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Baruch Spinoza

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edit index Baruch Spinoza
Baruch Benedict de Spinoza (24 Nov 1632 - 21 Feb 1677) was a Dutch philosopher of a Portuguese Jewish family, whose controversial metaphysical ideas led to cherem (removal) against him from Jewish Society, and his works were banned by the Vatican. Despite his considerable scientific aptitude, the breadth and importance of Spinoza's work was not fully realized until years after his death, if even today, although considered one of the great 17th Century philosophers. Spinoza, with Bacon, Descartes, Leibniz and Locke laid the groundwork for the 18th Century Enlightenment and fully Modern Philosophy. Hegel once said of all modern philosophers, "You are either a Spinozist or not a philosopher at all."

Life and Works

The Portuguese Jewish community had grown in Amsterdam after the Alhambra Decree in Spain (1492) and Portuguese Inquisition (1536), after forced conversions and expulsions from the Iberian Peninsula. Historians differ on whether the "Espinosa" (in Portuguese) family originated in Spain or Portugal, but Spinoza's Father, Miguel de Spinoza, had been born roughly a century after this forced conversion in Portugal. When Meguel was still a child, Spinoza's Grandfather, Isaac de Spinoza from Lisbon, took his family to Nantes in France, was later expelled in 1615, then moved to Rotterdam, where Isaac died in 1627, then on to Amsterdam. Baruch was born in Amsterdam, and his Mother Ana, and Miguel's second wife, died when Baruch was only six years old.

Miguel had become a successful importer and merchant, and Baruch enjoyed a traditional Jewish upbringing. However, his critical, curious nature soon brough him into conflict with the Jewish community, while wars with England and France took the life of his Father and decimated his family's fortune. Still, Baruch was eventually able to relinquish responsibility for the business and its debts to his brother, Gabriel, and devote himself to Philosophy and optics. Baruch became known in the Jewish community for positions contrary to prevailing belief, and he harboured critical positions toward the anti-maimonidean dominance of Jewish religious texts. The problem was that Spinoza's ideas, which disagreed equally well with the orthodoxies of other religions, would not sit well with the Christian leaders of Amsterdam, and thus, would reflect badly on the entire Jewish community. This would endanger the already limited freedoms Jews had achieved there. The cherem reads:

The chiefs of the council make known to you that having long known of evil opinions and acts of Baruch de Spinoza, they have endeavored by various means and promises to turn him from evil ways. Not being able to find any remedy, but on the contrary receiving every day more information about the abominable heresies practiced and taught by him, and about the monstrous acts committed by him, having this from many trustworthy witnesses who have deposed and borne witness on all this in the presence of said Spinoza, who has been convicted; all this having been examined in the presence of the Rabbis, the council decided, with the advice of the Rabbi, that the said Spinoza should be excommunicated and cut off from the Nation of Israel.

Following this, Baruch adopted the first name Benedictus, a Latin equivalent of "Baruch", meaning "blessed". In view of Christian opposition to Spinoza's opinions, the Jewish community had little option but to dissociate from Spinoza's "heresy", and thus Spinoza lived and worked in the school of Franciscus van den Enden, who had taught him Latin in his youth and may have introduced him to Modern Philosophy. Spinoza never mentioned Van den Enden in books or letters, but Van den Enden was a Cartesian and atheist forbidden by the city government to propagate his doctrines publicly.

Spinoza even published his Theologico-Political Treatise anonomously, and the public reactions even to that were extremely unfavourable to Spinoza's Cartesianism, so Spinoza abstained from publishing more of his works. Wary and independent, he was known to wear a signet ring engraved with his initials and the word "caute" (Latin for "cautiously"). The Ethics, and all other works apart from Descartes' Principles of Philosophy and Theologico-Political Treatise, were published after Spinoza's death in Opera Posthuma, which had been edited by friends in secrecy to avoid confiscation and destruction of the manuscripts.

Relocated from Amsterdam to Rijnsburg, near Leiden, around 1661, and later in Voorburg and The Hague, Spinoza earned a comfortable living from the grinding of lenses for eye-glasses and magnifying glass. He lived quietly, turning down rewards and honors throughout his life, including prestigious teaching positions, and even gave his family inheritance to his Sister. In 1676, he met with Liebniz, described by Matthew Stewart as "The Courtier and the Heretic", for a discussion of his principal philosophical work, Ethics, which had just been completed.

Spinoza died in 1677 at the age of 44 while still working on a new political thesis. His premature death was due to lung illness, possibly the result of breathing in glass dust from the lenses he ground. Spinoza is buried in the churchyard of the Nieuwe Kerk on Spui in The Hague, and a shrine was made of his home there. His moral character and philosophical accomplishments had be so respected, even a 20th Century philosopher, Gilles Deleuze, thought to call him "the 'prince' of philosophers", in his own Expressionism in Philosophy: Spinoza (1990).

Spinozism: Expression of Substance

Spinoza's Philosophy had been attractive in that it was an alternative to Materialism, Atheism, and Deism, all at once. For Spinoza, there is a Unity of All which exists, a Regularity of All that happens, and an Identity of Spirit with Nature. Spinoza's idea of "God or Nature" provided for a living, natural God, in contrast to the Newtonian "First Cause", or the lifeless mechanism of La Mettrie's "Man Machine". Poets, Coleridge and Shelley, saw in Spinoza's Philosophy a "religion of nature". However, Spinoza believed God exists only philosophically, that God was an abstract and impersonal concept. Spinoza asserted that everything existing in Nature, or everything in the Universe, is one Reality (or Substance), and there is only one set of rules governing the whole of that reality.

Thus, Spinoza viewed God and Nature as two names for the same reality, namely the single Substance which is "expressed" through modes of Being. So, what might be "beneath" anything we experience is just the very basis of the Universe, which is expressed by all "entities" through modes or modifications. Things are determined by Nature to exist and cause effects, and so the complex chain of cause and effect is understood only in part, as an expression of modes. So, the Deus sive Natura is a being of infinitely many attributes, of which Thought and Extension are just two. The nature of Reality, then, is one where physical and mental worlds are one and the same. The universal Substance consists of both Body and Mind, with no difference between these aspects.

The consequences of Spinoza's system means God is one who does not rule over the finite Universe by Providence, but is thus only a God who is another element of an infinite, deterministic system. Everything in Nature happens and occurs through the operation of Necessity. Even Human Behaviour is fully determined, with Freedom being our capacity to know we are determined, to understand why we act as we do. So, Freedom is the possibility to fully understand why things should necessarily happen the way they do. By forming more adequate ideas about what we do, we become the adequate cause of our effects, which entails an increase in activity versus passivity, and means we become more free, like our idea of God, as Spinoza argued.

Spinoza held Good and Evil to be relative concepts, claiming that nothing is intrinsically good or bad except when relative to a particular individual. Given the insistence on a completely ordered world where Necessity reigns, Good and Evil have no absolute meaning. The World as it exists looks imperfect, only because of our own limited perception.

Further Reading

Works by Spinoza

  • 1660. Korte Verhandeling van God, de mensch en deszelvs welstand (Short Treatise on God, Man and His Well-Being)
  • 1662. Tractatus de Intellectus Emendatione (On the Improvement of the Understanding)
  • 1663. Principia philosophiae cartesianae (Principles of Cartesian Philosophy)
  • 1670. Tractatus Theologico-Politicus (A Theologico-Political Treatise)
  • 1675/76 Tractatus Politicus (Unfinished)
  • 1677. Ethica Ordine Geometrico Demonstrata (The Ethics)
  • 1677. Hebrew Grammar


Secondary Literature

  • Balibar, Etienne, 1985. Spinoza et la politique ("Spinoza and politics") Paris: PUF.
  • Boucher, Wayne I., 1999. Spinoza in English: A Bibliography from the Seventeenth Century to the Present. 2nd edn. Thoemmes Press.
  • Boucher, Wayne I., ed., 1999. Spinoza: Eighteenth and Nineteenth-Century Discussions. 6 vols. Thoemmes Press.
  • Damasio, Antonio, 2003. Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow, and the Feeling Brain, Harvest Books
  • Deleuze, Gilles, 1968. Spinoza et le probleme de l'expression. Trans. "Expressionism in Philosophy: Spinoza" Martin Joughin (New York: Zone Books).
  • Spinoza - Philosophie pratique. Transl. "Spinoza: Practical Philosophy".
  • Negotiations trans. Martin Joughin (New York: Columbia University Press).
  • Della Rocca, Michael. 1996. Representation and the Mind-Body Problem in Spinoza. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-509562-6
  • Garrett, Don, ed., 1995. The Cambridge Companion to Spinoza. Cambridge Uni. Press.
  • Gatens, Moira, and Lloyd, Genevieve, 1999. Collective imaginings : Spinoza, past and present. Routledge. ISBN 0-415-16570-9, ISBN 0-415-16571-7
  • Goldstein, Rebecca, 2006. Betraying Spinoza: The Renegade Jew Who Gave Us Modernity. Schocken. ISBN 978-0-8052-1159-7
  • Gullan-Whur, Margaret, 1998. Within Reason: A Life of Spinoza. Jonathan Cape. ISBN 0-224-05046-X
  • Hampshire, Stuart, 1951. Spinoza and Spinozism , OUP, 2005 ISBN 978-0199279548
  • Hardt, Michael, trans., University of Minnesota Press. Preface, in French, by Gilles Deleuze, available here.
  • Israel, Jonathan, 2001. The Radical Enlightenment, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • ''Enlightenment Contested: Philosophy, Modernity, and the Emancipation of Man."
  • Kasher, Asa, and Shlomo Biderman. "Why Was Baruch de Spinoza Excommunicated?"
  • Kayser, Rudolf, 1946, with an introduction by Albert Einstein. Spinoza: Portrait of a Spiritual Hero. New York: The Philosophical Library.
  • Lloyd, Genevieve, 1996. Spinoza and the Ethics.
  • Lucas, P. G., 1960. "Some Speculative and Critical Philosophers", in I. Levine (ed.), Philosophy (London: Odhams)
  • Lovejoy, Arthur O., 1936. "Plenitude and Sufficient Reason in Leibniz and Spinoza" in his The Great Chain of Being. Harvard University Press: 144-82 (ISBN 0-674-36153-9). Reprinted in Frankfurt, H. G., ed., 1972. Leibniz: A Collection of Critical Essays. Anchor Books.
  • Macherey, Pierre, 1977. Hegel ou Spinoza, Maspero.
  • Introduction A l'Ethique de Spinoza. Paris: PUF.
  • Matheron, Alexandre, 1969. Individu et communaute chez Spinoza, Paris: Les editions de Minuit.
  • Morgan, Michael L. (ed.), 2002. "Spinoza: Complete Works", (Indianapolis/Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Company). ISBN 0-87220-620-3
  • Montag, Warren. Bodies, Masses, Power: Spinoza and his Contemporaries. (London: Verso, 2002).
  • Moreau, Pierre-Francois, 2003, Spinoza et le spinozisme, PUF (Presses Universitaires de France)
  • Nadler, Steven, 1999. Spinoza: A Life. Cambridge Uni. Press. ISBN 0-521-55210-9
  • Nadler, Steven, 2006. Spinoza's Ethics: An Introduction. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-83620-3
  • Negri, Antonio, 1991. The Savage Anomaly: The Power of Spinoza's Metaphysics and Politics.
  • Subversive Spinoza: (Un)Contemporary Variations.
  • Popkin, R. H., 2004. Spinoza (Oxford: One World Publications)
  • Ratner, Joseph, 1927. The Philosophy of Spinoza (The Modern Library: Random House)
  • Stoltze, Ted and Warren Montag (eds.), The New Spinoza (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997.
  • Strauss, Leo. Persecution and the Art of Writing. Glencoe, Ill.: Free Press, 1952. Reprint. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988.
  • "How to Study Spinoza's Tractus Theologico-Politicus;" reprinted in Strauss, Jewish Philosophy and the Crisis of Modernity, ed. Kenneth Hart Green (Albany, N.Y.: SUNY Press, 1997), 181-233.
  • Spinoza's Critique of Religion. New York: Schocken Books, 1965. Reprint. University of Chicago Press, 1996.
  • "Preface to the English Translation" reprinted as "Preface to Spinoza's Critique of Religion," in Strauss, Liberalism Ancient and Modern (New York: Basic Books, 1968, 224-59; also in Strauss, Jewish Philosophy and the Crisis of Modernity, 137-77.
  • Smilevski, Goce. Conversation with SPINOZA. Chicago: Northwestern University Press, 2006.
  • Yovel, Yirmiyahu, "Spinoza and Other Heretics, Vol. 1: The Marrano of Reason." Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1989.
  • Yovel, Yirmiyahu, "Spinoza and Other Heretics, Vol. 2: The Adventures of Immanence." Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1989.
  • The Courtier and the Heretic:Leibniz, Spinoza and the Fate of God; by Matthew Stewart.
  • Blessed Spinoza: A Biography; by Lewis Browne.
  • Spinoza: Liberator of God and Man; by Benjamin De Casseres.
  • Spinoza: The Biosopher; by Frederick Kettner.
  • The Philosophy of Spinoza; by Henry Austryn Wolfson.
  • Betraying Spinoza: The Renegade Jew Who Gave Us Modernity; by Rebecca Goldstein.


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Some content adapted from the Pseudopedia article Baruch Spinoza under the GNU Free Documentation License.
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