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DeBrabander, Firmin. Spinoza and the Stoics: Power, Politics, and the Passions.

DeBRABANDER, Firmin. Spinoza and the Stoics: Power, Politics, and the Passions. London and New York: Continuum, 2007. x + 149 pp. Cloth, $120.00--In his study, Firmin DeBrabander argues that Spinoza is to be understood in light of his profound indebtedness to ancient Stoicism and of his resolute rejection of what the author calls (Judaeo-) Christian metaphysics. What is perplexing about his study, however, is that he shows just the opposite, while at the same time evincing real insight into Spinoza's philosophy. Indeed, he explicitly (and correctly) shows that Spinoza both rejects fundamental elements of Stoicism and embraces fundamental elements of Scripture (biblical religion). Further, in identifying Christian metaphysics with the teleology and anthropomorphism of which Spinoza gives so definitive a critique in the Appendix of Part I of the Ethics, he fails to appreciate the fact that this metaphysics is rooted in ancient philosophy, including Stoicism, not in the Bible (whether Jewish and/or Christian).

What makes the study of DeBrabander exciting is that, unlike so many philosophers, he truly sees that "Spinoza's philosophy is thoroughly social, down to its very roots" (p. 56). Indeed, he points out that the fact that human beings are finite modes and thus not identical with God (infinite substance) "indicates the perpetual weakness of my being, that I am ultimately dependent upon God.... [This] also indicates my dependence upon other persons. Thus, we are led to the role and importance of society in the life of virtue" (p. 56). But it is precisely "the sociality of virtue" (which serves as the title of Chapter 3) that, as DeBrabander properly shows, both distinguishes Spinoza's philosophy from Stoicism and aligns it with biblical (what I would call covenantal) ethics based on the golden rule, the love of neighbor.

DeBrabander rightly sees that, in contrast with Spinoza's concept of virtue as social (and political), the virtue of the Stoic sage is indifferent to the social (and the political). It involves teleology (p. 11), anthropomorphism (p. 35), perfectionism, total control over (indeed, the eradication of) the passions, and self-sufficiency, all of which Spinoza firmly rejects. DeBrabander writes that Spinoza identifies social ethics with the struggle to render the passive affects active (and so free and loving). "Ethics is a matter of continual struggle against more powerful forces that can never be vanquished ..." (p. 54). Furthermore, he points out that the one time that Spinoza refers to the Stoics in the Ethics he does so only to reject their central tenet that we have complete control over our passions (Ethics, Part 5, Preface). Spinoza also rejects the Stoic idea of rational suicide. For, as DeBrabander observes, Spinoza holds that to subordinate life (existence) to death is to show that one has succumbed to external causes (or passive affects) and does not live by freely determining things from oneself alone.

The attentive reader will have noted that the concepts of dependence and struggle (involving imperfection and finitude) that DeBrabander attributes to Spinoza are not only anti-Stoic (as he acknowledges) but also consistent with what Jewish and Christian moralists call sin (which he does not acknowledge). Just as he fails to see that the teleology and anthropomorphism that Spinoza shows to be fundamental to superstition define ancient metaphysics, not biblical religion, so the doctrines that he ascribes to Christianity are infused with ancient metaphysics: a transcendent (supernatural) God, the subordination of desire (will, human agency) to the good, the concept of life in this world as but a means to the next life as its end, and religious morality as externally imposed. He fails to see that all of these notions (as he conceives them) are not true to the fundamental doctrines of biblical theology: creation from nothing (the creation of human existence as the good) and the two basic commandments of the covenant (the law): to love God and neighbor--in this life, now. While God (like the neighbor) is transcendent as other, God and human beings are partners in creation. The golden rule, which Spinoza views as the very basis of both ethics and politics (and thus of the democratic pact in the Theologico-Political Treatise), involves mutuality, sociality, equality, and freedom, not external imposition. To view life in this world as a means to another life reflects ancient metaphysics, not biblical ethics. Yet it is also the case that DeBrabander properly recognizes that for Spinoza biblical religion has the same content as philosophy (based on the ethics of love) and that religion (when stripped of the superstition founded on teleology and anthropomorphism) is not only compatible with but fundamental to civil society. He writes: "Religion [for Spinoza] provides incomparable nourishment for the bond that holds humans together, and in turn enables all human possibilities" (p. 8).

What DeBrabander's study allows us to grasp, consequently, is the importance both of setting the Bible (biblical religion) in the context of the history of Judaism and Christianity (and today also Islam), and of making the history of Judaism and Christianity subject to biblical hermeneutics (consistent with Spinoza's concept of biblical interpretation). Then we shall possess the critical methodology by which to recognize that the very basis of Spinoza's rejection of fundamental Stoic principles presupposes (depends on!) Judaeo-Christian metaphysics when understood as rooted in the Bible, not in ancient philosophy.--Brayton Polka, York University, Toronto.
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Author:Polka, Brayton
Publication:The Review of Metaphysics
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 1, 2008
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