Antonio Negri’s analysis of Spinoza suggests that recognizing a direct antagonism between alternative forms of power is an important key to appreciating the contemporary relevance of Spinoza’s political, philosophical and ethical thought. This proposition, however, poses a complicated translation problem: while the Latin terms used by Spinoza, potestas and potentia, have distinct terms in most European languages, English provides only a single term, power. Negri’s argument transports this terminological distinction to a political and social environment apparently ignoring any sort of translation problem.
He contends that Spinoza provides us not only with a critique of Power but also with a theoretical construction of power.
There are four questions to be addressed here:
- Does a Spinozan politics exist and if the answer is affirmative how could be defined in terms of democratic politics?
- Could the distinction made by Negri between different forms of power be applied to our understanding of Religious experience?
- Can we create through a Spinozan political philosophy, a New ‘’Civitate Dei’’ on earth?
- Is Spinoza relevant to our discourse on a Critical idea of Religion?
I am arguing that Negri’s reading of Spinoza is highly persuasive and in the general state of exception in which the multitude lives, represents the only answer to create a process of consciousness raising for the oppressed, as well as a new materialist spirituality constructive of authentic ideas of democracy and society finally free from all the oppressive bourgeois ideological apparatuses.
It is through Spinoza that the “damned of the earth” can finally have a voice, a place and be recognized as part of a process of ethical, social and religious transformation.
In a Spinozan structure, political and religious organization would focus on “the multitude,” working from the grass-roots outward, making horizontal connections with other grass-roots groups rather than forming hierarchical pyramids; “direct” political and religious democracy, remaining highly critical of “representative” politics in both its institutional and theoretical forms and interpreting the State and official Religious faiths as a terrain of immanent struggles, rather than the transcendent synthetic mediation of conflicting social forces. And it is up to us, the multitude, using our power of resistance in defeating the true evils: the Empire and its mercenaries establishing the “Civitate Dei” on earth.
An atheist or a “God intoxicated man?”
It was in his Theological-Political Treatise (Spinoza published it anonymously in 1670 for reasonable fear of persecution in response to the critique of biblical faith that it put forward) where he argued that government protection of religious freedom was an imperative of a religion rightly understood (a new form of materialist spirituality).
The Theological-Political Treatise will be as disturbing to most religious groups today as it was to most seventeenth-century Europeans. Indeed, the suggestion that liberty of thought and discussion is good and necessary because it protects faith from the arrogance of Power, is nearly the opposite of what our common idea of Religion believes and what seventeenth-century pious Europeans thought.
So what to make of Spinoza’s claim that religion and liberty can exist together? Can a materialist spirituality finally triumph in this political and ethical framework? What, in Spinoza’s understanding, is the authentic expression of piety? What is the proper religious role for ritual, for prayer, for divine law, for the community of believers, for spirituality? And what could have encouraged the young German romantic Novalis, at the end of the eighteenth century, to call Spinoza, who had been depicted for more than a hundred years by the established political and religious authorities as godless, “the absolutely God-intoxicated man” — a sentiment fully shared in the middle of the nineteenth century by Nietzsche? In short, understanding the sense in which Spinoza reconciled religion and individual absolute freedom of thought is no small undertaking; it represents a fundamental achievement to reach if we want to create a new idea of religious experience.
Spinoza does not believe that any reverential behaviour is a correct attitude to take before God or nature. There is nothing sacred or holy about nature, and it is certainly not the object of a religious experience. Instead, one should aim to understand God or nature, with the kind of distinct rational knowledge that reveals nature’s most important truths and shows how everything depends essentially on higher natural causes. The secret to discovering and experiencing God/nature is represented by philosophy and science, not religious obedience and submission.
Only the former leads to true blessedness (i.e. peace of mind).
There is no place in Spinoza’s system for a sense of religious mystery in the face of nature. Such an attitude is to be removed by the intelligibility and simplicity of things. Religious wonder is fed by ignorance, he claims. Spinoza contrasts the person who “is impatient, like an educated man, to understand natural things” with the person who “wonders at them, like a little fool”. For Spinoza, anyone who would approach nature/God with the kind of worshipful attitude usually demanded by the religious obedience to the very idea of Power and superstition, represents the latter.
Can we, through Spinoza’s “God intoxicated man” create a New “Civitate Dei” on earth?