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Victor Nuovo on Spinoza: Calvin and Hobbes

The subjects of this essay are not the popular comic strip characters, but the real personages after whom they are named. John Calvin (1509–1564) and Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679) do not convey their wisdom in easy installments and with gentle humor; they are harsh and acerbic and precise; their thought is difficult and systematic. Spinoza read them assiduously, took them seriously, borrowed from them, and creatively reshaped what he borrowed.
Calvin was a Frenchman, a humanist and expert in civil law, who converted to Protestantism; he became its second founder and its most eminent thinker. He was also a founder of the Reformed Protestant Tradition, which in its origins is comparable to Wahhabism, a puritanical sect of Sunni Islam that is rigorous in its practice, zealous in maintaining the purity of revealed doctrine, authoritarian, and which utilizes state power to sustain itself. Under Calvin’s leadership, the city of Geneva became a theocratic state.
Calvin’s major work was entitled “Institutio religionae christianae,” or, “Institutes of the Christian Religion,” which he first published in 1536 and kept revising and enlarging until shortly before his death. It offers a complete exposition of Christian doctrine, which I will not attempt to summarize. My concern is with his account of the divine creation of the world and his determinism.
I begin with the following quotation from the Institutes:
“I confess, that it can be said reverently, provided that it proceeds from a reverent mind, that nature is God; but because it is a harsh and improper saying, since nature is rather the order prescribed by God, it is harmful in such weighty matters, in which special devotion is due, to involve God confusedly in the inferior course of his works.”
Yet, involving God in the inferior course of nature, not confusedly, but always with precision and purpose is just how Calvin defines the activity of God as creator and governor of the world. From the beginning of creation until now, and on until the end of the world, God is a hands on artisan and arranger of all things, down to the smallest detail, including every human thought and action. As Jesus said, even the hairs on our heads are numbered. God is in every heart, literally and figuratively, regulating its beats and inflaming its passions, and in every mind or understanding, inspiring it with challenging thoughts, and, when it serves the divine purpose, even “hardening hearts”, fixing them in their self-destructive prejudices. Elsewhere he writes:
“I mean by providence not an idle observation by God in heaven of what goes on in earth, but his rule of the world which he made; for he is not creator of a moment, but the perpetual governor. Thus the providence we ascribe to God belongs not only to his eyes, but to his hands … he exercises a particular care of every one of his creatures.”
And a little later, he quotes St. Paul, who was echoing a Stoic philosopher, a pagan, that in God we live and move and have our being.
In summary, by reading Calvin, Spinoza became accustomed to think about God and Nature interchangeably.
Thomas Hobbes was an Englishman. He was brought up as a Calvinist, and although he was reputed in his maturity to have rejected all religion and become a rank atheist, a recent biographer has argued persuasively that he remained a faithful Calvinist Christian to the end of his life. With one notable exception, there is nothing in his writings that would suggest otherwise, unless one reads between the lines — always a risky business.
Hobbes became notorious because of his avowed materialism, which was the basis of his determinism, and his adherence to an empirical stance, which left him skeptical about supernatural or spiritual phenomena. Since all our knowledge depends upon our perception of bodies, if God is not corporeal, then his nature is incomprehensible to us. There is no more to say. Yet we know that God exists. Here Hobbes follows Calvin almost to the letter. Every human being is endowed with a seed of religion, which is not an implanted truth, but a ceaseless rational curiosity concerning the causes of things and on to the causes of causes, and which is not satisfied until it reaches an eternal cause, upon which all things and their causes depend, “which men call God; and yet not have an idea or image of him in their mind.” The seed of religion reaches full flowering in the reception of divine revelation, recorded in Sacred Scripture, wherein God is revealed as king of the universe and universal lawgiver, in words and images accommodated to our sensibilities. The imagery is political, which did not go unnoticed by Spinoza.
Hobbes maintained that civil society, along with its principles and practices, are not divine but human creations, although in imitation of God. His most celebrated work, Leviathan, opens with this theme: politics as an art, whereby mankind mimics God.
“Nature (the art whereby God hath made and governs the world) is by the art of man, as in many other things, so in this also imitated, that it can make an artificial animal. For seeing life is but a motion of limbs … why may we not say, that all automata (engines that move themselves by springs and wheels as doth a watch) have an artificial life? … Art goes yet further, imitating that rational and most excellent work of nature, man. For by art is created that greatLeviathan called a Commonwealth, or State … which is but an artificial man; though of greater stature and strength than the natural, for whose protection and defense it was intended; and in which, the sovereignty, is an artificial soul …”
Hobbes imagined that states were established and fashioned by human assemblies, whose members, moved by their desire for peace and security, contract or covenant together — where a majority decides for all — for themselves and their descendants to unite under the supreme rule of a personage or assembly of persons, whom they endow with sovereign power, which once given cannot be taken away.
The commonwealth or state, then, is like a great person, autonomous or self-governing, and, Hobbes concludes that for the sake of its stability it ought to practice one religion, the same for all. “Which religion?” is a question to be decided solely by sovereign authority. Its offices, doctrines, and practices become matters of civil law. Here Hobbes departs radically from Calvin, for whom religion must always be independent of secular authority so far as concerns its faith and practice. Hobbes had his reasons for thinking otherwise. The English civil wars, through which he lived, were driven by sectarian rivalries, fomented by ambitious clergy, and by a religious populism fueled by fanatical devotion to competing orthodoxies. Religious zeal, then as now, was a threat to civil order and tranquility; and if peace is to be established, then the public exercise of religion must fall under the rule of an impartial secular authority. Spinoza, also, would make this a principle of his politics.

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