Masterpieces of

World Literature











Benedictus de Spinoza


Benedict de Spinoza

Dutch-Jewish philosopher
Hebrew forename Baruch, Latin forename Bendictus, Portuguese Bento De Espinosa
(English: )
born Nov. 24, 1632, Amsterdam
died Feb. 21, 1677, The Hague

Dutch-Jewish philosopher, the foremost exponent of 17th-century Rationalism.

Early life and career.
Spinoza’s grandfather and father were Portuguese and had been crypto-Jews after the Spanish Inquisition had compelled them to embrace Christianity. Later, after Holland’s successful revolt against Spain and the granting of religious freedom, they found refuge in Amsterdam. His mother, who also came from Portugal, died when Benedict was barely six years old. The Spinozas were prosperous merchants and respected members of the Jewish community, and it may be assumed that Spinoza attended the school for Jewish boys founded in Amsterdam in about 1638. Outside school hours the boys had private lessons in secular subjects. Spinoza was taught Latin by a German scholar, who may also have taught him German; and he knew to some extent all of the other significant continental languages. In March 1654 Benedict’s father died. There was some litigation over the estate, with Benedict’s only surviving stepsister claiming it all. Benedict won the lawsuit but allowed her to retain nearly everything.

His studies so far had been mainly Jewish, but he was an independent thinker and had found more than enough in his Jewish studies to wean him from orthodox doctrines and interpretations of Scripture; moreover, the tendency to revolt against tradition and authority was much in the air in the 17th century. But the Jewish religious leaders in Amsterdam were fearful that heresies (which were no less anti-Christian than anti-Jewish) might give offense in a country that did not yet regard the Jews as citizens. Spinoza soon incurred the disapproval of the synagogue authorities. In conversations with other students, he had held that there is nothing in the Bible to support the views that God had no body, that angels really exist, or that the soul is immortal; and he had also expressed his belief that the author of the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible) was no wiser in physics or even in theology than were they, the students. The Jewish authorities, after trying vainly to silence Spinoza with bribes and threats, excommunicated him in July 1656, and he was banished from Amsterdam for a short period by the civil authorities. There is no evidence that he had really wanted to break away from the Jewish community, and indeed the scanty knowledge available would suggest the opposite. On Dec. 5, 1655, for example, he had attended the synagogue and made an offering that, in view of his poverty, must have been a rare event for him, and, about the time of his excommunication, he had addressed a defense of his views to the synagogue.

Among Spinoza’s Christian acquaintances was Franciscus van den Enden, who was a former Jesuit, an ardent classical scholar, and something of a poet and dramatist and who had opened a school in Amsterdam. For a time, Spinoza stayed with him, helping with the teaching of the schoolchildren and receiving aid in his own further education. In this way he improved his knowledge of Latin, learned some Greek, and was introduced to Neoscholastic philosophy. It may have also been through van den Enden’s school that Spinoza became acquainted with the “new philosophy” of René Descartes, later acknowledged to be the father of modern philosophy. Spinoza’s other Christian acquaintances were mostly of the Collegiants, a brotherhood that later merged with the Mennonites; they were especially interested in Cartesianism, the dualistic philosophy of Descartes and his followers.

At the same time, he was becoming expert at making lenses, supporting himself partly by grinding and polishing lenses for spectacles, telescopes, and microscopes; he also did tutoring. A kind of reading and discussion circle for the study of religious and philosophical problems came into being under the guidance of Spinoza. In order to collect his thoughts, however, and reduce them to a system, he withdrew in 1660 to Rijnsburg, a quiet village on the Rhine, near Leiden. Rijnsburg was the headquarters of the Collegiants, and Spinoza’s lodgings there were with a surgeon named Hermann Homan. In Homan’s cottage Spinoza wrote Korte Verhandeling van God, de Mensch en deszelfs Welstand (written c. 1662; Spinoza’s Short Treatise on God, Man, and His Well-Being, 1910) and Tractatus de Intellectus Emendatione (“Treatise on the Correction of the Understanding”), both of which were ready by April 1662. He also completed the greater part of his geometrical version of Descartes’s Principia Philosophiae and the first book of his Ethica. Spinoza’s attitude in these works already showed a departure from Cartesianism. It was also during this stay that he met Heinrich Oldenburg, soon to become one of the two first secretaries of the Royal Society in London.

Influence of Descartes and the geometrical method.
His version of Descartes’s Principia was prepared while Spinoza was giving instruction in the philosophy of Descartes to a private pupil. It was published by his Cartesian friends under the title Renati des Cartes Principiorum Philosophiae Pars I et II, More Geometrico Demonstratae, per Benedictum de Spinoza (1663), with an introduction explaining that Spinoza did not share the views expressed in the book. This was the only book published in Spinoza’s lifetime with his name on the title page.

The philosophy of Spinoza may thus be regarded as a development from and a reaction to that of his contemporary Descartes (1596–1650). Though it has been argued that Spinoza was also much influenced by medieval philosophy (especially Jewish), he seems to have been much more conscious of the Cartesian influence, and his most striking doctrines are most easily understood as solutions of Cartesian difficulties. Clearly, he had studied Descartes in detail. He accepted Descartes’s physics in general, though he did express some dissatisfaction with it toward the end of his life. As for the Cartesian metaphysics, he found three unsatisfactory features: the transcendence of God, the substantial dualism of mind and body, and the ascription of free will both to God and to human beings. In Spinoza’s eyes, those doctrines made the world unintelligible. It was impossible to explain the relation between God and the world or between mind and body or to account for events occasioned by free will.

The publication of Spinoza’s version of Descartes’s Principia had been intended to prepare the way for that of his own philosophy, for he had both to secure the patronage of influential men and to show the more philosophically minded that his rejection of Cartesianism was not out of ignorance.

Spinoza became dissatisfied with the informal method of exposition that he had adopted in the Korte Verhandeling and the De Intellectus Emendatione and turned instead to the geometrical method in the manner of Euclid’s Elements. He assumed without question that it is possible to construct a system of metaphysics that will render it completely intelligible. It is therefore possible, in his view, to present metaphysics deductively—that is, as a series of theorems derived by necessary steps from self-evident premises expressed in terms that are either self-explanatory or defined with unquestionable correctness. His masterpiece, the Ethica, was set out in this manner—Ordine Geometrico Demonstrata, according to the reading of its subtitle. Its first part, “De Deo” (“Concerning God”), was finished and in the hands of his friends early in 1663. Initially the work was intended to have three parts only, but it eventually appeared (in 1677) in five parts. Spinoza’s desire for an impersonal presentation was probably his chief motive for adopting the geometrical method, appreciating that the method guarantees true conclusions only if the axioms are true and the definitions correct. Spinoza, like his contemporaries, held that definitions are not arbitrary but that there is a sense in which they may be correct or incorrect.

The question was discussed at length in his unfinished Tractatus de Intellectus Emendatione. A sound definition, he held, should make clear the possibility or the necessity of the existence of the object defined. Because the Ethica begins with the definition of “substance,” the necessary existent, the entire system is vulnerable to anyone disputing that definition, however cogent the subsequent reasoning may be. In fact, as Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, a Rationalist philosopher and mathematician, pointed out, though the system is closely knit, its demonstrations do not proceed with mathematical rigour.

Period of the “Ethica.” In June 1663 Spinoza moved to Voorburg, near The Hague, and it appears that by June 1665 he was nearing the completion of the three-part version of the Ethica. During the next few years, however, he was at work on his Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, which was published anonymously at Amsterdam in 1670. This work aroused great interest and was to go through five editions in as many years. It was intended “to show that not only is liberty to philosophize compatible with devout piety and with the peace of the state, but that to take away such liberty is to destroy the public peace and even piety itself.” As this work shows, Spinoza was far ahead of his time in advocating the application of the historical method to the interpretation of the biblical sources. He argued that the inspiration of the prophets of the Old Testament extended only to their moral and practical doctrines and that their factual beliefs were merely those appropriate to their time and are not philosophically significant. Complete freedom of scientific and metaphysical speculation is therefore consistent with all that is important in the Bible. Miracles are explained as natural events misinterpreted and stressed for their moral effect.

In May 1670 Spinoza moved to The Hague, where he remained until his death. He began to compose a Hebrew grammar, Compendium Grammatices Linguae Hebraeae, but did not finish it; instead, he returned to the Ethica, although the prospect of its publication became increasingly remote. There were many denunciations of his Tractatus Theologico-Politicus as an instrument “forged in hell by a renegade Jew and the devil.” When the Ethica was completed in 1675, Spinoza had to abandon the idea of publishing it, though manuscript copies were circulated among his close friends.

Last years and posthumous influence.
Spinoza concentrated his attention on political problems and began his Tractatus Politicus, which he did not live to finish. During the post-Ethica period, he was visited by several important people, among them Ehrenfried Walter von Tschirnhaus (in 1675), a scientist and philosopher, and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (in 1676), like Spinoza, one of the foremost Rationalists of the time. Leibniz, having heard of Spinoza as an authority on optics, had sent him an optical tract and had then received from Spinoza a copy of the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, which deeply interested him. According to Leibniz’ own account, he “conversed with him often and at great length.” Spinoza, however, was now in an advanced stage of consumption, aggravated by the inhaling of glass dust from the polishing of lenses in his shop. He died in 1677, leaving no heir, and his few possessions were sold by auction. These included about 160 books, the catalog of which has been preserved.

In accordance with Spinoza’s previous instructions, several of his friends prepared his manuscripts secretly for the press, and they were sent to a publisher in Amsterdam. The Opera Posthuma (Dutch version: Nagelate Schriften), published before the end of 1677, was composed of the Ethica, Tractatus Politicus, and Tractatus de Intellectus Emendatione, as well as letters and the Hebrew grammar. His Stelkonstige reeckening van den regenboog (“On the Rainbow”) and his Reeckening van kanssen (“On the Calculation of Chances”) were printed together in 1687. The Korte Verhandeling was lost to the world until E. Boehmer’s publication of it in 1852.

Spinoza has an assured place in the intellectual history of the Western world, though his direct influence on technical philosophy has not been great. Throughout the 18th century he was almost universally decried as an atheist—or sometimes used as a cover for the detailing of atheist ideas. The tone had been set by Pierre Bayle, a Skeptical philosopher and encyclopaedist, in whose Dictionnaire historique et critique Spinozism was described as “the most monstrous hypothesis imaginable, the most absurd”; and even David Hume, a Scottish Skeptic and historian, felt obliged to speak of the “hideous hypothesis” of Spinoza.

Spinoza was rendered intellectually respectable by the efforts of literary critics, especially of the Germans G.E. Lessing and J.W. von Goethe and the English poet S.T. Coleridge, who admired the man and found austere excitement in his works, in which they saw an intensely religious attitude entirely divorced from dogma. Spinoza has also been much studied by professional philosophers since the beginning of the 19th century. Both absolute Idealists and Marxists have read their own doctrines into his work, and Empiricists, while rejecting his metaphysical approach, have developed certain detailed suggestions from his theory of knowledge and psychology.



Type of work: Philosophy
Author: Benedictus de Spinoza (1632-1677)
First published: 1677


The complete Latin title of Spinoza's masterpiece is Ethica ordine geometrico demonstrata. A geometric demonstration of ethics is a novelty in the history of thought, but this work is famous not because of, but in spite of, its novelty of method. The principal advantage of the method is that it reveals Spinoza's thought as clearly as possible, and although the demonstrations may not satisfy critics who concern themselves only with definitions and logical form, they have a strong persuasive force upon those who, already committed to the love of the good and of God, need clarity and structure in their thoughts.
Spinoza begins with definitions, proceeds to axioms (unproved but obviously acceptable), and then to propositions and demonstrations. Obviously, if one must find fault with Spinoza's argument, any place is vulnerable, for one can quarrel about the definitions, doubt the truth of the axioms, or question the validity of the demonstrations. But in order to reject the book it would be necessary to question the integrity and wisdom of Spinoza's spirit, and that would be not only difficult but impertinent to do.
It has long been regarded an error in philosophy to attempt to deduce what men ought to do from a study of what men do. What Spinoza attempts is a deduction of what men ought to do from a study of what must be, according to his definitions and axioms. The primary criticism of his method, then, is not that he errs—although most critics find errors in Spinoza—but that he tries to use logical means to derive ethical truths. The criticism depends on the assumption that ethical truths are either matters of fact, not of logic, or else that they are not truths at all but, for example, emotive expressions.
Spinoza begins the Ethics with definitions of "cause," "finite,""substance," "attribute," "mode," "free." "eternity," and "God," the latter term being defined to mean "Being absolutely infinite, that is to say, substance consisting of infinite attributes, each one of which expresses eternal and infinite essence." To understand this definition one must relate it to the definitions of the terms within it—such as "substance," "finite," and "attribute"—but one must also resist the temptation to identify the term, so defined, with any conventionally used term. Spinoza's God is quite different from anyone else's God, at least in conception. The point of the definition is that The axioms contain such logical and semantical truths as "I. Everything which is, is either in itself or in another"; "II. That which cannot be conceived through another must be conceived through itself"; "VI. A true idea must agree with that of which it is the idea," and "VII. The essence of that thing which can be conceived as not existing does not involve existence." At first the axioms may be puzzling, but they are not as extraordinary as they seem. The last axiom, for example, number VII, means only that anything which can be thought of as not existing does not by its nature have to exist.
The propositions begin as directly implied by the definitions: "I. Substance is by its nature prior to its modifications" follows from the definitions of "substance" and "mode," and "II. Two substances having different attributes have nothing in common with one another" is another consequence of the definition of "substance." As the propositions increase, the proofs become longer, making reference not only to definitions but also to previous propositions and their corollaries. For those interested in technical philosophy the proofs are intriguing even when they are unconvincing, but for others they are unnecessary; the important thing is to get at Spinoza's central idea.
Proposition XI is important in preparing the way for Spinoza's main contention: "XI. God or substance consisting of infinite attributes, each one of which expresses eternal and infinite essence, necessarily exists." Although one may be tempted to seize upon this proposition as an instrument to use against atheists, it is necessary to remember that the term "God" is a technical term for Spinoza and has little, if anything, to do with the object of religious worship.
Proposition XIV soon follows with the startling claim that "Besides God no substance can be nor can be conceived." A corollary of this proposition is the idea that God is one; that is, everything that exists, all of nature, is God. Individual things do not by their natures exist, but only through God's action; and God is not only the cause of their existence but also of their natures. (XXIV, XXV.) We might expect, consequently, that a great deal of the universe is contingent; that is, it depends upon something other than itself and need not be as it is. But Spinoza argues in Proposition XXIX that "In Nature, there is nothing contingent, but all things are determined from the necessity of the divine nature to exist and act in a certain manner." Consequently, man's will is not free but necessary. (XXXII.) This was one of the ideas that made Spinoza unpopular with both Jews and Christians.
Having used Part One of the Ethics to develop the conception of God, Spinoza goes on in Part Two, after presenting further definitions and axioms, to explain the nature and origin of mind. Here again Spinoza concludes that "In the mind there is no absolute or free will . . ." (XLVIII.) In this section he also develops the idea that God is a thinking and extended being.
In Part Three, "On the Origin and Nature of the Emotions," Spinoza argues that emotions are confused ideas. "Our mind acts at times and at times suffers," he contends in Proposition I of Part Three; "insofar as it has adequate ideas, it necessarily acts; and insofar as it has inadequate ideas, it necessarily suffers." Perhaps it is well to note that Spinoza defines "emotion" as any modification of the body "by which the power of acting of the body itself is increased, diminished, helped, or hindered, together with the ideas of these modifications."
By this time in his book Spinoza has created the idea that God, as both thinking and extended substance, is such that all nature is both thinking and extended (since everything that is must be part of God). Another way of putting it is that everything that exists does so both as body and as idea. Thus, the human being exists as both body and idea. If, then, the human being, as idea, does not adequately comprehend the modifications of the human body, the mind suffers.
In Part Four, "Of Human Bondage; or of the Strength of the Emotions," Spinoza defines the good as "that which we certainly know is useful to us," and in a series of propositions he develops the idea that each person necessarily desires what he considers to be good, that in striving to preserve his being a man acquires virtue, and that the desire to be happy and to live well involves desiring to act, to live, "that is to say, actually to exist." In this attempt to relate man's freedom to his will to act and in the identification of the good with the striving toward existence, Spinoza anticipated much of the more significant work of the twentieth century Existentialists.
In Proposition XXVIII of Part IV, Spinoza writes that "The highest good of the mind is the knowledge of God, and the highest virtue of the mind is to know God." This claim has been prepared for by previous propositions relating the good to what is desired, the desire to action, action to being, and being to God. Because of the intricacy of Spinoza's argument it becomes possible for him to argue that to seek being, to seek the good, to use reason, and to seek God are one and the same. To use reason involves coming to have adequate ideas, having adequate ideas involves knowing the nature of things, knowing the nature of things involves knowing God.
Although it might seem that Spinoza's philosophy, for all its references to God, is egoistic in that this crucial phase of his argument depends upon the claim that each man seeks to preserve his own being, a full examination of Part IV will show that Spinoza manages to transcend the egoistic base of action by arguing that to serve the self best one uses reason; but to use reason is to seek an adequate idea of God and, consequently, to seek what is good for all men. In fact, Spinoza specifically states that whatever causes men to live in harmony with one another is profitable and good, and that whatever brings discord is evil.
The highest happiness or blessedness of man, according to Spinoza, is "the peace of mind which springs from the intuitive knowledge of God." This conclusion is certainly consistent with Spinoza's ideas that man's good consists in escaping from the human bondage of the passions, that to escape from the passions is to understand the causes that affect the self, that to understand the causes involves action, and that action leads to God.
When man through rational action comes to determine himself, he participates in the essence of all being; he becomes so at one with God that he possesses an intellectual love of God, which is man's blessedness and virtue. The eternal is known only by the eternal; hence, in knowing God, man makes himself eternal—not in any finite or individual way, but as part of God's being.
Divested of its formal trappings and of those respects in which philosophic imagination outruns credibility— for example, the claim that everything is both thought and extension—Spinoza's philosophy of ethics tells the reader that happiness consists in understanding the causes of things. It might be argued that this idea, so familiar in philosophy, puts more simply than any other concept the kind of faith that makes a man a philosopher. But to understand the causes of things is, as Spinoza concludes, "as difficult as it is rare."



Discuss Art

Please note: site admin does not answer any questions. This is our readers discussion only.

| privacy