05 November 2015

Baruch Spinoza is sometimes called “the father of modernity.”  Spinoza, along with Descartes and Leibniz, is considered one of the great rationalists  of the 16th and 17th centuries.   Of the three of them, Spinoza was philosophically the most radical.  Both Descartes and Leibniz found a place in their systems for something like the traditional Judeo-Christian God, a personal God, who created the rest of us.  Spinoza denied the authority of the Bible, the Judeo-Christian idea of a transcendent God, and opened the door to the secular philosophy of the modern age.  

Descartes said he was going to --- as we say on Philosophy Talk --- question everything.  But he didn’t really live up to his promise when he got to God. Spinoza did.  He once said “The highest activity a human being can attain is learning for understanding, because to understand is to be free.”  This wasn’t a common idea, even in the 1700s.  But Spinoza didn’t flinch.

But was Spinoza really an atheist?  He didn’t apply that word to himself, and he is often called a pantheist, right? God is everything, and everything is God?  If everything is God, I guess God exists.

According to Spinoza, there is only one substance, one independent thing, in the universe, namely, the universe as a whole.  We only know it by two of its aspects, the Mental and the Physical, but there are many more aspects to it of which we are ignorant.  It is not just dead matter, but active and alive, in many ways we can’t contemplate.  Spinoza was happy to call this One Thing God.   But his God was not a transcendent God, existing apart from a world He created, but an immanent God.

In his system, we human persons are not immortal mental substances, as Descartes and Leibniz thought, but mere modes.  If God is a pond, we are ripples in the pond.  We are each what a couple of aspects of God is like, for a time, along a path. Like ripples, we don’t last forever. 

That’s doesn’t sound very much like the God of the Old Testament, or Christianity, and people are demoted from eternal spirits to ephemeral ripples.  So, maybe he didn’t think of himself as an atheist, but it’s not surprising people called him that.

On July 27, 1656, when he was 23, Spinoza was issued a harsh writ of herem  --  basically excommunication -- which never been rescinded. This meant that he was thought to have done “monstrous deeds” and espoused “abominable heresies”.  We are not told what those deeds and heresies are.  But they don’t come from his books.  His great books came later, the most famous, his Ethics, was posthumous.

Perhaps he was going around the streets of Amsterdam, proclaiming that there was only one substance?  But this seems a little thin to hang an excommunication on.  More likely it was other ideas, a bit less abstract, that got him in to trouble  --- things like rejecting the immortality of the soul, and  God as portrayed in the Old Testament.  He suggests the Bible  is a bunch of stories cobbled together by ignorant old men.  He fought for free speech and toleration his whole life  --- not favorite causes of the Sephardic Jews of the time.  So I imagine he was a major irritant to the community.  

Stephen Nadler, a great scholar, suggests that excommunication came as a relief.  Spinoza became a bit of a recluse in Rinjsburg near Leiden, and then near the Hague. where he did an enormous amount of work before his early early death at 45.  Sounds like he made use of all the time saved from not attending Bar Mitzvahs and Seders that he wasn’t invited too.  And that he died not knowing of the fame which awaited him.   In time the brilliance of his ideas and the closeness of his reasoning won over generations of philosophers, and he became recognized as the the father of modernity.

Comments (11)

Or's picture


Friday, November 6, 2015 -- 4:00 PM

Spinoza?s conception of God

Spinoza?s conception of God ?Deus sive Natura- even if just verbalized, would be enough of a reason to madden any traditional religious community to the point that it proclaimed herem on the basis of ?evil opinions? and ?abominable heresies.? His conception practically destroys the pillars of all traditional major religions. Spinoza?s God ? Nature - lacks even the most basic attributes a supernatural deity would have: Goodness, wiseness, justness. Spinoza?s God, in a way a much simpler deity, is one that we need not worship or pray to. There are no divine scriptures, only written words. Mother Nature is no divine creation. Nature is just the existing substance of the universe that forges it all including us, human beings that essentially live and die as part of one of Nature?s numerous processes. There?s no way that Spinoza?s radical philosophical and religious views would have been tolerated by a Portuguese-Jewish community, a community which was united and subsisted as such in a foreign city as was Amsterdam primarily because of its faith in God and their traditions. Spinoza?s opinions, when expressed in this particular community, were out of place, as it seems the excommunication was of vital necessity to the surrounding community, which hung by the thread of traditional religion in order to survive. 

Gary M Washburn's picture

Gary M Washburn

Saturday, November 7, 2015 -- 4:00 PM

I suppose the persecuted

I suppose the persecuted deserve our sympathy, but that's no reason to magnify their importance. The question that comes my mind is how it is that such orthodoxies arise that are so confident of their rightness they feel the need to convince the rest of the world and the justification to kill or ostracize those not of the same opinion. This is a great mystery and problem for understanding history. With the possible exception of Buddhism, most of the religions of the world are not particularly evangelical. Why the three that cite the Bible are so implacably so needs examination.
As for Spinoza, I don't see a lot new in his view. Aristotle's unmoved mover amounts to much the same causal solution, certainly close enough to evidence the issue has a long history. And a more careful look at the Torah will reveal an anonymous deity, substituted by an anonymous causality is not so different. And, remember, the Judaism of Amsterdam had Christianised trappings which would have been, in a typically Christian way, offended by a reversion of the character of the deity to an earlier form.
As for modernity, well, that's a vexed issue if ever there was one. During the darkest days of the Medieval era most commoners established, amongst themselves, social patterns more democratic than we have today. This was possible because the elites cared not a whit how they went about their work, whereas the 'modern' era constituted itself largely as a comprehensive attack on these ancient democratic institutions. And Abelard could be credited with insisting reason reign over scholarship, Anne Boleyn caused the emergence of the secular state, and Descartes was simply using the deity as a token term, at a time when the isolated individual alone before a judgmental providence had long since become established as de rigueur. We play sop to similar orthodoxies today, they just go by another name. Like "scientific method".

MJA's picture


Monday, November 9, 2015 -- 4:00 PM

God is just another name for

God is just another name for everything. =

Marc Bellario's picture

Marc Bellario

Saturday, November 14, 2015 -- 4:00 PM

And how does ALice and the

And how does ALice and the Jabberwacky fit exactly?
I wanted to add this: a quote from wikipedia on spinoza:
Spinoza kept the Latin (and so implicitly Christian) name Benedict de Spinoza, maintained a close association with the Collegiants, a Christian sect, even moved to a town near the Collegiants' headquarters, and was buried in a Christian graveyard?but there is no evidence or suggestion that he ever accepted baptism or participated in a Christian mass. Thus, by default, Baruch de Espinoza became the first secular Jew of modern Europe.[57]
And so, I think there are mainly two kids of guys:  the guys who stay home and the guys who take off for " distant places ".
Spinoza I think falls into a category of both and neither....
Very interesting conversation.
ANd who is that guy?

Gary M Washburn's picture

Gary M Washburn

Saturday, November 14, 2015 -- 4:00 PM


Penguin makes a cheap and comprehensive Dictionary of Philosophy. It has an extensive entry on Spinoza. Sometimes paper beats the web! (I think the editors told the researchers what to make, and they didn't see any reason not to do a spectacular job, the result is a little gem of a book)

Guest's picture


Monday, June 20, 2016 -- 5:00 PM

Hopefully today you and this

Today i'm happy is look website.

johnrock123's picture


Sunday, March 10, 2024 -- 11:10 PM

This passage highlights the

This passage highlights the remarkable duality in Spinoza's spiritual identification. In spite of his close organization with Christian neighborhoods plus interment in a Christian burial ground there's no indicator he accepted Christianity officially. This obscurity places him as a substantial number in the appearance of nonreligious Jewish identification in Europe. Exploring Spinoza's life and also ideas supplies abundant product for a detailed essay checking out the details of spiritual identification together with social impact. Looking for a Descriptive essay help will certainly assist me browse this interesting subject with deepness as well as clearness.

I've read and agree to abide by the Community Guidelines
andreen's picture


Tuesday, March 12, 2024 -- 1:34 AM

Spinoza's philosophy is often

Spinoza's philosophy is often described as pantheistic, as he identified Watermelon Game God with the entirety of the natural world. In this view, God is not a separate entity but is identical with the universe and all its components.

I've read and agree to abide by the Community Guidelines
Abrara2's picture


Tuesday, March 26, 2024 -- 11:49 PM

Great post full of useful

Great post full of useful tips! My site is fairly new and I am also having a hard time getting my readers to leave comments. Analytics shows they are coming to the site but I have a feeling “nobody wants to be first”.sany excavators

I've read and agree to abide by the Community Guidelines
Abrara2's picture


Saturday, April 20, 2024 -- 9:43 AM

Thanks for sharing this

Thanks for sharing this interesting blog with us.My pleasure to being here on your blog..I wanna come beck here for new post from your site.Winter Springs Personal Training gym

I've read and agree to abide by the Community Guidelines
salmawis's picture


Sunday, May 26, 2024 -- 8:24 PM

Drift Boss has many different

Drift Boss has many different levels of play, gradually increasing in difficulty, bringing challenges to players.

I've read and agree to abide by the Community Guidelines