Do atheists ever study philosophy




The dispute over the virtuous atheism of Spinoza


The problem of the theologians


Can someone who in his teaching traditionally believe in God, grace and the

Reject Sin, Live a Virtuous Life? Spinoza did this and with it the theologians of the 17th / 18th centuries. Century deeply worried. “First the man is given as an atheist, and his opinions as highly reprehensible; but then admitted that he was a calmly reflective man incumbent on his studies, a communicative man, a calm participant; and so one seemed to have completely forgotten the evangelical word: You should recognize them by their fruits! ", scoffs Goethe in" Poetry and Truth ".


Michael Czelinski-Uesbeck shows in his book


Czelinski-Uesbeck, Michael: The virtuous atheist. Studies on the prehistory of the Spinoza Renaissance in Germany. 244 p., Kt., € 35.80, 2007, Königshausen and Neumann, Würzburg,


how the theologians are unsettled and because of the difficulty of countering this phenomenon with a plausible theory, they try to refute or shake Spinoza's virtue. There is no such thing as a philosopher in the 17th and 18th centuries. Century, whose biography plays such an important role in reception as that in the case of Spinoza. What impresses many recipients about him is the exemplary unity of thought and life.


For Spinoza, philosophy is not only ethics, based on the title of his main work, and practiced philosophy. His theory not only wants to describe and justify a successful life, but above all to bring it about.


Spinoza and God


To be “virtuous” means for theologians to lead a “life pleasing to God”, and an atheist, should he be virtuous, should have his behavior measured against this criterion. But who is an atheist? The question will be in the 17./18. Century answered differently than today. An atheist is one who denies the existence of the Christian defined God. But even those who do not belong to the orthodox parliamentary group are called atheists. The term is therefore anything but sharply defined and serves more for polemics than for factual discussion. Spinoza, on the other hand, rejects all key data on the concept of God in Christian theology of his time. A personal God, whom one has to imagine with human characteristics such as kind or friendly or loving or even hateful, there is no such God for Spinoza. Spinoza, for his part, rejected the charge of atheism and felt very much connected to free-spirited Christianity on a human level. Talking about God also plays a central role in his works. But after his excommunication he is neither a Jew nor a Christian according to his official denomination, a fact that was unique in the 17th century. However, the god of the monotheistic religions cannot be unified with his pantheistic concept of God. According to the common sense of the 17th century, Spinoza is rightly called an atheist. How quickly the assessment can change is shown by Goethe's statement in a letter to Jacobi: “He does not prove the existence of God, God is existence. And if others scold him for Atheum, I would like to call and praise him theissimum, yes christianissimum. "


"Everything that is not of faith is sin," says Romans 14:23. Like Augustine, Martin Luther assumes that the virtues of the heathen are also sin. For theologians, belief in God is the supreme guarantor of law and order, without whose acceptance positive laws cannot have any effect. Without faith in the providence of God, no meaningful institution in the world is conceivable for them either, religion is the bonding agent that brings all people together. To put it in a classic way: if there is no God, everything is allowed (Dostoevsky). The Protestants are convinced that man is so depressed and weakened by the Fall that he
















cannot find what is good on his own initiative. All works of sin, even good, are mortal sin; this is how the Reformed theologian Karl Barth argued in the 20th century.


Spinoza's way of life


First details about Spinoza are known among Germans living in the Netherlands as early as 1661. In 1670 the first information reached Germany. The earliest biography of Spinoza is contained in the Nachlassen Schriften, published in 1677, in Dutch. It comes from the Mennonite Jarig Jelles and will soon be translated into Latin. The lonely, remote, ascetic and busy life of Spinoza, which is exclusively characterized by the exploration of truth, is emphasized.

Jelles writes that Spinoza freed himself from all "worldly troubles and worries" that prevent him from researching the truth and therefore left his native city of Amsterdam. The fact that Spinoza was also a sociable person who is often invited to dinner, but also receives curious visitors, is suppressed in the tradition opened by Jelles.


Pierre Bayle adopts the Jelli tradition and shows how much Spinoza withdraws in order to pursue his studies. But he combines this with the comment that it is dealing with "absurd considerations". For Bayle, Spinoza is “the greatest atheist that ever existed” and “who was so convinced of certain principles of philosophy that in order to be able to think about them better, he withdrew into a hiding place, as it were, renouncing everything that was possible The pleasures and vanities of the world ”. Sebastian Kortholt (1675-1760) carries the rumor from Jelles that Spinoza sits at home for whole months, studies late into the night and usually evades dealing with people during the day: “so that not an hour would be spoiled when he was worked on his own and the ruin of others. "


In 1702 Bayle expands in the new edition of his successful Dictionnaire historique et critique his representations of the life and teaching of Spinoza and takes on knowledge gained about Kortholt. The importance of this article for the Spinoza picture of the 18th century can hardly be overestimated. Bayle describes Spinoza as "an atheist according to the system". Although Bayle does not hide his aversion to Spinoza's radical approaches, he is a welcome example of the possibility of autonomous morality. What is important about his presentation is the unreserved admission that those who maintain contact with Spinoza agree in the judgment that “he is a person of good scope, friendly, polite, formal and very orderly in his manners”.


In 1705 the most extensive biography of Spinoza appears. It goes back to the Orthodox Lutheran Johannes Colerus (1647-1707), who worked as a pastor in Amsterdam from 1679. The value of the text rests on the abundance of material it transmits. However, the description also impresses with its sincerity: although Spinoza's ideologically sharp opponent, Colerus cannot help but attribute a particularly virtuous life to him. German translations of the




















Baruch (Benedictus) Spinoza


Colerus report. A curiosity for Czelinski, as there is no reason to do so at this point. The first translator, Faccius, explains his decision: firstly, one recognizes "as from a bright mirror, the depth of human ruin", secondly, it becomes clear what damage a careless and careless upbringing can cause, thirdly, one knows after reading, What kind of people one has to beware of, fourthly, see how “the most incredible people often flaunt a peculiar appearance of virtue, lead such a quiet, serene life, and respect temporal goods so little that one should think they are would be perfectly healthy Christians ”. Fifthly, it is stated in summary that and how an atheist vita in its cleansing effect serves as a warning and mirror, which "can be of great benefit to a virtuous mind".


The second translator is Wigand Kahler (1699-1747). Kahler also justifies his translation. There is, he writes, a kind of duty to bring atheistic teachings to light in order to be able to clarify their weaknesses and, above all, to take away the charm of the mysterious and forbidden.


The theologians attack


In contrast to the atheists Epicurus and Hobbes, who are often named and despised with him, Spinoza is a perfect exotic as a mixture of Jew, excommunicated, Iberian and atheist. These facts are now thematized by the theologians and instrumentalized for purposefully polemical and defamatory purposes. At the same time, rumors about Spinoza are set in the world. Many already see Spinoza's face as marked by a "sign of damnation". There are puns like “Benedictus de Spinoza, which one should really call Maledictus”. The rumor is also spread that Spinoza converted to Christianity after his excommunication from the Jewish community.


Overall, according to Czelinski, one can speak of two lines of tradition: one that is hostile to Jews criticizes Spinoza on the basis of the Jews who crept into Christianity and sees Spinoza as a "test of Jewish stubbornness and wickedness". Another puts atheism in the center and sees Spinoza as someone who, as a convinced atheist, lives hypocritically and virtuously and presents his philosophy as a doctrine that likewise hypocritically puts God in the center and thus doubly outrages his opponents. His allegedly withdrawn life is only used to steal dangerous teachings in secret silence.


Here Johannes Musäus is the most accomplished Spinoza opponent. For him Spinoza left “no spiritual strength, no cunning, and ultimately no kind of intrigues untried that one would rightly doubt whether there is any one to be found among those whom the devil himself has urged to destroy all divine and human right who would have been more active in this work of destruction than this deceiver born to the greatest calamity of the Church and the State ”.

At this time there are only a few statements that believe the reports about Spinoza's virtuous way of life or accept this fact openly and not put it into perspective. This happened on a larger scale from 1730/1740. An early statement that was not made public is that of Johann Jakob Scheuchzer (1672-1733). He cites Spinoza's lifestyle as an example and role model of the virtuous atheist. Leibniz also gave a favorable assessment of Spi-

nozas, which goes back to his visit to Spinoza in 1676, but was certainly also made under the influence of reports by others. For Leibniz, Spinoza represents a model of virtue. In this context, he argues that theoretical atheists, or those who only “arrived at their errors” through philosophical speculation, are inherently far removed from the vices, their “common ones Man “was able. There are people "of excellent character" who, despite their differing opinions, would never do anything unworthy of them, "and so it can be said that Epicurus and Spinoza, for example, led a perfectly exemplary life".


Pierre Bayle and the paradox of the virtuous atheist


Using the example of the “morality of those people who have no religion”, Bayle pursues one of his main concerns: the separation of religion and morals. With a provocative intention, he makes the deliberately paradoxical image of Spinoza as the virtuous non-Christian and yet “the greatest atheist who ever lived” particularly strong. Between 1682 and 1706 Spinoza became the key witness for the proof that atheists can be virtuous people and that a society of atheists is also conceivable. In doing so, he questions the meaning of the connection between religion and morality. It destroys the traditional argument of the moral and political usefulness of religion for the existence of an orderly human society. Bayle distinguishes libertinism from atheism. Libertinism is sensual, rightly understood atheism is intellectually based. Systematic atheists are not dangerous to religion because they recognize the benefits of religion: They limit themselves to theory, but otherwise lead a serious, strict and, according to the categories of religion, virtuous life. In contrast, the egotistical vanity and addiction to sensuality of the “libertins” tempts to imitate them - and the tolerance thinker Bayle consistently demands not repression against atheists, but against the “libertins”.


Bayle even points out that atheists have an advantage over believers, especially those who tend to be more fanatic than believers: atheists are primarily committed to reason and not to transrational ideas. This saves them from the recurring problems of fanaticism in the form of the persecution of those who think and believe differently to the inquisition and killing of "enemies of faith". The virtuous atheist even advanced to become a model citizen at Bayle.


The fight against Pierre Bayle


The discussion of the Bayle theses takes place in the context of the general discussion of atheism. Johann Georg Prinz (1662-1732, professor of theology in Greifswald) opens the fight by trying to show how dangerous atheism is for the human race. He has no doubt that it wants to destroy the strongest bond in human society, religion.


Another Bayle opponent is Georg Abicht (1672-1740). Abicht is one of the "atheist eaters" (Barth) of Lutheran orthodoxy who prefer polemical rounds. His first judgment against atheism is that it removes “the beautiful and sweet hope” of a life beyond and thus the effect of future rewards and punishments. If this is omitted, there is peace of mind











Pierre Bayle


and consequently also the internal peace in the state is endangered. Because if the punishments in this world or the prospect of future subsidies no longer apply, nobody will obey the law and there is a threat of a Hobbesian struggle of all against all. Zacharias Grape (1671-1713) argues similarly: The state must punish atheists, not only because they corrupt morals, but also because they cannot be sworn in. The virtues of atheists are only apparent virtues, even the devil can turn into a shining angel, and that is why Bayle's examples were not convincing: it was an apparently good act, no one could know the inside of an atheist and what it was secretly and really thought.


With his writings, Johann Fritz Budde (1667-1729) systematically summarizes the discussion of atheism and Spinozism. It is the real climax of the debate about the virtuous atheist. Budde, from 1693 professor of moral philosophy at the University of Halle, from 1705 professor of theology in Jena, stands as a transitional theologian in a conceptual triangle between Lutheran orthodoxy, Pietism and the Enlightenment. His Theses theologicae de atheismo from 1716 are the most powerful compendium of the time on the problem of atheism. Budde is pursuing two goals: on the one hand, to examine the atheism of antiquity and modernity and, on the other hand, to find those philosophical systems that consequently lead to atheism. Budde, too, sees the catastrophic effects of atheism: the bonds of bourgeois society are being broken and the welfare of the republic is thrown overboard.


Thomasius versus Tschirnhaus


In 1688, in a dispute between Christian Thomasius (1655-1728) and Ehrenfried Walther von Tschirnhaus (1651-1708), Spinozist ideas in the field of ethics were fought for the first time on German soil, and a German scholar was accused of Spinozism for the first time. With the view that the perfection of our nature and our intellect forms the content of our happiness and at the same time the means to achieve this goal, Tschirnhaus comes close to Spinoza. The dispute between Thomasius and Tschirnhaus focuses on the question of what is useful, the definition of virtue and the question of the highest good. Specifically, it is about the possibility of an ethic that is not based on revelation. As a condition for tolerance, Thomasius stipulates that the person demanding tolerance places his understanding under the sovereignty of God.


Eventually, in the 18th century, the belief that atheists are not necessarily amoral people - which was still widely believed in the 17th century - took hold. This insight stuck to Socrates, but especially to Spinoza. Hardly anyone goes back behind Bayle and Wolff with their empirical falsification of the thesis that there can be no respectable ethos without religion. The first great expression of a reevaluation of Spinoza is the Spinoza biography by Heinrich Friedrich Diez, published in 1783. A real Spinoza renaissance then followed towards the end of the 18th century.