Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677) was a Dutch philosopher who combined rationalism and metaphysics to create a unique system of thought. Spinoza was held up as an atheist philosopher in the 18th century, but this is not an entirely accurate representation of his views since he did not deny the existence of God but only theorised that he might be different from the orthodox view of most Jews and Christians. An advocate for religious toleration, Spinoza's redefinition of God won him anything but toleration for his views in his own lifetime.
Baruch (Benedictus de) Spinoza was born in Amsterdam on 24 November 1632. Baruch's parents were Portuguese-Jewish immigrants who had settled in Amsterdam in search of religious freedom after they had been obliged to publicly convert to Christianity back in their home country. Baruch studied Hebrew and Jewish texts but then moved on to wider philosophical works thanks to his father, a fruit merchant, paying for a private tutor to teach him Latin. Baruch also studied science and worked as a maker of lenses, then something of a Dutch speciality. Baruch's parents remained an important presence in Amsterdam's Jewish community. This community did not take kindly to Baruch's more radical views, particularly his questioning of both the accuracy of the Bible and the claim that it was the only true source of human history. In July 1656, Spinoza was excommunicated as a heretic. Baruch changed his Hebrew name to a Latinized version, Benedictus, and retreated into philosophy.
In 1660, Spinoza left Amsterdam – the final straw was suffering a knife attack outside a theatre - to ply his trade near Leiden. He later moved again to Voorburg near The Hague. Spinoza worked as little as he could afford to on his lens grinding so that he could spend more time on his intellectual interests. As his reputation grew, he also received grants and pensions from wealthy admirers. Spinoza had by now cultivated correspondence with some of Europe's leading thinkers such as fellow Dutchman Christiaan Huygens (1629-1695), Robert Boyle (1627-1691) in England, and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716) in Germany. In 1663, Spinoza published his Principles of Descartes' Philosophy and Metaphysical Thoughts. In 1673, Spinoza was offered a professorship at the University of Heidelberg, but he did not accept it since there was a condition that he not "disturb the publicly established religion" (Gottlieb, 89). Spinoza preferred instead the freedom of taking his own path to intellectual enlightenment.
Spinoza the Scientist
Spinoza may be most well-known today for his philosophy, but he was also greatly interested in the trend for practical experimentation that characterised the Scientific Revolution. His own work with lenses for microscopes and telescopes meant that he enjoyed a high reputation for the quality of his instruments. Spinoza also experimented in metallurgy and hydrodynamics. For Spinoza, science and religion were inseparable, for he believed that: "The greater our knowledge of natural phenomena the more perfect is our knowledge of the essence of God" (Gottlieb, 91).
Around 1666, Spinoza completed Ethics where he combines rationalism and metaphysics to explain the world around us and present his views on humanity's true role and path to happiness. The work, written in Latin, was not published until 1677 after Spinoza's death, since the author was concerned about the controversy it would stir. It is this work which draws most admirers today and which some scholars (but certainly not all) consider a crucial contribution to the Enlightenment movement, which sought to challenge the domination of the traditional church and orthodox view in European thought. However, as the historian H. Chisick notes, Ethics "is as far from the dominant empiricism of the Enlightenment as one could get", and further, "the argument is devilishly difficult to follow" (402). The latter point is perhaps because of Spinoza's choice to present his ideas as a series of axioms and their consequences. The former point is made because Spinoza places God at the centre of his system of thought. Spinoza, though, is far from being orthodox in his religious views so that he seems to be occupying a position somewhere between the spiritual and material worlds; for this reason, he may be considered a pre-Enlightenment thinker.
Ethics is divided into four sections of consideration: God, the mind, the emotions, and servitude. The full title of the work is Ethics Demonstrated in a Geometrical Manner, and this matches Spinoza's approach since he attacks the philosophical problems of his subject as if they were a series of geometrical problems. He presents what he considers arguments of proof for his individual conclusions. Controversial points include Spinoza's assertion that God is not to be removed from nature or the world we see around us and that God and the world are the same substance. To put it another way, "Spinoza's metaphysics set forth a doctrine of one substance with the twin attributes of thought and extension" (Yolton, 502). Or, as S. Law puts it, "What we consider two separate things are in truth, not separate entities or substances in their own right, but, like ripples on a lake, mere temporary undulations in the one great substance" (130). In short, this single substance of existence is "the spatio-temporal world" (ibid).
A consequence of the single substance model for Spinoza is there can be no communication possible with God since Spinoza states that "whoever loves God cannot strive that God should love him in return" (Blackburn, 455). Spinoza is not, then, denying the existence of God but redefining him/her as being the very same as his single substance, the world around us and that which we imagine. The orthodox view is, of course, that God is separate from the world he created. Spinoza is saying God is the world since he reasons that God cannot be separated from anything otherwise he would not be infinite. God is everything and everything is God. There is a similar philosophy called pantheism, that is, a belief that "god is in everything", but Spinoza was not really a pantheist (as is often incorrectly claimed) since he only thought God was present in active Nature (what we might call Nature's power), not literally present in all created things from trees to butterflies. Spinoza's position means that God is certainly not the personal figure often imagined. Miracles are, as a consequence, impossible. The Bible is not the divine word of God but merely a very interesting historical document. Religious activity, although comforting to the actor, is pointless because God is simply not listening.
There are other important consequences to Spinoza's monism (as one-substance philosophical systems are called). Spinoza believed that the mind and body are part of the same parallel reality and they are the same substance (in philosophy, this is sometimes called a double-aspect theory). This monism neatly avoids the problem of determining just how mind and body interact with each other (a problem many other thinkers tried to solve, notably René Descartes). It is also the basis upon which some claim Spinoza to be the founder of scientific psychology. Another consequence of monism is that there can be no afterlife. The traditional view is that when the body dies the mind goes to a new place, heaven or hell, for example. This cannot be so if mind and body are the same thing. When the body dies so does the mind (or soul, if you prefer).
For Spinoza, knowledge of all things must come either via the senses or the intellect or both (and not one or the other as some other thinkers suggested). For Spinoza, because the senses are so unreliable, the intellect is the far superior means as this allows the individual to know, for example, God (or at least some of his attributes since we can never fully know God because he is infinite). He also believed that in God's world, everything happens because God has willed it, and so there can be no alternative. Humans have free will in this system in the sense that they can, at least, perceive eternal events and their true path. Humans can also control events better if they can better understand the causes of certain events and better manage their reactions and emotions using reason. This, for Spinoza, is the exercise of free will. Understanding causes will also bring us closer to God since then we, too, can (albeit briefly) see things "from the point of view of eternity" (Gottlieb, 107).
Spinoza is far from denying God's existence, then. If anything, God is absolutely essential to and indivisible from Spinoza's uniquely unified system of thought. It is this indivisibility that led the German poet Friedrich Hardenberg (1772-1801) to very aptly describe Spinoza as "God-intoxicated" (Blackburn, 455). For Spinoza, true religious and scientific knowledge both stem from an appreciation of God, something which can be achieved not through traditional religious practices or reading the Bible literally but by "the practice of justice and love towards one's neighbours" (Gottlieb, 91).
Criticism & Spinozism
Spinoza's identification of God with Nature is an unorthodox position that led many 18th-century commentators to regard him as an atheist, albeit a virtuous one, since the term "atheist" was then rather more limited in meaning than it is today and signified a deviation from orthodoxy rather than a total denial of God's existence. Jean LeClerc, writing in 1713, famously described Spinoza as "the most famous atheist of our time" (Yolton, 502), while the Scottish philosopher David Hume (1711-1776) called Spinoza's metaphysics "the hideous hypothesis" (ibid). These inaccurate slurs were difficult to shake off. More reasonable criticisms came from other philosophers. Some, like Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716), found Spinoza's arguments for free will in a determined world unconvincing. Others raised troubling questions such as where does morality come from if there is no fear of punishment in the afterlife? Still others have questioned Spinoza's call for us to control our emotions and suggest that this is neither possible nor always desirable.
Spinoza's chief critics in his own lifetime came from organised religion. It was true that Spinoza did attack religion and presented the idea that religion sprang from a desire for political control in his Tractatus theologica-politicus, published in 1670. It was published anonymously, but word soon got out that the author was Spinoza. The work included a bold reassessment of the Bible as an accurate source of history. Rather, for Spinoza and other radical thinkers, the Bible is written by fallible men of antiquity, and so its only value in more modern times is as a source of moral guidance and nothing more. Spinoza called for greater freedom of speech and religious toleration, provided the authority of the state is never challenged. Spinoza also stressed the need for governments to promote an environment of liberty where people can best use their reason to cultivate their higher mental faculties and so reach happiness. He thought the best political system was a constitutional democracy. Such was the negative reaction to Spinoza's views in his political treatise from just about every denomination, he did not publish any major work again in his own lifetime. The toleration Spinoza proposed to extend to orthodox religions in his perfect state was not to be reciprocated.
Spinoza's views, as we have seen, are far more complex than a simple belief or not in God. It was, rather, a more specific point, Spinoza's definition of God, which critics objected to, particularly his view that God does not interfere in human affairs and is not concerned with human-created concepts like good, evil, happiness, and suffering. For Spinoza, God is as neutral as any law of nature or geometry is. For example, the law of gravity dictates that if you walk off a high cliff, you will fall to your death. It is not important why the person is walking off the cliff, or whether they fully understand gravity or not, or whether the person even believes in gravity or not. So, too, with God. The term ‘Spinozism' later came to symbolise a belief in both a Godless universe and materialism (the belief that matter thinks and there is nothing else), neither of which were claims ever made by Spinoza.
Death & Legacy
Spinoza, then, was excommunicated by his community, the Reformed Church in the Netherlands banned his political treatise, and he was almost killed by a mob that thought he was a spy after he returned from a diplomatic mission during the Franco-Dutch War (1672-1678). No wonder he retreated into a quiet life of contemplation. Baruch Spinoza died in The Hague on 21 February 1677. The cause of death was pulmonary tuberculosis, which may have been caused by breathing in glass particles when grinding lenses. He had never married and had no children.
Having published very little during his lifetime, Spinoza's thoughts became more widely known thanks to works published posthumously, collectively titled Opera posthuma. Within this collection were Ethics, Treatise on the Correction of the Understanding, The Short Treatise, and The Calculation of Chances. Spinoza had stood by his beliefs despite great personal consequences, and his integrity has gained admirers, notably the British philosopher Bertrand Russell (1872-1970), who described him as "the noblest and most lovable of great philosophers" (Law, 136). Certainly, Spinoza's call for toleration and his emphasis on the necessity of using reason to better understand the world were echoed by many subsequent thinkers during the Enlightenment.
Spinoza's philosophy has long appealed in different ways to different people, as here explained by A. Gottlieb:
The poets Coleridge and Shelley saw in it a religion of nature. The novelist George Eliot, who translated some of it into English before she turned to fiction, liked Spinoza for his vehement attacks on superstition. Marx liked him for what he took to be his materialistic account of the universe. Goethe could not say exactly what it was that he liked but he knew that he was deeply moved by something or other.