Benedict de Spinoza

Benedict de Spinoza
Benedict de Spinoza

Dutch Jewish philosopher Benedict de Spinoza was best known for his Ethics (1677), which laid out in geometric form arguments for the existence of an impersonal God, the identity of mind and body, determinism, and a way of overcoming the dominance of the passions and achieving freedom and blessedness.

His Theological-Political Treatise (1670) was a landmark in the history of biblical criticism. He was also, in that work, the first major philosopher in the Western tradition to argue for democracy and for freedom of thought and expression.

In the Port of Amsterdam (1632–1656)

Spinoza was born into the Portuguese Jewish community in Amsterdam in the same year Galileo published his Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems. His father, Michael, was an immigrant who had fled Portugal, with other members of his family, to escape the persecution of the Inquisition.

Port of Amsterdam
Port of Amsterdam

At that time the Dutch Republic was one of the few places in Europe where Jews could worship freely. In Amsterdam Michael became a fairly prosperous merchant in the import-export business and a prominent member of the Portuguese synagogue.

But Baruch, as Benedict was first called, encountered his own problems with religious intolerance. In 1656, when he was twenty-three, the synagogue expelled him for what the sentence of excommunication described as “abominable heresies” and “monstrous deeds.”

Although Spinoza had received an orthodox religious education in his congregation’s school, he rebelled early on against central tenets of Judaism and began to take an interest in the new philosophy of Descartes, Hobbes, and Galileo. After his excommunication he was known by the Latin version of his name, Benedict (which means “blessed” in Latin, as Baruch does in Hebrew).


Excommunication was a common form of discipline in the Amsterdam synagogue, often imposed for minor offenses and for short periods, with a provision that the sentence could be lifted if the offender performed some penance. Spinoza’s excommunication was unconditional and quite harsh. The elders cursed him with exceptional severity; no one in the Jewish community (including members of his own family) could associate with him.

For a long time historians did not know exactly what heresies he was accused of. But in the mid-twentieth century, research in the archives of the Inquisition disclosed a report from a Spanish priest who had spent several months in Amsterdam.

His report revealed that the main doctrinal charges against Spinoza were:
  1. That he held that God exists “only philosophically”; 
  2. That he maintained that the soul dies with the body; and 
  3. That he denied that the law of Moses was a true law. 
The “monstrous deeds” probably included his unrepentant resistance to authority when threatened with excommunication.

Apollo and Daphne - myth about the platonic love of god Apollo for the beautiful nymph Daphne. It is said that Daphne was the first love of Apollo but unfortunately the girl never responded to his love. It was not usual or possibly for a nymph or a mortal woman in the Greek mythology to resist to the love of a god, but Daphne did so. And in fact, she lost her life trying to escape this love.

Becoming a Philosopher (1656–1661)

Michael de Spinoza died two years before the excommunication. At that time Baruch took over the family business in partnership with his younger brother, Gabriel. But the punishment prescribed for his heresy made it impossible for Benedict to continue running his father’s firm (which was, in any case, in financial trouble as a result of the first Anglo-Dutch war).

There is little definite information about Spinoza’s life during the years immediately after his excommunication. Probably he remained in Amsterdam for most of this period, and began working as a lens grinder, a craft in which he earned a reputation for excellence.

Perhaps he lodged at first with Francis van den Enden, a former Jesuit at whose school he had been learning Latin. Van den Enden may also have helped to shape his inclinations toward the new philosophy, religious heterodoxy, and democratic politics. Perhaps Spinoza earned room and board by assisting Van den Enden in teaching Latin.

Van den Enden
Van den Enden

Very probably he played parts in the comedies of Terence, which Van den Enden had his students perform in 1657 and 1658. Possibly he assisted the Quakers in their attempts to convert the Jews by translating some of their literature into Hebrew.

Sometime between 1656 and 1661 it appears that Spinoza did some formal study of philosophy at the University of Leiden. The Dutch Republic was the first place where Cartesianism took hold, having been introduced in 1640 by Regius, a professor of medicine at the University of Utrecht. Cartesianism was highly controversial.

Voetius, a professor of theology at Utrecht, challenged Regius’s doctrine that the union of soul and body is one of two separate substances, defending the scholastic Aristotelian doctrine that the soul is the substantial form of the body. In 1642 the university forbade the teaching of Cartesianism.


Later in the 1640s there were similar controversies at the University of Leiden. In 1646 Heereboord, a professor of logic at that university, defended the Cartesian method of doubt as a way of achieving certainty.

Revius, a professor of theology at Leiden, replied that the method of doubt would lead to atheism and accused Descartes of Pelagianism. In 1647 their controversy led the university to ban the discussion of Descartes’ philosophy, pro or con. Nevertheless, in the late 1650s Leiden was a place where one could study Cartesian philosophy.

By the end of the 1650s, Spinoza had established a circle of friends, the most notable of whom were Jan Rieuwertsz, a bookseller and publisher of Dutch translations of Descartes’ works, who was later to become Spinoza’s publisher; Jan Glazemaker, translator into Dutch of Descartes’works, who was later to translate most of Spinoza’s works into Dutch.

Jan Glazemaker
Jan Glazemaker

Peter Balling, the Amsterdam agent of various Spanish merchants, who was to translate Spinoza’s first published work, an exposition of Descartes, into Dutch; the brothers Jan and Adriaan Koerbagh, the latter of whom died in prison for publishing Spinozistic views; and Lodewijk Meyer, a prominent member of Amsterdam literary circles, who wrote, in 1666, a work entitled Philosophy, Interpreter of Holy Scripture.

Meyer’s work anticipates some of the themes of Spinoza’s Theological-Political Treatise (TPT), though it differs from Spinoza in the solution it proposes. Meyer complains that theologians try to settle their controversies by appeals to scripture but that their interpretations of scripture are so insecurely based that the controversies never end. Meyer thinks Descartes’ work holds the key to ending these debates. He proposes to doubt everything alleged to be the teaching of scripture if it is not based on a solid foundation.

Accepting the Cartesian doctrine that God is not a deceiver, and assuming that the books of the Old and New Testaments are the word of God, Meyer concludes that if a proposed interpretation of scripture conflicts with what philosophy shows to be the truth, we can reject that interpretation as false. This is a modernized version of the Maimonidean approach to scripture that Spinoza rejected in the TPT.

Lodewijk Meyer
Lodewijk Meyer

Evidently Spinoza began writing his earliest philosophical works during this period: almost certainly the never-finished Treatise on the Emendation of the Intellect; probably his Short Treatise on God, Man, and his Well-Being, a systematic presentation of his philosophy, foreshadowing his Ethics, but never put into final form; and an early version of the Theological-Political Treatise, which may have developed out of a defense of his religious opinions he wrote in Spanish, addressed to the synagogue.

The Treatise on the Intellect was first published in his Opera posthuma; the Short Treatise was not discovered until the nineteenth century, in two manuscripts which apparently stem from a Dutch translation of a lost Latin original. The defense to the synagogue has never been found, though it seems possible to infer some of its likely content from the version of the Theological-Political Treatise published in 1670.

The Short Treatise on God, Man, and His Well-being

It is clear that Spinoza intended the Treatise on the Emendation of the Intellect as a prelude to a systematic exposition of his philosophy; from the correspondence it seems almost certain that some version of The Short Treatise on God, Man, and His Well-being (ST) was the systematic exposition the TEI was intended to introduce.

Elly Tran Ha

Spinoza probably began writing it while he was still living in Amsterdam, but he must have finished it after he moved to Rijnsburg in the summer of 1661, when he apparently sent a copy of the Latin manuscript back to his friends in Amsterdam.

This manuscript would then have been translated into Dutch for the members of his circle who could not read Latin. It is that Dutch manuscript, or manuscripts descended from it, which provides the basis for our knowledge of the ST.

Spinoza was still uncertain about publishing the ST as late as April 1662, when he had already made a start on expounding his philosophy in the geometric style of his Ethics. He had initially written the ST at the request of his friends, but only for private circulation, not publication.

Beautiful asian girl
Latin manuscript

It appears that he sent them the manuscript some time after he moved to Rijnsburg. He hesitated to publish this work because he knew it was theologically unorthodox and he was reluctant to invite the attacks he knew would come from the conservative Calvinist clergy.

The surviving manuscripts present many textual difficulties. Frequently we do not know whether what we are reading is originally from Spinoza’s hand, an addition by an early reader, a mistranslation of the Latin original, or a copyist’s error.

It appears that even in those portions of the manuscripts we can confidently ascribe to Spinoza, the views he holds, or the ways he expresses or argues for those views, reflect an early, formative stage of his thought. There also seem to be different strata in the manuscripts themselves, reflecting different stages in his thought. Often the argument is quite obscure.

Bagan, Myanmar
Peter Balling

In spite of these difficulties, the ST can be very instructive. Many of the central theses of the Ethics are already present in this work; it is interesting to see the form they take here. Like Descartes, Spinoza holds that God exists necessarily.

He accepts versions of the ontological and causal arguments Descartes had used to prove this in the Meditations. The work does not yet have the distinctively Spinozistic arguments used in the Ethics. He defines God as a being consisting of infinite attributes, each perfect in its kind.

This is not a definition Descartes had explicitly given, though it is one he might have accepted. From the correspondence we know Spinoza thought it followed from the definition Descartes did give, that God is by definition a supremely perfect being.

Jan Rieuwertsz
Jan Rieuwertsz

Unlike Descartes, and anticipating the Ethics (though often with different arguments), Spinoza contends that no substance can be finite; that there are no two substances of the same kind; that one substance cannot produce another; that God is an immanent cause; that both thought and extension are attributes of God; that man is not a substance, but a mode of substance; that the human soul (or mind) is a mode of thought, the idea of its body, which is, a mode of extension.

Spinoza also argues in this work for theses which appear in the Ethics without argument, such as the identification of God with Nature. Early in the ST he contends that, because no attributes can exist in the divine intellect which do not exist in Nature, Nature must be a being which consists of infinite attributes, each perfect in its kind. So Nature satisfies the definition of God.

The identification of God with Nature and the claim that God is an extended substance are only two of several claims Spinoza makes in this work which he might have expected to arouse theological opposition.

Peaceful Sunset
Adriaan Koerbagh

Also provocative are his contentions that because God is supremely perfect, he could not omit doing what he does; and that the properties of God commonly included in lists of his attributes—omnipotence, omniscience, eternity, simplicity, and so on—are not, strictly speaking, divine attributes, which tell us what God is in himself, but only modes, which can be attributed to him in virtue of some or all of his attributes.

Omniscience, for example, presupposes thought; so it must be a mode, not an attribute; but it applies to God only in virtue of the attribute of thought, not in virtue of the attribute of extension. Eternity, on the other hand, would apply to God in virtue of all of his attributes.

But it is not an attribute, because it does not tell us what God is. It only tells us something about the manner of God’s existence, that he exists timelessly and immutably. Spinoza also argues that, because God is omnipotent, he does not give laws to men which they are capable of breaking (who could disobey the will of an omnipotent being?); that he does not love or hate his creatures; and that he does not make himself known to man through words, miracles, or any other finite things.

Spectrum of color.
University of Leiden

The God of the ST, like the God of the Ethics, is a philosopher’s God, an eternal first cause of all things, quite remote from the God who revealed himself to the Jews through his prophets, chose them as his people, performed miracles on their behalf, rewarded them when they obeyed his laws, and punished them when they disobeyed.

Presumably something like this is what Spinoza meant when he said to the elders of the synagogue that God exists “only philosophically” and that the law of Moses is not a true law, that it does not, as Judaism supposes, represent a divine command which people may either obey or disobey at their peril.

If there is no divine law which is binding on us, how, then, should we conduct ourselves? Here Spinoza develops at considerable length a theme he only hinted at it in the TEI: that we must set aside worldly goods to seek a good which can give us joy unmixed with sadness, transferring our love for finite, transitory things to something eternal and infinite, perfecting our nature by acquiring knowledge of “the union the mind has with the whole of nature.” Progressing towards this perfection requires us to rid ourselves of irrational passions, which depend on the lowest form of cognition, opinion.

acquiring knowledge
acquiring knowledge

Like the Ethics, the ST (normally) counts three forms of cognition, not the four counted in the TEI. The first, opinion, combines the first two forms of perception enumerated in the TEI: beliefs we form on the basis of what others have told us and beliefs based on what the TEI called “random experience.”

As an example of an irrational passion based on opinion, Spinoza offers the hatred which Jews, Christians, and Muslims often have for one another, based on unreliable reports about the others’ religions and customs, and/or hasty generalizations from an inadequate acquaintance with members of the other religion. ‘Opinion’ in the ST corresponds to what Spinoza calls ‘imagination’ in the Ethics.

We can make progress towards overcoming these irrational passions if we pass from opinion to what the ST sometimes calls ‘belief ’ and sometimes calls ‘true belief.’ However designated, this stage of cognition involves more than what the phrases suggest: in Spinoza’s usage ‘true belief ’ implies not only that the belief is true but that the believer has a firm rational basis for it.

irrational passions - Ngọc Quyên
irrational passions

True belief, the second of three modes of cognition in the ST, is equivalent to the third of the four modes of cognition in the TEI (and to what Spinoza calls ‘reason’ in the Ethics). So it would involve rational demonstration from certain premises.

How does true belief enable us to overcome our irrational passions? Partly, it seems, by eliminating beliefs formed through unreliable ways of perceiving things, but partly also by enabling us to recognize that man is a part of nature (where this implies that man must follow the laws of nature, that his actions are as necessary as those of any other thing in nature) and partly by teaching us that good and evil are not something inherent in the things we judge to be good and evil, but that they are related to human nature.

The good is what helps us to attain what our intellect conceives to be perfection for a human being; evil is what hinders our attaining it (or does not assist it).

immutable constancy - Homemade Easter Gumdrops
immutable constancy

But as in the TEI, Spinoza does not think this form of cognition can take us all the way to our goal. That requires the highest form, which this work usually calls ‘clear knowledge,’ or ‘science,’ which we achieve when we are not merely convinced by reasons but are aware of and enjoy the thing itself.

If we achieve this kind of knowledge of God, we will come to love Him and be united with Him, as we now love and are united with the body. In our union with Him, we will be released from the body and achieve an eternal and immutable constancy.

This affirmation that we can achieve immortality looks like a startling departure from one of the views for which Spinoza was condemned by the synagogue—that the soul dies with the body. In other respects the ST seems to remain committed to the early heresies and to enable us to understand Spinoza’s reasons for holding them.

personal immortality
personal immortality

In this instance, it looks as though Spinoza has reverted to what his community regarded as orthodox belief. But as we will see when we come to the Ethics, it does not appear that the ‘immortality’ Spinoza allows is a personal immortality.

In the preceding section we noted a puzzle about Spinoza’s early metaphysics: How are the “first elements of the whole of nature,” which the TEI said were the “source and origin of nature,” related to the categories of Spinoza’s later metaphysics?

If the first elements are “uncreated things,” then Spinoza’s theory of definition in the TEI implies that they exist in themselves, which would mean that they are substances. But the first elements are evidently many; and there is supposed to be only one substance.

first elements - Rola Takizawa
first elements

In the ST the answer appears to be that the first elements of nature are the attributes, which Spinoza defines as existing through themselves and known through themselves, in contrast with the modes, which exist through and are understood through the attributes of which they are modes.

So the attributes taken individually satisfy the definition of substance that Spinoza will give in the Ethics. The reason there is nevertheless only one substance is that the many attributes are attributes of one being, God or Nature.

individually satisfy - 深田恭子 Kyoko Fukada
individually satisfy

The ST also tells us what the other “fixed and eternal” things of the TEI might be. Here for the first time Spinoza makes his distinction between natura naturans, defined as a being we conceive clearly and distinctly through itself (all the attributes, or God), and natura naturata, the modes which depend on and are understood through God.

He divides natura naturata into universal and particular modes, identifying only one universal mode in each attribute: motion in extension and intellect in thought. These he describes as infinite, eternal, and immutable, proceeding immediately from God, and in turn the cause of the particular modes, which are ‘corruptible’: they are changeable, have a beginning, and will have an end.

fixed and eternal - Gemma Atkinson
fixed and eternal

The idea underlying the identification of motion as a “universal” mode of extension is that, in accordance with the mechanistic program of the new philosophy, the particular properties of individual extended objects are a function of the different degrees of motion of their component parts.

Rijnsburg Years (1661–1663)

By mid-summer of 1661 Spinoza had moved to Rijnsburg, a quiet village near Leiden, which had been the center of the Collegiant sect. The extant correspondence begins during this period, so we are much better informed about these years in Spinoza’s life.

Rijnsburg Years
Rijnsburg Years

Much of the correspondence is with his Amsterdam friends, but his correspondents also include Henry Oldenburg, who became the first secretary of the nascent Royal Society, and Robert Boyle, the British chemist and advocate of the mechanical philosophy. By the fall Spinoza had begun to put his philosophy into geometric form.

An early experiment with a geometric presentation appears as an appendix to the ST; another version can be reconstructed from the correspondence with Oldenburg, whom Spinoza had sent a draft which improved on the draft in the appendix of the ST.

Henry Oldenburg - A Superwoman
Henry Oldenburg

In the following year, Spinoza undertook to teach Cartesian philosophy to a student named Casearius. He prepared for Casearius a geometric presentation of Part II of Descartes’ Principles of Philosophy, which deals with the foundations of Cartesian physics, along with some thoughts on topics in metaphysics.

When his friends learned of this work, they urged him to add to it a geometric presentation of Part I of Descartes’ Principles; Lodewijk Meyer offered to write a preface for the work and help him polish it for publication. Spinoza agreed, hoping that by establishing himself as an expert in Cartesian philosophy, he would ease the way toward the publication of his own ideas.

Beautiful bicycle queen
Robert Boyle
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