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 teaching philosophy at Heidelberg on condition he not disturb the established religion. Four years later, he died of consumption, which was possibly aggravated by the lens-grinding work that he did to earn his living.
Chappell, Vere, ed. Baruch de Spinoza. New York: Garland, 1992. A very short biography of Spinoza accompanied by a series of essays explaining and discussing his ideas.
Deleuze, Gilles. Spinoza: Practical Philosophy. San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1988. Brief volume offers a biography of Spinoza and discusses his work succinctly.
Della Rocca, Michael. Representation and the Mind-Body Problem in Spinoza . New York: Oxford University Press, 1996. Are the mind and body identical? What are the requirements for...
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