Spinoza, Benedictus de
Benedictus de Spinoza 1632-1677
(Born Baruch de Spinoza) Dutch philosopher.
The following entry provides recent criticism of Spinoza's works. For additional information on Spinoza's career, see LC, Volume 9.
Along with René Descartes and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, Spinoza was one of the three great Continental rationalists, and is considered one of the most significant figures in the transition from medieval philosophy to the Enlightenment. Spinoza profoundly influenced generations of Western intellectuals and writers through his two major works, the Tractatus theologico-politicus (Theological-Political Treatise) and the Ethic ordine geometrico demonstrata (Ethics). These treatises propound the author's determinism and his monistic conception of God, humanity, and the cosmos. Within this system, the individual free will, personal identity, and traditional distinctions between good and evil are problematized; according to Spinoza, all are part of the divine will that gives purpose to and flows through all life. His works, divorced as they are from religious dogma but informed by religious faith, have attracted the interest not only of contemporary philosophers, but also of such poets as Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth, and of scientists such as Albert Einstein.
Born in Amsterdam, Spinoza was the son of prosperous Portuguese Jewish parents who, in the midst of the Spanish Inquisition, had emigrated to the Netherlands. Raised in comfortable surroundings amid Amsterdam's thriving Jewish community, he gained early regard at school among his instructors and classmates for his facility with the Old Testament, the Talmud, and the writings of major Jewish theologians and scholars. Spinoza also familiarized himself with the unorthodox views of such liberal Jewish thinkers as Maimonides and Abraham ibn Ezra, and acquired a sound education in Latin, mathematics, and the physical sciences. His search for a supreme truth underlying all things led him to reevaluate Hebrew doctrine and the Bible, however; he soon developed a reputation for debating with fellow students about inconsistencies he perceived in the Bible, the possibility that souls are not immortal, and his essentially pantheistic conviction that God and the universe are one. Following repeated, unsuccessful attempts by Jewish religious authorities to silence Spinoza, his views were finally declared anathema in 1656 and he was excommunicated with his family. Due to the extensive influence his coreligionists wielded, Spinoza was for a time banned by Amsterdam's secular authorities from living within the city. Although he returned to Amsterdam a few years later, his stay was brief; during this interim he acquired further classical training under his Latin teacher, the noted classical scholar Frances van den Enden. While maintaining ties with several learned acquaintances, Spinoza organized a discussion group to consider the chief religious, philosophical, and scientific issues of the day. He also assisted van den Enden in instructing schoolchildren and provided for himself by grinding and polishing lenses, a skill he had learned in early life.
In 1660 Spinoza moved to Rijnsburg and began associating with the Collegiants, a group of philosophers and theologians who embraced the theories of René Descartes. Under the influence of Descartes' philosophy, Spinoza sought to free himself from religious dogmatism and to formulate his own systematic philosophy. While continuing to craft lenses and fulfill his various teaching duties, Spinoza wrote Korte Verhandeling (Short Treatise on God, Man, and His Well-Being) and De intellectus emendatione (On the Improvement of the Understanding), completing both by 1662. Unpublished during Spinoza's lifetime, the two treatises are considered harbingers of the important works that followed. For some time Spinoza had been instructing his students in Cartesian philosophy, and, in 1663, he completed a detailed critique of Descartes' Principia (1644) in his Renati Descartes principiorum (The Principles of Descartes), in which Spinoza argued against Cartesian dualism
Having begun work on the Ethics, Spinoza moved to Voorburg, near The Hague, in late 1663. There he continued work on the Ethics, but privately he questioned the advisability of publishing it, given the constraints of the religious current in even so tolerant a nation as Holland. He thus turned from it to begin work on the Theological-Political Treatise, in which Spinoza engages in biblical criticism and political theory in an effort to liberate philosophers from ecclesiastical proscription, to pave the way for philosophical investigation into the objects and practice of religious belief, and to outline the proper relationship between the individual and the state. The Theological-Political Treatise appeared anonymously in 1670, but its sale was shortly prohibited by civil authorities, who objected to the book's denial of the Bible's validity as the inerrant record of God's revelation to humankind. Nonetheless, the work continued to circulate, winning a number of supporters among the scientific community, who admired it for its firm grounding in reason and empirical evidence.
In 1670 Spinoza moved to The Hague, where he completed the Ethics and circulated the manuscript among his friends. He resolved not to publish it, for he knew the censure would be overwhelming; by 1675 it was rumored that the book attempted to demonstrate the nonexistence of God, a gross misinterpretation. Spinoza also undertook, but was unable to finish, a Hebrew grammar and a political study presumably meant to expand the ideas of the Theological-Political Treatise. Following a prolonged, debilitating illness brought on (it is believed) by years of inadvertently inhaling glass dust while grinding lenses, Spinoza died of consumption in 1677.
The main body of Spinoza's mature philosophy is contained in the Ethics, which was conceived as the capstone of the earlier Short Treatise and On the Improvement of the Understanding. Spinoza fashioned his arguments in the Ethics after the geometrical method originated by Euclid; Spinoza believed that, by constructing his philosophical system upon indisputable mathematical analogues and then undergirding his propositions with further notes and proofs, he could insure the soundness of his conclusions. The result of Spinoza's labors is a five-part study that addresses the nature of God and the human mind, the nature and origin of “affections” (emotions), the individual's servitude to the emotions, and the value of nurturing rational understanding. Spinoza put forward a deterministic, monistic universe composed of God (“Naturing Nature”), defined as the creative and causative power underlying the universe, and the world of mechanical and moral laws (“natured nature”), which expresses the will of God. Within this system, the individual is an integral but infinitesimal component; therefore, individuals approach reality sub specie aeternitatis (“from the standpoint of eternity”), meaning that the breadth of existence is both utterly holy and unknowable and that one should submit with humble attentiveness to the mysteries of the world. Central to this endeavor, and essential for individual perfection, is amor intellectualis Dei (“the intellectual love of God”). Within this intellectual love of God lies Spinoza's ethical system. Spinoza asserted that if one disengages oneself from all overt emotion, positive or negative, lives a temperate life, and meditates constantly upon the divine, one can attain an enlightened state in which complete harmony with God is realized.
Spinoza's reputation as a profound—if controversial—thinker reached far beyond Holland even during his lifetime. He corresponded and conversed with some of the most notable scientists and philosophers of his day, including the German metaphysician and mathematician Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz. Spinoza's philosophy provoked harsh denunciations by the orthodox religious figures of his day, and today some still equate the name Spinoza with atheist and apostate. This perception was first expressed forcefully by Pierre Bayle, who declared in 1697 that Spinoza's thought is “the most monstrous hypothesis that could be imagined, the most absurd, and most diametrically opposed to the most evident notions of our mind.” Spinoza has also attracted the attention of literary and philosophical notables such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Immanuel Kant, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, and Matthew Arnold. Spinoza's adherence to one unified reality, in which God is not a distinct, personal divinity but rather an immanent force in the universe, appealed to a number of poets and literary theorists and led to such bold affirmations as that of Gotthold Ephraim Lessing: “There is no possible view of life but Spinoza's.”
While many twentieth-century philosophers reject Spinoza's nonempirical approach to what he takes to be given—God, reality, and the human mind—and suggest that Spinoza's ethical system is fundamentally irrelevant to modern society, some consider Ethics a brilliant, if logically problematic, exposition upon the most demanding intellectual problems philosophers have faced. According to Einstein, Spinoza saw in his theory of causality “a remedy for fear, hate and bitterness, the only remedy to which a genuinely spiritual man can have recourse. He demonstrated his justification for this conviction not only by the clear, precise formulation of his thoughts, but also by the exemplary fashioning of his own life.” In addition, the Theological-Political Treatise is now recognized not only as one of the first and most effective pleas for religious toleration but as a pioneering work of modern biblical criticism. In this work, Spinoza emphasizes the moral essence rather than the historical accuracy of the Scriptures, and helped prepare the way for the higher criticism of the early nineteenth century and for the Transcendentalists, universalists, and theologically liberal denominations of modern Christianity and Judaism.
Renati Des cartes principiorum philosophiae pars I. et II. more geometrico demonstratae per Benedictum de Spinoza [The Principles of Descartes] (philosophy) 1663
*Tractatus theologico-politicus continens dissertationes all quot, quibus ostenditur libertatem philosophandi non tantum salva pietate, & reipublicae pace posse concedi: sed eandem nisi cum pace reipublicae, ipsaque pletate tolli non posse. … [A Treatise Partly Theological, and Partly Political, Containing Some Few Discourses, to Prove That the Liberty of Philosophizing (That is Making Use of Natural Reason) May Be Allow'd Without any Prejudice to Piety, or to the Peace of Any Commonwealth; and That the Loss of Public Peace and Religion it Self Must Necessarily Follow, Where such a Liberty of Reasoning is Taken Away. … ] (philosophy) 1670
†B. D. S. Opera posthuma (philosophy, letters, and grammar) 1677
†Korte Verhandeling van God, de Mensch und deszelhs Welstand [Short Treatise on God, Man, and His Well-Being] (philosophy) 1852
The Collected Works of Spinoza. 2 vols. (philosophy, letters, and nonfiction) 1985
*This work is commonly referred to as the Theological-Political Treatise.
†This work contains De intellectus emendatione (On the Improvement of the Understanding) and Ethic ordine geometrico...
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SOURCE: “A Character Sketch of the Ethics” and “The Cast of Spinoza's Mind,” in A Study of Spinoza's Ethics, Hackett Publishing Company, 1984, pp. 7-54.
[In the following essay, Bennett outlines the central theses of the Ethics and positions them in their historical context.]
CHAPTER ONE: A CHARACTER SKETCH OF THE ETHICS
The central topic of this book is Spinoza's one indisputable masterpiece, the Ethics. In my first chapter I shall say what sort of work the Ethics is, what sort Spinoza took it to be, how it relates to the rest of his work, and in what spirit I intend to approach it.
§1. THE PLACE OF THE ETHICS IN SPINOZA'S CORPUS
1. Setting aside Spinoza's grammar of the Hebrew language and his two works on politics, which I do not find helpful in understanding the Ethics, we are left with six substantial items. Four of these were finished or abandoned by the time Spinoza was 31 years old, and the other two occupied him intermittently between then and his death in 1677 at the age of 44.
2. Of the four earlier works, I shall not attend much to the Short Treatise. The manuscript of this, written in Dutch by a hand other than Spinoza's, came to light only in the nineteenth century. It seems clear that it stems from Spinoza somehow; but its status is dubious,...
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SOURCE: “Spinoza's Philosophy in Its Historical Context,” in Benedict de Spinoza: An Introduction, Yale University Press, 1987, pp. 24-43.
[In the following excerpt, Allison explores the historical context that shaped Spinoza's philosophical interests and method.]
Spinoza's Ethica Ordine Geometrico Demonstrata (Ethics Demonstrated in a Geometrical Manner) is an extremely difficult and forbidding book. Both its obscure, scholastic terminology and its stark, geometrical form provide formidable barriers to even the philosophically trained reader and undoubtedly help to explain the great diversity of ways in which the work has been interpreted. Thus, rather than plunging immediately into the argument of the work, with its strange format of definitions, axioms, and propositions and its bewildering talk of substance, attributes, and modes, it would seem far preferable to consider briefly the historical context in which Spinoza wrote and, in light of this, to introduce the central themes of his philosophy. This will be the task of the present chapter, and it is hoped that it will help to guide the reader through the more systematic and technical investigation that follows.
I THE ROOTS OF SPINOZA'S PHILOSOPHY IN THE NEW SCIENCE AND ITS CONCEPTION OF NATURE, AND THE RELEVANCE OF DESCARTES
We have already seen that, as a youth, Spinoza studied and was...
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SOURCE: “Spinoza on the Power and Eternity of the Intellect,” in Supplementum Festivum: Studies in Honor of Paul Oskar Kristeller, edited by James Hankins, John Monfasani, and Frederick Purnell, Jr., Medieval & Renaissance Texts & Studies, 1987, pp. 589-610.
[In the following essay, Mark demonstrates how Spinoza's Ethics unifies his theories of knowledge, the emotions, and action.]
In the first three parts of the Ethics, Spinoza offers a systematic metaphysics, epistemology and psychology. This was required, he believed, as a foundation; a general understanding of the world and of human nature must provide a context before specifically ethical topics—the aim, after all, of the Ethics—can be intelligibly discussed. Finally, in Parts IV and V, Spinoza turns to ethics proper.
But there is an important difference in approach between the two parts. In Part IV, Spinoza emphasizes the limitations on human power and freedom. Such control as knowledge offers over the emotions comes about, in Part IV, only insofar as knowledge itself is an emotion. Knowledge, that is to say, counts as a modification which alters a person's power of action; as such it may interact causally with other modifications, resulting in a different emotional state. Someone might object that this does not require that knowledge exercise any power as knowledge, and Spinoza seems to...
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SOURCE: “Human Freedom,” in Spinoza, The University of Chicago Press, 1988, pp. 169-89.
[In this essay, Donagan interprets Spinoza's philosophy of freedom in terms of his metaphysics.]
9.1. LIVING BY THE DICTATES OF REASON
To the extent that human beings are guided by reason, Spinoza has argued, there must be a ‘convergence of their conatus’.1 It ‘follows from the necessity of [their] own nature’ that, outside civil society, human beings not only judge by their own wits (ex suo ingenio) what is good and evil, that is, what is advantageous to them and what is not, but also strive to return evil for what they imagine to be evil done to them from hatred (by E [Ethica, Ordine Geometrico demonstrata] 3p40c2), to conserve what they love, and to destroy what they hate (by E3p28). It is therefore by ‘the highest right of nature’ (‘summum jus naturae’) that they do so (E4p37s2—G II, 237/20-2). Yet the more adequately they think, the more clearly they perceive that what is generally useful for others of their kind is also generally useful to themselves. That others should love what they love is hateful to them only when what they love is not a good common to all; but love for a good not common to all always springs from some affect, and not from reason (E4p37s1—G II, 236/8-15).
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SOURCE: Introduction to Ethics by Spinoza, translated by G. H. R. Parkinson, J. M. Dent & Sons, 1989, pp. vii-xx.
[In the following essay, Parkinson studies Spinoza's life in order to elucidate the philosophical questions that animate the Ethics.]
Spinoza's Ethics is one of the most difficult of philosophical works. Yet it continues to exercise a peculiar fascination, and this is by no means confined to philosophers. One of Spinoza's admirers was the poet Goethe—indeed, Goethe was partly responsible for the upsurge of interest in Spinoza late in the eighteenth century, and encouraged the publication of the first complete edition of Spinoza's works. In the middle of the nineteenth century (to be exact, between 1854 and 1856) George Eliot worked on, but did not publish, a translation of the Ethics; however, another novelist, William Hale White, published a translation in 1883, and this has been widely used. It may also be significant that James Joyce's Everyman, Mr Leopold Bloom, had on his rather poorly stocked shelves a copy of Thoughts from Spinoza.
What is it, then, that makes the work so difficult? True, it deals with difficult matters. It tries to give an account of the way in which a rational human being will behave, and it does so on the basis of a theory of the nature of man and of the universe in general. Yet there have been other books on such matters...
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SOURCE: “Spinoza on Self-Consciousness and Nationalism,” in History of European Ideas, Vol. XVI, No. 4-6, 1993, pp. 915-20.
[In the essay that follows, Freeman considers Spinoza's conception of self-consciousness and nationalism to be extensions of his “ontological-physical” model of humanity.]
In this essay I focus upon the concept of self-consciousness and nationalism as developed in Spinoza's physics, psychology of man, and extended into his treatment of political community. Spinoza is a seventeenth century thinker who advances a unique interpretation of man that is firmly grounded in the rich and varied modes of philosophical self-consciousness. This interpretation of the Dutch philosopher is essentially an ‘ontological-physical’ model of man, a logical extension from the Ethics to his political writings, which is rife with political and sociological consequences for nationalism itself.
I shall argue that Spinoza, following the principle of metaphysical concreteness, advances a view of self-consciousness and the nation that is necessarily grounded in the truth of human nature as it exists in the ‘order of things’. This truth consists of the logic of human nature as it is firmly rooted in the Idea Dei.
Also, Spinoza's willingness to follow the question of order lies not only at the heart of his understanding...
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SOURCE: “Spinoza's Theology,” in The Cambridge Companion to Spinoza, Cambridge University Press, 1996, pp. 343-82.
[In the essay that follows, Donagan explores Spinoza's fusion of naturalism and supernaturalism in his theology, and discusses his views on particular issues such as revelation, faith, and the immortality of the soul.]
Spinoza's theology, although original, owes much to the cultural soil that nourished it. His parents were among the many “Marranos”—Portuguese Jews who in their native country had been compelled outwardly to embrace Roman Catholicism—who had emigrated to Amsterdam in the early seventeenth century. In the freedom of their new country, the immigrant Marrano community set out to recover its full religious heritage, and to shed beliefs and practices contrary to it. However, some of its members, of whom Spinoza was one, not only remained attached to non-Jewish elements in their Marrano culture, but, having embraced the revolution in the physical sciences associated with Galileo, Bacon, and Descartes, wished to pursue its implications for religion.1 When he was twenty-three, partly because he would not renounce these non-Jewish interests, the Amsterdam synagogue expelled and cursed him. Yet even among the radical Christians who befriended him, and who repudiated the trinitarian and Christological doctrines he found absurd, only a small circle of intimates were...
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SOURCE: “Spinoza and Bible Scholarship,” in The Cambridge Companion to Spinoza, Cambridge University Press, 1996, pp. 383-407.
[In the essay that follows, Popkin studies the Biblical scholarship of the Theological-Political Treatise,evaluating the ways in which Spinoza's religious views reflected his overriding rational secularism.]
Spinoza is usually considered one of the creators of modern Biblical scholarship and Biblical criticism because of the views about the Bible that he expressed in the Theological-Political Treatise and in some of his letters. In this chapter I shall briefly indicate a way in which Spinoza's views might have developed, then present what his views are, and compare and contrast them with those of some of his contemporaries. Finally I will try to evaluate the extent of his originality.
The usual picture of Spinoza's development is taken from what appears in “the oldest biography,” attributed to one Jean-Maximillien Lucas; in the Life of Spinoza by Johann Colerus; and from occasional remarks by Spinoza. Spinoza is seen as being born into, and growing up in, a rigid orthodox Jewish community in Amsterdam. He studied in the school of the Portuguese Jewish Synagogue. As a youth he began questioning some of what he was being taught, and by 1655 was rejecting the theological assumptions of the Jewish community, and the views of his...
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SOURCE: “From Democracy to Aristocracy: Spinoza, Reason and Politics,” in History of European Ideas, Vol. XXIII, Nos. 2-4, 1997, pp. 105-15.
[In the essay that follows, Prokhovnik claims that, while Spinoza celebrates democracy in the Theologico-Political Treatise of 1670, the traditional focus on this early text fails to consider Spinoza's preference for aristocracy in the Political Treatise of 1677.]
THE RECEIVED VIEW OF SPINOZA ON DEMOCRACY
Several commentators on Spinoza take his famous pronouncements in the Theologico-Political Treatise1 of 1670, that, democracy is ‘the most natural form of government’ (TTP 263), and ‘of all forms of government the most natural, and the most consonant with individual liberty’ (TTP 207), along with his statement in the Political Treatise of 1677 that democracy is ‘the perfectly absolute dominion’ (TP 385) as the only evidence that is needed to form an assessment of Spinoza's estimation of democracy. On the strength of these pronouncements, such commentators assume that Spinoza was an uncomplicated advocate of democracy.2 Even those writers that look more closely at both of the political treatises written by Spinoza in the 1660s and 1670s, tend to present a confused account of his view of democracy.3
This paper seeks to understand...
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Oko, Adolph S. The Spinoza Bibliography. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1964, 700 p.
Bibliography of works by and about Spinoza through 1942.
Scruton, Roger. Spinoza. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986, 122 p.
Discussion of Spinoza's life, intellectual background, and complex thought aimed at a broad readership.
Delahunty, R. J. Spinoza. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1985, 317 p.
Analyzes Spinoza's epistemology, metaphysics, philosophy of mind, psychology, and ethics.
Feuer, Lewis Samuel. Spinoza and the Rise of Liberalism. Boston: Beacon Press, 1958, 323 p.
Understands Spinoza's philosophy to be “the outcome of underlying emotional responses to the social conflicts of his time,” focusing particularly on his attempt to formulate a coherent philosophy of freedom.
Freeman, Eugene, and Maurice Mandelbaum, eds. Spinoza: Essays in Interpretation. LaSalle, III.: Open Court, 1975, 323 p.
Collection of fourteen essays, many of which focus on Spinoza's philosophy of mind.
Grene, Marjorie, ed. Spinoza: A Collection of Critical Essays. Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Books/Doubleday, 1973, 390 p....
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