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Towards an Irresponsible Classics

James I. Porter

Spinoza’s Tractatus Theologico-Politicus (TTP), published in 1670, offers classicists a model of engaged philology that is both troubling and worth emulating. An astonishing document, TTP sits uncomfortably at the cross-roads of secular Enlightenment, Biblical criticism, classical philology, and republican and democratic political theory. A heretical work, TTP outraged Spinoza’s Jewish and Christian contemporaries alike. The Bible, he argued, is proof that “the Hebrews knew almost nothing of God,” that its religious doctrines are the product of heated imaginations (the prophets’, first and foremost), that miracles never in the world occurred, that Moses was not the author of the Pentateuch (which is instead a compilation by several hands that is contaminated with contradictions, slips, textual variants, corruptions, interpolations, and an inorganic narrative and style, hence it is a mere historical and human artifact, and worse, an ideological edifice that underwrites the fantasy of Jewish identity politics), and that Christ had no divine powers and no divine knowledge (though he came closer to enunciating the universal, non-sectarian truth of God than the Jews did).

There are numerous parallels between TTP and classical philology, the most obvious being the early modern dismantling of Homer, whom Goethe tellingly described as “the pagan Moses.” But there are more than parallels. The two kinds of method are genetically linked. Vico’s demolition of Homer’s identity by way of a naturalizing historicism was directly inspired by Spinoza’s work: “Homer” in the New Science is a thinly veiled pseudonym for Moses (Morrison). And Wolf was the beneficiary of the Biblical hermeneutics that developed in Spinoza’s wake (Grafton). Many of the methods used by Spinoza actually date back to late antique rabbinic, Church, and Islamic traditions of scholarship (Lazarus-Yafeh), while others owe their existence to contemporary Protestantism (Popkin; Malcolm), above all the textual-immanent procedure of sola Scriptura, which in Spinoza’s hands has more in common with the Aristarchan maxim Homerus ex Homero than with Christian impulses, and which indirectly, but powerfully, paved the way for modern philology. Indeed, without this kind of linkage to the past, albeit an utterly different, non-classical past, the modern approach to Homer in classics would be unthinkable. But this also ought to have a bearing on how we assess the modernity and the substance of classical studies now.

A closer look at the methods of Spinoza’s work and its historical affiliations, to be the focus of Part 1 of this paper, inevitably raises some more general questions that deserve discussion (Part 2). First, responsibility and irresponsibility are relative terms. One person’s responsibility inevitably appears as another’s irresponsibility. How do we adjudicate such claims fairly or productively? Secondly, historicism and philology have an admirable, subversive potential. Should we practice undisciplined historicism? Is this the ticket to a (justifiably) irresponsible classics in a postclassical vein? Thirdly, classical philology is wedded to Biblical philology in ways that are both unpredictable and complex: unpredictable given our current models of the discipline; complex given the nature of this history. It would be useful to begin to tease out these submerged polemical and highly invested networks of knowledge (Grafton and Weinberg, Fowden, Barton and Boyarin, and Goldhill indicate a way forward). The reception of Longinus through the filter of the fiat lux episode by way of Boileau and his Catholic and Protestant critics, Huet and Le Clerc, is another case in point (Porter). A reception history of classical studies that is responsive to each level of its historical analysis might risk involving itself in a greater degree of irresponsibility, but the alternative would seem even less responsible:  the notion that classics forms a discipline apart is both misleading and factually wrong. Finally, Spinoza’s responsibility to a higher cause obliged him to adopt an irresponsible and dissident mode of thinking. Can we do more than simply admire it?

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Response and Responsibility in a Postclassical World

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