Benedict Spinoza

On this date in 1632, excommunicated rabbi and philosopher Baruch Benedict Spinoza was born in Amsterdam, Holland, the son of Portuguese immigrants named d'Espinosa who traveled to escape the Inquisition. Bertrand Russell called him "the noblest and most lovable of the great philosophers. . . . As a natural consequence, he was considered, during his lifetime and for a century after his death, a man of appalling wickedness" (A History of Western Philosophy). Trained as a rabbi, Spinoza read Descartes and Bruno, studied Latin with a skeptic, and by 24 had rejected orthodoxy. Attempts were made to bribe him to keep quiet about his doubts, followed by an assassination attempt! He changed his name from Baruch to Benedict, left Judaism and Amsterdam, and resettled in The Hague in 1667. He supported himself at a poverty level by teaching and by grinding optical lenses, which worsened his health. Meanwhile Spinoza wrote his philosophical works, while enduring opprobrium as an "atheist" from both Christians and Jews alike, who spread scandals about him. Spinoza refused offers of help and a professorship at Heidelberg: "I do not know how to teach philosophy without becoming a disturber of established religion" (c. 1670, Great Thoughts, edited by George Seldes).

Spinoza was at most a pantheist, whose deism rejected immortality and free will. Tractatus Theologico-Politicus was termed by Russell to be "a curious combination of biblical criticism and political theory," which "partially anticipates modern views." Spinoza cautioned that the bible should be scrutinized like any other literature. He did not believe that the Pentateuch was really written by Moses, that biblical miracles occurred or that Jesus was divine. In this work, Spinoza mused: "Philosophy has no end in view save truth; faith looks for nothing but obedience and piety." Tractatuc Politicus, a political work, was Hobbesian, concurring with Hobbes that the church should be subordinate to the state. Ethics was Spinoza's chief work, and it was published posthumously. Spinoza wrote: "Man is a social animal." Sin, he reasoned, "cannot be conceived in a natural state, but only in a civil state, where it is decreed by common consent what is good or bad." Spinoza mused, "How blest would our age be if it could witness a religion freed from all the trammels of superstition!" The heretic also wrote, "The most tyrannical governments are those which make crimes of opinions, for everyone has an inalienable right to his thoughts." Obviously from personal experience Spinoza noted: "Those who wish to seek out the causes of miracles, and to understand the things of nature as philosophers, and not to stare at them in astonishment like fools, are soon considered heretical and impious, and proclaimed as the interpreters of nature and the gods." (appendix, Ethics). Spinoza, who never married, died of tuberculosis at 44. D. 1677.

“True virtue is life under the direction of reason.”

—Benedict Spinoza, Ethics, 1677

Compiled by Annie Laurie Gaylor

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