Preface to the English Translation of Spinoza’s Critique of Religion

"Preface to the English Translation," Spinoza's Critique of Religion, trans. E. M. Sinclair, Schocken Books, 1965.  Reprinted in English translation of Spinoza's Critique of Religion and Liberalism Ancient and Modern.


It is safer to try to understand the low in the light of the high than the high in the light of the low. In doing the latter one necessarily distorts the high, whereas in doing the former one does not deprive the low of the freedom to reveal itself fully as what it is. By its name the Weimar Republic refers one back to the greatest epoch of German thought and letters, to the epoch extending from the last third of the eighteenth century to the first  third of the nineteenth. No one can say that classical Germany spoke clearly and distinctly in favor of liberal democracy. This is true despite the fact that classical Germany had been initiated by Rousseau. In the first place Rousseau was the first modern critic of the fundamental modern project (man’s conquest of nature for the sake of the relief of man’s estate) who thereby laid the foundation for the distinction, so fateful for German thought, between civilization and culture. Above all, the radicalization and deepening of Rousseau’s thought by classical German philosophy culminated in Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, the legitimation of that kind of constitutional monarchy which is based on the recognition of the rights of man, and in which government is in the hands of highly educated civil servants appointed by an hereditary king. It has been said, not without reason, that Hegel’s rule over Germany came to an end only on the day Hitler came to power. But Rousseau prepared not only the French Revolution and classical German philosophy, but also that extreme reaction to the French Revolution which is German romanticism. To speak politically and crudely, “the romantic school in Germany . . . was nothing other than the resurrection of medieval poetry as it had manifested itself . . . in art and in life.”  The longing for the middle ages began in Germany at the very moment when the actual middle ages — the Holy Roman Empire ruled by a German — ended, in what was then thought to be the moment of Germany’s deepest humiliation. In Germany, and only there, did the end of the middle ages coincide with the beginning of the longing for the middle ages. Compared with the medieval Reich which had lasted for almost a millennium until 1806, Bismarck’s Reich (to say nothing of Hegel’s Prussia) revealed itself as a little Germany not only in size. All profound German longings — for those for the middle ages were not the only ones nor even the most profound — all these longings for the origins or, negatively expressed, all German dissatisfaction with modernity pointed toward a third Reich, for Germany was to be the core even of Nietzsche’s Europe ruling the planet.

The weakness of liberal democracy in Germany explains why the situation of the indigenous Jews was more precarious in Germany than in any other Western country. Liberal democracy had originally defined itself in theologico-political treatises as the opposite, not of the more or less enlightened despotism of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, but of “the kingdom of darkness,” i.e. of medieval society. According to liberal democracy, the bond of society is universal human morality, whereas religion (positive religion) is a private affair. In the middle ages religion — i.e. Catholic Christianity — was the bond of society. The action most characteristic of the middle ages is the Crusades; it may be said to have culminated not accidentally in the murder of whole Jewish communities. The German Jews owed their emancipation to the French Revolution or its effects. They were given full political rights for the first time by the Weimar Republic. The Weimar Republic was succeeded by the only German regime — the only regime ever anywhere — which had no other clear principle than murderous hatred of the Jews, for “Aryan” had no clear meaning other than “non-Jewish.” One must keep in mind the fact that Hitler did not come from Prussia, nor even from Bismarck’s Reich.

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