Baruch de Spinoza, Portrait c. 1665
Along with Descartes and Leibniz, Spinoza is considered on of the great rationalist philosophers of the seventeenth century.
Spinoza, Baruch or Benedict
1632–77, Dutch philosopher, b. Amsterdam.
He belonged to the community of Jews from Spain and Portugal who had fled the Inquisition. Educated in the orthodox Jewish manner, he also studied Latin and the works of René Descartes, Thomas Hobbes, and other writers of the period, and also had a thorough grounding in scholastic theology and philosophy. His independence of thought led to his excommunication from the Jewish group in 1656; at about that time he abandoned the Hebrew form of his name, Baruch, for the Latin form, Benedict. Until about 1660, Spinoza lived in or near Amsterdam, and afterward he lived in Rijnsburg, Voorburg, and The Hague. He was a lens grinder of great skill, but this activity was probably more related to his scientific interests than to any economic necessity. With his needs largely provided for by a series of grants, pensions, and bequests, he lived modestly, devoting much of his time to the development of his philosophy. Spinoza became known in spite of his retiring mode of life; he had wide correspondence and was visited by other philosophers. In 1673, he was offered a professorship at Heidelberg, but he elected to retain his peaceful life and especially his independence of thought. He died of tuberculosis, apparently aggravated by his inhaling glass dust from lens grinding. Through Gotthold Lessing, Johann Gottfried von Herder, and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Spinoza influenced German idealism. During his lifetime and for a period afterward, however, his pantheism was regarded as blasphemous, which is one reason why most of his writing was published after his death.
His major works, virtually all of which are available in English translation, include a rewording (1663) of part of Descartes's work, A Treatise on Religious and Political Philosophy (1670, the only example of his own thought published in his lifetime), and his important Ethics, probably finished in 1665 but published posthumously (1677). His Opera Posthuma (1677) also include his Political Treatise, Treatise on the Improvement of Understanding, Letters, and Hebrew Grammar. He began a translation of the Hebrew Bible and was one of the first to raise questions of higher criticism of the Bible.
Spinoza's philosophy is deductive, rational, and monist. He shares with Descartes an intensely mathematical appreciation of the universe: Things make sense when understood in relation to a total structure; truth, like geometry, follows from first principles with a logic accessible and evident to man's mind. Whereas for Descartes mind and body are different substances, Spinoza holds that the two are different aspects of a single substance, which he called alternately God and Nature. Just as the mind is not substantially alien to the body, so Nature is not the product or agency of a supernatural God. The universe is a single substance, capable of an infinity of attributes, but known through two of them: physical "extension" and "thought." God is not the creator of a Nature beyond himself; God is Nature in its fullness. Spinoza's rationalism, unlike that of later idealists, does not proceed at the expense of empirical observation. "Adequate ideas" are a coherent logical association of physical experiences. When ideas are confused or contradictory it is not because they are false (in the sense of contrary to fact) but because they are incomplete or improperly related to the totality of experience.
Spinoza's ethics proceed from a premise similar to that of Hobbes—that men call "good" whatever gives them pleasure—but they reach very different conclusions. Human beings, indeed all of Nature, share a common drive for self-preservation, the conatus sese conservandi. By this drive all individuals seek to maintain the power of their being, and in this sense virtue and power are one. But in Spinoza's system power is discovered to be a knowledge of necessity. Powerful, or virtuous, persons act because they understand why they must; others act because they cannot help themselves. To be free is to be guided by the law of one's own nature (which in Spinoza's rational universe is never at variance with the law of another nature); bondage consists in being moved by causes of which we are unaware because our ideas are confused. Another important feature of Spinoza's ethical system is his view of the intellect as active. He rejects the distinction between reason and will that assumes that ideas can be passively entertained. All thinking is action, and all action has its accompaniment in thought. What accounts for action is not an agency (the will) beyond the intellect, but ideas. Ideas are active and move us to act; an absence of action may be accounted an absence of insight: knowledge, virtue, and power are one.
Politically, Spinoza and Hobbes again share assumptions about the social contract: Right derives from power, and the contract binds only as long as it is to one's advantage. The important difference between the two men is their understanding of the ends of the system: for Hobbes advantage lies in satisfying as many desires as possible, for Spinoza advantage lies in an escape from those desires through understanding. Put another way, Hobbes does not imagine a community of individuals whose desires can be consistently satisfied, so repression is always necessary; Spinoza can imagine such a community and such consistent satisfaction, so in his political and religious thought the notion of freedom, especially freedom of inquiry, is basic.
From Spinoza, Baruch or Benedict, The Columbia Encyclopedia, 2008. EBOOK via CLIO.
Gemäldesammlung der Herzog-August-Bibliothek, Wolfenbüttel, Germany, via Wikimedia commons.