Tractatus Theologico-Politicus

literary work

The Tractatus Theologico-Politicus or Theologico-Political Treatise, written by the Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza, was one of the most controversial texts of the early modern period. It was a preemptive defense of Spinoza's later work, Ethics, published posthumously in 1677, for which he anticipated harsh criticism.


Men's habits of mind differ, so that some more readily embrace one form of faith, some another, for what moves one to pray may move another to scoff, I conclude … that everyone should be free to choose for himself the foundations of his creed, and that faith should be judged only by its fruits...
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Prophecy really includes ordinary knowledge...
The multitude always strains after rarities and exceptions, and thinks little of the gifts of nature ; so that, when prophecy is talked of, ordinary knowledge is not supposed to be included...
In regard to intellect and true virtue, every nation is on a par with the rest, and God has not in these respects chosen one people rather than another.
The object of government is not to change men from rational beings into beasts or puppets, but to enable them to develop their minds and bodies in security, and to employ their reason unshackled; neither showing hatred, anger, or deceit, nor watched with the eyes of jealousy and injustice.
The true aim of government is liberty.
The real disturbers of the peace are those who, in a free state, seek to curtail the liberty of judgment which they are unable to tyrannize over.


translations by R. H. M. Elwes, unless otherwise noted
  • Si homines res omnes suas certo consilio regere possent, vel si fortuna ipsis prospera semper foret, nulla superstitione tenerentur. Sed quoniam eo saepe angustiarum rediguntur, ut consilium nullum adferre queant, et plerumque ob incerta fortunae bona, quae sine modo cupiunt, inter spem metumque misere fluctuant, ideo animum ut plurimum ad quidvis credendum pronissimum habent ; qui dum in dubio facili momento huc, atque illuc pellitur, et multo facilius, dum spe, et metu agitatus haeret, praesidens alias, jactabundus, ac tumidus. Atque haec neminem ignorare existimo, quamvis plerosque se ipsos ignorare credam ; nemo enim inter homines ita vixit, qui non viderit, plerosque in rebus prosperis, etsi imperitissimi sint, sapientiâ ita abundare, ut sibi injuriam fieri credant, si quis iis consilium dare velit ; in adversis autem, quo se vertant, nescire, et consilium ab unoquoque supplices petere, nec ullum tam ineptum tamque ad absurdum, aut vanum audire, quod non sequantur : Deinde levissimis etiam de causis jam meliora sperare, rursus deteriora timere ; si quid enim, dum in metu versantur, contingere vident, quod eos praeteriti alicujus boni, vel mali memores reddit, id exitum aut faelicem, aut infaelicem obnunciare putant, quod propterea, quamvis centies fallat, faustum vel infaustum omen vocant. Si quid porro insolitum magna cum admiratione vident, id prodigium esse credunt, quod Deorum aut summi Numinis iram indicat, quodque adeo hostiis, et votis non piare, nefas habent homines superstitioni obnoxii, et religioni adversi ; eumque ad modum infinita fingunt, et quasi tota natura cum ipsis insaniret, eandem miris modis interpretantur.Cum igitur haec ita sese habeant, tum praecipue vidimus, eos omni superstitionis generi addictissimos esse, qui incerta sine modo cupiunt, omnesque tum maxime, cum scilicet in periculis versantur, et sibi auxilio esse nequeunt, votis, et lachrimis muliebribus divina auxilia implorare, et rationem (quia ad vana, quae cupiunt, certam viam ostendere nequit) caecam appellare, humanamque sapientiam vanam ; et contrà imaginationis deliria, somnia, et pueriles ineptias divina responsa credere, imo Deum sapientes aversari, et sua decreta non menti, sed pecudum fibris inscripsisse, vel eadem stultos, vesanos, et aves divino afflatu, et instinctus praedicere. Tantum timor homines insanire facit. Causa itaque, a quâ superstitio oritur, et fovetur, metus est.
    • Men would never be superstitious, if they could govern all their circumstances by set rules, or if they were always favoured by fortune : but being frequently driven into straits where rules are useless, and being often kept fluctuating pitiably between hope and fear by the uncertainty of fortune's greedily coveted favours, they are consequently, for the most part, very prone to credulity. The human mind is readily swayed this way or that in times of doubt, especially when hope and fear are struggling for the mastery, though usually it is boastful, over-confident, and vain.
      This as a general fact I suppose everyone knows, though few, I believe, know their own nature; no one can have lived in the world without observing that most people, when in prosperity, are so over-brimming with wisdom (however inexperienced they may be), that they take every offer of advice as a personal insult, whereas in adversity they know not where to turn, but beg and pray for counsel from every passer-by. No plan is then too futile, too absurd, or too fatuous for their adoption ; the most frivolous causes will raise them to hope, or plunge them into despair — if anything happens during their fright which reminds them of some past good or ill, they think it portends a happy or unhappy issue, and therefore (though it may have proved abortive a hundred times before) style it a lucky or unlucky omen. Anything which excites their astonishment they believe to be a portent signifying the anger of the gods or of the Supreme Being, and, mistaking superstition for religion, account it impious not to avert the evil with prayer and sacrifice. Signs and wonders of this sort they conjure up perpetually, till one might think Nature as mad as themselves, they interpret her so fantastically.
      Thus it is brought prominently before us, that superstition's chief victims are those persons who greedily covet temporal advantages; they it is, who (especially when they are in danger, and cannot help themselves) are wont with Prayers and womanish tears to implore help from God : upbraiding Reason as blind, because she cannot show a sure path to the shadows they pursue, and rejecting human wisdom as vain ; but believing the phantoms of imagination, dreams, and other childish absurdities, to be the very oracles of Heaven. As though God had turned away from the wise, and written his decrees, not in the mind of man but in the entrails of beasts, or left them to be proclaimed by the inspiration and instinct of fools, madmen, and birds. Such is the unreason to which terror can drive mankind!
      Superstition, then, is engendered, preserved, and fostered by fear.
  • As the mass of mankind remains always at about the same pitch of misery, it never assents long to any one remedy, but is always best pleased by a novelty which has not yet proved illusive.
  • If, in despotic statecraft, the supreme and essential mystery be to hoodwink the subjects, and to mask the fear, which keeps them down, with the specious garb of religion, so that men may fight as bravely for slavery as for safety, and count it not shame but highest honour to risk their blood and their lives for the vainglory of a tyrant; yet in a free state no more mischievous expedient could be planned or attempted.
  • Wholly repugnant to the general freedom are such devices as enthralling men's minds with prejudices, forcing their judgment, or employing any of the weapons of quasi-religious sedition; indeed, such seditions only spring up, when law enters the domain of speculative thought, and opinions are put on trial and condemned on the same footing as crimes, while those who defend and follow them are sacrificed, not to public safety, but to their opponents' hatred and cruelty. If deeds only could be made the grounds of criminal charges, and words were always allowed to pass free, such seditions would be divested of every semblance of justification, and would be separated from mere controversies by a hard and fast line.
  • Seeing that we have the rare happiness of living in a republic, where everyone's judgment is free and unshackled, where each may worship God as his conscience dictates, and where freedom is esteemed before all things dear and precious, I have believed that I should be undertaking no ungrateful or unprofitable task, in demonstrating that not only can such freedom be granted without prejudice to the public peace, but also that without such freedom, piety cannot flourish nor the public peace be secure.
    Such is the chief conclusion I seek to establish in this treatise...
  • Faith has become a mere compound of credulity and prejudices—aye, prejudices too, which degrade man from rational being to beast, which completely stifle the power of judgment between true and false, which seem, in fact, carefully fostered for the purpose of extinguishing the last spark of reason! Piety, great God! and religion are become a tissue of ridiculous mysteries; men, who flatly despise reason, who reject and turn away from understanding as naturally corrupt, these, I say, these of all men, are thought, O lie most horrible! to possess light from on High. Verily, if they had but one spark of light from on High, they would not insolently rave, but would learn to worship God more wisely, and would be as marked among their fellows for mercy as they now are for malice; if they were concerned for their opponents' souls, instead of for their own reputations, they would no longer fiercely persecute, but rather be filled with pity and compassion.
    ...never even in sleep have they caught a glimpse of Scripture's Divine nature.
  • The authority of the prophets has weight only in matters of morality, and... their speculative doctrines affect us little.
  • I show that the Word of God has not been revealed as a certain number of books, but was displayed to the prophets as a simple idea of the Divine mind, namely, obedience to God in singleness of heart, and in the practice of justice and charity; and... that this doctrine is set forth in Scripture... to the end that men might receive it willingly and with their whole heart.
  • Revelation has obedience for its sole object, and therefore, in purpose no less than in foundation and method, stands entirely aloof from ordinary knowledge; each has its separate province, neither can be called the handmaid of the other.
  • As men's habits of mind differ, so that some more readily embrace one form of faith, some another, for what moves one to pray may move another to scoff, I conclude … that everyone should be free to choose for himself the foundations of his creed, and that faith should be judged only by its fruits; each would then obey God freely with his whole heart, while nothing would be publicly honoured save justice and charity.
  • Having thus drawn attention to the liberty conceded to everyone by the revealed law of God, I... prove that this same liberty can and should be accorded with safety to the state and the magisterial authority—in fact, that it cannot be withheld without great danger to peace and detriment to the community.
  • I start from the natural rights of the individual... I show that these rights can only be transferred to those whom we depute to defend us, who acquire with the duties of defence the power of ordering our lives, and I thence infer that rulers possess rights only limited by their power, that they are the sole guardians of justice and liberty, and that their subjects should act in all things as they dictate: nevertheless, since no one can so utterly abdicate his own power of self-defence as to cease to be a man, I conclude that no one can be deprived of his natural rights absolutely, but that subjects, either by tacit agreement, or by social contract, retain a certain number, which cannot be taken from them without great danger to the state.
  • I know that I am a man and, as a man, liable to error, but against error I have taken scrupulous care, and striven to keep in entire accordance with the laws of my country, with loyalty, and with morality.

Chapter 1

  • Now it is evident, from the definition above given, that prophecy really includes ordinary knowledge; for the knowledge which we acquire by our natural faculties depends on our knowledge of God and his eternal laws; but ordinary knowledge is common to all men as men, and rests on foundations which all share, whereas the multitude always strains after rarities and exceptions, and thinks little of the gifts of nature ; so that, when prophecy is talked of, ordinary knowledge is not supposed to be included.
    Nevertheless, it has as much right as any other to be called divine, for God's nature, in so far as we share therein, and God's laws, dictate it to us; nor does it suffer from that to which we give the preeminence, except in so far as the latter transcends its limits and cannot be accounted for by natural laws taken in themselves.
    • Ch. 1, Of Prophecy; translated by R. H. M. Elwes
  • I do not believe anyone has reached such perfection, surpassing all others, except Christ, to whom God immediately revealed — without words or visions — the conditions which lead to salvation. So God revealed himself to the Apostles through Christ's mind, as formerly he had revealed himself to Moses by means of a heavenly voice. And therefore Christ's voice, like the one Moses heard, can be called the voice of God. And in this sense we can also say that God's wisdom, that is, a wisdom, surpassing human wisdom, assumed a human nature in Christ, and that Christ was the way to salvation.
    • Ch. 1, Of Prophecy from Benedictus de Spinoza Opera by Carl Gebhardt, ed. (Heidelberg: Carl Winter, 1925) vol. III, p. 21 as trans. by Edwin Curley, ed., A Spinoza Reader: The Ethics and Other Works/Benedict de Spinoza (Princeton NJ: Princeton UP, 1994) p. 14.

Chapter 3

  • When the prophets, in speaking of this election which regards only true virtue, mixed up much concerning sacrifices and ceremonies, and the rebuilding of the temple and city, they wished by such figurative expressions, after the manner and nature of prophecy, to expound matters spiritual, so as at the same time to show to the Jews, whose prophets they were, the true restoration of the state and of the temple to be expected about the time of Cyrus.
    At the present time, therefore, there is absolutely nothing which the Jews can arrogate to themselves beyond other people.
    As to their continuance so long after dispersion and the loss of empire, there is nothing marvellous in it, for they so separated themselves from every other nation as to draw down upon themselves universal hate, not only by their outward rites, rites conflicting with those of other nations, but also by the sign of circumcision which they most scrupulously observe.
    That they have been preserved in great measure by Gentile hatred, experience demonstrates.
    • Ch. 3, Of the Vocation of the Hebrews, and Whether the Gift of Prophecy Was Peculiar to Them; translated by R. H. M. Elwes
    • Variant translation: Therefore at the present time there is nothing whatsoever that the Jews can arrogate to themselves above other nations. As to their continued existence for so many years when scattered and stateless, this is in no way surprising, since they have separated themselves from other nations to such a degree as to incur the hatred of all, and this not only through external rites alien to the rites of other nations but also through the mark of circumcision, which they most religiously observe. That they are preserved largely through the hatred of other nations is demonstrated by historical fact.
      • As translated by Samuel Shirley
  • In regard to intellect and true virtue, every nation is on a par with the rest, and God has not in these respects chosen one people rather than another.
    • Ch. 3, Of the Vocation of the Hebrews, and Whether the Gift of Prophecy Was Peculiar to Them; translated by R. H. M. Elwes

Chapter 6

  • Any event happening in nature which contravened nature's universal laws, would necessarily also contravene the Divine decree, nature, and understanding; or if anyone asserted that God acts in contravention to the laws of nature, he, ipso facto, would be compelled to assert that God acted against His own nature—an evident absurdity.
  • As nothing happens in nature which does not follow from her laws, and as her laws embrace everything conceived by the Divine intellect, and lastly, as nature preserves a fixed and immutable order; it most clearly follows that miracles are only intelligible as in relation to human opinions, and merely mean events of which the natural cause cannot be explained by a reference to any ordinary occurrence, either by us, or at any rate, by the writer and narrator of the miracle.
  • Since miracles were wrought according to the understanding of the masses, who are wholly ignorant of the workings of nature, it is certain that the ancients took for a miracle whatever they could not explain by the method adopted by the unlearned in such cases, namely, an appeal to the memory, a recalling of something similar, which is ordinarily regarded without wonder; for most people think they sufficiently understand a thing when they have ceased to wonder at it. The ancients, then, and indeed most men up to the present day, had no other criterion for a miracle; hence we cannot doubt that many things are narrated in Scripture as miracles of which the causes could easily be explained by reference to ascertained workings of nature.
  • When we know that all things are ordained and ratified by God, that the operations of nature follow from the essence of God, and that the laws of nature are eternal decrees and volitions of God, we must perforce conclude that our knowledge of God, and of God's will increases in proportion to our knowledge and clear understanding of nature.
  • Plainly, they are but triflers who, when they cannot explain a thing, run back to the will of God; this is, truly, a ridiculous way of expressing ignorance.
  • Philosophers who endeavour to understand things by clear conceptions of them, rather than by miracles, have always found the task extremely easy—at least, such of them as place true happiness solely in virtue and peace of mind, and who aim at obeying Nature, rather than being obeyed by her.
  • All the events narrated in Scripture came to pass naturally, and are referred directly to God because Scripture, as we have shown, does not aim at explaining things by their natural causes, but only at narrating what appeals to the popular imagination, and doing so in the manner best calculated to excite wonder, and consequently to impress the minds of the masses with devotion.
  • Scripture does not explain things by their secondary causes, but only narrates them in the order and the style which has most power to move men, and especially uneducated men, to devotion; and therefore it speaks inaccurately of God and of events, seeing that its object is not to convince the reason, but to attract and lay hold of the imagination. If the Bible were to describe the destruction of an empire in the style of political historians, the masses would remain unstirred.
  • We may, then, be absolutely certain that every event which is truly described in Scripture necessarily happened, like everything else, according to natural laws; and if anything is there set down which can be proved in set terms to contravene the order of nature, or not to be deducible therefrom, we must believe it to have been foisted into the sacred writings by irreligious hands.
  • In order to interpret the Scriptural miracles and understand from the narration of them how they really happened, it is necessary to know the opinions of those who first related them, and have recorded them for us in writing, and to distinguish such opinions from the actual impression made upon their senses, otherwise we shall confound opinions and judgments with the actual miracle as it really occurred: nay, further, we shall confound actual events with symbolical and imaginary ones. For many things are narrated in Scripture as real, and were believed to be real, which were in fact only symbolical and imaginary.
  • In order to understand, in the case of miracles, what actually took place, we ought to be familiar with Jewish phrases and metaphors; anyone who did not make sufficient allowance for these, would be continually seeing miracles in Scripture where nothing of the kind is intended by the writer; he would thus miss the knowledge not only of what actually happened, but also of the mind of the writers of the sacred text.
  • Scripture makes the general assertion in several passages that nature's course is fixed and unchangeable. In Ps. 148:6, for instance, and Jer. 31:35. The wise man also, in Eccles. 1:10, distinctly teaches that "there is nothing new under the sun," and in verses 11, 12, illustrating the same idea, he adds that although something occasionally happens which seems new, it is not really new, but "hath been already of old time, which was before us, whereof there is no remembrance, neither shall there be any remembrance of things that are to come with those that come after." Again in chap. 2:11, he says, "God hath made everything beautiful in his time," and immediately afterwards adds, "I know that whatsoever God doeth, it shall be for ever; nothing can be put to it, nor anything taken from it."
  • Now all these texts teach most distinctly that nature preserves a fixed and unchangeable order, and that God in all ages, known and unknown, has been the same; further, that the laws of Nature are so perfect, that nothing can be added thereto nor taken therefrom; and, lastly, that miracles only appear as something new because of man's ignorance.
  • Nowhere does Scripture assert that anything happens which contradicts, or cannot follow from the laws of Nature; and, therefore, we should not attribute to it such a doctrine.
  • The words of Moses, "God is a fire" and "God is jealous," are perfectly clear so long as we regard merely the signification of the words, and I therefore reckon them among the clear passages, though in relation to reason and truth they are most obscure: still, although the literal meaning is repugnant to the natural light of reason, nevertheless, if it cannot be clearly overruled on grounds and principles derived from its Scriptural "history," it, that is, the literal meaning, must be the one retained: and contrariwise if these passages literally interpreted are found to clash with principles derived from Scripture, though such literal interpretation were in absolute harmony with reason, they must be interpreted in a different manner, i.e. metaphorically. … In the present instance, as Moses says in several other passages that God has no likeness to any visible thing, whether in heaven or in earth, or in the water, either all such passages must be taken metaphorically.

Chapter 20

  • The ultimate aim of government is not to rule, or restrain, by fear, nor to exact obedience, but, contrariwise, to free every man from fear, that he may live in all possible security ; in other words, to strengthen his natural right to exist and work without injury to himself or others.
    No, the object of government is not to change men from rational beings into beasts or puppets, but to enable them to develop their minds and bodies in security, and to employ their reason unshackled; neither showing hatred, anger, or deceit, nor watched with the eyes of jealousy and injustice. In fact, the true aim of government is liberty.
    • Ch. 20, That In a Free State Every Man May Think What He Likes, and Say What He Thinks; translated by R. H. M. Elwes
    • Variant translation: The last end of the state is not to dominate men, nor to restrain them by fear ; rather it is so to free each man from fear that he may live and act with full security and without injury to himself or his neighbor. The end of the state, I repeat, is not to make rational beings into brute beasts and machines. It is to enable their bodies and their minds to function safely. It is to lead men to live by, and to exercise, a free reason ; that they may not waste their strength in hatred, anger and guile, nor act unfairly toward one another. Thus the end of the state is really liberty.
  • If men's minds were as easily controlled as their tongues, every king would sit safely on his throne, and government by compulsion would cease; for every subject would shape his life according to the intentions of his rulers, and would esteem a thing true or false, good or evil, just or unjust, in obedience to their dictates.
    • Ch. 20; translated by R. H. M. Elwes
  • The more a government strives to curtail freedom of speech, the more obstinately is it resisted; not indeed by the avaricious, … but by those whom good education, sound morality, and virtue have rendered more free. Men, in general, are so constituted that there is nothing they will endure with so little patience as that views which they believe to be true should be counted crimes against the laws. … Under such circumstances they do not think it disgraceful, but most honorable, to hold the laws in abhorrence, and to refrain from no action against the government.
    • Ch. 20, That In a Free State Every Man May Think What He Likes, and Say What He Thinks; quoted in The Story of Philosophy (1933) by Will Durant
  • When the religious controversy between Remonstrants and Counter-Remonstrants began to be taken up by politicians and the States, it grew into a schism, and abundantly showed that laws dealing with religion and seeking to settle its controversies are much more calculated to irritate than to reform, and that they give rise to extreme licence: further, it was seen that schisms do not originate in a love of truth, which is a source of courtesy and gentleness, but rather in an inordinate desire for supremacy. From all these considerations it is clearer than the Sun at noonday, that the true schismatics are those who condemn other men's writings, and seditiously stir up the quarrelsome masses against their authors, rather than those authors themselves, who generally write only for the learned, and appeal solely to reason. In fact, the real disturbers of the peace are those who, in a free state, seek to curtail the liberty of judgment which they are unable to tyrannize over.
    • Ch. 20, That In a Free State Every Man May Think What He Likes, and Say What He Thinks; translated by R. H. M. Elwes
  • The safest way for a state is to lay down the rule that religion is comprised solely in the exercise of charity and justice, and that the rights of rulers in sacred, no less than in secular matters, should merely have to do with actions, but that every man should think what he likes and say what he thinks.
    • Ch. 20, That In a Free State Every Man May Think What He Likes, and Say What He Thinks; translated by R. H. M. Elwes

Quotes about Tractatus Theologico-Politicus

  • A Treatise partly Theological and partly Political, Containing some few Discourses, to prove that the Liberty of Philosophizing (that is Making Use of Natural Reason) may be allow'd without any prejudice to Piety, or to the Peace of any Common-wealth; and that the Loss of Public Peace and Religion it self must necessarily follow, where such a Liberty of Reasoning is taken away.
    • Anonymous, the extended title in the 1st English translation of Tractatus Theologico-Politicus (1689) Note that the translation is, like the original, anonymous; neither is Spinoza's name mentioned in the translation.
  • This is the conclusion of the whole matter for him; a fervent appeal to the State to save us from the untoward generation of metaphysical Article-makers.
    • Matthew Arnold, "Spinoza and the Bible," Essays in Criticism (1883) Vol. 1.
  • The scope of the book is political and practical, not speculative. The final thesis to which all its apparatus of criticism leads up is that 'in a free commonwealth it should be lawful for every man to think what he will and speak what he thinks:' a proposition which, with due reservations in behalf of decency and civil order—and the reservations were in no wise neglected by Spinoza—has now become common learning for the greater part of the civilized world. It looks to our modern eyes infinitely less bold than the arguments by which Spinoza maintained it. In order to gain his desired foundation for the freedom of speculative opinion, he plunges into an investigation of the nature of prophecy, the principles of Scriptural interpretation, and the true provinces of theology and philosophy, anticipating with wonderful grasp and insight almost every principle, and not a few of the results of the school of historical criticism which has arisen within the last two or three generations; a school which, through Lessing and his circle, is connected by direct descent with Spinoza. Taking the whole contents of the treatise together, we cannot be surprised that even in the United Provinces, then the freest country in the world, it was thought needful to issue it without the name of the author and with that of a fictitious printer at Hamburg.
  • The tone and form are conciliatory, but with the kind of high-handed conciliation that exasperates. Much hard hitting will be taken without complaint in downright argument; but few men can endure to be confuted from their own premisses by an adversary who never fully shows his hand. It is more tolerable for a dogmatist to be confronted with novelties in speculative opinion than to be told that speculative opinions are in themselves indifferent; and the truth that conduct does not depend on speculation, though exemplified abundantly by all generations of men, is still unfamiliar and unwelcome to most of us. It is just to this unwelcome truth that Spinoza bears a testimony of unsurpassed power in the 'Tractatus Theologico Politicus;' but if anything more were needed to explain the storm of polemic that burst upon him, there is yet more to come. We have said that Spinoza does not omit the necessary reservations in favour of the civil power; we must add that he makes them not only freely but amply, so amply that he has been charged by some of his modern censors with going about to deify mere brute force. He appeals, moreover, from the Churches to the State, as representing the worldly common sense of the lay mind. He looks to an enlightened civil magistrate to deliver men from the barren clamour of anathemas, almost as an Indian heretic vexed by the Brahmans may look to the impartial secular arm of the British Government. ...If the English translator had been minded to give the book a second title, after the manner of English controversialists of that day, he might fairly have called it 'Erastianism not Unscriptural.'