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Spinoza’s Tractatus Theologico-Politicus

SPINOZA, BENEDICT DE. Tractatus Theologico-Politicus continens dissertationes aliquot.

Hamburg [Amsterdam]: Heinrich Künraht, 1670

4to. Contemporary blind-ruled calf, marbled endpapers, edges sprinkled red. Rubbed, upper joint cracked. A fresh, honest, unrestored copy.

First edition of this landmark of 17th-century thought, the most important of the two books Spinoza published in his lifetime. “Spinoza’s thought, a fusion of Cartesian rationalism and the Hebraic tradition in which he grew up, is a solitary but crystal clear exposition of the theory of natural right. He defends with eloquence the liberty of thought and speech in speculative matters, and the Tractatus contains the first clear statement of the independence of each other of philosophy and religion” (PMM).

Spinoza held that “Man is moved to the knowledge and love of God; the love of God involves the love of our fellow men. Man, in order to obtain security, surrenders part of his right of independent action to the State. But the State exists to give liberty, not to enslave; justice, wisdom, and toleration are essential to the sovereign power” (PMM). Spinoza’s Tractatus Theologico-Politicus was a notorious book in its own time both for what it attacked and for what it advocated. Spinoza scrutinized religious teachings and Scripture to argue that they were mere products of the human mind. At the same time, he “believed that the political model of the ancient Hebrews could be imitated in certain key respects. … Unlike Hobbes, whose social contract theory justified absolute monarchy, Spinoza argued that democracy was a preferred form of government. And, finally, he thought that the state would be better off if it granted limited religious toleration and the freedom to philosophize” (Melamed and Rosenthal, eds., Spinoza’s Tractatus Theologico-Politicus: A Critical Guide).

The author’s concerns about political repercussions delayed publication of the book for years. It finally appeared anonymously in 1670 with a false imprint. The Tractatus was soon placed on the Index and interdicted in Holland. Leibniz rejected its scandalous arguments, while Hobbes is said to have declared, “I durst not  write so boldly.” Spinoza has come to be embraced by many seemingly irreconcilable “-isms” including liberalism, Marxist materialism, conservatism, and Zionism.

This is the first edition, readily identified by the misspelled “Künraht” imprint and the mis-numbering of page 104 as 304. “Although there is only one genuine first edition, the other quarto editions also pretend that they were printed in the year 1670 … The reason for this is that the work was highly controversial: although formally banned only in 1674, it was considered illegal from its publication and there were attempts to have it repressed from the very start.

“So the Amsterdam publisher, Jan Rieuwertsz, had to be careful. He did not reveal his identity on the title page (which carries a fictitious imprint: Henricus Künrath in Hamburg), and when there was a demand for reprints, it was important to make the book look like copies left over from the original 1670 issue, rather than newly printed ones” (Melamed and Rosenthal).

“Spinoza is one of the most important philosophers—and certainly the most radical—of the early modern period. His thought combines a commitment to a number of Cartesian metaphysical and epistemological principles with elements from ancient Stoicism, Hobbes, and medieval Jewish rationalism into a nonetheless highly original system. His extremely naturalistic views on God, the world, the human being and knowledge serve to ground a moral philosophy centered on the control of the passions leading to virtue and happiness. They also lay the foundations for a strongly democratic political thought and a deep critique of the pretensions of Scripture and sectarian religion. Of all the philosophers of the seventeenth century, perhaps none have more relevance today than Spinoza” (Stanford Philosophy).

The first edition is rare in an unrestored period binding. The last such example to appear for public sale was the Friedlander copy ($49,350 at Christie’s in 2001).

Printing and the Mind of Man 153. Bamberger, “The Early Editions of Spinoza’s Tractatus Theologico-Politicus” in Studies in Bibliography and Booklore, no. 1.