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Benedictus (Baruch) de Spinoza (1632-1677) was born to a family of Portuguese origin settled in the Jewish community at Amsterdam. He received a thorough Hebrew education in preparation, evidently, for a rabbinical career. He himself sought and gained instruction in Latin, which proved to be the key for him to the whole Western philosophical tradition, which naturally lay outside the Jewish curriculum. Further study of non-Judaic traditions led to his dramatic expulsion from the synagogue and the community, with the formula of anathema read out against him. Thenceforth, Spinoza lived outside the community into which he had been born. Generally supporting himself as a lens grinder, a trade in which he achieved some repute, and with the help of a small annuity from an admirer, Spinoza lived first in Rijnsburg, near Leiden, from 1653 to 1663; then in Voorburg, outside The Hague, from 1663 to 1670; and, for the rest of his life, in The Hague itself. During this time, he was in contact with various religious and philosophical “libertine” groups, such as the Collegiants, the Baptists, and the Socinians, as well as with men of predominantly secular interests, such as Johan De Witt and the tolerationist politiques around him; Coenraad van Beuningen, an aristocratic religious freethinker; Henry Oldenburg, the secretary of the Royal Society, who corresponded with Spinoza both on his own behalf and on that of his particular patron, the chemist Robert Boyle; the scientist Christiaan Huygens; the polymath Gottfried Wilhelm von Liebniz; the philosophical mystic Walter von Tschirnhaus; and the “atheist” Adriaan Koerbagh.

By far the most important group to which Spinoza belonged was that formed by those with whom he talked and corresponded about philosophical problems—Lodewijk Meyer, Pieter Balling, Jarig Jelles, Johan Hudde, Albert Burgh—men in varying degrees equipped to understand Spinoza’s developing thought. Stimulated by the enormous impact of Cartesianism, particularly by the problems raised by Cartesian dualism, the group dealt with metaphysical, physical, scriptural, political, and ethical matters, of which the chief record is Spinoza’s preserved correspondence. In 1670 Spinoza published at Amsterdam—anonymously and under a false imprint—the Tractatus theologico-politicus (see Chief Works, vol. 1; and The Political Works}; the book was banned in 1674 for its impiety—that is, for its naturalistic critique of scriptural documents and its consequent denial of revelation through scripture.

Spinoza died, apparently of tuberculosis aggravated by his lens grinding, in 1677; he was buried in the New Church at The Hague, where his grave is still to be seen. In 1677 his friends, under Meyer’s direction, edited the Opera postuma, published by Jan Rieuwertz, also a member of the circle; though generally attacked by Leibniz, Bayle, More, Limborch, William King, and a host of others, the Ethics (part of the Opera postuma-, see Chief Works, vol. 2) made a considerable impression on philosophers, religious and secular, particularly English and French deists.

Although Spinoza’s systematic philosophy had greater solidity than did Descartes’s, Spinoza’s philosophy may nevertheless be called Cartesian: his “geometrical method” is an extension into formal rhetoric of the Cartesian effort to mathematicize thinking and expression. One of Spinoza’s early works (Renati des Cartes principiorum philo-sophiae pars I et II 1663) is the presentation more geometrico of the Cartesian system, evidently made for the benefit of his study group. His pantheism, however, is his solution to Cartesian radical dualism. He might also be called a Hobbist: different as were their ideas of human nature and its government, Spinoza owed more to Hobbes’s formulations on causality and necessity than to Aristotle, Machiavelli, or Bruno, whose works he also knew.

Because of the interlocking nature of Spinoza’s system, which unites God and nature, thought and extension, mind and matter, metaphysics and ethics—and, thus, politics—it is difficult to extract his specific contributions to the social sciences. As in the case of Descartes’s, Spinoza’s method provided an important scientific model for organizing thoughts about man, individual and collective; he adapted the mechanist psychology of Descartes and Hobbes to an ethical view of behavior, in which “ideal” behavior—and, consequently, optimal political and social arrangements—result from the mind’s acquiescence in the necessary moral laws of a rational and benevolent deity, united at all points of time and space with his creation. Spinoza’s pantheism, with its radical grant of divinity to “nature” (or matter), is rare in Western philosophy and caused an enormous theological polemic to be raised against him.

Spinoza attempted a reformation both of thought and of thinking; using Euclidean and Cartesian geometry as his rhetorical and logical models, he formulated his thought in definitions, postulates, propositions, corollaries, proofs, lemmas, and explanations. Following from his fundamental assumption of pantheism, his psychology postulates a closer connection between man’s intellectual and emotional lives than does the Cartesian psychology: Spinoza did not regard the body as properly dominated by the mind, but rather presented mind and body acting as one because they arc one. Desire (or appetite) is the essence of a man, all of whose emotions may be related to perceptions of pleasure or pain. All emotions, even the approved ones, are confused ideas which because of their intellectual inadequacy leave the mind passive; in this way, the passions are related to infirmity of soul and mind, since the result of an adequate idea is activity (i.e., action rather than passion). Part iv of the Ethics is entitled “Of Human Bondage, or the Strength of the Emotions,” and Part v, “Of the Power of the Understanding, or of Human Freedom.” The mind is charged with understanding how it is a part of nature and, therefore, by definition, a part of God. When it has achieved such understanding, it will necessarily be aligned with what exists, or with the good, and will, thus, be good. In such harmony, no emotion or passion can flaw the balance reached; by simple understanding the mind can reach truth and, thus, enjoy the highest pleasure. All lesser pleasures (love, lust, desire for gain, etc.) automatically lose their power to tempt the mind to passion or passivity.

Another way to remove the intellectual infirmity caused by the emotions is to form a clear and distinct idea of the emotions themselves. Each emotion so understood, then, will cease to be a passion, or put another way, the mind becomes less passive with respect to it and more capable of controlling it. Theoretically, all emotions can thus be brought under the mind’s control; by understanding his “nature” a man comes to understand nature at large and, thus, to perfect himself morally. Here, as elsewhere, Spinoza used the language of hedonism: absolute pleasure and pain are understood as absolute good and evil. However, his strong stoical strain led him to redefine pleasure as intellectual understanding and pain as moral, ethical, psychological, and intellectual confusion.

Unlike Descartes’s, Spinoza’s psychology does not derive from physiology; indeed, he deduced his psychology from his metaphysical postulate, with which the Ethics begins and ends, that God is naturally in all things, and, therefore, is all things, including the human mind and body. Since nature is divine, it is necessarily good. Such errors as a man commits, either intellectual or moral, are the result of his misinterpretation of the natural order —or are intellectual errors which the human mind has the power to correct. Though Spinoza established no direct connection between the psychology of his Ethics and his political treatises, it is clear that the truly free Spinozan man lives well in society and that a society made up of men truly free is rational, naturally permitting the greatest possible liberty to each of its members. The exact nature of that “liberty” is much debated: in the public sphere, men were restricted in their freedom to act by their sense of mutual need; in the intellectual sphere, Spinoza argued for liberty of thought as a psychological fact rather than a moral principle. Like Hobbes, Spinoza presupposed a contractual relation between governor and governed, by which a concept of justice is validated. Unlike Hobbes, however, Spinoza was led by his idea of a perfect natural order to have confidence in human intellection and human nature; he emphasized the rights under natural law and favored, not an absolute sovereignty, but a democratic form of government. Spinoza’s true freedom, as his psychology made plain, was achieved by intellection and was not a voluntarist matter. True knowledge aligned men “necessarily” with cosmic order, to allay those passions that make them “enemies by nature” so that they may create “a union or agreement of minds.”

Rosalie L. Colie

[For the historical context of Spinoza’s work, see the biographies of Descartes and Hobbes; for discussion of the subsequent development of his ideas, see EmotionSocial Contract; Sympathy and Empathy]


1663 Renati des Cartes principiorum philosophiae pars I et II. Amsterdam.

Benedicti de Spinoza opera quotquot reperta sunt. 4 vols. Edited by J. van Vloten and J. P. N. Land. The Hague: Nijhoff, 1914.

Chief Works. Translated from the Latin with an introduction by R. H. M. Elwes. 2 vols. New York: Dover, 1955. → Volume 1: Introduction. Theologico-Political Treatise. A Political Treatise. Volume 2: On the Improvement of the Understanding of Ethics.

Opera. Edited by Carl Gebhardt. 4 vols. Heidelberg: Winter, 1925.

Opera postuma. Amsterdam: Rieuwertz, 1677.

The Political Works: The Tractatus theologico—politicus in part, and The Tractatus politicus in full. Edited and translated by A. G. Wernham. Oxford: Clarendon, 1958.


Bidney, David (1940)1962 The Psychology and Ethics of Spinoza: A Study in the History and Logic of Ideas. 2d ed. New York: Russell.

Dunin-Borkowski, Stanislaus Von 1933-1936 Spinoza. 4 vols. Münster (Germany): Aschendorff. → Volume 1: Der Junge De Spinoza (First published separately in 1910). Volumes 2-4: Aus den Tagen Spinozas. Part 1: Das Entscheidungsjahr 1657. Part 2: Das neue Leben. Part 3: Das Lebenswerk.

Hampshire, Stuart 1951 Spinoza. Harmondsworth (England): Penguin.

Joachim, Harold H. (1901)1964 A Study of the Ethics of Spinoza (Ethica ordine geometrico demonstrata). New York: Russell.

McKeon, Richard 1928 The Philosophy of Spinoza: The Unity of His Thought. New York: Longmans.

Parkinson, George H. R. 1954 Spinoza’s Theory of Knowledge. Oxford: Clarendon.

VerniÈrs, Paul 1954 Spinoza et la pensée francaise avant la Révolution. 2 vols. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.

Wolfson, Habry A. (1934) 1948 The Philosophy of Spinoza: Unfolding the Latent Processes of His Reasoning. 2 vols. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press. → A paperback edition was published in 1961 by World.

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