Spinoza, Baruch

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SPINOZA, BARUCH (16321677; known as Bento in Portuguese, Benedictus in Latin) was a Jewish rational naturalist of Marrano descent and the author of a rigorously monistic interpretation of reality expressed through an interlocking chain of propositions demonstrated in the geometrical manner. Spinoza's relentless drive for the naked truth was of singular intensity, and his scientific assessment of traditional Jewish thought thoroughly uncompromising. His aim was to contemplate things as they really are rather than as we would like them to be. Anthropocentrism is peremptorily and unceremoniously banished from his philosophical purview. Despite Spinoza's unadorned style, considerable controversy still envelops the interpretation of the very foundations of his thought.

Life and Works

On July 27, 1656, Bento de Spinoza was excommunicated by the ma'amad (ruling board) of the Amsterdam Jewish community into which he had been born. His father, Mikael, had been born in Vidigere (modern-day Figueira), Portugal, and had a close personal and financial relationship with the Portuguese merchant Abraham de Spinoza of Nantes, who was both his uncle and his father-in-law. Bento was the son of Mikael's second wife, Hanna Debora, who died when the child was scarcely six. Spinoza was never trained to be a rabbi, as previously thought, and was never a full-time pupil of Sha'ul Levi Morteira, a senior instructor in Talmud-Torah Ets Hayyim, although he may have attended an adult group known as Yeshivat Keter Torah that was led by Morteira. He apparently left school at age thirteen or fourteen to work in his father's business. From 1654, the year of Mikael's death, to 1656, the firm Bento y Gabriel de Spinoza was managed by Bento and his younger brother Gabriel. In March 1656, several months before his excommunication, Spinoza decided to take advantage of a Dutch law that protected minors who had been orphaned, and dispossessed himself of his father's estate, which was heavily burdened by debts.

The manuscript of the ban, written in Portuguese, the language of all documents of the Amsterdam Jewish community, is still preserved in the municipal archives of Amsterdam but contains no signatures. Other contemporary documents suggest that young Spinoza's heretical views, which led to his excommunication, were reinforced especially by Juan (Daniyye'l) de Prado. Excommunicated in 1658, de Prado was also a member of Morteira's Keter Torah circle and had attacked biblical anthropomorphism, poked fun at the idea of Jewish chosenness, and asserted that the world was eternal and the immutable laws of nature constituted the only form of divine providence. A report of Tomas Solano y Robles to the Inquisition of August 8, 1659 also indicated that Prado and Spinoza were excommunicated because they thought the Law (Torah) untrue, that souls die with the body, and that there is no God except philosophically speaking.

The precise reasons for the excommunication of Spinoza have been much discussed and debated. Steven Nadler has argued strongly that it was Spinoza's denial of personal immortality of the soul that played the key role (Spinoza's Heresy, 2001). In seventeenth-century Amsterdam, four community rabbis are especially prominent, and each one of them composed treatises in defense of immortality (Isaac Aboab, Sha'ul Levi Morteira, Moses Raphael d'Aguilar, and Menasseh ben Israel). Moreover, Morteira and Menasseh tended to lump together the three doctrines that seem to have played a role in Spinoza's ban: the truth of the Torah, divine providence, and immortality. Admittedly, the Dutch may not have been unduly concerned with the goings on in the Jewish community, but what is significant here is the psychology of the community that banned Spinoza, convinced as it was of the reality of such a threat.

Jonathan Israel, on the other hand, has argued eloquently and persuasively that it was Spinoza's public and provocative repudiation of the fundamentals of Rabbinic Judaism that made it impossible for the synagogue authorities not to expel him (Israel, 2001, pp. 162174). This is reinforced by the exceptional severity of the excommunication formula used in his case. Israel points out that if the core ideas of Spinoza's mature system were already outlined in Spinoza's Short Treatise (16601661), and if he was capable of convincing Oldenburg in 1660 that he had outflanked Cartesianism, then it seems most unlikely that if one assumes, as most scholars do, that Spinoza started his philosophical odyssey around the time of his excommunication in 1656, just four years before, that he could conceivably have reached such a level of achievement so speedily. One must conclude that he had begun his philosophical phase long before this, as indicated by various strands of evidence. Thus Jarig Jelles affirms in his preface to Opera Posthuma that long before the ban in 1656, Spinoza had seriously engaged the Cartesian philosophy, rebelling inwardly against the teachings of the synagogue. Similarly, the eighteenth-century historian of Amsterdam Sephardic Jewry, David Franco Mendes, stresses that, even as a boy, Spinoza vacillated in his Jewish belief as a result of his philosophical excursions. But the clearest proof, argues Israel, is what Spinoza reveals in the autobiographical passage of the Emendation of the Intellect (1658), where he dwells on the long inner struggle he experienced before he could tear himself loose from the double existence he had been leading, in which outward conformity was uneasily joined with inner turmoil. Spinoza was finally able to cut the Gordian knot when, by 1655, his family business was ruined and his father's estate became encumbered by sizable debts.

According to Israel, the only personage who seems likely to have guided Spinoza in a radical direction was his ex-Jesuit Latin master Franciscus van den Ende. Thus was Spinoza's precocious genius caught up in the Cartesian ferment that swept the Netherlands, and the resulting identity crisis that smoldered within him since his early teens finally came to a head through a confluence of circumstances, in 1656. The ban was consequently the inevitable outcome of a long intellectual struggle that could no longer be contained.

Apart from the report in Lucas's biography of Spinoza, which elevates Spinoza to the status of a philosopher saint, there is no evidence of an appeal by the Jewish community that Spinoza be banished from the city of Amsterdam, and no legal record of any forced exile of Spinoza. In fact, says Nadler, Spinoza appears to have been in that city throughout most of the period of his excommunication in 1656 to the beginning of his correspondence in 1661 (Nadler, 1999, pp. 156158, 163). It also appears that sometime before early 1659 he was either staying in or making periodic visits to Leiden to study at the university there. By early 1661, Spinoza was already well known as one who "excelled in the Cartesian philosophy." Nadler further suggests that it may have been his association with university life, where all instruction was in Latin, that first moved Spinoza to use the Latinized version of his first name, Benedictus.

It is to the final years of his Amsterdam period that Spinoza's earliest philosophical writings belong. According to Nadler, following Mignini, there are good reasons for thinking that the Treatise on the Emendation of the Intellect (Tractatus de intellectus emendatione), an unfinished work on philosophical method and language, is the first of Spinoza's extant philosophical treatises (Nadler, 1999, pp. 175176). Its content and terminology suggest a dating before the Short Treatise on God, Man and His Well-Being (Korte Verhandeling van God de mensch en des zelfs welstand), which he probably began sometime in late 1660 or early 1661.

To devote himself more fully to his philosophical investigations, Spinoza decided in the summer of 1661 to settle in the small village of Rijnsburg, a few miles outside of Leiden. This sleepy village had been the center of Collegiant activity in Holland, and Spinoza may have been directed there by his Collegiant friends, though its proximity to Leiden, with its university where he probably still had friends from the time he had studied there, must have added to its attraction for Spinoza. In the back of the house in which he lodged was a room where Spinoza set up his lense-grinding equipment, where in addition to lenses he also made telescopes and microscopes. Problems in optics were an abiding interest for Spinoza, and Christian Huygens, a scientist of international reputation, considered himself, Spinoza, and the mathematician Johannes Hudde to be the three leading specialists who were seeking to improve and extend the capabilities of the microscope. Huygens got to know Spinoza personally in the early 1660s and often conferred with him about scientific matters.

While Spinoza was still in Amsterdam, his friends soon became aware of the originality of his philosophical approach and persuaded him to provide them with a concise exposition of his developing ideas so they could study and discuss them. Acceding to their request, Spinoza composed a work in Latin probably sometime between the middle of 1660 and his departure for Rijnsburg. When his friends asked for a Dutch version, Spinoza reworked the text, while making many additions and revisions. Fully conscious of the novelty and daring of his thought, he urged them "to be very careful about communicating these things to others" (Nadler, 1999, p. 186). Spinoza worked on the Short Treatise throughout 1661 and into 1662, transcribing and emending it. This short work outlines most of the essentials of Spinoza's mature system as exhibited in the Ethics. Moreover, Short Treatise, discovered about 1860 and of which two Dutch versions are available, bears witness to the birth pangs of Spinoza's thought, which, with its strong pantheistic coloring, is still couched in language that is clearly theological. Spinoza hesitated to publish it for fear of the Calvinist theologians who might be deeply offended by it and, as Spinoza himself puts it, will "with their usual hatred attack me, who absolutely dread quarrels" (Ep. 6; Curley, 1985, p. 188; Nadler, 1999, p. 191).

In April 1663 Spinoza moved to Voorburg, near The Hague, thus gaining the advantage of proximity to a major city. Before leaving, however, he visited his old friends in Amsterdam, whereupon Jarig Jelles and Lodewigk Meyer prevailed upon him to expand his Euclidean exposition of Descartes's Principia philosophiae and allow its publication together with his Cogitata metaphysica (Metaphysical thoughts ). This was the only book of Spinoza's to appear in his lifetime under his own name. In 1670, after Spinoza's move to The Hague, his Tractatus Theologico-Politicus was published anonymously under a false imprint in Amsterdam. A few months thereafter, the Reformed Church Council of Amsterdam pronounced its condemnation of the book, and a series of lesser councils and consistories swiftly followed the example. In July 1674 the Court of Holland condemned the Tractatus and prohibited its printing, distribution, and sale. Although the great Dutch statesman Johan De Witt seems to have preferred not to proceed to a formal provincial ban of the Tractatus, it is a mistake, according to Jonathan Israel, to deduce from this that he viewed it in any way favorably (Israel, 2001, pp. 277278). A surviving fragment from a diary of the classicist Jacob Gronovius reveals that in the Dutch governing circles Spinoza was then deemed the most dangerous of the Dutch atheists and considered by De Witt a miscreant deserving imprisonment. Given the vehemence of the outcry against him, Spinoza became apprehensive when he learned that a Dutch translation of his Tractatus was about to be published, and he contacted his faithful friend Jelles to stop the printing. The need for caution was underlined by the trial of Adrian Koerbagh, in which the prosecutor questioned him about his relations with Spinoza and attempted to obtain from him a confession that his book contained Spinoza's teachings. Koerbagh was condemned to ten years in prison but died shortly after, in jail, in October 1669. It was Adrian's tragic end, observes Nadler, "in Spinoza's eyes a sign of collusion between the secular and the sectarian authorities, that gave him the impetus to put the final touches on his Tractatus and prepare it for publication" (Nadler, 1999, p. 269).

In 1672 came the French invasion of Holland and the murder of De Witt, events that cast a dark shadow on Spinoza's last years. In February 1673 he received an invitation from the elector palatine Karl Ludwig to accept a professorship at Heidelberg. Spinoza refused it for fear that it would interfere with his "further progress in philosophy," and because of his misgivings about a statement in the invitation concerning the prince's confidence that Spinoza would not misuse his freedom in philosophical teaching to disturb the public religion (Nadler, 1999, p. 313).

Late in the summer of 1675, Spinoza completed his magnum opus, the Ethica ordine geometrico demonstrata (Ethics ), and went to Amsterdam to arrange for its publication. There, as he wrote to Henry Oldenburg, "while I was negotiating, a rumor gained currency that I had in the press a book concerning God, wherein I endeavored to show there is no God" (Letter 68, September 1675). He therefore decided to put off the publication.

Spinoza's last major work, the Tractatus Politicus, written in 16761677, abandoned the theological idiom employed in the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus and offered instead a straightforward analysis of aristocracy, monarchy, and democracy in an attempt to demonstrate how a stable government could be ensured. This work was unfortunately interrupted by Spinoza's death on February 21, 1677. Another late work that remained incomplete was his Latin Compendium of Hebrew Grammar, which he "undertook at the request of certain of his friends who were diligently studying the Sacred Tongue" (Bloom, 1962, p. 11). Spinoza was buried in the New Church on the Spuy, and his Opera posthuma, edited by Jelles, Meyer, and Georg Hermann Schuller, appeared in November 1677 with only the initials B. D. S.

Biblical Critique

Spinoza's excommunication left a psychological scar that explains, partly at least, much of his subsequent bitterness toward his own people and their traditions. Although his pioneering biblical critique is frequently illuminating (for example, his view that Moses did not write the Pentateuch was already openly expressed by Isaac La Peyrère, whose work Prae-Adamitae Spinoza possessed), much of his writing in the Tractatus is marred by a onesidedness that distorts his judgment. Although it is undoubtedly true that Spinoza's intended audience was a Christian one, and that this dictated his partiality toward the figure of Christ and the Apostles, the unnecessary slurs against the Pharisees and the Rabbis and the unmistakable hostility that sometimes surfaces in a number of his formulations point to the psychological effects, conscious or unconscious, of his expulsion from the Jewish community. Spinoza characterizes his new method of investigating scripture as an empirical approach that accepts the biblical text as a natural datum. Since prophecy claims to surpass human understanding, Spinoza must somehow take it at its word. For the sake of the masses, who cannot be reached by reason alone, Spinoza is willing to grant that prophecy is possible. There may be, he says, laws of imagination that are unknown to humans, and the prophets, who received their revelations from God by means of the imagination, could thus perceive much that is beyond the boundary of the intellect. Although Moses is the chief of the prophets, his eminence consisted only in his receiving his prophecies through a real voice rather than an imaginary one. In other respects, however, Moses' imagination was not especially distinguished, for he was not sufficiently aware of God's omniscience, and he perceived the Decalogue not as a record of eternal truths but as the ordinances of a legislator. Spinoza set up the figure of Christ in contrast to Moses. If Moses spoke with God face-to-face, Christ communed with him mind-to-mind (a probable allusion to the Johanine conception of Christ as the Logos, as noted by Leavitt in Christian Philosophy of Spinoza [1991]). No one except Christ received the revelations of God without the aid of the imagination, meaning Christ possessed a mind far superior to those of his fellow men. Moreover, because Christ was sent to teach not only the Jews but the whole human race, it was not enough that his mind be attuned only to the Jews; it was attuned to ideas universal and true. If he ever proclaimed any revelations as laws, he did so because of the ignorance of the people. To those who were allowed to understand the mysteries of heaven, he taught his doctrines as eternal truths. To Spinoza, the biblical doctrine of the chosenness of the Hebrews implies on their part a childish or malicious joy in their exclusive possession of the revelation of the Bible. The doctrine is to be explained by the fact that Moses was constrained to appeal to the childish understanding of the people. In truth, he claims, the Hebrew nation was not chosen by God for its wisdomit was not distinguished by intellect or virtuebut for its social organization. Spinoza explains the extraordinary fact of Jewish survival by the universal hatred that Jews drew upon themselves. From Jeremiah 9:23, Spinoza deduces that the Jews were no longer bound to practice their ceremonial law after the destruction of their state. The Pharisees continued these practices more to oppose the Christians than to please God. (Spinoza's view of the Pharisees is consistently derogatory. He attributes to them economic motives in their quarrel with the Sadducees and goes so far as to say that Pontius Pilate had made concession to the passion of the Pharisees in consenting to the crucifixion of Christ, whom he knew to be innocent. Maimonides is pejoratively termed a Pharisee, and Spinoza dismissed his interpretation of scripture as harmful, useless, and absurd.) Moreover, on the basis of Ezekiel 20:25, Spinoza finds the explanation of the frequent falling away of the Hebrews from the Law, which finally led to the destruction of their state, in the fact that God was so angry with them that he gave them laws whose object was not their safety but his vengeance. To motivate the common individual to practice justice and charity, certain doctrines concerning God and humans, says Spinoza, are indispensable. These, too, are a product of the prophetic imagination, but they will necessarily be understood philosophically by those who can do so. This universal scriptural religion is distinguished both from philosophical religion, which is a product of reason and is independent of any historical narrative, and from the vulgar religion of the masses, which is a product of the superstitious imagination and is practiced through fear alone; it consists of seven dogmas. The first four concern God and his attributes of existence, unity, omnipresence, and power and will. The other three deal with people's religious acts, and seem to derive from a Christian context: human beings' worship of God, their salvation, and their repentance. Each of the seven dogmas can be understood either imaginatively, in which case they would all be false, though useful, or philosophically, in which case they would all be true. Presumably, the average individual's score would be a mixed one.


Spinoza begins and ends with God. He is convinced that upon reflective analysis individuals become immediately aware that they have an idea of substance, or that which is in itself and is conceived through itself. Because substances having different attributes have nothing in common with one another, and because if two things have nothing in common, one cannot be the cause of the other, then it is evident that all the entities of which humans have experience, including themselves, must, because they all have extension in common, constitute one substance. Although a human being is also characterized by thought, which has nothing in common with extension, since one is aware of one's own extension, these two attributes cannot denote two substances but must be instead two parallel manifestations of one and the same substance. Spinoza thus insists that humans have a clear and distinct idea of substance or God having at least two parallel attributes. (In Ethics 1.11 he defines God as consisting of infinite attributes, each one of which expresses eternal and infinite essence, but some scholars believe that Spinoza is here using the term infinite as a synonym for all, and that what he means to say in this proposition is that God exists in every possible basic way. Although he elsewhere hints that there may be more than two attributes, he stops short of saying that there are. Even more controversial is the question whether the attributes are to be understood as subjective or objective.) Although this conception of substance is ultimately derived from empirical observation, it is not dependent on any particular observation as such but follows from the analysis of ideas and is therefore a product of the power of the mind to think ideas and analyze their logical structure. It is in this sense that knowledge of substance, or God, is a priori, deriving essentially from an analysis of a given true definition contained within the human mind. Spinoza designates knowledges of this kind as intuitive; he ranks it as the highest form of knowledge humans have, above deductive reasoning, which is mediated by the syllogistic process, and imagination, which is based either on hearsay or random experience. For Spinoza, the only adequate or clear and distinct ideas humans possess are those related to God, simple ideas, and common notions, or axioms, and what is deduced from them. Knowledge derived from syllogistic reasoning (which yields universal knowledge) and intuitive knowledge (which represents the power of the mind itself, on which syllogistic reasoning ultimately rests) are necessarily true.

God is eternally in a state of self-modification, producing an infinite series of modes that are manifested under either of his attributes. Under the attribute of extension, there is the immediate infinite mode, motion and rest; and under thought, the absolutely infinite intellect, or the idea of God. Finally come the finite modes, or particular things. Substance with its attributes is called natura naturans, the creative or active divine power, whereas the entire modal system, the system of what is created, is called natura naturata. Spinoza's God is thus not identical with the natural world as such but only with the creative ground that encom-passes it.

While others consider human actions and appetites as virtues and vices to be bewailed or mocked, Spinoza considers them natural facts to be studied and understood. Vice is impotence, whereas virtue is power. Individuals act when anything is done of which they are the adequate cause; they suffer when anything is done of which they are only the partial cause. The first law of nature (as the Stoics had already noted) is the impulse, or effort (conatus ), by which each thing endeavors to persevere in its own being. Humans do not desire anything because they think it good, but humans adjudge a thing good because they desire it. Desire is activity conducive to self-preservation; pleasure marks its increase, pain its decrease. Spinoza offers a pioneering psychological analysis of the ways through which the human imagination acts and discusses in some detail the various laws of what he calls the association and imitation of the emotions.

Spinoza calls active emotions those which are related to the mind insofar as it acts and of which an individual is the adequate cause. Of these there are only two: desire, or the effort of self-preservation in accordance with the dictates of reason, and pleasure, or the enjoyment experienced from the mind's contemplation of itself whenever it conceives an adequate or true idea. In the conflict of emotions, weaker emotions are removed by stronger ones, as Plato had already indicated in the Timaeus. Knowledge of good and evil can be a determining factor only insofar as it is considered an emotionthat is, a consciousness of pleasure and pain. Inasmuch as happiness consists in humans' preservation of their own beings and they act virtuously when effecting their self-preservation in accordance with their full powers, humans must seek to maximize their power to act, which means removing their passive emotions to the greatest possible extent and substituting for them active emotions.

Spinoza suggests various remedies for the passive emotions, which he describes as mental diseases (already described by the Stoics). Since a passive emotion is a confused idea, the first remedy is to remove confusion and transform it into a clear and distinct idea. Another remedy is to realize that nothing happens except through the necessity of an infinite causal series. Humans should also endeavor to expel the many ghosts that haunt their minds by contemplating the common properties of things. Indeed, the emotions themselves may become an object of contemplation. The sovereign remedy, however, is the love of God. The mind has the capacity to cause all affections of the body to be related to the idea of God; that is, to know them by intuitive knowledge. Spinoza endeavors to demonstrate the immortality of the human mind (stripped of sensation, memory, and imagination) but insists that even during a lifetime one can experience that state of immortality which he calls blessedness and describes as union with, or love for, God. The intellectual love of God, which arises from intuitive knowledge, is eternal and is part of the infinite love with which God loves himself.

Influence on Later Thought

Among the major philosophers, Spinoza was the only one who did not found a school. During the first hundred years after Spinoza's death, his name was connected principally with the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, and as Isreal has emphsized, "no one else rivalled his notoriety as chief challenger of revealed religion") (Isreal, 2001, p. 259). Only toward the end of the eighteenth century did Spinoza begin to arouse enthusiasm among men of letters. In 1778, Johan Gottfried Herder equated Spinoza with John himself as the apostle of love, and in 1780 Gotthold Ephraim Lessing declared to Friedrich Jacobi that "there is no other philosophy than that of Spinoza" (Vallée, Spinoza Conversations, 1988, p. 86). Although a follower of Christian Wolff, who directed a formidable critique against Spinoza, Moses Mendelssohn hailed Spinoza as early as 1775 as a martyr for the furthering of human knowledge. As a result of the publication of Mendelssohn's Morgenstunden in 1785, in which he sought to attribute to Lessing a purified form of pantheism, Jacobi countered with a work called Über die Lehre des Spinoza ("On the teaching of Spinoza," 1785), in which he branded Spinozism as atheism and the Jewish Qabbalah as a confused Spinozism. Goethe, on the other hand, eagerly devoured Spinoza's Ethics, noting that it "agreed most with his own conception of nature," and that "he always carried it with him." Goethe shared two of Spinoza's most fundamental principles, his monism and his theory of necessity (Bell, 1984, pp. 153, 168). Salomon Maimon, the first to call Spinoza's system acosmic, spoke admiringly in his autobiography of the profundity of Spinoza's philosophy, and his first book, Versuch über die Transendentalphilosophie (An essay on Transcendental philosophy, 1790), was an attempt to unite Kantian philosophy with Spinozism. According to G. W. F. Hegel (17701831), there was "either Spinozism or no philosophy," and Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling (17751854) wrote that "no one can hope to progress to the true and complete in philosophy without having at least once in his life sunk himself in the abyss of Spinozism" (McFarland, 1969, p. 103).

Appreciation for Spinoza in England was due especially to Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who wrote in about 1810 that only two systems of philosophy were possible, that of Spinoza and that of Immanuel Kant (17241804). In a letter of 1881, Friedrich Nietzsche (18441900) expressed his astonishment at the kinship between Spinoza's position on morality and his own, although elsewhere he is severely critical of Spinoza. Martin Buber (18781965) found much inspiration in Spinoza, seeing in him the highest philosophical exemplification of Judaism's unique quest for unity, but he criticized the Spinozistic attempt to depersonalize God.

In the 1850s, Shemu'el David Luzzatto stirred up a literary polemic concerning Spinoza after having been aroused by the first laudatory biography of Spinoza in Hebrew (1846), written by the poet Me'ir Letteris; by the essays of Schelling's student Senior Sachs from 1850 to 1854, in which he links together Shelomoh Ibn Gabirol, Avraham ibn Ezra, the qabbalists, and Spinoza; and by Shelomoh Rubin's Moreh nevukhim he-hadash (1857), which contains a positive account of Spinoza's thought. Luzzatto attacked Spinoza's emphasis on the primacy of the intellect over the feelings of the heart and his denial of free will and final causes, and called unjustified his attack on the Pharisees and on the Mosaic authorship of all of the Pentateuch. Nahman Krochmal's son, Avraham, wrote an apologetic work, Eben ha-ro'shah (1871), in which he defended Spinoza, whom he reverently called Rabbenu (Our Master) Baruch (an epithet already applied to Spinoza by Moses Hess (18121875) in 1837, and later also adopted by Einstein). Hermann Cohen later mounted a virulent attack against Spinoza, as impassioned as that by Luzzatto, in Cohen's "Spinoza über Staat und Religion, Judentum und Christentum" (1905; 1924, pp. 290372).

Shortly after arriving at Sedeh Boker on December 13, 1953, in order to settle at a kibbutz in the Negev, first prime minister of Israel, Ben Gurion, published an article in the newspaper Davar titled "Let Us Make Amends," in which he expressed the wish "to restore to our Hebrew language and culture, the writings of the most original and profound thinker that appeared amongst the Hebrew people in the last two thousand years." The injustice that required mending was thus not the excommunication of Spinoza, since in Ben Gurion's eyes that was nothing but a historic curiosity, which in the course of time had been automatically nullified. What still needed mending was the literary cultural fact that Hebrew literature remains incomplete as long as it does not include the entire corpus of Spinoza's writings as one of the greatest spiritual assets of the Jewish nation. Ben Gurion's wish has now finally been fulfilled with the appearance of all of Spinoza's major works in Hebrew translation, and with the establishment of a Spinoza Institute in Jerusalem which holds biannual conferences devoted to Spinoza's thought. This piece of historical irony by which Spinoza's philosophical legacy has now been emphatically included in the intel-lectual life of Israel would undoubtedly have afforded Spinoza a measure of supreme delight. (See Dorman, 1990, pp. 154163).

Spinoza has been regarded as the founder of scientific psychology, and his influence has been seen in the JamesLange theory of the emotions and in some of the central concepts of Freud (see Bidney, 1962). A more recent version of this kind of influence is found in the work of the noted neurologist Antonio Damasio, Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow, and the Feeling Brain (New York, 2003). Spinoza has also received an enormous amount of attention in the former Soviet Union. Spinoza's concept of nature as self-caused, infinite, and eternal was first singled out for comment by Friedrich Engels in his Dialectics of Nature. From the Soviet viewpoint, Spinoza's materialism is unfortunately wrapped in a theological garb, but his consistent application of the scientific method is seen as overshadowing "the historically transient and class-bounded in his philosophy" (see Kline, 1952, p. 33)

In America, the transcendentalists of the eighteenth century held Spinoza in very high regard. Oliver Wendell Holmes (18411935) read and reread Spinoza's Ethics, and his famous formulation that freedom of thought reached a limit only when it posed a "clear and present danger" appears to have been made under Spinoza's influence. Moreover, Spinoza had special appeal for the young American Jewish intellectuals who were children of the first wave of immigrants from eastern Europe. Morris Raphael Cohen (18801947) had, as a youthful Marxist, valued Spinoza the cosmopolitan who had rejected Judaism, and Lewis Feuer described Horace M. Kallen's The Book of Job as a Greek Tragedy (New York, 1918) as "embedded in a Spinozist matrix." Some of the greatest Jewish scientists and philosophers in modern times, such as Albert Einstein, Samuel Alexander, and Henri Bergson, also felt a deep affinity with Spinoza (see Feuer, pp. 3679).


The best critical edition of Spinoza's works is that by Carl Gebhardt, Spinoza Opera, 4 vols. (Heidelberg, 1925; a fifth volume was added in 1987). According to Nadler, this will be superseded by an edition from the Groupe de Recherches Spinozistes. A useful edition with translation and notes of Spinoza's Tractatus Politicus is by A. G. Wernham, Benedict de Spinoza, The Political Works (Oxford, 1958). For Spinoza's Compendium of Hebrew Grammar, see Baruch Spinoza, Hebrew Grammar, ed. and trans. by Maurice J. Bloom (New York, 1962). A new and reliable translation of Spinoza's works by E. M. Curley is The Collected Works of Spinoza, vol. l (Princeton, N.J., 1985; vol. 2, forthcoming). In the meantime, there has appeared Spinoza, Complete Works, with translations by Samuel Shirley, edited with introduction and notes by Michael L. Morgan (Indianapolis, 2002). A comprehensive bibliography of Spinoza up to 1942 is Adolph S. Oko's The Spinoza Bibliography (Boston, 1964), which has been supplemented by Jon Wetlesens's A Spinoza Bibliography, 19401970, 2d rev. ed. (Oslo, 1971). See also E. M. Curley's bibliography in Spinoza: Essays in Interpretation, edited by Eugene Freeman and Maurice Mandelbaum (LaSalle, Ill., 1975), pp. 263316; Wilhelm Totok's Handbuch der Geschichte der Philosophie, vol. 4, Frühe Neuzeit 17 (Frankfurt, 1981), pp. 232296; and Theo van der Werf, H. Siebrand, and C. Westerveen's A Spinoza Bibliography, 19711983 (Leiden, 1984).

The best biography of Spinoza is Steven Nadler, Spinoza: A Life (Cambridge, U.K., 1999); supplemented by his Spinoza's Heresy: Immortality and the Jewish Mind (Oxford, 2001). See also A. Kasher and S. Biderman, "Why was Baruch De Spinoza Excommunicated?" In Sceptics, Millenarians, and Jews, edited by David S. Katz and Jonathan Israel (Leiden, 1990), pp. 98141. For Spinoza's Marranism and his relationship to later thinkers, see Yirmiyahu Yovel, Spinoza and Other Heretics: The Maranno of Reason and The Adventure of Immanence (Princeton, N.J., 1989) 2 vols. Thomas McFarland, Coleridge and the Pantheist Tradition (Oxford, 1969); David Bell, Spinoza in Germany from 1670 to the Age of Goethe (London, 1984). For the Pantheism Controversy, see Frederick C. Beiser, The Fate of Reason (Cambridge, Mass., 1987) 44-108; and Gerard Vallée, J. B. Lawson, and C. G. Chapple, The Spinoza Conversations between Lessing and Jacobi (Lanham, Md., 1988). For Jewish critiques of Spinoza, see Hermann Cohen, "Spinoza über Statt und Religion, Judentum und Christentum," (1905), reprinted in Cohen's Jüdische Schriften (Berlin, 1924) 3.290372; and Menahem Dorman, The Spinoza Dispute in Jewish Thought (Hakibbutz Hameuchad, 1990; in Hebrew). For Spinoza and modern psychological theory, see David Bidney, The Psychology and Ethics of Spinoza (reprint, New York, 1962); and Antonio Damazio, Looking For Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow, and the Feeling Brain (New York, 2003). For Spinoza in the former Soviet Union and in America, see G. L. Kline, Spinoza in Soviet Philosophy (London, 1952); and Lewis S. Feuer, "Spinoza's Thought and Modern Perplexities: Its American Career," in Barry S. Kogan, ed., Spinoza: A Tercentenary Perspective (Cincinnati) pp. 36-79. A good brief introduction to Spinoza is Stuart Hampshire's Spinoza (Baltimore, 1951). The most detailed and illuminating commentary on Spinoza's Ethics is Harry A. Wolfson's The Philosophy of Spinoza, 2 vols. (Cambridge, Mass., 1934). A comprehensive introduction and commentary (in Hebrew) on the Short Treatise, along with a Hebrew translation by Rachel Hollander-Steingart, can be found in Ma'amar qatsar 'al Elohim, ha-adam, ve-oshero, edited by Joseph Ben Shlomo (Jerusalem, 1978). A similar edition of De Intellectus Emendatione with Hebrew commentary is Ma'amar 'al tiqqun ha-sekhel, translated by Nathan Spiegel and edited by Joseph ben Shlomo (Jerusalem, 1972). Detailed analyses of Spinoza's Theological-Political Treatise can be found in Sylvan Zac, Spinoza et l'Interpretation de l'Ecriture (Paris, 1965); Leo Strauss, Spinoza's Critique of Religion (New York, 1965); and André Malet, Le Traité Theologico-Politique de Spinoza et la pensée biblique (Paris, 1966). See also the important study of J. Samuel Preus, Spinoza and the Irrelevance of Biblical Authority (Cambridge, U.K., 2001); Steven Frankel, "Politics and Rhetoric: Spinoza's Intended Audience in the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus," Review of Metaphysics 52.4 (June 1999): 897924; Steven Frankel, "The Piety of a Heretic: Spinoza's Interpretation of Judaism," Journal of Jewish Thought and Philosophy 11.2 (November 2002): 117134; Shlomo Pines, Studies in the History of Jewish Thought, edited by Warren Z. Harvey and Moshe Idel (Jerusalem, Israel, 1997), 660734 (The Collected Works of S. Pines, vol. 5); and Frank Leavitt, "The Christian Philosophy of Benedict de Spinoza," Daat 26 (1991): 97108 (Hebrew).

Indispensable collections of documents on Spinoza's life are I. S. Révah's Spinoza et le dr. Juan de Prado (Paris, 1959) and "Aux origines de la rupture spinozienne," Revue des études juives 3 (JulyDecember 1964): 359431, and A. M. Vaz Dias's Spinoza Mercator & Autodidactus (The Hague, 1932), translated from Dutch in Studia Rosenthaliana 16 (November 1982) and supplemented by four related articles. A stimulating account of the social-political context of Spinoza's work is Lewis S. Feuer's Spinoza and the Rise of Liberalism (Boston, Mass., 1958). Two important and provocative interpretations of Spinoza from the viewpoint of contemporary philosophy are E. M. Curley's Spinoza's Metaphysics: An Essay in Interpretation (Cambridge, Mass., 1969) and Jonathan Bennett's A Study of Spinoza's Ethics (Indianapolis, Ind., 1984).

Useful collections of essays on Spinoza include Studies in Spinoza: Critical and Interpretive Essays, edited by S. Paul Kashap (Berkeley, Calif., 1972); Spinoza: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Marjorie Grene (Garden City, N.Y., 1973); Speculum Spinozanum, 16771977, edited by Siegfried Hessing (London, 1977); Spinoza: New Perspectives, edited by Robert W. Shahan and J. I. Biro (Norman, Okla., 1978); The Philosophy of Baruch Spinoza, edited by Richard Kennington (Washington, D.C., 1980); Spinoza, His Thought and Work, edited by Nathan Rotenstreich and N. Schneider (Jerusalem, 1983); Spinoza's Political and Theological Thought, edited by C. De Deugd (Amsterdam, 1984); God and Nature: Spinoza's Metaphysics, edited by Yirmiyahu Yovel (Leiden, 1991); Spinoza on Knowledge and the Human Mind, edited by Y. Yovel (Leiden, 1994); Desire and Affect: Spinoza as Psychologist, edited by Y. Yovel (New York, 1999); The Cambridge Companion to Spinoza, edited by Don Garrett (Cambridge, U.K., 1996); Spinoza: Metaphysical Themes, edited by Olli Koistinen and John Biro (Oxford, 2002); Spinoza, edited by Gideon Segal and Y. Yovel (Burlington, Vt., 2002). For Spinoza and his relationship to Judaism, see Genevieve Brykman, La Judeite de Spinoza (Paris, 1972); Zeev Levy, Baruch or Benedict: On Some Jewish Aspects of Spinoza's Philosophy (New York, 2002); Jewish Themes in Spinoza's Philosophy, edited by Heidi M. Ravven and L. E. Goodman (New York, 2002). For Spinoza and the Enlightenment, see the superb study of Jonathan Israel, Radical Enlightenment: Philosophy and the Making of Modernity 16501750 (Oxford, 2001); and Adam Sutcliffe, Judaism and Enlightenment (Cambridge, U.K., 2003). On the troubled question of whether there were qabbalistic influences on Spinoza's thought, see the good summary and analysis of this issue by Nissim Yosha, Myth and Metaphor: Abraham Cohen Herrera's Philosophical Interpretation of Lurianic Kabbalah (Jerusalem, Israel, 1994; in Hebrew) pp. 361374.

David Winston (2005)

Baruch Spinoza

views updated May 17 2018

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). □

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

views updated May 21 2018

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

Spinoza, Baruch

views updated May 29 2018

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.

Spinoza, Baruch

views updated Jun 27 2018

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.