Benedictus de Spinoza Essay - Critical Essays

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

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 demonstrata (The Ethics of Benedict de Spinoza. Demonstrated after the Manner of Geometers), among other works.

†This work was written between 1660 and 1662.


Jonathan Bennett (essay date 1984)

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.]


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.


(The entire section is 23673 words.)

Henry E. Allison (essay date 1987)

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,...

(The entire section is 8293 words.)

Thomas Carson Mark (essay date 1987)

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...

(The entire section is 8637 words.)

Alan Donagan (essay date 1988)

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.]


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...

(The entire section is 8659 words.)

G. H. R. Parkinson (essay date 1989)

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...

(The entire section is 5652 words.)

David A. Freeman (essay date 1993)

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...

(The entire section is 2823 words.)

Alan Donagan (essay date 1996)

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...

(The entire section is 16992 words.)

Richard H. Popkin (essay date 1996)

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...

(The entire section is 11066 words.)

Raia Prokhovnik (essay date 1997)

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.]


Several commentators on Spinoza take his famous pronouncements in the Theologico-Political Treatise1 of 1670, that, democracy is ‘the most natural form of...

(The entire section is 5536 words.)

Further Reading


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.


(The entire section is 497 words.)