Feature of the month: Spinoza remembered

Tractatus Theologico-Politicus
Benedictus de Spinoza
Hamburg: H. Künraht [i.e. Amsterdam: C. Conrad for J. Rieuwertsz], 1670
[G.S.C.] 0509

Baruch Spinoza’s Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, shown here in its first edition, has been described as: “one of the most profoundly influential philosophical texts in the history of western thought, having exerted an immense impact on thinkers and writers from the late seventeenth century throughout the age of the Enlightenment down to the late nineteenth century” (Jonathan Israel).

It was also one of the most reviled books of its time. Published anonymously under a false imprint, it brought Spinoza notoriety when his authorship became known. Comments about the work included that it was full of “curious but abominable discoveries, the learning and inquiries whereof must needs have been fetched from hell. Every … man of sense ought to abhor such a book” (Willem van Blijenbergh, 1674), and that it was “pestilential” and “written by a monster” (Philippus van Limborch, 1671). The States of Holland and the States General banned the work, which was also prohibited by many other government and church authorities further from home, including the French crown and the Papacy. It is thus hardly surprising that most of Spinoza’s other work – with the first edition of which this copy of the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus is bound – appeared only posthumously, published by Spinoza’s friends a couple of months after his death, and identified him only by his initials.


Spinoza described the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus as being about his interpretation of Scripture and set out his aim for it as being to expose and remove theological prejudice, to avert the accusation of atheism (something he failed singularly to do), and to vindicate the freedom of speech. To strengthen individual freedom, he wanted to weaken ecclesiastical authority and lower the status of theology, which he saw as fomenting religious tension and preventing tolerance. And tolerance was what was best in a civic state both for the citizens and for the state. Philosophy was to him more important than religion, but he saw “purified” (as opposed to “superstitious”) religion as a means to salvation for those who could not attain it through philosophy. In a trailblazing venture, he examined the scriptures as historical documents reflecting the limitations of their time, thereby opening the path of higher criticism. Stressing the importance of the Bible’s moral message, he denied the supernatural character of its reported miracles, and regarded Christ as no more than a supreme moral teacher—hence the hostility caused.

The copy featured formerly belonged to Harold Foster Hallett (1886-1966), Professor of Philosophy at King’s College London from 1931 until 1951, Chairman of the Board of Philosophical Studies at the University of London, 1935-1945, and British Secretary of the Societas Spinoza, 1929-1935; his output includes the monographs Aeternitas: A Spinozistic Study (1930) and Benedict de Spinoza: The Elements of his Philosophy (first published in 1957 and subsequently reprinted). The University of London received it in November 1966 as part of Hallett’s bequest of 179 books pertaining to Spinoza, most of which are held in the Philosophy section of Senate House Library, and 25 folders of typescripts of his own works and notes (MS991). The books comprised a working library. This one was the oldest in the collection, excepting only the Liber [Moreh nevukhim] Doctor perplexorum Moses Maimonides (Basel, 1629; [G.S.C.] 0510), and was by far the most valuable.

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