Spinoza, Benedictus de

Spinoza, Benedictus de
Dutch Jewish rationalist. Baruch or Benedict de Spinoza was born in Amsterdam into a distinguished Jewish family, exiled from Spain and living in the relative religious freedom of the Netherlands. He attended the Jewish school, and became learned in the work of Jewish and Arabic theologians; one of his teachers was the Rabbi Manasseh ben Israel, a distinguished liberal figure of the time. However, contact with dissident Christian movements, and with the scientific and philosophical thought of Descartes, led Spinoza to distance himself from orthodox life, and in 1656 he was deemed a heretic, cast out of the synagogue, and cursed with the comprehensive ‘anathema where with Joshua anathematized Jericho’, of which one clause alone calls for him to be cursed with all the curses of the firmament.
For a short time Spinoza was exiled from Amsterdam, but he returned and began a life supporting himself by grinding lenses and teaching. During this period he wrote the Short Treatise on God, Man, and his Well Being (written in Latin but surviving in Dutch, trs. 1883). In 1660 he moved to the country, and began composing the Renati Descartes Principiorum Philosophiae (1663, trs. as The Principles of Descartes' Philosophy, 1905), a geometrically structured exposition of the philosophical system of Descartes. This was published in 1663. Now living at Voorburg, Spinoza became acquainted with Jan de Witt, the principal focus of opposition to the House of Orange. This led in 1670 to the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus (trs. as Political Treatise, 1883), a work whose advocacy of tolerance and peace caused it to be condemned by the Reformed Church in 1673, and banned the following year. At this time Spinoza moved to the Hague, where he lived with great frugality on a small pension, working on the Ethics and a grammar of Hebrew. In 1672 Spinoza undertook a small diplomatic mission to the invading French army, but on his return was under some suspicion as a spy, and narrowly escaped being killed by the mob, as de Witt had been before him. By now a recognized figure, he refused offers of various posts, and lived out his remaining years in the same frugal state, writing and corresponding. He abandoned his original intention of publishing the Ethics, believing that it would simply generate controversy and rancour. Spinoza's final publication was the Tractatus de Intellectus Emendatione, published in the year of his death (trs. as Treatise on the Improvement of the Intellect, 1883). He died of phthisis, possibly brought on by his trade as a lens-grinder. There remain numerous testimonies to his simplicity, virtue, charm, and courage.
The central themes of the Ethics are developed in the four parts of the book. These concern first God, then the nature and origin of the mind, the origin and nature of the emotions, and human servitude and the strength of the emotions. The stage is set by acceptance of a basic rationalist presumption, that the nature of the world is transparent to the intellect, so that relations of dependence amongst ideas reflect (or are perhaps identical with) relations of dependence amongst events and states in nature. Substance being conceived as that which is self-dependent, there follows the ontological argument for the existence of God as the one necessary being, but not distinct from the world (for there is only one substance: any other substance would owe its existence to God, and therefore not be self-dependent). Rather God is immanent in the world, and individual things are themselves modes or modifications of God: the one reality is ‘God or nature’, deus sive natura . This God is naturally rather removed from the God of simple religious faith, and while Spinoza's crystalline remark that ‘whoever loves God cannot strive that God should love him in return’ has subsequently spoken to many thinkers, in his own time the accusation of atheism constantly hung over him.
Spinoza's monism extends to mind and matter: each is a different characteristic, or way of rationally appreciating the essence of the same one eternal reality. Like Descartes, Spinoza believed that it is the intellect rather than the senses that discloses the essential nature of things. A complete and adequate idea of God shows that he has two attributes: he can be conceived under the heading of extension, or under that of thought. In other words God, or reality, can be conceived in these two incommensurable ways, and each discloses an attribute or part of his essence (a problem in interpreting Spinoza is that God is supposed to have infinitely many attributes, although only these two are found). Understanding aims to increase our knowledge of God (or the universe) by discovering the way in which it makes up a closed system, self-sufficient and completely unified, in which everything that happens is necessary, and nothing could be otherwise than it is. Against this metaphysical background Spinoza clearly faces trouble making sense of the nature of the single self, and human activity, and these form the subject of the latter two books of the Ethics . For Spinoza, thinking is a consciousness of the body. The same mode is conceived under the attribute of extension and under that of thought, so that body and mind are not related causally, but as parallel expressions of the one reality. In this God-intoxicated system (as it was called by the German Romantic poet Friedrich Hardenberg), error and evil need explanation, and in each case Spinoza identifies them with privation. Error is the lack of adequate ideas, and evils are merely absences or privations, that ‘express no essence’. (This approach to the problem of evil later received especial critical attention from Hume .) The senses provide only modifications of our body but no knowledge, and most of our notions are only confused and lacking the marks of final adequacy. These are found in Spinoza's version of Descartes's clear and distinct ideas: conceptions of the formal essence of God that are inextricably joined to their own proof. Like the theorems of mathematics, they cannot be understood without being seen to be true.
In such a rigid and deterministic world there may seem to be no room for human free will . But Spinoza finds its place by abstracting from the dimension of time. Freedom becomes the capacity to see the world under the heading of eternity, and without bondage to emotions and desires. These themselves are the result of ignorance of the causes whereby we are determined. Activity and agency are the result of adequate cognition. In other words, it stops being true that I am controlled by things, and starts being true that I control them, in so far as in my thoughts the course of events is displayed as it then turns out. (The equation of freedom with this unity of reason and reality played a major role in the subsequent philosophy of Kant .) To advance towards this adequacy, emotions must be understood, and the aim of Spinoza's subtle attempt to provide a ‘geometry of the emotions’ is to show that most of what drives us is unknown to us, but that when we understand our motivations we gain control over them and emend or improve them (this idea has been hailed as the fundamental truth on which psychoanalysis depends). In the end, true religion, true science, and true philosophy are identical, and each consists in the intellectual love of God.
In his political writings Spinoza draws out the implications of his system for the theory of government. It is the business of the state not to attempt to put limits on the exercise of reason, but to provide the conditions in which it may flourish: what is necessary is a constitutional democracy providing a forum for reason and freedom of opinion within a framework of law.
Spinoza's method and system went largely unappreciated during the subsequent ascendancy of empiricist and Enlightenment ideals, and the decline of the ontological argument at the hands of Hume and Kant. He was rediscovered by the German idealists, and indeed absolute idealism is well seen as simply adding an element of time, or a capacity for dynamic self-realization, to the attributes of Spinoza's one God, whose essence is equally that of the spatially extended world, and that of reason itself.

Philosophy dictionary. . 2011.

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