Charlie Kirk Is Right to Be Afraid of Spinoza

Right-wing culture warriors recently attacked Immanuel Kant as the father of “critical race theory.” Now, figures like Charlie Kirk are going after Baruch Spinoza — a radical enlightenment thinker who can actually teach us a few things about how to fight the Right.

Portrait of Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza, 1877. (Wikimedia Commons)

According to the National Review, conservative talk show host Charlie Kirk has recently added the name Baruch Spinoza to a list of enemies that includes so-called “cultural Marxists” Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault.

Derrida and Foucault are familiar enough names, especially to anyone who remembers the political correctness debates of the 1980s, in which postmodernism was declared the enemy of reason and even America. But Spinoza, a seventeenth-century Dutch rationalist, seems distinctly out of place and nonthreatening. At least initially.

One of the things that distinguishes the current panic over “wokeness” from the earlier political correctness debates is that, while the latter was about defending the Western canon against postmodern identity politics, today’s culture warriors increasingly trace the roots of ideas like what they call critical race theory back to fixtures of Western philosophy like Immanuel Kant — a view that was recently repeated in Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson’s Supreme Court confirmation hearing. Now, it seems, Spinoza has joined a centuries-old conspiracy to destroy our Western values with something called “social justice.”

However, if you take a step a back from the increasingly paranoid turn in right-wing culture wars, you could argue that Spinoza is actually a worthy enemy for the Right. After all, Marxist philosophers and theorists have repeatedly turned to Spinoza in the past. In fact, there is an entire tradition of “Marxist Spinozism,” from Louis Althusser to Antonio Negri.

It seems unlikely though that Charlie Kirk has been reading Frédéric Lordon’s Figures du Communisme. Rather than focus on Spinoza’s embrace by the Marxist left, a better question might be: What specifically did Spinoza write that poses a legitimate challenge to right-wing kooks?

Very Superstitious

Spinoza’s main political intervention during his lifetime, the Theological-Political Treatise, has the wordy subtitle: “By means of which it is shown not only that the freedom of philosophizing can be allowed in Preserving Piety and the Peace of the Republic: but also that it is not possible for such Freedom to be upheld except when accompanied by the Peace of the Republic and Piety Themselves.” In other words, Spinoza advocated for the freedom to think and philosophize.

Given that much of the Right, from Donald Trump to Elon Musk, has coalesced around the demand for “free speech,” Spinoza would seem a natural ally. But, it is precisely in how Spinoza configures this demand for speech, and how he understands the connection between philosophy and politics, that shows he is anathema to everything the Right stands for.

For starters, for Spinoza, the true enemy of the freedom to think, speak, and philosophize is not state censorship at all, but something else altogether: superstition. And superstition is something today’s right-wing demagogues traffic heavily in.

Writing in the middle of the seventeenth century, Spinoza was acutely aware of the way Scripture became not just an authority of knowledge but for politics as well. He was even banned from the small Jewish community in Amsterdam for his heretical beliefs and witnessed firsthand the struggle between modern philosophy and the political authority of religious scripture.

The conflict between the authority of scripture and science defined Spinoza’s period, affecting thinkers from Galileo to Descartes. Uniquely, Spinoza saw the dispute over superstition and reason not as one between rulers and the people, as liberal philosophers argued, but as intrinsic to all political life and, more intriguingly, as a struggle internal to every individual.

In other words, superstition is not just an external power, like state censorship, but is the force of obedience that in a sense comes from within us.

As Spinoza writes,

The supreme mystery of despotism, its prop and stay, is to keep men in a state of deception, and with the specious title of religion to cloak the fear by which they must be held in check, so that they will fight for their servitude as if for salvation, and count it no shame, but the highest honor to spend their blood and their lives for the glorification of one man.

Long before Karl Marx, Spinoza’s formulation offers something akin to a theory of ideology: it’s not as though the ruling ideas are just the ideas of the ruling class, while the rest of us suffer passively under their domination. People actively fight against their own interests, and their own liberation. Instead of striving to be more free and rational, they struggle to maintain their servitude and with it the authority of those who claim to know for them.

To grasp this paradox — that people can fight for their servitude as if it were salvation — it is necessary to understand the connection Spinoza draws between knowledge and politics, which holds the key to understanding the power of superstition. The relationship between knowledge and politics, how we think and how we live, is at the center of Spinoza’s philosophy. In fact, while Spinoza’s contemporaries were separating their method for knowing the world from their way of living in it, Spinoza, in one of his most provocative formulations, saw thinking and living, mind and body, as two sides of the same reality.

Reading the Ethics

Spinoza’s central work, the Ethics, is as much a book about the nature of knowledge, reality, the mind, and the body as it is a guide for how to live. There, Spinoza shows that we are subject to superstition because we are born conscious of our desires but ignorant of the causes of things. Moreover, we necessarily fill the gaps in our understanding of the world with our desires: we call things chaotic because they do not fit with our plans, or evil because they seem to threaten our desired way of life.

What Spinoza calls imagination, or inadequate knowledge, is what happens when we confuse the way something affects us for what it is. For example, our fear of snakes becomes misrecognized as a quality of the snake itself, which we then perceive to have evil properties. Since, according to Spinoza, we always act in light of some end, trying to realize our desires and plans in the world, we also tend to interpret the world in a similar manner, as if all things in it were guided by a determinate end. In that way, things that help us in nature are understood to be the product of a divine plan to assist us, while the things that harm us are understood to be a judgment or punishment for our actions.

It is at that point that what Spinoza refers to as prejudice, the basic ignorance of causes and lack of awareness of our own desires, becomes superstition, a doctrine or dogma that claims to know the true motives and causes of the world. The default in our knowledge becomes a doctrinal way of making sense of the world.

In other words, prejudice turns into superstition when our ignorance and desire are socialized: when the belief in final causes becomes something that people can exploit by convincing others of their interpretation. Prejudice is an attempt to make sense of the world with the little that we know, based on our own desires; superstition is an attempt to organize that basic striving of individuals to grapple with the world with the ultimate goal of gaining power.

Of course, the dilemma that Spinoza wrote about, in which natural prejudice is exploited by superstition, was specific to the social dynamics of a period in which ignorance could be manipulated through Scripture. However, Spinoza’s ideas extend beyond the critique of religion. Spinoza’s fundamental point is that we all start from a point of fundamental ignorance, unaware of the causes of things; the relevant political distinction, in Spinoza’s day and our own, is between those who exploit that ignorance and those who seek to overcome it. For Spinoza, liberation is just that: a striving to overcome ignorance through the transformation of how we think about the world.

“A Good Conspiracy Theory is Unprovable”

This brings us back to Charlie Kirk and the world of right-wing talk radio, podcasts, and TV media — a world full of prejudice and superstition.

In a sense, the entire right-wing media sphere begins from simple desires, often to hold onto one’s status or sense of security in the world. What matters in the world of Alex Jones, Ben Shapiro, and others is not the nature of the threats or their actual causal relation to the insecurity we are feeling. What matters is the way that they affect us and influence our desires.

To take contemporary examples, things like mandatory corporate diversity training or learning about the history of slavery in school can make one feel bad. One deduces that the effect (knowing the history of slavery) must be the cause of what one is feeling, so that the specifically bad way we feel about diversity training or slavery can somehow explain its causal condition. Effects are turned into causes. If learning about slavery makes one feel bad then it must be because it was designed to do so.

Critical race theory exists to make people feel bad — and advance the cause of “liberal guilt”in the same way that snakes are evil. An effect of the thing has become its defining attribute.

This inversion, taking effects as causes, becomes a formula for making sense of the world. The less one understands the real causes of the economic and political factors that have made the world bewildering and threatening, the more willing one is to make sense of it in terms of our desire and the unseen intentions that inform them.

Since, according to Spinoza, desires and intentions are how we act in the world and make sense of our actions, they also become the way that we interpret the workings of the world. Conspiracy theories, we might say, are the secular version of the final-cause frame of mind once associated with Scripture and religion: through the conspiracy theory, we see behind the world to the darker forces orchestrating devious plans.

In this conspiratorial thought, the effect of a thing becomes a cause, and everything is interpreted according to intentions and plans: not only is the “final cause” taken as the interpretive principle, but in doing so, the real effects of material things are inverted to become causes, and, eventually, sinister plans. Following that same logic, the world becomes a series of signs to be decoded — usually by a self-anointed “free thinker” — in order to see the true intentions underlying them.

True Knowledge

This actually has much to do with freedom of speech and philosophy. It certainly is true that Spinoza was an advocate of the freedom to speak and voice opinions, even (possibly) conspiratorial ones. In fact, Spinoza, who always grounded his understanding of politics in an understanding of both human nature and broader natural processes, foresaw that it was inevitable and natural that people with different experiences and histories would see things differently. Any attempt to suppress our natural divergences would only make it so that people did the same things, said the same things, and thought the same thoughts. Which would be both tyrannical and doomed to fail.

However, this does not mean that the proliferation of opinions and prejudices is itself good or worthwhile. Spinoza’s political ideal may have been, as philosopher Étienne Balibar put it, “as many people, thinking as much as possible,” but the point was not to celebrate a multitude of conflicting prejudices free to vent and rage at each other. For Spinoza, the point of freedom of thought and speech has a determinate end: to arrive at “adequate,” or true knowledge.

How do we arrive at true knowledge? This happens through what Spinoza called common notions. Notions are “common” when they involve understanding the causal relations — physical, natural, but also social, economic, and political — that affect everything (i.e., that are held in common). Understanding things through their complex and intersecting causal relations is the opposite of understanding things through their effects: the latter, characteristic of conspiracy theories, can find only intentions. Spinoza’s knowledge in common recognizes that the world in all of its complex causality not only exceeds our intentions but the intentions of any one individual, class, or group. This is one of the important points of contact between Spinoza and Marx, of which there are many.

For Spinoza, the question of speech was ultimately about power, understood as an increase or decrease in our collective and individual power to act or think. Nearly four hundred years later, this still seems to be a good way to approach the central question of freedom of speech: rather than focus on the abstract right to say something or not in a classroom or internet forum, it might be more useful to ask how can such spaces be used to spread common notions and help us make sense of our collective conditions, rather than disseminate prejudices and superstition.

Charlie Kirk and the world of right-wing radio are right to see Spinoza as their enemy. Although they are not quoting Scripture, they are on the side of superstition in the specific sense that Spinoza had in mind: they build their base of power from inadequate ideas, cobbling together a worldview that only sees the effects of the complex interaction of social, political, and economic factors.

Most importantly of all, right-wing conspiracy theorists do not seek to transform ignorance but exploit it, captivating their audience with a never-ending search for signs of impending danger. Naturally, this suits them just fine since they are the self-anointed interpreters of those same ciphers.

For the rest of us, however, we can’t let our very real fears and anxieties be connected to imaginary causes. The costs are too high: at stake is our understanding of the actual causes of our fears, and, with that comprehension, the collective power to grasp the conditions of our knowledge and transform them.

To Deal With Trump, Look to Voltaire

Advice from the Enlightenment: In the face of crude bullying and humorless lies, try wit and a passion for justice.

We are living through a climate change in politics. Bigotry, bullying, mendacity, vulgarity — everything emitted by the tweets of President Trump and amplified by his followers has damaged the atmosphere of public life. The protective layer of civility, which makes political discourse possible, is disappearing like the ozone around Earth.

How can we restore a healthy climate? There is no easy answer, but some historic figures offer edifying examples. The one I propose may seem unlikely, but he transformed the climate of opinion in his era: Voltaire, the French philosopher who mobilized the power of Enlightenment principles in 18th-century Europe.

.. To those encountering him for the first time, Voltaire can look like a historical curiosity. His archaic wig and libertine wit seem to belong to a forgotten corner of the past. Moreover, he can be considered a conservative. He curried favor with the high and mighty, especially Louis XV. He was so deeply committed to the cultural system developed under France’s previous ruler, Louis XIV, that he would fail any test of political correctness today. And Voltaire opposed education for the masses because, he said, someone had to tend the fields.

.. So, forget the wig. But reconsider the wit. Nothing works better than ridicule in cutting bigots down to size. “I have never made but one prayer to God,” Voltaire wrote, “a very short one: ‘O Lord, make my enemies ridiculous.’ And God granted it.” The first of the two most powerful weapons in his arsenal was laughter: “We must get the laughter on our side,” he instructed his auxiliary troops in the salons of Paris.

.. Ridicule works outside salons. We in America have Stephen Colbert on television. We had H.L. Mencken in the newspapers and Mark Twain in books. Yet wit can sound elitist, and Voltaire cultivated the elite, especially in his youth, when he celebrated wealth, pleasure and the good things of life. His poem “Le Mondain,” written in 1736, is an apology for worldly luxury — “the superfluous, a very necessary thing,” he wrote, in opposition to Christian asceticism.

That was Voltaire the young libertine. But now, in our contemporary crisis, I propose that we look also to Voltaire the angry old man. It was in his old age, during the 1760s and 1770s, that he wielded his second and most powerful weapon, moral passion.

In 1762 Voltaire learned about a case of judicial murder. The Parlement (high court) of Toulouse had condemned a Protestant merchant, Jean Calas, to be tortured and executed for supposedly killing his son, who supposedly had intended to convert to Catholicism. Not only were the suppositions wrong, but strong evidence pointed to Calas’s innocence.

Voltaire seized his pen. He composed the “Treatise on Tolerance,” one of the greatest defenses of religious liberty and civil rights ever written. He also wrote letters, hundreds of them, to all his contacts in the power elite — ministers, courtiers, salon leaders and fellow philosophers, working from the top down and manipulating the media of his day so skillfully that he created a tidal wave of public opinion, which would ultimately lead to the recognition of rights for Protestants in 1787, nine years after he died.

Voltaire ended many of those letters with a rallying cry, “Écrasez l’infâme” — “Crush the vile thing.” For him, the meaning of “l’infâme” could be extended from intolerance to superstition and injustices of all kinds. The opposing notion of tolerance shaded off into broader values, including civility — the virtue that we need so much today and that Voltaire identified with civilization. Voltaire saw the triumph of civilization over barbarity as the ultimate good inscribed in the historical process. He made the message clear in his most ambitious work, “Essai sur les moeurs et l’esprit des nations”— “Essay on the Manners and Spirit of Nations” — a survey of world history that he first published in 1756 and revised and expanded until his death in 1778.

What more can we aspire to in the age of Trump? The opposition to bigotry and the defense of civil rights once again call for a commitment to the cause of civilization. They require moral passion seasoned with wit.

Jordan Peterson’s Gospel of Masculinity

Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief,”

.. Peterson, formerly an obscure professor, is now one of the most influential—and polarizing—public intellectuals in the English-speaking world.

.. His central message is a thoroughgoing critique of modern liberal culture, which he views as suicidal in its eagerness to upend age-old verities

.. he has learned to distill his wide-ranging theories into pithy sentences, including one that has become his de facto catchphrase, a possibly spurious quote that nevertheless captures his style and his substance: “Sort yourself out, bucko.”

.. For a few years, in the nineteen-nineties, he taught psychology at Harvard;

.. His fame grew in 2016, during the debate over a Canadian bill known as C-16.

.. Peterson resented the idea that the government might force him to use what he called neologisms of politically correct “authoritarians.”

.. “I am not going to be a mouthpiece for language that I detest.” Then he folded his arms, adding, “And that’s that!”

.. To many people disturbed by reports of intolerant radicals on campus, Peterson was a rallying figure: a fearsomely self-assured debater, unintimidated by liberal condemnation.

.. Last fall, a teaching assistant at Wilfrid Laurier University, in Waterloo, Ontario, was reprimanded by professors for showing her class a clip of one of Peterson’s debates.

.. Cathy Newman, asked what gave him the right to offend transgender people. He asked, cheerfully, what gave her the right to risk offending him.

.. David Brooks, in the Times, said that Peterson reminded him of “a young William F. Buckley.”

.. Peterson’s goal is less to help his readers change the world than to help them find a stable place within it.

.. “You should do what other people do, unless you have a very good reason not to.”

.. he is famous today precisely because he has determined that, in a range of circumstances, there are good reasons to buck the popular tide.

.. He is, by turns, a defender of conformity and a critic of it, and he thinks that if readers pay close attention, they, too, can learn when to be which.

 ..  “Religion was for the ignorant, weak, and superstitious,”
.. To ward off mental breakdown, he resolved not to say anything unless he was sure he believed it; this practice calmed the inner voice, and in time it shaped his rhetorical style, which is forceful but careful.
.. a client diagnosed with paranoia. He says that such patients are “almost uncanny in their ability to detect mixed motives, judgment, and falsehood,”
.. “You have to listen very carefully and tell the truth if you are going to get a paranoid person to open up to you,”

.. Peterson sometimes assumes the role of a strident anti-feminist, intent on ending the oppression of males by destroying the myth of male oppression.

.. much of the advice he offers unobjectionable, if old-fashioned: he wants young men to be better fathers, better husbands, better community members.

.. Peterson is an heir, too, to the professional pickup artists who proliferated in the aughts

.. “The highly functional infrastructure that surrounds us, particularly in the West,” he writes, “is a gift from our ancestors: the comparatively uncorrupt political and economic systems, the technology, the wealth, the lifespan, the freedom, the luxury, and the opportunity.”

.. Prime Minister is Justin Trudeau, who seems to strike Peterson as the embodiment of wimpy and fraudulent liberalism.

.. Peterson seems to view Trump, by contrast, as a symptom of modern problems, rather than a cause of them.

.. Peterson seems to view Trump, by contrast, as a symptom of modern problems, rather than a cause of them.

.. Peterson sometimes asks audiences to view him as an alternative to political excesses on both sides.

.. “I’ve had thousands of letters from people who were tempted by the blandishments of the radical right, who’ve moved towards the reasonable center as a consequence of watching my videos.”

.. he typically sees liberals, or leftists, or “postmodernists,” as aggressors—which leads him, rather ironically, to frame some of those on the “radical right” as victims.

.. Postmodernists, he says, are obsessed with the idea of oppression, and, by waging war on oppressors real and imagined, they become oppressors themselves. 

.. When he lampoons “made-up pronouns,” he sometimes seems to be lampooning the people who use them, encouraging his fans to view transgender or gender-nonbinary people as confused, or deluded.

Once, after a lecture, he was approached on campus by a critic who wanted to know why he would not use nonbinary pronouns. “I don’t believe that using your pronouns will do you any good, in the long run,” he replied.

..  “If our society comes to some sort of consensus over the next while about how we’ll solve the pronoun problem,” he said, “and that becomes part of popular parlance, and it seems to solve the problem properly, without sacrificing the distinction between singular and plural, and without requiring me to memorize an impossible list of an indefinite number of pronouns, then I would be willing to reconsider my position.”

.. In the case of gender identity, Peterson’s judgment is that “our society” has not yet agreed to adopt nontraditional pronouns, which isn’t quite an argument that we shouldn’t.

.. He reveres the Bible for its stories, reasoning that any stories that we have been telling ourselves for so long must be, in some important sense, true.

.. a conviction that good and evil exist, and that we can discern them without recourse to any particular religious authority

Why most evangelicals don’t condemn Trump

For such critics, the only possible explanation for evangelicals’ continuing faith in Trump is some combination of ignorance and hypocrisy.

 .. These voters — and almost all of them voted — see Trump’s flaws but perceive him as a fellow sinner willing to fight the forces of the establishment on their behalf.
.. The barrage of negative press hardly rattled him or most of his colleagues, who see the mainstream media as anything but friendly to their opinions and their faith.
.. “He has to fight all of them,” said the preacher, referring to the Democrats and the media.Another minister told me he appreciates that Trump has no hesitation taking on “the reprobate left” that considers the president “an enemy of their established power system.”

.. Part of the decision by many evangelicals to support Trump for president was attributable to long-standing differences with liberal candidates over social issues. Evangelicals tend to share conservative positions on abortion, gun rights, border security and the fight against “radical Islamic terrorism,” as they usually make sure to phrase it. But more than anything, Trump’s specific pledges to the religious right got their attention.

.. So far, they think Trump has kept those promises. He has followed up with invitations to the White Housesought input on court appointments, stood firmly with Israel and signed an executive order expanding religious freedom in regard to political speech.

 .. when Trump refuses to fully adopt the conclusion that climate change is due to man-made influences, he demonstrates an affinity with evangelical Christians who do not blindly accept every scientific theory.
.. They also know they are considered by many to be superstitious or ignorant for adhering to their beliefs.
.. Probably half the people in churches across the country defined as “evangelicals” were converted from lives that were even more unprincipled than the life Trump has led. Some experienced divorces, others used foul language, and many were addicted to drugs or alcohol.
.. In most cases, no immediate miracle happened with regard to their behavior at the moment of their confessions of faith or their emergence from the baptismal waters. The only miracle they were promised was the application of the grace of Jesus Christ, which, under New Testament doctrine, washed away their sins.