Benedictus de Spinoza Critical Essays


(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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.