Wednesday, 23 June 2010

Baruch Spinoza

Born in Amsterdam, Baruch Spinoza (1632-77) was a first generation Dutch Jew. His family were Portuguese Jews, his father Michael Espinosa being a refugee merchant, one of those who contributed to the growing prosperity of Amsterdam. There were numerous Portuguese and Spanish Jews in that city at the time of Spinoza’s birth. More specifically, Spinoza’s parents were marranos or crypto-Jews who had fled from Portugal. They were amongst those who adhered to elements of Judaism after forced conversion to Christianity. That problem had occurred in Portugal and Spain, where the Inquisition harassed converts.

Spinoza was educated in the traditional Jewish manner. He studied at a Talmud Torah school, but did not undertake the higher grades which led to Rabbi status. At the age of 17, “whether by desire or by necessity, Spinoza left the school in order to work in his father’s business, which he eventually took over with his half-brother” (B.D. Dutton, “Benedict De Spinoza,” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy). The family business was one of importing and vending foodstuffs. At the age of 24, Spinoza was excommunicated by the synagogue authorities of Amsterdam, being accused of heresies. The context is obscure.

His enthusiasm for the study of Descartes (entry no. 21) has often been considered a possible reason for the stigma, though other explanations have been proffered. His critical views of the Bible, and his acquaintance with radical Christian groups such as the Collegiants and Quakers, are just some of the alternatives. An economic problem is another possibility, his father having died two years before and leaving numerous debts, as a consequence of which Spinoza hired a lawyer.

At this time he changed his first name Baruch (which is Hebrew) to the Latin equivalent of Benedict. The heretic became a Latin-speaking neo-Cartesian, moving freely amongst non-Jews. Spinoza could also speak Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, and Hebrew.

Like Descartes, Spinoza was a citizen philosopher. Academics later assimilated these two figures into the canon of primary rationalist philosophers. Even more than Descartes, Spinoza remained on the fringe of status activities, and had to struggle with ideological biases of a severe kind. [See further my Baruch Spinoza, long entry].

Spinoza left Amsterdam in 1661, reputedly being in danger from extremists, and moved to Rijnsburg. He had adopted the craft of a lens-grinder, working in his own rented living accomodation. He produced lenses for microscopes and telescopes. This activity converged with his strong interest in optics. Some commentators describe this grinding and polishing skill in terms of a “gentlemanly amateur” vocation, which apparently bypassed an apprenticeship. Yet the wealthy Dutch scientist Christiaan Huygens (1629-93) respected the knowledge of optics possessed by Spinoza. That science was associated with the Optics of Descartes.

Huygens was a very capable lens-grinder, innovating advanced telescopic lenses. “Huygens had far more money than Spinoza, who was a ‘marrano’ amateur in a Christian world of professionals” (Shepherd, Pointed Observations, 2005, p. 278). It is apparent that Spinoza at first knew more about microscopes than Huygens, who became celebrated for telescopic discoveries in relation to Saturn. These two grinders had scientific discussions, with Huygens evidently regarding Spinoza as a rival.

In some commentaries, Spinoza has been defined as a rationalist version of pantheist. He did not accept the dualism of Descartes, and argued that there could only be one substance, not three (i.e., God, mind, and matter). Thus God can be equated with Nature. This theme became incorporated into his Ethics (1677), which strongly asserts the existence of God in a rationalist context. The attendant irony is that Spinoza was described and derided as an atheist by various reductionists for many years after his death. There is contemporary disagreement about his orientation. Spinozan pantheism has even been interpreted (in one version) as panentheism, though some commentators argue that the subject was an atheist.
Spinoza himself said that the charge of atheism was a perverse misinterpretation of his meaning.

An earlier work was Spinoza’s Short Treatise on God, Man, and His Wellbeing, apparently composed during his retiring phase at Rijnsberg, though not achieving publication until long after his death. This metaphysical book is partly associated with the influence of Leone Ebreo, alias Judah Abravanel, a sixteenth century Jewish philosopher of Portugal who has been described in terms of Neoplatonism.


Abravanel authored the Dialoghi d'amore, published in Italian in 1535; those dialogues refer in philosophical terms to an “intellectual” love above any human love. This work (which Spinoza read in Spanish)) has been recently described as “a Neoplatonic presentation” which “contains two of Spinoza’s great goals in intellectual life: that of seeing the world in the aspect of eternity and that of achieving the intellectual love of God” (R. H. Popkin, Spinoza, Oxford: Oneworld, 2004, p. 18).

Perhaps acting upon the advice of his academic friend Lodewijk Meyer, Spinoza changed format from the Short Treatise to the geometrical method of Euclid, exhibited in his Ethics. This device was evidently believed to be suitable for conveying reason to a Christian audience. Hispanic-Jewish mysticism would not have appealed to some of his acquaintances. Spinoza himself is far more complex. The philosophical Kabbalist Abraham Cohen Herrera was another of the influences at work in our subject (Popkin, op. cit., p. 19).

The Ethics of Spinoza states that “this love toward God must engage the mind most” (E. Curley trans., Ethics, London: Penguin 1996, p. 169). Moreover, “blessedness consists in love of God, a love which arises from the third kind of knowledge” (ibid., p. 180), here referring to intuitive knowledge. Such factors were attended by the conclusion that “if salvation were at hand, and could be found without great effort, how could nearly everyone neglect it? But all things excellent are as difficult as they are rare.” (Ibid., p. 181).

The Treatise on the Emendation of the Intellect commences with Spinoza’s advice to renounce wealth, status, and sensual indulgence in the pursuit of the highest good. An unpopular theme today, this was probably not in favour with some of the author’s associates, who were radicals of a different kind. Spinoza did not own property, and lived in simple rented rooms. He avoided a university career, despite his undoubted learning abilities.

In 1670 appeared his anonymous Tractatus Theologico-Politicus or Theological-Political Treatise (TPT). This proved a bombshell of controversy, and to such an extent that Spinoza’s Ethics could not be published during his lifetime. The content of the TPT was polemical, pleading the cause of philosophical reason against theological dogmatism. Spinoza was clearly pitting himself against religious sectarianism. He advocated a democratic and pluralist society free of superstitions.

The TPT dismissed miracles, and emphasised textual criticism of the Bible to a notable extent. The author was benign towards Jesus Christ, though rejecting the Resurrection. “Spinoza naturalises (and, consequently, demystifies) some of the fundamental elements of Judaism and other religions and undermines the foundations of their external, superstitious rites.” Quotation from S. Nadler, “Baruch Spinoza” (2008) Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy.

The prestigious Amsterdam Synod declared the TPT to be blasphemous, and other influential Calvinist Synods were in support. In 1674, the Court of Holland prohibited the printing and selling of the TPT. Freedom of speech did not yet exist. The long-term stigmatisation of Spinoza as an atheist was one of the consequences.

In 1676, the German philosopher Gottfried W. Leibniz (1646-1716) visited Spinoza in the latter’s modest living situation at The Hague. The “atheist” gains a rather mystical complexion in a memo written by Leibniz, which includes such statements as:

“According to him [Spinoza] the mind itself is in a certain sense a part of God....He thinks that we will forget most things when we die and retain only those things that we know with the kind of knowledge he calls intuitive, of which only a few are conscious.... He believes a sort of Pythagorical transmigration, namely that minds go from body to body. He says that Christ is the very best philosopher...” (W. N. A. Klever, “Spinoza’s life and works” in D. Garrett, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Spinoza, Cambridge University Press, 1996, pp. 46-7).

See further Y. Yovel, Spinoza and Other Heretics (Princeton, 1989); E. Curley, trans, A Spinoza Reader: The Ethics and Other Works (Princeton, 1994); S. Nadler, Spinoza: A Life (Cambridge, 1999); M. Morgan and S. Shirley, ed. and trans., Spinoza: The Complete Works (Indianapolis, 2002); S. Nadler, Spinoza’s Heresy (Oxford, 2002); S. Nadler, Spinoza’s Ethics: An Introduction (Cambridge, 2006); O. Koistinen, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Spinoza’s Ethics (Cambridge, 2009).

Kevin R. D. Shepherd
June 23rd 2010


ENTRY no. 22

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