The fool folds his hands and eats his own flesh.

Kohelet 4:5

Baruch Spinoza - biography

Spinoza or Baruch Spinoza (Hebrew: ברוך שפינוזה‎ Baruch Shpinoza, Portuguese: Bento de Espinosa, Latin: Benedictus de Spinoza) (November 24, 1632 – February 21, 1677) was a Jewish Philosopher of Dutch origin.Revealing considerable scientific aptitude, the breadth and importance of Spinoza's work was not fully realized until years after his death. Today, he is considered one of the great rationalists of the 17th-century philosophy, laying the groundwork for the 18th century Enlightenment and modern biblical criticism. By virtue of his magnum opus, the posthumous Ethics, in which he opposed Descartes mind–body dualism, Spinoza is considered to be one of Western philosophy's most important philosophers. Philosopher and historian Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel said of all contemporary philosophers, "You are either a Spinozist or not a philosopher at all." Spinoza attended the Keter Torah yeshiva headed by Rabbi Shaul Levi Morteira, and maintained a connection with Rabbi Menasseh ben Israel, whose home was a center for Jewish scholars in Amsterdam.

Though Spinoza was active in the Dutch Jewish community and extremely well-versed in Jewish texts, some claim that his controversial ideas eventually led community leaders to issue a cherem (Hebrew: חרם, a kind of excommunication) against him, effectively dismissing him from that Jewish society at age 23, though most of his friends were Marranos. Prior to any action by the Dutch Jewish community, however, his books were put on the Catholic Index of banned books, and were burned by Dutch Protestants, for their humanistic take on the Bible. Some historians argue that the Roman Catholic Church influenced the nascent Jewish community of Marranos to enact this rare excommunication law. Historian Adri Offenberg and others argue that the Amsterdam Jewish Community, at the time in its infancy and struggling to secure its position in the Dutch republic, was placed under aggressive external pressure by the Dutch Reform and Roman Catholic Churches to unwillingly quell what was perceived as heresy in dominant Christian circles (Die Lebensgeschichte Spinozas). Philosopher and historian of ideas Richard Popkin questions the historical veracity of the documents claiming Spinoza was issued a cherem, which emerged close to 300 years after Spinoza's death. All of Spinoza's works were listed on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum (List of Prohibited Books) by the Roman Catholic Church.

Spinoza lived quietly as a lens grinder, turning down rewards and honors throughout his life, including prestigious teaching positions, and gave his family inheritance to his sister. Spinoza's moral character and philosophical accomplishments prompted 20th century philosopher Gilles Deleuze to name him "the 'prince' of philosophers." Spinoza died at the age of 44 allegedly of a lung illness, perhaps tuberculosis or silicosis exacerbated by fine glass dust inhaled while plying his trade. Spinoza is buried in the churchyard of the Christian Nieuwe Kerk in The Hague.



Family origins

Spinoza's ancestors were of Sephardic Jewish descent, and were a part of the community of Portuguese Jews that grew in the city of Amsterdam after the Alhambra Decree in Spain (1492) and the Portuguese Inquisition (1536) had led to forced conversions and expulsions from the Iberian peninsula.

Some historians argue the Spinoza family ("Espinosa" in Portuguese) had its origins in Espinosa de los Monteros, near Burgos, Spain. Others claim they were Portuguese Jews who had moved to Spain and then expelled back to their home country in 1492, only to be forcibly converted to Catholicism in 1498. Spinoza's father was born roughly a century after this forced conversion in the small Portuguese city of Vidigueira, near Beja in Alentejo. When Spinoza's father was still a child, Spinoza's grandfather, Isaac de Spinoza (who was from Lisbon), took his family to Nantes in France. They were expelled in 1615 and moved to Rotterdam, where Isaac died in 1627. Spinoza's father, Miguel, and his uncle, Manuel, then moved to Amsterdam where they reassumed their Judaism. Manuel changed his name to Abraão de Spinoza, though his "commercial" name was still the same.

Early life and career

Baruch Spinoza was born in Amsterdam, in the Netherlands. His mother Ana Débora, Miguel's second wife, died when Baruch was only six years old. Miguel was a successful importer/merchant and Baruch had a traditional Jewish upbringing; however, his critical, curious nature would soon come into conflict with the Jewish community. Wars with England and France[vague] took the life of his father and decimated his family's fortune but he was eventually able to relinquish responsibility for the business and its debts to his brother, Gabriel, and devote himself to philosophy and optics.

Controversial ideas and Jewish reaction

Some claim that on 27 July 1656, the Jewish community issued to him the writ of cherem (Hebrew: חרם, a kind of excommunication), although the veracity of the document from which this historical claim is extrapolated is widely disputed. While the language of the supposed cherem was unusually harsh, the exact reason for expelling Spinoza is not stated. It has been argued that, in view of Christian opposition to Spinoza's opinions, the Jewish community had little option but to dissociate itself from Spinoza's "heresies". 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. His books were put on the Catholic Index of banned books, and were burned by Dutch Protestants, for their humanistic take on the Bible.

During this period Spinoza also became acquainted with several Collegiants, members of an eclectic sect with tendencies towards rationalism. Many of his friends belonged to dissident Christian groups which met regularly as discussion groups and which typically rejected the authority of established churches as well as traditional dogmas. Textbooks and encyclopedias often depict Spinoza as a solitary soul who eked out a living as a lens grinder; in reality, he had many friends but kept his needs to a minimum.The reviewer M. Stuart Phelps noted "No one has ever come nearer to the ideal life of the philosopher than Spinoza." Another reviewer, Harold Bloom, wrote: "As a teacher of reality, he practiced his own wisdom, and was surely one of the most exemplary human beings ever to have lived." According to the New York Times "In outward appearance he was unpretending, but not careless. His way of living was exceedingly modest and retired; often he did not leave his room for many days together. He was likewise almost incredibly frugal; his expenses sometimes amounted only to a few pence a day." According to Harold Bloom and the Chicago Tribune "He appears to have had no sexual life." 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 after his conversion. 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. Spinoza corresponded with Oldenburg for the rest of his short life. The writings of Rene Descartes have been described as "Spinoza's starting point." Spinoza's first publication was his geometric exposition (formal math proofs) of Descartes, Parts I and II of Descartes' Principles of Philosophy (1663). Spinoza has been associated with Leibniz and Descartes as "rationalists" in contrast to "empiricists". 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, Spinoza 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 he is also known to have met with Spinoza on at least one occasion (as mentioned above), and his own work bears some striking resemblances to specific important 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 Descartes' Principles of 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. The Ethics contains many still-unresolved obscurities and is written with a forbidding mathematical structure modeled on Euclid's geometry and has been described as a "superbly cryptic masterwork."

Later life and career

Spinoza spent his remaining 21 years writing and studying as a private scholar. He preached a philosophy of tolerance and benevolence. Anthony Gottlieb described him as living "a saintly life."

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 said to be due to lung illness, possibly the result of breathing in glass dust from the lenses he ground. Or also possibly due to a syndrome, known as Familial Mediterranean Fever (FMF) which is a hereditary inflammatory disorder that affects groups of people originating from around the Mediterranean Sea. Both explanations are however doubtful, since there are no reports of a special affliction amongst glass grinders and FMF is a benign disorder. Later, a shrine was made of his home in The Hague.

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 saint by the general Christian population, and was buried in holy ground.

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 was 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

Article author: Zipora Galitski
Article tags: biography
The article is about these people:   Baruch Spinoza

This information is published under GNU Free Document License (GFDL).
You should be logged in, in order to edit this article.


Please log in / register, to leave a comment

Welcome to JewAge!
Learn about the origins of your family