Spinoza against the Jacobins

by Mike Crumplar


In a piece for Jacobin, Harrison Fluss calls for a reevaluation of the civic religion of Robespierre’s Cult of the Supreme Being, which he positions as something deeply influenced by the radical, “savage” philosophy of Spinoza. Fluss is right that Spinoza offers a potent alternative to the unresolved problems of liberal pluralism. But in trying to connect Spinoza’s philosophy with the example of Robespierre’s Cult of the Supreme Being, he misrepresents Spinoza’s own views (and how these views can be of use for a contemporary project of collective liberation) so that he can affect a more sympathetic understanding of Robespierre. Beyond a distinction between public religion and private religion, Robespierre’s Cult of the Supreme Being relates to Spinoza only tenuously through a proclaimed dedication to secular reason.

Aside from having a distinctly non-Spinozist anthropomorphic understanding of a God that “watches over,” “punishes,” and otherwise has feelings or passions, the Cult of the Supreme Being incorporated a loosely Christian/deist spiritual vocabulary with classical Roman flourishes into an ideological structure supporting a particular faction to maintain a religious hierarchy that exploits the fears and “sad passions” of men  for political power. In short, his conception would invariably reintroduce the problematic relations of ideological control Spinoza rails against in the Theological-Political Treatise. Perhaps Robespierre himself was not so radical, violent, and virulent in his hatred of Christianity as the Hebertistes, but that doesn’t mean that their claim of him reintroducing a cloaked Christianity and seeking to be its Pope isn’t without merit in some sense. Of course, their alternative—utter nihilism and death—was hardly better.

Spinoza’s appreciation of organized religion extends as far as the ability of its scripture to offer a community a common language of stories that provides moral guidance to generally inspire people to act in certain ways conducive to their best interest. But scripture need not be understood as “The” scripture of any particular religion, conceived from the top-down (as from the divine revelations of prophets or Robespierre’s imagination), but rather (like his entire metaphysical system) constructed immanently; its power and truth manifested in its real consequential existence in the minds of people—in how it actually influences how things act and are acted upon by each other.