After wars with England and France took
the life of his father and decimated his family's fortune, he was
eventually able to relinquish responsibility for the business and its
debts to his brother, Gabriel, and devote himself to philosophy and
Controversial ideas and
Spinoza became known in the Jewish community for positions contrary to
normative Jewish belief, with critical positions towards the Talmud and
other religious texts. In the summer of 1656, he was issued the writ of
cherem (Hebrew: חרם, a kind of excommunication) from the Jewish
community, perhaps for the apostasy of how he conceived God, although
the reason is not stated in the cherem. Righteous indignation on the
part of the synagogue elders at Spinoza's heresies was probably not the
sole cause for the excommunication; there was also the practical concern
that his ideas, which disagree equally well with the orthodoxies of
other religions as with Judaism, would not sit well with the Christian
leaders of Amsterdam and would reflect badly on the whole Jewish
community, endangering the limited freedoms that the Jews had already
achieved in that city. The terms of his cherem were severe. He was,
in Bertrand Russell's words, "cursed with all the curses in Deuteronomy
and with the curse that Elisha pronounced on the children who, in
consequence, were torn to pieces by the she-bears." It was never
revoked. Following his excommunication, he adopted the first name
Benedictus, the Latin equivalent of his given name, Baruch; they both
mean "blessed". In his native Amsterdam he was also known as Bento
(Portuguese for Benedict or blessed) de Spinoza, which was the informal
form of his name.
After his cherem, it is reported that Spinoza lived and worked in the
school of Franciscus van den Enden, who taught him Latin in his youth
and may have introduced him to modern philosophy, although Spinoza never
mentions Van den Enden anywhere in his books or letters. Van den Enden
was a Cartesian and atheist who was forbidden by the city government to
propagate his doctrines publicly. Spinoza, having dedicated himself
completely to philosophy after 1656, fervently desired to change the
world through establishing a clandestine philosophical sect. Because of
public censure this was only eventually realized after his death through
the dedicated intercession of his friends.
During this period Spinoza also became acquainted with several
Collegiants, members of an eclectic sect with tendencies towards
rationalism. Spinoza also corresponded with Peter Serrarius, a radical
Protestant and millennarian merchant. Serrarius is believed to have been
a patron of Spinoza at some point. By the beginning of
the 1660s, Spinoza's name became more widely known, and eventually
Gottfried Leibniz and Henry Oldenburg paid him visits, as stated in
Matthew Stewart's "The Courtier and the Heretic.". He
corresponded with Oldenburg for the rest of his short life. Spinoza's
first publication was his Tractatus de intellectus emendatione. From
December 1664 to June 1665, Spinoza engaged in correspondence with
Blyenbergh, an amateur Calvinist theologian, who questioned Spinoza on
the definition of evil. Later in 1665, he notified Oldenburg that he had
started to work on a new book, the Theologico-Political Treatise,
published in 1670. Leibniz disagreed harshly with Spinoza in Leibniz's
own published Refutation of Spinoza, but is also known to have met with
Spinoza on at least one occasion, and whose own work
bears certain striking resemblances to certain key parts of Spinoza's
philosophy (see: Monadology).
When the public reactions to the anonymously published Theologico-Political
Treatise were extremely unfavourable to his brand of Cartesianism,
Spinoza was compelled to abstain from publishing more of his works. Wary
and independent, he wore a signet ring engraved with his initials, a
rose and the word "caute" (Latin for "cautiously"). The Ethics and all
other works, apart from the Principles of Cartesian Philosophy and the
Theologico-Political Treatise, were published after his death in the
Opera Posthuma edited by his friends in secrecy to avoid confiscation
and destruction of manuscripts.
Later life and career
Spinoza relocated from Amsterdam to Rijnsburg (near Leiden) around 1661
and later lived in Voorburg and The Hague respectively. He earned a
comfortable living from lens-grinding. While the lens-grinding aspect of
Spinoza's work is uncontested, the type of lenses he made is in
question. Many have said he produced excellent magnifying glasses, and
some historians credit him with being an optician (in the sense of
making lenses for eyeglasses). He was also supported by small, but
regular, donations from close friends. He died in 1677 while still
working on a political thesis. His premature death was due to lung
illness, possibly the result of breathing in glass dust from the lenses
he ground. Only a year earlier, Spinoza had met with Leibniz at The
Hague for a discussion of his principal philosophical work, Ethics,
which had been completed in 1676. This meeting was described in Matthew
Stewart's The Courtier and the Heretic.  Spinoza never married, nor
did he father any children. When he died, he was considered a heathen
anti-religionist by the general population, and when Boerhaave wrote his
dissertation in 1688 he attacked the doctrines of Spinoza. He claimed
later that defense of Spinoza's lifestyle cost him his reputation in
Leiden and a post as minister.
Dutch Port cities as sites of free thought
Amsterdam and Rotterdam were important cosmopolitan centers where
merchant ships from many parts of the world brought people of various
customs and beliefs. It is this hustle and bustle which ensured, as in
the Mediterranean region during the Renaissance, some possibility of
free thought and shelter from the crushing hand of ecclesiastical
authority. Thus Spinoza no doubt had access to a circle of friends who
were basically heretics in the eyes of tradition. One of the people he
must have known was Niels Stensen, a brilliant Danish student in Leiden;
others were Coenraad van Beuningen and his cousin Albert Burgh, with
whom Spinoza is known to have corresponded.
Substance, Attribute and Mode
"These are the fundamental concepts with which Spinoza sets forth a
vision of Being, illuminated by his awareness of God. They may seem
strange at first sight. To the question "What is?" he replies:
"Substance, its attributes and modes". Spinoza, Karl Jaspers p.9
Spinoza's system imparted order and unity to the tradition of radical
thought, offering powerful weapons for prevailing against "received
authority." As a youth he first subscribed to Descartes's dualistic
belief that body and mind are two separate substances, but later changed
his view and asserted that they were not separate, being a single
identity. He contended that everything that exists in Nature/Universe is
one Reality (substance) and there is only one set of rules governing the
whole of the reality which surrounds us and of which we are part.
Spinoza viewed God and Nature as two names for the same reality, namely
the single substance (meaning "that which stands beneath" rather than
"matter") that is the basis of the universe and of which all lesser
"entities" are actually modes or modifications, that all things are
determined by Nature to exist and cause effects, and that the complex
chain of cause and effect is only understood in part. That humans
presume themselves to have free will, he argues, is a result of their
awareness of appetites while being unable to understand the reasons why
they want and act as they do. The argument for the single substance runs
1. Substance exists and cannot be dependent on anything else for its
2. No two substances can share the same nature or attribute.
Proof: Two distinct substances can be differentiated either by some
difference in their natures or by some difference in one of their
alterable states of being. If they have different natures, then the
original proposition is granted and the proof is complete. If, however,
they are distinguished only by their states of being, then, considering
the substances in themselves, there is no difference between the
substances and they are identical. "That is, there cannot be several
such substances but only one."
3. A substance can only be caused by something similar to itself
(something that shares its attribute).
4. Substance cannot be caused.
Proof: Something can only be caused by something which is similar to
itself, in other words something that shares its attribute. But
according to premise 2, no two substances can share an attribute.
Therefore substance cannot be caused.
5. Substance is infinite.
Proof: If substance were not infinite, it would be finite and limited by
something. But to be limited by something is to be dependent on it.
However, substance cannot be dependent on anything else (premise 1),
therefore substance is infinite.
Conclusion: There can only be one substance.
Proof: If there were two infinite substances, they would limit each
other. But this would act as a restraint, and they would be dependent on
each other. But they cannot be dependent on each other (premise 1),
therefore there cannot be two substances.
Spinoza contended that "Deus sive Natura" ("God or Nature") was a being
of infinitely many attributes, of which extension and thought were two.
His account of the nature of reality, then, seems to treat the physical
and mental worlds as one and the same. The universal substance consists
of both body and mind, there being no difference between these aspects.
This formulation is a historically significant solution to the mind-body
problem known as neutral monism. The consequences of Spinoza's system
also envisage a God that does not rule over the universe by providence,
but a God which itself is the deterministic system of which everything
in nature is a part. Thus, God is the natural world and He has no
In addition to substance, the other two fundamental concepts Spinoza
presents, and develops in the Ethics are
By attribute, I mean that which the intellect perceives as constituting
the essence of substance.
By mode, I mean the modifications of substance, or that which exists in,
and is conceived through, something other than itself.
Spinoza was a thoroughgoing determinist who held that absolutely
everything that happens occurs through the operation of necessity. For
him, even human behaviour is fully determined, with freedom being our
capacity to know we are determined and to understand why we act as we
do. So freedom is not the possibility to say "no" to what happens to us
but the possibility to say "yes" and fully understand why things should
necessarily happen that way. By forming more "adequate" ideas about what
we do and our emotions or affections, we become the adequate cause of
our effects (internal or external), which entails an increase in
activity (versus passivity). This means that we become both more free
and more like God, as Spinoza argues in the Scholium to Prop. 49, Part
II. However, Spinoza also held that everything must necessarily happen
the way that it does. Therefore, there is no free will.
Spinoza's philosophy has much in common with Stoicism in as much as both
philosophies sought to fulfill a therapeutic role by instructing people
how to attain happiness (or eudaimonia, for the Stoics). However,
Spinoza differed sharply from the Stoics in one important respect: he
utterly rejected their contention that reason could defeat emotion. On
the contrary, he contended, an emotion can only be displaced or overcome
by a stronger emotion. For him, the crucial distinction was between
active and passive emotions, the former being those that are rationally
understood and the latter those that are not. He also held that
knowledge of true causes of passive emotion can transform it to an
active emotion, thus anticipating one of the key ideas of Sigmund
Spinoza's philosophy seems to have also some traits in common with that
of Advaita Vedanta, a sampradhya or school of thought in Hinduism,
especially as expounded by Adi Shankara. These Indian philosophers from
the 8th and 11th centuries respectively emphasize the notion of one
reality (substance here), Brahman and the notion of attributes (which
could be construed as an interpretation that is similar to that of
Spinoza). Although Schopenhauer was the first European to have access to
Hindu scripture, the question arises as to whether Spinoza may have had
access to Indian philosophical texts.
Some of Spinoza's philosophical positions are:
* The natural world is infinite.
* Good and evil are related to human pleasure and pain.
* Everything done by humans and other animals is excellent and divine.
* All rights are derived from the State.
* Animals can be used in any way by people for the benefit of the human
race, according to a rational consideration of the benefit as well as
the animal's status in nature.
Encapsulated at the start in his Treatise on the Improvement of the
Understanding (Tractatus de intellectus emendatione) is the core of
Spinoza's ethical philosophy, what he held to be the true and final
good. Spinoza held a relativist's position, that nothing is
intrinsically good or bad, except to the extent that it is subjectively
perceived to be by the individual. Things are only good or evil in
respect that humanity sees it desirable to apply these conceptions to
matters. Instead, Spinoza believes in his deterministic universe that,
"All things in nature proceed from certain necessity and with the utmost
perfection." Therefore, nothing happens by chance in Spinoza's world,
and reason does not work in terms of contingency.
In the universe anything that happens comes from the essential nature of
objects, or of God/Nature. According to Spinoza, reality is perfection.
If circumstances are seen as unfortunate it is only because of our
inadequate conception of reality. While elements of the chain of cause
and effect are not beyond the understanding of human reason, our grasp
of the infinitely complex whole is limited because of the limits of
science to empirically take account of the whole sequence. Spinoza also
asserted that sense perception, though practical and useful for
rhetoric, is inadequate for discovering universal truth; Spinoza's
mathematical and logical approach to metaphysics, and therefore ethics,
concluded that emotion is formed from inadequate understanding. His
concept of "conatus" states that human beings' natural inclination is to
strive toward preserving an essential being and an assertion that
virtue/human power is defined by success in this preservation of being
by the guidance of reason as one's central ethical doctrine. According
to Spinoza, the highest virtue is the intellectual love or knowledge of
In the final part of the "Ethics" his concern with the meaning of "true
blessedness" and his unique approach to and explanation of how emotions
must be detached from external cause in order to master them presages
20th-century psychological techniques. His concept of three types of
knowledge - opinion, reason, intuition - and assertion that intuitive
knowledge provides the greatest satisfaction of mind, leads to his
proposition that the more we are conscious of ourselves and
Nature/Universe, the more perfect and blessed we are (in reality) and
that only intuitive knowledge is eternal. His unique contribution to
understanding the workings of mind is extraordinary, even during this
time of radical philosophical developments, in that his views provide a
bridge between religions' mystical past and psychology of the present
Given Spinoza's insistence on a completely ordered world where
"necessity" reigns, Good and Evil have no absolute meaning. Human
catastrophes, social injustices, etc. are merely apparent. The world as
it exists looks imperfect only because of our limited perception.
Main article: Pantheism controversy
In 1785, Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi published a condemnation of Spinoza's
pantheism, after Lessing was thought to have confessed on his deathbed
to being a "Spinozist", which was the equivalent in his time of being
called an atheist. Jacobi claimed that Spinoza's doctrine was pure
materialism, because all Nature and God are said to be nothing but
extended substance. This, for Jacobi, was the result of Enlightenment
rationalism and it would finally end in absolute atheism. Moses
Mendelssohn disagreed with Jacobi, saying that there is no actual
difference between theism and pantheism. The entire issue became a major
intellectual and religious concern for European civilization at the
time, which Immanuel Kant rejected, as he thought that attempts to
conceive of transcendent reality would lead to antinomies (statements
that could be proven both right and wrong) in thought.
The attraction of Spinoza's philosophy to late eighteenth-century
Europeans was that it provided an alternative to materialism, atheism,
and deism. Three of Spinoza's ideas strongly appealed to them:
* the unity of all that exists;
* the regularity of all that happens; and
* the identity of spirit and nature.
Spinoza's "God or Nature" provided a living, natural God, in contrast to
the Newtonian mechanical "First Cause" or the dead mechanism of the
French "Man Machine."
Late 20th century Europe demonstrated a greater philosophical interest
in Spinoza, often from a left-wing or Marxist perspective. Notable
philosophers Gilles Deleuze, Antonio Negri, Étienne Balibar and the
Brazilian philosopher Marilena Chauí have each written books on Spinoza.
Deleuze's doctoral thesis, published in 1968, refers to him as "the
prince of philosophers." Other philosophers heavily influenced by
Spinoza include Constantin Brunner and John David Garcia. Stuart
Hampshire wrote a major English language study of Spinoza, though H. H.
Joachim's work is equally valuable. Unlike most philosophers, Spinoza
and his work were highly regarded by Nietzsche.
Philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein evoked Spinoza with the title (suggested
to him by G. E. Moore) of the English translation of his first
definitive philosophical work, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, an
allusion to Spinoza's Tractatus Theologico-Politicus. Elsewhere,
Wittgenstein deliberately borrowed the expression sub specie
aeternitatis from Spinoza (Notebooks, 1914-16, p. 83). The structure of
his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus does have certain structural
affinities with Spinoza's Ethics (though, admittedly, not with the
latter's own Tractatus) in erecting complex philosophical arguments upon
basic logical assertions and principles. Furthermore, in propositions
6.4311 and 6.45 he alludes to a Spinozian understanding of eternity and
interpretation of the religious concept of eternal life, stating that
"If by eternity is understood not eternal temporal duration, but
timelessness, then he lives eternally who lives in the present."
(6.4311) "The contemplation of the world sub specie aeterni is its
contemplation as a limited whole." (6.45) Furthermore, Wittgenstein's
interpretation of religious language, in both his early and later
career, may be said to bear a family resemblance to Spinoza's pantheism.
Spinoza has had influence beyond the confines of philosophy. The
nineteenth century novelist, George Eliot, produced her own translation
of the Ethics, the first known English translation thereof. The
twentieth century novelist, W. Somerset Maugham, alluded to one of
Spinoza's central concepts with the title of his novel, Of Human
Bondage. Albert Einstein named Spinoza as the philosopher who exerted
the most influence on his world view (Weltanschauung). Spinoza equated
God (infinite substance) with Nature, consistent with Einstein's belief
in an impersonal deity. In 1929, Einstein was asked in a telegram by
Rabbi Herbert S. Goldstein whether he believed in God. Einstein
responded by telegram: "I believe in Spinoza's God who reveals himself
in the orderly harmony of what exists, not in a God who concerns himself
with the fates and actions of human beings." Spinoza's pantheism has
also influenced environmental theory. Arne Næss, the father of the deep
ecology movement, acknowledged Spinoza as an important inspiration.
Moreover, the Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges was greatly
influenced by Spinoza's world view. In many of his poems and short
stories, Borges makes constant allusions to the philosopher's work,
though not necessarily as a partisan of his doctrines, but merely in
order to use these for aesthetic purposes--a common tactic in Borges's
Spinoza is an important historical figure in the Netherlands, where his
portrait was featured prominently on the Dutch 1000-guilder banknote,
legal tender until the euro was introduced in 2002. The highest and most
prestigious scientific award of the Netherlands is named the Spinoza
prijs (Spinoza prize). Spinoza's work is also mentioned as the favourite
reading material for Bertie Wooster's valet Jeeves in the P. G.