Baruch Spinoza was a Jewish philosopher of the 17th century who was in many ways ahead of his time, and therefore he did not have an easy life. Many 20th century philosophers regard him highly, because he is a very consistent thinker who begins with simple assumptions and draws radical conclusions. He claims that there is a unity in all that exists; everything happens according to a deep regularity, and that there is an identity of spirit and nature.
Here is a short biography of Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677), quoted from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:
Baruch Spinoza was born in 1632 in Amsterdam. He was the middle son in a prominent family of moderate means in Amsterdam’s Portuguese-Jewish community. As a boy—known to his fellow Portuguese as Bento—he had undoubtedly been one of the star pupils in the congregation’s Talmud Torah school. He was intellectually gifted, and this could not have gone unremarked by the congregation’s rabbis. It is possible that Spinoza, as he made progress through his studies, was being groomed for a career as a rabbi. But he never made it into the upper levels of the curriculum, those which included advanced study of Talmud. At the age of seventeen, he was forced to cut short his formal studies to help run the family’s importing business.
And then, on July 27, 1656, Spinoza was issued the harshest writ of cherem, or excommunication, ever pronounced by the Sephardic community of Amsterdam; it was never rescinded. We do not know for certain what Spinoza’s “monstrous deeds” and “abominable heresies” were alleged to have been, but an educated guess comes quite easy. No doubt he was giving utterance to just those ideas that would soon appear in his philosophical treatises. In those works, Spinoza denies the immortality of the soul; strongly rejects the notion of a providential God—the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; and claims that the Law was neither literally given by God nor any longer binding on Jews. Can there be any mystery as to why one of history’s boldest and most radical thinkers was sanctioned by an orthodox Jewish community?
To all appearances, Spinoza was content finally to have an excuse for departing from the community and leaving Judaism behind; his faith and religious commitment were, by this point, gone. Within a few years, he left Amsterdam altogether. By the time his extant correspondence begins, in 1661, he is living in Rijnsburg, not far from Leiden. While in Rijnsburg, he worked on the Treatise on the Emendation of the Intellect, an essay on philosophical method, and the Short Treatise on God, Man and His Well-Being, an initial but aborted effort to lay out his metaphysical, epistemological and moral views. His critical exposition of Descartes’s Principles of Philosophy, the only work he published under his own name in his lifetime, was completed in 1663, after he had moved to Voorburg, outside The Hague. By this time, he was also working on what would eventually be called the Ethics, his philosophical masterpiece. However, when he saw the principles of toleration in Holland being threatened by reactionary forces, he put it aside to complete his “scandalous” Theological-Political Treatise, published anonymously and to great alarm in 1670. When Spinoza died in 1677, in The Hague, he was still at work on his Political Treatise; this was soon published by his friends along with his other unpublished writings, including a Compendium to Hebrew Grammar.
((Nadler, Steven, “Baruch Spinoza”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2011 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2011/entries/spinoza/>.)
Works by Spinoza
- c. 1660. Korte Verhandeling van God, de mensch en deszelvs welstand (A Short Treatise on God, Man and His Well-Being).
- 1662. Tractatus de Intellectus Emendatione (On the Improvement of the Understanding).
- 1663. Principia philosophiae cartesianae (The Principles of Cartesian Philosophy, translated by Samuel Shirley, with an Introduction and Notes by Steven Barbone and Lee Rice, Indianapolis, 1998). Gallica (in Latin).
- 1670. Tractatus Theologico-Politicus (A Theologico-Political Treatise).
- 1675/76 Tractatus Politicus (Unfinished) Pdf Version
- 1677. Ethica Ordine Geometrico Demonstrata (The Ethics)
- 1677. Compendium grammatices linguae hebraeae (Hebrew Grammar).
“After experience had taught me that all the usual surroundings of social life are vain and futile, I finally resolved to inquire whether there might be some real good having power to communicate itself, which would affect the mind singly, to the exclusion of all else: whether, in fact, there might be anything of which the discovery and attainment would enable me to enjoy continuous, supreme, and unending happiness… [And that is] the knowledge of the union existing between the mind and the whole of nature.”
From Tractatus Politicus
- I have laboured carefully, not to mock, lament, or execrate, but to understand human actions; and to this end I have looked upon passions, such as love, hatred, anger, envy, ambition, pity, and the other perturbations of the mind, not in the light of vices of human nature, but as properties, just as pertinent to it, as are heat, cold, storm, thunder, and the like to the nature of the atmosphere, which phenomena, though inconvenient, are yet necessary, and have fixed causes, by means of which we endeavour to understand their nature, and the mind has just as much pleasure in viewing them aright, as in knowing such things as flatter the senses . (Ch. 1, Introduction)
- Nature offers nothing that can be called this man’s rather than another’s; but under nature everything belongs to all — that is, they have authority to claim it for themselves. But under dominion, where it is by common law determined what belongs to this man, and what to that, he is called just who has a constant will to render to every man his own, but he unjust who strives, on the contrary, to make his own that which belongs to another. (Ch. 2, Of Natural Right)
- In the state of nature, wrong-doing is impossible; or, if anyone does wrong, it is to himself, not to another. For no one by the law of nature is bound to please another, unless he chooses, nor to hold anything to be good or evil, but what he himself, according to his own temperament, pronounces to be so; and, to speak generally, nothing is forbidden by the law of nature, except what is beyond everyone’s power. (Ch. 2, Of Natural Right).
Quotes about Spinoza
- “Thus he calls ‘God’ that which is everywhere called ‘the world’; ‘justice’ that which is everywhere called ‘power’; and ‘will’ that which is everywhere called ‘judgement’.”Also, “that concept of substance…with the definition of which Spinoza accordingly begins…appears on close and honest investigation to be a higher yet unjustified abstraction of the concept matter.”
See also the following pages: