Monday, February 08, 2016

Hutson on Stewart

James H. Hutson on Matthew Stewart's book at Claremont Review of Books here. A taste:
How does Stewart go about proving this remarkable thesis? To show that Locke was an atheist, coached in the dark side by Spinoza, Stewart relies on an unpublished manuscript, “Apple and Worm,” sent to Stewart by an admirer in the Netherlands. There is a leaven of Gnosticism here as Stewart relies on secret wisdom conveyed by a secret text—a kind of Gospel of Thomas or a Second Treatise to the Great Seth. For scholars, such a secret document cannot, of course, have any credibility; they must rely on such evidence as Stewart publicly offers to prove a connection between Locke and Spinoza. Some of it is of the following variety: Locke lived in Amsterdam a few years after Spinoza’s death; or sentiments from Spinoza’s writings appear to agree with sentiments found at various places in Locke’s works, e.g., that the ancient Hebrews ascribed ordinary events to the intervention of God, that rebellion against tyrants was a natural right, and that the rule of law was necessary for the public good. Stewart then assumes that this limited commonality of ideas proves that Locke subscribed to all of Spinoza’s sentiments, including his religious ones.


There is a rich literature offering a variety of interpretations of Locke and different assessments of his relation to the American Founding. Stewart’s book has not benefited from it. He appears to believe that every mainstream scholar is a fraud. His favorite expression is “the common view gets the actual history of ideas almost exactly backwards” or “the common view” about the Enlightenment “amounts to a falsification of the history of ideas.” Page after page contains explanations of the folly of the “common view” or the “common conception.” Here, again, we encounter a whiff of Gnosticism which, according to Tobias Churton, holds that the received view conceals the truth and that a text has an “outer sense” for “ordinary” people and an “inner sense whose dimensions of meaning may be endless.” This attitude seems to have contributed to Stewart’s creation of a parallel universe in which atheists hijacked the American Revolution and “the contradictory impulses” of American religion today “belatedly converged along the path that begins with Spinoza and Jefferson.”

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