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Baruch (Benedict) Spinoza

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Baruch (Benedict) Spinoza
Baruch (Benedict) Spinoza
(Portrait, c. 1665)

Baruch Spinoza (AKA Benedict Spinoza) (1632 - 1677) was a Dutch philosopher of Portuguese Jewish origin who lived and worked during the Age of Reason.

Along with René Descartes and Gottfried Leibniz, he is considered one of the great Rationalists of the 17th Century, although the breadth and importance of his work was not fully realized until years after his death.

An enormously controversial figure (both in his own day and after) for the highly original and provocative positions he advocated, Spinoza is nowadays respected as one of the definitive ethicists (he took a largely Moral Relativist position), and as a harbinger of enlightened modernity. His metaphysical views were essentially monistic and pantheistic, holding that God and Nature were just two names for the same single underlying reality.


Spinoza was born on 24 November 1632 in Amsterdam, Holland, to a family of Sephardic Jews descended from displaced Maranos from Portugal. His father was Abraăo (Miguel) de Spinoza, a successful importer and merchant; his mother was Ana Débora, Miguel's second of three wives, who died when Baruch was only six years old.

He had a traditional Jewish upbringing, and his early education consisted mainly of religious study, including instruction in Hebrew, liturgy, Torah, prophetic writings and rabbinical commentaries. However, his critical, curious nature would soon come into conflict with the Jewish community.

At the age of 17, when his father died in the wars against England and France and the family fortune was decimated, Spinoza was forced to cut short his formal studies to help run the family business, although he was eventually able to relinquish responsibility for the business and its debts to his brother, Gabriel, and devote himself to his real love, philosophy. He gave away his share of his father's inheritance to his sister, and lived the rest of his life in genteel poverty as a grinder of optical lenses.

In 1656, Spinoza was issued a writ of "cherem" (the Jewish equivalent of excommunication) for the apostasy of how he conceived God, and for various positions contrary to normative Jewish belief and his criticisms of the Talmud and other religious texts. He had reportedly been offered 1000 florins to keep quiet about his views, but had refused on principle. Following his excommunication, he adopted the first name Benedictus or Benedict (the Latin equivalent of Baruch, meaning "blessed") or, more informally, the Portuguese equivalent Bento.

After his excommunication, Spinoza lived and worked at times at the school of his old Latin teacher, Franciscus van den Enden, an atheist and devotee of the Rationalism of Descartes, who was forbidden by the city government to propagate his doctrines publicly. He dedicated himself completely to philosophy, and his fervent desire was to change the world through establishing a clandestine philosophical sect, although this was only eventually realized after his death, through the dedicated intercession of his friends.

He became acquainted with several Collegiants, members of an eclectic sect with tendencies towards Rationalism, as well as corresponding with Petrus Serrarius (1600 -1669), a radical Protestant and millennarian merchant, who acted as a patron of Spinoza for a time. By the beginning of the 1660s, Spinoza's name had become more widely known, and he met and corresponded with Gottfried Leibniz and Henry Oldenburg (1619 - 1677). Around 1661, he relocated from Amsterdam to Rijnsburg (near Leiden) and later lived in Voorburg (1663) and then The Hague, earning a comfortable living from his work as an optician and lens-grinding, although he was also supported by small, but regular, donations from close friends. He never married, nor did he father any children.

Spinoza's first publication was a geometric exposition of the work of Descartes, the two part "Principia philosophiae cartesianae" ("Principles of Cartesian Philosophy"), published in 1663. In the early 1660s, he worked on what was to become his magnum opus, the "Ethics", but he suspended the work in 1665 in favor of his "Tractatus Theologico-Politicus" ("Theologico-Political Treatise"), which was eventually published anonymously in 1670. The public reaction to this work, though, was extremely unfavorable and Spinoza was wary enough to abstain from publishing more of his works for the rest of his life (the "Ethics" and several other works were all published posthumously by his friends, in secrecy). Even his colleague Leibniz disagreed harshly with it (and published his own detailed refutation), although some of Leibniz's own work bears some striking resemblances to certain key parts of Spinoza's philosophy. In 1676, Spinoza met with Leibniz at The Hague to privately discuss his "Ethics", which he had just completed but dared not publish.

Spinoza died at the young age of 44 on 21 February 1677 in The Hague, due to a lung illness (perhaps tuberculosis or silicosis, possibly due to breathing in fine glass dust from the lenses he ground). Even after his death, Spinoza did not escape controversy, and in 1678 his works were banned throughout Holland.

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Although he is usually counted, along with Descartes and Leibniz, as one of the three major Rationalists of the 17th Century, his writings reveal the influence of such divergent sources as Stoicism, Jewish Rationalism, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Descartes and a variety of heterodox religious thinkers of his day, and he made significant contributions in virtually every area of philosophy. His pursuits were eclectic and his thought was strikingly original, which makes him somewhat difficult to categorize.

His first published work, the "Principia philosophiae cartesianae" ("Principles of Cartesian Philosophy") of 1663, was a systematic presentation of the philosophy of Descartes, to which he added his own suggestions for its improvement, and it already contained many of the characteristic elements of his later work. The "Tractatus Theologico-Politicus" ("Theologico-Political Treatise") of 1670 was an examination of superficial popular religion in general and a vigorous critique of the militant Protestantism practiced in Holland at the time. He argued that Christians and Jews could live peaceably together if they would only rise above the petty theological and cultural controversies that divided them. The core of Spinoza's ethical views was encapsulated in his early "Tractatus de intellectus emendatione" ("Treatise on the Improvement of the Understanding").

But his major work was the monumental "Ethica Ordine Geometrico Demonstrata" ("Ethics"), an abstract and difficult work, finished in 1676 but only published posthumously in 1677. Each of its five constituent books comprises a long sequence of numbered propositions, each of which is deduced through a method consciously modeled on the deductive logic used by the Greek mathematician Euclid in his seminal work on geometry. Like Euclid, Spinoza started with a small set of self-evident definitions and axioms, meticulously built up his deductive argument, and concluded each section with a triumphant "QED" ("quod erat demonstrandum", or "that which was to be demonstrated"). It is sometimes held up as a supreme example of a self-contained metaphysical system, whose object is nothing less than to explain everything, the total scheme of reality.

As a young man, Spinoza had subscribed to Descartes' belief in Dualism, that body and mind are two separate substances. However, he later changed his view (as demonstrated in the "Ethics") and asserted that they were not separate, but a single identity, and that body and mind were just two names for the same reality. Starting from Descartes' definition of substance as "that which requires nothing other than itself in order to exist", Spinoza's conclusion was quite different from that of Descartes: where Descartes saw the one underlying substance as being God, Spinoza saw it as the totality of everything (in other words, Nature). All of reality, then, was really just one substance, and all apparently different objects were merely facets or aspects (what he called "modes") of that underlying substance. In this way, Spinoza refined Descartes' rather unsatisfactory treatment of the mind-body problem in Philosophy of Mind by positing that the physical and mental worlds (extension and consciousness) were essentially one and the same thing. This was therefore a kind of Monism, as opposed to Descartes' Dualism, (more specifically, it was a historically significant solution known as Neutral Monism).

Following on from this analysis, then, Spinoza saw God and Nature as just two names for the same reality of the universe, essentially a kind of Pantheism. Thus, he believed that there was just one set of rules governing the whole of reality, and that the basis of the universe was a single substance, of which all lesser entities are actually "modes" or modifications. Spinoza's "God" (or "Nature") was therefore a being of infinitely many attributes, of which extension and thought were but the two that we can understand. He envisaged a God that was not a transcendent creator of the universe who rules over the universe by providence, but a God that itself is the deterministic system of which everything in nature is a part. Thus, for Spinoza, God effectively is the infinite natural world and He has no separate "personality", nor is he in some way outside of Nature (supernatural).

Spinoza was a thoroughgoing determinist who held that absolutely everything that happens occurs through the operation of necessity, leaving absolutely no room for free will and spontaneity. For him, even human behavior is fully determined, and freedom (or what we presume to be free will) is limited to merely our capacity to know that we are determined and to understand why we act as we do. Nothing happens by chance in Spinoza's world, and reason does not work in terms of contingency.

Spinoza's Ethics have much in common with Stoicism in as much as both philosophies sought to fulfill a therapeutic role by instructing people how to attain happiness (Eudaimonism). He asserted that the "highest good" was knowledge of God, which was capable of bringing freedom from fear and the tyranny of the passions, and ultimately true blessedness. However, Spinoza differed sharply from the Stoics in his rejection of their contention that reason could overcome emotion. He contended that an emotion can only be displaced or overcome by a stronger emotion, and that knowledge of the true causes of passive emotions (those not rationally understood) could transform them into active emotions (ones that can be rationally understood), thus anticipating by over 200 years one of the key ideas of the psychoanalysis of Sigmund Freud (1856 - 1939).

Spinoza took the Moral Relativist position that nothing is intrinsically good or bad, except to the extent that it is subjectively perceived to be by the individual. In a completely ordered world where "necessity" reigns, the concepts of Good and Evil can have no absolute meaning. Everything that happens comes from the essential nature of objects or of God/Nature, and so, according to Spinoza, reality is perfection, and everything done by humans and other animals is also excellent and divine. If circumstances sometimes appear unfortunate or less than perfect to us, it is only because of our inadequate conception of reality. He asserted that sense perception, though practical and useful for rhetoric, is inadequate for discovering universal truth.

While it is easy to see why both the Jewish and Christian authorities of Spinoza's day felt both appalled and threatened by his ideas, his philosophy did hold an attraction for late 18th Century Europeans in that it provided an alternative to Materialism, Atheism and Deism. Three of Spinoza's ideas in particular strongly appealed to them: the unity of all that exists; the regularity and order of all that happens; and the identity of spirit and nature.

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