BMCR 2013.10.39

Philosophical Religions from Plato to Spinoza: Reason, Religion, and Autonomy

, Philosophical Religions from Plato to Spinoza: Reason, Religion, and Autonomy. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012. xxvii, 328. ISBN 9780521194570. $99.00.


The title of Fraenkel’s book, Philosophical Religions, may seem to some to be slightly oxymoronic, if not an outright contradiction in terms, since it suggests an irenic relationship between the two key terms. Rather than following the time-honored tradition of conceptualising philosophy and religion as two diametrically opposed understandings of reality, Fraenkel has them coincide. At the outset it should be noted that he does not use religion in the title at the level of third-order discourse. As implied by the plural use of the term, he solely applies it to the second-order level.

The monograph consists of a lengthy introduction in which the crucial concepts used in the title are provisionally defined (with the exception of the decisive notion of autonomy which is neither defined nor even found in the index of the book as an independent entry; see, however, pp. 17-20, 29-30, 198, 286). The introduction is followed by a chapter on Reason, divine nomoi, and self-rule in Plato, since Plato is held to epitomise the phenomenon of philosophical religion. From the discussion of Plato, Fraenkel proceeds to discuss philosophical religions in the context of late Second Temple Judaism (primarily Philo) and Christian thinkers like Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Gregory Thaumaturgus, and Eusebius. Leaving third- and fourth-century Christianity aside, Fraenkel moves a long way forward in time. From the discussion of Christian exponents of philosophical religion, he directs his focus to the Islamic and Jewish Medieval world by including thinkers such as al-Fārābī, Averroes, and Maimonides, all of whom adopted the self-designation falāsifa. Fraenkel presents Spinoza as the last representative of this tradition of philosophical religion. Yet even though Spinoza had carefully studied Maimonides and other Jewish philosophers, he had no intimate knowledge of the aforementioned Muslim thinkers. According to Fraenkel, Spinoza nevertheless sides with, for instance, Averroes on points of dispute with Maimonides and his followers. To account for these resemblances, Fraenkel has recourse to Delmedigo. Not only did Spinoza have a copy of his Hebrew treatise Examination of Religion in his library, but the parallels between Averroes and Spinoza may be accounted for on the assumption that Spinoza had read Delmedigo, who was well acquainted with Averroes (pp. 205, 255-6).

In a brief epilogue of 17 pages, Fraenkel raises the question of to what extent philosophical religion came to an end with Jewish philosophers’ attempts to interpret religious tradition as philosophical religion. Complementary with this question, Fraenkel takes up the issue whether the possibility of endorsing philosophical religion thereafter ceased to exist. Since much of the discussion lingers on Fraenkel’s somewhat constricted notion of philosophical religions, let me briefly return to the matter of definition, before we resume the debate.

Although Fraenkel introduces the concept of philosophical religion in the book-title using the plural (‘philosophical religions’) he also uses the singular throughout the book; but he never defines the relationship between the two uses. At the center of the category is the idea that reason and religion cannot meaningfully be differentiated. Hence a philosophical religion is one characterised by a “distinctively philosophical interpretation” (p. 5) focused on the ideal of godlikeness attained through the perfection of reason (p. 6), and in principle achievable by all members of society. Propagators of such a type of religion frequently make a distinction between philosophers and non-philosophers whereby the status of human beings depends on the degree of perfection, i.e. of godlikeness, that each manages to achieve. This social dimension is of great importance to Fraenkel, since he also describes the communitarian corollary of a philosophical religion as a theocracy, a community ruled by God (pp. 6, 241). Fraenkel’s claim that philosophical religions exist is, so far as I can see, based on four considerations. First, there is an intertextual relationship between the various instantiations held to embody the category: a trajectory of continuity that extends from Plato’s influence on early Jewish and Christian forms of philosophical religion to subsequent manifestations among Medieval Muslim and Jewish thinkers. This line of thinking comes to a halt with Spinoza. Secondly, these thinkers are all representative of the aspiration to conceive of religion in a manner that is compliant with philosophical thinking. Thirdly, since Fraenkel in his not incontestable understanding of religion places a great deal of emphasis on the legal aspects of religion, his notion of philosophical religion comes close to the traditional Jewish and Muslim category of Divine Law. Fourthly, proponents of philosophical religion share the view that elements contained in Scripture like miracles, emotional caprices of the godhead, and divine endowment of laws, elements which do not easily harmonise with the notion of a philosophical religion, are there to help less philosophically acute minds towards a philosophical life as far as it is possible for them. Advocates of this line of thinking argue that religion should serve as the handmaid of philosophy to guide the less philosophically inclined segments of the population to a more philosophically imbued form of existence. According to this view philosophy evidently constitutes the highest form of worship.

Fraenkel’s book positions itself as an important counter-voice against that conventional form of thinking that sees an innate conflict between philosophy and religion. Far from conceptualising the relationship between the two in terms of either the subordination of philosophy to religion or a decidedly hostile meeting between them, Fraenkel points to historical examples of a more irenic liaison between philosophy and religion. By his coinage ‘philosophical religion’, Fraenkel in particular highlights those forms of thinking that attribute to philosophy a superior role over and against more traditional types of religion. I have learned considerably from Fraenkel’s book, but as already indicated, I also think that it suffers from some flaws. Let me briefly mention some elements that could and perhaps ought to have been differently elaborated.

To my taste, the author never really explicates how he conceives of the relationship between the different proponents of the category philosophical religion. (Cf. my earlier remark on the continual vacillation between the plural and the singular use of the category.) To what extent does the delineated trajectory of thinking constitute a particular, historically interconnected line of philosophy (‘philosophical religions’), and to what degree is it one that exists by virtue of the author’s etic creation of the category (‘philosophical religion’)? There is an element of historical essentialism in the argument that I am skeptical towards. Related to this point is Fraenkel’s confinement of the category ‘philosophical religion’ to the thinkers selected. In my view this causes problems at both ends of the chosen axis. At the one pole, it is noticeable that Fraenkel does not attempt to contextualise Plato as part of the wider historical transition from a locative to a utopian type of religion – etically defined. Such a contextualisation has ramifications which are not only temporal (pre-Socratic philosophers) but also spatial (cf. the recent attempts by, for instance, Eisenstadt and Bellah to resuscitate Jasper’s notion of the axial age). After all, it was Nietzsche who, in his preface to Jenseits von Gut und Böse, contended that Christianity should be seen as Platonism for the people.

I concur with Fraenkel’s aspiration to move beyond the view that the relation between religion and philosophy is intrinsically belligerent, but I think that he, without historical warrant, narrows the issue too much with his very limited selection of thinkers from antiquity and subsequent epochs. At the other end of the pole, I find it striking that Fraenkel, despite brief discussion of Kant and Hegel, does not include a much wider segment of Enlightenment philosophy in his category. The more so, since recent research on Enlightenment philosophy has been prepared to acknowledge the overwhelmingly religious nature of the English, German, American and partly French Enlightenment tradition (cf. for instance Gertrude Himmelfarb, The Roads to Modernity: The British, French and American Enlightenments, and numerous works by Roy Porter). Some of the most notable philosophers may certainly be conceived of as engaged in a philosophical reinterpretation of Christianity. To allow for greater nuances between these different attempts, it would have been beneficial had Fraenkel made more lucid distinctions between the different ways in which ‘philosophy’ and ‘religion’ relate to their social context. Despite the best of intentions, philosophers have sometimes been responsible for disruptive upheavals in thinking with major consequences for subsequent intellectual development. Such finer gradations may enable us to acknowledge that usurpation, rivalry, endorsement, appropriation, and harmony may simultaneously exist dependent on what perspective is projected onto the matter under scrutiny. In fact, on the basis of more subtle typological differentiations of this kind, Fraenkel would have been in a better position to acknowledge how, on the one hand, philosophers like Philo, Clement, and Origen may be described as apologists for their religious traditions, while, on the other hand, and with equal right, they may be characterised as defendants of philosophy (cf. p. 88).

It may well be that the following remarks belong to the field of petty matters, but I do miss reference to some important works in Fraenkel’s book. Given the importance that Fraenkel assigns to the notion of God-likeness in Plato’s thinking (see especially Theaet. 176a-b – the locus classicus for Plato’s endorsement of the idea), it is conspicuous that he does not refer to the important works by David Sedley on the issue. Similarly, George van Kooten has authored an influential book on this particular idea and its aftermath in early Christianity which is not to be found in Fraenkel’s bibliography (see van Kooten, Paul’s Anthropology in Context: The Image of God, Assimilation to God, and Tripartite Man in Ancient Judaism, Tübingen 2008). When it comes to the Jewish appropriation of Plato which, of course, is particularly prominent in Philo of Alexandria, one also misses the important work by David Dawson, Allegorical Readers and Cultural Revision in Ancient Alexandria, Berkeley 1992. The inclusion of Dawson’s important book could not only have placed the discussion of pp. 105-22 in a wider historical context but could also have led to a greater appreciation of the political aspects involved in Philonic exegesis, and contributed to a more appreciative understanding of Philo’s position between radical allegorists and less learned literalists.

In conclusion, I do not want my critical remarks to cast a shadow over the fact that Fraenkel’s monograph is very stimulating and thought-provoking. In fact, it took me time to acknowledge the hesitations I had towards the book. The arguments kept ruminating in my mind for some time, which I think is a hallmark of an intellectually intriguing work. Additionally, I learned especially from reading about those Medieval thinkers with whom I do not usually wrestle. The book is well written and the argument easy to follow. However, when it comes to the overall assessment of the relationship between religion and philosophy, I feel that Fraenkel makes the relation between religion and philosophy too placid and too reconcilable. This criticism, however, should not detract potential readers from engaging with Fraenkel’s monograph. On the contrary, the critique voiced is an encouragement to take and to read the book and form one’s own stance on a continuously pivotal issue of contention.