Baruch Spinoza Biography


(Critical Guide to Censorship and Literature)

Author Profile

During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Spinoza was widely denounced as an atheist, even though his views on religion were beginning to influence the thinking of Deists and French materialists and were paving the way for what became known as “higher criticism” of Scripture. Spinoza took the radical step of replacing religious tradition with rational, scientific reasoning and of subjecting religion to scientific inquiry. In Tractatus Theologico-Politicus (1670)—justification for intellectual and religious freedom—he rejected the basis for revealed religion by denying the supernatural. He presented the Bible as a document that was both historical and human, and concluded that its moral teachings were valid solely because of their compatibility with reason.

For Spinoza, supernatural events could not occur because they contradict natural laws; in effect, he equated “God” with “nature.” In Ethics (1677) Spinoza developed the idea that everything in the world is an aspect of God, who cannot thereby be a purposeful being. The impossibility of historical interaction between God and humanity negated belief in prophecy, miracles, and revelation itself.

Spinoza published Tractatus Theologico-Politicus without putting his name on the book; nevertheless, the work was uniformly banned and sold with false title pages. Because his authorship of the work was an open secret, Spinoza was condemned as a notorious atheist. While he was negotiating to publish Ethics, rumors spread that a book proving God did not exist was in press and complaints were lodged with the Dutch magistrates. Spinoza responded by agreeing to delay publication of his book, which did not appear until shortly after his death in 1677. The book identified him only by his initials, so infamous had his opinions become.

Opprobrium for his radical, secularist views came early for Spinoza. At the age of twenty-four, he was excommunicated by Amsterdam’s Jewish community. Some scholars consider it likely that Spinoza’s heretical ideas developed out of heterodox controversies within the Jewish community itself. Others hold that synagogue leaders wished to enforce unity in the Jewish community to counter the spirit of skepticism and laxity fostered by the many Amsterdam Jews who escaped the Spanish Inquisition by pretending to convert to Christianity (Marranos). A generation earlier, one such man, Uriel de Costa, had been expelled twice for his unorthodox opinions.

Still others claim that Spinoza was excommunicated primarily for his involvement with Amsterdam’s radical intellectuals, who advocated free trade, among other reforms. Members of the Jewish community—particularly its leaders—played a leading role in Amsterdam commerce. They not only derived income from Dutch trade monopolies, but their investments in them gave them leverage against the persecution of Jews abroad. For example, Jewish economic power in Amsterdam prevented the expulsion of Jews from New Amsterdam in the New World.

Following Spinoza’s excommunication, hostility against the unrepentant philosopher apparently extended to an attempt on his life. By 1660, Spinoza had left Amsterdam. In 1673, denying control over religious dissent, he declined a position...

(The entire section is 1360 words.)

Baruch Spinoza Biography

(History of the World: The 17th and 18th Centuries)

Article abstract: Spinoza was a major figure among seventeenth century philosophers. Though he inspired few open disciples, Spinoza helped to lay the groundwork for future developments in philosophy and letters. He also contributed much to the emergence of political and religious tolerance. He is one of a handful of philosophers who can be said to have lived an exemplary life.

Early Life

Baruch Spinoza was born November 24, 1632, in Amsterdam, in the United Provinces. His parents, Michael and Hanna Deborah, were Spanish-Portuguese Jews who had emigrated to Holland to escape religious persecution. This persecution was relatively recent in origin. Jews living in Spain during the late Middle Ages had experienced a period of tolerance under the Moors, who were Islamic. The return of Christian rule utterly reversed this trend. Subject to all manner of plunder and murder during the Spanish Inquisition, many Jews decided to convert to Christianity. A large number of these converts, however, continued to practice Judaism in private. That led to a new round of persecution and finally to the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492. Some converted Jews (or marranos, as they were called) sought refuge in Portugal. Over time, persecution arose there as well. Holland became a logical next step for Jews who desired the freedom to practice their religion and pursue fruitful commerce. Spinoza’s parents are believed to have been marranos who had sought refuge in Jodenburt, the Jewish quarter of Amsterdam. There they could practice Judaism openly, enjoying the fruits of religious tolerance unmatched in all Christendom. They were also free to pursue a broad range of commercial opportunities.

This relatively self-contained community first nurtured Spinoza, providing him with material comforts and an extensive education in Jewish religion and philosophy. Ultimately, however, Spinoza was cast out. How and why that came about is pivotal to an understanding of Spinoza’s early life as well as to his subsequent career.

Spinoza’s father was in the import-export business and is believed to have been highly successful. Spinoza helped in the family business but at some point became far more interested in his studies than he was in commerce. He wished, moreover, to broaden his studies beyond the usual fare, exploring the less orthodox canons within Jewish thought and acquainting himself with non-Jewish sources of learning. This, in itself, was not unusual. Many members of the Jewish community had opened themselves to the world around them. As a result, Spinoza’s father was agreeable, arranging for Spinoza to study Latin outside the Jodenburt in the home of Francis Van den Ende, a freethinker and something of a political radical. The study of Latin enabled Spinoza to explore the rationalist philosophy of René Descartes. Though Descartes did not openly disparage traditional religion, his philosophy was an attempt to understand the world through reason rather than faith. Spinoza also launched into what was, for a Jew, even more controversial, a study of the New Testament.

The result of these unorthodox studies was that Spinoza moved irretrievably beyond the dominant beliefs of the community into which he had been born, rejecting its commercialism as well as the exclusiveness of the Jewish faith. Indeed, it appeared to some that he was rejecting religion altogether. As Spinoza’s beliefs became known, the leaders of the Jodenburt responded first by attempting to bribe Spinoza with a generous monetary allowance in return for his outward compliance with orthodox beliefs. Spinoza refused this offer. Shortly thereafter, he was tried and found guilty of what amounted to a charge of heresy. In 1656, Spinoza was excommunicated.

Why Spinoza’s accusers acted is not as self-evident as it might seem. The Jewish community in Amsterdam permitted a fair amount of diversity, and Spinoza was outwardly quiet about his dissenting opinions in theological matters. He was not, so far as is known, a gadfly in the image of Socrates. These circumstances have led some scholars to explain Spinoza’s excommunication as a response by Jewish leaders to their fear of renewed persecution by Christians flowing either from Spinoza’s apparent atheism or from his association with Dutch political radicals. The fact that Spinoza had already begun to divorce himself from the Jewish community (he was no longer living in the Jodenburt at the time of his excommunication) supports such an interpretation. Another theory is that Spinoza was thought dangerous because of his opposition to wealth and privilege within the Jewish community. Whatever the motivation, Spinoza was excommunicated at the age of twenty-four. Shortly afterward, he was forced by Dutch authorities to leave Amsterdam’s city boundaries—this, too, at the urging of the Jewish leaders.

Life’s Work

Though Spinoza’s excommunication was of great symbolic importance, it did little to change the way he actually conducted his life. Spinoza left behind his Hebrew name, Baruch, substituting for it the Latin equivalent, Benedict (both mean “blessed”). Yet he did not become a Christian. Nor did he marry. He lived quietly, first in Rhijnsburg, later in Voorburg, accumulating only so much money as he needed to pay his bills. A good neighbor and well loved by friends, he devoted the rest of his life to his studies.

What income Spinoza did have may have come from his knowledge of optics and skills as a lens grinder. That, at least, has become part of the Spinoza legend. There is no evidence, however, that Spinoza actually earned a living in this way. It has, therefore, been hypothesized that, in order to sustain himself, Spinoza accepted moderate amounts of money from friends, though here, too, the evidence allows...

(The entire section is 2410 words.)

Baruch Spinoza Biography

(Survey of World Philosophers)

Article abstract: Spinoza attemped to show the nature and existence of God using geometrical models. He contributed much to the emergence of political and religious tolerance and helped lay the groundwork for future developments in philosophy and letters.

Early Life

Baruch Spinoza (also known by the Latin name Benedictus Spinoza and the Portuguese name Bento de Espinosa) was born November 24, 1632, in Amsterdam. His parents, Michael and Hanna Deborah, were Spanish-Portuguese Jews who had emigrated to Holland to escape religious persecution. This persecution was relatively recent in origin. Jews living in Spain during the late Middle Ages had experienced a period of tolerance under the...

(The entire section is 2537 words.)

Baruch Spinoza Biography

(Critical Survey of Ethics and Literature)

Author Profile

In the seventeenth century, academic scholasticism, with its syllogistic reasoning and its Aristotelian epistemology, was withering away after a milennium of dominance. The empirical scientific methods of Copernicus, Kepler, and Galileo showed a new direction of philosophical understanding, and a rising interest in mathematics suggested new types of philosophical proof based on the methods of Euclidian geometry. Spinoza played a part in the movement that resulted, together with such notable thinkers as Francis Bacon, Thomas Hobbes, René Descartes, and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz.


Spinoza was born into a family of prosperous Jewish merchants in Amsterdam, an area...

(The entire section is 1753 words.)

Baruch Spinoza Biography

(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Baruch Spinoza (spuh-NOH-zuh), the great Dutch philosopher who tried to demonstrate the existence and nature of God in a geometrically precise fashion, was christened Baruch, the son of Michael and Hannah Deborah de Spinoza. His parents were descendants of Jews who, having been forced into the Catholic faith and having practiced their Jewish religion in secret, fled from Spain and Portugal during the Inquisition. Michael Spinoza was a merchant, only moderately prosperous, and Baruch, born in Amsterdam on November 24, 1632, was the third child of his second wife. Baruch’s mother died when he was six years old, and Baruch was probably left in the care of Rebecca, the remaining child of Michael Spinoza’s first marriage.


(The entire section is 855 words.)