PHL302 Background

Ports of Call



Spinoza and Two Views of God

First Sightings

Readings for this part of your journey

Appendix to Book I of The Ethics in your course packet

The Ethics

Benedict de Spinoza
In this section of the course we are going to explore a brief section from Benedict de Spinoza's (1632-1677) Ethics. In this substantial work (it runs to a bit over 200 pages) Spinoza sets forth his system of philosophy in geometrical form. In order to really read the Ethics effectively requires some preparatory reading. Unfortunately, we do not have the time for such an effort. Instead, we are going to read the Appendix to Book I of the Ethics along with a guide to key points provided by Captain Bill. Before turning to this material, however, we should consider a bit about Spinoza and the world in which he grew up.

The Dutch Republic

Harbour of Amsterdam
in the 17th century
Baruch de Spinoza was born on November 24, 1632. His father was a prominent member of the Jewish community in Amsterdam. This community was largely made up of descendants of refugees from the Spanish expulsion of the Jews in 1492. The Jews were welcomed because they were fellow suffers under Spanish tyranny.

The Netherlands had revolted against Spain in 1579, when the seven north provinces had combined in the Union of Utrecht and sought the protection of William I of Orange. Among the causes of the revolt were the advances made by the Reformation, and the desire to establish sufficient freedom to allow the reformed churches to exist. The Union of Utrecht had proposed to establish a purely secular government which would allow religious toleration. Still, the Southern provinces had stayed loyal to Spain, and retained the Roman Catholic religion. The Spanish threat from the Southern provinces was popularly conceived in religious terms. Catholics were persecuted in the Dutch Republic much as the Marranos (the Jews who had been forcibly converted to Christianity) were in Spain. The war with Spain continued off and on until the peace of Munster in 1648.

The nation which came into being in the course of this struggle came to be known as the Dutch Republic was a loose confederation of medieval cities, represented by the Estates General. Nominally above them, but also appointed by them, was the Stadtholder. Partly out of gratitude to William, and partly for convenience and continuity, the office of Stadtholder was conferred on the House of Orange.

The Calvinist Church gained ascendancy, maneuvering itself in to supreme political and religious authority in the Dutch Republic. The doctrine of predestination rapidly became a matter of religious orthodoxy which had to be defended from unbelievers. The followers of Arminius, a professor of theology at Leyden, refused to accept these propositions of the Calvinist doctrine, which seemed to fly in the face of reason, and issued a 'Remonstrance' in 1610, setting forth their dissident opinions, and calling on the Estates General to uphold their freedom of worship and opinion which had been guaranteed at Utrecht. The Statholder, Prince Maurice of Orange, declared against the Remonstrants, and those who spoke out in favor of religious freedom, began to feel the hand of established power. Hugo Grotius, the greatest Dutch jurist of the time, who played an important role in the establishment of international law, was sentenced to life imprisonment, from which he escaped into exile. The Synod of Dort in 1619 defined the Dutch Church as a 'community of the elect' thus making Calvinism the official religion of the Dutch Republic and authorizing the purging of universities and other places of influence. Nevertheless as Roger Scruton puts it:

...the new church was unable to suppress the thoughts which disturbed it. Partly on account of the loose structure of the Republic--in which the undefined powers of Estates General and Stadtholder could not be combined into a single minded tyranny-- and partly on account of the legacy of Utrecht, with its declared ideal of a purely secular government, the spirit of toleration continued to breathe, and those Remonstrants who were content to establish themselves apart were allowed to live in relative tranquillity. At the same time, there flourished around them an equally remarkable, and for us more interesting, defiance of the Calvinist spirit; the art and culture of the Netherlands, in which man's relation to the world of objects, and to his own physical life, became the subject of a profound spiritual interrogation. (Scruton, Spinoza, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1986 Pg. 4)

It was into this community that the Jews driven out from Spain and Portugal were welcomed as fellow sufferers from Spanish tyranny. They seemed less threatening than the dissenting sects which called themselves Christian without accepting Calvinist doctrines. The new Jewish community flourished, but had in it conflicts and tensions of its own.

Baruch De Spinoza

Spinoza spoke Dutch fluently, and Portuguese at home. He knew Spanish as this was the language of the refugees; and since his education was dominated by the traditional studies of the Torah and the Talmud, he learned Hebrew at school. Spinoza, unlike most other European philosophers, grew up with the medieval Jewish philosophical tradition. Later he would learn Latin and study the Scholastic and Cartesian traditions. His Gentile mentor in these philosophies was Francis Van den Enden who was well versed in both. Cartesianism opened Spinoza's eyes to a whole new world alien to his rabbinical teachers. Spinoza became increasing dissatisfied with what he regarded as the rigid dogmatism of the Jewish community. After a legal conflict with his sister over a legacy from their father, (which Spinoza won -- and then renounced!) Spinoza changed his named to Benedict (a Christianized version of his Hebrew name) and went to teach in Frances Van den Enden's school. The intellectual gap between Spinoza and the Jewsish community continued to grow, and in 1656 at the age of 24, Spinoza was accused of heresy, cursed and expelled from the synagogue.
Spinoza's house in Rijnsburg
He was also briefly expelled from Amsterdam, but returned and until 1660 made a living by teaching Cartesian philosophy. During this period Spinoza wrote the Short Treatise on God, Man and his well being.

In the years after his expulsion, Spinoza learned the skill of lens grinding, and most of his income came from this source. His interest in philosophy increased, and when he moved to Rijnsburg in the countryside near Leiden, he had developed a number of close friends with whom he corresponded and discussed his ethical, metaphysical and scientific ideas. His fame as a learned man had spread and he began to receive visits from people eager to discuss scientific and philosophical questions. One of these was Henry Oldenburg (1615?-1677) who was to become the first secretary of the British Royal Society.
Spinoza's workroom
in Rijnsburg
Spinoza began writing the Principles of Cartesian Philosophy and began work on the Ethics. He finished the Principles in Amsterdam (on the way to his new home in Voorburg) where his friends had urged him to complete and publish it. This was, in fact, the only work which Spinoza published under his own name in his lifetime. It was a geometrical exposition of the Cartesian system, with an appendix expressing Spinoza's own metaphysical views, and a preface by Lodewikj Meyer which explained that Spinoza did not agree with all of the Cartesian arguments. Indeed his geometrical exposition laid bare its defects.

In Voorburg, Spinoza continued working on the Ethics and continued his conversations and correspondence with scientists and philosophers.
Christian Huygens
He met Christian Huygens, an extraordinarily accomplished scientist and mathematician, and Jan de Witt who held the post of Grand Pensionary of the Dutch Republic. Jan de Witt was an energetic defender of the principles of religious tolerance and free speech. Political controversies surrounding the first Anglo-Dutch War of 1652-4 led to debates about the nature of the state, and the desirability of free speech and free worship.
Jan De Witt
Spinoza's friendship with de Witt led him to write the Theologico-Politico Treatise which he published anonymously. This work is a strong defense of secular government, religious tolerance, and constitutional government. The work was condemned by the Synod of Dort in 1673, and formally banned in 1674.

In 1671 Charles II of England joined forces with Louis XIV of France against the Dutch Republic. War was declared in 1672 and 120,000 French troops marched into the Netherlands. The people, in a state of panic, blamed this disaster on Jan de Witt and looked to the House of Orange for salvation. The Orangists did nothing to quell the rumors of de Witt's treachery, and on the 20th of August, 1672, Jan de Witt and his brother were seized at the Hague and beaten to death by an angry crowd. Hearing of this outrage, Spinoza was going to sally forth to the scene carrying a sign denouncing the assassinations, but was prevented by his landlord and friend.

In 1673 Spinoza turned down an offer of a pension from the King of France (Spinoza was visiting the French forces on a fruitless mission of peace) in return for dedicating a book to the king. Spinoza also turned down an offer of a professorship at the University of Heidelberg, fearing it would compromise his independence and tranquillity. Spinoza moved to the Hague.

G. Leibniz
In 1675 Spinoza finished the Ethics and was preparing it to have it published when a rumor began spreading that he was about to publish a book which sought to show there was no God. The reaction to this rumor forces Spinoza to put off publication. In October 1676 Leibniz, who had left Paris and was returning to Germany via England (where he was elected a member of the English Royal Society) came to Amsterdam, where he spent four weeks with Spinoza's friend and disciple Schuller.
The room in which
Spinoza died
In 1675 Leibniz had met Count Tschirnhausen, who was one of Spinoza's most intelligent and critical correspondents. Tschinrnhausen had introduced Leibniz to Spinoza's work. In November 1676 Leibniz met Spinoza at the Hague and pointed out some fundamental mistakes in Cartesian mechanics. In return, he was allowed to see some parts of the Ethics. Spinoza and Leibniz share many basic assumptions in common, but come to quite opposed views. Later Leibniz was to be very critical of Spinoza's philosophy.

On February 21, 1677 Spinoza died of a lung ailment complicated by the glass dust from his lens grinding. A few months later his friends published the Ethics,Treatise on the Emendation of the Intellect, Political Treatise, and a Hebrew Grammar.


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