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Baruch Spinoza

Baruch Spinoza

The Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677) ranks as a major thinker in the rationalist tradition, and his Ethics is a classic of Western philosophy. In his writings the crucial issues of metaphysics are exemplified more clearly than in any thinker since Plato.

Baruch, or Benedict, Spinoza was born on Nov. 24, 1632, in Amsterdam, where his family had settled after fleeing religious persecution in Portugal. His grandfather, Abraham, was the acknowledged leader of the Jewish community, and his father was a successful merchant and active in civic affairs. Michael Spinoza had three children, of whom the future philosopher was the only son. Spinoza's mother died when he was 6, and his father and one sister died by the time he was in his early 20s. Little is precisely known about his early education except that biblical and Talmudic texts were studied at the synagogue school and that the young Spinoza showed a facility for languages and eventually mastered Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, Hebrew, Latin, Greek, and German. In 1656 Spinoza was expelled by his congregation on charges of atheism. The edict asked for God to curse him and warned "that none may speak with him by word of mouth, nor by writing, nor show any favor to him, nor be under one roof with him." The philosopher responded with calm detachment and Christianized his name to Benedict.

Teacher and Lens Grinder

For the next 4 years Spinoza worked as a teacher in a private academy in Amsterdam run by Francis van den Ende, a former Jesuit, a doctor, and a political activist. His future interests in mathematics, physics, and politics supposedly stem from this period. From 1660 to 1663 he lived near Leiden among a free religious sect who called themselves Collegiants, and there he wrote Principles of Cartesianism, Short Treatise on God, Man and His Well-being, and the first book of Ethics.

Spinoza then moved to a suburb of The Hague, where he worked as a lens grinder. The Ethics was completed between 1670 and 1675. In 1670 he anonymously published his Theological-Political Treatise. In addition to these not very extensive writings, Spinoza conducted a large correspondence with various scientists and philosophers. Two of the most important were Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the British Royal Society, and Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz, who visited him in 1676. Three years previously Spinoza had declined a professorship at the University of Heidelberg in order to preserve his "freedom of philosophizing." The same intellectual integrity is seen also in a letter to a former student who accused Spinoza of intellectual presumption. While acknowledging that he had not written the best philosophy, he stated "I do know that I think the true one." Spinoza died in The Hague on Feb. 20, 1677, of consumption aggravated by inhaling dust while polishing lenses.

Origins of Rationalism

Rationalism is the name ascribed to a movement of thought that originated in the 17th century, and it is usually associated with the names of René Descartes, Leibniz, and Spinoza. The point of departure for all rationalists is subjectivity: a discovery of the philosophic implications of the person with a heightened sense of his uniqueness, his inviolability, and, above all, the power of knowledge. Descartes began his career as a highly original mathematical physicist. He generalized from his conception of the method of mathematical reasoning and believed that its proper application might guarantee local certitude in all areas of knowledge. The justification of his theory of reasoning led Descartes to several metaphysical commitments concerning the nature of reality.

In simplest terms, Descartes maintained that God was a supreme rationalist who had created an orderly universe that could be known by following the clear and distinct ideas of reason. In order to avoid the determinist and irreligious implications of such a conception of the universe, Descartes separated the mind as a free spiritual power from the physical world of determined mechanical relations. With this step a set of contradictory dualisms between subject and object, thought and extension, spirit and nature, God and world, and freedom and necessity were bequeathed to philosophy. The only work that Spinoza published under his own name was René Descartes' Principles of Philosophy (1663), and although the book was mainly expository, he could not forbear pointing out that Descartes's errors resulted from his inability to follow out the metaphysical implications of the logic of rationalism, especially with respect to the notion of substance.

Spinoza's Ethics

Spinoza's Ethics consists of five books. Oddly enough, the first is about God and the meaning of substance. The second book deals with the mind and knowledge. The third, fourth, and fifth books seem concerned with topics usually associated with ethical discussions: the passions, human enslavement to the emotions, and finally human freedom by virtue of intellect. Hence the central concern of the treatise is to move from a consideration of God to the realization of human freedom by an analysis of knowledge and passion and their conflict. Thus, for Spinoza, an ethic that studies the purpose of life is simultaneously a metaphysic, a theory of knowledge, and a psychology of human nature.

This is made clearer if one is familiar with an earlier and unpublished work, which he called On the Improvement of the Understanding. In a highly personal manner Spinoza began by saying that he resolved to seek true happiness and joy "after experience had taught me that all the usual surroundings of social life are vain and futile." Men everywhere esteem "riches, fame, and the pleasures of sense," but their pursuit seems to diminish rather than to enhance men's lives through frustration or overindulgence. The only remedy for the wretchedness of life is to improve or literally "cure" the mind. Man's attitude toward reality is equal to his sense of what is true and important. In a striking passage Spinoza wrote: "All these evils seem to have arisen from the fact that happiness or unhappiness is made wholly to depend on the quality of the object which we love. When a thing is not loved, no quarrels will arise concerning it—no sadness will be felt if it perishes—no envy if it is possessed by another—no fear, no hatred, in short no disturbances of the mind."

Nature of Reality

Because of man's "mixed perceptions" and confused knowledge, he desires perishable objects. To see reality clearly, man would need an exact knowledge of himself and of general nature in order to understand the extent to which they can be modified in the search for lasting happiness. This can be accomplished only by a more and more inclusive understanding of reality. Imagine, Spinoza wrote to a correspondent, a parasite living in the bloodstream being asked to describe its environment. From its perspective each drop of blood would seem to be separate. But, in truth, the action of each independent drop can be understood only as a determined part of a larger system. And this system, in turn, is a small part of a larger whole. The ultimate aim of philosophic knowledge is what Spinoza called a "synoptic intuition" of all reality as a deductive system. And this is why the Ethics begins with a consideration of God as substance. In Spinoza's view the task is not so much to explain God as to understand what it means to be a man.

The Ethics is subtitled More Geometrics, and its geometrical method, using axioms, postulates, and definitions to prove its propositions, relates to the content as well as to the technique of exposition. As a rationalist, Spinoza aimed at nothing less than total certitude, and the clearest way was to utilize deductive reasoning. But the content of the system is such that the truth of each proposition depends, in part, on its necessary connection with the others.

The first book of the Ethics draws out the implications of one of the central assumptions of the Western metaphysical tradition: that the intrinsic order of nature is an effect of an ordering mind, God. The startling conclusion that Spinoza draws is that the words nature, substance, and God are interchangeable. There can be only one such being, who is self-caused and of which everything else is an effect. An effect manifests only what it has received from its cause, and the causal principle can only communicate what it is. With these axioms Spinoza argued monism, or the oneness of reality, in proposition after proposition; and the effect that, if God is causa sui and first cause (and if there is no such cause, then there is no reality), such an entity must be understood as an "absolutely infinite being." In logic, at least, there cannot be an infinite being and something else. Thus all finite existence must be rooted in a necessary existent, and there is one system of nature in which all limited things begin or cease inevitably according to causal sequences and interdependencies. Spinoza adopted a scholastic distinction to express the only conceivable differences that can be predicated of infinite being: Natura Naturans is nature as active or is God as the free cause that brings all things to pass according to necessary principles, and Natura Naturata is nature as passive or existent at any one moment.

Nature and Origin of the Mind

Spinoza's argument is conducted a priori, or without appeal to experience, and its truth or falsity rests on what the concept of substance entails logically. Accordingly, God exists by definition, or negatively one must posit a reason for the nonexistence of such a being and again only God would suffice. For him, reason is identical with cause, and the only legitimate distinctions that one can impute to the reason of the universe is to logically separate that which causes and that which is caused.

The second book of Ethics examines the nature and origin of the mind. An infinite substance possesses infinite attributes, but the mind perceives only two: thought and extension. Yet the relation between mind and matter is not dualistic but one of identity, for "thinking substance and extended substance is one and the same substance comprehended now under this and now under that attribute." To understand this doctrine, sometimes referred to as "psychophysical parallelism," the mind must overcome its reliance on sense knowledge ("opinion") and even advance beyond scientific understanding ("adequate ideas") of cause-and-effect relations to a synoptic vision ("intuition") of the complete system of reality. In this perspective the mind of man is an individually existing modification of infinite intelligence, the body is the object of that idea, and the two are like different sides of a coin.

With this understanding of man's place in nature, Spinoza took up the questions of moral life. Action occurs when an individual is the cause of his own conduct, and a passion when he is the partial cause. Virtue is the power of knowing how to act in accord with nature, whereas men suffer in proportion to the number of inadequate ideas that they have.

The essence of man is the struggle "to preserve in being." Adequate ideas replace passions, rational self-control supplants the impotence of desires. The issue is life itself: whether one is ensnared in "human bondage" as a prey to the whims of desire or external persons or objects, or one achieves the freedom that Spinoza calls "blessedness" and that is virtue's own reward. He was enough of a psychologist to see that ultimately passions can be overcome only by stronger passions. Thus in cultivating a knowledge and intellectual love of God man comes to know himself and to experience a freedom from external restraint.

Further Reading

For studies of Spinoza consult the following works: F. Pollock, Spinoza: His Life and Philosophy (1880); E. Caird, Spinoza (1902); H. A. Wolfson, The Philosophy of Spinoza (1934); and S. Hampshire, Spinoza (1956). □

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Spinoza, Baruch (Benedictus de Spinoza; 1632–1677)

SPINOZA, BARUCH (Benedictus de Spinoza; 16321677)

SPINOZA, BARUCH (Benedictus de Spinoza; 16321677), Dutch philosopher. Baruch Spinoza's radical metaphysical, theological, moral and political ideas made him one of the most vilified thinkers of his day. Spinoza was born in Amsterdam to a Portuguese-Jewish family. He was raised and educated within the city's community of Sephardic Jews, many of whom had once been forced converts (conversos) to Christianity in Spain and Portugal. At the age of twenty-three, however, Spinoza, now a young businessman, was expelled from the congregation. The writ of cherem, or ban, the most vitriolic ever issued by the community's leaders, speaks only of his "abominable heresies and monstrous deeds," and the specific reasons for his expulsion remain vague. It is fairly certain, however, that among the offenses for which Spinoza was punished were his ideas on God, Jewish law, and immortality.

Spinoza's earliest philosophical writings, dating from the late 1650s and early 1660s, include the Treatise on the Emendation of the Intellect and the aborted Short Treatise on God, Man, and His Well-Being. He first came to public attention with the publication of a critical exposition of Descartes's Principles of Philosophy (1663). It was the anonymously published Theological-Political Treatise of 1670, however, that brought him great notoriety. The reaction to this stunningly bold work of Bible criticism and political thought was immediate and harsh; it was banned by numerous political and religious authorities, and its author was excoriated as a blaspheming atheist. As a result of the outcry, Spinoza decided not to publish his philosophical masterpiece, the Ethics; it did not appear in print until after his death, together with other unpublished writings, including A Compendium of Hebrew Grammar, some correspondence, and the never-completed Political Treatise.

In the Ethics Spinoza rejects the traditional providential God of the Jewish and Christian religions. The notion of a benevolent, wise, purposive, judging God is, he insists, an anthropomorphic fiction, one that gives rise only to superstition and irrational passions. God, according to Spinoza, is nothing but the active, generative aspects of nature. In an infamous phrase, Spinoza refers to Deus sive Natura (God, or Nature), and identifies it with the substance, essential attributes, and causal principles of the universe. All beings are "in" God, but only in the sense that Nature is all-encompassing, and nothing stands outside Nature's laws. Everything happens in Nature with a deterministic necessity. Even human beings, often (he alleges) regarded as autonomous creatures whose freedom puts them outside Nature's dominion, are a part of Nature and thus subject to its rigorous determinism. Some measure of freedom or "activity" is obtainable for human beings but only insofar as they can achieve an intellectual understanding of Nature and themselves and thereby exercise control over their passions. Spinoza adopts a Stoic conception of human well-being. Happiness is the result of virtue and consists in success in the pursuit of knowledge and self-mastery. Moreover, the rewards of virtue are to be found in this life. While human beings do "participate" in eternity, particularly through the knowledge they acquire, there is no personal immortality. Spinoza's metaphysics, epistemology, and moral philosophy reveal a variety of influences, especially Descartes, medieval Jewish philosophy, and ancient sources. However, there can be no denying the originality of his thought.

In the Theological-Political Treatise Spinoza turns to a critique of organized religion and an investigation into the status, history, and interpretation of the Bible. He begins with a deflationary account of prophecy (the prophets, he insists, were simply people with highly active imaginations) and a denial of the possibility of miracles (since Nature's laws admit of no exceptions). He insists, moreover, that Jewish ceremonial law was only of temporary validity (that is, during the Temple period) and is no longer binding on contemporary Jews. His most stunning theses, however, concern Scripture. Spinoza argues that the Bible is not literally of divine origin and that its first five books (the Pentateuch) are not the writings of Moses. Rather, Scripture as we now have it is simply a work of literature, a compilation of human writings passed down through generations and edited in the Second Temple period. Others before Spinoza had suggested that Moses was not the author of the entire Pentateuch, but no one had taken that claim to the extreme limit that Spinoza did, arguing for it with such boldness and learning and at such length. Nor had anyone before Spinoza been willing to draw from it the conclusions about the interpretation of Scripture that Spinoza drew. The meaning of Scripture is to be sought not by appeal to theological dogma or to demonstrated truthafter all, the authors of Scripture were neither theologians nor philosophersbut by a close examination of the texts themselves and by a historical investigation into the backgrounds and intentions of its authors. If there is a universal truth conveyed by Scripture, it is a simple moral principle: love God and your neighbor.

Spinoza's discussion of Scripture takes place in the broader political context of his argument for a liberal, tolerant secular state, one in which the freedom to philosophize is defended against attempts to make it conform to so-called religious truth. For it is the "excessive authority and egotism of preachers," he tells one of his correspondents, that most threatens the freedom "to say what we think." The key to diminishing the undue influence of the clergy, who justify their abuses by appealing to the holiness of a certain book as the Word of God, is to demonstrate the true nature of Scripture and its message and eliminate the "superstitious adornments" of popular religion. By naturalizing Scripture, Spinoza hopes to redirect the authority invested in it from the words on the page to its moral message; and by formulating what he takes to be the proper method of interpreting Scripture, he seeks to encourage his readers to examine it anew and find therein the doctrines of the true religion. Only then will people be able to delimit exactly what needs to be done to show proper respect for God and obtain blessedness.

See also Atheism ; Bible: Interpretation ; Conversos ; Descartes, René ; Stoicism .


Primary Source

Spinoza, Benedictus de. The Collected Works of Spinoza. Translated by Edwin Curley. Princeton, 1984.

Secondary Sources

Allison, Henry. Benedict de Spinoza: An Introduction. Rev. ed. New Haven, 1987.

Garrett, Don, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Spinoza. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 1996.

Nadler, Steven. Spinoza: A Life. Cambridge, U.K., and New York. 1999.

Steven Nadler

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Spinoza, Baruch

Baruch Spinoza (spinō´zə), 1632–77, Dutch philosopher, b. Amsterdam.

Spinoza's Life

He belonged to the community of Jews from Spain and Portugal who had fled the Inquisition. Educated in the orthodox Jewish manner, he also studied Latin and the works of René Descartes, Thomas Hobbes, and other writers of the period, and also had a thorough grounding in scholastic theology and philosophy. His independence of thought led to his excommunication from the Jewish group in 1656; at about that time he abandoned the Hebrew form of his name, Baruch, for the Latin form, Benedict.

Until about 1660, Spinoza lived in or near Amsterdam, and afterward he lived in Rijnsburg, Voorburg, and The Hague. He was a lens grinder of great skill, but this activity was probably more related to his scientific interests than to any economic necessity. With his needs largely provided for by a series of grants, pensions, and bequests, he lived modestly, devoting much of his time to the development of his philosophy. Spinoza became known in spite of his retiring mode of life; he had wide correspondence and was visited by other philosophers. In 1673, he was offered a professorship at Heidelberg, but he elected to retain his peaceful life and especially his independence of thought. He died of tuberculosis, apparently aggravated by his inhaling glass dust from lens grinding. Through Gotthold Lessing, Johann Gottfried von Herder, and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Spinoza influenced German idealism. During his lifetime and for a period afterward, however, his pantheism was regarded as blasphemous, which is one reason why most of his writing was published after his death.

Spinoza's Works

His major works, virtually all of which are available in English translation, include a rewording (1663) of part of Descartes's work, A Treatise on Religious and Political Philosophy (1670, the only example of his own thought published in his lifetime), and his important Ethics, probably finished in 1665 but published posthumously (1677). His Opera Posthuma (1677) also include his Political Treatise,Treatise on the Improvement of Understanding,Letters, and Hebrew Grammar. He began a translation of the Hebrew Bible and was one of the first to raise questions of higher criticism of the Bible.


Spinoza's philosophy is deductive, rational, and monist. He shares with Descartes an intensely mathematical appreciation of the universe: Things make sense when understood in relation to a total structure; truth, like geometry, follows from first principles with a logic accessible and evident to man's mind. Whereas for Descartes mind and body are different substances, Spinoza holds that the two are different aspects of a single substance, which he called alternately God and Nature. Just as the mind is not substantially alien to the body, so Nature is not the product or agency of a supernatural God. The universe is a single substance, capable of an infinity of attributes, but known through two of them: physical "extension" and "thought." God is not the creator of a Nature beyond himself; God is Nature in its fullness.

Spinoza's rationalism, unlike that of later idealists, does not proceed at the expense of empirical observation. "Adequate ideas" are a coherent logical association of physical experiences. When ideas are confused or contradictory it is not because they are false (in the sense of contrary to fact) but because they are incomplete or improperly related to the totality of experience.


Spinoza's ethics proceed from a premise similar to that of Hobbes—that men call "good" whatever gives them pleasure—but they reach very different conclusions. Human beings, indeed all of Nature, share a common drive for self-preservation, the conatus sese conservandi. By this drive all individuals seek to maintain the power of their being, and in this sense virtue and power are one. But in Spinoza's system power is discovered to be a knowledge of necessity. Powerful, or virtuous, persons act because they understand why they must; others act because they cannot help themselves.

To be free is to be guided by the law of one's own nature (which in Spinoza's rational universe is never at variance with the law of another nature); bondage consists in being moved by causes of which we are unaware because our ideas are confused. Another important feature of Spinoza's ethical system is his view of the intellect as active. He rejects the distinction between reason and will that assumes that ideas can be passively entertained. All thinking is action, and all action has its accompaniment in thought. What accounts for action is not an agency (the will) beyond the intellect, but ideas. Ideas are active and move us to act; an absence of action may be accounted an absence of insight: knowledge, virtue, and power are one.

Political Philosophy

Politically, Spinoza and Hobbes again share assumptions about the social contract: Right derives from power, and the contract binds only as long as it is to one's advantage. The important difference between the two men is their understanding of the ends of the system: for Hobbes advantage lies in satisfying as many desires as possible, for Spinoza advantage lies in an escape from those desires through understanding. Put another way, Hobbes does not imagine a community of individuals whose desires can be consistently satisfied, so repression is always necessary; Spinoza can imagine such a community and such consistent satisfaction, so in his political and religious thought the notion of freedom, especially freedom of inquiry, is basic.


See biographies by S. Nadler (1999) and R. Goldstein (2006); H. A. Wolfson, The Philosophy of Spinoza (2 vol., 1934; repr. 1969); G. H. R. Parkinson, Spinoza's Theory of Knowledge (1954, repr. 1964); H. Allison, Benedict de Spinoza (1975); S. Hampshire, Spinoza (1975); L. Strauss, Spinoza's Critique of Religion (1982).

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Spinoza, Baruch

Spinoza, Baruch (1632–77). Jewish philosopher. Despite his traditional education in Amsterdam, he associated with free-thinkers in his youth, and was excommunicated from the community in 1656. His Tractatus Theologico-Politicus (1670, published anonymously) was a work of biblical criticism which questioned revealed religion, opposed persecuting churches (including Calvinism), and argued for religious freedom. His major work, Ethics, was not published until after his death. His pantheistic, impersonal God was completely alien to the Jewish community and he remained under a ban (ḥerem) for the rest of his life, once the edict had been issued.

In contrast, Novalis called him Gott-trunckener Mensch (‘God-intoxicated man’), and there is no doubt of the centrality of God in his understanding of all things.

Spinoza began with axioms which had to be true because they could not logically be denied. But looking at it, so to speak, backwards, and tracing the chain of propositions back to deductions back to axioms, everything is logically and actually dependent on an absolutely infinite Being whose existence cannot be denied, and this is what Spinoza called God, though equally it is Nature—understood in this way; hence his saying, Deus sive Natura. Clearly this is far from the personal creator outside and apart from his creation. Spinoza allowed a small space for human endeavour (conatus) within the strictly determined, and that was in the human effort to raise its life above all that seeks to destroy it, including passions and emotions. This effort to become ‘the captain of one's soul’ and to rise above passion through reason is called ‘the concept of positive freedom’, and has been an important goal in other systems of ethics.

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Spinoza, Baruch

Spinoza, Baruch (1632–77) Dutch-Jewish rationalist philosopher, also known as Benedict de Spinoza. He was the son of Portuguese Jews, forced by the Inquisition to adopt Christianity and eventually flee to the relative religious freedom of the Netherlands. Spinoza argued that all mind and matter were modes of the one key substance, which he called either God or Nature. In Ethics (1677), he held that free will was an illusion that would be dispelled by man's recognition that every event has a cause.

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