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.
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.
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.)