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Benedict Baruch Spinoza - Biography

Benedict Baruch Spinoza was born into a lineage of Spanish crypto-Jews through his grandfather and father — Jews living in post-Islam who were forced to adopt Christianity while secretly maintaining the Jewish faith. His father was a merchant in Amsterdam, allowing his son to pursue a thorough education in medieval philosophy, the works of Descartes, Hobbes and other contemporaries. He studied Latin, and read Cicero, Livy, Ovid and Terrence. Spinoza was also a member of the Sephardic Jewish community of Amsterdam.

Spinoza, however, was an independent thinker, rejecting traditional readings of Scripture, and therefore causing a deviation from Jewish orthodoxy. He disagreed with the tendencies to anthropomorphize God, arguing such notions as illogical and theologically unsound, while further contending that the scriptures do not maintain that angels exist, or that the soul is immortal. Instead he promoted modern historical and critical methods for studying biblical interpretations. Not surprisingly, his outspoken nature had him expelled from the synagogue for heretical thought and practice in 1656, and hence he Latinized his name to Benedict.

He took an opportunity to teach at a school for children, on the basis that he could remain an independent thinker from the political situations associated with another career opportunity he repeatedly refused -the appointment of a chair at the University of Heidelberg. Instead, he learned the craft of grinding lenses for glasses and telescopes while teaching at his humble post, to help himself maintain an economic independence as well. Nevertheless, his notoriety as a philosopher attracted many like-minded thinkers, including Gottfried Leibniz.

In his late twenties, Spinoza supervised a discussion group on philosophical and theological issues. As his own ideas developed, he decided to go on retreat from Amsterdam to a cottage in Rijnsburg for three years to formulate them in writing. At this time he wrote A Short Treatise on God, Man and his Well-Being, and On the Improvement of the Understanding. He also composed a geometric version of Descartes' Principles of Philosophy, which his friends and supporters encouraged him to publish. Part of the purpose of the work was to pave the way for publishing his own thoughts that were critical of Cartesianism; producing such a work, he could not be accused later of not understanding Descartes. It was published in 1663 and was the only writing with his name on it during his life. Further developing his own ideas, Spinoza composed his greatest work, The Ethics.

In 1663 Spinoza left Rijnsburg and moved near The Hague. Hoping to publish The Ethics, and anticipating controversy, he wrote and published anonymously his Tractatus Theologico-Politicus (1670) in which he defends the liberty to philosophize in the face of religious or political interference, arguing for political toleration of alternative religious practices. He maintained that Christians and Jews could live peaceably together provided that they rose above the petty theological and cultural controversies that divided them. After a self-initiated and failed diplomatic mission to France, Spinoza was forced to give up hopes of publishing the Ethics. However, his manuscripts were circulated among Spinoza's trusted friends. He was often in correspondence with other intellectuals, and discussion groups were formed by students of his ideas.

He died in 1677 from a lung disease, the result of breathing dust from lens grinding. As directed in Spinoza's Will, the Ethics was published posthumously along with some of his other works (1677). The Ethics is about 200 pages in length, divided into five parts:

  1. Concerning God
  2. The Nature and Origin of the Human Mind
  3. The Nature and Origin of the Emotions
  4. Human Bondage, or the Strength of the Emotions
  5. The Power of the Understanding, or Human Freedom

Spinoza had a great admiration for the precision of Latin and Classical thought, manifest in his desire to form a unitary structure of the Creation of God based on reason. Scholars have noted that The Ethics is structured in a manner akin to Euclidean geometry. Each of the five parts opens with a brief list of definitions and axioms, and from these a series of propositions (or theorems) are deduced. Spinoza initially composed the first parts of the Ethics in dialog form, but rejected this for the more precise geometric method. In general, geometric proofs are designed so that if we accept the definitions and axioms at the outset, and deductions from these are properly made, then we must accept the concluded propositions. However, as Leibniz observed, even though Spinoza's system follows this style, it nevertheless lacks mathematical rigor. Consequently, the structure of Spinoza's closed, mathematical system forces one to accept or reject it in its entirety, rather than from the successes of the various deductions.

Spinoza's system is monist, deductive, and rationalistic. He developed the idea of the social contract, but unlike Hobbes he visualized a community in which human beings derive the greatest advantage from the rational renunciation of personal desire. Furthermore, he rejected the concept of free will, holding human action to be motivated by one's conception of self-preservation. For instance, a powerful, or virtuous, person acts out of understanding; freedom consists in being guided by the law of one's own nature, evil being the result of inadequate understanding. The supreme ambition of the virtuous person is the "intellectual love of God."

During his lifetime Spinoza was a controversial figure, largely because his philosophical pantheism was not widely appreciated in either Jewish or Christian religious circles. His popularity increased in the 18th and 19th centuries when he influenced such diverse persons as, Goethe, Coleridge, and Hegel. The contributions of his thought are still widely recognized today.

Benedict Baruch Spinoza was a Dutch philosopher of Jewish origin. (November 24, 1632 – February 21, 1677)