13 Things You Need to Know About… Baruch Spinoza

Rationalist philosopher

1. He was born Benedito de Espinosa in Amsterdam in November 1632. The son of a successful merchant, he was raised in the Portuguese Sephardic community. He had a traditional Jewish upbringing, but his education was cut short at the age of seventeen, when his elder brother died and he went to work in the family business importing dried fruit.

2. He went on learning. He spoke Portuguese, Hebrew, Spanish and Dutch, and at age twenty began the study of Latin with a freethinking former Jesuit, Franciscus van den Enden, who probably introduced him to modern philosophy. Spinoza evidently taught himself medieval Jewish philosophy, Kabbalah and modern science. In 1654, when his father died, he began teaching at Van den Enden’s school and changed his name to Benedictus de Spinoza. He became friends with dissident Christians who rejected the authority of established churches.

3. After lengthy reflection, he concluded that the scriptures were not authored by Moses and that many prevailing dogmas of Judaism were wrong. In July 1656, at the age of twenty-three, he was exiled from the Jewish community by a cherem for his “evil ideas and acts,” his “abominable heresies” and “monstrous deeds.” Scholars believe he was teaching the ideas that he would soon publish – denying the immortality of the soul; rejecting the notion of a providential god; and claiming that the Law was not given by God.

4. His response to this censure was, “This does not force me to do anything I would not have done of my own accord, had I not been afraid of a scandal.” Attacked on the steps of the synagogue by a knife-wielding assailant, he wore his torn cloak for years afterward as a kind of badge of honor.

5. At about the same time, the importing business turned sour; he turned it over to his younger brother and devoted himself to optics and philosophy. He worked as a lens grinder, a profession that brought him into contact with prominent scientists and mathematicians involving him in optical investigations and the design of microscopes and telescopes. He lived simply, turning down rewards, honors, teaching positions and an inheritance. Though he associated with Christians, he never converted to Christianity.

6. Only two of his works were published in his lifetime: Descartes’ ‘Principles of Philosophy’ and Theologico-Political Treatise. The latter was written in defense of secular and constitutional government, in opposition to the Prince of Orange. It was published anonymously in Hamburg in 1670, but he was quickly identified. One of the prince’s  supporters described the tractate as “forged in Hell by a renegade Jew and the Devil.” Spinoza kept writing, but stopped publishing. His other works include A Short Treatise on God, Man and His Well-Being, Treatise on the Improvement of Understanding and his great work, Ethics, which is dense and mathematical. His books were listed on the Catholic Church’s Index of Forbidden Books.

7. Is it any wonder that he wore a signet ring engraved with a rose and the Latin word “caute” (cautiously)?

220px-Spinoza

“Do not weep; do not wax indignant. Understand.” – Spinoza

8. His ideas laid the groundwork for the Enlightenment, modern biblical criticism and modern concepts of the self. In brief, he held that everything that exists is one substance, that God and Nature are two names for this same fundamental substance; that God exists, but is abstract and impersonal, having infinite attributes, some of which are not present in our world; that mind and body, too, are not separate (as Descartes held) but aspects of the same infinite substance; that the reality we experience comes from God, but being the ultimate and only substance, God cannot be prevailed upon by prayer or ritual to change anything.

9. It follows from this that everything that happens, happens of necessity, nothing by chance; that reality is perfection, and that our perception otherwise is because of our inadequate understanding – good and evil are relative and seen with regard to our limited human circumstances. The best human response to the world is to come to understand it better, the highest virtue being knowledge of God/Nature/Universe.

10. Spinoza identified three types of knowledge – opinion, reason and intuition. Intuition, he said, provides the greatest satisfaction; the more conscious we are of ourselves and Nature, the more blessed we are. This line of thought, of course, leads directly to modern psychology.

11. Spinoza’s work appears to have influenced the life, thought and work of many prominent thinkers, including George Eliot (who translated his Ethics into English), Goethe, Maugham, Albert Einstein, Borges and I.B. Singer. Hegel wrote, “You are either a Spinozist or not a philosopher at all.”

12. He died in February 1677 of lung disease, age forty-four, and is buried in the Hague in a Christian cemetery.

13. For more quotations by and about him, see en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Baruch_Spinoza. For more about his philosophy, go to this article by Steven Nadler at http://www.neh.gov/humanities/2013/septemberoctober/feature/why-spinoza-was-excommunicated. A 2008 play, “New Jerusalem” by David Ives is based on the cherem issued against Spinoza.

In Tel Aviv, Spinoza Street runs north-south between Frischmann and Ben Gurion.

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3 thoughts on “13 Things You Need to Know About… Baruch Spinoza

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