Baruch Spinoza - A brief introduction

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Reply Tue 1 Jul, 2008 04:56 am
Benedictus de Spinoza
A philosopher's philosopher.


The monarchs of Spain (1492) and Portugal (1497) required all Jews living in their dominions to adopt the Cristion religion. Many accepted baptism, but at enormous risk continued to prctise Judaism secretly. Holland was one of the only countries (in western Europe) allowing Jews to immigrate (nearing the beginning of the seventeenth century). Some of the, still practicing marranos, as they were known, managed to make their way to Holland. Baruch de Spinoza was born in Amsterdam in 1632 to Portugese marrano parents and died in 1677.
Showing signs of an extraordinary intellect, he was trained to be a rabbi, not only in the traditional Hebrew and Arabic, but also in Latin. In his early twenties, however, he expressed doubts about the immortality of the soul and the existence of angels. A denial of a bribe into silence (made by the Jewish authorities) lead to an excommunication. Because of this he changed his name into Benedictus de Spinoza. Making a life for himself, as many rabbicinal students did, by lens grinding he spent his time writing and conversing, after losing a trade ship in the business he inhereted from his uncle.
Spinoza's reputation brought him into contact with Cristiaan Huygens, Leibniz, and Oldenburg, the secretary of the Royal Society, with whom he carried on an extensive philosophical correspendence.
Spinoza published only two works before his death. When on his way to the printer to publish the Ethica a romor was gaining currency that Spinoza was printing a book showing there is no God. Speeches were made before the prince and many theologians were abusing his opinions and writings. Spinoza decided to print nothing untill after his death, having the inquisition in mind.
The de Witt brothers (Johan de Witt and Cornelis de Witt) were among his friends, who were for years the liberal leaders of the Dutch government. When in 1672 they were lynched at The Hague Spinoza was locked in his room by his friends. Having, for once, lost his philosophical calm he wanted to run into the streets and denounce the murderers. His friends probably saved his life.

Political philosophy

In his work 'Tractatus Theologico-Politicus'(1) Spinoza describes his views on the organisation of human society. In many ways Spinoza's views correlate with those of Thomas HobbesJohn Milton's Areopagitica, Spinoza makes the first great plea for free speech; a novel position in its time. The subtitle of the treatise is: 'Containing Certain Discussions Where is Set Forth that Freedom of Thought and Speech not only May, without Prejudice to Piety and the Public Peace, be Granted; but Also May Not, without Danger to Piety and the Public Peace, be Withheld'. Spinoza concedes the right of government to regulate speech; he argues only that it is foolish and unprofitable to make the attempt. In the nature of things it is impossible for us to abdicate our natural right to judge, each of us, of truth and falsity, right and wrong. The state can only punish us for expressing our views. But doing so will be subverting its own end:

No, the object of government is not to change men from rational beings into beasts or puppets, but to enable them to develop their minds and bodies in security, and to employ their reason unshackled; neither showing hatred, anger, or deciet, nor watched with the eyes of jealousy and injustice. In fact, the true aim of government is liberty.

The second major difference is that Spinoza considered democracy to be the 'most natural' and best form of government. Thomas Hobbes was a supporter of the British monarchy, as described in his Leviathanare the laws of God. Everything occurs necessarily as it follows from the divine nature. Miracles would, looking at it from that point of view, render the existence of God doubtfull. By these thoughts David Hume's thoughts on miracles, as described in 'An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding', were greatly influenced.

The aim of philosophy; understanding

Like the stoics Spinoza used his philosophy to attain a certein peace of mind that could not be disturbed by external circumstance. In his work Tractatus de intellectus emendatione Spinoza describes his method for deducing truthfull thoughts from fictive ideas, untruthfull ideas and doubtfull ideas. In a way he basis himself on Descartes' work 'Discourse on the Method'. Spinoza argues that humans compare one thought with other thoughts to deduce their truthfullness, showing his rationalism. This offcourse does not help untill one can say that at least one thing is true without a doubt. From there one can decide on the truthfullness of thoughts(2). This way of determining truth has lead to logical positivism, an important supporter of which was Ludwig Wittgenstein.

Descartes, Spinoza and Leibniz are known as the three great (continental) rationalists; traditionally set out against the three great (British) empiricists Locke, Hume and Berkeley.

World ViewEthics he explains what emotions are. Spinoza argues that there are three affects which are both physical and mental at the same time: lust, unlust and desire. These can be influenced by outside or inside sources (passions or actions). In a strict sense only God is 'free', but in living by living lies freedom for humanity. By doing 'good' and rejoicing over this (bene agere et laetari) one lives by reason and allows reason to exist.

The power of the mind consists in knowledge. The increasing knowledge of nature leads to (joy+thought of object=) love. Love and knowledge equals a rational love for God (amor dei intellectualis). This brings a knowledge of a third sort: beholding, which in turn brings happiness; peace of mind. In that sense virtue is its own reward.


ca. 1660. Korte Verhandeling van God, de mensch en deszelvs welstand (Short Treatise on God, Man and His Well-Being).
1662. Tractatus de intellectus emendatione (On the Improvement of the Understanding).
1663. Principia philosophiae cartesianae (Principles of Cartesian Philosophy, translated by Samuel Shirley, with an Introduction and Notes by Steven Barbone and Lee Rice, Indianapolis, 1998).
1670. Tractatus Theologico-Politicus (A Theologico-Political Treatise).
1675/76 Tractatus Politicus (Unfinished)
1677. Ethica Ordine Geometrico Demonstrata
1677. Hebrew Grammar.


(1) Ludwig wittgenstein referred to this work when deciding the name for his 'Tractatus Philosophico Logicus'.
(2) The difference between thoughts and truthfull thoughts is a clear reference to Plato's logoi.

A New History of Philosophy: From Descartes to Rawls - Wallace I matson
Tractatus Theologico-Politico
Tractatus de intellectus emendatione
Ethica Ordine Geometrico Demonstrata

Written By
Reply Tue 1 Jul, 2008 05:45 am
The life of Spinoza is an amazing story. I can imagine him cut off from his people, excommunicated, living in a garret, polishing lenses, filling his lungs with ground glass, always thinking, thinking, thinking. I have something in common with Spinoza; something essential to each of us, and less so for philosophers. I will leave you to guess. But here is the thing. Even with what I have in common with the man apart, this God intoxicated man, this man beloved of God; I can only read about him, and not read him. I am afraid I might recognize my reflection in his words, and that this might frighten me, or cause me to think less of myself. They say he was organized, and I know from experience that organization is a wonderful quality in a wife. But just as one should not put all their eggs in one basket, no one should but all of their tools in one box, because if you have lost one you have lost all. My mind is more organized than my garage. In my mind all I have to do to find it is search for it, but in my garage I invariably have to look under something else. Now, my external world is not at all like my internal world. Much as I would like to order my existence, the disorder of all human anarchy forces its way into my life. I think, If I were better at organizing my ideas, and my garage, I might be a formal philosopher. I think Nietzsche with his wild Ideas sort of trashed formal philosophy. And; Kant sort of beat metaphysics to a bloody pulp, so that cut Spinoza out of the loop. Yet, nothing can take from Spinoza his great humanity. And that is what all people should strive for: To push back against their ignorence and fear, and to die greater than they were born.

And I don't know if I would describe Spinoza as a panthiest by what I know. The Pantheon held the gods of every nation. And Pan is the equal of the Latin Fauna, and this sort of gives away its pagan roots. There is a big difference between seeing one God where ever you look, and seeing a god where ever you look. So; I would look more deeply into that statement. It is very rational for believers of God to accept only one God and no others. I think the incredible nature of the trinity has done more to damage Christianity than all the bad popes put together. It seems that those charged with teaching it were the most likely to reject it. Why should it matter to me if a whole class of people sworn to celebacy and poverty fed upon the western world while spreading their genes to any who would accept them? It is all just grass for the goose. People simply do not act on a faith they do not accept, so if you rely upon the intelligent to spread the word, you better make the word fit with reason.
Reply Tue 1 Jul, 2008 07:45 am
I admire Spinoza in his philosophical convictions. Most of I learn about his writings i already forget, but how he live his poor life in an attic suffering from cold and hunger while doing philosophy. Certainly one of my beloved philosopher.
Reply Tue 1 Jul, 2008 10:06 am
Here's an interesting tidbit in Spinoza's life.

When his father died, his sisters disputed the inheritance because he was excommunicated from the Jewish community and publicly sued him (for ethical reasons). Spinoza fought the suit and won (for ethical reasons). Upon receiving the verdict in his favor, he then reversed the inheritance and gave everything to his sisters except for an old bed frame (for ethical reasons).

Reply Tue 1 Jul, 2008 11:06 am
Hi Fido, Smile

I read your post and I find your enthousiasm quite catching...although I already was quite enthousiastic offcourse. Anyway, I noticed a few things you said that I believe you have not got to the bottom of yet, so I think a few pointers may be helpfull. Smile

Fido wrote:
I think Nietzsche with his wild Ideas sort of trashed formal philosophy.

In my opinion he trashed dogma. For all there to read he opens up a true experiencing of life and the love for all the hardships of it. That is one of the most admirable things I have ever 'seen' a philosopher do. Drinking a cup of poison is another. Wink


And; Kant sort of beat metaphysics to a bloody pulp, so that cut Spinoza out of the loop.

Actually after Kant Germany was buzzing with all sorts of new metaphysics. Before Kant metaphysics was stranded in Germany (and most of the world). In his philosophies Kant opens up the possibility of something else than what is observed, contrary to the churches dogma. I think that allowed people to breathe again.


And I don't know if I would describe Spinoza as a panthiest by what I know. The Pantheon held the gods of every nation. And Pan is the equal of the Latin Fauna, and this sort of gives away its pagan roots. There is a big difference between seeing one God where ever you look, and seeing a god where ever you look. So; I would look more deeply into that statement.

Spinoza was a pantheist because he held that 'God' was everything that exists; 'Pan', or nature. He speaks of the whole of creation as being nature, a sentiment that I share from time to time. It all depends on what viewpoint one takes, but perhaps that is superfluous.

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