Baruch (Benedictus) Spinoza (1632-1677)

 

Education

Born in Amsterdam in 1632 into a prominent family of moderate means who were Jewish Portugese refugees. He was educated at a Talmud Torah school in Amsterdam where he learned Hebrew. (He also spoke Portugese, Spanish and Dutch). His teachers may have included Manasseh Ben Israel, Saul Morteira (who was to serve on the group that eventually excommunicated Spinoza from the Jewish community) and Uriel de Costa (who was twice excommunicated from the Jewish community in Amsterdam, and who was publicly whipped in 1640; de Costa taught that religions were man-made, that immortality was questionable and that any divine sanction for Mosaic law was questionable.)

 

Excommunication

Spinoza cut short his education at seventeen to work for the family import business in 1649 but later started to make a living for himself in optics (it is a disputes matter if he actually made lenses himself). He joined a circle of intellectuals around Juan de Prado, originally from Spain (who was excommunicated in 1657). Spinoza was attacked, by someone from his synagogue wielding a knife, in 1656, for his heretical beliefs. He kept the torn jacket all his life. On July 27th 1656 he was issued the writ of cherem, or excommunication, for "abominable heresies" and "monstrous acts" by the Sephardic Jewish community of Amsterdam. The Spanish Inquisition issued arrest warrants for him and Prado in 1659. In general Spinoza was held to deny the immortality of the soul, to reject the notion of a personal, providential God, and to claim that Mosaic Law was not given by God and was not binding.

 

Book on Descartes

In 1660 he left Amsterdam for Rijinsburg, and changed his name from "Baruch" to "Benedictus" (partly due to a dispute with his sister concerning inheritance). A philosophical group collected around him. He worked on his Short Treatise on God, Man and his Well-Being during this time. Then in 1663 he published Principles of the Philosophy of René Descartes, with an appendix containing Metaphysical Thoughts.

 

Political Connection

In the 1660s he worked on the Treatise on the Improvement of the Intellect and started worked on what was to become the Ethics Demonstrated in Geometrical Order (or Ethics, for short). He started to become famous and was visited and written to by various scientific leaders. He moved to Voorburg, a suburb of The Hague, in 1663, and became friends with Jan de Witt, Grand Pensionary of the Netherlands, from whom he came to receive a modest pension. De Witt was a republican who advocated religious tolerance and opposed Calvinist fanaticism.

 

Tractatus is banned

In 1670 he published, anonymously, Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, which attacked revealed religion and defended liberty of thought. The book was banned everywhere and a Dutch edition was cancelled. He moved to The Hague in 1670 to escape the fury of Dutch pastors' sermons.

 

Nearly murdered

On 20th August 1672, Jan de Witt and his brother were murdered in the street by a Protestant mob with the silent approval of the authorities, in the wake of the French invasion of the Low Countries. Spinoza wanted to confront the crowd, and made up a placard with "Ultimi barbororum", but his landlord locked him inside the house, fearing that he too would be murdered.

 

Thought to be a spy

In May 1673 he was summoned to Utecht by the commander of the French army in Holland, the Prince of Condé. They did not actually meet, however. Members of the entourage suggested to him to dedicate his next work to Louis XIV for a royal pension. Spinoza declined and went home, where he was accused of being a spy for the French against the Dutch.

 

Offer of philosophy chair

In 1673 he was also invited to take up the Chair of Philosophy at the University of Heidelburg, in Germany, by Elector Palatine. The only condition was that he did not disturb established religion. He declined the offer.

 

Resistance to the Ethics

In 1675 he tried to publish his Ethics, but he met with resistance from theologians. He wrote a Hebrew Grammar, and the scientific Teatise on the Rainbow. He wrote another work on government, the Political Treatise.

 

Death and posthumous publication of the Ethics

He died on 21st February 1677, aged 44, from a respitory illness. After his death the Ethics and an unfinished work, Treatise on the Improvement of the Intellect, were published later in 1677.