Freedom’s Messiah

Freedom’s Messiah

In the mail this week, I received my copy of Ian Burama’s new book Spinoza, Freedom’s Messiah.  I’ll be blunt: I have not read the book and haven’t even read any reviews of it.  I bought it because Andrew Stuttaford retweeted a review of the book from The New Yorker into my Twitter/X timeline.  Even though I don’t have a New Yorker subscription and, thus, couldn’t read what they said, I trust Andrew’s thoughts on such matters and, more to the point, have a particular affinity for Spinoza.  The book looks good, and I’m traveling next week, so…why not?

This may raise a couple of questions for regular readers.  First, how does a guy like you, who quite clearly loathes much of the Enlightenment have an affinity for Spinoza?  And second, why do you think we care?

I’ll get to the first question in good time but will start with the second.

I don’t know if you’ll care or not, but I wanted to address Spinoza at this particular moment anyway for two related reasons.  For starters, Spinoza is one of the few true giants of the great Western liberal tradition who puts the “Judeo” in “Judeo-Christian.”  In a world (understandably) dominated by Christians and proto-secularists, Baruch Spinoza stood out not just as a Jew but a Jew who was willing to fight for freedom, to fight against stifling religious overreach, and to maintain his connection to the history of his faith, despite his radical public stances and the punishments he suffered as a result.

After his expulsion from the Jewish community of Amsterdam for “abominable heresies,” Spinoza lived mostly near and associated mostly with Christians (Quakers, predominantly) and was buried in the cemetery of the Protestant Church, Nieuwe Kerk, in the Hague.  He did not, however, convert to Christianity.  Additionally, although he disputed the divinity of the Jewish Bible and, indeed, denied the existence of God, Spinoza nevertheless studied the Torah closely and was influenced by it profoundly.

That brings us to the second, related reason to discuss and celebrate Spinoza at this particular moment.  I have written previously about the uniqueness of Spinoza’s social contract, his importance as an advocate of virtue ethics, and his effect on the Anglo-American world through his influence (direct or indirect) on “the Adamses” – Adam Ferguson, Adam Smith, and John Adams.  But that was not Spinoza’s only impact on our modern age and on the American Founders especially.

The Founders, as you may know, had a fondness for ancient Rome.  In many ways, they saw themselves as successors to the Romans.  They chose Roman pen names.  They cited great Roman thinkers.  They were thoroughly enamored with the Roman republican project.

Likewise, most people know that the Founders were also profoundly influenced by the ancient Greeks.  Their understanding of basic rights and obligations was, in part, shaped by the ancient Greek philosophers, while their beliefs about the importance of independent polities with loose confederate attachments was formed by the successful as well as unsuccessful examples of the Greek city states.

Too few people, however, understand how important Israel was to the Founders.

Daniel J. Elazar, a revered Jewish-American political scientist, was one of the preeminent scholars of federalism and, for several years, the director of the Center for the Study of Federalism at Temple University.  Among other things, Elazar noted that “the fundamental principles animating government and politics in ancient Israel were theocratic, federal, and republican.”  These principles – and especially the last two – would remain the models of governmental success and economic success for millennia afterward.  And while the potency of Israel’s theocracy is, of course, dominant in its historical development, its federal and republican characteristics should not be overlooked.  The Israeli kings were representatives of God, God’s spokesmen on earth, but even they did not have unlimited power or unrivaled authority.  As Elazar writes, “republicanism reflects the view that the political order is a public thing (res publica), that is to say, not the private preserve of any single king or ruling elite but the property of all of its citizens and that political power should be organized so as to reflect this fact.  And “So republican was ancient Israel that even the institution of kingship, limited as it was, persisted for less than half of the biblical period.”

The history of ancient Israel – particularly its political and economic history – is important.  As with Greece and Rome, the ancient Israeli experience provided examples and set precedents for what would become “the West.”  And while popular history tends to attribute the Western legacy of democracy to the Greeks, the attendant legacy of localism, of a federalist-ic structure has its roots in the Old Testament laws of Israel.

As Elazar notes, the scholars of the 18th century – including the American Founders – would have known this and would have been far better versed in the scripture and history of ancient Israel than are today’s often-narrow-minded and anti-religious intellectuals.  Moreover, their understanding of ancient Israel, its politics, and the role of morality in determining rights and responsibilities would have been profoundly influenced by Spinoza, who saw morality as derived from “consent and covenant which have federal and constitutional implications.”

Right now, on American college campuses, the Jewish people are under attack, from Arabist antisemites, from ideological/intellectual antisemites, and from nihilistic students with nothing else to believe in and nothing better to do with their time.  Now is, in other words, an important moment to remember that this great nation and the liberties that those foolish students and faculty are squandering are far more seriously derived from Jewish origins and Jewish thinkers than most people are aware.  Ancient Israel helped form all of what is now known as “Western Civilization,” and, as such, also helped form the underpinnings of the United States.  And Baruch Spinoza helped transmit all of that to the Founders in ways that became uniquely and profoundly American.

Looking forward to the book.

Stephen Soukup
Stephen Soukup
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Steve Soukup is the Vice President and Publisher of The Political Forum, an “independent research provider” that delivers research and consulting services to the institutional investment community, with an emphasis on economic, social, political, and geopolitical events that are likely to have an impact on the financial markets in the United States and abroad.