Benedict de Spinoza (Baruch Spinoza) Detailed Biography


Who is Benedict de Spinoza (Baruch Spinoza)? Information on Benedict de Spinoza biography, detailed life story and works.

Benedict de Spinoza (Baruch Spinoza); (1632-1677), Dutch philosopher, who emphasized the role of reason in metaphysics and ethics. Spinoza, whose first name is often given in the Hebrew form of Baruch, was born in Amsterdam, Holland, on Nov. 24, 1632. Descended from Spanish and Portuguese Jewish refugees, he was well educated in Judaism but became estranged from the Amsterdam community, which expelled him in 1656 after some attempts to reclaim him. He had gained a sufficient mastery of Latin in the school of the freethinking F. A. Van den Ende, where also, perhaps, a study of the “new philosophy” of René Descartes directed his closer attention to contemporary Western thought and stimulated his originality.


Early Life and Thought.

Little is known of Spinoza’s life. It is certain that he had learned the craft of grinding lenses for use in optical instruments, from which he earned a modest living, devoting his leisure hours to the development of his own views in a wide field. He appears to have been a leading member of a small discussion group to which he may have contributed some chapters of a work that sheds some light on the development of his thought. Variant Dutch manuscripts of this work, translated from an original Latin, were discovered only in the mid-19th century and published by J. Van Vloten in 1862 under the title of the oldest of them: Korte Verhandeling van God, den Mensch, en Deszelfs Welstand (Short Treatise on God, Man, and His Well-being).

Spinoza’s first, and only acknowledged, publication was a “geometrical” exposition of the philosophy of Descartes: Renati Des Cartes Principiorum Philosophiae, Pars I et II, More Geométrico Demonstratae per Benedictum de Spinoza (1663; Parts I and II of Descartes’ Principles of Philosophy, Demonstrated in the Geometrical Manner by Benedict de Spinoza), containing an Appendix of Metaphysical Reflections (Cogitata Metaphysica). The work was confined to exposition, and contained a preface by Ludovic Meyer denying the author’s complete agreement with the Cartesian doctrines. Spinoza was already a “reformer of the new philosophy.” When this work was published he had left Amsterdam. After his excommunication he had lived first with friends at the nearby village of Ouwerkerk, and in 1660 at Rijnsburg near Leiden, the headquarters of the Collegiant religious community to which some of his friends belonged.

In 1663, Spinoza moved to Voorburg near The Hague, and it was there that he brought to completion, and anonymously published in 1670, the celebrated Tractatus Theologico-Pol-iticus ( Theological-Political Treatise). This is a reasoned plea for liberty of thought and speech in the true interests of piety and public order. A great part of the work is devoted to biblical criticism. It attempted to show that men ought to look to the Bible, not for philosophical or scientific truth, but only for moral guidance. Its representations of God, the world, man, and society are not rational but “imaginational,” framed solely for the promotion of true obedience to moral laws and the advancement of justice and charity.


The Bible is “necessary for salvation” among men who do not possess high intellectual gifts—namely, the majority of men— but it should in no way limit the free exercise of the intellect in the search for truth. This same liberty of thought and speech should be accorded by the secular state in the interests of its particular ends. This view leads Spinoza to an account of the nature and purposes of political organizations, which is treated in greater detail and scope in his later, unfinished Tractatus Politicus (1677; Political Treatise). In the earlier work, however, the aim is to show that for the most part civic order is not endangered but enhanced by allowing freedom of thought and expression, provided that this is not of a seditious nature.

Benedict de Spinoza (Baruch Spinoza)

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Later Life and Works.

In 1677, Spinoza moved to The Hague, where prior to his death he lodged on the Paviljoensgracht with the painter Hendrik Van der Spyck. In spite of the privacy and modesty of his life, he had become well known in his country and abroad as a skillful optician and a philosophical thinker of merit. He corresponded with, and was visited by, scholars and thinkers of repute. In 1673 he was offered the chair of philosophy at Heidelberg by its patron the Elector Palatine, with an assurance of broad liberty of philosophizing.

In view of Spinoza’s own experience of religious bigotry among both Jews and Christians, the realization of such liberty seemed too dubious to be worth risking the quietude and unhindered reflection which he valued, and he returned a grateful refusal. The little he had amassed from his craft and two small pensions from the Dutch statesman, Jan de Witt, and his friend Simon de Vries, apart from a select library, was sufficient only to defray his few last debts and funeral expenses. Spinoza died at The Hague on Feb. 21, 1677.

Spinoza had directed his executor to deliver the manuscripts of his unpublished works to his printer. Later in 1677 there appeared the volume B. D. S. Opera Posthuma, bearing no place of publication or publisher’s name, containing the Ethica More Geometrico Demonstrata (Ethics Demonstrated in the Geometrical Manner); Tractatus Politicus (Political Treatise); Tractatus de Intellectus Emendatione (Treatise on the Improvement of the Understanding); a select Correspondence; and a Hebrew Grammar.


Of these the Ethics is the principal and only finished treatise, and it is on this work that Spinoza’s fame as a philosopher chiefly rests. Its aim is to investigate the nature and sources of the good life for man, and the hindrances to its achievement. Spinoza probes so deeply into the foundations from which these are derived that the work as a whole has a profoundly metaphysical character and air, emphasized by its form and literary flavor. It is set forth, as was his early work on Descartes, in the “geometrical manner,” like Euclid’s Elements, beginning with axioms, postulates, and propositions and ther corollaries, and proceeding to conclusions.

It is also illuminated by frequent notes, often in a vigorous literary style, as well as by summary prefaces and appendices. The work is divided into five parts: the first sets forth the nature of the primordial reality which Spinoza calls “God,” and His relation to the created world; the second, the nature and origin of the human mind, which is the finite, created being most relevant to morals; the third, the origin and nature of the mind’s dispositions; the fourth, the strength of the mind’s dispositions by which man’s ethical bondage is measured; and the fifth, the power of the intellect in which lie moral freedom and achievement.

Benedict de Spinoza (Baruch Spinoza)

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Basic Concepts.

The interpretation that must be placed on the metaphysical foundations of Spinoza’s moral doctrine depends, more profoundly than has traditionally been realized, upon the primary conceptions in terms of which they are elaborated. In particular, the notions of cause, substance, attribute, mode, freedom, and determination, key terms in Spinoza’s system, require most careful consideration lest an alien interpretation derived from later and more familiar usage .seriously impair, or even reverse, the principles advanced.

Thus the traditional account of Spinozism as a mechanistic determinism with an ethical superstructure that it cannot logically support probably issues from an anachronistic application of the term “cause,” already excluded by the opening definition of Part I of the Ethics: “By cause of itself (causa sui) I understand that of which the essence involves existence, or that of which the nature cannot be conceived save as existing.” Such a cause cannot be mechanistic for no being can exist as the transient cause of itself as effect.


By the “cause” of any actual being, Spinoza means the power that is thus actualized, so that his determinism is not extrinsic or transient coercion but the free necessity of self-expression. Substance with its infinite attributes is the power that is actualized in creation, not a distinct actuality that produces the world out of nothing. The world, or created nature, is the actuality of this power. Spinoza’s doctrine, therefore, is not mechanistic but activistic.

This power, though real, is not in itself actual and determinate. It is actualized in various modes among which minds must be included. Minds are thinking beings that are intimately related to objects other than themselves, such as bodies in the case of human minds. Thus in thinking of the primordial power which Spinoza calls substance, of which they are actualizations, human minds must regard that power, which in itself is indeterminate, as the reflectively determinate source of minds and bodies. Accordingly, substance consists of the infinite and eternal attributes of thought and extension, and, to satisfy its native indeterminates, also consists of an infinite variety of other infinite and eternal attributes that are not known by the intellect.

Human Nature and Values.

Created man is eternal as a finite actualization of divine power. How, then, are men as durational, striving beings related to God and to each other? According to Spinoza they are “imaginational” appearances of their natures as created. Each man is but a part of Nature, lying within its bounds, but as a microcosm he is inclined to view the world in terms of his own finite being, while God Himself views it in terms of creation. Man’s views of “himself and God, and things” are thus partially fragmented and confused. Their integrity, eternity, and agency are made deficient by partition, duration, and striving.

The derived “free necessity” of man’s causality suffers the privation of contingency as more or less free choice, and his perfection in his grade of being becomes an alternation of good and evil. It is redemption from this partial privation of nature that is the end of morality. It can be achieved only insofar as “reference to self” gives place to “reference to God.” So far as this is achieved, human endeavor is crowned with goodness. So far as there is recession from it, evil and misery ensue. Yet it is by the good that the agent lives, and evil is parasitical, presenting the false appearance of good.


Man, however, is a genuine part of Nature, and his “imaginations” are not wholly or necessarily false, but rather lapses in the rational and intuitive knowledge of “himself, and God, and things.” It is by the emendation of imagination by hearsay, sense, and “vagrant experience” generally that man attains the reasoned judgment about the common properties of things. Emendation of imagination also leads to intuitive knowledge or perfect understanding of things in the order of eternal creation which provides the due measure of true freedom, blessedness, and “intellectual love” that is available even in this present life.

Spinoza’s theory of the three kinds of knowledge is elaborated in the unfinished Tractatus de Intellectus Emendatione and in Part II of the Ethics, together with his important account of ideas as mental actions rather than mental pictures.

Spinoza displays his theory of human liberation from the passions which emerge under finite self-reference in the final parts of the Ethics. He gives eloquent expression to the profound satisfactions of the intellectual life, in which a man partakes of the divine nature in intellectual love and is freed from the limitations of duration. He becomes immortal, not as a being living again in a time after death, but as eternal and delighting in full creation.

The political theory of Spinoza is closely fashioned on his metaphysics and ethics. The state is a rationalization of the self-defeating “state of nature.” Under the state the natural power or right of individuals is redeemed from futility by willing or unwilling subjection to common laws under a ruler or rulers. The function of the state is not moralization or cultivation but pacification, to be a rampart within which morality and culture may safely be developed.


Spinoza has been called “the philosopher’s philosopher,” and in spite of much vilification because of his lack of orthodoxy and strong rationalist emphasis, his influence has never been wholly negligible even among his critics.


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