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Spinoza, Baruch (Bento, Benedictus) de

SPINOZA, BARUCH (Bento, Benedictus) DE

SPINOZA, BARUCH (Bento, Benedictus ) DE (1632–1677), philosopher born in Amsterdam of Portuguese background, who became one of the most important representatives of the rationalist movement in the early modern period.


In the Jewish and National Library in Jerusalem, Spinoza's writings, unlike those of Jewish philosophers such as Philo of Alexandria or Maimonides, are not in the Judaica reading room, but in the general reading room, between the writings of Descartes and Leibniz. The decision of the library reflects a broad consensus in the way his work is perceived: Spinoza is not considered a Jewish thinker but one who belongs to the general history of philosophy. To be sure, Spinoza was excommunicated from Amsterdam's Jewish community for things he apparently said and did as a young man, and he went on to become the most radical and arguably the most interesting thinker of the early modern period. From the end of the 17th century onward his work played a central role in a variety of intellectual contexts: from the Enlightenment and German Idealism to the "higher criticism" of the Bible. Today Spinoza's ideas are debated not only in philosophical circles of both analytical and continental orientation, but also among scientists such as the neurologist Antonio Damasio, who claims that his research confirms how Spinoza conceived the relationship between body, mind, and affects of human beings. And yet, Spinoza's relationship to Judaism, and in particular to Jewish philosophy, is complicated: it is marked by continuity and criticism that sometimes remain in unresolved tension. Much of his philosophical project is, in fact, best understood in light of the Jewish background. In Spinoza's thought ideas from many sources come together, ranging from Plato to the Kabbalah. But of particular importance are, on the one hand, various traditions of Jewish thought and, on the other, the writings of Descartes and Hobbes which were at the center of philosophical discussions in the Netherlands of Spinoza's time. His first commitment, of course, was not to this or that intellectual current, but to the truth: "I do not claim to have found the best philosophy, but I know that I understand the true one [sed veram me intelligere scio]" (Letter 76).

Life and Works

Spinoza's father, Michael (d. 1654), fled from Portugal to the relatively tolerant Dutch republic where, he became a member of Amsterdam's Sephardi community and a successful merchant. Spinoza studied Hebrew, the Bible, and rabbinic literature at the local talmud torah school. The community's most renowned scholars, Isaac Aboab, Menasseh ben Israel, and Saul Levi Morteira, were presumably among his teachers and influenced him directly or indirectly. Aboab translated Abraham Cohen Herrera's kabbalistic treatise Puerta del Cielo (The Gate of Heaven), with which Spinoza seems to have been familiar, from Spanish into Hebrew. Morteira, who inclined to a rationalist interpretation of religion, could have introduced him to medieval Jewish philosophy. Menasseh ben Israel edited in 1628 the Sefer Elim by the Galilei student Joseph Delmedigo, of which Spinoza had a copy, and that may have introduced him into post-Copernican cosmology. Through Menasseh, Spinoza may also have made his first acquaintance with Christian thought, as well as with the ideas of Isaac La Peyrère, against whose treatise, Prae-Adamitae, Menasseh wrote a refutation. Spinoza later used the book for his critique of Scripture; among others, La Peyrère claims that Moses was not the only author of the Pentateuch and that human beings existed before Adam and Eve. When his half-brother, Isaac, died in 1649 Spinoza's help was required in the family's importing business. Although an outstanding student, he could thus not complete the higher level of the educational curriculum which would have prepared him for a career as a rabbi. The process that led to Spinoza's alienation from traditional Judaism, culminating in his excommunication (ḥerem) in 1656, cannot be precisely reconstructed from the available sources. A significant role must presumably be assigned to heterodox Jewish thinkers in Amsterdam such as Uriel da Costa, who had been excommunicated twice a generation earlier and whose writings Spinoza certainly knew, and Juan de Prado, who was excommunicated at the same time as Spinoza. Despite the unusual harshness of the ḥerem, it does not make explicit the content of the accusations, mentioning only "abominable heresies" and "monstrous deeds." But from various indirect sources Spinoza's views that were perceived as heretical can be established with reasonable certainty: they seem to have included the denial that the Torah is of divine origin, the denial that the immortality of the soul is a biblical doctrine, and a "philosophical" concept of God incompatible with that of popular tradition. All three issues show a certain affinity to doctrines of Da Costa and appear to have been endorsed in one way or another by De Prado as well. Spinoza probably explained and defended his views in a treatise now lost, but whose Spanish title is preserved in later sources: Apologia para justificarse de su abdicacion de la sinagoga ("Defense to justify his departure from the synagogue"). There are good reasons for assuming that some of the material contained in the Apologia was later incorporated into the first part of the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus (ttp; "Theological-Political Treatise").

The encounter with the former Jesuit and freethinker, Franciscus van den Enden, played an important role in Spinoza's intellectual development. In van den Enden's school, which he already started to frequent before his excommunication, Spinoza learned not only Latin, but was also introduced into ancient literature and philosophy, as well as into contemporary debates, in particular those provoked by the writings of Descartes and Hobbes. Descartes presumably also occupied an important place in his studies at the University of Leiden, at the time a center of Dutch Cartesianism. That Spinoza had mastered Descartes' philosophy is clear from his Principia Philosophiae Cartesianae ("Principles of Cartesian Philosophy"), an exposition of Descartes' Principia Philosopiae in the "the geometric manner," published in 1663 together with an appendix, Cogitata Metaphysica ("Metaphysical Thoughts"), that reflects both medieval Jewish and Scholastic sources. Neither presents Spinoza's own views, as he instructed his friend and doctor, Lodewijk Meyer, to emphasize in a preface introducing the two works. On the contrary: the treatises originate in notes that Spinoza used for teaching his student Caesarius, concerning whom he urges his friends "not to communicate my views to him until he has reached greater maturity" (Letter 9). Indeed, even earlier Spinoza had made no secret of his disagreement with Descartes on fundamental issues such as "the first cause and origin of all things" (Letter 2).

But whereas the scope of Descartes' influence on Spinoza and its relation to the influence of Jewish philosophers remain an object of controversy among scholars, it is uncontroversial that already in his earliest writings devoted to the exposition of his own philosophy Spinoza appears as a highly original thinker. Between the end of the 1650s and the beginning of the 1660s he was working on two treatises: the Tractatus de Intellectus Emendatione ("Treatise on the Emendation of the Intellect"), which remained incomplete and was published only in the Opera Posthuma, and a first outline of his metaphysics, anthropology, epistemology, and ethics which was intended for circulation only among his friends, apparently because he feared that "the theologians of our time" would attack him with "their usual hatred" (Letter 6). Already the work's title, Korte Verhandeling van God, de Mensch en des zelfs Welstand ("Short Treatise on God, Man, and His Wellbeing"), names the constitutive themes of Spinoza's philosophical project. From 1661 to 1675, he systematically reworked the ideas sketched in the Korte Verhandeling into his main philosophical work, the Ethica Ordine Geometrico Demonstrata ("Ethics Demonstrated According to the Geometrical Method"). In 1665 Spinoza interrupted his work on the Ethica for several years to set forth his critique of religion and his political philosophy in the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus ("Theological-Political Treatise"), published anonymously in 1670. His goal was to contribute to defending the freedom of thought and religious tolerance, which had been secured in the Dutch republic governed by Jan de Witt, but now seemed threatened by the alliance of monarchists and Calvinist orthodoxy. Since the critique of religion is grounded on a critique of Scripture, and the correct understanding of Scripture requires a thorough understanding of Hebrew (ttp 7), Spinoza's Compendium Grammatices Linguae Hebraeae ("Compendium of the Grammar of the Hebrew Language") can be seen as a tool for carrying out the critical theological-political project. But the striking parallel between the account of nouns, adjectives, and participles in the Hebrew Grammar and the account of substance, attributes, and modes in the Ethica also suggests an interesting (if unclear) connection to Spinoza's metaphysics. The scandal triggered by the critique of religion in the ttp led to the book's prohibition in 1674. Under these circumstances Spinoza did not even attempt to publish the Ethica. Like the Tractatus Politicus ("Political Treatise") that he was not able to complete and the equally unfinished Hebrew Grammar, it appeared only in 1677 in the Opera Posthuma. Finally, Spinoza's extant correspondence must be mentioned which contributes significantly to clarifying specific issues in his work.


outline of the philosophical project

The Tractatus de Intellectus Emendatione (tie) begins with a description, stylized as autobiographical, of the author's conversion to the philosophical life. An examination in the Socratic sense leads to the decision to turn away from "what men consider to be the highest good [summum bonum]," i.e., "wealth, honor, and sensual pleasure," in order to seek the "true good" that provides the "highest joy [summa laetitia] eternally." The passage, whose immediate source is a treatise by the Jewish Renaissance Platonist Leone Ebreo, takes up the foundational concern of ancient ethics: the quest for the good life. Since the tie was originally conceived as a methodological introduction to Spinoza's philosophical system, this opening passage in a sense provides the point of departure for his philosophical project as a whole. Indeed, choosing a life devoted to the pursuit of knowledge would surely be a mistake if it were not the best life. The Ethica, as before the Korte Verhandeling, can be seen as the guide to that goal which Spinoza describes as "happiness [beatitudo]" and as "salvation [salus]" (Ethicav, Prop. 36, Schol.). The true good for Spinoza is God. What leads to this good is "understanding" culminating in "knowledge of God [Dei cognitio]" (Ethicaiv, Prop. 27 and 28). Since knowledge of God and of things "insofar as we conceive them to be contained in God and to follow from the necessity of the divine nature" (Ethicav, Prop. 29, Schol.) is accompanied by "joy [laetitia]," it gives rise to the "intellectual love of God [Amor Dei intellectualis]" (Ethicav, Prop. 32, Cor.). Spinoza speaks in this context of knowledge "under the aspect of eternity [sub specie aeternitatis]" (Ethicav, Prop. 29) because both God and things conceived as necessarily following from God are eternal and immutable. From knowledge of eternal things Spinoza draws a conclusion that continues to puzzle scholars: that the part of the mind which loves God intellectually becomes itself eternal, i.e., is in some way preserved after the destruction of the body (Ethicav, Prop. 22 and Prop. 23). It seems, therefore, that "salvation" for Spinoza is a form of intellectual immortality. But the Ethica not only intends to instruct the reader how to reach happiness and salvation; in a way it also puts these instructions into practice. The geometric form of the argument, which deduces philosophical propositions from definitions and axioms, entails a claim to definitive validity. From the first part, that demonstrates God's existence and characteristics, to the fifth part, that shows how human freedom consists in the activity of intellectually loving God, the Ethica can be seen as part of the knowledge sub specie aeternitatis. In this sense it contributes to bringing the quest for the "true good" to conclusion that was the point of departure of the tie. At the end of the "road [via]" set out in the Ethica the seeker is prepared to turn into a "wise man [sapiens]" who "suffers scarcely any disturbance of spirit, but being conscious, by virtue of a certain eternal necessity, of himself, of God and of things, never ceases to be, but always possesses true spiritual contentment [animi acquiescentia]" (Ethicav, Prop. 42, Schol.). Many of the arguments on which Spinoza's project of the good life relies – from those for the intellectual love of God to those for the immortality of the mind – were articulated in similar ways by Jewish rationalists such as Abraham Ibn Ezra, Maimonides, Gersonides, and Leone Ebreo. It is presumably in their writings that Spinoza encountered them for the first time.


In order to show of what the good life consists, it is necessary to understand the nature of human beings and their place in the order of existents. This in turn requires understanding the nature and order of existents themselves. The first part of the Ethica is thus devoted to ontology. Since for Spinoza ontology and philosophical theology coincide, it is titled De Deo (About God). By identifying God with reality as a whole, Spinoza radically breaks with the concept of divine transcendence. God neither is located outside the natural order, nor does he lack what Spinoza takes to be the essential attribute of the physical world: extension. In light of this it is not surprising that he can speak of "God or Nature [Deus sive Natura]" (Ethicaiv, Praef.). God is defined as "an absolutely infinite being [ens absolute infinitum], i.e., a substance consisting of infinite attributes, each of which expresses eternal and infinite essence" (Ethicai, Def. 6). According to this definition, God encompasses all logically possible kinds of being, each of which is infinite in its kind. But only two kinds can be apprehended by human beings: "thought [cogitatio]" and "extension [extensio]," i.e., the essential attributes of the two realms of reality accessible to us. God, therefore, is both "thinking thing" and "extended thing," but also an infinite number of other things that lie beyond human cognition (Ethicaii, Prop. 1 and 2 and Letter 64). That God exists follows from the fact that the concept of a substance with infinite attributes is not contradictory (Ethicai, Prop. 10, Schol.) and that the essence of a substance entails its existence (Ethicai, Prop. 11). Since the existence of two substances with the same attribute is impossible (Ethicai, Prop. 5), and since God has all attributes, Spinoza's substance monism follows: "Except for God no substance can be or be conceived" (Ethicai, Prop. 14). This God is not static, but has an "active essence [essentia actuosa]" (Ethicaii, Prop. 3, Schol.) and produces as "immanent cause [causa immanens]" (Ethicai, Prop. 18) "infinite many things in infinite many ways" (Ethicai, Prop. 16) in himself "with the same necessity by which he apprehends himself [seipsum intelligat]" (Ethicaii, Prop. 3, Schol.). Spinoza here takes up and modifies the doctrine of God found in the writings of medieval Jewish Aristotelians who conceived God as the activity of a pure intellect apprehending itself (Ethicaii, Prop. 7, Schol.). The difference is that Spinoza's God is not only intellectual activity but also extending activity and an infinite number of other activities. Spinoza holds, moreover, that increasing God's ontological scope does not conflict with God's unity, for "the thinking substance and the extended substance are one and the same substance, comprehended now under this now under that attribute" (ibid.). Since Jewish rationalists before Spinoza took God to be incorporeal, the attribution of extension to God appears to be a fundamental departure from their premises. But also this step had been prepared by the Jewish critic of Aristotelianism, Hasdai Crescas, who argued for the existence of an infinitely extended empty space which he describes as a "metaphor [dimayon]" for God. Moreover, Spinoza uses arguments drawn from Crescas in Ethicai, Prop. 15, Schol. for defending God's extension. It would thus be inaccurate to say that Spinoza substitutes a philosophical God for a religious God. His move beyond medieval philosophy is better characterized as an attempt to solve specific ontological problems arising from the causal relation, which his predecessors had to posit between an incorporeal God and a corporeal world. As absolutely infinite activity that produces all logically possible kinds of being, Spinoza's God is all-powerful (Ethicai, Prop. 35). Although he is not free to choose what he does, he is free in the sense that his activity is determined only by the necessity of his own nature (Ethicai, Prop. 17, Cor. 2). Since the same necessity governs the order of things that God creates in himself, this order is completely determined (Ethicai, Prop. 29). In this context the distinction between creator and creation is replaced through that between natura naturans and natura naturata (ibid., Schol.) of which the former refers to substance insofar as it is an active cause and the latter to the infinite number of modifications produced under each of its attributes. Like substance, the series of modes is one; it consists in ideas when considered under the attribute of thought, in extended things when considered under the attribute of extension, and in an infinite number of other things when considered under the attributes unknown to us (Ethicaii, Prop. 7, Schol.). There are two kinds of modes: those of the first kind are eternal and infinite and subdivided into modes following immediately from one of God's attributes and modes that are mediated through a mode following immediately from one of God's attributes. Modes of the second kind, by contrast, are transitory and finite. Since an eternal and infinite thing cannot be the cause of a transitory and finite thing, it is unclear how the modes of the second kind are supposed to be caused by God. Although Spinoza does not address the problem, a possible solution is to take finite modes to be dependent on God not individually, but as an eternal and infinite chain of causes and effects. Spinoza also makes little effort to explain the first kind of modes. The "infinite intellect" is the mode immediately following from the attribute of thought, "motion and rest" the mode immediately following from the attribute of extension, and the "face of the whole universe [facies totius universi]" a mediate eternal and infinite mode of extension (Letter 64). The notion of "motion and rest" suggests that Spinoza has the fundamental laws of nature in mind. The "face of the whole universe" appears to refer to the stable order of nature, since Spinoza links the notion to Ethicaii, Lemma 7, Schol., where "the whole of nature" is described as an infinite individual that remains unchanged, while its constituents vary in infinite ways.

In an appendix to the first part of the Ethica, Spinoza explains the devastating consequences of his philosophical theology for popular views of God. A providential God, who interferes in the course of nature according to his free will, rewards and punishes, and performs miracles, is nothing but the "refuge of ignorance [asylum ignorantiae]" of the superstitious.

epistemology, psychology, and ethics

From the subsequent parts of the Ethica it is clear that Spinoza is not interested in a general account of the order of modes, but in the structure of one particular mode: the human being, consisting of "mind and body [mens et corpus]" (Ethicaii, Prop. 13, Cor.) which – as in the case of substance and all other modes – are one and the same thing considered under the attribute of thought and under the attribute of extension. While Spinoza thus avoids the problems involved in dualistic accounts of mind and body, the unity he assumes is not without obscurities of its own. He describes the mind as the idea of the body (Ethicaii, Prop. 13) and its cognitive power as corresponding to the body's complexity and hence ability to interact with its environment (ibid., Schol. and Prop. 14). Of particular importance for Spinoza's epistemology are the three kinds of knowledge that he distinguishes in Prop. 40, Schol. 2: "imagination [imaginatio]" which draws on random sense-perceptions and their arbitrary association; "reason [ratio]" which draws on common notions and adequate ideas of the properties of things; finally "intuitive knowledge [scientia intuitiva]" which infers the essence of things from the essence of God's attributes. Whereas the first kind of knowledge is fallible, the other two kinds are necessarily true (Ethicaii, Prop. 41). Although a true idea must correspond to its object (Ethicai, Ax. 6), this is not the criterion of truth for Spinoza. What is decisive is if the idea is "adequate" or not, whereby an "adequate" idea is one that has the "intrinsic characteristics of a true idea" (Ethicaii, Def. 4). As a consequence, "he who has a true idea knows at the same time that he has a true idea, and cannot doubt its truth" (Ethicaii, Prop. 43). Truth thus becomes "the standard both of itself and of falsehood [norma sui et falsi]" (ibid., Schol.).

The third part of the Ethica contains Spinoza's psychology in form of a theory of human affects. Crucial for understanding the affects is the striving "to persist in one's being" (Ethicaiii, Prop. 6) which Spinoza calls conatus and takes to be the essence of all things. Only God has absolutely unlimited power in himself to attain the goal of the conatus. The power of the modes, on the other hand, depends on God and is limited to varying degrees within the order of nature, which necessarily follows from God's essence, and in which the modes are determined by God to act on one another. In human beings the conatus takes on the form of "desire [appetitus or cupiditas]" which gives rise to two further basic affects: "joy [laetitia]" and "sadness [tristitia]." The former is caused by an object that increases a person's power and whose possession is, therefore, desired. The latter is caused by an object that decreases a person's power and which he or she will thus attempt to avoid (Ethicaiii, Definition of the Affects 1–3). Fundamental, moreover, is the distinction between active affects, of which human beings are the "adequate cause," and passive affects that are caused by external objects. With this, Spinoza has set up the conceptual framework for a detailed account and explanation of human affects "in the geometric manner" (Ethicaiii, Praef.), as well as for the ethical discussion of the fourth and fifth part of the Ethica.

Spinoza's ethics is clearly egoistic: to act virtuously means "to preserve one's own being […] under the guidance of reason," which in turn means to act with a view to "one's own advantage [proprium utile]" (Ethicaiv, Prop. 24). As a consequence, goodness or badness are not inherent properties of things or actions but depend on their utility or lack of utility for attaining the objects of desire (Ethicaiv, Def. 1 and 2). Since intellectual perfection is the highest level of power accessible to human beings, they – insofar as they are rational – desire nothing but "understanding [intelligere]" (Ethicaiv, Prop. 26) which, as already indicated, has the "knowledge of God" as its ultimate goal. This, therefore, is "the highest good" and the "highest virtue" of the mind (Ethicaiv, Prop. 27 and 28). The power derived from understanding is manifold: it liberates human beings at least to some extent from the "bondage [servitus]" to passive affects, since next to the highest good, external things that are good or bad, but beyond their control, become less important. Moreover, their affective reaction to what happens to them will diminish and their tranquility increase through the knowledge that all things are predetermined and that human beings are "part of the whole of nature" (Appendix). By means of the better rational control over their affects, human beings become less vulnerable to external causes that toss them back and forth "like the waves of the sea when driven by contrary winds" (Ethicaiii, Prop. 59, Schol.). At the same time, intellectual activity is an active affect and entirely under our control. It thus represents the highest form of freedom in the sense of self-determination accessible to human beings. Since knowledge sub specie aeternitatis, according to Spinoza, allows the mind to participate in God's eternity, it constitutes the goal of the striving to "persist in one's being." Finally, the increase in power gained through understanding is a source of constant joy, leading to the "intellectual love of God."

It is important to note that Spinoza takes his ethical egoism to be perfectly compatible with the wish to give to one's fellow human beings every possible assistance to attain the same degree of perfection that one desires for oneself. For "no individual thing in nature is more advantageous to man than a man who lives by the guidance of reason" (Ethicaiv, Prop. 35, Cor. 1). Moreover, in contrast to material goods, "the greatest good," i.e., knowledge of God, "can be enjoyed by all equally" (Ethicaiv, Prop. 36). Solidarity and mutual help are thus good for purely utilitarian reasons.

critique of religion

The Tractatus Theologico-Politicus also fits into Spinoza's project of the good life. Its goal may be described as creating the conditions for the project's implementation. After all, a philosophical life cannot be led by someone who does not have the "freedom to philosophize [libertas philosophandi]," or whom the "prejudices of theologians" prevent from "devoting [applicare]" his life to philosophy. These, according to Spinoza, were the main reasons for working out his critique of religion in the ttp (Letter 30). The chief purpose of this critique is to show that Scripture can make no legitimate claim to truth. This will take away both the fear felt by the potential philosopher when a demonstrated proposition conflicts with a theological doctrine and the authority of the theologian to persecute a person for holding views that disagree with the teachings of Scripture. Of crucial importance for attaining this purpose are the first two chapters of the ttp, which deal with "prophecy or revelation [prophetia sive revelation]" and with the biblical prophets. Spinoza recurs to a distinction between intellect and imagination that was common in the Aristotelian tradition and that Maimonides had already used for explaining prophecy. According to Maimonides, the prophet has both a highly developed intellect and a highly developed imagination, whereby the latter allows him to translate his intellectual insights into a simple and vivid language that can be understood by his uneducated audience. According to Spinoza, on the other hand, the prophet does not excel through his "more perfect intellect," but only through his "more lively imagination [potentia vividius imaginandi]" (ttp 2). Prophetic discourse, therefore, has no true cognitive content; it is only persuasive through images and symbols which are adjusted to the audience's limited capacity for understanding and help securing obedience to the law. Moreover, Spinoza intends to show through a detailed examination of the meaning of biblical terms that when the Bible describes the prophets as being filled with "the spirit of God or the holy spirit," it only intends to highlight their "exceptional virtue." This is an implicit attempt to refute the doctrine of the Calvinist Church which grounds the authority of Scripture on its super-rational inspiration by the holy spirit (ttp 1). Prophecy thus understood is neither specifically Jewish, nor can a claim to "election [vocatio]" be derived from it. For Spinoza Israel's election refers only to the political success of the ancient Hebrew state based on Moses' legislation. The election ended with the state's disintegration. That the Jewish people nonetheless continues to exist he explains through its insistence to keep up "external rituals" such as the "sign of circumcision [signum circumcisionis]" through which it sets itself apart from other nations and provokes their hatred (ttp 3). Moses' legislation, in particular the "ceremonial law [ceremoniae]" (ttp 5), is exclusively political in nature. As a "human law [lex humana]" (ttp 4) it aims only at "preserving life and the commonwealth," promising no more than "worldly happiness [temporanea foelicitas]" to those who observe it (ttp 5). By contrast, the "divine law [lex divina]" aims at the "highest good, i.e., the true knowledge and love of God," thus leading to "man's highest happiness [summa hominis foelicitas]" (ttp 4). Also the distinction between human and divine law Spinoza took over from Maimonides, at the same time turning it against its original intention. Whereas Maimonides identified the Torah with the divine law and presented Moses as a philosopher and lawgiver in the Platonic sense, Spinoza demotes Moses to a simple lawgiver whose legislation became obsolete after the downfall of the Hebrew state. This reversal of the Maimonidean model is a good example for the influence of Uriel da Costa and other Jewish heterodox thinkers on Spinoza. Their denial that the immortality of the soul is a biblical doctrine presumably underlies his claim that the Mosaic Law only promises "worldly happiness," and not eternal happiness which is the reward of "the true knowledge and love of God."

Also the miracles related in Scripture cannot be used as testimony for the authority of revelation, since miracles in the sense of God suspending the laws of nature are impossible in the order of nature, which is eternally and necessarily determined through God's essence. The reason for the belief in miracles, according to Spinoza, is the ignorance of causal connections (ttp 6).

The demolition of the traditional notion of revelation allows Spinoza to refute the premises of the exegesis promoted by Maimonides which attempts to harmonize philosophy and Scripture. In Spinoza's view this amounts to the "distorting and explaining away of Scripture" (ttp 7) with the goal to "extract" from it "Aristotelian nonsense [nugas Aristotelicas]" (ttp 1). It allows him likewise to refute the central claim underlying the hermeneutics of the Calvinist Church: that the understanding of Scripture requires the super-rational illumination by the holy spirit. Against these approaches Spinoza calls for the unconditional acceptance of Scripture's literal sense based on the methodological principle that "the knowledge of all the contents of Scripture must be sought from Scripture alone." The focus is no longer the "truth [veritas]" of a proposition in Scripture but its "meaning [sensus]" (ttp 7). In order to determine the meaning, the Bible scholar proceeds in an analogous way to the scientist whose aim is to explain nature. Both work out a "history [historia]," i.e., a methodological account, of the object of their study (ibid.). For the Bible scholar this means collecting and ordering the data contained in Scripture and then interpreting them in light of the relevant historical and socio-cultural contexts, as well as the psychological peculiarities of the prophets, insofar as these can be reconstructed from the available sources. In much of his discussion in the preceding chapters Spinoza follows the methodological rules laid out in ttp 7 and shows that from a philosophical point of view almost every statement in Scripture is false.

In ttp 8–10 he goes on to examine the composition and transmission of the biblical books. Taking a number of cryptic remarks in Abraham Ibn Ezra's commentary on the Bible as his point of departure, Spinoza arrives at the conclusion that much of the Pentateuch cannot have been written by Moses. He likewise questions the traditional attribution of several other books of the Bible. The comprehensive rejection of the claim to truth of revelation leads to the goal of the theological part of the ttp: the strict separation of philosophy and religion. The authority to determine truth and falsehood belongs only to philosophers who rely on rational insight. The task of theologians, relying on revelation, is to assure "obedience [obedientia]" to the law by teaching – like the prophets led by their imagination – "pious dogmas" whose truth is not important. Philosophy and theology thus become two independent disciplines: "the goal of philosophy is nothing but the truth, the goal of faith is nothing but obedience" (ttp 14). Consequently "reason" cannot be "the handmaid of theology [ancilla theologiae] nor theology the handmaid of reason [ancilla rationis]." Spinoza calls the former position "skepticism," for it "denies the certainty of reason," and exemplifies it through Judah Alfakhar, one of the leaders of the opposition to philosophy in medieval Judaism. Alfakhar is a stand-in for the position of the Calvinist Church, which Spinoza refrained from attacking openly. The latter position he calls "dogmatism" and illustrates it by means of Maimonides' philosophical exegesis which reinterprets every biblical passage that contradicts a doctrine established by reason (ttp 15). From this point of view the ttp marks the end of classical Jewish philosophy, whose fundamental premise was the agreement of revelation with all propositions demonstrated by reason. More importantly: it destroys the traditional notion of religion as a whole insofar as it is grounded on the truth of revelation. In this lies one of Spinoza's most momentous contributions to modernity.

religion as a replacement of philosophy

Nevertheless, Spinoza's attitude to religion is considerably more complicated. For despite the radical critique of religion, there are a significant number of passages throughout his work – from the Cogitata Metaphysica to the Tractatus Politicus and the late correspondence with Henry Oldenburg – in which he attributes a true core to Scripture, often presented as its allegorical content. This striking inconsistency seems to stem from a twofold commitment that Spinoza was ultimately unable to reconcile: he not only wants to criticize religion in order to defend the freedom to philosophize; he also wants to use religion as a replacement of philosophy for non-philosophers. The concept of religion as a replacement of philosophy which guides non-philosophers to virtue is precisely the "dogmatic" view of Maimonides (and, in fact, the standard view of medieval Islamic and Jewish philosophers) that Spinoza rejects in the ttp. The main idea is that the positive content of religion – biblical narratives, laws, rituals and so forth – is a pedagogical-political program designed by philosophers to guide non-philosophers. The allegorical content of religion, on the other hand, corresponds to the doctrines demonstrated in philosophy. Religion's authority thus depends on the assumption that the teachings of religion are true on the allegorical level. Before Spinoza started working on the ttp in 1665, he consistently endorsed the dogmatic position whenever he discussed the character of Scripture (Cogitata Metaphysicaii, 8 and the correspondence with W. van Blyenbergh between 1664 and 1665). But different versions of it reappear also in his later writings. They include the attribution of true moral convictions to the biblical prophets (ttp 1 and 2), the attribution of true metaphysical doctrines such as God being causa immanens to "all ancient Hebrews" (Letter 73), the presentation of Christ as an accomplished philosopher instructing non-philosophers by means of allegories (ttp 4; cf. e iv, Prop. 68, Schol.), and the claim that the "uncorrupted" core of Scripture corresponds to the "universal religion" described in the ttp (12–14). None of these can be justified through the exegetical method that Spinoza claims to have adopted in the ttp: "to neither affirm anything of [Scripture] nor to admit anything as its teaching which I did not most clearly derive from it" (ttp Preface). The textual evidence gives rise to a number of questions: why did Spinoza adopt the medieval position in his early writings, why did he refute it in the ttp, and why did he continue to make use of it even after having refuted it? For one thing, Spinoza clearly shares the view of Maimonides and many other medieval philosophers that the good life based on knowledge (i.e., the life he himself chose according to the opening passage of the tei and for which the Ethica serves as a guide) is accessible only to a small group of philosophers: "only a few in proportion to the whole of humanity acquire a virtuous disposition under the guidance of reason alone" (ttp 15; cf. Ethicav, Prop. 42, Schol.). This leads to the question how guidance can be provided to non-philosophers. The evidence of Spinoza's early writings shows that he in principle agrees with the medieval solution which takes the positive content of religion to be a pedagogical-political program designed to lead non-philosophers to virtue. A second reason for adopting the medieval position is that the perception of philosophy as coinciding with the allegorical content of religion facilitates its acceptance in a religious society. Finally, the medieval position, which has philosophy determine the true core of religion, neither seems to interfere with Spinoza's philosophical project in the Ethica nor with the freedom to philosophize that he sets out to defend in the ttp. But if this is the case, why did he refute it at all? It is clear that Spinoza's main opponent in the ttp is not the "dogmatic" position represented by Maimonides, but the "skeptical" position of the Calvinist Church, in particular the view that the authority of Scripture overrides the authority of reason. This he takes to be the chief threat to the freedom to philosophize (ttp Preface). The only efficient way to refute this position, in Spinoza's view, is to show that Scripture contains no truth. But although the medieval position and the position of the Reformed Church are in a sense opposed to each other, both depend in different ways on the premise that Scripture is true. Thus the refutation of the one entails the refutation of the other. While his target is the Reformed Church, Spinoza has no choice but to give up the medieval position as well. At the same time he has no new solution for the problem of non-philosophers. This explains why, despite its refutation, he continues to use the dogmatic position in various contexts in his later writings.

political philosophy

In the Ethica Spinoza argues that the essence of human beings is the conatus, i.e., the striving "to persist in one's being." In the political part of the ttp and in the Tractatus Politicus, following Thomas Hobbes, he equates the power to do so with a person's natural right in the state of nature, and explains the social contract as the decision to submit to a sovereign power in exchange for peace and safety (ttp 16). But, against Hobbes, Spinoza maintains that the natural right is not given up under the social contract: "the supreme power in a state has no more right over a subject than is proportionate to the power by which it is superior to the subject" (Letter 50).

Besides Hobbes, Spinoza was also influenced by ancient political thought, in part mediated through medieval Jewish sources. Indeed, the fear of being harmed through the power of others is not the only motive for forming a political community. Since, on their own, human beings are not self-sufficient, they must collaborate with one another. Hence the Aristotelian definition "which makes man a social animal, has been quite pleasing to most." Spinoza in any case is certain that "we derive from the society of our fellow men many more advantages than disadvantages" (Ethicaiv, Prop. 35, Schol.). Moreover, according to Spinoza, social harmony is weakened when the actions of the citizens are guided by the idiosyncratic goals of their passions, whereas it is strengthened when their actions are guided by reason which prescribes the same goal to all (idem, Dem.). It follows that the "end [finis]," for which the state is established, is not simply peace in the sense of "the absence of war [privatio belli];" its positive aim is to enhance the rationality of the citizens, i.e., their virtue, for "reason" is the "true virtue and life of the mind" (Tractatus Politicus 5, iv – vi). Since Spinoza equates virtue and knowledge, culminating in the intellectual love of God, and since he takes the "uncorrupted" true core of Scripture to be the call "to love God above all and one's neighbor as oneself" (ttp 12), the fundamental convergence of the purpose of his philosophical, religious, and political project becomes apparent: to foster a community based on solidarity and on freedom of thought, whose members assist one another in attaining the best life, i.e., a life devoted to the love of God.


Although during the first century after his death Spinoza was less famous than infamous, reviled as a notorious atheist, his influence was nonetheless considerable: not only on philosophers such as Leibniz, but, most importantly, on the different currents of the unfolding Enlightenment. Indeed, some scholars argue that the Enlightenment of the 18th century was no more than a post-scriptum to the dynamic of the radical Enlightenment set off by Spinoza's writings. He determined the intellectual agenda not only of those who agreed with him, but also of those who attempted to refute him and of those who adopted intermediate positions (cf. J. Israel). The most fruitful reception of his philosophy took place in Germany in the second half of the 18th century. The event which put Spinoza's work at the very center of the thriving German intellectual culture of the time was the so-called "Pantheismusstreit." This quarrel broke out when F.H. Jacobi accused Lessing after his death of being a crypto-Spinozist, in a public exchange of letters with Moses Mendelssohn that was widely debated in Germany's literary and philosophical circles and stirred up renewed interest in Spinoza's thought. A typical response to Jacobi's identification of Spinozism with atheism was that of the great Romantic poet Novalis, who described Spinoza as a "God-intoxicated man." Spinoza also significantly contributed to shaping Goethe's worldview, as well as that of many other central figures of Germany's literary scene. In a dedication that J.G. Herder wrote into a copy of Spinoza's Opera Posthuma, given to Goethe as a Christmas gift in 1784, he expresses his wish that the "holy Spinoza" may always remain their "holy Christ." In philosophy, Spinoza's ontological monism influenced the systems of German idealists probably as much as Kant's criticism. According to Hegel, Spinoza's thought is the "essential beginning of all philosophizing [wesentliche Anfang alles Philosophierens]." Nietzsche arrived at the conclusion that his own philosophical project agreed with Spinoza's on most fundamental issues. As mentioned in the introduction, Spinoza today continues to be debated by philosophers of a wide range of intellectual affiliations. Turning to his critique of religion, Spinoza may be said to have laid the foundation for the scientific study of the Bible. He also had a considerable impact on Jewish thinkers, beginning with David Nieto in the 17th century. In Jewish Haskalah circles of the 18th century, Mendelssohn's cautious Spinoza-reception stands next to Salomon Maimon's enthusiastic encounter with Spinoza's system that he relates in his Autobiography. Maimon's metaphysics, which takes up and combines ideas derived from Maimonides and Spinoza, was the first to make the transition from Kant to an idealist position. Spinoza also left his imprint on 19th-century maskilim. Moreover, he became an important source of the secular worldview of prominent Zionists, among them David Ben-Gurion who proposed to revoke the ḥerem against him. Albert Einstein wrote a poem "On Spinoza's Ethics." His "God who does not throw dice" clearly has Spinozistic features, as does his notion of a "cosmic religion."

[Carlos Fraenkel (2nd ed.)]

As a Bible Scholar

Spinoza's biblical criticism in part follows earlier attempts, but integrates them for the first time into a rational system, laying the groundwork for all later critical works on the Bible up to the present. His biblical criticism is closely connected to his philosophical system and political project. Based on the knowledge of the Bible that he acquired in his childhood, and after long years of reflection, his critical views of the Bible were expressed in the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, as well as in a few letters and conversations. In opposition to the many misuses of the Bible that he observed in Judaism and Christianity, Spinoza developed what he took to be the true method of biblical exegesis. Every person has the right to engage in biblical interpretation; it does not require supernatural illumination or special authority. Spinoza's supreme principle is that the Bible must be interpreted on its own terms. The method of the interpretation of the Bible is the same as the method of the interpretation of nature. "For, as the method of interpreting nature consists essentially in putting together a history [i.e., a methodical account] of nature, from which, as from sure data, we deduce the definitions of natural phenomena, so it is necessary for the interpretation of Scripture to work out a true history of Scripture, and from it, as from sure data and principles, to deduce through legitimate inference, the intention of the authors of Scripture" (ttp 7). The history of Scripture should comprise three components: (1) an analysis of the Hebrew language; (2) the compilation and classification of the expressions [sententiae] of each of the books of the Bible; (3) research into the original contexts of the biblical writings, as far as they still can be ascertained, i.e., into "the life, the conduct, and the pursuits of the author of each book, who he was, what was the occasion and the epoch of his writing, whom did he write for, and in what language. Further it should inquire into the fate of each book: how it was first received, into whose hands it fell, how many different versions there were of it, by whose advice was it received into the Canon, and lastly, how all the books now universally accepted as sacred were united into a single whole" (ibid.). In accordance with this program, Spinoza analyzed the biblical writings in an attempt to determine their authors (ttp 8–10). He spelled out, and substantially expanded on, the considerations that led the medieval commentator Abraham Ibn Ezra to allude to the possibility that the Pentateuch did not derive in its entirety from Moses. Although some of the Pentateuch did originate with Moses (The Book of the Wars of God, the Book of the Covenant, the Book of the Law of God), it was only many centuries after Moses that the Pentateuch as a whole appeared. The Pentateuch, together with the books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings, forms a single larger historical work, whose author, Spinoza conjectures, was Ezra. Ezra was prevented by his premature death, or perhaps some other reason, from revising these books. They contain numerous repetitions and contradictions, e.g., of a chronological nature, that lead to the conclusion that the wealth of material was compiled from works of different authors, without being arranged and harmonized. i and ii Chronicles were written long after Ezra, perhaps even after the restoration of the Temple by Judah Maccabee. The Psalms were collected and divided into five books in the Second Temple period; Proverbs is from the same period or, at the earliest, from the time of Josiah. The Prophetic books contain only fragments assembled from other books, but not in an order established by the prophets. Spinoza adopts Ibn Ezra's hypothesis concerning Job, according to which Job was translated from a gentile language; if this were the case it would entail that the gentiles also had holy books. Daniel is authentic only from chapter 8 on; the previous chapters, presumably taken from Chaldean chronicles, are in any case an indication that books can be holy even though they are not written in Hebrew. The Book of Daniel forms with the books of Ezra, Esther, and Nehemiah a work by a historian who wrote long after the restoration of the Temple by Judah Maccabee, using the official annals of the Second Temple in his work. These theories lead to the conclusion that the canon could have originated only in the time of the Hasmoneans. It is a work of the Pharisees, not Ezra, in whose time the Great Assembly did not yet exist. Spinoza criticizes various decisions of the Pharisees, such as the inclusion of Chronicles in the canon and the rejection of the Wisdom of Solomon and Tobit, and he regrets "that holy and highest things should depend upon the choice of those people." Spinoza discovers in the Prophets numerous contradictions in their conceptions of natural and spiritual phenomena. He concludes that God adapted his revelation in these matters to the limited intellectual power of the prophets, and that philosophical knowledge is not to be found in their works. The purpose of the revelation to the prophets is rather to teach the right way of life to an uneducated audience (ttp 1–2). The example of Balaam indicates that there were prophets not only among the Hebrews. The election of the Hebrews should not be understood as an indication that they excelled over other nations with respect to intellect and virtue; their election refers only to their political kingdom and ended with the latter's downfall (ttp 3). The ceremonies prescribed in the Bible, in fact the entire Mosaic law, were applicable only as long as the kingdom lasted; after it ended they no longer contributed to happiness and blessedness (ttp 4–5). According to Spinoza, stories in the Bible are not to be believed literally; they are intended to instruct the members of the community, who could not comprehend philosophical arguments in which propositions are deduced from definitions and axioms (ttp 5). Spinoza is aware of the difficulties that stand in the way of a conclusive understanding of the Bible on the basis of his method, for example our incomplete knowledge of Hebrew and of the circumstances of the composition of the biblical books, some of which (in particular those of the New Testament) are not extant in the language in which they were composed (ttp 7).

[Rudolf Smend /

Carlos Fraenkel (2nd ed.)]


sources: Spinoza, Opera, ed. C. Gebhardt, 4 vol., (1925); The Collected Works of Spinoza, vol. 1, ed. and Eng. trans. E. Curley (1985); Complete Works, Eng. trans. S. Shirley, ed. M.L. Morgan (2002); scholarly literature: M. Joel, Spinozas theologisch-politischer Traktat auf seine Quellen geprüft (1870); idem, Zur Genesis der Lehre Spinozas (1871); J. Freudenthal, "Spinoza und die Scholastik," in: Philosophische AufsätzeEduard Zeller zu seinem fünfzijährigen Doctor-Jubiläum gewidmet (1887), 85–138; idem, Die Lebensgeschichte Spinoza's (1899); idem, Spinoza, Leben und Lehre (1927); K.O. Meinsma, Spinoza en zijn kring (1896; French trans. 1983); H.H. Joachim, A Study of Spinoza's Ethics (1901); C. Gebhardt, "Spinoza und der Platonismus," in: Chronicon Spinozanum, 1 (1921), 178–234; L. Roth, Spinoza, Descartes and Maimonides (1924); L. Strauss, Die Religionskritik Spinozas als Grundlage seiner Bibelwissenschaft (1930; Eng. trans. 1965); idem, "How to Study Spinoza's Theological-Political Treatise," in: Proceedings of the American Academy of Jewish Research, 17 (1948), 69–131; H.A. Wolfson, The Philosophy of Spinoza: Unfolding the Latent Process of His Reasoning, 2 vol. (1934); I.S. Révah, Spinoza et Juan de Prado (1959); S. Zac, Spinoza et l'interpretation de l'écriture (1965); M. Gueroult, Spinoza I, Dieu (1968); idem, Spinoza ii, L'Ame (1974); S. Pines, "Spinoza's Tractatus, Maimonides and Kant," in: Scripta Hierosolymitana, 20 (1968), 3–54; A. Matheron, Le Christ et le salut des ignorants chez Spinoza (1971); W.Z. Harvey, "Maimonides and Spinoza on the Knowledge of Good and Evil," in: Iyyun, 28:4 (1978), 167–185 (Heb.); idem, "A Portrait of Spinoza as a Maimonidean," in: Journal of the History of Philosophy, 19:2 (1981), 151–72; C. Cramer, W.G. Jacobs, W. Schmidt-Biggemann (eds.), Spinozas Ethik und ihre frühe Wirkung (1981); J.P. Osier, D'Uriel da Costa à Spinoza (1983); J. Bennett, A Study of Spinoza's Ethics (1984); K. Gründer and W. Schmidt-Biggemann (eds.), Spinoza in der Frühzeit seiner religiösen Wirkung (1984); J. Dienstag, "The Relation of Spinoza to the Philosophy of Maimonides," in: Studia Spinozana, 2 (1986), 375–416; H.E. Allison, Benedict de SpinozaAn Introduction (1987); R.H. Popkin, and M.A. Singer, Spinoza's Earliest Publication? (1987); E. Curley, Behind the Geometrical MethodA Reading of Spinoza's Ethics (1988); Z. Levy, Baruch or BenedictOn Some Jewish Aspects of Spinoza's Philosophy (1989); Y. Yovel, Spinoza and Other Heretics, 2 vols. (1989); M. Dorman, The Spinoza Dispute in Jewish ThoughtFrom David Nieto to David Ben-Gurion (Heb. 1990); M. Della Rocca, Representation and the Mind-Body Problem in Spinoza (1996); S.B. Smith, Spinoza, Liberalism, and the Question of Jewish Identity (1997); S. Nadler, Spinoza: A Life (1999); J. Israel, Radical Enlightenment (2001); J.S. Preus, Spinoza and the Irrelevance of Biblical Authority (2001); H. Ravven and L. Goodman (eds.), Jewish Themes in Spinoza's Philosophy (2002); C. Jaquet (ed.), Les Pensées métaphysiques de Spinoza (2004); J. Lagrée, Spinoza et le débat religieux: lectures du traité théologico-politique (2004); Y. Melamed, "Salomon Maimon and the Rise of Spinozism," in: Journal of the History of Philosophy, 42:1 (2004), 67–96; C. Fraenkel, "From Maimonides' God to Spinoza's Deus sive Natura," in: Journal of the History of Philosophy, 44:2 (2006).

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