or in the poets’ Golden Age where, of course, there was no need for them at all), he proposed to proceed on a more practical basis.”2 Where his predecessors had allegedly done nothing but conceive “chimaera”, a politics that “could be set up only in utopia, or in the golden age of the poets, ie., where there was no need for it at all,”3 he intended to transplant politics onto an entirely different and more “realistic” level. If we accept the conventional picture of his isolation and reclusiveness, his claim that, unlike other philosophers, he offers a political theory that is not be “at variance with practice” but rather will have vast practical application must seem more than faintly ridiculous even if Henry Kissinger did say, in an interview, in December 1972, that Spinoza and Kant were the two philosophers who had “influenced me most.”4

  • 5 Spinoza, Tractatus Politicus, op. cit., p. 261.

6His own stress on his practicality and applicability to the world in which he lived, becomes even more paradoxical when we note that Spinoza himself points out in the Preface to his Tractatus Politicus that the best books about politics, in his opinion, had been written not by philosopher but by statesmen: “for as they had experience for their mistress, the latter taught nothing that was inconsistent with practice.”5 One of these statesmen whom he had in mind evidently was Antonio Pérez, chief secretary of state of Philip II of Spain from 1565 to 1579, a personage whose views about politics he cites with evident approval.

7To fully understand Spinoza’s philosophy, I shall argue, we need to consider in more detail than has been done those aspects of his letters, life and background which bear on his political reading, conversation and practical activities. Furthermore, such an inquiry may have a wider significance than merely prompting us to adjust in a few particulars our picture of Spinoza and his philosophy. For Spinoza was unquestionably the first major thinker in the history of philosophy to claim not just that democracy, and especially the democratic republic based on the “common good” understood in purely secular terms, in contrast to the republic of the ancient Hebrews before Saul and those of the Greek republics, is the best kind of state but, equally, he was the first closely to entwine a purely secular democratic republicanism with the inner fabric of metaphysics, Bible criticism, science, ethics and social thought.

  • 6 Spinoza B. de, Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, ed. by Jonathan I. Israel, Cambrid (...)

8Spinoza prided himself on being an acute political observer who knew things about the mechanics of power that others did not, and who paid close attention to rumours and subtle indications of what was going on under the surface. His father’s import-export business, a business which himself ran as an Amsterdam merchant during the years 1654-6, prior to his expulsion from the Portuguese Jewish community, was ruined especially through loss of cargoes to the English prior to, and during, the First Anglo-Dutch War (1652-4) and his obvious dislike of Cromwell and detestation of war were likely to have been nourished in part by such painful personal experience. His psychological explanation of England’s aggression against the Dutch, depicted in the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus was that it was due to a form of deception practiced by an autocratic statesman (Cromwell) to distract the English from the ugly and unedifying realities of their domestic politics and disguise the fact that, despite having executed Charles I, they had failed to get rid of autocracy and despotism after all.6 His observations about the English, Dutch and England’s ally, the aggressive Bishop of Munster, at the outset of the Second “English” War (1664-7), in his letters to Henry Oldenburg, reflect his conception of himself as an acute political observer and suggest, since relatively few letters containing this kind of evidence remain, that the editing of his correspondence by his Collegiant friends who selected those of his letters that they thought philosophically significant, after his death, may have unconsciously masked the fact that he was a practiced connoisseur of rumours, public explanations and the psychology of mass politics.

  • 7 Stouppe J.-B., La religion des Hollandois, Cologne, 1673, p. 65-6; Israel J (...)
  • 8 Stouppe J.-B., La religion des Hollandois, op. cit., p. 66; Klever W., (...)

9Spinoza, we should perhaps also add, may have been entrusted with high-level secret communications from The Hague when he went to meet the commander of the invading French army, Condé, at the latter’s request, in Utrecht in July 1673, an episode which encouraged some unpleasant rumours that he was a traitor disloyal to the Dutch Republic who was conniving with the French. And even if he never met Condé, as some scholars argue, because the latter was absent at the time, a point which remains disputed, he certainly held long discussions with Colonel Jean-Baptiste Stouppe, the French military governor of occupied Utrecht. Stouppe’s prior anti-Dutch propaganda pamphlet of 1672, La religion des Hollandois, it is worth mentioning also, was the first publication ever to report the existence of Spinozism as an established movement. Stouppe remarks there that Spinoza “a un grand nombre de sectateurs qui sont entièrement attachez à ses sentiments,” but who remained careful not to disclose themselves publicly because their leader’s Tractatus Theologico-Politicus destroys “absolument les fondements de toutes les religions.”7 This Tractatus, asserts Stouppe, “a pour but principal de détruire toutes les religions, et particulièrement la judaïque et la Chrétienne, et introduire l’Athéisme, le libertinage, et la liberté de toutes les religions.” Spinoza argues, reports Stouppe, that religions are invented for public utility with the aim of getting citizens to live honestly and obey their magistrates, and behave virtuously, goals Spinoza approves of not because he thinks there is any hope of a compensation after death but simply for the excellence of virtue itself and for the advantages this brings for virtuous people in this life.8

10But how exactly could a clandestine subversive politico-philosophical movement which seeking to undermine the foundations of all organized religion aspire to solve the world’s problems? Spinoza clearly thought that he was introducing new principles which would improve society and human life and it soon became clear, observed the Cartesian physician, Cornelis Bontekoe, who lived in The Hague in the late 1670s and attended the auction of Spinoza’s belongings after his death, hoping to buy his books, ‘what these fine principles were’ when Spinoza published his Tractatus Theologico-Politicus with which, as Bontekoe expressed it, he endeavoured to overthrow not only the “ware philosophie” [true philosophy] of Descartes but all religion and truth.

  • 9 Bontekoe C., Brief Aen Johan Frederik Swetzer, Gesegt Dr Helvetius, Geschreven en Uytge (...)

“And from that time onwards he made it his task to sow his perverse seed in secret; for which reason he left Rijnsburg for Voorburg, and finally moved to The Hague, evidently thinking that he would find more scope there among the frivolous youth and other men of the world who are often much inclined towards such evil, for his diabolical politica and other atheistic ideas; as indeed he succeeded in doing and still today one finds his creatures in that place.”9

11Spinoza had his disciples and what Bayle called his “secte” at The Hague and in other Dutch towns. Moreover, he had a political agenda and it is not hard to fathom what it was. He sought to weaken religious authority as a way of promoting toleration and reducing persecution and linked to this endeavoured to undermine belief in divine right monarchy. At the core of Spinoza’s “realistic” conception of politics stands his principle that the more the power of kings—and quasi-kings like Cromwell—is curbed by constitutional checks and committees and by discrediting the religious sanction that they claim, the better it is for society. During his own life-time, Louis XIV was, of course, the absolute monarch who instilled the most awe in his contemporaries, indeed was the very symbol of absolute monarchy for many, and also the monarch who posed the greatest political and strategic threat to the United Provinces. However, in Spinoza’s political works it is not Louis but rather Philip II of Spain who stands out as the supreme tyrant, the symbol of an oppressive, overbearing, war-mongering and persecuting monarch. However, the Spanish monarchy as it developed under Philip II was merely one of several hispanic themes in Spinoza’s life and personal culture, for his library suggests that he had an abiding interest also in writers like Cervantes, Gracián, Quevedo, and Luis de Góngora.

12Spinoza’s relationship to Iberian history, literature and culture generally doubtless owes a good deal to his own Sephardic Jewish background. Despite the finality of his expulsion from the synagogue, in 1656, and rejection of rabbinic authority, the latter finding expression in his numerous hostile references to “pharisaic” presumption and ignorance in the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, it is important not to underestimate the extent of his continuing involvement with the religious, political and cultural predicament of the Portuguese Marranos whether in Iberian lands or northern Europe and whether returning, or not returning, to normative Judaism. The Iberian context was especially important during the years immediately following his expulsion from the synagogue. The two Spanish testimonies submitted to the Inquisition in Madrid, in 1659, for example, accusing Spinoza and his deistic ally of that time, Juan de Prado, of heresy, submitted respectively by a Spanish American friar and by a Castilian army officer who had both spent some time in Holland where they had got to know Prado and Spinoza, reveal that Spinoza arguing in Spanish was already then a more skilled and formidable “philosopher” than the far older Prado.

13These reports, based on conversations which took place in Amsterdam in 1657-8, also prove that Spinoza not only remained in Prado’s company well after both men left the Jewish community but also that he remained in contact with other Iberians, including a wealthy ship-owner from the Canaries and at least two observant Portuguese Jews, the physician Dr Reynoso and Samuel Pacheco (who were therefore contravening the communal ban on maintaining any contact with the outcast). These persons had spent much of their lives in the Iberian Peninsula living as “New Christians,” and, like Prado, no doubt had much to tell Spinoza about life in Iberian lands.

  • 10 “Spinoza to Van Blijenbergh, 5 Jan.1665”, in B. de Spinoza, Briefwisseling, (...)
  • 11 Bayle P., Écrits sur Spinoza, ed. by Charles Daubert and Pierre-François Moreau, Paris, Berg (...)

14After 1656, then, Spinoza continued extensive discussion of philosophy and religion in Spanish and Portuguese. He certainly continued to do so, moreover, through the years of his maturity. In a well-known passage of one of his letters, written to Dordrecht grain broker, Willem van Blijenbergh, in January 1665, Spinoza, writing in Dutch, remarks that “I do wish that I could write in the language in which I was brought up. I would then perhaps better express my thoughts.”10 Spinoza’s Dutch was imperfect and scholars have often noted that he spoke his mother-tongue, Portuguese, with more confidence; but they have rarely added, as I think we should, two additional points: firstly, that in this letter Spinoza probably meant Spanish rather than Portuguese, Spanish being the language of learning and literature taught in the Amsterdam Sephardic synagogue schools which he attended as a boy; and secondly, that this connects with Salomon van Til’s report (repeated by Bayle)11 that Spinoza wrote his replies to the claims of the rabbis, his first book, the Apologia, of 1656, “in Spanish”. This also ties in with the circumstance—evident from the listed titles in his personal library—that he continued reading Spanish literature in his later years. Thus, the Van Blijenbergh letter shows that Spinoza not only spoke Iberian tongues better than Dutch but, as late as 1665, could still express philosophical ideas, even in writing, better in Spanish and Portuguese, than he could in Dutch.

  • 12 Spinoza B. de, Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, op. cit., p. 236-7.

15Given that Spinoza usually prefers generalities to discussing particular political contexts in his writing, it is of some significance that he devotes an unusual amount of space to the circumstances of the reign of Philip II. Philip is discussed especially in two, albeit abruptly different, contexts, first, in connection with the Dutch Revolt against Spain, and, second, in connection with the revolt of 1590-1, of the Iberian kingdom of Aragon. In the former instance, in Chapter XVIII of the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus (1669), Spinoza repeats what was then a fairly conventional claim in Dutch political literature, namely that the States of Holland “did not, to our knowledge, ever have kings but only Counts, to whom the right of government was never transferred. For as the sovereign States of Holland publicly state, in the resolution published by them in the time of the Earl of Leicester, they had always reserved to themselves the authority to remind these Counts of their duty, retaining the power to defend their authority and the liberty of the citizens, and rescue themselves from them should they become tyrants, and generally keep a check on them, so that they could do nothing without the permission and approval of the States. The right of sovereignty, it follows, was always vested in the States. This was what the last Count of Holland [ie. Philip II] strove to usurp. Hence it is by no means true that they rebelled against him when they recovered their original power which they had by then almost lost.”12

  • 13 Harris E., “Is there an Esoteric Doctrine in the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus?”, Mede (...)
  • 14 Ibid., p. 14.

16That Philip II of Spain acted as a tyrant in the Low Countries and that the Dutch Revolt against his rule and against Spanish domination was fully legitimate in terms of established constitutional law, tradition and privilege is thus unreservedly asserted by Spinoza. He clearly manifests his disapproval of the king’s policies. But there is nevertheless something distinctly odd about his argument here. Indeed, this may be among the places in his works where a touch of evasiveness and circumlocution, not to say subterfuge, is detectable. If, as Errol Harris long ago remarked, Leo Strauss greatly exaggerated in claiming there are hidden layers in Spinoza’s thought which only the perspicacious reader alert to hints, suggestive inconsistencies and able to read between the lines can spot,13 it is nevertheless not altogether correct either to contend that Spinoza’s philosophy is direct and “turns out to be consistent throughout.”14

  • 15 Curley E., “‘I durst not write so boldly’, or How to read Hobbes’ Theological-Political (...)

17Spinoza was exceptionally forthright by the standards of his time, and Hobbes was right, if Aubrey reports reliably, to exclaim that Spinoza “had outhrowne him a bar’s length, for he [ie. Hobbes] durst not write so boldly.”15 Yet, Spinoza, no less than Hobbes, lived in a society in which powerful constraints operated and there was much that could not be openly stated. He had to be guarded in his comments about Christ and the Trinity and deny that he was an “atheist”. But, equally, there was another area of great sensitivity where one could not call a spade a spade, namely rebellion against established royal authority. Even in the Dutch Republic, the only European state in the seventeenth century (aside from Switzerland), founded on a revolt against a hereditary prince, it was by no means acceptable to imply that the United Provinces came into existence through outright rebellion against a legitimate monarch.

  • 16 Spinoza B. de, Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, op. cit., p. 237; Verbeek T. (...)

18In any case, there is good reason to scrutinize the blatant inconsistency inherent in Spinoza’s discussion of the Dutch Revolt. He appears to say that it is untrue that the States of Holland “rebelled” against Philip II, or abjured his legitimate sovereignty while yet stating that they nevertheless “recovered their original sovereignty which had almost been lost.” Spinoza knew perfectly well, of course, that the Dutch Revolt was a fundamental transformation, a full-scale political revolution which broke the power of Spanish king in the northern Netherlands, as well as that of the papacy, Inquisition, bishops and nobles, and that his own political theory was in some degree an encouragement to undertake such revolutions. The odd thing about his general thesis here, namely “that the form of each state must necessarily be retained and cannot be changed without risking the total ruin of the state,”16 is that it hardly seems consistent with his more general doctrine that the right of the sovereign extends no further than its power or his openly stated republican strictures and his obvious scorn for absolutist monarchy. Very likely, it was precisely his awareness that his own philosophy quite clearly fosters subversion which caused him here to write in so consummately a conventional fashion and contrast the Dutch Revolt, as he does, with the recent failed parliamentary Revolution in England which he says had sought to end monarchy but been unable to do so.

  • 17 Domínguez A., “Presencia de Antonio Pérez en Spinoza”, Id. (ed.), Spinoza y Españ (...)
  • 18 Spinoza, Tractatus Politicus, op. cit., p. 364-5; Domínguez A., “Presencia (...)

19Spinoza’s second discussion of Philip II’s tyranny occurs in the Tractatus Politicus where there is a long and remarkable passage praising the Aragonese for having established during the Middle Ages a form of monarchy which so thoroughly restrains the inherently negative and undesirable tendencies of monarchy, and the active powers of kings, with constitutional checks and legal restrictions, as to represent the closest thing to an ideal—that is, emasculated—monarchy that Spinoza can call to mind. So well did the medieval Aragonese kingdom function, he avers, that the Aragonese “continued for an incredible length of time unharmed, the king’s loyalty towards his subjects being as great as theirs towards him.” This happy situation began to change, however, when the “kingdom fell by inheritance to Ferdinand of Castile, who first had the surname of Catholic; for the liberty enjoyed by the Aragonese began to displease the Castilians, who therefore ceased not to urge Ferdinand to abolish these rights.” Spinoza, here apparently basing himself on Antonio Pérez’s account,17 then compliments Ferdinand on being wise enough not to attempt any such thing. “Accordingly, the Aragonese retained their liberties after the time of Ferdinand, though no longer by right but by the favour of their too powerful kings, until the reign of Philip II who oppressed them with better luck, but no less cruelty, than he did the United Provinces.”18

20Meanwhile, to any Portuguese or Portuguese Jew of Spinoza’s time, studying and discussing the history of the Dutch and Aragonese revolts, there was an inescapable third angle to the triangle: Philip II’s acquisition of Portugal, in 1580, and the Portuguese resistance to Castilian domination. Given his preoccupation with Philip II and Antonio Pérez, the central figure in the Aragonese Revolt, it is worth recalling Spinoza’s comments about Portugal in his Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, bearing in mind that the Portuguese Marrano diaspora in Europe, a diaspora which was religiously highly distinctive and commercially of great importance was also then widely perceived as an international foe of the Spanish Habsburgs, particularly in the 1580s and again after the secession of Portugal from Spain, in 1640. Indeed, the Spanish crown and ecclesiastical authorities clearly viewed the Portuguese New Christian diaspora both inside and outside the Spanish Habsburg empire as a politically active force, a group characterized by a particular set of fervently-held political, religious and social attitudes.

  • 19 Spinoza B. de, Briefwisseling, op. cit., p. 410: Spinoza, Letters, 341.

21At the same time, it can scarcely be doubted that Portugal represented a peculiarly painful and difficult exemplum in Spinoza’s mind. The fact that his own family came from Portugal, emigrating in stages during the later sixteenth and early seventeenth century and had suffered extensively at the hands of the Portuguese Inquisition, with several family members being burnt at the stake, and having their possessions seized, as well as the fact that the historic liberties and privileges of Portugal, like those of Aragon, had been subverted by Philip and the country overrun by a Castilian army sent to implement the forced union of the crowns of Portugal and Castile were doubtless vivid enough recollections in his mind. Philip II’s army had overrun Portugal under the command of the duke of Alva, the same man who had subjected the Low Countries to a reign of terror between 1567 and 1573, subjecting, as Spinoza expresses it, in one of his longest and most important surviving letters, an undated missive to Albert Burgh written at around the end of 1675, a wide variety of Calvinists, Lutherans and other religious dissidents “to all kinds of martyrdom,” as part of his bloody effort to subdue the Dutch rebels.19

22Spinoza directly broaches the fate of the Jews of Portugal in his Tractatus Theologico-Politicus in a way which again shows plainly enough that this was not an insignificant theme in his thoughts. Whether or not it was exactly “pride” which made him emphasize Marrano steadfastness in his angry reply to his former disciple Albert Burgh, who had become a convert to a fervent Catholicism, in Italy, and who had sent him a letter full of bitter recrimination, from Florence, urging him to “acknowledge the folly of your philosophy and that your philosophy is madness,” and snatch his soul “from eternal damnation” before it was too late, it was undoubtedly powerful emotion; and here we find clear evidence that Marrano resistance to the Inquisition had left a deep impression on his mind. “No one can deny,” he reminded urgh, “that all other sects have issued from [the Jews], while they have remained steadfast over some thousands of years with no government to constrain them, solely through the efficacy of superstition.”

  • 20 Ibid., p. 343.

23This raises the question of how exactly Spinoza’s preoccupation with the issue of Portuguese Marranism relates to his detestation of Philip II’s monarchy and all royal absolutism, and also to his “practical” programme of political action? The “church” of the Jews had survived “unmoved and unshaken in spite of the bitter hatred of heathens and Christians,” he rebuked Burgh, in his reply of January 1676, and their steadfastness had endured longer than that of any other organized religion. However, the Jews’ “chief source of pride,” he adds, answering Burgh’s point about the great number of Christian martyrs, was that the Jews “count far more martyrs than any other nation, a number that is daily increased by those who have suffered for the faith they profess with amazing steadfastness. I myself know, among others, of a certain Judah called ‘the faithful’ who, in the midst of the flames when he was already believed dead, started to sing the hymn which begins ‘To thee, O God, commit my soul’, and so singing, died.”20

  • 21 Domínguez A., “Presencia de Antonio Pérez…”, art. cit., p. 87; Menasseh ben Israel, The (...)

24This appears to be a reference to an episode which occurred in Valladolid, in 1644, when Spinoza was twelve, well-known among the Portuguese Jewish congregation of Amsterdam, and narrated by Menasseh ben Israel in his Esperança de Israel (Hope of Israel) in which a former Old Christian Catholic, the Spaniard Don Lope de Vera y Alarcón, having taught himself Hebrew and converted to Judaism, and having been imprisoned and subjected to relentless efforts to reconvert him to Christianity, preferred to die at the stake at the age of twenty-five rather than yield to the entreaties of his parents and of all around him to return to the Catholic fold.21 But however impressive the “steadfastness” of such martyrs both the Inquisition and Portuguese crypto-Judaism were the products of fanaticism and “superstition” in Spinoza’s mind and thus in some sense equivalent and essentially reprehensible, phenomena, each the reverse side of the coin from the other, obstacles to human well-being which both needed removing via a new set of principles brought to bear by some considered plan of action.

  • 22 Smith S. V., Spinoza, Liberalism…, op. cit., p. xii.

25Spinoza’s positive conception of “liberty” and rejection of absolute monarchy, and close linkage of divine right monarchy with “superstition” and “deception,” thus feeds in complex ways into his abiding life-long reflection on the anomalous position of the Jewish people in ancient, medieval and early modern European political life.22 While his view of “pharisaic” that is rabbinic authority and tradition, or “arrogance” as he calls it, was unreservedly negative, his view of the Jewish people and their historical traditions is, arguably, was more complex and entwines some highly critical with some positive strands. He clearly thinks the form of republic which the Hebrews devised in the time of the Old Testament Judges, before monarchy was instituted, for example, was one of the most remarkable and exemplary states known in human history. Despite his view that it was chiefly “superstition” combined with the hatred of others which accounts for the Jews’ remarkable ability to preserve themselves as a people, some aspects of their survival in the face of unremitting adversity undoubtedly impressed him.

  • 23 Spinoza B. de, Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, op. cit., p. 55; Smith S. V. (...)

26Spinoza’s most famous comment about the Jews occurs at the end of Chapter III of the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, immediately after his remark that the practice of circumcision “has so much importance as almost to persuade me that this thing alone will preserve their nation for ever, and in fact, were it not that the principles of their religion weaken their courage, I would believe unreservedly that at some time, given the opportunity, since all things are changeable, they might re-establish their state, and God will choose them again.”23 On the whole, attention here has fixed on the prediction that the Jews might one day restore their political independence, a significant claim because this would obviously be one way that persecution of the Jews might be ended. But equally significant, is his negative attitude towards the Jews’ own separateness and their resulting non-involvement in the political affairs of those among whom they live. For while this may enable them to survive as a religious community based on “superstition,” such voluntary segregation also leads them to “incur the hatred of all”; equally, he dislikes the Jews’ lack of courage, the unmanly attitude which, as he saw it, prevented them from joining in the work of promoting liberty and opposing tyranny.

  • 24 Spinoza B. de, Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, op. cit., p. 55.
  • 25 Smith S. V., Spinoza, Liberalism…, op. cit., p. 200-1.

27The fate of his own particular section of the Jewish people, the Jews of Spain and Portugal, furthermore was inextricably entwined with the wider context of the Spanish monarchy and the fate of Portugal. King Ferdinand, he says, a monarch whom he seems to have held in high regard, “compelled the Jews to accept the religion of his kingdom or go into exile, [so that] a large number of Jews converted to the Catholic faith.” These “were granted the privileges of native Spaniards and were considered worthy of all positions of dignity.” As a result, “they immediately integrated with the Spanish, so that in a short time there were no remnants of them left and no memory of them.”24 Spinoza evidently viewed the complete absorption of those Jews who were converted in Spain and absorbed into the political corpus of those among whom they live as a positive and desirable thing both politically, in itself, and no doubt because he thought this the most effective way to solve the otherwise insoluble problem of the hatred and persecution their presence provokes.25 This was one of the two effective methods, along with restoring Jewish political independence, for ending hatred and persecution of the Jews.

  • 26 Spinoza B. de, Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, op. cit., p. 55.

28Matters turned out very differently, however, in Portugal where, instead of being absorbed without trace into Portuguese society, “those whom the king of Portugal compelled to accept the religion of his country [in 1497],” remained a largely separate caste, shunned by most of Portuguese society, since, as Spinoza puts it, “though they submitted to this faith, they continued to live apart from all men, doubtless because he declared them unworthy of all higher positions.”26 The Portuguese so-called cristãos novos (New Christians), in other words, by being legally defined as a separate caste, and being excluded from privileges and public offices, remained a distinct as well as fiercely persecuted minority, an outcome which stood in sharp contrast to the position of the conversos in Spain and one which Spinoza regarded as intrinsically much less desirable.

  • 27 Israel J. I., Diasporas within a Diaspora. Jews, Crypto-Jews, and the World Maritime Em (...)

29Social and political circumstances in Portugal, then, together with the force of “superstition,” were the reason, according to Spinoza, why the Portuguese New Christians remained committed in large part to crypto-Jewish practices and, in consequence, were so severely persecuted by the Portuguese Inquisition. However, neither those who stayed in Portugal nor those who dispersed to other lands were politically inert. Thanks to recent research in Portuguese Inquisition archives, we know that Spinoza’s own family figured among the active “judaizers” in France as well as in Portugal. “At Nantes, the Portuguese were divided in the late sixteenth century,” as one authority has put it, “between judaisers and Catholics. Among the former was to be found Abraham d’Espinoza, grandfather of Baruch Spinoza, the philosopher.” In fact Abraham was not Spinoza’s grandfather but his great-uncle. But he was certainly one of the two or three leading merchants among the ten of so Portuguese New Christian families then resident in Nantes and despite continuing to live as a “New Christian,” like all the Marranos in the ports of western France at the time, it is evident that he was an active “judaizer”. For in 1615, the heads of the Amsterdam Portuguese Jewish marriage dowry society appointed him as their charitable organization’s representative in Nantes, a sure sign that he was then the most active and important crypto-judaiser among the Portuguese New Christian community of Nantes.27

  • 28 Vaz Dias A. M. and Van der Tak W. G., “Spinoza Merchant and Autodidact”, Studia Rosenth (...)
  • 29 Ibid.; Revah I. S., Des Marranes à Spinoza, Paris, Librairie J. Vrin, 1995, p 169 (...)
  • 30 Borges Coelho A., “Los orígenes de Bento de Espinosa”, art. cit., p. 127.

30Spinoza’s own father, Michael Espinoza’s father, thus his paternal grand-father, was the Pedro Rodriguez Spinoza whose synagogue name in later life was Isaac de Espinoza and who died in Rotterdam in 1627; he was originally from Lisbon where he was born in or around 1559 but subsequently resided in Vidigueira,28 an inland wine town situated to the south of Evora, in the Alentejo where his wife’s family lived.29 This lady, Spinoza’s grand-mother’s, was named Mor Alvares. Her grandfather, Manoel Alvares, had been arrested along with several other relatives, by the Inquisition in Vidigueira in 1570.30 The latter also had cousins who were burnt for judaizing in an Auto-da-fe in Evora, in 1574. A later round of arrests, at the end of II’s reign, landed more family members including Spinoza’s great-grandfather, Gabriel Alvares, secretary of an orphanage and a local tax-collector, in prison in 1597, along with two of his sons and several other relatives who were then tortured and stripped of their possessions. Others, including Pedro Rodréguez Espinoza (alias Isaac de Spinoza), fleeing from southern Portugal, in 1597, joined those family members who had previously managed to flee to Nantes.

  • 31 Revah I. S., Des Marranes à Spinoza, op. cit., p. 127-8.
  • 32 Nadler S., Spinoza…, op. cit., p. 31.

31Michael d’Espinoza, Spinoza’s father, was born in Vidigueira around 1587 and probably left Portugal at around the age of ten when his father did the same for France, in 1597.31 After over a quarter of a century in Nantes, Michael migrated to Holland and establishing his business in Amsterdam, in around 1623, or roughly a decade before the birth of his philosopher-son.32 The Spinoza family, dwelling ostensibly as New Christians at Nantes, had formed an integral part of a Portuguese Marrano diaspora which constituted one of the most dispersed and yet socially cohesive religious and cultural groupings of the early modern Atlantic world. From Spinoza’s own perspective its dogged crypto-Judaism which he explained in terms of Portuguese royal policy, Jewish “superstition” and the consequent hatred of others, was presumably less interesting than this diaspora’s other unusual and remarkable features. As a youth brought up in a mercantile household and himself intended to enter trade, and certainly after his father’s death, in 1654, whilst he headed the family firm in the years 1654-6, Spinoza participated directly in this far-flung mercantile network and personally managed what remained of his father’s import-export trade with Portugal, Brazil, Morocco and the Canaries. But by 1655 when he was already an ally of Juan de Prado, he can no longer have been much interested in this commercial dimension. What did impress him, and perhaps suggested a model of underground ideological subversion, was the Iberian experience of men like his friends Prado and Reynoso, forming clandestine networks in the Spanish universities. For their experience proved that this kind of diaspora could function as an effective and enduring intellectual underground subverting dominant structures of belief and winning converts (in their case) to skepticism and deism.

  • 33 Yovel Y., Spinoza and other Heretics, vol. 1, The Marrano of Reason, (...)

32But there was also a second and third aspect of the Marrano diaspora of no less relevance to his own project: namely, its proven ability to function as an entrenched political opposition to divine right monarchy and its oppositional attitude to what was officially being taught in the Iberian universities For if he was not particularly sympathetic to the cause of crypto-Judaism, Spinoza nevertheless shared with the Portuguese Marrano diaspora several major common political and intellectual opponents. These were, in the first place, the Inquisition to which his own theory of toleration has aptly been termed ‘the antithesis’,33 and, secondly, the tyranny of Philip II of Spain which was more active in promoting the Inquisition in Portugal and Ibero-America than the pre-Habsburg Portuguese crown had been before 1580. But to these two we can also add, in third place, the blinkered scholasticism and Aristotelianism of Salamanca, Alcala de Henares and Coimbra, about which Prado and Reynoso had a detailed knowledge.

33In this connection, it is probably also worth noting that the Spinoza family’s prominence among the small Portuguese merchant community of Nantes at the end of Philip II’s reign had a definite political resonance which has thus far been missed by those who study Spinoza and Spinozism. For one of the earliest surviving notarial deeds in Amsterdam relating to the Portuguese Jews of that Nantes concerns a power of attorney assigned by the Marrano merchant, Manoel Rodrigues Vega, to Isaac de Spinoza’s brother, Manoel Rodrigues (alias Abraham) d’Espinosa of Nantes, empowering him to reclaim a cargo of textile goods that had been en route to northern Portugal on a ship seized by Spanish troops based at the coastal town of Blauet, at the mouth of the river of that name, in Brittany. These Spaniards belonged to a force which Philip II had sent to Brittany, in 1590, to lend military support of the French Catholic League and as part of his effort to prevent the Protestant Henri IV from becoming king of France. These troops remained in Brittany, involved in activities which impinged directly on the lives of the Portuguese New Christian community in nearby Nantes, until the end of the Spanish-French war marked by the Peace of Verdun, in 1598.

  • 34 Gemeentearchief Amsterdam, Notarial Archives, vol. 967, p. 302, Deed signed by Michael (...)

34This document signifies not just that the personage appointed was prominent in the merchant community but also that he was well-known to the town government and had previous experience of legal and political dealings not only with local authorities but also further afield. A parallel case would be the occasion when Michael d’Espinoza, in July 1651, appointed the Portuguese Marrano, Antonio Fernandes Carvajal, his agent in London, to represent him before the High Court of the Admiralty there to act on his behalf in trying to reclaim, at a time of dispute between England and Portugal, two consignments of olive oil belonging to him which had been seized by English Parliamentary vessels on the high seas, in peace time, from Dutch vessels returning from Portugal “estant que les dites huiles,” as this commission reads, “luy appartiennent en vraye, seule et reelle proprieté sans que personne sous la couronne du Roy de Portugal ou enemies de la République d’Angleterre en aye aucune part ni portion en quelque manière.”34 Fernandes Carvajal, well-known to the Cromwellian authorities, was the then leader of the Marrano community in London and the founder of the first Sephardic synagogue there.

  • 35 “Deed of Jan Fransz Bruyningh, Amsterdam, 16 December 1596”, Studia Rosenthaliana, 1, 1 (...)

35The Marranos in France has reason to support Henri IV against both the Catholic League and Philip II but had even more reason to support another enemy of Philip’s, namely Dom Antonio, the Prior of Crato (1531-95), an illegitimate descendant of king Manoel I of Portugal and the Pretender to the Portuguese throne.35 At the time of the disputed succession to the Portuguese throne, in 1580, Dom Antonio was actually accepted by many or most Portuguese as the rightful heir to the throne, despite the fact that many of the nobility and high clergy, and the regent, the Cardinal Dom Henrique, an ally of the Inquisition and noted enemy of the New Christians, supported the claims of Philip II. Proclaimed king, on 23 June 1580, amid great popular fervour heightened by deep reluctance to come under Castilian domination, Dom Antonio’s regime lasted only a few weeks, Alva’s approach leading to the defeat of the Portuguese defenders in a battle, on 25 August 1580, on the outskirts of Lisbon.

  • 36 Martin C. and Parker G., The Spanish Armada, New York-London, W.W. Norton & Co., (...)

36Dom Antonio, however, escaped and eventually was able to reach France where he managed to muster a sizeable force of 58 vessels and some 6,000 men, mostly French, with which he sailed to the Azores, which were still defying Philip II in his name, in the summer of 1582.36 There too he was enthusiastically acknowledged as king and reigned in Terceira, from July to November 1582. However, his fleet which had been fitted out in and was being supplied from Nantes, was defeated by large Spanish armada in a battle off the island of São Miguel, in late July 1582. Terceira was then conquered by Spanish troops in the summer of 1583; but again Dom Antonio succeeded in escaping to France with a handful of supporters.

  • 37 Kamp J. L. J. van de, Emanuel van Portugal en Emilia van Nassau, Assen, Van (...)

37Dom Antonio’s mother, Violante Gomes, had been a New Christian and whilst in Portugal, it is known that he had had many connections with the New Christians. The English envoy, Edward Wotton, sent by Elizabeth I to Lisbon in 1579 informed Francis Walsingham, the head of the English secret service at the time and someone who took a keen interest in Portuguese affairs, that Dom Antonio also had numerous bastard children by New Christian women.37 After leaving Portugal during his years of exile in France and England Dom Antonio’s relations with Portuguese New Christians in exile were, of necessity, conspicuously close since they were the only Portuguese allies available who disposed of any resources. At the same time, Nantes and its vicinity remained pivotal to his tenuous but vital communications with Portugal and with the Azores and clearly had a special importance for him. In 1584, he resided for a time to the castle of Sarzeau, four miles south of Vannes quite near Nantes and during 1585 he spent some months in Nantes, trying to sustain his flagging political ambitions in Portugal and the Azores and issuing letters of marque, for fees and a cut of the proceeds, licensing French and English privateers to raid shipping belonging to subjects of the king of Spain. Constantly receiving and sending out messengers despite being harassed and threatened by agents and supporters of Philip II and the Catholic League he nevertheless managed to carry on complex negotiations with such open enemies of Philip as the Queen of England, Henri of Navarre (later Henri IV of France) and William of Orange. Almost trapped several times by pro-Spanish supporters of the League, in August 1585 he finally escaped, via La Rochelle, to England which he had visited before and where Elizabeth had expressed her willingness to shelter him.

  • 38 Parker G., The Grand Strategy of Philip II, New Haven, Yale University Press, 199 (...)
  • 39 Tex J. den, Oldenbarnevelt, 5 vols., Haarlem, H.D. Tjeenk Willink, vol. 2, 1962, (...)

38Much later, after Henri IV gained the upper hand in the French civil war, he returned to France where he died, ending what his adherents considered a fifteen-year reign (1580-95), in 1595. The disaffection in Portugal undoubtedly had a considerable material effect on the course of the great events that shook world in the 1580s and 1590s. Queen Elizabeth could count, as the Walsingham’s papers show, on intelligence being supplied from Lisbon by conspiring supporters of Dom Antonio, including detailed reports on the massive preparations for the great Armada.38 Walsingham who worked closely with Dom Antonio’s entourage was able to persuade Queen Elizabeth, in the aftermath of the Armada’s defeat, to send a kind of counter-armada to hit at the king of Spain, using some of the English veterans stationed in the Netherlands, a project with which the States of Holland, under Oldenbarnevelt guidance, co-operated. On this occasion it was especially Dom Antonio’s influence, and the notion he skillfully planted in English and Dutch minds that the mere sight of an Anglo-Dutch fleet would suffice to bring the Portuguese people into open revolt against Philip II, which was the main reason that Portugal was chosen as the target.39

  • 40 Quoted in Ruspio F., “La presenza portoghese a Venezia (fine del XVI – metà del XVII (...)
  • 41 Ibid., p. 79.

39The fervent support of the Portuguese Marrano diaspora for the cause of Dom Antonio was obvious to Philip himself and frequently commented on by his diplomats abroad. From the end of the 1580s, there were repeated reports at Venice that the Prior of Crato was seeking to add to his list of alliances a league with the Ottoman Turks. “Cada día se descubren nuevos judíos que vienen de Portugal” (every day new Jews are discovered coming from Portugal) commented the Spanish ambassador in Venice, in July 1590, “y todos ellos son apassionadissimos por don Antonio de Portugal que parezce que viene esta plaga de rebellion con la judería” (and all of them are extremely passionate for Don Antonio of Portugal so that it seems this plague of rebellion comes with Judaism).40 The same envoy discussed this again a few weeks later, adding that at Venice both the Portuguese who had returned to Judaism and were living in the ghetto, and those still living outwardly as Christians were fervent supporters of Dom Antonio and were working for him as spies and as patrons and helpers of those in his service.41

  • 42 Spinoza B. de, The Letters, transl. by S. Shirley, Indianapolis, Hackett Pub. Co., 1995 (...)

40Opposition to Philip II, then, and active resistance, culminating in armed revolt, to his absolutism, was not just a topic of exceptional prominence in Spinoza’s political thought and a long-standing interest of his but also something ingrained in the cultural background, consciousness and experience of his own family and the social group among which he grew up. Since the Spain of Philip II was in his mind the epitome of royal absolutism and at the same time the headquarters of the Inquisition, intolerance and “superstition” there is also reason to believe that the examples of Spain and Portugal must, at the very least, have reinforced his pivotal thesis that “superstition” and ignorance can only be combated by introducing more democratic political structures since “ignorance,” as he puts it in one of his letters to Henry Oldenburg, “which is the source of all wickedness” rests on belief in miracles and faith based on superstition. “But I doubt very much,” he added, “whether rulers will ever allow the application of a remedy to this evil.”42

  • 43 Spinoza B. de, Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, op. cit., p. 6.
  • 44 Ibid.

41The remedy for persecution, superstition and ignorance is, of course, in his estimation Spinozistic philosophy, or something like it, but absolute rulers, whose power relies principally on “superstition” are bound to oppose any attempt to demystify society, and dispel “ignorance” with all the considerable force at their disposal. “It may indeed be the highest secret of monarchical government,” asserts Spinoza in the preface the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, “and utterly essential to it, to keep men deceived, and to disguise the fear that controls them with the specious name of religion, so that they will fight for their servitude as if they were fighting for their own safety, and will not think it humiliating but supremely glorious to spill their blood and give their lives for the glorification of a single man.”43 The supreme challenge that this poses for his political theory was that one cannot combat such a structure of authority and belief by means of mass insurrection or inciting the people to defect. “I know that it as impossible to rid the common people of superstition”, explains Spinoza, “at the close of the preface to the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus as it is to rid them of fear.”44 He adds that he does not want the common people to read his work “and make a nuisance of themselves by interpreting it perversely, as they do with everything…” It’s the office-holders and elites that he wishes to sway.

42Thus the political revolution which Spinoza conspired to instigate he envisaged as arising not through mass insurrection, or massive violence, but rather through a veiled process if intellectual subversion designed to undermine “superstition” and disarm the theologians.

  • 45 Spinoza, Tractatus Politicus, op. cit., p. 334.
  • 46 See for instance the footnote in R.H.M.Elwes’ translation of the Tractatus, p. 334.

43The fact that all the revolts against Philip II became in some sense entwined was partly due to the political circumstances of the time. But this international dimension also became an inherent part of the propaganda of the Dutch Revolt and key theme of leading opponents of Philip II, such as William of Orange, the Prior of Crato and Antonio Pérez (1540-1611), a man of very wide practical knowledge and experience who had studied in several universities, had been Philip II’s secretary of state, in succession to his father, Gonzalo Pérez, for some twelve years (1566-78). Despite Spinoza’s remark in the Tractatus Politicus that no-one who has read history can be ignorant of the fact that “the good faith of counsellors [of kings] has generally turned to their ruin; and so, for their own safety it behoves them to be cunning and not faithful,”45 a fairly clear allusion to Pérez who is mentioned on the same page, until recently scholars wrongly thought that the “Antonio Pérez” to whom Spinoza refers in the Tractatus Politicus was actually the “other Antonio Perez,” a legal scholar at the University of Louvain (Leuven), author of a work entitled Ius publicum (1657) even though this Perez makes no mention of Aragon or anything else which Spinoza discusses in earnest. Thus, R. H. M. Elwes who produced the 1883 translation into English of Spinoza’s political works, the standard translation for over a century, (following the Dutch Spinoza editor, Vloten) identifies the “Antonio Pérez” Spinoza cites, as “a publicist, and professor of law in the University of Louvain in the first part of the seventeenth century.”46

  • 47 Offenberg A. K., “Spinoza’s Library. The story of a Reconstruction”, Quaerendo, III, 19 (...)
  • 48 Ibid., p. 169; Blanco Mayor C., “Quevedo y Spinoza’ in Domínguez”, Spinoza y Espa (...)

44Now that it is clearly established that Spinoza is actually referring to the famous Pérez we have another piece of evidence with which to document the self-proclaimed “practical” character of Spinoza’s subversive campaign against divine right monarchy. A copy of Las obras y relaciones del Ant. Pérez secretario de estado, que fue del rey de España, Don Phelippe II deste nombre (Geneva, 1644), a text of over a thousand pages infused with the hard-headed realism and relentless naturalism characteristic of this author, happened to be one of only two political works in Spanish on the shelves of Spinoza’s personal library (listed as no. 96 in Offenberg’s reconstruction) at the time of his death.47 Plainly, it was his reading of this work which prompted him to make his otherwise rather uncharacteristically specific remarks about Aragon. But at the same time Spinoza also clearly shared certain of Pérez’s more general views about politics. Thus, for instance, for both writers, a viable theory of politics must be based on reason, nature and an understanding of the mechanics of self-interest: “que ninguno fue tan amigo de su vecino”, as Perez pithily expressed it, “que no lo sea de sí más” (that no-one loves his neighbour so much that he does not love himself still more).48

  • 49 Kamen H., Philip of Spain, New Haven, Yale University Press, 1997, p. 290-1.

45After his arrest by Philip, ostensibly on the grounds of his being implicated in a murder of Juan de Escobedo, in Madrid, Pérez was imprisoned under varying degrees of custody for eleven years (1579-90) until finally, with the help of friends, he escaped to Zaragoza and took refuge, being himself an Aragonese, in the historic privileges and fueros of the kingdom of Aragon. When, in May 1591, Philip tried to suppress him and circumvent the Aragonese fueros by arresting him with the help of the Inquisition, the only institution of that realm not subject to stringent constitutional limitation, he was immediately set free by a rioting mob yelling “viva la Libertad!” A second attempt by the Inquisition to seize him, in September 1591, then produced a full-scale rising in the city which freed him, enabling him to escape to France and then England. Philip’s reaction to this rebellion was to mobilize an army which restored order in Zaragoza, in November. Several dissident nobles were arrested and executed.49 A cowed gathering of the Cortes of the realm, at Tarazona, in June 1592, duly accepted a number of modifications to the laws of Aragon designed to strengthen the king’s prerogative.

  • 50 Kamp J. L. J. van de, Emanuel van Portugal…, op. cit., p. 86-8.
  • 51 Boyden J. M., “‘Fortune has Stripped you of your Splendour’: Favourites and their Fates (...)

46Being already his ally at a distance, Pérez got to know Dom Antonio personally, in the summer of 1593, when they were both staying at Windsor. Both personages were at the time simultaneously much engrossed in discussion with Elizabeth’s and Walsingham’s Portuguese Marrano doctor, Ruy Lopez, who, however, was executed in London, the following year, as a traitor.50 In the years prior to his death in Paris, in 1611, Perez developed into perhaps the foremost international publicist opposing the absolutism of Philip II. His trenchant, bitter style—the favour of princes is “false, feeble, deadly, the shadow of death itself”—which became his trade-mark evidently appealing to Spinoza, as did many of his specific judgments, both men, for example admiring Ferdinand the Catholic.51 His earliest publication was a small quarto, dedicated to the earl of Essex, written and apparently printed in England about 1594, entitled Pedazos de historia which also appeared in Dutch translation in 1594. In 1598 he published his Relaciones, including the Memorial del hecho de su causa, drawn up in 1590, and also many of his letters.

  • 52 Spinoza, Tractatus Politicus, op. cit., p. 346-7; Kamp J. L. J. van d (...)
  • 53 Pérez A., Relaciones y cartas, 2 vols, Madrid, Turner, 1986, vol. 1, p. 208; Domínguez  (...)
  • 54 Ibid., p. 168.

47Nam (ut Ant. Perezius optime notat) imperio absolute uti principi admodum periculosum, subditis admodum odiosum, et institutis tam divinis quam humanis adversum, ut innumera ostendunt exempla.” “For as Antonio Pérez excellently observes”, remarks Spinoza, “an absolute dominion is to the prince very dangerous, to the subjects very hateful, and to the institutes of God and man alike opposed, as innumerable instances show.”52 Spinoza, is here evidently only very slightly altering Pérez’s actual wording: “el uso del poder absoluto es muy peligroso a los reyes, muy odioso a los vasallos, muy ofensivo a Dios y a la naturaleza, como lo muestran mil ejemplos” (the exercise of absolute power is very dangerous for kings, very hateful to their subjects, and very much opposed to God and nature).53 But if the parallel is unmistakable it is indeed, as has been noted,54 a remarkable irony that in the midst of one of the world’s greatest texts of democratic republicanism, its author should cite virtually word for word the maxim of the very man who long served as valido and adviser to the monarch there depicted as the supreme instance of monarchical unconstitutionality and tyranny.

48If royal absolutism can only be undermined by weakening “superstition” and “ignorance,” and the common people cannot be emancipated from “superstition,” then the only true politics that benefits society is that which foments a republican, demystifying ideology clandestinely in an effort to subvert present and future office-holders, professionals, lawyers and clergymen. No wonder Spinoza seems to have thought that university towns and capital cities were the most promising seed-bed for the kind of subversion that he had in mind. Such a campaign of intellectual subversion is the only way that divine right monarchy can be overthrown; remarkably enough, in Spinoza’s thought-world exactly this same strategy was the route by which also to disarm the Inquisition and simultaneously ensure the end of victimization and persecution of the Jews by assimilating them into the main body of society.

  • 55 Spandaw W., De Onbedekte Spinosist in de persoon van Pontiaan van Hattem, Goes, 1 (...)

49Historians and philosophers, of course, have claimed that Spinoza had practically no influence in his own time or on the Enlightenment more generally. Yet there are grounds for asking whether the evidence does not directly contradict this conventional wisdom. Bayle is not the only writer who suggests Spinoza managed to insinuate his influence everywhere and Bontekoe not the only contemporary observer who claimed that Spinoza’s adherents included university students and at least two Reformed Church preachers. A Dutch theological author, writing in Zeeland, in 1700, briefly reviewing the entire history of the world’s “godlessness” running from the Greek thinkers via the Italian Renaissance to Vanini, for instance, concluded thus: “however no-one brought godlessness to a higher point, putting it on the throne and erecting its banners everywhere than the cunning Spinoza. France, England—the cadet-school of monstrous opinions, yes the Netherlands and also other lands produce a countless horde who adore him as something wondrous. The greatest minds have imbued his views and without fear openly avowed themselves to be atheists.”55

  • 56 Brucker J., Historia critica philosophiae, vol. IV, t. 2, p. 697, citing Roell H. (...)

50Indeed, Spinoza was not infrequently viewed in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth-century, as Bayle projected him, as the culminating manifestation of “godlessness” in the world, the thinker who imposed shape and order, summing up and reinforcing two thousand years of monistic tendencies in European culture and who, as a result, acquired a quite unique and unequalled status as a malign intellectual influence dwarfing even Machiavelli, Vanini, and Hobbes, someone who exerted an unparalleled impact on the shaping of the attitudes, terminology and orientation of the entire materialist tendency within the western world. However, his aim was not to attack religion as such but rather to secure social benefits by weakening the theological pillars sustaining the belief-structures buttressing despotism and monarchy. By destroying monarchical absolutism, it seemed to him, toleration would be established, persecution ended, wars diminished, peace strengthened, science and the arts promoted, and vainglorious self-sacrifice for meaningless causes discredited. Have historians and philosophers done justice to the historical significance and impact of his philosophy? Of course one should not forget Bayle’s qualification: “il n’est pas vrai que ses sectateurs soient en grand nombre.” But we should also remember that Bayle was then flatly contradicted, as the eighteenth-century historian of philosophy, Jacob Brucker, noted, by his Dutch contemporary, the leading Reformed theologian Herman Alexander Röell who knew Dutch society and its universities better than Bayle. According to Röell: “utinam inauditum esset in Belgica nostra exsecrabile illud Spinosae nomen, quem tota armenta sequuntur ducem!” (Would that that execrable name of Spinoza were unheard of in our Netherlands, he whom whole herds follow as their leader).56


1 Smith S. V., Spinoza, Liberalism and the Question of Jewish Identity, New Haven, Yale University Press, 1997, p. xii.

2 Spinoza, Tractatus Politicus, Id., The Political Works, ed. by A. G. Wernham, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1958, p. 260-1.

3 Curley E., “Kissinger, Spinoza and Genghis Khan”, D. Garrett (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Spinoza, Cambridge-New York, Cambridge University Press, 1996, pp. 315-42, here p. 329.

4 Ibid., p. 315.

5 Spinoza, Tractatus Politicus, op. cit., p. 261.

6 Spinoza B. de, Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, ed. by Jonathan I. Israel, Cambridge-New York, Cambridge University Press, 2007, p. 236.

7 Stouppe J.-B., La religion des Hollandois, Cologne, 1673, p. 65-6; Israel J.I., The Dutch Republic: Its Rise, Greatnesss and Fall, 1477-1806, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1995, p. 639-40, 921; Nadler S., Spinoza. A Life, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1999, p. 315; Popkin R. H., Spinoza, Oxford, Oneworld Publications, 2004, p. 109-12.

8 Stouppe J.-B., La religion des Hollandois, op. cit., p. 66; Klever W., “Spinoza’s Life and Works”, D. Garrett (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Spinoza, op. cit., pp. 13-60, here p. 43-4.

9 Bontekoe C., Brief Aen Johan Frederik Swetzer, Gesegt Dr Helvetius, Geschreven en Uytgegeven: Tot een Korte Apologie voor den Grote Philosooph Renatus Descartes en sijne regtsinnige navolgers, The Hague, 1680, p. 23: “En van die tijd af heeft hij sijn werk gemaakt, om in ‘t heymelijk sijn kwaad saad te zayen; weshalven hij van Reinsburg na Voorburg, en eyndelijk van daar in ‘s Gravenhage met ter woon trok, mogelijk meinende dat hy daar voor sijn duyvelse politica, en andere Atheistice concepten, by de losse jeugd en andere werelds-kinderen, dikwils seer tot sulk een kwaad geneigd, ruymer ingang sou vinden gelijk hem dat gelukt is, en men heeft er nog van sijn creaturen op desen dag in dese plaats.” (I am indebted to Annette Munt for drawing my attention to this rare tract in the Library at Wolfenbüttel).

10 “Spinoza to Van Blijenbergh, 5 Jan.1665”, in B. de Spinoza, Briefwisseling, ed. and transl. by Fokke Akkerman et al., Amsterdam, Wereldbibliotheek, 1992, p. 163.

11 Bayle P., Écrits sur Spinoza, ed. by Charles Daubert and Pierre-François Moreau, Paris, Berg international, 1983, p. 22.

12 Spinoza B. de, Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, op. cit., p. 236-7.

13 Harris E., “Is there an Esoteric Doctrine in the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus?”, Mededelingen vanwege het Spinozahuis, XXXIII, 1978, p. 1-19, here especially p. 14-7.

14 Ibid., p. 14.

15 Curley E., “‘I durst not write so boldly’, or How to read Hobbes’ Theological-Political Treatise”, D. Bostrenghi (ed.), Hobbes e Spinoza, Scienza e politica: Atti del Convegno internazionale, Urbino, 14-17 ottobre, 1988, Naples, Bibliopolis, 1992, p. 494.

16 Spinoza B. de, Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, op. cit., p. 237; Verbeek T., Spinoza’s Theologico-Political Treatise. Exploring “The Will of God”, Aldershot-Burlington, Ashgate, 2003, p. 136.

17 Domínguez A., “Presencia de Antonio Pérez en Spinoza”, Id. (ed.), Spinoza y España. Actas del Congreso internacional sobre “Relaciones entre Spinoza y España” (Almagro, 5-7 noviembre 1992), Cuenca, Ediciones de la Universidad de Castilla-La Mancha, 1994, pp. 165-78, here p. 174-5.

18 Spinoza, Tractatus Politicus, op. cit., p. 364-5; Domínguez A., “Presencia de Antonio Pérez…”, art. cit., p. 175.

19 Spinoza B. de, Briefwisseling, op. cit., p. 410: Spinoza, Letters, 341.

20 Ibid., p. 343.

21 Domínguez A., “Presencia de Antonio Pérez…”, art. cit., p. 87; Menasseh ben Israel, The Hope of Israel, ed. by H. Méchoulan and G. Nahon, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2004, p. 149.

22 Smith S. V., Spinoza, Liberalism…, op. cit., p. xii.

23 Spinoza B. de, Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, op. cit., p. 55; Smith S. V., Spinoza, Liberalism…, op. cit., p. 203-5.

24 Spinoza B. de, Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, op. cit., p. 55.

25 Smith S. V., Spinoza, Liberalism…, op. cit., p. 200-1.

26 Spinoza B. de, Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, op. cit., p. 55.

27 Israel J. I., Diasporas within a Diaspora. Jews, Crypto-Jews, and the World Maritime Empires (1540-1740), Leiden, E. J. Brill, 2002, p. 81-2.

28 Vaz Dias A. M. and Van der Tak W. G., “Spinoza Merchant and Autodidact”, Studia Rosenthaliana, XVI, 1982, pp. 136, 138.

29 Ibid.; Revah I. S., Des Marranes à Spinoza, Paris, Librairie J. Vrin, 1995, p 169; Borges Coelho A., “Los orígenes de Bento de Espinosa”, J. Contreras, B. J. García García and I. Pulido (eds.), Familia, religión y negocio. El Sefardismo en las relaciones entre el mundo ibérico y los Países Bajos en la Edad Moderna, Madrid, Fundación Carlos de Amberes, 2002, here p. 125; Revah I. S., Des Marranes à Spinoza, op. cit., p. 169.

30 Borges Coelho A., “Los orígenes de Bento de Espinosa”, art. cit., p. 127.

31 Revah I. S., Des Marranes à Spinoza, op. cit., p. 127-8.

32 Nadler S., Spinoza…, op. cit., p. 31.

33 Yovel Y., Spinoza and other Heretics, vol. 1, The Marrano of Reason, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1989, p. 34.

34 Gemeentearchief Amsterdam, Notarial Archives, vol. 967, p. 302, Deed signed by Michael d’Espinoza, Amsterdam, 20 July 1651; see also Israel J. I., “Philosophy, Commerce and the Synagogue: Spinoza’s Expulsion from the Amsterdam Portuguese Community in 1656”, J. I. Israel and R. Salverda (eds.), Dutch Jewry: Its History and Secular Culture (1500-2000), Leiden, E. J. Brill, 2002, pp.133-4.

35 “Deed of Jan Fransz Bruyningh, Amsterdam, 16 December 1596”, Studia Rosenthaliana, 1, 1967, p. 111-12.

36 Martin C. and Parker G., The Spanish Armada, New York-London, W.W. Norton & Co., 1988, p. 94.

37 Kamp J. L. J. van de, Emanuel van Portugal en Emilia van Nassau, Assen, Van Gorcum, 1980, p. 44-5.

38 Parker G., The Grand Strategy of Philip II, New Haven, Yale University Press, 1998, p. 215.

39 Tex J. den, Oldenbarnevelt, 5 vols., Haarlem, H.D. Tjeenk Willink, vol. 2, 1962, p. 16, 18.

40 Quoted in Ruspio F., “La presenza portoghese a Venezia (fine del XVI – metà del XVII secolo)”, Ph. D., Università di Ca’ Foscari, Venice, 2006, p. 78.

41 Ibid., p. 79.

42 Spinoza B. de, The Letters, transl. by S. Shirley, Indianapolis, Hackett Pub. Co., 1995, p. 333.

43 Spinoza B. de, Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, op. cit., p. 6.

44 Ibid.

45 Spinoza, Tractatus Politicus, op. cit., p. 334.

46 See for instance the footnote in R.H.M.Elwes’ translation of the Tractatus, p. 334.

47 Offenberg A. K., “Spinoza’s Library. The story of a Reconstruction”, Quaerendo, III, 1973, pp. 309-21, here p. 320; Blanco Echauri J., “Espinosa y el pensamiento político del Barroco español”, A. Domínguez (ed.), Spinoza y España…, op. cit., pp. 9-46, here p. 179; Domínguez A., “Presencia de Antonio Pérez…”, art. cit., p. 165.

48 Ibid., p. 169; Blanco Mayor C., “Quevedo y Spinoza’ in Domínguez”, Spinoza y España, pp. 191-99, here p. 195.

49 Kamen H., Philip of Spain, New Haven, Yale University Press, 1997, p. 290-1.

50 Kamp J. L. J. van de, Emanuel van Portugal…, op. cit., p. 86-8.

51 Boyden J. M., “‘Fortune has Stripped you of your Splendour’: Favourites and their Fates in Fifteenth- and Sixteenth-Century Spain”, J. H. Elliott and L. W. B. Brockliss (eds.), The World of the Favourite, New Haven, Yale University Press, 1999, p. 30, 33; Domínguez A., “Presencia de Antonio Pérez…”, art. cit., p. 175.

52 Spinoza, Tractatus Politicus, op. cit., p. 346-7; Kamp J. L. J. van de, Emanuel van Portugal…, op. cit., p. 86-7.

53 Pérez A., Relaciones y cartas, 2 vols, Madrid, Turner, 1986, vol. 1, p. 208; Domínguez A., “Presencia de Antonio Pérez…”, art. cit., p. 172.

54 Ibid., p. 168.

55 Spandaw W., De Onbedekte Spinosist in de persoon van Pontiaan van Hattem, Goes, 1700, “Opdragt”.

56 Brucker J., Historia critica philosophiae, vol. IV, t. 2, p. 697, citing Roell H. A., Dissertatio de religione rationali (6th ed. Utrecht, 1713), p. 166; I owe this reference to Schröder W., “Spinozam tota armenta in Belgio sequi ducem: the Reception of the Early Dutch Spinozists in Germany”, W. van Bunge and W. Klever (eds.), Disguised and Overt Spinozism around 1700, Leiden, E. J. Brill, 1996, pp. 157-69, here p. 167.


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