Understanding Spinoza and the essence of democracy

Scientific breakthroughs, with their practical, even life-changing applications, may garner more headlines than philosophical studies. But interdisciplinary academic work involving philosophy and religion also has a potentially far-reaching impact, because it can underpin ethical and political systems that ultimately guide our behaviour and determine our freedoms.

For this reason, Between Philosophy and Religion, York Prof. Brayton Polka’s newly published study of the ideas of Baruch Spinoza, the 17th-century philosopher, is likely to get serious attention. The book launch for this two-volume study, which examines Spinoza’s three major works on religion, politics and ethics, takes place on March 6 from 4:30-6:30pm in the Renaissance Room at Vanier College.

What makes Spinoza significant? “He is the first comprehensive theorist of democracy,” says Polka. “He has a principle of the sovereignty of the public, or people… He makes ethical responsibility central to democracy.” Spinoza argues that citizens in a democracy are responsible for interpreting their world; they must not rely on interpretations from outside of themselves – whether from a deity, church, priest or rabbi.

Polka, who retired in 2002, has taught at York in the Division of Humanities, Faculty of Arts, since1966 and still teaches one graduate course (Poetics and Ontology: The Poetry of Wallace Stevens). Long interested in Spinoza, he turned his post-retirement energies to writing the study of the philosopher.

More than simply an interpretation, Between Philosophy and Religion “is also a major work of philosophy in its own right,” says Prof. Nancy Levene, of the Department of Religious Studies at Indiana University-Bloomington. In the work, Polka offers new viewpoints that significantly diverge from those commonly held by most Spinoza scholars. 

The differences stem from Polka’s main thesis, summarized by the title Between Philosophy and Religion. Polka argues that Spinoza’s work is both modern and biblical. While most philosophers perceive a great gulf between philosophy and the secular (which they perceive as modern) and theology and the religious, Polka says that Spinoza’s philosophy spans both.

“There is a lot of misunderstanding about religion, both on the part of those within religion and those outside," he says. "There are many people who are not aware, in my judgment, that our secular values, or notions, of justice, love, friendship, compassion, equality and freedom arise out of the Bible. They [secular values] are fundamentally the same as the great theological concepts of the past.”

Another way in which Polka’s viewpoints diverge from that of other scholars’ is his interpretation of Spinoza’s understanding of God. The traditional view is that either Spinoza was a pantheist and saw God in everything or that he was in reality hiding his secular, anti-religious leanings. But, Polka argues that Spinoza understands God or the divine in terms of the ethical relationship between ourselves and others. Thus, by adhering to the Biblical principle of The Golden Rule­ – of loving one’s neighbour as one self – a citizen communes with the divine or God.

Right: Baruch Spinoza 

Finally, Polka’s take on intellectual history may seem radical to anyone who has been taught that Western philosophy began with the ancient Greeks. “I argue vigorously against the tradition that philosophy as we know it today began with the Greeks,” he says.

According to Polka, Western philosophy began with the Biblical story of Adam and Eve. “The story of their expulsion from paradise is the primal myth that remains central to our self-understanding today,” he says. Through their expulsion, Adam and Eve have to face death, mortality, childbirth and work, thereby becoming human. They also take on the responsibility for guiding their own their lives through their actions or their free will, a concept central to liberal democracy. By contrast, in the ancient Greek tradition, fate governs the lives of humans, not will.

He presents the views of other scholars in two appendices, one devoted solely to Leo Strauss and his adherents. “Given the radical departure of my position in relation to most other scholars,” says Polka, “I thought it was my academic obligation to provide at least some commentary on the work of others.” 

Copies of Between Philosophy and Religion will be on sale at the book launch on March 6.  At the event, Polka will make a brief presentation.

Following the launch, there will be a Faculty-Student Mixer, sponsored by Philosophia: The York University Undergraduate Philosophy Association. At the mixer, six undergraduate students will present papers on Spinoza and rationalism in three sets of two presentations. After each set, there will be a discussion.

The Between Philosophy and Religion book launch is presented by The York University Bookstore; Vanier College; The Division of Humanities and its graduate program; the Centre for Jewish Studies of York University; and the Graduate Program in Social & Political Thought.

This article was written by Olena Wawryshyn, communications officer, Marketing & Communications.