BENEDICT DE SPINOZA (1632-1677)

"Nothing therefore happens in nature which is contrary to its universal laws. Nor does anything happen which does not agree with those laws or does not follow from them. For whatever happens, happens by God's will and eternal decree, that is...whatever happens according to rules which involve eternal necessity and truth."
--Spinoza, from the Theological-Political Treatise

Benedict de Spinoza is a great Dutch philosopher who was raised in the Jewish community in Holland. He was enormously influenced by Jewish medieval philosophy and the philosophies of Hobbes and Descartes. His philosophical system involves revolutionary twists on all of these. Against Descartes (and a whole great tradition) Spinoza denied that the creator and the creation are distinct substances. Against Descartes, Spinoza argued that the definition of substance makes it impossible for the mind and the body to be distinct substances. The definition of substance requires that there can be only a single substance. So, mind and body are modes of that single substance.

Spinoza shares with Hobbes a powerful negative analysis of popular religion and the view that an individual operates in their own self interest. Spinoza, however, gives this last doctrine a remarkable twist. He argues that the chief good of human life is knowledge of God and that this is open to everyone. To best achieve this goal we need to cooperate in various ways. So Hobbes' egoism is transformed into a doctrine of cooperation.

Links to Spinoza sites


Spinoza Time Line

1632November 24, Born in Amsterdam to Michael de Spinoza, a prosperous merchant and Warden of both the synagogue and the Amsterdam Jewish school who had come to Holland from Spain as a child to seek refuge in the Jewish colony there.

Little is known of Spinoza's early years except that he studied at the Amsterdam Jewish school where he learned Hebrew and was instructed in Jewish Orthodoxy as it was his father's wish for him to become a Rabbi.

1652Approximate date for his tutelage under Frances Van den Enden from whom he learns Latin, is instructed in scholastic philosophy and is introduced to the philosophy of Descartes.
1654Upon his father's death his sister Rebekah tries to block his inheritance but he takes her to court, wins the case and then renounces the inheritance. His growing frustration with the Jewish community compels him to leave and move in with Van den Enden and he begins teaching in Van den Enden's school which is known as a institution of free enquiry.
1656July 27, Spinoza is excommunicated from the Jewish faith for his unorthodox speculations and association with free thinkers. The declaration against him read as follows:
1656-60 After his return to Amsterdam, supports himself by giving lessons on Cartesian philosophy and grinding lenses. Writes the Short Treatise on God, Man and his Well-being, a crude expression of his later philosophy.
1660Moves to Rijnsburg and enjoys the company of Cartesian scholars from the nearby University of Leyden and his reputation as a philosopher grows. Perhaps he studies at the University as well. Composes first part of Principles in Cartesian Philosophy and begins work on the Ethics.
1663Moves to Voorburg but on the way stops in Amsterdam where his friends persuade him to complete and publish Principles in Cartesian Philosophy. It is the only work published in his lifetime in his own name and was highly praised among the learned increasing his reputation as one of the foremost philosophers of his generation. While in Voorburg he carries on correspondence with many of the most important intellectuals of Europe including Henry Oldenburg, Leibniz, and Ludwig von Tschirnhausen.
1670Moves to the Hague where he is supported by a small pension from his close friend Jan de Witt, the Grand Pensionary of the Netherlands. Publishes anonymously Theologico-Political Treatise which is banned four years later because its advocacy of toleration threatens the current political and religious authorities.
1672August 20, Jan de Witt and his brother are beaten to death by an angry crowd incited by accusations that de Witt is at fault for the current occupation by the French military. Spinoza was so outraged that his friends had to lock him in his house to keep him from running out into the crowd with a sign declaring them the ultimate barbarians which would have surely brought about his own death.
1673Is offered a professorship at Heidelberg but declines it due to concerns over his academic freedom.
1675 Finishes the Ethics and prepares 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.
1677 February 21, dies of a lung ailment complicated by the glass dust from his lens grinding. A few months later his friends publish the Ethics, a collection Of his correspondence, and three other works: Treatise on the Emendation of the Intellect, Political Treatise, and a Hebrew Grammar.

Time Line Sources

Bibliography

  • Ethics
  • Treatise on the Improvement of the Understanding
  • Treatise on God, Man and His Well-Being
  • Principles of Cartesian Philosophy
  • Metaphysical Thoughts
  • Theologico-Political Treatise
  • Political Treatise
  • Hebrew Grammar
  • Correspondence
  • "On the Rainbow"
  • "On the Calculation of Chances"

Where next?

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