Baruch Spinoza Biography
Imagine, being demonised as a heretic, then cursed by day and cursed by night. Ostracised from the community, excommunicated from Judaism and damned with "the consent of God". Such was the lot of Baruch Spinoza, the free thinking Dutch philosopher who will forever be regarded as the gatekeeper who opened minds towards secularism.
The curious case of the excommunication of Baruch Spinoza is unusual because of the harshness and tone of the writ of expulsion from the Sephardic synagogue in Amsterdam in 1656. He was still young, just 23 years of age and had not yet put pen to paper and published any material that could be deemed blasphemous.
The synagogue elders were receiving daily reports on his activities and felt compelled to act. The wording of the writ (herem) was severe. It spoke of "abominable heresies which he practiced" and "monstrous deeds" he participated in.
The herem was detailed in what can only be described as circumstantial evidence of hearsay. His sentence however, was direct to the point as it stated: "we excommunicate, expel, curse and damn Baruch de Spinoza, with the consent of God".
Whatever Baruch had said or done he had certainly touched a raw nerve as can be seen by the tone of condemnation in the herem: "Cursed be he by day and cursed be he by night; cursed be he when he lies down and cursed be he when he rises up. Cursed be he when he goes out and cursed be he when he comes in".
A clear line in the sand was drawn between the Spanish-Portuguese Jewish community of Amsterdam and Baruch Spinoza. The back story to this was in the Jewish communities relationship with the Dutch authorities. In the 17th century, Amsterdam was probably deemed the most liberal city in Europe but, they had their limits.
The Spanish and Portuguese Inquisitions had driven many Jews out of both countries. The Jewish diaspora spread far and wide across Europe. Amsterdam welcomed the Jews on the condition they did not criticise the convention of religion or by disputing the authority of god or the Bible.
Once it became clear that Spinoza was openly daring to defy the bible, religion and the Jewish faith then the synagogue elders were compelled to take action. Excommunication was the harshest punishment they could muster. Under Dutch law, there was no option for burning Baruch at the stake, although the words of the herem were carefully chosen as scolding hot.
Spinoza accepted his fate with the nonchalance expected of the impenitent man. He moved to Rijnsburg where he answered to the name of Benedict not Baruch. His bread basket was fed by his skill as a lens-grinder for microscopes and telescopes. It was in Rijnsburg that he started writing the only book he published under his own name during his living years: Descartes' "Principles of Philosophy" (published 1663).
From Rijnsburg he moved to Voorburg where Spinoza garnered a reputation as a lens maker par excellence with Christiaan Huygens, Johannes Hudde and Theodor Kerckring all praising the quality of his work. Grinding lens by day and penning ink to paper by night became his routine.
Spinoza eventually settled in The Hague. His writing continued unabated. Publishing his work however, was a rather awkward predicament. At the climax of the 1660's he had completed his critical analysis of the Jewish and Christian religions, it was called Theological-Political Treatise, but, publishing it under his own name was fraught with danger of death.
In a bid to avoid Dutch censorship, his Treatise was published in new-latin as opposed to vernacular Dutch. Although published in Amsterdam in 1670, the title page alluded to being published in Hamburg under a pseudonym to maintain his anonymity.
Back in the day, his Treatise was controversial to say the least. Spinoza drove a wedge between theology and philosophy. He argued that the aim of theology is obedience whereas the goal of philosophy is an understanding of rational truth. Baruch advocated for freedom of speech and the separation of politics from religion.
From Theological-Political Treatise, it was clear that Baruch supported a secular and constitutional government. His views concurred with the Dutch statesman Johan de Witt, who incidentally had awarded Spinoza a pension. However, 1672 saw the downfall of Johan de Witt. The Dutch republic was fairing badly in the Franco-Dutch War and de Witt had many enemies. Johan de Witt and his brother Cornelis were loathed by William of Orange and his supporters. On 4th August 1672 the de Witt brothers were attacked and lynched in The Hague. Their mutilated bodies were strung up on a gibbet and their livers were removed, roasted and eaten by the baying mob.
Needless to say, harsh criticism of Theological-Political Treatise started to filter through, most notably from a Leipzig academic philosopher named Jakob Thomasius. The enemies of de Witt said TPT was the work of the devil, it was only a matter of time until it was banned. The Synod of the Dutch Reformed Church were first to ban Theological-Political Treatise in 1673, the following year the Dutch government jumped on the banning bandwagon.
Spinoza could only watch on with closed lips, a tearful eye and a free thinking mind of hope.
Baruch Spinoza understood the plight of the persecuted:
"What, I say, can be more hurtful than that men who have committed no crime or wickedness should, simply because they are enlightened, be treated as enemies and put to death, and that the scaffold, the terror of evil-doers, should become the arena where the highest examples of tolerance and virtue are displayed to the people with all the marks of ignominy that authority can devise?"
Living under the shadow of censure hastened the pen of Baruch Spinoza. His chef-d'oeuvre had been a work in progress since 1661. It was simply called "Ethics" and although completed in 1675 it would only be published posthumously in 1677.
Spinozas' Ethics epitomised the rationalist school of thought. His critique of organised religion and the nature of god paved a secular path of thinking that went against the established grain of theocracy. "Ethics" explored a god who was nature personified. His theory was that God and Nature are one and the same. To Spinoza, the established belief that god created man in his own image was questionable beyond rational doubt.
In February 1677 Baruch Spinoza gasped his last air. He was only 44 and cut down prematurely as a by product of breathing in the particles displaced by grinding precision lens'. During his life he had lived, breathed and imagined a secular world where people could actually say what they thought.
Baruch Spinoza may not have lived to see such a secular world, but ideas such as his cannot be confined or killed. Even when the messenger dies the message still remains.
The Legacy of Baruch Spinoza
Spinoza was labelled an atheist, yet he believed in god. It just so happened that his god was nature or the universe as a manifestation of God. His views on god could only be described as pantheistic and not atheistic.
The Catholic church placed his entire works on their list of banned books. The Dutch government ruled that even reading a book by Spinoza was against the law.
History has shown that banning books only raises interest in reading the banned books. This curiosity guaranteed the legacy of Baruch Spinoza would persist.
The great and the good of science, philosophy and literature were all inspired by Spinoza. Godfried Leibniz, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Arthur Schopenhauer, Albert Einstein and Ludwig Wittgenstein were all influenced by the work and the sacrifice made by Spinoza.
The legacy of Baruch Spinoza is still debated today in the worldwide Jewish community. In 2015 there was a concerted effort to rescind his excommunication as Jewish scholars from across the globe met to debate his expulsion. Alas, the Rabbi of the Amsterdam synagogue where his exile was administered had the final say and upheld his exclusion from the faith citing "preposterous ideas, where he was tearing apart the very fundamentals of our religion" as his reason for sustaining the ostracism.
Imagine this scenario, a posthumous vision of Baruch Spinoza smiling from the graveyard as he looks upon current circumstances with pride for an unbelievable legacy that stretches debate towards 350 years after his demise. You can just imagine him wincing and asking himself: "Am I really still excommunicated after all these centuries? I must have made a difference."
Quotes About Baruch Spinoza
The German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, held him in great esteem:
The eminent writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was inspired to say:
"I practice Spinoza, I read and read it again, and wait with longing for the fight over his corpse. I abstain from all judgment"
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe went on to say:
"Today I have been reading Linné again and am quite unnerved by this extraordinary man. I have learned an infinite amount from him, not just in botany. Outside of Shakespeare and Spinoza, I know of no one who has had such a wrenching effect on me"
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe confessed in a conversation with his friend Sulpiz Boisserée that:
"I always carry the Ethics of Spinoza with me"
Goethe went on to explain:
"My confidence in Spinoza rested on the serene effect he wrought in me, and it only increased when I found my worthy mystics were accused of Spinozism, and learned that even Leibnitz himself could not escape the charge"
The renowned Psychiatrist and Philosopher Karl Jaspers spoke of who inspired him:
"While I was still at school Spinoza was the first. Kant then became the philosopher for me and has remained so ... Nietzsche gained importance for me only late as the magnificent revelation of nihilism and the task of overcoming it"
The physicist, Albert Einstein, responded when asked if he believed in god by saying:
"I believe in Spinoza's God who reveals himself in the orderly harmony of what exists, not in a God who concerns himself with the fates and actions of human beings"
The philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel was impressed to say:
"The philosophy of Descartes underwent a great variety of unspeculative developments, but in Benedict Spinoza a direct successor to this philosopher may be found, and one who carried on the Cartesian principle to its furthest logical conclusions. For him soul and body, thought and Being, cease to have separate independent existence"
Hegel later added:
"Spinoza is far from having proved this unity as convincingly as was done by the ancients; but what constitutes the grandeur of Spinoza's manner of thought is that he is able to renounce all that is determinate and particular, and restrict himself to the One, giving heed to this alone"
The French philosopher, Gilles Deleuze, hailed him as:
"The 'prince' of philosophers"
Bertrand Russell rated him highly:
"Of all the great modern philosophers, Spinoza is probably the most interesting in relation to human life, and is certainly the most lovable and high-minded"
Russell went on to say:
"Spinoza is the noblest and most lovable of the great philosophers. Intellectually, some others have surpassed him, but ethically he is supreme"
The author, Steven Nadler, summed him up thus:
"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?"
The academic, Jonathan Israel lamented:
"Spinoza, then, emerged as the supreme philosophical bogeyman of Early Enlightenment Europe. Admittedly, historians have rarely emphasized this. It has been much more common, and still is, to claim that Spinoza was rarely understood and had very little influence"
The philosopher, Friedrich Wilhelm Schelling, was impressed to say:
"Spinoza in particular belongs to the immortal authors. He is great because of the sublime simplicity of his thoughts and his way of writing, great because of his distance from all scholasticism, and, on the other hand, from all false embellishment or ostentation of language"
Schelling went on to reinforce his high opinion:
"Every philosophy of philosophy that excludes Spinoza must be spurious"
The French philosopher Pierre Bayle called him a:
"a systematic atheist"
Bayle went on to describe 'The Theologico-Political Treatise' as:
"a pernicious and detestable book in which he slips in all the seeds of atheism"
The author Samuel Max Melamed laid bare an important thread of his influence:
The philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer made this interesting comparison:
"Bruno and Spinoza are to be entirely excepted. Each stands by himself and alone; and they do not belong either to their age or to their part of the globe, which rewarded the one with death, and the other with persecution and ignominy. Their miserable existence and death in this Western world are like that of a tropical plant in Europe. The banks of the Ganges were their spiritual home ; there, they would have led a peaceful and honoured life among men of like mind"
Karl Marx spoke of his influence:
"Hegel's History of Philosophy presents French materialism as the realization of Spinozistic Substance, which in any case is more comprehensible than the French school of Spinoza"
The philosopher Moses Mendelssohn was praiseful to say:
"Spinoza, has participated immensely in the work of bettering philosophy. Before the transition from the Cartesian to the Leibnizian philosophy could occur, it was necessary for someone to take the plunge into the monstrous abyss lying between them"
The Norwegian philosopher Arne Næss shared this observation:
"No great philosopher has so much to offer in the way of clarification and articulation of basic ecological attitudes as Baruch Spinoza"
The French writer, Voltaire, shared this view:
"Spinoza was not only atheist, but he taught atheism; it was not he assuredly who took part in the judicial assassination of Barneveldt; it was not he who tore the brothers De Wit in pieces, and who ate them grilled"
The Italian political philosopher Antonio Negri shared this assessment:
"In Spinoza there is the sense of a great anticipation of the future centuries; there is the intuition of such a radical truth of future philosophy that it not only keeps him from being flattened onto seventeenth-century thought but also, it often seems, denies any confrontation, any comparison. Really, none of his contemporaries understands him or refutes him"
The Russian political theorist, Leon Trotsky, shared this perspective:
"Let him who wishes weep bitter tears because history moves ahead so perplexingly: two steps forward, one step back. But tears are of no avail. It is necessary according to Spinoza's advice, not to laugh, not to weep, but to understand!"