About Spinoza, the man – his life (briefly)


Durant, "The Story of Philosophy;" Pollock, "Spinoza: His Life and Philosophy;" Goldstein, "Betraying Spinoza;" Nadler, "Spinoza: a Life;" Spinoza, "The Letters" (Trans. Shirley)

In 1632, when Spinoza was born in Amsterdam, the Netherlands was a republic just barely able to maintain its freedom against the warring kingdoms of France, England and Spain. It was a haven for Spanish and Portuguese Jews who fled from the torture and burnings of the Inquisition. Son of a merchant Spinoza was the darling of the synagogue for his intelligence and the depth of his learning. After his father died he briefly took up the business but gradually his anti-religious views became known and in 1656 he was excommunicated from the Jewish congregation. His family and all Jews were forbidden to come within three feet of him, nor speak with him, nor read anything he wrote.

He went to live with a tolerant Christian family near Amsterdam, earning a meager living grinding lenses. He lived quietly working at his lathe during the day and at his writings at night. His reputation grew via a small group of intellectuals who gathered to learn his modern way of looking at the world. He met and then corresponded with Heinrich Oldenberg, secretary to the Royal Society of London. Spinoza learned Latin and read the latest in European scholarship. He published a book explaining the philosophy of Rene Descartes although he disagreed with the basis of it. The book was widely read. In 1670 he anonymously published his Tractatus Theologico-Politicus which was roundly denounced as "the work of the devil" for its criticism of Judaism and all organized religion. His rational approach to the Bible began the field of Biblical scholarship. In the book he argued against the existence of miracles and any special status of the Jewish people. He discussed the various kinds of government. His position was against monarchy which could lead to tyranny and for representative government and freedom of the individual. Four years after its publication the book was banned by the state. Offered money from rich friends and a professorship at the University at Heidelberg he declined both as interfering with his work.

Spinoza gave up any idea of publishing his major work, the Ethics. He locked it in his desk drawer. Along with his other writings it was published by his friends after his death from lung disease in 1677.

Spinoza gave us the modern way of looking at the world as a place without anything supernatural; a universe of natural law; of strict cause and effect. Above all he believed in the power of reason.