Fila Sophia

applied philosophy, deep democracy, sustainability / by A.R.Teleb

The Mideastern Roots of Modern Democracy

[First appeared May 26th Daft Blogger. More on humility soon.]

Is it possible that it was not the rediscovery of Greek thought that brought equality, human rights and democracy to Modern Europe, but the re-thinking of monotheistic ideas that leveled both civil and religious hierarchies and made democracy possible? Europe’s debt could be to a North African-Iberian Jew, exiled in Holland, by the name of Baruch Spinoza.

People often ask, “Why have Arab Revolutions not produced stable democracies?” “Experts” ready to answer proliferate. But their answers seem stale, contradictory or even jingoistic. “They haven’t had the Reformation. The Enlightenment has not come to the Middle East. They need to separate church and state!” Or even, “Islam is incompatible with democracy”.

Leaving aside these anachronistic or Western-centric answers, this non-expert article suggests another possibility, that there is a more basic, albeit philosophical prerequisite of democracy – humility. It not only deepened the Reformation and helped set the stage for Enlightenment thought, but perhaps made peaceful life under a democratic regime possible. First, the reasons why the clichéd accounts above explain little about democracy.

Neither Reformation, Nor Separation, Nor Enlightenment

“Religions are no longer identified with charity, but with spreading discord…under the name of zeal for the Lord”.
Spinoza, Theologico-political Treatise

Using the Reformation to explain the shipwreck of Mideastern democracy ignores a basic fact about mainstream Islam, that there is no “church” with an authority to settle doctrine or interpret scripture. Moreover, to bring up “separation of church and state” more than presumes a Euro-centric view, it ignores European history. Reformation did not avert the Thirty Years War and its eight million causalities, nor the persecution of religious minorities throughout the continent. Moreover, separation of church and state did not prevent New England witch trials or stop the expulsion and murder of Quakers, Anabaptists, and Amish on the continent and the early American colonies.

To link the absence of peaceful democracies with the Enlightenment equally misses the mark. The Enlightenment permitted both the Reign of Terror of the French Revolution and the anti-democratic reaction that was the French Empire. Together, the post-Enlightenment American Civil War, the 19th Century Colonial Wars, the two World Wars, and the Cold War (that fought proxy civil wars between the USSR and USA in Africa, Europe, and Asia) killed tens of millions, mostly civilians. No, something other than reason must explain periods of peaceful democratic regimes.

Lastly, to explain the floundering of Arab Uprisings on Islam misconceives the roots of democracy in the West itself.

Monotheistic Roots

The ideological roots of democracy were not as lofty as Reformation, Enlightenment, or Greek philosophy, but lay in the humble ground of Abrahamic origin. Spinoza’s radical ontological and epistemological humility provided the earthly equality beneath modern democracy. Using a “geometric method” he flattened out a plane of Being, and of knowing, out of a staunch monotheistic Unity. He started, as it were, with “Yehuwah is your lord…is one (echad)” and ended with oneness of the universe and equality of beings, beings in no position to judge one another or access the wisdom of an infinite God. Spinoza, whose family was twice exiled, first from Spain then from Portugal, was excommunicated by his congregation and stabbed by a fanatic outside his temple for taking monotheism too philosophically, or perhaps too seriously.

Ironically perhaps, he used Fundamentalism to flatten fanaticism. Spinoza drew out Yehuwah, literally “that which is” in Hebrew, into an infinite Substance of Being. He is all there is, all Being, echad, one unity, stretched out in every direction. God leveled all else, leveled all hierarchy. All other “beings” were merely “modes” so much as insignificant, finite line segments on the infinite surface of Substance, the one and only Being. Likewise, mind and body, “thinking” and “extension” for Spinoza, were but two axes marking the dimensions of all that is accessible to humans, mere coordinates on that infinite Being. It was Gilles Deleuze who pointed out the figure of the “flat plane” as a way of imagining Spinoza’s Ethica.

How then could a tiny segment existing for but a flash on Being’s eternity fathom any part of the One? How can miniscule “modes” profess access to eternal Truth? Humble Spinoza saw a flat human world with access only to the extension and mind attribute-dimensions of an unfathomable, infinite-dimensional Being, leaving no room upon which to erect an edifice of hierarchy, from which one human being could judge another. He took monotheism seriously and stretched it out as far as it could go. “That-which-is” was One and united.

But he did not stop there. He was a “textualist” who historicized scripture and humanized its interpretation more than any Reformation thinker. The Old Testament, intended for a Hebrew nation, must be read according to the sensibilities of that ancient people and their language. Where it portrays God as jealous and vengeful, it is because the mass of the people at the time understood that kind of language. Where a Law for the Hebrews is mentioned, it should be read as a law of that nation and perhaps only while the state existed. Moreover, the Torah spoken in ancient Hebrew, written down without vowels, should be read and interpreted in its original and only as far as our knowledge of the authenticity of the text and of the language permits. Because of such limitations, many passages will remain ambiguous and best left as mysteries rather than points of discord.

For example, in the story of the Tree of Knowledge, Spinoza warns us not to read human motives (or manners of being) into God’s words to Adam, because it would amount to pre-interpreting the story before knowing the facts. Banishing Adam for disobedience, he would say, would amount to imagining a jealous, small-minded ruler not the infinite Being who is all that exists. If Adam got sick after eating the apple, it was because of what was in the apple that was poison to him, what was harmful to humans, and revealed to him by God.

Liberating Being from hierarchy and liberating reason from superstitious judgment, Spinoza created a radical ontological and epistemic modesty, respectively. These two “levelings” are the prerequisites of democracy. Without a way to judge between human beings, all views must be taken seriously into account. Without a way to decide outside of human reason on the best course of action, even on the interpretation of scripture, we must suspend a priori decisions. Whether we get together to interpret scripture or decide on the best way to share water resources, we must come without a priori foolproof criteria but rather with a humbleness befitting a flat plane.

Would the Muslim Spinoza please stand up

These deeply monotheistic ideas have surely been adopted by some, perhaps obscure, Muslim Spinoza somewhere. The words used to refer to God and Unity are the same in Arabic and Hebrew, echad and ahad, and the Quran continually reminds believers of Unity and Oneness, wahed and ahad. Moreover, the Muslim Spinoza would have noted the Quran repetition of the definite article of one-ness before every imaginable noun that refers to judgment, rule, ownership, decision, vengeance, retribution, etc. If only The One can “judge,” “rule,” “decide,” “avenge,” humans must be humble in their proclamations on good and evil, usefulness and harmfulness. The “experts” could name 99 such attributes, the dimensions of Being inaccessible to human kind. The Muslim Spinoza would also limit our knowledge to the two attribute-dimensions of extension and mind, and there only imperfectly.

The Muslim Spinoza would preach a simple maxim:

Less ‘allah akbar’ and more ‘allah a’lam,’ less “God is great” but more “what do I know.”

Writing in Victorian England, in a book called Flatland, Edwin Abbott Abbott illustrated a Spinozist humility through a two-dimensional world of simple geometric figures. In such a world, the gradual entry of a sphere from a third dimension would first look like a point, then a circle of increasing diameter, then a circle of decreasing diameter and again a point as it disappeared into the “other side.” Read in a Spinozist sense, we earthly Flatlanders are all equally blind to dimensions (attributes) beyond our surface, beyond our world. If we are so limited by our very habitat and know so little about the outside universe, what sense does it make to take the results of an election so seriously, let alone to drop bombs on one another or blow ourselves up over political, economic or religious quarrels – whose solutions we could very well be mistaken about.

No, neither the Reformation, nor the Enlightenment, nor the separation of church and state made living peacefully in a democracy possible, but rather the theologico-political ideas of a modest Sephardi who polished lenses for a living. His singularly monotheistic ideas would make a difference today in Libya, Egypt, and Iraq. And, it seems, that same ontological and epistemic humility in his philosophy could equally serve well in places like Wisconsin, Texas, and Florida. At any rate, living on a flat sphere, whichever direction an idea travels, it inevitably makes its way around and back again, by mere geometry without aid of a boomerang.

In other words, as far as ideals are concerned, the danger to democratic regimes might not be (Jewish, Christian, Muslim) fundamentalism, but inconsistent (Jewish, Christian, Muslim) fundamentalists. But what do I know?

One comment on “The Mideastern Roots of Modern Democracy

  1. keithsutherland

    Hmm, I didn’t realise Spinoza was so widely read during the 18th century. Post hoc ergo propter hoc?


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