Sunday, November 22, 2020
First Aired: 
Sunday, November 8, 2015

What Is It

Baruch Spinoza was a 17th century Dutch philosopher who laid the foundations for the Enlightenment. He made the controversial claim that there is only one substance in the universe, which led him to the pantheistic belief in an abstract, impersonal God. What effect did Spinoza have on Enlightenment thinkers? What are the philosophical – and religious – consequences of believing that there is only one substance in the universe? And why do scientists today still take him seriously? John and Ken welcome back Rebecca Goldstein, author of Betraying Spinoza: The Renegade Jew Who Gave Us Modernity.

Listening Notes

John and Ken begin the show debating whether Spinoza was an atheist or not. Would it be more accurate to call him a pantheist? Whatever label is used, Spinoza’s lack of belief in a transcendent God made him supremely unique for his time, and because of this he is often called the “Inventor of Modernity.” He also believed that we are all small parts of a whole universe, something revolutionary for his time and which also garnered him some unwanted attention. John and Ken note that we owe Spinoza a great debt of gratitude – indeed, gratitude did come in the love poems for him written by Einstein and Borges.

John and Ken invite National Humanities Award winner Rebecca Newberger Goldstein and author of Betraying Spinoza: The Renegade Jew Who Gave Us Modernity. Rebecca discusses Spinoza’s absolute lack of belief in God, but what made him especially dangerous was that he appropriated the task religion originally had and cut the Judeo-Christian God out of the picture.

Ken asks how Spinoza could have really given us modernity. Rebecca responds that he did have helpers, but he really preceded the Enlightenment by about one hundred years. Rebecca also discusses how strongly Spinoza appreciated the importance of free inquiry during a time when it was not at all seen as important. Furthermore he was one of the few thinkers insistent on not identifying with any religion. John brings up a question from a listener, asking what Spinoza thought of the Torah. Rebecca explains that Spinoza was actually the first to offer a rigorous biblical criticism.

They then discuss Spinoza’s naturalist ethics, and how strongly it contrasted with the “pre-modern” ethics of his time. Ken then asks if Spinoza had an answer as to how we should live. Rebecca responds that the fundamental notion in his psychology and ethics is the notion of striving, persistence in our own survival and flourishing. To Spinoza, this was the essence of any thing.

Discussing Spinoza’s metaphysics, Rebecca comments that everything must be explicable to reason. John then shifts the conversation to the influence Spinoza has had on modern scientists, including Einstein.

  • Roving Philosophical Reporter (Seek to 6:40): Shuka Kalantari discusses Spinoza’s harsh excommunication from the Jewish community with Spinoza expert Steven Nadler. To this day, he still remains excommunicated, in spite of efforts by some to have it lifted. Nadler surmises that Spinoza could not have cared less; it would have been meaningless to him.
  • Sixty Second Philosopher (Seek to 45:50): Ian Shoales discusses Spinoza’s excommunication, his rejection of Christianity, his day job grinding lenses, and his eventual death.




Ken Taylor  
It's Philosophy Talk.

Baruch Spinoza  
Rational thought, my dear friends, is a self rewarding virtue. And religious prejudice is a veil which protects the mind from reason.

John Perry  
The life and thought of Baruch Spinoza.