Baruch Spinoza

Spinoza was a Jewish philosopher born in 1632 in Amsterdam. He is best known for his work the Ethics, in which he puts forth a new conception of God and the world. In contrast to the beliefs maintained in Judaism and Christianity that God created the world as an act of free will, Spinoza saw the world as a part of God which came into being in a necessary and deterministic fashion. He believed that anthropomorphic (“human-like”) conceptions of God were childish and based on superstition, and sought to replace such traditional religious beliefs with a more rational understanding of God and the world. In his Theological-Political Treatise, he will argue that miracles are not supernatural, the Torah was not written by Moses, and the prophets had vivid imaginations. Spinoza will encourage freedom of thought, democracy, intellectual knowledge of God, and love for one’s neighbor.

Many people in the modern world have been attracted to Spinoza’s thoughts because of his rejection of traditional religion and his scientific understanding of the world, where everything happens in a necessary, determined way. In his own time, Spinoza was not as well received. His Theological-Political Treatise was a major threat to many people, especially those whose power and authority rested in their position within the Church. His work produced such controversy that he decided not to publish his famous work the Ethics, which was found and published after he died, and likewise was immediately banned in Holland by the Catholic Church.

Spinoza’s family had originally come from Spain, but had been forced during the Inquisition to seek refuge in Holland, which was known for its religious toleration. Spinoza grew up with a traditional Jewish education, but since Amsterdam had a lot of free thinkers due to it being a center for trade in Europe at the time, Spinoza eventually became skeptical of religious teachings. When he started expressing radical ideas, for example that God did not choose to create the world, and when he stopped strictly performing the religious laws of Judaism, he was kicked out of Amsterdam’s Jewish community. Accused of “monstrous deeds” and “horrible abominations,” he would go on to develop his own thoughts amongst the other “radicals” and free-thinkers in Holland at the time.

At this time, those in power in Europe believed that free thought was a bad thing in so far as it could cause people to rebel against their governments. Spinoza disagreed with this sentiment, and he recognized that most of the fighting and rebellions in Europe were the result of petty bickering between different religious groups. Spinoza was opposed to those who maintained positions of power on the basis of religious authority, seeing them as using priests to dupe people into believing in superstitions and acting irrationally in order to serve their political ends. In his Theological-Political Treatise, Spinoza sought to point out exactly what he believed was really going on, and point people down a path of rationality and enlightenment.

Spinoza was critical of Judaism as well as Christianity. He is considered the father of what is known as Biblical Criticism because he saw the Torah (i.e. the five books of Moses) as being a human invention and the product of multiple people. He believed that since the Torah is a human text, it should be treated as such. He believed that the true Word of God was to act justly, give charity and love one’s neighbor, and he was disgusted that different religious groups were fighting each other over small discrepancies in how to interpret the text. He rejected the belief that the Jewish people are “chosen,” and therefore superior to others, that prophets received revelation in a supernatural way, or that miracles were anything more than simply natural events that had been misunderstood at the time.

This attitude towards religion and tradition was quite radical. Religious intolerance was widespread in Europe, and for Spinoza to make these claims required great courage. Spinoza wanted Europe to break away from all the superstitions that he believed was holding people back from living peacefully and in harmony with each other. He believed that “true religion” consisted of toleration and love, and therefore following the 613 commandments, for example, was therefore not necessary. Spinoza was a kind and gentle man, who lived modestly and denied the many awards and honors that people tried to give him in his lifetime. For this reason, he is known as the “prince of philosophers.”

Spinoza was well read and was influenced by the medieval Jewish rationalist philosopher Maimonides. Maimonides had also opposed anthropomorphic conceptions of God, and believed that true knowledge of God was attained through the Intellect. Spinoza embraced this concept, as well as the ancient Stoic belief that by acting virtuously and living an intellectual life one can attain peace and contentment in life. Spinoza believed that it is our emotions which cause us to err, as for example when priests play on our hopes and fears. In his own philosophy, Spinoza hoped to show people in the 17th century a more rational understanding of the world and God which would allow them to find true happiness.

The Ethics is Spinoza’s masterpiece. Spinoza was greatly influenced by Descartes, who considered geometry to be an ideal example of man’s ability to use his reason in order to come to certain truths. Likewise, Plato had great respect for geometry and on the front of his Academy in ancient Greece it was written, “Let no one ignorant of geometry enter here.” Spinoza therefore chose to write his Ethics as if it were an actual geometric proof. He used axioms (ex: “Everything which exists, exist either in itself or in something else) and definitions (ex: By substance, I mean that which is in itself, and is conceived through itself) in order to come up with propositions, proofs, and corollaries in order to demonstrate with geometric certainty to others his beliefs about God and the world.

Like other philosophers’ conceptions of God, Spinoza sees God as infinite, necessary, uncaused, and indivisible. However, Spinoza makes the striking move of identifying God with nature. For Spinoza, nature is not the Creation of God as is believed in the Judeo-Christian tradition. Instead, nature is seen as a part of God. The two are the same. Spinoza explains that everything that is is one substance, and the natural world is simply that infinite substance (i.e. God) in two different “modes:” thought and extension. This unique understanding of God created a lot of confusion in Europe at the time. People didn’t know whether Spinoza was an atheist (someone who denies that God exists), a pantheist (someone who believes that the world is God), or a deist (someone who sees God as having created the world, and doing nothing else).

Spinoza did not like being called an atheist, as he explains in a letter to a friend that he does not deny God’s existence or say that God is only the natural world. Rather, Spinoza is putting forth what is known as a panentheistic position, which sees God as being in the world as well as transcending it. Although the natural world is the infinite substance that is God in the 2 modes of thought and extension, God himself, as an infinity, actually has an infinite number of modes. In this way, the Ethics both gave the free thinkers and radicals of Europe a systematic representation of a non-traditional rational understanding of God, as well as provoked people to think more in depth about what they actually believed as well as what could also be true.

Before Spinoza, the French philosopher Descartes had provided Europe with a rational alternative to the earlier “scholastic” understandings of God and the World. Descartes believed that all things were either body (material) or mind (immaterial), a position known as dualism. The problem with dualism was, and still is, that it brings up the tricky question of how exactly the mind and body relate to each other. In France, the philosopher La Mettrie sought to avoid this question by looking at man as if he were only material, what he termed L’Homme Machine (“The Man Machine”). Spinoza’s philosophy, which sees everything as part of the one infinite substance that is God, only in different modes, was an even more attractive way of avoiding the question posed by dualism.

Like many philosophers, Spinoza’s vision was both to help man as an individual as well as society as a whole. For the individual, he encouraged living a life of peace and tranquility, and seeking to understanding the true nature of reality. Because he saw everything as following necessarily from the essential nature of the universe, he was a determinist. He did not believe in free will. He believed that it only seems like we have free will because we know what we desire, but not the true cause of our desire. By knowing more about the world, we can therefore be “free” in so far as we now know the “true cause” of our desires and actions. And as “free” individuals, we will no longer be ruled by our passions, but use our intellect and reason to live in harmony with one another.

Influenced by Hobbes, Spinoza also believed that man lives in a harsh world of survival when in the original “state of nature,” and must therefore come together and form a society in order to live a better life. Spinoza accepted this understanding of things, but unlike Hobbes, he believed that democracy was the best form of government since it was the least susceptible to abuses and more representative of the will of the people. Since he believed what was most important was one’s ability to think freely and to serve the “true religion” that is the intellectual knowledge of God and love for one’s neighbor, he therefore concluded that it would be best for the state to simply choose one set of religious practices for all. So long as people could believe whatever they wanted, and were encouraged to love their neighbor, the “externals” of religion weren’t important.

Spinoza stands as an impressive figure because he said out loud many of the things that people were thinking at the time. He voiced criticisms of traditional religious beliefs, such as anthropomorphic conceptions of God, belief in miracles, and the acceptance of supernatural events on the basis of authority. He is remembered not only for his critique, but also for presenting an alternative understanding of the world based on rational principles, and perhaps most impressively, for living a life in accordance with his beliefs.