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Philosophy of Spinoza

By Descartes, Ethics, Kabbalah, Leibniz, Maimonides, Robert Boyle
Baruch (Benedict) Spinoza (1632-77) was born at Amsterdam into a Portuguese Jewish merchant family. While still a young man, he was banished from the Sephardic community in Amsterdam, apparently because of his heretical views. He lived in the Christian world as an artisan, grinding optical lenses. His Ethics eventually became a classic of Western philosophy. 
A sceptical idea is associated with Spinoza’s early years at Amsterdam (Nadler 2002), i.e., the soul is mortal and dies with the body. In contrast, Maimonides and Gersonides (both Aristotelians) believed that the soul can live on after death, while retaining only intellectual faculties. Avoidance of “personal immortality” and damnation bears a close resemblance to the “acquired intellect” theory expressed many centuries earlier by Alexander of Aphrodisias. (1) 
The Ethics is proof that Spinoza was not a sceptical materialist. He was scorned and hailed as an atheist for generations, even though he clearly stated that nothing exists in the universe but God. His “naturalist metaphysics” is not the easiest subject to comprehend. Varying contemporary interpretations are in evidence. (2) The diversity in this respect is notorious. “There seem to be as many Spinozas as there are audiences seeking to appropriate him for their philosophical, political, or religious ends” (Nadler 2014:2). Caution is evidently required. 

In philosophy Spinoza is said to be a Cartesian, a Hobbesian, a Platonist, an Aristotelian, a Stoic, and a Machiavellian, among other persuasions. He is also a socialist, a Zionist, an anarchist, a Jeffersonian republican, the source of the Radical Enlightenment, and so on. (Nadler 2014:2) 

Spinoza was early identified with Kabbalism, as found in two books by Johann G. Wachter dating to 1699 and 1706. (3) More recent commentators prefer Maimonides as a point of orientation, while some affinities have been charted with other medieval Jewish authors like Hasdai Crescas (Manekin 2014). Both Crescas (4) and Spinoza were determinists. Spinoza did not accept freewill, rejecting beliefs in divine reward and punishment.
The Ethics is not a Kabbalistic text, exhibiting the framework of a mathematical treatise, conveying a strong rationalist complexion to the argument. Nevertheless, there are very substantial differences from Descartes, with whom the Neo-Cartesian  author is so often associated. 
Spinoza radically altered the Cartesian perspective by rejecting the three-substance view. (5) There is only one substance in the Spinozan universe; everything is God. His well known phrase “God, or Nature” (Deus, sive Natura) is easily subject to misreadings.
Spinoza was averse to anthropomorphism, avoiding what he considered to be superstitions. (6) He did not believe in miracles. (7) Spinoza was in reaction to the Calvinist preachers who routinely invoked “the will of God” and related clauses as a judgment against heretics. His exposition avoided creationism. Human beings are caught in a system of cause and effect that is independent of any divine providence.

The Ethics is an ambitious and multifaceted work…. Despite a dearth of explicit references to past thinkers, the book exhibits enormous erudition. Spinoza’s knowledge of classical, medieval, Renaissance, and modern authors – pagan, Christian, and Jewish – is evident throughout. Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics, Maimonides, Bacon, Descartes, and Hobbes (among others) all belong to the intellectual background of this work. At the same time, it is one of the most radically original treatises in the history of philosophy. It is also one of the most difficult. (8) 

Tracking the influences upon Spinoza is relevant. His account of the world “is possibly the strongest statement of pantheism of the time with no sign of mystical overtones” (Popkin:81). His pantheism emerges as an x factor. Pantheism is an eighteenth century word, referring to a doctrine in which God is identified with nature. Spinoza is known to have read mystical versions of pantheism available in his time. According to the late Richard H. Popkin, this means three possible sources of pantheism, one of these being a confirmed influence upon Spinoza.
Firstly, the sixteenth century poet Leone Ebreo (d.1523), a Spanish Jew whose Dialoghi di Amore is described as Neoplatonist. Ebreo (Abrabanel) gave expression to “two of Spinoza’s great goals in intellectual life: that of seeing the world in the aspect of eternity and that of achieving the intellectual love of God.” (9)
Secondly, the tragic figure of Giordano Bruno (d.1600), who was burned at the stake by the Inquisition. Bruno is strongly associated with Hermetic lore, a factor in Renaissance thought which was opposed by Marin Mersenne, a Catholic churchman and the major correspondent of Descartes. Spinoza was not a Hermetic enthusiast, but he may well have been sympathetic to the fate of a heretic.
Thirdly, Spinoza “may have been attracted to the philosophical kabbalism of Herrera or at least was willing to use something of it without taking anything from what he regarded as the lunatic fringe of kabbalism.” (10) This possibility is associated with the strong transition in the Ethics to what Spinoza called the third kind of knowledge, meaning intuitive apprehension (scientia intuitiva). In contrast, the first and second kinds of knowledge are sensory experience (or imagination) and reason.
Some writers affirm that Spinozan “intuitive” knowledge is something deductive or reductive. This is not conclusive evidence. Spinoza says: “From this kind of [intuitive] knowledge there arises the greatest satisfaction of mind there can be, that is, joy” (Curley 1996:175). He also supplies the consideration: “How much more powerful it [intuitive knowledge] is than the universal knowledge I have called knowledge of the second kind” (ibid:177). What perishes with the body is the first kind of knowledge, which “is of no moment in relation to what remains” (ibid:178). This is why cultivation of the second and third kinds of knowledge is so important, transcending the sensory world and resisting disintegration. 
Spinoza means that the sensory imagination does not remain after death, whereas the refined mind does endure. This factor is related to his theme that the affects (i.e., affections of the body) and emotions can be controlled by the mind, or “power of the intellect.”
On the basis of the first two kinds of knowledge, Spinoza might appear to be an exceptional Cartesian, or alternatively, a logical panpsychist. However, he was evidently aiming at something that is not found in the Cartesian repertory. He also did not agree with the Kabbalah occultists. “Spinoza really objected to the people who were finding all sorts of divine clues in the numerology, typography, and diacritical signs in the biblical text” (Popkin 2004:82). These fantasies were distractions from the third kind of knowledge, which has been interpreted in terms of “the culmination of the human quest for understanding that is only reached at the end of one’s philosophical journey, the intellectual love of God” (ibid:96).
The pedigree of amor Dei intellectualis is complex. The phrase is elevated in Ethics Part Five, being shown to derive from the treatment by Maimonides in his Guide for the Perplexed. The terminology involved has been traced to the sequence of Al-Farabi, Ibn Sina, Maimonides, Gersonides, and thus to Spinoza, who is credited with making the strongest effort to endow this concept with philosophical clarity (Harvey 2014). The theme of an intellectual passion goes back even earlier, and is associated with Aristotle.
Platonist influences have been invoked via scientia intuitiva. This means Plotinus, Renaissance Platonists like Ficino and Ebreo, and the eclectic Herrera. Spinoza owned a Spanish version of Ebreo’s Dialoghi, and he attended Talmud school in the same synagogue frequented by Herrera. The accusation is made that diverse interpretations of Spinoza’s “naturalised” philosophy have failed to understand Platonist elements, which were so pervasively influential in his day (Zovko PDF:1-2). 
Although Spinoza was strongly pitched against orthodox religious dogma, he was nothing of a sceptic. His outlook was “possibly the furthest removed from scepticism of any of the new philosophies of the seventeenth century.” (11) 
Spinoza did not finish the Ethics until 1675. In the early 1660s, he was visited at Rijnsburg by Henry Oldenburg, subsequently the prestigious Secretary of the Royal Society. Their correspondence continued until the end of Spinoza’s life. Oldenburg became resentful that the Jewish thinker rejected Christian beliefs involving supernatural events. Spinoza did respect Jesus, without viewing him in the conventional religious manner. (12)
The wealthy patron of Oldenburg was Sir Robert Boyle (d.1691), a chemist considered to be one of the greatest scientists in Britain. Oldenburg was eager to put Spinoza in epistolary contact with Boyle. This arrangement did not work as he had imagined. Five letters between Boyle and Spinoza, with Oldenburg as intermediary, give indication of strong differences. Oldenburg sent Spinoza a copy of Boyle’s Physiological Essays (1661). Spinoza responded by strongly criticising Boyle’s interpretation of his experiments on fluidity and firmness, and on nitre. This has been considered impertinent by empiricists and critics. However, “we ought to look afresh at Spinoza’s insistence on the epistemological insufficiencies of the experimental way.” (13) 
Spinoza was not an empiricist in the manner of Descartes. He did not trust the increasing vogue for experiments, even though he did take an interest in what was occurring in different countries. He possessed some scientific ballast in his familiarity with lenses and microscopes, components of which he made and assembled as a type of artisan. Spinoza had grasped that experiments did not always prove what the experimenters claimed. His attitude tended to be very dismissive. Spinoza made a pointed criticism (in his correspondence with Oldenburg) of Francis Bacon, whose inductionism was here considered to be lacking in rational depth.
Unlike Descartes, Spinoza was not a vivisectionist. Boyle was an advocate of vivisection, a practice favoured within the Royal Society. Nevertheless, Spinoza’s view about animals is not satisfactory. An argument is available in Sharp 2011. Many other commentators provide only brief remarks. “Spinoza, contrary to Descartes, sees the modal complex that constitutes a being as both physical and mental” (Popkin 2004:96).” A significant factor needs attention: “Spinoza is, of course, a panpsychist – for him each thing is animate to some degree” (Della Rocca 1996:194).
Spinoza reflected that sentience is not unique to humans. “After we know the origin of the mind, we cannot in any way doubt that the lower animals feel things” (Ethics 3p57s). However, he has been criticised for stating: “The law against killing animals is based more on empty superstition and unmanly compassion than sound reason” (Ethics 4p37s1). The related tenet of using animals “at our pleasure” is not the most ethical. One analysis of this drawback concludes that the argument is valid, while relying heavily on premises that most would be likely to reject (Grey 2013:380). A flaw in Spinozan reasoning is evident.
Overall, there are some discrepancies, ambiguities, and obscurities evident in the Ethics. A well known criticism is that Spinoza, in contrast to Maimonides, elevated self-esteem as the consequence of employing reason, relegating the humility emphasised by the predecessor (Ethics 4p52 and p53). The context relates to his observation that “the mob is terrifying,” therefore the prophets recommended humility and other religious traits for non-philosophers (4p54s).
A different kind of work is the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus (1670), defending freedom of speech and belief. (14) This treatise infuriated the Dutch Reformed Church, meaning the Calvinists. Opponents regarded the Tractatus as “a book forged in hell.” Contemporary analysis reveals this text as being the first to argue that intrinsic religion is independent of theology and liturgical rites, and that religious leaders should not be governors of a modern state (Nadler 2011).
The campaign launched against Spinoza was never systematic enough to achieve total suppression. This development was nevertheless “sufficiently effective to compel Spinoza to adopt the furtive methods of a more or less clandestine author” (Israel 1996:4-5). The Ethics was completed in this oppressive situation, but not published. 
In November 1676, Leibniz visited The Hague, there discussing philosophy with Spinoza on several occasions. Leibniz was shown the unpublished manuscript of Ethics (or parts of this). “Although there is no written record of their conversation, it seems likely that these discussions were among the most rewarding in the whole history of philosophy.” (15) However, Spinoza was apparently at first suspicious of motivation in this case. “The worldly Leibniz was the court intellectual par excellence” (Nadler 1999:341). By comparison, Spinoza was a retiring and independent philosopher with no inclination to a celebrity vocation.
A note by Leibniz relays what he was told about Spinoza by the German mathematician Tschirnhaus, a personal contact of the Jewish philosopher. This note includes the information: 

He [Spinoza] thinks that we will forget most things when we die and retain only those things that we know with the kind of knowledge he calls intuitive, of which only a few are conscious…. He believes [in] a sort of Pythagorical transmigration, namely that minds go from body to body. He says that Christ is the very best philosopher. (16) 

This reference indicates that Spinoza believed in a form of reincarnation. We have no further details of his very obscure outlook in that respect. Transmigration was a Neoplatonist doctrine, and also a theme of Kabbalists in the vocabulary of gilgul. However, there were different versions of gilgul, with many popular superstitions attaching. Spinoza is more generally associated with a “parallelism” of the mind and body. In Ethics Part 2, the mind appears to be inseparable from the body, but Part 5 conveys a different perspective. Spinoza affirms: “The human mind cannot be absolutely destroyed with the body, but something of it remains which is eternal” (Ethics 5p23). Recent commentators have remarked: 

The extent to which the mind is eternal seems to depend on what the human mind does during its embodied existence. The more one knows intuitively, the greater is the eternal part of one’s mind. (Koistinen and Viljanen 2009:22)

As to the significance of the meetings between Leibniz and Spinoza, there is no known sequel. Western philosophy was thereafter increasingly restricted to the academic circuit. The outlook was generally rather more confined than that of either the polymathic Leibniz or the pansychist Spinoza. 
(1)  Adler 2014. Alexander was a Peripatetic whose “views challenged the monotheistic tradition of belief in personal immortality” (ibid:15). Spinoza is thought to have been influenced by the Aristotelian theme, as mediated within the Jewish community of Amsterdam. The challenge is associated with the perspective of “God exists but only philosophically,” attributed to Spinoza and Juan de Prado in Christian sources. Cf. Popkin 2004: 23-4, 42-3, who queries the Nadler version, instead concluding that Spinoza was “moving in a more metaphysical direction” in his later years. Papers of the Spanish Inquisition depict Spinoza and Prado voicing, in 1659, the abovementioned affirmation of a philosophical God. See also Nadler 1999:135-8; Nadler 2011:7-12. Nadler 2002 argues that a crucial feature of Spinoza’s thought was his denial of personal immortality, here inferred as the reason for excommunication. Cf. the review by Martin Lin, who adds that other commentators, such as Alan Donagan and H. A. Wolfson, believed Spinoza to have a “robust notion” of personal immortality. 
(2) The suggestion has been made that Spinoza was an arrogant misogynist, and also a homosexual (Gullan-Whur 1998:142-3). The author of this theory composed a critical biography of Spinoza, advertised by a publisher in terms of: “This new approach demolishes the myth that Spinoza was a lofty ascetic.” A counter can be found in Shepherd 2005, chapter 35. An “ascetic” issue is involved here via Spinoza’s contention at the end of Ethics: “It is clear how much the wise man is capable of, and how much more powerful he is than one who is ignorant and is driven only by lust” (Curley 1996:180). Spinoza has been criticised by some writers for the controversial reference to women in his unfinished Political Treatise. Cf. the lenient tone in Gatens 2009, a feminist work of considerable sophistication.
(3) Wachter was a Protestant theologian familiar with Kabbalah. In his first book he attacked Spinoza and the Kabbalah, later revising his hostile opinion in the Elucidarius Cabalisticus (1706). Wachter urged that Kabbalah influenced Spinoza (Brown 2006:244-5). Wachter’s second book is “a philosophically unconvincing interpretation of Spinozism,” based on firsthand knowledge of sources, though compromised by an intention to reconcile Spinozism with Christian doctrine (Vassanyi 2011:224-233). Leibniz soon after read Wachter’s second book and refuted Spinoza (ibid:233-240).
(4) See Harvey 1998. Hasdai Crescas (1340-1410/11) was a Spanish anti-Aristotelian whose philosophical work Or Hashem (The Light of the Lord) opposed formulations of Maimonides.
(5) Numerous commentators state that Spinoza was influenced by Descartes. Some terminology does converge. However, in terms of ideation, there are pronounced differences. Spinoza early composed a reworking of the Principles of Philosophy by Descartes, an incomplete version which “does not reflect the format of the original” (Gabbey 1996:155). This discrepancy is viewed as an indication of Spinoza’s dissatisfaction with the Cartesian format. In the subsequent Ethics, Spinoza goes far beyond Cartesian maxims. In that work, Spinoza refers to “the celebrated Descartes,” and says they both “believed that the mind has absolute power over its own actions” (Curley 1996:69). Nevertheless, the same passage disagrees with Descartes about the human affects. In this respect, Descartes “showed nothing but the cleverness of his understanding” (ibid). Spinoza also strongly criticises the theory of Descartes about the pineal gland (ibid:161-2).
(6) Spinoza complains that people often compare the power of God with the power of kings. He urges: “No one will be able to perceive rightly the things I maintain unless he takes great care not to confuse God’s power with the human power or right of kings” (Curley 1996:34).
(7)  A well known passage occurs in the Appendix to Part 1 of Ethics, where Spinoza is more direct about superstition and popular religion. “One who seeks the true causes of [ostensible] miracles, and is eager, like an educated man, to understand natural things, not to wonder at them, like a fool, is generally considered an impious heretic and denounced as such by those whom the people honour as interpreters” (Curley 1996:29).
(8) Nadler 1999:226, referring to the “Euclidean architecture of definitions, axioms, postulates, propositions, scholia, and corollaries” for which the Ethics is famous. The geometrical method is daunting for those unacquainted with the format. This has nevertheless been argued in terms of an advantage, bearing “an intimate relationship to the content of Spinoza’s metaphysics and epistemology” (ibid).
(9)  Popkin 2004:18. Spinoza made much of “the intellectual love of God,” especially evocative in one of his scholia found in Ethics: “From this we clearly understand wherein our salvation, or blessedness, or freedom, consists, namely, in a constant and eternal love of God, or in God’s love for men” (Curley 1996:176). Some writers continue to portray Spinoza as an atheist.
(10)  Popkin 2004:81, referring to the pantheism arising from the Luria school, which became known in Amsterdam through the medium of Abraham Cohen Herrera (d.1635). In the Ethics, Spinoza is seen to have employed some terminology from Herrera’s Kabbalistic work Puerta del Cielo (ibid:19,81). Popkin also suggests that a further possible influence was Jacob Boehme, whose mystical doctrine attracted much interest from seventeenth century intellectuals. However, there has been a stronger tendency to associate Spinoza with Kabbalistic influences. For a relevant investigation, see Harvey 2007, focusing upon the work of Moshe Idel, a leading scholar of Kabbalism. “Idel’s Spinoza is not a Kabbalist, but a Jewish philosopher influenced by the medieval Hebrew speculative tradition” (ibid:92). According to Harvey, the arguments of Idel “deserve to be considered seriously” (ibid). See also Idel 1988:20,67, in relation to amor Dei intellectualis.
(11)  Popkin 2004:95, affirming that Spinoza “started his system at the point that others were trying to attain after they overcame the skeptical menace.”
(12)  See Fraenkel 2012:213ff, referring to Spinoza’s philosophical reinterpretation of Christianity, and viewing his well known critique of religion and scripture as a secondary project.
(13)  Gabbey 1996:180. Spinoza evidently believed that sensory knowledge is unreliable, belonging to the imagination (meaning his first kind of knowledge). Whereas the knowledge of causes is the domain of intellect (ibid:177). One pro-Boyle reflection is expressed in terms of: “Few of Spinoza’s specific scientific conclusions, either deductively or experimentally derived, are thought to be of scientific interest” (Gullan-Whur 1998:117).
(14)  See Melamed and Rosenthal 2010. The editorial introduction warns that the Tractatus is a difficult book for the modern reader, especially the philosopher. Spinoza here discusses at length historical and Biblical matters. He was writing for savants, not the general public.
(15)  Jolley 2005:18. Cf. Nadler 1999:340-342, who says: “Their long discussions covered a variety of important philosophical, political, and scientific topics, including the problems inherent in Descartes’s laws of motion and recent events in the Dutch Republic.” Cf. Antognazza 2009:168-9, 177-178, observing that by January 1675, Tschirnhaus had met Spinoza at least once, their contact continuing through correspondence. Leibniz had previously read and disapproved of some parts of the Tractatus. Leibniz “would continue to respect him [Spinoza] as a person even as he disagreed with him as a philosopher” (ibid:168). A year after their meetings, Leibniz wrote in a letter that the metaphysics of Spinoza was “strange and full of paradoxes” (ibid:178).
(16)  Klever 1996:46-47. Baron Ehrenfried Walther von Tschirnhaus was a Cartesian, described by Klever as one of the best friends of Spinoza. “Tschirnhaus credits Spinoza – and this is completely new in comparison with other sources – with a kind of Pythagoreanism, implying that souls in a certain sense transmigrate from one form of matter to another” (ibid:47). Professor Klever adds: “It is likely that the comparison with Pythagoras’s transmigration theory originates from Spinoza himself” (ibid).


Adler, Jacob, “Mortality of the soul from Alexander of Aphrodisias to Spinoza” (13-35) in S. Nadler, ed., Spinoza and Medieval Jewish Philosophy (Cambridge University Press, 2014).
Antognazza, Maria Rosa, Leibniz: An Intellectual Biography (Cambridge University Press, 2009).
Brown, Stuart, and Fox, N. J., Historical Dictionary of Leibniz’s Philosophy (Lanham, Maryland: Scarecrow Press, 2006).
Curley, Edwin, trans., Ethics (London: Penguin, 1996).
Della Rocca, Michael, “Spinoza’s metaphysical psychology” (192-266) in Don Garrett, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Spinoza (Cambridge University Press, 1996).
Fraenkel, Carlos, Philosophical Religions from Plato to Spinoza: Reason, Religion, and Autonomy (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012).
Gabbey, Alan, “Spinoza’s natural science and methodology” (142-191) in Don Garrett, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Spinoza (Cambridge University Press, 1996).
Gatens, Moira, ed., Feminist Interpretations of Benedict Spinoza (Pennsylvania State University Press, 2009).
Grey, John, “Use Them at Our Pleasure: Spinoza on Animal Ethics,” History of Philosophy Quarterly (2013) 30(4):367-388.
Gullan-Whur, Margaret, Within Reason: A Life of Spinoza (London: Jonathan Cape, 1998).
Harvey, Warren Zev, Physics and Metaphysics in Hasdai Crescas (Amsterdam: J. C. Gieben, 1998).
——— “Idel on Spinoza,” Journal for the Study of Religions and Ideologies (2007) 6 (18):88-94.
——— “Ishq, hesheq, and amor Dei intellectualis” (96-107) in S. Nadler, ed., Spinoza and Medieval Jewish Philosophy (Cambridge University Press, 2014).
Idel, Moshe, Studies in Ecstatic Kabbalah (State University of New York Press, 1988).
Israel, Jonathan, “The Banning of Spinoza’s Works in the Dutch Republic (1670-1678)” (3-14) in W. V. Bunge and W. Klever, eds., Disguised and Overt Spinozism Around 1700 (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1996).
Jolley, Nicholas, Leibniz (New York: Routledge, 2005).
Klever, W. N. A., “Spinoza’s life and works” in Don Garrett, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Spinoza (Cambridge University Press, 1996).
Koistinen, Olli, and Viljanen, Valtteri, “Introduction” (1-25) in Koistinen, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Spinoza’s Ethics (Cambridge University Press, 2009).
Manekin, Charles, “Spinoza and the determinist tradition in medieval Jewish philosophy” (36-58) in S. Nadler, ed., Spinoza and Medieval Jewish Philosophy (Cambridge University Press, 2014).
Melamed, Yitzhak Y., and Rosenthal, M. A., eds., Spinoza’s Theological-Political Treatise: A Critical Guide (Cambridge University Press, 2010).
Nadler, Steven, Spinoza: A Life (Cambridge University Press, 1999).
——–Spinoza’s Heresy: Immortality and the Jewish Mind (Oxford University Press, 2002).
——–A Book Forged in Hell: Spinoza’s Scandalous Treatise and the Birth of the Secular Age (Princeton University Press, 2011).
Popkin, Richard H., Spinoza (Oxford: Oneworld, 2004).
Sharp, Hasana, “Animal Affects: Spinoza and the Frontiers of the Human” in Journal for Critical Animal Studies (2011) Vol. 9 Issue 1/2. Online PDF.
Shepherd, Kevin R. D., Pointed Observations: Critical Reflections of a Citizen Philosopher on Contemporary Pseudomysticism, Alternative Therapy, David Hume, Spinoza, and Other Subjects (Dorchester: Citizen Initiative, 2005).
Vassanyi, Miklos, Anima Mundi: The Rise of the World Soul Theory in Modern German Philosophy (Springer: Dordrecht, 2011).
Zovko, Marie-Elise, Understanding Geometric Method: Hypothetical Dialectic in Proclus, Abraham Cohen Herrera and Baruch D. Spinoza (online PDF).

Kevin R. D. Shepherd

ENTRY no. 64

Copyright © 2015 Kevin R. D. Shepherd. All Rights Reserved.

Baruch Spinoza

By Ethics, Leibniz testimony, Pantheism, Spinoza philosophy

Baruch Spinoza

Born in Amsterdam, Baruch Spinoza (1632-77) was a first generation Dutch Jew. His family were Portuguese Jews, his father Michael Espinosa being a refugee merchant, one of those who contributed to the growing prosperity of Amsterdam. There were numerous Portuguese and Spanish Jews in that city at the time of Spinoza’s birth. More specifically, Spinoza’s parents were marranos, or crypto-Jews, who had fled from Portugal. They were amongst those who adhered to elements of Judaism after forced conversion to Christianity. That affliction had occurred in Portugal and Spain, where the Inquisition harassed converts.

Spinoza was educated in the traditional Jewish manner. Studying at a Talmud Torah school, he did not undertake the higher grades leading to Rabbi status. At the age of 17, “whether by desire or by necessity, Spinoza left the school in order to work in his father’s business, which he eventually took over with his half-brother” (Blake D. Dutton, “Benedict De Spinoza,” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy). The family business was one of importing and vending foodstuffs. At the age of 24, Spinoza was excommunicated by the synagogue authorities of Amsterdam, being accused of heresies. The context is obscure.

His enthusiasm for the study of Descartes  has often been considered a possible reason for the stigma, though other explanations are proffered. His critical views of the Bible, also his acquaintance with radical Christian groups such as the Collegiants and Quakers, are just some of the alternatives. An economic problem is another possibility, his father having died two years before and leaving numerous debts, as a consequence of which Spinoza hired a lawyer.

At this time, he changed his first name Baruch (which is Hebrew) to the Latin equivalent of Benedict. The heretic became a Latin-speaking neo-Cartesian, moving freely amongst non-Jews. Spinoza could also speak Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, and Hebrew.

Like Descartes, Spinoza was a citizen philosopher. Academics later assimilated these two figures into the canon of primary rationalist thinkers. Even more than Descartes, Spinoza remained on the fringe of status activities, while struggling against ideological biases of a severe kind.

Spinoza left Amsterdam in 1661, reputedly being in danger from religious extremists. His destination was Rijnsburg. He had adopted the craft of a lens-grinder, working in his own rented living accommodation. He produced lenses for microscopes and telescopes. This activity converged with his strong interest in optics. Some commentators describe this grinding and polishing skill in terms of a “gentlemanly amateur” vocation, which apparently bypassed an apprenticeship. However, the wealthy Dutch scientist Christiaan Huygens (1629-93) evidently respected the knowledge of optics possessed by Spinoza. That science was associated with the Optics of Descartes.

Huygens was a very capable lens-grinder, innovating advanced telescopic lenses. “Huygens had far more money than Spinoza, who was a ‘marrano’ amateur in a Christian world of professionals” (Shepherd 2005:278). At first, Spinoza apparently knew more about microscopes than Huygens, who became celebrated for telescopic discoveries in relation to Saturn. These two grinders had scientific discussions, as a consequence of which Huygens came to regard Spinoza as a rival.

In some commentaries, Spinoza is defined as a rationalist version of pantheist. He did not accept the dualism of Descartes, instead maintaining that there could only be one substance, not three (i.e., God, mind, and matter). Thus God can be equated with Nature. This theme was incorporated into his Ethics (1677), which strongly asserts the existence of God in a rationalist context. The attendant irony is that Spinoza was described and derided as an atheist, by various reductionists, for many years after his death. There is contemporary disagreement about his orientation. Spinozan pantheism has even been interpreted (in one version) as panentheism. However, some commentators argue that the subject was an atheist. Spinoza himself said that the charge of atheism was a perverse misinterpretation of his meaning.

An earlier work was Spinoza’s Short Treatise on God, Man, and His Wellbeing, apparently composed during his retiring phase at Rijnsberg, though not achieving publication until long after his death. This metaphysical book is partly associated with the influence of Leone Ebreo, alias Judah Abravanel, a sixteenth century Jewish philosopher of Portugal now described in terms of Neoplatonism.

Abravanel authored the Dialoghi d’amore, published in Italian in 1535; those dialogues refer in philosophical terms to an “intellectual” love above any human love. This work (which Spinoza read in Spanish)) was “a Neoplatonic presentation” which “contains two of Spinoza’s great goals in intellectual life: that of seeing the world in the aspect of eternity and that of achieving the intellectual love of God” (Popkin 2004:18).

Perhaps acting upon the advice of his academic friend Lodewijk Meyer, Spinoza changed format from the Short Treatise to the geometrical method of Euclid, exhibited in his Ethics. This device he evidently believed to be suitable for conveying reason to a Christian audience. Hispanic-Jewish mysticism would not have appealed to some of his acquaintances. Spinoza himself is far more complex. The philosophical Kabbalist Abraham Cohen Herrera (c.1570-1635) was another of the influences at work on Spinoza (Popkin 2004:19). Research indicates that Herrera’s Puerto del Cielo (Gate of Heaven) influenced some components of Ethics (Beltran 2016).

The distinctive  Puerto del Cielo was composed in Spanish for the marrano community of Amsterdam. Herrera presented a syncretistic format reconciling diverse traditions, including the Sefer Yetzirah, the Zohar, Moses Cordovero (d.1570), Isaac Luria Ashkenazi (d.1572), Aristotelian, Platonist, and Neoplatonist metaphysics, and Scholasticism. The liberal format appealed to Spinoza, Leibniz, Henry More, and others. For Herrera, “the inner being and activities of the God of Israel are also revealed in the teachings of non-mystics and philosophers, Jews and Gentiles alike” (Krabbenhoft 2002:xi).

The Ethics of Spinoza states: “This love toward God must engage the mind most” (Curley 1996:169). Moreover, “blessedness consists in love of God, a love which arises from the third kind of knowledge” (ibid:180), here referring to intuitive knowledge. Such factors were attended by the conclusion: “If salvation were at hand, and could be found without great effort, how could nearly everyone neglect it? But all things excellent are as difficult as they are rare” (ibid: 181).

The “ethical theory” of Spinoza has for long been constricted in modern interpretations; the deficit includes an assumption that the Ethics downgrade ethical considerations. In contrast, a recent conclusion is that the Spinozan perspective may be closer to the truth than the mainstream view now operative, a conservative angle that is basically a descendant of David Hume’s theory of emotion in A Treatise of Human Nature (Youpa 2020:5).

Spinoza does not share Hume’s deduction that reason is a slave of the passions. Hume contends: “Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.” This belief is appropriate for sensualists, not others who desire a different context for lifestyle. In contrast, the Ethics includes such statements as: “The actions of the mind arise from adequate ideas alone; the passions depend on inadequate ideas alone” (Curley trans. 3p3).

“The best way of life, in Spinoza’s view, is a life of learning” (Youpa 2020:9). In Spinozan context, this vocation decodes to the solitary ideal of learning that is not undertaken for salary or status profile.

The Ethics is not an easy work to read, resulting in different explanations of diverse passages. The author’s perspective on “eternity of the mind” extends to a factor resisted by some contemporary commentators: “Salvation amounts to achieving the psychological state that accompanies intuitive knowledge of God” (Kisner 2011:4). The favourable juxtaposition of intuitive knowledge (scientia intuitiva) with stringent reasoning has disconcerted some logicians.

The well known reaction of Jonathan Bennett to Spinozan intuitive knowledge interpreted this factor as “an unmitigated and seemingly unmotivated disaster” for intellectual clarity (Bennett 1984:357). Professor Bennett urged that some passages of Ethics are nonsense. Part Five was a hazard zone. The intellectual love of God amounted to a mere indulgence. “I shall not expound the details [of Amor Dei] as the burden of error and confusion has become unbearable” (ibid:370). From another perspective, advantages of the disputed rational/intuitive mix might be substantial, bearing in mind: “Spinoza’s characterisation of our highest good as a psychological state of contentment or tranquillity, one that does not depend on external things and, consequently, is immune to the vicissitudes of fortune” (Kisner 2011:2).

A frequent response to Spinoza, during the twentieth century, was one of relegation. He was eclipsed in popularity by Russell, Moore, Wittgenstein, Nietzsche, and other fashionable exponents. The academic sceptics were glibly reductionist; they did not comprehend a citizen vocation inspired by texts and ideas not fashionable in their time. Anything “mystical” was taboo in the status world of prestige claims to scientific accuracy, accompanied by haphazard assumption.

More recently, the intellectual climate has altered sufficiently to admit a deeper dimension to Spinoza than was formerly credited in general (for example, Soyarslan 2014; Naaman-Zauderer 2019; Joppova 2020). There are nevertheless divided opinions discernible in the field of Spinoza studies. In some respects at least, only marginalised thinking citizens might begin to comprehend the citizen tangent of a reasoning and intuitive ethical philosopher of renunciate characteristics.

The Treatise on the Emendation of the Intellect commences with Spinoza’s advice to renounce wealth, status, and sensual indulgence in the pursuit of the highest good. An unpopular theme today, this was probably not in favour with some of the author’s associates, who were radicals of a different kind. Spinoza did not own property, instead living in simple rented rooms. He avoided a university career, despite his undoubted learning abilities.

In 1670 appeared his anonymous Tractatus Theologico-Politicus or Theological-Political Treatise (TPT). This proved a bombshell of controversy, to such an extent that Spinoza’s Ethics could not be published during his lifetime. The content of the TPT was polemical, pleading the cause of philosophical reason against theological dogmatism. Spinoza was clearly pitting himself against religious sectarianism. He advocated a democratic and pluralist society free of superstitions.

The TPT dismissed miracles, also emphasising textual criticism of the Bible to a notable extent. The author was benign towards Jesus Christ, while rejecting the Resurrection. “His definition of God – condemned since his excommunication from the Jewish community as a  ‘God, existing in only a philosophical sense’ – is meant to preclude any anthropomorphizing of the divine being” (Steven Nadler, “Baruch Spinoza,”  Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy).

The prestigious Amsterdam Synod declared the TPT to be blasphemous. Other influential Calvinist Synods were in support of this ruling. In 1674, the Court of Holland prohibited the printing and selling of the TPT. Freedom of speech did not yet exist. The long-term stigmatisation of Spinoza, as an atheist, was one of the consequences.

In 1676, the German philosopher Gottfried W. Leibniz (1646-1716) visited Spinoza in the latter’s modest living situation at The Hague. The “atheist” gains a strikingly mystical complexion in a memo written by Leibniz, featuring such statements as:

According to him [Spinoza] the mind itself is in a certain sense a part of God….He thinks that we will forget most things when we die and retain only those things that we know with the kind of knowledge he calls intuitive, of which only a few are conscious…. He believes a sort of Pythagorical transmigration, namely that minds go from body to body. He says that Christ is the very best philosopher… (W. N. A. Klever, “Spinoza’s life and works” in  Garrett 1996:46-7)


Beltran, Miquel, The Influence of Abraham Cohen de Herrera’s Kabbalah on Spinoza’s Metaphysics (Leiden: Brill, 2016).

Bennett, Jonathan, A Study of Spinoza’s Ethics (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1984).

Curley, Edwin, trans, A Spinoza Reader: The Ethics and Other Works (Princeton University Press, 1994).

——–trans., Benedict de Spinoza: Ethics (London: Penguin 1996).

——–trans., The Collected Works of Spinoza (two vols, Princeton University Press, 1985-2016).

Della Rocca, Michael, Spinoza (London: Routledge, 2008).

Della Rocca, M., ed., The Oxford Handbook of Spinoza (Oxford University Press, 2018).

Garrett, Don, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Spinoza (Cambridge University Press, 1996). 

Joppova, Michaela Petrufova, The Three Final Doctrines of Spinoza: Intuition, Amor Dei, the Eternity of the Mind (research paper 2020, available online).

Kisner, Matthew J., Spinoza on Human Freedom: Reason, Autonomy and the Good Life (Cambridge University Press, 2011).

——–ed., Ethics: Proved in Geometrical Order (Cambridge University Press, 2018).

Kisner, Matthew J., and Andrew Youpa, eds., Essays on Spinoza’s Ethical Theory (Oxford University Press, 2014).

Koistinen, Olli, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Spinoza’s Ethics (Cambridge University Press, 2009).

Krabbenhoft, Kenneth, trans., Abraham Cohen de Herrera: Gate of Heaven (Leiden: Brill, 2002).

Morgan, Michael L.,  ed., Spinoza: The Complete Works, trans. Samuel Shirley (Indianapolis: Hackett, 2003).

Naaman-Zauderer, Noa, “Spinoza on Human Freedoms and the Eternity of the Mind,” in Naaman-Zauderer, ed., Freedom, Action, and Motivation in Spinoza’s Ethics (Routledge, 2019).

Nadler, Steven, Spinoza: A Life (Cambridge University Press, 1999).

——–Spinoza’s Heresy: Immortality and the Jewish Mind (Oxford University Press, 2001).

——–Spinoza’s Ethics: An Introduction (Cambridge University Press, 2006).

——–A Book Forged in Hell: Spinoza’s Scandalous Treatise and the Birth of the Secular Age (Princeton University Press, 2011).

Popkin, Richard H., Spinoza (Oxford: Oneworld, 2004).

Shepherd, Kevin R. D., Pointed Observations: Critical Reflections of a Citizen Philosopher on Contemporary Pseudomysticism, Alternative Therapy, David Hume, Spinoza, and other subjects (Dorchester: Citizen Initiative, 2005).

Soyarslan, Sanem, “From Ordinary Life to Blessedness: the power of intuitive knowledge in Spinoza’s Ethics” (236-57) in Kisner and Youpa 2014.

Youpa, Andrew, The Ethics of Joy: Spinoza on the Empowered Life (Oxford University Press, 2020); review by Matthew J. Kisner at Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews (June 2020).

Yovel, Yirmiyahu, Spinoza and Other Heretics (Princeton University Press, 1989).

See also the bibliography at Baruch Spinoza


Kevin R. D. Shepherd
June 23rd 2010 (modified 2021)

ENTRY no. 22

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