The Profanities of Hume & Spinoza

Religion is not getting a lot of slack nowadays. Maybe in reading those who were first to be overtly critical of religion we can learn exactly what occasioned the onslaught. This is an exercise in that, FWIW.

1. Introduction

In tracing back the questions raised in the early modern period we may hope to trace back the current secular attitude to religion. To make a start with this analysis, I focus on 2 short texts by Baruch Spinoza, The Metaphysical Moralist (1), and David Hume, On Superstition and Enthusiasm (2), where they explicitly treat of the threats inherent to religions when the imagination goes unchecked by rationality. My analysis tries to bring to light that there is a crucial difference in their treatment: whilst Spinoza sees linear progress in using reason to eliminate ‘uncalled for’ imagination, Hume puts reason as a mediator between two extreme uses of imagination (one leading to docile superstition – the other to fanatic enthusiasm). In my view there is something of fanatic enthusiasm to Spinoza’s view on rationality which, in denying a constructive impetus in imagination, denies something more basic to the human condition than the arbitrary conventions of specific religions. Both Hume and Spinoza utter profanities against religion, but only Spinoza utterly desacralized the human condition.

2. Fantastic Fear

Hume and Spinoza alike start from the human desire to appease fear by imagining some hidden causes that are then thought of as sacred. The worship of these sacred causes in a ritualistic way establishes religion-as-superstition that can be exploited by priests to keep believers dull of mind and to make them into docile followers. Fear is institutionalized and it keeps people from questioning rationally the established order and convictions. People are made to march exploiting individual differences into something fueling civil and other wars.

Both authors agree that this is a clear sign of false religion. On this Hobbes (3) might have a more nuanced perspective – his account of imagination and superstition is one of taking note of this human tendency and establishing the Sovereign as one who uses this fear to a point of making it the positive law-giving force. Spinoza most markedly demarcates himself from any such balanced account of folk religion – as such he is closest to contemporary secularism – in denouncing the wonder of a cowardly fool from the fearless curiosity of an educated man. The intellectual takes the risk of being ‘denounced as an impious heretic’; his continuous questioning is considered by the common people as uttering profanities.

With Spinoza the intellectual hero is so (re-)born. The intellect of the few is opposed to the fancy and imagination of the many. Reason separates the intellectual from the crowd; his passion in pleading for the dispassionate attitude is his sacrifice on the altar of rationality.

3. Flights of Fancy

The last paragraph obviously is somewhat tendentious but it allows to underline where the Humean treatment of imagination is a bit more balanced (and maybe in this also a little more indebted to the more down-to-earth Hobbesian treatment). Hume is seeing two types of false religion, both rooted in extremes of imagination. To superstition is contrasted the falsity of enthusiasm rooted not in fear but in pride. Luxury makes the imagination swell inquiring with indiscriminate curiosity until fancy takes a flight to that haughty position from which individuals receive ‘immediate inspiration of the Divine Being’.

Hume treats enthusiasm with some sympathy because the enthusiast in his fanaticism has an element of freethinking in her. In ‘contempt for forms, ceremonies, and traditions’ she is resisting the yoke of ecclesiastical authorities. In this sense impious uttering of profanities – much as with Spinoza – clears the stale air of superstition. It does so however by claiming ‘a direct line with the Divinity established without any need for a human mediator’. In many ways Hume’s irony is reminiscent of Hobbes’ criticism towards novelty in religion as a vain attempt to challenge tradition based on superior personal insight. Both Hobbes and Hume relate such enthusiasm to a fanaticism that in the end cannot but lead to a violent clash with the established order.

Still, as said, Hume does see (specifically in his metaphor of the thunderstorm of fanatical fancy clearing the air from dull superstition) some positive necessity in this enthusiasm and he notes that fanatics as a minority wind up defending tolerance. As false as their religion is, it makes room for true religion in which rationality softens the extremes to find a middle ground between stupefying wonder and indiscriminate curiosity – between fear and fancy if you will. Whether this link between enthusiasm and tolerance is empirically valid is another matter, but it shows Hume appreciating a dynamic between imagination and reflection that is altogether absent from Spinoza.

4. Rational Superstition

Based on this analysis I believe there’s value in working out an account of imagination that is not linearly contrasted with reason. In so doing we can maybe see it – in line with recent cognitive developments in philosophy – as interplay between imagery (as prejudices which are culturally determined but individually varied) and reflection (as faculty to progressively see, in critical collaboration, the limits of and problems raised by such imagery). Reducing the human condition to reason then would emerge as rational superstition creating – much in the same way as the false religions criticised in the early modern period – its own sacred cows and prejudices protected from challenge by the apparently timeless move of treating some utterances as profanities. In a naturalized account of religion we do not merely have to treat it as a transient historical phenomenon but as, at least in part, a natural expression of the human condition. The notion of holding things sacred – out of fear of chaos – and its pendant of disqualifying critical thought as uttering profanities may have a timeless quality, one that firmly establishes the need to find the middle ground by way of being reasonable.

4. References

(1) B. Spinoza, “Collected Works of Spinoza” (ed. Cuvley), Princeton 1985, Ethics Part I, The Metaphysical Moralist – Appendix

(2) D. Hume, “Essays Moral, Political, and Literary”, (unknown), Essay X: Of Superstition and Enthusiasm

(3) T. Hobbes, “Leviathan” (ed. R. Tuck), Cambridge University Press, 1991

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