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The philosophy of Spinoza has achieved many commentaries. There is no uniform verdict as to the precise nature of his worldview. Excommunicated from Judaism, his early life is imperfectly known. There is proof of affinity with radical Christian minorities, but his own outlook escaped all doctrinal confines. His daring political philosophy and distinctive "natural metaphysics" set him quite apart from his forerunner Descartes.

Baruch Spinoza


1.       Early  Years

2.       Excommunication

3.       The  Neo-Cartesian

4.       Collegiants  and  Quakers

5.       Anti-Orthodoxy,  Neoplatonism,  and  Islamic  Philosophy

6.       Three  Lens-Grinders: Spinoza,  Leeuwenhoek,  and  Huygens

7.       Henry  Oldenburg  and  the  Royal  Society

8.       From  the  Emendation  to  Political Thought

9.       Last  Years  

10.     Leibniz  and  Spinoza

11.     The  Ethics

12.     Aftermath

 Appendix 1: Spinoza  and  Averroes

 Appendix 2: The  Kabbalah  Issue



1.  Early  Years

Baruch de Spinoza (1632-77) was born in Amsterdam to Portuguese Jews, his father Michael Espinoza being a merchant. Michael and his wife were marranos or crypto-Jews, meaning those forcibly converted to Christianity in Portugal. The victims of dogma were arrested, then charged with the crime of preserving Jewish practices in secret. Confessing to the Inquisition, they were fined. Any repetition of this harassment could have entailed death at the stake. Not surprisingly, marranos fled from the Inquisition zone, arriving in the Netherlands, then the country with most religious freedom.

Calvinist attempts to impose religious uniformity in the Netherlands were offset by mercantile developments. Merchants moved to Amsterdam from various countries; the Dutch government was tolerant of religious differences because of the attendant prosperity. "The Jews were not encased in a ghetto but could live wherever they pleased" (Popkin 2004:8). Many Jews became wealthy in the new environment. The Jewish community in Amsterdam "were mainly marranos [Christianised Jews] who had very little training in Judaism" (ibid:9). That community "basically created its own version of Jewish practices and beliefs, mingling freely with other religious groups" (ibid).

The domestic language of Spinoza's family was Portuguese. Spanish was also spoken, being the vehicle of literature. Prayers were said in Hebrew, the religious language. A familiarity with Dutch became common amongst these Jews, assisting commerce and general communication with other communities. "Even when he was older, Spinoza, although perfectly fluent in Latin and knowledgeable in Hebrew, was always more comfortable in Portuguese than in any other language" (Nadler 1999:47).

For several generations, his family had officially been Roman Catholic (or marrano), prior to resuming a Jewish identity at Amsterdam. Both of these religious backgrounds were at variance with the Calvinism so dominant in Holland. During his adult life, Spinoza liked to read in Spanish when possible (Yirmiyahu Yovel, Spinoza, the First Secular Jew?).

Spinoza attended theTalmud Torah school in Amsterdam, the curriculum being mainly in Spanish. However, he did not train to be a rabbi, leaving the school at an earlier grade, apparently because his father needed assistance in the family business of trading in fruits, vegetables, and wine. Spinoza "probably abandoned his formal studies and joined his father's importing and exporting firm in late 1649 or soon thereafter; he may have stopped attending classes even earlier than that, just after finishing the elementary grades (around 1646 or so), and gone right to work when he was about fourteen" (Nadler 1999:81).

Accounts of this episode vary in emphasis. "He had refused to continue his studies in the higher courses in Jewish theology given by his masters, although his father, a faithful and perhaps also conservative member of the community, recommended them forcefully" (Klever 1996:17).

One suggestion is that the studies of Spinoza continued in "religious and literary study groups for adults" (Nadler 1999:89). This means the yeshivot conducted by rabbis like Morteira and Aboab. Spinoza later demonstrated a close familiarity with scripture and major commentaries; he was also intimately acquainted with the Jewish philosophers. However, his familiarity with the Talmud was "superficial at best," and he rarely cited from that corpus in his writings (ibid:93). Rabbi Isaac Aboab de Fonseca had an interest in the Kabbalah, whereas Rabbi Saul Levi Morteira favoured a philosophical approach to religion (Zovko PDF:9 note 32). Morteira (d.1660) was the chief rabbi in Amsterdam, composing a lengthy attack on Christian theology shortly before his death.

Spinoza's father died in 1654. The paternal estate he inherited was suffering heavy debts. In this predicament, Spinoza attempted to absolve himself of responsibility for paternal debts by filing a petition according to Dutch law. Seeking legal protection as a minor (under the age of 25), he hired a lawyer. This situation is implicated in one of the theories attempting to explain why he was excommunicated, from the Jewish congregation, by the Amsterdam synagogue elders in 1656.

2.  Excommunication

A basic problem about the excommunication is that the reasons for this development are unknown. Various explanations have been supplied, but nothing is definitive. Indeed, some aspects of Spinoza's intellectual development are also unclear, with tentative chartings similarly in evidence. Three early biographies of the subject (by Bayle, Lucas, and Colerus) all have disadvantages with regard to a comprehensive picture of events.

The excommunication document refers to "abominable heresies" of the subject, without describing these. The indictment asserted, in evocative terms: "By decree of the angels and by the command of the holy men, we excommunicate, expel, curse and damn Baruch de Espinoza, with the consent of God" (Nadler 1999:120).

By that time, the heretic had already left the fold. The indications are that he preferred the society of liberal Christian groups, and other freethinkers, to the religious orthodoxies who fulminated at any divergence. In the Dutch-speaking world, at the mercantile level, medieval damnations could be bypassed. Many local merchants "were members of dissenting Protestant sects, such as the Mennonites, and thus broader in their reading and much more open in their thinking than orthodox Calvinists" (ibid:101). A probability is that, in this sector, Spinoza first heard of new trends in philosophy and science, including the output of Descartes.

A significant retrospective statement can be found in Spinoza's Treatise On the Emendation of the Intellect. The opening paragraph of that work describes his early resolve to seek the "real good," something which could "continuously give me the greatest joy, to eternity.... I saw, of course, the advantages that honour and wealth bring, and that I would be forced to abstain from seeking them, if I wished to devote myself seriously to something new and different" (ibid:102).

Spinoza did not pursue a mercantile career, and also avoided an academic role. Living in a predominantly Christian society, he Latinised his name to Benedict, while adopting the artisan trade of a lens grinder.

3.  The  Neo-Cartesian

At some uncertain date (whether before or after the excommunication), Spinoza opted to learn Latin from Franciscus van den Enden (1602-1674), sometimes described as a radical deist. This ex-Jesuit was a freethinker who believed in a democratic state without preachers. A proficient tutor in Latin while living at Amsterdam, he moved to Paris in 1670 after a conflict with the Calvinist camp; tragically, he was hanged after being implicated in a plot against the French monarchy. The extent of Van den Enden's influence on Spinoza is uncertain. The junior evidently learned a great deal in Latin idioms from the tutor. Spinoza subsequently employed many references to classical Latin writers.

Latin was a necessary acquisition for any study of the new philosophy associated with René Descartes (1596-1650). The source of Spinoza's acquaintance with Descartes has been debated. According to one assessor, commenting on the diary of anatomist Olaus Borch: "It is very intriguing to find the famous [Johan] Hudde [a mathematician] already as a neo-Cartesian in Spinoza's companionship and those two among the radical Cartesians of the early 1660s; a third man in this stream of Cartesianising philosophers was Franciscus van den Enden, probably the mastermind of the circle" (Klever 1996:24).

A number of Spinoza's Christian merchant friends are said to have been Cartesians. Spinoza's intensive investigation of Descartes "would really only take place in the late 1650s, when he regularly participated in the discussions of the Amsterdam Collegiant circles and may also have studied under Cartesian professors at the University of Leiden" (Nadler 1999:113). There are disagreements as to whether the Cartesian factor influenced the synagogue denunciation of 1656. "There is no evidence that Cartesianism was a problem within the Jewish community at the time of Spinoza's excommunication" (Popkin 2004:33).

The universities of Leiden and Utrecht were centres of resistance to Descartes during the 1640s. Yet by the early 1650s, a number of professors in those institutions were advocates of Cartesian thought. Dogmatic Calvinists viewed Descartes as spreading a dangerous philosophy that would destroy religion. There were recurrent attacks from orthodoxy, including the proclamation of 1656 by the States of Holland and West Friesland. "Enforcement of the bans was, at some universities, notoriously lax.... Cartesianism slowly infiltrated the university faculties" (Nadler 1999:151). This situation of ingress is thought to have been facilitated by the rationalist sympathies of Johann de Witt, the political leader of the Dutch Republic until 1672.

In 1663, seven years after his excommunication, Spinoza published his The Principles of Descartes' Philosophy. This reveals the author as being no slavish follower of Descartes, but in some respects a critic. Spinoza evolved a major disagreement with the substance theory of Descartes, the former advocating a substance monism resistant to the Cartesian three substance schema of God, Mind, and Matter.

The sub-title of Spinoza's book on Descartes declared a demonstration according to the geometric method. This feature has sometimes been attributed to the author's academic friend Dr. Lodewijk Meyer, who may have encouraged the tendency to "geometrise" (Gullan-Whur 1998:106, suggesting that Meyer himself may have been influenced by the Cartesian professor Arnold Geulincz of Leiden). Meyer, another critic of theology, wrote the preface to Spinoza's neo-Cartesian book.

The geometric method, employing propositions and demonstrations, is strongly associated with the Elementa geometrica of Euclid, a Greek mathematician (d.c.265 BC). Spinoza subsequently employed this method in his Ethics, a feature which makes for demanding reading. Many readers deem the geometric format to be cumbersome, a factor that has not prevented Ethics from being one of the most famous and debated texts in Western philosophy.

One rarely finds attempts to develop a geometrically based philosophy; in antiquity there is just one example, that of the Neoplatonist Proclus (410-485), who wrote Elements of Theology and presented Neoplatonic theology in an axiomatic deductive system. (Popkin 2004:51)

One of the misunderstandings, easily arising in the instance of Spinoza, relates to scepticism. He was a critic of orthodox religion, but not of what may be called rationalist religion. He was a distinctive type of deist, emphasising a single "substance" in terms of God and Nature. There was no dualism as in Descartes, also no programme of outwitting scepticism. "Spinoza says in many places in his writings that there is no need to consider any sceptical problems if one is aware of the idea of God; this becomes the evidence of itself and explains everything else" (Popkin 2004:51).

Many investigators have experienced difficulty with Spinoza's concept of God, commencing with the Calvinist fundamentalists who mistakenly construed him to be an atheist. Spinoza is still interpreted in this light by some contemporary secularist commentators.

4.  Collegiants  and  Quakers

Spinoza's extant correspondence does not commence until 1661, during his sojourn at Rijnsburg. His preceding Amsterdam phase has consequently been subject to different interpretations. However, basic features are quite obvious. He was in close contact with diverse liberal Protestant Christians, a development originating with his encounters as a merchant prior to 1656. Collegiants figure strongly, that party sometimes being described as an anti-clerical grouping of Remonstrants. Some of his friends attended the Collegiant gatherings in Amsterdam, meaning the biweekly Sunday events known as "colleges." These egalitarian meetings were in reaction to official theology. Mennonites and other radical sects were opposed to authoritarian leadership and preaching. The Remonstrant movement is traced back to the Remonstrance of 1610, when a divergence from Calvinism occurred.

The village of Rijnsburg, near Leiden, had become one of the early Collegiant centres. The Amsterdam branch, created in the 1640s, was harassed by Calvinist preachers, and usually convened in private homes. "Liberal in their politics, tolerant in their religion, nondoctrinaire in their interpretation of Scripture, and generally anticlerical, the Collegiants would have held a great attraction for Spinoza" (Nadler 1999:141).

During his mercantile phase of vending tropical fruits, Spinoza gained a lifelong friend in Jarig Jellesz, "a Collegiant whose produce stand was next to the one Spinoza had along the harbour" (Popkin 2004:30). The outlook of these two men was convergent. Jellesz was a Mennonite grocer who frequently traded with Portuguese Jews; he subsequently renounced his business in reaction to the accumulation of wealth and goods. Remaining a celibate, Jellesz "withdrew from the turbulence of the world to practise in quietness the knowledge of the truth, looking for the true nature of God and to find wisdom" (Nadler 1999:168, citing from an early biographical note added to the Confession of Jellesz, a note which may have been composed by Rieuwertsz).

The Confession of Jellesz was published in 1684 by the Amsterdam printer and bookseller Jan Rieuwertsz, who also came from a Mennonite family. Rieuwertsz may have encountered Spinoza via the Collegiants. He shared an enthusiasm for the writings of Descartes, which he published in Dutch translation from 1657 onwards, for a lengthy period. Rieuwertsz is strongly implicated as a member of a separate "intellectual circle" (to the Collegiants) who were committed to the Cartesian philosophy at Amsterdam. This circle included Spinoza and also Jan Hendriksz Glazemaker (1620-82), the Dutch translator of the Cartesian writings, and another Mennonite.

Yet another Mennonite associate of the heretical Jew was Pieter Balling, a Dutch merchant fluent in Spanish. Balling has been described as a disciple of Spinoza. In 1662 he published anonymously (via the industrious Rieuwertsz) a work entitled The Light upon the Candlestick. Many readers assumed this to be a Quaker composition. More accurately, The Light was a "Spinozistic treatise" in which Balling "claims that a natural, intuitive, 'inner' experience of the divine is possible for everyone; any individual can commune with God through his own rational faculties, regardless of his knowledge of Scripture or his confessional background" (Nadler 1999:169).

The context of this distinctive treatise is revealing. Balling, as "a member of the Amsterdam philosophical group that was supporting Spinoza financially, was chosen to visit Spinoza to ask for his help in writing this philosophical pamphlet, because he was fluent in Spanish and could talk to Spinoza more easily" (Popkin 2004:42). Spinoza's use of Dutch was apparently more rudimentary than his other linguistic media.

Spinozan rational mysticism was at first in liaison with the Quakers, a Protestant sect arising in the 1650s and spreading to Amsterdam in the face of tribulations encountered in England. Spinoza was introduced to the Quaker leader William Ames (ibid:32). Deductions follow that "Spinoza would have become, for a brief time in 1657 and 1658, a kind of Jewish expert and consultant for the Quakers, translating for them and perhaps giving them advice on how best to approach the Jews of Amsterdam" (Nadler 1999:161).

Spinoza was apparently responsive to Samuel Fisher. This Quaker, conversant with Hebrew, argued that the written text of the Bible was far removed from any original communication or revelation. Spinoza's ideas on the subject of Biblical scripture were convergent with such criticism (ibid:162-3), one of his later works becoming a tour de force in this direction. Spinoza appears to have become involved with the Quakers after his excommunication, assisting Fisher in translating two pamphlets of Margaret Fell into Hebrew. Fisher hoped to influence the Jews of Amsterdam by this means (Popkin 1996:393).

5.  Anti-Orthodoxy,  Neoplatonism,  and  Islamic  Philosophy

A basic concern of Spinoza was to dissociate God from the anthropomorphic representations common in orthodox religion. He viewed the personalising concepts as ridiculous, making emphases to the effect that "God is not a judge, nor is he subject to the emotions and passions (anger, jealousy, desire etc.) that theologians - seeking to take advantage of the hopes and fears of ordinary people - absurdly attribute to him" (Nadler 1999:216-217).

Spinoza was in strong opposition to doctrines imposing eternal reward or punishment in the afterlife. He viewed these concepts as a vehicle of manipulation by preachers. Scholarly disagreements attend the development of his thought in this respect. An influential view is that Spinoza became notorious for denying that the human soul is immortal, in the sense of preserving a personal identity in the heaven or hell that were dogmatised (Nadler 2002). In his perspective, "hope and fear are merely the emotions that religious leaders manipulate in order to keep their flocks in a state of worshipful submission" (Nadler 1999:131).

According to Inquisition reports, both Spinoza and the heretical Juan de Prado were asserting, in 1658, that the soul was not immortal, that there was no God except in a philosophical sense, and also denying the divine origin of the Torah. Prado was a Spanish marrano Jew and physician who arrived in Amsterdam. having fled from the Inquisition, who had tortured one of his relatives to extract a confession concerning Prado's sympathy with Judaism. Spinoza and Prado were evidently acquaintances at this period (ibid:135-6,142ff). Inquisition reports are not always considered reliable.

The posited influence of Prado on Spinoza has been queried. "One may imagine that Spinoza opposed De Prado's rejection of the immortality of the soul on account of his early insight into the mind's eternity" (Klever 1996:23, opposing the theory of I. S. Revah in Spinoza et le Dr. Juan de Prado, 1959). Spinoza and Prado shared a critical view of Biblical Judaism and the literalism of rabbis (Popkin 2004:29-30,42-3).

Spinoza's denial of "personal immortality" has been misleadingly construed as a sign of atheism. Part 5 of Ethics has been contracted in one interpretation via the insistence: "When you are dead, Spinoza is saying, you are dead" (Nadler, Why Spinoza was Excommunicated, online). Spinoza does not make any such statement, which is a contemporary preference. He does say: "The human mind cannot be absolutely destroyed with the body, but something of it remains which is eternal" (Ethics 5P23).

Spinoza is thematically discontinuous with medieval Jewish philosophy, a tradition including Maimonides (d.1204) and Gersonides (d.1344). There are different opinions about the beliefs of Maimonides. His version of Aristotelian philosophy is reflected in his Arabic work Guide of the Perplexed. He believed in immortality of the soul, employing a context of acquired "intellect," meaning the result of efforts to obtain correct knowledge. Maimonides composed various other works of a more orthodox nature, including a treatise on resurrection of the body. This development has been linked to events in the Islamic world, where the Almohad regime discriminated against heretical falasifa (philosophers) who denied bodily resurrection (Stroumsa 2009:165ff).

Atheistic interpretations are contradicted by such statements of Spinoza as: "Knowledge of God is the mind's greatest good; its greatest virtue is to know God" (Ethics 4P28). The difference between Spinoza's version of immortality, and the conventional religious version, is supplied in such passages as: "If we attend to the common opinion of men, we shall see that they are indeed conscious of the eternity of their mind, but that they confuse it with duration, and attribute it to the imagination, or memory, which they believe remains after death" (Ethics 5P34s).

A neo-Cartesian context of scientific explication, in relation to Spinoza, is strongly favoured by some commentators (e.g., Allison 1987). The uncompromising rationalism of Spinoza is emphasised by this contingent. Other analysts say that Spinozan naturalism can be misleading when rigidly interpreted. Contrasting Neoplatonist influences have been urged as relevant (Zovko PDF). There is even an argument that Spinoza's philosophy is related to Platonism, contradicting a prevailing belief that his naturalism and monism are fundamentally opposed to Platonic thought (ibid:2). Other parties will only credit a Stoic association.

Probably at an early date in his life, Spinoza was reading the Spanish original of Leone Ebreo's Dialogues on Love (1535). Ebreo, alias Judah Abrabanel, was a sixteenth century Jewish Neoplatonist philosopher, in whose book can be found "many elements that would later appear in Spinoza's writings" (Nadler 1999:138).

Abrabanel (d.1523) moved from Spain to Italy after the expulsion of Jews from the former country. The Dialogues were published at Rome in Italian, becoming popular and influential. Traces of Maimonides, Ibn Gabirol, and the Kabbalah have been detected in these Neoplatonist dialogues, which feature the speakers Philo and Sophia, who dwell on the theme of an intellectual love, in relation to a union with God.

There are also associations of Spinoza with philosophical Kabbalism, to be distinguished from the popular variants. Spinoza is thought to have been influenced by the Puerta del Cielo, an eclectic work by Abraham Cohen Herrera (d.1635), who was familiar with the Kabbalist tradition of Moses Cordovero and Isaac Luria. Herrera composed his book in Spanish for the marrano community of Amsterdam. Major themes of Neoplatonism are expressed in the works of both Herrera and Abrabanel. The output of these two writers was composed in Spinoza's native Spanish (Zovko PDF:13). See further Appendix 2 below.

Generally ignored are relevant associations with Islamic medieval philosophy. A link with Averroes (Ibn Rushd) is proposed via Spinoza's reading of Delmedigo (Appendix 1 below). In a more extensive context, even Spinoza's Iranian contemporary Mulla Sadra (d.1636) has been proposed as a comparison for similar conceptual framework.

According to Wilson, "Anglo-American historians of philosophy are frequently baffled by Spinoza." She refers to the theory of two incompatible doctrines being employed by Spinoza. However, "if we read Spinoza as a late medieval philosopher, the manner in which he handles questions concerning the nature of God, intuitive knowledge, and immortality seems fully intelligible. He holds many doctrines that are recognisable from the common heritage. Chief amongst them are the unity of God and the world, the possibility of moral achievement through self-knowledge and self-discipline, and the primacy of intuitive knowledge" (Catherine Wilson, Knowledge and Immortality in Spinoza and Mulla Sadra).

According to Spinoza, immortality is achieved through the cultivation of intuitive knowledge. The ignorant man is constantly distracted by his emotions and appetites, whereas the wise man gains the third kind of knowledge, which is indestructible or eternal, conferring immortality. "These claims have been found baffling by Spinoza's recent commentators" (Wilson). All we find in some commentaries are reflections about atheism and Cartesian reason, amounting to a formidable obscurantism imposed by the contemporary mindset. Some elaborate arguments can be found that "pantheism" is impossible because God is reduced to Nature in the Ethics.

The concept of immortality, achieved by an intellectual endeavour, can be traced back to a passage in the De Anima of Aristotle. The words are quoted: "When mind is set free from its present conditions... this alone is immortal." Averroes supplied an interpretation of the Aristotelian passage, in terms of the human intellect rejoining the Active Intellect of the universe at the time of individual death. Aquinas appropriated this passage in a Christian context (Wilson, linked above). See also Ross, Baruch Spinoza.

A relevant conclusion is that the Spinoza circle displayed "a remarkable interest in things Islamic" (Leezenberg 2010:27-33). This refers to the translation of Islamic works. In 1657, the versatile Rieuwertsz published a Dutch version of the Quran. The translator was another Spinoza acquaintance, namely Jan Hendriksz Glazemaker, who also mediated into Dutch the works of Descartes. In 1672, an anonymous translator contributed the Hayy ibn Yaqzan of Ibn Tufayl (d.1185), then recently appearing in Latin. According to a more recent suggestion, Spinoza himself requested the Dutch translation of this philosophical work (published by one of his friends). Hayy ibn Yaqzan is "the story of a self-taught philosopher of perfect intelligence.... who discovers for himself all phases of knowledge, from the technical and physical to the spiritual truths underlying scriptural religions" (Goodman 1996:315; see also Goodman 2009).

Indirect traces of Islamic philosophical traditions can be found in Spinoza, including the mediations by Maimonides and Gersonides. Maimonides wrote his Guide for the Perplexed in Arabic, a language very familiar in Jewish philosophy. Via Maimonides, Spinoza "is indebted indirectly" to Al-Farabi (d.950), who similarly distinguished between the mass and elite, suggesting that the latter (meaning the philosophers) have no need for the revealed tenets of religion (Leezenberg 2010:28). "Spinoza in fact appears closer to Al-Farabi than to Maimonides, whose arguments often rely on the authority of Biblical narratives rather than that of philosophical argumentation" (ibid:29).

The relation of Spinoza to Maimonides is a subject of debate. Very briefly, Spinoza was familiar with the output of the influential Maimonides, but also argued strongly against him on some points. Spinoza was resistant to the Maimonidean defence of the Torah. Similarities between these two entities have nevertheless been claimed. A counter-argument is that supposed similarities are superficial (Parens 2012).

6.  Three  Lens-Grinders: Spinoza,  Leeuwenhoek,  and  Huygens

Spinoza opted to become a lens-grinder, a vocation receiving varied assessments, some rather abbreviated. A well known work on Spinoza makes a very fleeting reference to this activity, comprising only four words, "grinding and polishing lenses" (Hampshire 1988:170). Such a vocation is very different to the academic career routines of later philosophers such as Kant and Hegel (and many others).

Spinoza ceased to be a merchant at the time of his excommunication. He subsequently gained financial support from some of his affluent Christian friends. There is the question as to whether such considerations were adequate for his livelihood, even though he is noted for his frugality. One of his acquaintances was Simon de Vries (d.1667), a Collegiant devoted to Spinoza, who offered to support him financially with an annual stipend. Two early sources report that Spinoza declined this prospect. According to Colerus, Spinoza gave the explanation that the intended gift would constitute a distraction to his studies and occupations.

At a later date, De Vries again pressed his support in relation to a will he was drafting. This supporter wished to make Spinoza his sole heir, but the philosopher again declined. De Vries modified his offer, stipulating an annuity of five hundred guilders from his estate. Spinoza would only agree to three hundred guilders, a sum which he apparently received after the death of De Vries in 1667 (Nadler 1999:261-2).

Spinoza resorted to the craft of lens-grinding at an early (but uncertain) date, perhaps even while he was learning Latin. This was his means of survival in a Christian world. Some commentators have interpreted his artisan activity in terms of a gentlemanly pursuit of scientific interests, implying that economic factors were not primarily involved, or at least not after the initial phase. More realistically, he survived as an artisan, accomplishing sufficient work to cause a health setback. According to Jellesz, he contracted consumption, apparently aggravated by inhaling glass dust. At his death, he was "very thin from the disease he had had for many years" (Klever 1996:50).

In 1663, Spinoza undertook to tutor a young theology student from Leiden in the Cartesian philosophy (as distinct from his own philosophy). Johannes Caesarius (subsequently a preacher) transpired to be a difficult project at Rijnsburg. "The task of tutoring such a person in a philosophy beyond which he himself had moved - a job that Spinoza may have undertaken for income - was clearly something of a burden" (Nadler 1999:198).

If that task was undertaken for purposes of income, then the lens-grinding benchwork could have been liberating by comparison, even if this also was an activity prompted by factors of livelihood.

Hooman's house in Rijnsburg

The artisan activity commenced at an unknown date during Spinoza's early phase at Amsterdam, during the 1650s. He appears to have been quite skilled in lens-grinding by the time he moved to Rijnsburg in 1661. He lodged at the house of Herman Hooman, a chemist and doctor who was one of the local Collegiants in this village. The house of Spinoza's landlord was situated in a quiet street.

A complexity is that Spinoza did not merely produce lenses. "The German travellers Stolle and Hallmann, Pierre Bayle, Colerus, Jelles, Lucas, Christiaan Huygens, Theodor Kerckringh, and many others relate that Spinoza personally constructed microscopes and telescopes which were highly praised by the scientists of his day" (Klever 1996:33). Spinoza's close interest in optics, and his appreciation of astronomy, must have afforded the lens-grinding activity a special interest for him.

Although Spinoza did not accomplish original work in the physical sciences and mathematics, being a philosopher first and foremost, he did possess a substantial understanding of optical theory (like Descartes). He was "competent enough to engage in sophisticated discussion with correspondents over fine points in the mathematics of refraction" (Nadler 1999:183).

The craft of a lens-grinder ideally required an apprenticeship. Spinoza appears to have negotiated that factor, perhaps via his Mennonite friend Jan Hendriksz Glazemaker, who seems to have formerly worked as a professional "glassmaker," an ancestral vocation. At this period, an uncertain number of amateurs were attracted to the construction of lenses, responding to an enthusiasm created by the Optics of Descartes. They must have varied considerably in their talents. The newly discovered "invisible world" revealed by microscopy was a stimulus to thought, and a challenge to some restricted viewpoints (Wilson 1995). In this respect, Spinoza was on the crest of a new wave.

Antony van Leeuwenhoek

Leibniz judged Spinoza to be an outstanding microscopist. However, the German philosopher awarded the major honours to three other men, namely Jan Swammerdam, Marcello Malpighi, and Anthony van Leeuwenhoek (1632-1723). The lastmentioned has emerged as the most remarkable in his field. Leeuwenhoek constructed small single-lens microscopes, using a secret (and relatively simple) technique for making lenses. His method afforded a greater magnification than competitors could achieve. Leeuwenhoek expressed a low opinion of amateurs or gentlemanly hobbyists, crediting that only one in a thousand was properly suited to the vocation. Spinoza must have been the rare exception, to judge from some contemporary reports (Shepherd 2005:278). He was also earlier in time than many of the other amateurs.

A widespread public interest in microscopy was created by the book Micrographia (1665), published by the Royal Society of London and composed by Robert Hooke (1635-1703). The British scientist reported his observations with microscopes, employing graphic copper-plate engravings. Spinoza belonged to the "pre-popular" phase of microscopy.

Leeuwenhoek, initially a Delft cloth-worker, was a comparatively late starter in microscopy at the age of about forty (or slightly earlier). The extent of his skill was for long obscured by neglect and disbelief. According to British microscopist Dr. Brian J. Ford, the Dutch artisan "remains one of the most imperfectly understood figures in the origins of experimental biology; the popular view is that Leeuwenhoek worked in a manner that was essentially crude and undisciplined, using untried methods of investigation that were lacking in refinement and objectivity. He has often been described as a 'dilettante.' His microscopes, furthermore, have been described as primitive and doubt has been expressed over his ability to have made many of the observations attributed to him. Recent research shows these views to be erroneous" (Ford, From Dilettante to Diligent Experimenter).

The fact emerges that Leeuwenhoek was a genius, both as a craftsman and an observer. The reservations about him evidently arose from a misplaced sense of priorities elevating professionalism and formal credentials. Indeed, in certain respects, the humble status of Leeuwenhoek is more attractive than the snobbish attitudes which obscured his talents. He is now regarded as the world's first microbiologist (Ford 1991).

Leeuwenhoek was born at Delft in Holland, not far from The Hague. His forbears were tradesmen, his father being a basket-maker. He "had no fortune, received no higher education or university degrees, and knew no languages other than his native Dutch. This would have been enough to exclude him from the scientific community of his time completely. Yet with skill, diligence, an endless curiosity, and an open mind free of the scientific dogma of his day, Leeuwenhoek succeeded in making some of the most important discoveries in the history of biology" (quotation from Antony van Leeuwenhoek).

Apprenticed in a linen-draper's shop, Leeuwenhoek spent most of his life in Delft. This Calvinist fabric merchant eventually learned how to grind lenses. Leeuwenhoek may have been inspired in this direction by seeing a copy of Robert Hooke's popular Micrographia (1665). A number of Leeuwenhoek's microscopes have survived; these were not compound microscopes of the type used today, but much more simple devices using only one lens. These instruments were very small.

In contrast, Hooke and Swammerdam made compound microscopes (using more than one lens), instruments which had actually first appeared circa 1600. However, the compound variety were not able to give a magnification of more than about twenty or thirty times natural size. In contrast, the skill of Leeuwenhoek created single-lens microscopes that magnified over 200 times, with clearer images than any of his rivals could achieve. His expertise in glass processing could easily have been copied, so he kept the (rather straightforward) process a secret.

Leeuwenhoek commenced a habit of carefully describing what he saw under the lens, hiring an illustrator to do the drawings. In 1673, he decided to contact the bastion of professionalism known as the Royal Society, being introduced to them by a famous Dutch medic. He commenced writing enthusiastic letters to that prestigious body about his discoveries, sending microbial specimens to Henry Oldenburg. This epistolary industry continued for fifty years. His Dutch communications were translated into English or Latin, achieving immortality in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society.

In 1676, the Royal Society became uneasy about Leeuwenhoek, who reported observations of single-celled organisms. The existence of such organisms was in grave doubt; they were not formerly known to exist. Professional acceptance turned to acute scepticism. The Dutch microscopist had to persevere with requests for confirmation. Not until 1680 were his new observations vindicated by the expert doubters. That same year, Leeuwenhoek was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society.

Leeuwenhoek discovered bacteria, protists, sperm cells, blood cells, nematodes, rotifers, foraminifera, and rather more besides. "The list of his discoveries goes on and on," to quote a basic observation. We do not know how far Spinoza, at an earlier date, was able to proceed with lens magnification or observations. There was obviously a reason why the innovative Huygens deferred to his familiarity with lenses.

The association of Spinoza with the Dutch scientist Christiaan Huygens (1629-1695) is tangible. The contact between these two occurred after the Rijnsburg phase, when Spinoza moved to the village of Voorburg (near The Hague) in 1663. There he rented a room in the house of the painter Daniel Tydeman and his wife. His first encounter with Huygens apparently occurred in 1663; the subsequent association is significant. Huygens was a wealthy patrician with substantial talents as an astronomer and mathematician. Sadly however, in some of his letters he referred to Spinoza as "the Jew of Voorburg" and "the Israelite." Those rather condescending expressions tend to reflect the class and ethnic divide. Science does not always achieve due impartiality.

If Huygens purchased any lenses from Spinoza, it has been said that 'he did so from curiosity, to compare their construction and power with his own.' Huygens... had personally ground the lens for the telescope which he had used in discovering the rings of Saturn.... Spinoza did not use a lathe, but instead polished lenses with hand instruments, a method which he claimed to be superior. However, one commentary has elevated the lathe invented by Huygens, a measure which snubs the amateur recourse to hand tools, on the grounds that these tools were more convenient for someone living in a confined space. Spinoza asserted that the hand tools could do a better job than the lathe....

Spinoza can be viewed as having a valid angle here, especially as horologists can appreciate his attitude. The primitive bow and turns method used by old clockmakers and watchmakers was a handworking art which gave greater accuracy than the lathe. Some craftsmen have achieved on small workbenches in tiny rooms what some academic spectators might consider amazing. Such craftsmen often did not, and do not, work to academic specifications, knowing full well that that the acid test of skill can often rest in a free hand" (Shepherd 2005:279, contesting the version of Gullan-Whur 1998:171, who contradicts the statement of Spinoza: "Experience has taught me that in polishing spherical plates a free hand yields safer and better results than any machine").

Christiaan Huygens

Huygens was the most celebrated scientist in the Netherlands, and a major figure in the Scientific Revolution. He was very much an empiricist in his attitudes. He could be resistant to rationalist claims, including those of Descartes. "Huygens was impressed by Spinoza's achievements with lenses but had his doubts about Spinoza as a scientific theoretician" (Popkin 2004:56).

These two appear to have met on fairly numerous occasions during the period 1663-66. "Often, when Spinoza came into The Hague, he would call on Huygens, who in turn would be sure to visit Spinoza during his frequent trips to the [Huygen] family's estate just outside Voorburg" (Nadler 1999:221). We may be sure that both astronomy and optics were on the agenda for discussion.

Spinoza certainly joined Huygens during one of his nightly observations of Jupiter by means of his thirty-foot telescope. Spinoza was quite sure of his own position in optics and was not afraid to criticise Huygens. (Klever 1996:34)

Born in The Hague, Huygens came from a patrician family, his father serving as a secretary and administrator to the aristocracy of Orange. His mother hailed from one of the most wealthy families in Amsterdam. His father was a personal acquaintance of Descartes, a visitor on occasion to the pater's home. The young Huygens studied law and mathematics at the University of Leiden, though apparently feeling discontented with the confined academic approach to learning and experience. In 1650, Huygens returned to The Hague, where he remained until 1666, gaining an allowance from his wealthy father which permitted him to study as he pleased, and to work at home. Huygens subsequently purchased a law degree, although he apparently never used the credential. He was far more enthusiastic about mathematics and astronomy, publishing books in these subjects. He became accomplished in grinding and polishing lenses, being self-taught in this new field, although he did collaborate with his oldest brother.

Huygens was able to construct a powerful telescope, using one of his own lenses. In 1655 he discovered the first of Saturn's moons, named Titan. His lenses achieved a greater magnification than anything known before. He demonstrated a genius for constructing telescopes, culminating in the tubeless model. Meanwhile, he discovered the true shape of the rings of Saturn, formerly described in misleading terms ever since Galileo had first set eyes on the phenomenon several decades before. Yet like Galileo, Huygens encountered antagonism from those who could not believe the truth of new discoveries.

Huygens described his conclusions in Systema Saturnium (1659), a contribution attacked by authorities like Honoré Fabri (1607-1688), a Jesuit astronomer in Rome. Fabri mocked the new data as being fantastic fiction. The problem was caused by inferior telescopes. In 1665, Huygens learned that Fabri had accepted his "Saturn ring" theory, as a consequence of better instruments being available. Nevertheless, the adversary still refused to credit that the Copernican rationale had been confirmed.

Accurate timekeeping was needed in astronomy, a factor causing Huygens to develop the first pendulum clock (without making any clock himself). "Huygens claimed that he made the first model of a pendulum clock on Christmas Day, 1656, and in the June of the following year a patent was granted to Salomon Coster, of The Hague, for making such clocks" (Dawson 1982:74).This invention facilitated a widespread appearance of the longcase (or "grandfather") clock. Later, Huygens published the Horologium Oscillatorium, in which amongst other technical matters, he described pendulum motion via his intricate knowledge of mathematics. He also invented the cycloidal pendulum and designed several clocks in an attempt to determine longitude at sea (a problem not solved until the eighteenth century, via the contribution of John Harrison).

In 1661 Huygens visited London, impressed by the newly forming Royal Society, to which he was elected in 1663. The English scientists grasped that his telescopes were superior to their own. In 1666 Huygens moved to Paris from The Hague, having accepted an invitation to join the very new Académie Royale des Sciences (the French Academy of Sciences). Huygens took a leading position in this project, drawing upon his knowledge of how the Royal Society operated in England. He subsequently made further astronomical observations at the new Paris Observatory (completed in 1672). His abovementioned book Horologium was dedicated to Louis XIV, patron of the Académie Royale, who paid Huygens and other members quite generously.

In 1672, Huygens met the philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz in Paris. The German was careful to learn from him. In 1689, Huygens again visited England and the Royal Society, a sphere in which he encountered Isaac Newton (1643-1727). These two scientists are reported to have travelled together from Cambridge to London on a stagecoach journey, although no details of the conversation survive. Huygens reacted critically to certain theories of Newton, especially concerning universal gravitation. This response has been attributed to the lingering influence of Descartes. After his death, Huygens was eclipsed by the monolithic fame of Newton, a fact which some commentators have lamented. In this respect, there is a convergence with the fate of Spinoza for a duration of time. "We should therefore be grateful that both Spinoza and Huygens survived the interim period of relative oblivion" (Al-Farabi to Spinoza).

Huygens was not an academic authority during the period of his early activities in astronomy. He was an educated person, nevertheless possessing no university or official role, instead working at home in isolation. He gained recognition through his empirical discoveries. Similarly, such unusual entities as John Harrison (1693-1776) and Michael Faraday (1791-1867) gained strong recognition in a scientific context, despite the self-taught background discernible.

"Harrison was looked down upon as a mere rural 'mechanic' by the prestigious Astronomer Royal [the Reverend Nevil Maskelyne], whose nautical tables were eclipsed by a self-taught and uneducated amateur" (Shepherd 2005:280). Harrison was an English clockmaker who invented the marine chronometer, which far surpassed the efforts of Huygens at nautical timekeeping. Faraday received very little formal education, being "mathematically illiterate." However, he became an influential scientist with a reputed genius for experimentation in subjects like electricity.

The attested, if largely obscure, interaction between Huygens and Spinoza occurred in a situation where the Scientific Revolution juxtaposed with unofficial natural philosophy. Spinoza had no academic degrees; the main link between himself and the Dutch scientist was a converging artisan talent in producing lenses.

7.  Henry  Oldenburg  and  the  Royal  Society

The correspondence of Spinoza is noted for interchanges with Henry Oldenburg (c.1619-1677), secretary to the Royal Society from 1662, the same year this scientific organisation commenced. Oldenburg was a German, born in Bremen, where his father taught philosophy. He himself became a theologian, afterwards travelling to England in 1653 as a diplomat (for Bremen) with an assignment to contact Oliver Cromwell.

Henry Oldenburg

Oldenburg sojourned at Oxford, becoming acquainted with a wide circle of thinkers in "natural philosophy," encompassing the new attitudes to science. He gained a patron in the chemist Sir Robert Boyle (1627-1691). "Without the ties he forged between himself and the Boyle family his life would certainly have been obscure and unremarkable" (Hall 2002:XII). In that era, socially elevated patrons could be a determining factor.

In 1660, Oldenburg joined the select group at Gresham College in London, a circle forming the core of the Royal Society. His role as secretary to this body is noted for an industry with the pen and a tactful attitude of cooperation with his correspondents. Over three thousand letters to and from Oldenburg have survived, in whole or part; these have been published in thirteen volumes. He also founded and edited the oldest scientific journal in the world, namely the Philosophical Transactions. The title tends to indicate the extent to which philosophy was at that time identified with science. The growth of the latter subsequently entailed a bifurcation.

In 1661, Oldenburg visited the Netherlands, intending to visit Christiaan Huygens, whom he wished to inform about developments in England. En route to The Hague, he heard about Spinoza, deciding to call on the latter at Rijnsburg. This meeting was successful. The visitor was obviously quite impressed by Spinoza, who lived in simple rooms very different to more grand settings of contemporary celebrities in the world of science and learning. The topics of conversation included Descartes and Francis Bacon. Oldenburg probably grasped that there were differences of view, which were certainly reflected in some of the ensuing correspondence.

Spinoza moved at a tangent to Descartes, being influenced by the latter's general perspective while disagreeing on several basic particulars. He was very much a neo-Cartesian. With regard to Bacon, different commentarial views exist. There is the question of whether Spinoza was semi-Baconian, non-Baconian, or anti-Baconian.

A factor of complication was the output of Sir Robert Boyle, a close colleague (and patron) of Oldenburg in the Royal Society. Boyle was a chemist and a committed mechanist, reflecting the mood of the Scientific Revolution. The benign Oldenburg evidently assumed, or hoped, that his two friends Boyle and Spinoza would work in concert to further the new science. However, Spinoza resisted aspects of the English empirical tradition.

Spinoza did share Boyle's enthusiasm for the "mechanical philosophy," but in a rather different way. "He wondered why, if the confirmation of the general principles of mechanism was Boyle's goal, he [Boyle] went to so much experimental trouble" (Nadler 1999:193). When Oldenburg sent Spinoza a copy of Boyle's book Certain Physiological Essays (1661), the rationalist philosopher responded with detailed criticisms. His angle has been interpreted by some commentators to basically mean that the principles of the mechanistic philosophy could not be revealed by experiment but only by the intellect. The "anti-empirical" interpretation is more complex:

Spinoza thought failure to research from a starting-point of mathematical reasoning invalidated most of the scientific conclusions of his contemporaries. He strongly opposed the inductive method of generalising from observed instances to so-called 'laws of nature'.... for Spinoza, certainties about the universe did not lie in empirical generalisations, but were deductions, based on the pure power of the intellect....yet he acknowledged that experiment displayed instances of the ways in which the laws of Nature worked, and he made practical tests of his own. (Gullan-Whur 1998:112-13)

Spinoza's first letter to Oldenburg (dated 1661) asserts that Bacon and Descartes did not know the true nature of the mind, and that they had strayed far from knowledge of the first cause and origin of all things. Indeed, they had never grasped the true cause of error. These statements were in response to Oldenburg's explicit queries, and attended by the comment of Spinoza that it was not his habit to expose the errors of other philosophers.

The criticisms of Bacon in Spinoza's first letter to Oldenburg do not imply that he repudiated the whole of Bacon's philosophy, any more than the criticisms of Descartes in the same letter imply that Spinoza's philosophy is free of Cartesian ideas. Indeed the first-order fact-gathering business of natural philosophy was viewed by Spinoza in a Baconian way. (Gabbey 1996:170)

Although Spinoza was not an inductionist or experimenter, generally being defined as a deductive rationalist, his criticism of superstition could be devastating. In that respect, some empiricists of the Royal Society are not exempt from suspicion, as in the case of Samuel Pepys, who favoured charms. The elevated Boyle "held that there could be no more convincing proof of the falsity of atheism than the confirmation of a supernatural event; such testimony from this celebrated prober of nature's secrets had the effect of exciting new interest in witchcraft and sorcery" (Gullan-Whur 1998:112).

Spinoza's version of science contrasts with empiricist agendas. In his Emendation treatise, he affirmed: "I wish to direct all sciences to one end and aim, so that we may attain to the supreme human perfection which we have named; and, therefore, whatsoever in the sciences does not serve to promote our object will have to be regarded as useless" (Elwes 1955:7). A psychological endeavour was here the priority, leading to freedom from "human bondage" as described in the Ethics. In contrast, the complacent assumption of empiricists that they have outmoded all "contemplation" is one of the most unconvincing and sterile premises of modernity.

Spinoza frequently referred in his writings to Christ, in a positive manner. His estimation of Jesus was genuine, although not made in any orthodox context; he was independent from both Christianity and Judaism. Oldenburg thought like a theologian, and eventually doubted Spinoza's compatibility with Christian doctrine. In 1675, the former pressed the latter to protect his position by a support for the conventional belief in Christ as "Redeemer of the world, sole Mediator for mankind, and of his Incarnation and Atonement" (Nadler 1999:291).

Spinoza replied in a reasoned manner, stressing salvation in terms of the "Eternal Wisdom of God" as distinct from a necessity "to know Christ according to the flesh." He also opposed miracles, which he said made religion into superstition. Spinoza repudiated a theological accusation that he was attempting to prove the equivalence of God and Nature (meaning God was mere matter). In response, he asserted his belief that "all things are in God and move in God," thereby agreeing with the apostle Paul, and "perhaps with all the ancient philosophers, though the phraseology may differ."

In a further letter from London, Oldenburg continued his objection to Spinoza's equation of miracles with ignorance. Oldenburg now pressed other matters of Christian doctrine, including Christ's resurrection from the dead. Spinoza again replied in detail, expressing his conclusion that "the resurrection of Christ from the dead was in reality spiritual." Oldenburg was not satisfied, sending another letter (dated January 1676) which queried the allegorical interpretation of scripture. Spinoza maintained his independent stance, stating: "I accept literally the passion, death, and burial of Christ, but his resurrection I understand allegorically."

This same correspondence attests Oldenburg's puzzlement at Spinoza's supposed "fatalism." The deterministic universe of the Jewish philosopher was construed by the Christian as being indifferent to issues of virtue and morality, also theological reward and punishment. Spinoza responded by saying that his worldview did not in any way absolve people from morality or responsibility for their actions. His way of looking at such ethical questions was very different to the orthodoxy of Oldenburg, who believed that God delivered sinners to dire punishment that could even be eternal.

8.   From  the Emendation to  Political Thought

At the time he was visited by Oldenburg in 1661, Spinoza seems to have been working on two treatises. One of these remained unfinished, namely the Latin Tractatus de intellectus emendatione (Treatise on the Emendation of the Intellect, here abbreviated to Emendation). The Emendation may have been the earliest of the two treatises, and perhaps even dating to 1658-9. Neither of these works were published during Spinoza's lifetime. They represent early samples of his own philosophy, as distinct from his presentation of Descartes which achieved publication in 1663 (section 3 above).

The Emendation was concerned with philosophical method and pursuit of "the good," meaning the highest purpose for a human being. The philosophical life is here an ideal, necessitating a revaluation of common experience. The treatise opens with some autobiographical reflections, expressing a mood of discontent with the general state of the intellect (or understanding). Spinoza says he had learned that "all the customary trappings of social life are vain and futile." He laments the situation in which the highest good is perceived in terms of wealth, fame, and sensual pleasure. That situation diverts the mind from understanding a more advanced form of good.

All actions and thoughts must be devoted to the purpose of gaining the highest good. There has to be a due method for purifying (or emending) the understanding, which should grasp the laws of Nature, of which humans are part. Spinoza stipulates that the sciences should be directed to the central objective of attaining the highest human perfection. In this context he mentions medicine and mechanics (i.e., physics and related sciences), while making a point that the understanding must first be emended, to avoid error and confusion. His concept of science was intimately related to psychological improvement. The implication is, that without such improvement, science could hinder the study of Nature (a big word in Spinozan vocabulary).

Spinoza includes in Emendation a code of life, comprising three points. Firstly, to speak in a manner intelligible to the prevailing society and to comply with appropriate general customs. Secondly, to indulge in pleasures only to the extent that these are conducive to the preservation of health. Thirdly, to obtain only enough money (or other commodities) that are necessary to sustain life and health.

Themes emerge concerning the deterministic order of Nature, and the necessity of ideas in the mind adequately reflecting the processes in Nature. However, the desired perfection will only occur when knowledge of Nature is linked to a knowledge of the absolutely perfect Being, from which all things originate. The perfect being is not here described in terms of "God," although Spinoza's later work Ethics does stipulate God as the cause of all things, and as the first cause.

The second of the two early works is the Short Treatise on God, Man and His Well-Being. Spinoza is thought to have commenced this book while he was still at Amsterdam, possibly at the instigation of his friends in that city.The Short Treatise was apparently composed in Latin, perhaps as early as 1660. His private audience are thought to have requested a Dutch version (Latin was the language of scholars). The work was not published. Two Dutch manuscripts were discovered in the nineteenth century. The supposition is that a translation must have occurred, as Spinoza himself is known to have been averse to writing in Dutch, being more fluent in Latin.

The Short Treatise is "a difficult and complex work" (Nadler 1999:190), gaining an almost esoteric repute in view of the cautionary remarks at the end, addressed to his friends. "I would ask you urgently to be very careful about communicating these things to others" (ibid:186).

Some statements in the Short Treatise sound mystical, including those associated with the Neoplatonism of Judah Abravanel (section 5 above). The intellectual love of God leads to a union with God. "The most perfect man is the one who unites with the most perfect being, God, and thus enjoys him" (ibid:188). However, Spinoza's God was not the God of the Calvinist Church, not being a source of reward or punishment, nor having the characteristics commonly ascribed to God by theologians.

The God of Spinoza bypasses religious ministrations and rituals, and all dogmas concerning predestination, salvation, and immortality. Man has his wellbeing in understanding and following the laws of Nature (which includes human societies). True beliefs are acquired through the use of reason and intuition, not through indoctrination. The idea is that rational (and intuitive) knowledge are not subject to error, and can eliminate harmful passions and emotions.

A longer and more explicit work in Latin was entitled Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, now widely known as Theological-Political Treatise (TPT). Composed during the late 1660s and published in 1670, the TPT defends freedom of speech in the face of religious intolerance. The book was apparently published in Amsterdam by Spinoza's friend Jan Rieuwertsz (or a close acquaintance on account to the latter), the author being anonymous. A protective strategy was employed, the title page declaring that the TPT was published at Hamburg in Germany. A false publishing name was another resort, probably because the printing outlet of Rieuwertsz was under surveillance by Calvinist watchdogs and heresy-hunters. This cautious tactic did not prevent heated denunciations from the orthodox sector.

The background of the TPT is pressing. Spinoza's acquaintance Adriaan Koerbagh met a tragic fate in 1669. This event is thought to have spurred Spinoza to apply finishing touches to the TPT, and to proceed with publication. The magistrates had sided with the Calvinist Church, lending the episode a strong association of collusion between the secular and religious authorities. Koerbagh was a radical thinker, a lawyer and medic of Amsterdam who published in Dutch a work expressing bold dissident views, then following up with a sequel that was squashed. Some themes in his writings reflected Spinoza's views, although other elements were also present. Koerbagh was arrested in Leiden, being transported in chains to the dungeons of the town hall at Amsterdam.

The unfortunate Koerbagh (1632-1669) was sentenced to ten years in prison after being interrogated by magistrates, who were encouraged by the Calvinist religious authorities. A salient participant in the interrogation was bailiff Cornelis Witsen, the chief officer of justice and an inflexible fundamentalist. After watching Koerbagh being tortured, Witsen urged that the victim should be imprisoned for thirty years after having a hole bored in his tongue with a red-hot iron and his right thumb hacked off.

This savage penalty was fortunately moderated. Koerbagh was nevertheless sent to a severe prison in Amsterdam, usually reserved for violent offenders condemned to hard labour. He soon became ill and was removed to a workhouse "where women and children, drunkards and debtors, were left to rot." He died a year later in a sad state of mind induced by his privations. His confusion was interpreted by a pastor in terms of repentance; this clergyman was deputed by the Calvinist authorities to save Koerbagh's soul from the "lakes of Satan" (Gullan-Whur 1998:218-19; cf. Nadler 1999:266ff).

Witsen had the reputation of being "a prominent member of Amsterdam's city council and a ferocious hounder of religious dissidents" (Gullan-Whur 1998:145). This was the ultra-conservative mentality against which Spinoza cleary pitted himself in the TPT. He wrote in scholarly Latin. The publication of dissident views in the Dutch vernacular was regarded as a crime by Calvinist churchmen. "Reformed Church minute-books are filled with interrogations, demands for retractions, condemnations, impositions of fines and, occasionally, horrible physical punishments" (Gullan-Whur 1998:134).

In the TPT, Spinoza advocated a democratic and pluralist society free of superstition. Organised religion is here viewed as the tool of a clergy who manipulated emotions in support of rituals and inadequate concepts such as salvation. Spinoza warned of dangers in the situation of a civil authority assisting religious leaders by punishing any departure from theological orthodoxy. He advocated an intensive critical study of the Bible for the purpose of determining the elusive true religion. Spinoza emphasised the difference between faith and philosophy. The latter subject was in accord with true religion (at least in the Spinozan version). The freedom of philosophical thought would not therefore impair true religion. He contrasted that desired freedom with the frequent situation of social disturbances and wars arising from sectarian disputes.

In the TPT, Spinoza is dismissive of both the Jewish and Christian sacerdotal concepts supporting ceremonialism and dogma. He disparages the ancient Hebrew concept of national favour with God, i.e., the chosen people. "The six hundred and thirteen precepts of the Torah have nothing to do with blessedness or virtue" (Nadler 1999:274). Spinoza urges that the ceremonial laws were valid only for a limited period in time, and were not binding under all circumstances. He disposed of Christian miracle beliefs by the argument that miracles require a distinction between God and Nature. God does not interfere with the laws of Nature, is the message here, because God has decreed those deterministic laws.

"Spinoza's views on Scripture constitute, without question, the most radical theses of the Treatise [TPT] and explain why he was attacked with such vitriol by his contemporaries" (ibid:275). He denied that Moses composed the books of the Torah, citing the textual references to Moses in the third person. His explanation was that these and other Biblical books were composed many generations after the events described. Spinoza urged that much of the Old Testament text was a corrupt compilation. He was here influenced by statements of the twelfth century commentator Ibn Ezra, and also the more recent Christian views of Isaac La Peyrere and the Quaker leader Samuel Fisher, plus conclusions of the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes. Spinoza furthered that critical trend, advocating due historical context for any biblical book, and the use of requisite linguistic skills. i.e., a knowledge of Hebrew.

The author of the Theological-Political Treatise asserted that a familiarity with scripture is not necessary to gain blessedness, which requires a way of life informed by philosophical reason. A deduction was that scripture primarily conveyed the injunction "to know and love God, and to love one's neighbour as oneself." Above all, Spinoza insisted upon freedom of speech in a political state that should maintain religion only in the sense of charity and justice.

The Theological-Political Treatise is one of the most eloquent arguments for a secular, democratic state in the history of political thought. (Nadler 1999:285)

9.  Last  Years

Spinoza moved from Voorburg to The Hague in late 1669 or early 1670. The Theological-Political Treatise (TPT) was now in press. He was in bad health. He is reported to have gained many friends in The Hague; he might well have deemed this a factor of safety. At first he rented some upper floor rooms in a house owned by a widow; the biographer Johan Colerus lodged in the same rooms twenty years later, with the same landlady. She told Colerus that Spinoza "generally kept to himself, often having his meals in his rooms; he sometimes did not come out for several days" (Nadler 1999:288).

The rent was too high for his modest means. In May 1671, he moved to a nearby house owned by an amiable young Lutheran artist, who had a wife and three children. Spinoza rented a large single room on the first floor of Hendrik van der Spyck's dwelling on the Paviljoensgracht. This was to be his last abode. His room was furnished very plainly, his possessions being mainly lens-grinding tools and about a hundred and fifty books.

Spinoza was a moderate beer-drinker and smoked a tobacco pipe, these being very common habits of his milieu (water was often considered unsafe to drink). If he was receiving the De Vries annual pension, which amounted to 300 guilders, he had to pay 80 guilders per year for rent alone. He paid a barber, but did not purchase a wig or fine clothing. He was averse to the elaborate social etiquette of the wealthy classes, some of whom visited him.

The Van der Spyck family later passed on a very favourable report of their lodger to Colerus, a local Lutheran preacher. Spinoza spent much time in his room, attending to his work with lenses and his writing. He was benign towards the family, who were easygoing and tolerant. He would often talk with them, venturing downstairs for that purpose. He took an interest in the children, and was very polite towards the Lutheran faith of his landlord, refraining from any criticism. As Spinoza had a special regard for Christ, in a virtually mystical context, to talk with Christians was not difficult for him, as he had earlier demonstrated. He evidently remained a philosopher committed to both reason and intuition.

Baruch Spinoza, crayon engraving of 1762

While Spinoza was living his simple life at The Hague, a formidable tide of hostility was vented in his direction by Calvinist theologians and their allies. The Theological-Political Treatise (TPT) had been published anonymously (section 8 above), but the identity of the author soon became known. The fundamentalist watchdogs missed nothing. Spinoza had optimistically imagined that the TPT would annul the accusation of atheism in his direction. Instead, theologians targeted him as an enemy, some even describing him as a representative of Satan. These opponents created the belief that he was trying to spread atheism and libertinism.

Professors in the Dutch universities were not exempt from participating in the castigation, including Cartesian exponents who preferred to identify with the orthodox mood rather than support an independent non-academic factor. Professor Regnier Mansveld of Utrecht asserted that the TPT "ought to be buried forever in an eternal oblivion" (Nadler 1999:295). Mansveldt taught philosophy; he died in 1671, leaving a written attack that was later published in his Adversus anonymum Theologo-politicum (1674). Not surprisingly perhaps, in his harrassed position, Spinoza commented that this attack was "not worth reading through, and far less answering" (Gullan-Whur 1998:252). However, a copy of the Mansveldt book was later found in his personal library.

The TPT achieved a wide circulation in the Netherlands. Calvinist synods were active in denunciation. A nationwide ban was imposed in 1674 by the Court of Holland, who prohibited the printing and selling of the heretical book. Spinoza himself prevented the publication by Rieuwertsz of a Dutch translation, fearing that this prospect could be lethal. That translation did not appear until 1693, long after his death.

The despised heretic resented the accusation of atheism. One of those who contributed to that stigma was Dr. Lambert van Velthuysen (1622-1685), who had studied theology under the anti-Cartesian professor Gisbertus Voetius and qualified in medicine at Utrecht. Velthuysen expressed on paper a damning verdict about the TPT, although he denied knowing the identity of the author (ibid:232-3). Spinoza protested that the critic should be ashamed of making such a charge, and accused Van Velthuysen of having "perversely misinterpreted my meaning." The victim added that his mode of life ran contrary to the accusation, as "atheists are usually inordinately fond of honours and riches, which I have always despised, as is known to all who are acquainted with me" (Nadler 1999:246).

The afflicting situation caused Spinoza to decide against publishing Ethics. He stoically completed the work during his years at The Hague, eventually to grasp that this book could never be read while he lived. The reason being that the vengeful critics would not have accepted it, instead preferring misinterpretations.

Meanwhile, the political situation was grim. In 1672, the French army of Louis XIV invaded the Netherlands and occupied Utrecht. Dutch indignation tended to place the blame for this encroachment upon Johann de Witt, the leader of the Dutch Republic who had been prominent since the 1650s. De Witt could not stop such military force, having relied upon his diplomatic strategies to keep trouble at bay. Radical thinkers were dependent upon the liberal milieu created by the Dutch Republic, which changed colour for the worst when the Orangist figurehead William III became the monarchical stadtholder (ruler). De Witt resigned from his office. Spinoza was a helpless non-participant in the tragic event, dating to the summer of 1672, when De Witt and his brother were savagely murdered by a mob at The Hague. The corpses were cut to pieces. De Witt's brother Cornelis had been arrested for allegedly plotting against the life of the new ruler, a charge which has been deemed a contrivance.

The mob did not comprise disaffected peasants, but local urban militants who included middle class burghers; they were indoctrinated with political slogans of the Orangist imperialists. According to Spinoza's own account (reported by Leibniz), his landlord had to prevent him from going out during the following night and placing a placard of complaint near the site of the murders, conveying a message to the belligerent Orangist mob. The intended placard read: Ultimi barbarorum (You are the worst of barbarians).

An event occurred in 1673 which has been variously discussed. Spinoza made an expedition behind enemy lines to Utrecht, which had been captured by the Prince de Condé, the French military leader. The country was in chaos, the dykes having been opened in an effort to stop the invaders, flooding much of the land between The Hague and Utrecht. The early biographers supply different versions of this occurrence.

Spinoza was evidently welcome at the French military camp, along with some academics; Condé apparently wished to converse with Dutch intellectuals. This aristocrat was not merely a general, but also a patron of literature, being no stranger to Descartes. Only one of the biographers states that Spinoza met the Prince; according to Pierre Bayle, they conversed several times, the Prince attempting to persuade the philosopher to return with him to France and join his court. Spinoza declined, saying that the Prince would not be able to protect him from the bigotry of the French religious establishment, who hated him because of the Theological-Political Treatise.

There has also been disagreement about the details of another episode in 1673, when Spinoza declined the offer to take up a professorship at the university of Heidelberg in Germany. The philosopher then stated that he did not want to be restricted in relation to what he could teach. The commentator Pierre Bayle (1647-1706) provides a version indicating that "Spinoza only wrote his remarkable rejection of a position at the great university after they had withdrawn the offer" (Popkin 2004:113).

Bayle did not get everything right. Amongst the errors in his Dictionnaire is the description of Spinoza as an atheist, one who had "died completely convinced of his atheism" (Nadler 1999:246). The invitatory letter from Heidelberg certainly enjoined that he was not to disturb the publicly established religion; Spinoza objected to this clause on grounds of his preferred freedom to philosophise. As events transpired, the French army of Louis XIV invaded Heidelberg the following year, closing down the university and banishing all the professors (ibid: 311ff).

In these last years, Spinoza received more visitors, and is thought to have written more letters. Liberal radicals, both French and Dutch, appear to have been the backbone of this interest. A new contact was the young German nobleman Walther von Tschirnhaus (1651-1708), a Count with a strong disposition to science, himself becoming regarded as a savant. He met Spinoza in 1674 after being in correspondence. The meeting may have occurred in Amsterdam, which Spinoza is known to have visited.

Tschirnhaus acquired a manuscript copy of the unpublished Ethics, perhaps from the author. However, he was under the injunction to keep the contents to himself. He was subsequently in contact with the philosopher Leibniz (see section 10), who closely questioned him about the Ethics. In later years, Tschirnhaus would not admit in public that he had been influenced by Spinoza, although in private he defended the latter. His Medicina mentis (1686) has been described in terms of a synthesis of Cartesian and Leibnizian elements; this book included borrowings from Spinoza's Emendation treatise.

The Ethics was in composition until 1675, with only a select few of Spinoza's acquaintances being allowed to see the manuscript, always under a proviso of secrecy. In July 1675, he visited Amsterdam and consigned his manuscript to the printer Rieuwertsz. Soon after however, he stopped the printing, because of a rumour in circulation amongst hostile theologians who reported him to magistrates. These critics had heard about the printing, and denounced Ethics (without seeing it) as a book denying God (Nadler 1999:333ff.; cf. Popkin 2004: 102-3).

During these last years, Spinoza was engaged in composing two further books, both of which were unfinished at his death. The Compendium of Hebrew Grammar may have been intended for private use amongst his friends, confirming his theme that Hebrew should be studied as a natural language rather than a supernatural Biblical language of God. There were several manuscript copies of this work circulating amongst his acquaintances at Amsterdam. Spinoza has been described as an outstanding scholar of the Hebrew language, developing a novel theory of the significance of Hebrew nouns (Harvey 2002). The grammar was intended as a form of secularised Hebrew, but is nevertheless regarded as "a highly idiosyncratic work" (Nadler 1999:325).

The Political Treatise was his last book, now interpreted as a realistic revision of some earlier themes in the TPT. This work was based upon Spinoza's perception, after the political crisis of 1672, that the multitude were unable to live according to the standards of reason. However, his discussion of monarchical constitutions ended with a disappointing exclusion of women (along with servants and children) from political voting and offices. Such ideas were commonplace in his time; the attendant arguments are not convincing.

Spinoza's exclusions verged on liberality in comparison with those of other seventeenth century political writers, including Jan van den Hove. The stricture on women was, however, standard and is endorsed in Saint-Evremond's memoirs. (Gullan-Whur 1998:295).

The cause of Spinoza's death, in 1677, is often stated as consumption. This ailment is thought to have been aggravated by his exposure over many years to inhaling glass dust, a drawback created by his domestic lens-grinding activity. According to Colerus, the landlord's family were unaware that he was so close to expiry, gaining the impression that he was not in any obvious trouble. Van der Spyck arranged for his burial, and numerous sympathisers attended the funeral. Six coaches of visitors followed the coffin; their identities escaped recording.

The philosopher's manuscripts were sent to Amsterdam, and published by Rieuwertsz that same year in a Latin edition known as Opera Posthuma. In this manner the Ethics at last appeared, along with the three unfinished manuscripts known as Emendation of the Intellect, Political Treatise, and Hebrew Grammar. A selected version of Spinoza's correspondence was included. A Dutch edition also appeared, entitled De Nagelate Schriften, assisted by Jellesz and Glazemaker.

There were some strong reactions to Opera Posthuma, soon subject to official prohibition because of the allegedly atheistic and blasphemous content. Rieuwertsz was in low profile. However, he did not escape the hostile attention of the Dutch Bishop Neercassel in a letter (dated 1677) to the Roman Catholic Cardinal Barberini: "This bookseller usually publishes whatever exotic and impious [notion] is thought out here by impudent and conceited minds" (Klever 1996:60 note 71).

10.  Leibniz  and  Spinoza

In November 1676, the German philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716) visited Spinoza at The Hague. They conversed "several times and at great length" (Antognazza 2008:177). The topics included Spinoza's unpublished Ethics, concerning which Leibniz had formulated a number of questions. The conversations extended to the Cartesian theory of motion and the political problems of the Dutch Republic. Unfortunately, there is no record of these exchanges. A Leibniz scholar has remarked, "it seems likely that these discussions were among the most rewarding in the whole history of philosophy" (Jolley 2005:18).

l to r: Leibniz, Spinoza

This episode comprised the only meeting between these two distinctive thinkers. A correspondence, commenced in 1671, is largely lost. Leibniz had opted for the role of a diplomat, quite different to both Descartes and Spinoza. In service to the Elector of Mainz, Leibniz lived for some years in Paris, attempting to persuade Louis XIV to detour his military programme outside Europe.

The milieu of Leibniz was very different to that of Spinoza, whose simple accommodation could not match the resplendent surroundings known to his visitor. In the polymathic sense, Leibniz was no doubt superior to Spinoza; the former's multi-faceted career and intellectual genius are a separate study. However, the differences in their outlook and conceptualism have prompted some opinions that Spinoza demonstrated a more radical political orientation, plus a more incisive metaphysics.

Spinoza was evidently uncertain about the political role of Leibniz. He was cautious about allowing Leibniz access to his unpublished Ethics, despite the recommendation of his friend Count von Tschirnhaus, who had been entrusted with a copy of the manuscript. Spinoza was not persuaded, advising a longer acquaintance with Leibniz for the intermediary. This reluctance appears to be justified by the Christianising references of Leibniz to the Spinoza corpus that are now well known. Briefly, Leibniz agreed with some some themes of Spinoza, while deeming others to be absurd. "He [Spinoza] has a strange metaphysics, full of paradoxes" (Nadler 1999:341). Leibniz recognised the personal worth of Spinoza in such statements as: "One can acknowledge that Epicurus and Spinoza, for instance, led exemplary lives" (ibid:303, citing Leibniz, New Essays on Human Understanding).

Although Leibniz apparently did not see the Ethics prior to Spinoza's death, he was evidently told a number of things about the manuscript by Tschirnhaus, who seems to have been quite voluble in that direction. Tschirnaus may have included topics not contained in the Ethics. A note written by Leibniz, close to the time of occurrence, has aroused speculations. A brief excerpt follows:

Sir Tschirnaus told me many things about the handwritten book of Spinoza.... he [Spinoza] thinks that we will forget most things when we die and retain only those things that we know with the kind of knowledge he calls intuitive, of which only a few are conscious.... he believes a sort of Pythagorical transmigration, namely that minds go from body to body. (Quotation from Klever 1996:46-7)

This memo has created doubts as to whether Leibniz was reporting accurately about the transmigration theme. However, a prominent Spinoza scholar has commented:

Tschirnhaus credits Spinoza - and this is completely new in comparison with other sources - with a kind of Pythagoreanism, implying that souls in a certain sense transmigrate from one form of matter to another. This idea is not entirely alien to the [Spinozan] theory of the mind's eternity, based on the adequate ideas of the 'fixed and eternal things' of extension. It is likely that the comparison with Pythagoras's transmigration theory originates from Spinoza himself, who probably had recognised the similarity in his reading of Ovid's Metamorphoses (Book XV), one of his classical sources. (Klever 1996:47)

11.  The Ethics

The Ethics is "a work that only the most dedicated of readers can make their way through" (Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy). Another description is in terms of "perhaps the most enigmatic book of philosophy that has ever been written" (Scruton 2000:170).

The format of Ethics is modelled on a classical geometry textbook, namely the Elementa Geometrica of Euclid. Spinoza uses definitions, axioms, propositions, and demonstrations. His intention to establish certain knowledge was here applied to metaphysics, physics, psychology, and ethics.

Starting from a few definitions and axioms, propositions are derived by means of deduction and this continues until the entire philosophical system, from its metaphysical foundations up to an elaborate theory of human bondage and liberation, has been unfolded. (Steenbakkers 2009:42)

Spinoza was not the first to apply the geometrical format to philosophy. The greatly esteemed certainty of mathematics had been one resort of Descartes, when Mersenne advised him "to rearrange the conclusion of the Meditations in the Euclidean fashion" (ibid:47).

Spinoza could build upon a long tradition, and his application of the geometrical order to the composition of the Ethics, though certainly a remarkable tour de force, was not an innovation. The result, however, is unrivalled. (Steenbakkers 2009:54).

On the one hand, Spinoza was opposed to the preachers of orthodox religion, and on the other, he was in friction with lifestyles dominated by the acquisition of material goods. Spinoza advocated instead the life of reason, which in his version has subtleties often ignored.

Part One of Ethics is devoted to the subject of God. The author argues for an immanent God, as distinct from the Creator extolled by Judaism and Christianity. The evocative Latin phrase Deus sive Natura (God or Nature) refers to the single and self-created substance; the universe unfolds in accordance with natural and eternal laws. This deterministic universe is the rationale for a Spinozan worldview contradicting the need for a church and priesthood. Due reason can penetrate to the truths of God and the universe; preachers threatening heaven or hell are an irrational distraction.

Spinoza presents a famous series of propositions. The eleventh "is probably the purest form of the ontological argument for the existence of God that has been offered in the history of philosophy" (Popkin 2004:86). This proposition states: "God, or a substance consisting of infinite attributes, each of which expresses eternal and infinite essence, necessarily exists" (Curley 1996:7). The ontological argument is associated with the medieval theologian Anselm of Canterbury. That "proof" was given philosophical accents by Descartes, Spinoza, and Leibniz. The Spinozan version has been interpreted to mean: "The fact that we are all modifications of an intrinsically powerful God-nature should never be lost from sight" (Viljanen 2009:78).

In the scholium to Proposition 15, Spinoza clarifies his attack on anthropomorphism. "There are those who feign a God, like man, consisting of a body and a mind, and subject to passions" (Curley trans.). In the Appendix to Part I, he dispenses with the geometrical format and further states his meaning. For example, "men think themselves free, because they are conscious of their volitions and their appetite, and do not think, even in their dreams, of the causes by which they are disposed to wanting and willing" (Curley trans.). In Spinozan terms, freedom is an illusion in the sensory world.

In the burgeoning literature on the subject, "considerable disagreement has emerged about Spinoza's modal commitments" (quote from modal metaphysics). The issue of necessity and contingency is involved. A major commentary to Ethics states that the most important theses in Part One are three: (1) God necessarily exists (2) God is the only possible substance (3) everything follows from God by geometrical necessity (Kloistinen and Viljanen 2009:2). Dilations can easily read like a theological discussion, even while a prominent contemporary theory insists that Spinoza was an atheist.

This monistic philosopher was opposed to Judaeo-Christian teleology, here meaning the theological attempt to explain the world in terms of a divine power aiding or punishing human events. That form of rationale encounters the problem of evil, i.e., how can the almighty God allow the existence of evil events? Spinoza negotiates this problem by viewing the attendant beliefs as superstitions, ignorant of the neutral causation process at work in the universe. Good and bad events are nothing to do with God willing such things to happen.

Teleology can relate to both the human and divine realms. Some scholars have concluded that Spinoza's rejection of teleology was not total, instead representing "a higher, i.e., more sophisticated reconstruction" (Goodman 2002:72). Similarities between Spinoza and the Stoics have also been discussed. There are both convergences and differences, especially in relation to teleology.

It is evident that Stoicism aspired to craft a system every bit as rigorous as Spinoza's. Moreover, the rationale for this aspiration seems the same as we find in Spinoza: philosophy ought to be systematic, because that which it seeks to understand - nature and all it contains - are seamlessly linked by an unbroken and unbreakable series of causal links. (Miller 2009:111)

Part Two elucidates the nature and origin of the mind, including such themes as "men are deceived in that they think themselves free" (Curley trans., 2P35Schol.) Spinoza is saying that freewill is a myth in view of the causes of action unknown to superficial consciousness. The unfamiliar nature of his reasoning led theologians to believe that he was an atheist and sceptic. The truth was otherwise:

Spinoza's epistemological dogmatism is probably the furthest removed from scepticism of any of the new philosophies of the seventeenth century. It is a genuine anti-sceptical theory trying to eradicate the possibility or meaningfulness of doubting or suspending judgment. (Popkin 2004:95)

In this unfamiliar ideational terrain, Spinoza specified three kinds of knowledge (a) sensory imagination (b) reason (c) intuitive knowledge. Despite his reputation as an exemplar of reason, Spinoza clearly recognised further reaches of the mind. Many commentaries have failed to come to grips with this factor, probably because intuition is not a part of academic training. The philosophical onus is to view him in a broader context than the confines imposed by formal logic, which is not quite the same as Spinozan reason. "Our mind, insofar as it perceives things truly, is part of the infinite intellect of God" (Curley trans., 2P43Schol.). That is merely a conundrum for sceptical empiricists and also a multitude of theologians.

A substantial portion of Ethics is concerned with becoming free from passions that govern the emotional life of humans, clouding the ability of liberating reason. This is sometimes known as a psychological theory. The Spinozan project involves a constant struggle with the senses, superstitions, and imagination. Perceptive ideation has to replace false and undiscriminating ideation.

Part Three offers an analysis of "affects" or emotions in relation to causal circumstances. The advantages and disadvantages in this catalogue of passions have been much discussed. A recent version states:

So many of our passions are, like anger, clearly psychophysical that something like Spinoza's identification of physical and mental states, a position often seen in other contexts as a liability of the Ethics, seems practically required of a good account of the passions. (LeBuffe 2009:188)

Part Four is entitled Of Human Bondage. The preface clarifies: "Man's lack of power to moderate and restrain the affects I call bondage" (Curley trans.). The good life is conceived as the correction of this deficiency.

A person who achieves this form of existence [the good life] becomes what Spinoza calls a free man, who lives 'according to the dictate of reason alone' (4pref). Although this ideal consists in the possession of reason or understanding, it is also characterised by the absence of something that Spinoza regards as an imperfection, namely the dominance of affects or passions, whether negative ones such as envy and hatred or their positive counterparts such as love and joy. (James 2009:223)

The basic theme here has been traced back to Plato, i.e., the freedom of reason versus the slavery of passion. This prospect has not always been met with agreement. One of the relatively mild objections came from Aristotle.

Against this view, Aristotle had protested that some passions, such as fear of shame or righteous anger, are not in the least enslaving but are integral to a good life. The key to virtue is to be able to discriminate between morally appropriate and inappropriate passions, and to act as the former dictate. Aristotle's influential claim was accepted by many of Spinoza's contemporaries, and he himself recognises its force.... Nevertheless, he is adamant that an Aristotelian conception of virtue falls short. (James 2009:224)

The determinism of Spinoza is frequently associated with a Stoic worldview. Yet he allows for innovation. One commentary interprets: "Everything is the way it is and cannot be changed but, on learning this, a human being can have a different attitude toward the state of affairs" (Popkin 2004:97). Cf. the attributed Stoic "belief in rigorous determinism and the truth of 'the psychological experience of freedom in thought and action' " (Sandbach 1989:103, referring to a supposed inconsistency of Chrysippus).

Part Five is entitled On Human Freedom. The title refers to the freedom of mind, or blessedness, and insight into causal processes.The Preface is concerned to contradict the theory of Descartes about the connection of the mind (or soul) with the pineal gland. Spinoza deems that theory to be an occult hypothesis reminiscent of the Scholastics whom Descartes frequently criticised.

The Cartesian physiology is here replaced by what has been described as a "rational mysticism." Spinoza reintroduces his theme of intuitive knowledge, which he says is "much more powerful" than rational knowledge (Curley trans., 5P36Schol.). This intuitive factor leads to the "intellectual love of God" (amor Dei intellectualis). That key experience alone bestows blessedness and immortality. The intellectual love is depicted as the highest human achievement. The inspiration for this Spinozan concept was clearly the Jewish philosopher Judah Abrabanel, the Renaissance Neoplatonist (section five above). "He who knows things by this kind of [intuitive] knowledge passes to the greatest human perfection, and consequently is affected with the greatest joy" (5P27).

Some statements in Part Five have acted as irritants to purely rationalist (or commonsense) assessments. For instance, "the human mind cannot be absolutely destroyed with the body, but something of it remains which is eternal" (Curley trans., 5P23). The intellectual love of God is also stated to be eternal (5P33). Further, "the wiser and more knowing one is, the greater is the part of one's mind that is eternal" (Garrett 2009:284).

Such themes form the culmination of Ethics, a climax "which has often proven opaque to even its most attentive and penetrating readers" (ibid). In an earlier portion (Part Two), Spinoza appears to relate the mind closely to the body (i.e., psychophysical parallelism or identity theory). However, the culmination makes an evident division, which has caused puzzlement, and sometimes the accusation of inconsistency. One academic commentator even described this final section of Part Five (Proposition 23 onwards) as "rubbish," making the criticism:

Perhaps he [Spinoza] was after all terrified of extinction, and convinced himself - through a scatter of perverse arguments and hunger for the conclusion - that he had earned immortality. Or perhaps suspicion of mysticism is right.... Whatever mystical experiences Spinoza had, he ought to have written them off as experientia vaga. (Bennett 1984:374)

A citizen comment on this aspersion is: "The academic fear of mysticism is surpassed in irrationality only by the New Age promotion of the pseudomystical" (Shepherd 2005:297). However, and more to the basic point, Part Five demonstrates that Spinoza can be interpreted in a very different way to the connotations of materialism so often applied to single substance monism. Spinoza differed strongly from Descartes, in terms of substance theory; this is no proof that he was a materialist. The "rational mysticism" of Part Five is a subject still not agreed upon in the official sector of commentary.

The apparent discrepancy between determinism and freedom is another feature of Ethics. Spinoza's denial of freewill "does not prevent him from affirming a remarkable doctrine of human freedom at the very climax of his philosophic exposition" (Goodman 1999:154). The author evidently believed in a way out of the determinism applying to nature. The closing passage includes the encouragement: "If the way I have shown to lead to these things [concerning freedom of mind] now seems very hard, still, it can be found" (Curley 1996:181).

12.   Aftermath

From its first appearance to the present day, Spinozistic philosophy... has caused the most varied reactions and it has given rise to the most diverse interpretations. (Giancotti Boscherini 1970,1:XIV)

Spinoza referred to the principle of sufficient reason (i.e., the principle that each truth or existent thing has a due explanation). That principle (PSR) is seen as being far more represented in Spinoza than in numerous other modern philosophers, including even Leibniz, whose formulation of the principle was more explicit. Three rival names emerge prominently in the analysis by Professor Della Rocca. These are Hume, Hegel, and Nietzsche.

"Hume denied the PSR and that is why he was confident in rejecting monism and in embracing scepticism" (Della Rocca 2008:281). David Hume (1711-1776) interpreted Spinoza's monism in terms of a "hideous hypothesis." As a consequence, "in many ways, Hume's system is the flip-side of Spinoza's" (ibid). For instance, Hume argued that reason is the slave of the passions, a theme appearing in his A Treatise of Human Nature. There is no ethical dynamism in the sceptical concepts of Hume. Moral judgments were here derived from sentiment rather than reason.

"For most of the eighteenth century, Spinoza was publicly treated as a philosopher to be scorned" (ibid:311). To his credit, G. W. F. Hegel (1770-1831) went against this trend, although in a different way to the Romantics. Hegel accepted monism, and to some extent assimilated Spinoza as a "starting point." However, his basic exposition moved at a strong tangent. Hegel emphasised a dialectical process in history (the vehicle of Geist or "Spirit"), depicting the German Enlightenment as the pinnacle of human and cultural evolution to date. This rather ethnocentric tendency contrasts strongly with Spinoza's disavowal of any "teleological" value scheme, in terms of a chosen race or an elect society. Spinoza repudiated the traditional Jewish concept of an elect religious tradition in his radical version of Bible criticism.

The third divergence is perhaps the strongest, and the most significant in contemporary terms. Friedrich W. Nietzsche (1844-1900) was averse to reason, believing that there is no objective truth. His followers, both direct and indirect, are legion.

For Nietzsche, Spinoza's use of reason is a classic expression of ressentiment, the animus that the weak feel toward the strong. For Nietzsche (sometimes), Spinoza uses reason as a cudgel to frustrate or even eliminate the expression of our affects, of our will to power. (Della Rocca 2008:294)

The Nietzschean will to power is a glorification of self-will and indulgent "Dionysian" emotion. The royalist mob, who savaged to death the helpless republican Johann de Witt in 1672 (section 9 above), may be considered a vehicle of the instinctive will to power. The rejection by Nietzsche of Spinoza's "commitment to absolute truth" (ibid:301) did nothing to avert the former's collapse into insanity, whatever the disputed cause of that predicament.

The twentieth century development, of a scholarly mode of assessment, was more objective than the Nietzschean power complex. The diverse treatments of Wolfson, Gueroult, Popkin, Nadler, Klever, and other analysts, are attended by the well known antipathy of Professor Jonathan Bennett for Part Five of Ethics (see section 11 above). This reservation (published in 1984) is no proof that Spinoza was wrong to emphasize themes of a rational mysticism. The inflexible form of thinking found in some commentaries may be proof of error.

A rather more sustained criticism of the subject, in terms of both biography and exposition, appeared 14 years later in an erudite book declaring "a doctorate in the philosophy of Spinoza from University College London." Despite some undeniable scholarship in evidence, the treatment is frequently disparaging, with such accusations as: "In my view Spinoza was an intellectually supercilious man" (Gullan-Whur 1998:xiii). The female author stigmatises the subject as being prone to arrogance, error, misogyny, and even (though guardedly) homosexual inclinations (ibid:141-3). These insinuations include the assumption that Spinoza was "a miserable exception to this common animal appetite" (ibid:143), meaning sexuality.

Married people often fail to understand celibate types. One should not deduce from this limitation any suggestion, for instance, that all Christian and Buddhist monks were secret voluptuaries or homosexuals, confused by their miseries of abstinence.

The genre of contemporary writing, criticising or demeaning antique entities, can be described as questionable, exhibiting a belief that contemporary acumen can penetrate all complexities in the fashionable spirit of iconoclasm. More specifically, the book by Gullan-Whur is regarded by some as a sophisticated "feminist" attack, a form of retaliation for the well known (and unfortunately deficient) references to women on the last page of Spinoza's unfinished Political Treatise. "No philosopher has managed to get him out of the hole he dug for himself" (ibid:295). It is not necessary to regard Spinoza as a perfect theoretician or infallible rationalist.

There are such strongly accented assertions of Dr. Margaret Gullan-Whur as: "Spinoza's metaphysical scheme is outdated, false, and unworthy of further consideration" (ibid:313). Such emphatic pronouncements are not necessarily convincing. There is, however, an open confession at the outset: "Spinoza would detest this book" (ibid:xiv). There are indeed a number of passages that read like a pointed critique, with the rather insidious impression conveyed of an attempt to undermine the subject's reputation. Much of the background material is helpful, while the psycho-portrayal of the main subject may savour of novelistic imagination rather than proven fact. However, some gestures of concession are also visible. "Many such deductions [of Spinoza] are shockingly relevant to current affairs and contemporary personal situations" (ibid:314).

With regard to "the hole he [Spinoza] dug for himself" in the Political Treatise, that matter is treated rather differently in some other commentaries. For instance:

Spinoza had barely begun writing the first of what would likely have been two chapters on democracy when he died on February 21, 1677. His conception of democracy includes any system of popular governance in which the governing members acquire the right to participate by virtue of their civil status rather than by election.... Spinoza's own model democracy excludes all those who are not sui iuris - e.g., women, servants (servos), and foreigners - as well those who do not lead 'respectable lives.' These elitist and exclusionary aspects of Spinoza's democracy taint what would otherwise appear to be a rather progressive form of democracy. (Justin Steinberg, Spinoza's Political Philosophy, 2013)

Spinoza apparently thought that women were too weak to assert themselves against male domination. One commentary, specifying this factor, also remarks:

His [Spinoza's] argument also implies, indeed requires, that if woman can somehow free herself from masculine domination and rival man in power and assertiveness, then there would no longer be any reason for refusing her equal access to the political process. (Israel 2001:86)

Despite the "underground" and "Enlightenment" reception of Spinoza in the eighteenth century, "strictly speaking, there were no Spinozists (except as convenient phantoms for apologists); there were only thinkers who make use of Spinoza" (Moreau 1996:413). This situation continued into the era of Schopenhauer and Marx, proving a source of confusion for many readers.

A contemporary presentation argues that Spinoza played a far more central role in the development of Enlightenment ideation than was formerly supposed (Israel 2001). Spinoza here emerges as the virtual founder of modernity. This theme is accompanied by an emphasis upon Spinoza as a materialist philosopher, which does not meet with universal agreement. A reviewer noted several points:

Almost overnight [in the 1780s] he [Spinoza] went from being condemned as the worst of atheists and blasphemers to being universally admired by all the leading intellectuals of the day, who found in Spinoza's work a revolutionary spirit that matched their own mounting sense of rebellion against the orthodoxies of Church and State.... Israel rejects the notion that British Deism was an essentially insular phenomenon and regards the British Deists such as John Toland (1670-1722) as deriving their ideas primarily from Spinoza.... Israel is also able to identify the much more covert influence of Spinoza on the Enlightenment in France and the French Revolution. Although the Encyclopédie condemned Spinoza's philosophy as a 'monstrous system,' its editor Diderot was exploring the very same materialist ideas.... Spinoza was seldom cited as an inspiration by the leaders of the French Revolution. (Ann Talbot, Spinoza Reconsidered, 2003, reviewing Jonathan Israel, Radical Enlightenment)

The contribution of Professor Jonathan Israel has focused upon the "underground" currents preceding the German Enlightenment of the late eighteenth century. Extensive analysis is applied to the antecedents in France and other countries. Israel stresses that Spinoza substantially dominates over John Locke (1632-1704) in the French Encyclopédie edited by Diderot and D'Alembert, although the same work repudiates the philosophy of Spinoza as an alien system to the French materialist conceptualism. The phenomenon of "Spinozism" is described by Israel in terms of "Early Enlightenment European thought," having become known as Spinosisme in France and Spinozisterey in Germany. This is dubbed the "radical Enlightenment," contrasting with the moderate Enlightenment associated with Locke and Isaac Newton in England. The radical wing is described as having a prominence, in European intellectual debates, that "is generally far greater than anyone could suppose from the existing secondary literature" (Israel 2001:12-13).

Both the "moderate" and "radical" factions were in opposition to the theological establishment. A strong tension is also deduced between the moderates and radicals, a situation indicated by the role of Voltaire (1694-1778), the prolific Parisian litterateur influenced by English rationalist or "moderate" philosophy. The interpretation of Professor Israel presents Spinoza as instigator of the emerging values of individual liberty, democracy, and rationalism, as the foil to Hobbes, Locke, and Voltaire. Further, the French Revolution of 1789 is here argued as being a consequence of the underground Spinozism which had formerly been developing for decades.

The radical thinker Condorcet, looking back on the Enlightenment's achievements from the standpoint of 1793, deemed it certain not just that 'philosophy' caused the French Revolution but that only philosophy can cause a true 'revolution' - which is also the position underlying the present study. (Israel 2006:13)

The portrayal is clearly antagonistic to the influence of Locke and Hume, in quite a significant way, pointing to the conservative stance at work in British philosophy.

Part of the difficulty, in contemporary Britain and America, is that philosophy's proper zone of activity has come to be so narrowly defined by the intellectual heirs of Locke and Hume that philosophy is generally conceived to be a marginal, technical discipline which neither does, nor should, affect anything very much, let alone define the whole of the reality in which we live. (Israel 2006:13)

Thus, contemporary philosophy is here viewed as being the polar opposite to the "radical enlightenment" so strongly associated with Spinozism. The perspectives of Marx and Nietzsche are also mentioned. The revolutionary aspect of philosophy is stated to be "a remote and deeply puzzling idea" (ibid) for most readers.

A citizen observer does not find the idea to be either remote or puzzling. However, problems arise in accepting the rather diverse components of the "revolutionary" paradigm. For instance, Nietzsche does not fit well with Spinoza, having entertained some bizarre theories that cannot be found in the Ethics or even the Theological-Political Treatise. The mere revolutionary spirit can too easily go mad. Restraint of the instincts is a primary requirement.

One problem clearly in evidence is that the radicals were frequently not representative of Spinoza himself, whatever the conglomerate label of "Spinozism" might deceptively suggest. Diverse academics, aristocrats, and extremists inhabited the underground. Many of them are thought to have read Spinoza only indirectly. "Admittedly, what was called 'Spinozism' was often far sketchier and cruder than Spinoza himself" (ibid:47). Any attempt to minimise the differences runs counter to such considerations as:

[Spinozism was] often derived not from a direct reading of Spinoza's Ethics or other works, but from reports in influential intermediaries such as Bayle or Boulainvilliers, from the clandestine manuscripts, or else other underground sources including subversive conversation, and published refutations, sources which frequently distorted or oversimplified Spinoza's positions and arguments. (Israel 2006:48)

What has been termed a key text of French "Spinozism" is the Traité des trois imposteurs (Treatise on the Three Imposters). This is revealed to have "pasted in large chunks of Hobbes," and furthermore, "in most cases, such clandestine propagation encouraged adoption of a tone and style very different from, and mostly more militant than, that of Spinoza himself" (ibid:49). The extension to Marx may therefore have increased, even while the link with Spinoza grew more tenuous.

The Traité des trois imposteurs has been called "one of the most radical anti-religious clandestine works that circulated in the eighteenth century" (Popkin, foreword to S. Berti et al, 1996:viii). This sceptical view of religion also became known as L'Esprit de M. Spinoza (The Spirit of Spinoza), which is very misleading in that the materials derive only in part from Spinoza, with strong borrowings from a range of other sources such as Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), Gabriel Naudé (1600-53), and Francoise de La Mothe Le Vayer (1588-1672). The intrusive spirit Hobbes was very different to Spinoza, both in terms of political theory and metaphysics. The philosophy of Hobbes has been described in terms of complete materialism; however, some commentators imply that he was an eccentric theist.

The Traité was first published at The Hague in 1719, meeting with official suppression; however, this text circulated widely in manuscript (Charles-Daubert 1999). The obscure transcribers have been treated to much recent investigation. The Irish freethinker and satirist John Toland (1670-1722) figures prominently in scholarly reconstructions of trends and influences involved. Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad are the "three imposters" (trois imposteurs) proposed by a naturalistic/secularist interpretation of religion haphazardly attributed to the spirit of Spinoza. The latter had a high regard for Christ, a factor overlooked by the later wave of radical agitators. Spinoza did not attack Muhammad, although he did criticise traditions of the Jewish prophet Moses in his version of Biblical exegesis.

The work (Traité des trois imposteurs) contains excerpts from Spinoza including his sharp attack on religious thinking in the appendix to Book one of the Ethics. It also contains material from Thomas Hobbes, La Mothe Le Vayer, and other avant-garde thinkers. L'esprit (i.e., the Traité) is basically a pastiche of texts with no original material. (Popkin 2004:121)

The librarian Naudé and the sceptic La Mothe Le Vayer were early figures associated with the libertinage érudit, a circle of freethinking French scholars amongst whom some have doubtfully counted Marin Mersenne, the major correspondent of Descartes and an opponent of sceptics. Mersenne was a Minim, meaning a reformed Franciscan, although sometimes mistakenly described as a Jesuit. The word libertin (freethinker) was variously employed (eventually gaining the conventional meaning of a dissolute libertine by the late eighteenth century). The sceptical tradition of Montaigne was one of the components in the early freethinker spectrum denoted. A variation of libertinage (freethinking), represented by the Traité document, conflated Spinoza with rather more collective trends.

Concerning the actual transcribers of the Traite des trois imposteurs, some revealing discoveries should be mentioned:

A specific coterie of French Protestant refugees and their friends in The Hague and Amsterdam - comprising Prosper Marchand, the political agent Jean Rousset de Missy, the publisher Charles Levier, the engraver Bernard Picart, the English freethinkers John Toland and Anthony Collins, the minor Dutch diplomat Jan Vroesen, the German born publishers Fritsch and Bohm - have been identified as the locus for the transcribing, altering and disseminating of the Traité. (Margaret C. Jacob, "The Nature of Early Eighteenth Century Religious Radicalism," 2009, Republics of Letters)

Professor Jacob argues for French and English contributions to the Enlightenment (including the Newtonian factor) that are quite separate from Spinozism. Indeed, the Marchand circle are here linked to accompanying developments of research into religion on an international scale. Thus, the Traité can give a deceptive impression of events via the well known invocation of Spinoza.

The scientific study of religion was inaugurated by Bernard Picart (1673-1733) and Jean Frederic Bernard (1683-1744), who both lived at Amsterdam, where each amassed a large collection of books, including those by Spinoza. They produced an extensive multi-volume work entitled Cérémonies et coutumes religieuses. In English, the full title is The Religious Ceremonies and Customs of all the Peoples of the World (1723-43). Bernard was the publisher and main author. The self-publisher here tactfully remained anonymous, with the consequence that his volumes were often attributed to the talented engraver Picart.

The Bernard (and Picart) project in comparative religion is viewed as a milestone in the route to full religious toleration, and also "helped invent the discipline of anthropology" (Jacob, art. cit.). Religious Ceremonies and Customs was placed on the Papal Index of Forbidden Books in 1738. At that period, the orthodox Christian attack on non-Christian religions (e.g., Buddhism) generally depicted these as "idolatrous, atheistic, superstitious, and composed of legends and myths" (ibid). Moving in a different direction, "in the final analysis Bernard argues for the impossibility of atheism" (ibid). His purpose was "to get at the 'natural religion' that lay hidden beneath the corruptions introduced by organised religions of all sorts" (ibid).

The achievement of Bernard is now seen in the context of placing all religions on equal terms. His very unusual book "attempted to accurately depict even Catholic customs, and it gave more favourable and extended attention to Islam than anyone had before" (quote from UCLA). His volumes covered the New World, Asia, and Africa. He and Picart drew upon clandestine literature, the English deists, and Spinoza. The composer of Ethics did not possess the kind of extensive library acquired by the French successors, although he is a closely associated inspirer. Learning in the history of religion was then very formative. See further L. Hunt, M. C. Jacob, and W. Mijnhardt, The Book That Changed Europe: Picart and Bernard's Religious Ceremonies of the World (2010).

At the same period that the Marchand circle published the Traité, a distinctive partisan biography of Spinoza appeared in 1719. This is closely attributed to Jean Maximilien Lucas, a French Protestant refugee living in Holland (Wolf 1927). Some analysts emphasise that this work is not known to have existed before 1711, while others favour a much earlier origin, emphasising that the author had met the subject. In La Vie de Spinoza, Lucas portrays Spinoza as a saintly man, a factor regarded by critics as a tendency to hagiography. However, a prominent Spinoza scholar has written:

In it [the Lucas biography] one finds a fairly reliable report of Spinoza's life, which in my opinion is much underestimated by scholars because they do not like the tone of admiration, even adoration, which runs through the pages. I think that Lucas, though not always precise in his details, is very close to Spinoza's intellectual level. (Klever 1996:18)

Another early biography of Spinoza was composed by the much more resistant Johann Kohler (Colerus), a German Lutheran minister at The Hague, who is noted for having lived (at a later period) in the same rooms where the subject spent his final years. The author was acquainted with Spinoza's last landlord. The Colerus biography was published in French in 1705, gaining translation into other languages (Pollock 1889). Colerus chose the title On the True Resurrection of Jesus Christ from the Dead, defended against Spinoza and his followers; Together with a precise biography of the same famous philosopher. The religious orientation is clearly indicated; the precision of the account may be questioned accordingly.

The Colerus version became regarded as authoritative; in contast, the Lucas version gained only a very limited circulation. Not until the early twentieth century was the priority of Lucas recognised by the new Spinoza scholarship, when the complete text was made available.

The originating seventeenth century Dutch milieu, of the Spinoza partisans, was strongly supplemented by a French Protestant contingent associated with the libertin tendency of freethinking. The resulting ideological composite was assimilated in France and Germany, displaying adaptations.

Dissenters of countless eccentric persuasions, many of them French, would later and usually erroneously be called 'Spinozists,' but by the time Spinoza moved to The Hague he knew that a leap in clear-headedness was required from any libertin, libertine or liberal Cartesian before he could acknowledge them as like-minded. (Gullan-Whur 1998:234)

The Jonathan Israel paradigm of "radical enlightenment" identifies as "Spinozists" such entities as Julien Offray de La Mettrie (1709-51), one of the more prominent names "who was certainly a 'Spinozist,' as he openly declared, in his ontology and materialism - albeit he simultaneously rejected Spinozist positions in his moral, social, and political thought" (Israel 2006:49).

The eighteenth century French philosophes were often materialists. These men really were atheists, in affinity with a problematic cue provided by the early commentator Pierre Bayle (1647-1706), a French Protestant polymath who admired Spinoza's lifestyle even though he failed to comprehend the philosopher's teaching. In the 1690s, Bayle influentially conceived of Spinoza as a virtuous atheist.

l to r : Pierre  Bayle, Voltaire

Bayle lived as a refugee in Holland, having fled (along with many others) from the grim persecution of Huguenots in Catholic France (where in 1685, Louis XIV callously revoked the Edict of Nantes, causing over 200,000 Protestants to flee elsewhere). Bayle has been described as a philosophe expressing a plea for religious toleration. His magnum opus goes well beyond religion, however. His encyclopaedic Historical and Critical Dictionary (Dictionnaire historique et critique, 1697) included a lengthy entry on Spinoza that became widely read. Bayle was sympathetic to Spinoza; nevertheless, his account of the latter's exposition has been considered a caricature.

The Dictionnaire was the most popular work of that genre during the eighteenth century. The contents are diverse, including science and superstitions, sceptical doubts, anecdotes, moral reflections, and extensive footnotes (Popkin 1991). The sceptical penchant of Bayle influenced David Hume, Denis Diderot (1713-84), and many others. Diderot relied too heavily on Bayle's erroneous version of Spinoza in the Encyclopedie.

In 1772, Voltaire caustically remarked that Spinoza's Ethics was a "famous book so little read" (Israel 2006:48). Voltaire tended to regard Bayle and Spinoza as rather isolated and ineffective writers, in contrast to his own more socially conspicuous role. "Voltaire was willing to agree that Bayle's life, like Spinoza's, was singularly virtuous" (ibid:90), although he wished to regard them as secondary and isolated philosophers whose careers contemplated reality from the enclosed confines of the private study room. Voltaire admired "much more the worldly cut and thrust of an active life like his own" (ibid).

The more cloistered sector of the philosophical population should not be underestimated. Voltaire overtook Bayle in the league of prominence, but did not surpass the increasing fame of Spinoza.

Armed only with his pen and lens grinding tools, the "renegade Jew" is seen (in one academic version) to have brought down the mighty (and very oppressive) French monarchy via the diversely proliferating counter of Spinozism, a development which also terminated the persecuting tendencies of the French clerics. The resurrection of dictatorship in Napoleon Bonaparte was unwisely commemorated by Nietzsche in his "will to power" syndrome, also associated with the rise of Nazism. In contrast, Marx might have been sober at learning the details of "Spinozism" now available to the scholastic survey, a phenomenon of international responses and incongruities reputedly leading to the "liberty, equality, fraternity" ethos, and yet more.

The political climate in Britain was lenient by comparison with the situation in France. The English clergy were basically amiable; even David Hume had friends amongst them. In contrast, "the monarchy, nobility and clergy [of France] ruled with an iron hand, keeping the majority of the people in a state of poverty and virtual slavery" (Caspar Hewett, Life of Voltaire).

A form of hedonism emerged in the eighteenth century French sector of dissidents; in no way does this tendency resemble the lifestyle or writings of Spinoza. Some of the "Spinozistic" philosophes became addicted to eroticism, commemorated in some extant literature. They created a relativistic worldview, preferring to believe that there is no difference between physical pleasure and spiritual salvation (cf. Israel 2001:96). Hedonism led to the sadistic eroticism of the Marquis de Sade (1740-1814), a psychological cancer which in his case notoriously gained both literary and real life expression; this social drawback was much later glorified by Michel Foucault.

In the eighteenth century French sector, naturalism became for some radicals an excuse for perverse self-will. The true Spinozan ideal of frugal living and restrained pleasure was lost upon too many of the "enlightened," who were generally affluent members of society. The frequently unread Ethics did not realistically belong in such erratic circles. The misunderstandings continue today. The vaunted "postmodernism" has not served to clarify what actually happened in the modern era.

In an overall conceptual context, there are different trends discernible in the contemporary exegesis of Spinoza. These contrasts relate to the naturalism, atheism, "pantheism," and "rational mysticism" that are strongly associated with the subject. Some academic commentators have referred to Spinoza as a materialist. For instance:

His [Spinoza's] thought is best understood as a comprehensive and consistent system of naturalism, materialism, and empiricism. (Israel 2006:46)

A prominent contemporary biographer has disavowed the "pantheism," declaring that "Spinoza is an atheist." The intellectual love of God is here restricted to a purely naturalistic interpretation. "To love God is nothing but to understand nature" (Steven Nadler, "Spinoza the Atheist", New Humanist, 31st May 2007). The same scholar's article on Spinoza in Stanford Encyclopedia reveals a similar emphasis. "It is a mistake to call him a pantheist in so far as pantheism is still a kind of religious theism" (accessed 21/03/21). The categories are very limited here, indeed stifling, the pantheism being associated in the same paragraph with "worshipful awe or religious reverence" (accessed 21/03/21). Blanket theism is at variance with some aspects of Hinduism and Buddhism, for instance. "Pantheism" is a conflatory cover term for orientations such as deism, a deist being one who believes in the existence of God, but not in a revealed religion.

The outlawed Spinozan "pantheism" is found in different registers over several generations. This theme is not restricted to the Romantic conception associated with Goethe, Coleridge, Wordsworth, and others. The poet Goethe "was ready to depict a rather simplified pantheism which leaned heavily upon his reception of Ethics Part 5. The validity of the Romantic angle has been much debated and frequently derided as being unscholarly. Goethe is notorious for having 'Christianised' Spinoza and for having distorted the ideological background of the subject" (Shepherd 2005:299-300).

The German Enlightenment was attended by the "pantheist controversy" of the 1780s, instigated by Friedrich H. Jacobi (1743-1819). This theistic polemicist maintained that Spinoza was an atheist with a doctrine of pure materialism. Jacobi was in reaction to G. E. Lessing (1729-81), the German dramatist who allegedly favoured Spinoza. Jacobi published the Briefe uber die Lehre Spinozas (1785), also known as the Letters to Mendelssohn, disclosing correspondence between himself and Moses Mendelssohn on the subject of Spinoza (in 1789, an enlarged second edition of the Letters appeared).

Jacobi published a work in which he revealed that Lessing had told him he was a Spinozist, meaning by 'Spinozism' the doctrine of the world's unity of principle, over and above its modifications, and against all revealed theology. Mendelssohn became incensed and defended the memory of his friend against this reproach; others responded. Nearly everyone who mattered in the intellectual world entered into the conflict, reread Spinoza, reevaluated his doctrine, and put into question the simple concept of the Enlightenment. (Moreau 1996:420)

Jacobi was viewed by Moses Mendelssohn (1729-86) and others as a pietist enemy of reason. Jacobi advocated faith (glaube), discounting pantheism. His attack brought Spinoza into the forefront of academic philosophical discussion. Despite the ongoing accusation of atheism, the German supporters of Spinoza discernibly viewed the Ethics as an alternative to atheism, materialism, and vaguely expressed versions of deism. Jacobi accused the rival philosophers of nihilism, himself adopting an attitude assimilable to Protestant theology. Ironically, he recognised the importance of Spinoza's emphasis on intuitive knowledge, although he (Jacobi) believed that "faith" encompassed the factor of intuition. The critics of Jacobi interpreted his standpoint in terms of religious enthusiasm and obscurantism.

Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) became drawn into this debate in 1786 (the year of Mendelssohn's death), having been requested to defend Mendelssohn (his friend and supporter). Kant effectively criticised both of the protagonists, believing that "Mendelssohn ultimately did not trust enough in reason," and that "Jacobi denied reason altogether and opted for faith" (Kuehn 2001:308).

According to a recent interpretation, Mendelssohn relied on commonsense in his defensive criticism of Spinoza. Kant wanted a middle path between Spinoza and Jacobi, "but he saw Mendelssohn's reliance on common sense as no less an abandonment of reason as Jacobi's irrationalism" (Della Rocca 2008:287). Kant's "rational belief" implied that both Jacobi and Mendelssohn were inclining to zealotry (Kuehn 2001:307). There remained a substantial gap between Spinoza and Kant.

These academic disputes were succeeded by the more radical deliberations of Karl Marx (1818-83). The Marxist version of Spinoza tended very much to a materialist complexion. Engels referred to Spinoza as "the splendid representative of dialectics." In 1920s Communist Russia, "the different philosophical camps (mechanists and dialecticians) each constructed an image of Spinozism and its place in the history of thought that brought comfort to their own positions" (Moreau 1996:426).

In contrast, the French commentator Martial Gueroult (1891-1976) suggested the term panentheism as a substitute for pantheism in the description of Spinoza's worldview. This means a doctrine that the world is a part of, and not the whole, of God.

The atheistic interpretation has led many general readers to believe that Spinoza was in the same category as Bertrand Russell (1872-1970). During the latter's term of influence, Spinoza was a marginalised figure, prior to a subsequent revival of interest in the late twentieth century.

The remarks of Bertrand Russell are well known. "Intellectually, some others have surpassed him [Spinoza], but ethically he is supreme.... his attempt was magnificent, and rouses admiration even in those who do not think it successful" (Russell 2000:552-3). Russell was one of the doubting admirers, attested by his further reflection:

The whole of this [Spinozan monistic] metaphysic is impossible to accept; it is incompatible with modern logic and with scientific method. Facts have to be discovered by observation, not by reasoning. (Russell 2000:560)

Over three centuries after Spinoza, empirical science has still not discovered all the facts required to convince questioners that every important matter has been resolved. While some commentators are content to wait through the generations for doubtful answers (often rather conveniently judged to be non-existent), some philosophers who employed both reason and intuition may have been discoverers in advance of the sceptics.

One of the well known academic summaries contains a pointed statement of relevance:

For Spinoza philosophy was not merely one useful or necessary intellectual discipline among others, or somehow ancillary to the special sciences; it was the only complete and essential form of knowledge, in relation to which all other inquiries are partial and subordinate. Like Plato and most other great metaphysicians, he thought of philosophy as the pursuit of wisdom and of the knowledge of the right way of life; only insofar as we understand true philosophy can we know how we ought to live, and know also what kind of scientific and other knowledge is useful and attainable. (Hampshire 1988:24)

Of course, in the current modernity, this perspective is negated by other attitudes, which dictate that people live as they find most opportune or pleasurable, that "contemplative" philosophy has been ousted by empirical science, or that everything has a more or less relativistic value - meaning that science is also irrelevant in deconstruction. In the general psychological malaise, the purpose of life amounts to nothing, or can be found in alternative "therapy" for wealthy consumers. A revolution in thinking is required to offset the prevalent confusion.

Kevin R. D. Shepherd

August 2010 (modified July 2015; slightly modified 2021)

Appendix 1: Spinoza  and  Averroes

Professor Carlos Fraenkel argues for a familiarity on the part of Spinoza with the main ideas of Averroes (Ibn Rushd), as mediated by Elijah Del Medigo (d.1493), a Jewish Averroist of Crete. The latter’s Hebrew work Examination of Religion (Behinat Hadat) was in Spinoza’s personal library (Fraenkel 2012:205ff; see also Fraenkel 2013).

In this enlarged context, Fraenkel suggests that Spinoza was committed to two projects that he was unable to reconcile. In the Tractatus, he affirms that scripture contains no truth. However, his output contains a number of passages “in which he attributes a true core to scripture, often presented as its allegorical content.” In the first contention, Spinoza is refuting the claim of religion to exclusive truth. In the second contention, he is content to employ religion to provide a medium for non-philosophers; this was a standard tactic of medieval Islamic and Jewish philosophers. This perspective was introduced by the liberal Al-Farabi (d.950), who maintained that religion is an “imitation of philosophy.” The allegorical content of religion was a persistent theme of the Muslim falasifa, also favoured by Maimonides. The falasifa (philosophers) were at risk of censure from Islamic jurists and theologians.

In the Tractatus, the Biblical exegesis of Maimonides is rejected by Spinoza. Yet according to Fraenkel, before Spinoza started work on the Tractatus in 1665, he consistently endorsed the combinatory (or "dogmatic") position whenever he discussed the character of scripture. This feature changed in the Tractatus, the author’s major opponent here being the Calvinist church. Fraenkel nevertheless does suggest that Spinoza remained oriented to a "philosophical religion" even in the Tractatus.

Fraenkel deduces that Spinoza’s use of the “dogmatic” approach does not follow Maimonides but Averroes (d.1198). Known to Muslims as Ibn Rushd, this Arab was active in Spain, authoring the Kitab fasl al-maqal (Hourani 1976). The Muslim Aristotelian believed that the allegorical dimension of scripture must remain the exclusive prerogative of philosophers with the capacity to understand. Philosophy should avoid the religious doctrines. In contrast, Maimonides believed that scripture must be promoted through the means of allegorical exegesis and legislation.

From the Averroist standpoint, Maimonides is a problem, introducing philosophy into alien sectors of Biblical exegesis and jurisprudence. This is the main criticism of Maimonides by Del Medigo, who insists that philosophy and religion must be kept apart. Averroes argued for this division in Fasl al-maqal (Decisive Treatise), repeatedly stating that the allegorical dimension of divine law is not to be made public. Del Medigo used the same treatise to explain the distinction between the Mosaic Law and philosophy. In his own version, Spinoza dispensed with the Maimonidean recourse to allegorical interpretation.

Fraenkel depicts Spinoza as the last representative of this tradition of “philosophical religion.” Spinoza had carefully studied Maimonides and other Jewish philosophers, but he lacked any close knowledge of the Muslim falasifa. Through the medium of Del Medigo, Spinoza  was able to represent Averroes (and Farabi) on points of dispute with Maimonides and his followers.  

Appendix 2:  The  Kabbalah  Issue

Persistent claims have been made that Spinoza was influenced by Kabbalah. Spinoza scholars often tend to resist this factor, on the basis that proof is lacking.

Henry Walter Brann was an advocate of the Kabbalah theory. He affirmed that Kabbalist concepts were transmitted to Spinoza in his formative years, through reading the Gate of Heaven by Abraham Cohen Herrera (d.1635). The young Spinoza is said to have read the version in Hebrew (Brann 2001:187). The claim is made: “Spinoza’s determinism fits in perfectly well with the concept of the En Sof in the Zohar; there is no place for any ‘free will’ of God, consequently not much of a ‘free will’ in man” (ibid:190).

According to Moshe Idel, Spinoza was influenced by the Kabbalah in relation to two of his key themes, meaning Deus sive Natura and amor Dei intellectualis. Rabbi Abraham Abulafia (1240-1291), the “ecstatic” Kabbalist, wrote three commentaries on the Guide of Maimonides, teaching his esoteric version of this book in Spain, Greece, and Italy. Abulafia expressed a gematria or numerical equivalence between “God” and “Nature” (elohim and ha-teba). This identification was employed in many subsequent Kabbalist works. Idel concludes that Spinoza was influenced by this theme, although he ignored the mystical hermeneutics, focusing upon the basic equivalence.

Idel suggests that Spinoza was receptive to the Ginnat Egoz of Rabbi Joseph Gikatilla, a work which  frequently mentions the equation. “Given the widespread occurrence of the identification of elohim and ha-teba in non-Kabbalistic texts, as well as in Kabbalistic ones, Idel’s conclusion that Spinoza was aware of the gematria is likely” (Harvey 2007:90). Gikatilla is interpreted by Idel as being evocative of the Latin terms natura naturans and natura naturata, which occur in medieval Christian philosophy from the thirteenth century. These terms are used by Spinoza in the Ethics (Curley 1996:20-21).

Abulafia also delivered the expression “divine intellectual love” (ahabah elohit sikhlit) in a passage that was quoted in variants by two leading philosophers of the Maimonidean tradition. One of these was Rabbi Abraham Shalom (d.1492) of Spain, who made the citation in his Neveh Shalom, which became a popular work of Jewish philosophy. Spinoza probably did read this well known text, available in printed editions. “A conception similar to that of Abulafia may also be found in Leone Ebreo’s Dialoghi d’Amore, and we come across it in a modified form in the works of Spinoza” (Edel 1988:67).

The theme of intellectual love specified by Abulafia is complex. “Abulafia, Shalom, and Spinoza all speak about a two-way intellectual love in which God’s love of human beings and human beings’ love of God are in some sense one” (Harvey 2007:93 note 19). The overall context is here Maimonidean,  meaning that “Spinoza’s concept of amor Dei intellectualis is indebted to Maimonides’ discussion of the ‘passionate love’ of God in The Guide of the Perplexed” (ibid:91).

During the 1590s, Israel Sarug was active amongst the Kabbalists in Italy. He has been viewed in terms of providing “a quasi-philosophical basis for [Isaac] Luria’s distinctly unphilosophical doctrine” (Scholem 1961:257). The transformation proved successful. A follower of Sarug was Abraham Cohen Herrera (d.1635), the learned son of a Spanish rabbi. Herrera started life in Florence but passed his last years at Amsterdam. The output of Herrera, in Spanish, incorporated the Renaissance model of Ficino and Mirandola, Aristotelian, Platonist, and Neoplatonist components, the Kabbalah, and Scholasticism.

Herrera’s lengthy Gate of Heaven was composed in Spanish for the marrano community of Amsterdam.  This work was “a synthesis of mystical and philosophical thought that was unique for its time” (Krabbenhoft 2002:xii). A translation into Hebrew was printed in 1655 by Rabbi Isaac Aboab de Fonseca, who substantially abridged and altered the text. This Hebrew version was translated into Latin by Rosenroth over twenty years later.

Spinoza is credited by some analysts with reading the Hebrew version of Herrera’s Gate of Heaven. However, this drastic abridgment is perhaps unlikely to have aroused his interest (Zovko PDF:8). Fonseca was a teacher of Spinoza. The possibility has been envisaged that the pupil was likewise familiar with the Spanish original, entitled Puerto del cielo. Two of his teachers did have access to Spanish manuscripts of Herrera's works, therefore Spinoza may have been "directly or indirectly acquainted" with the Spanish original (ibid:16-17). Although Spinoza "would certainly disagree with Herrrera's concessions to the authority of the Kabbalah," some striking similarities are claimed between the Ethics and the Gate of Heaven (ibid:14-15). It has been argued that Herrera's treatment of emanation (the relation of the One and the sefirot) was a plausible inspiration for Spinoza's concept of divine attributes as found in his Ethics (Di Poppa 2009).

“At any rate, there was a current kabbalistic school in Amsterdam and some of the views advanced had strong pantheistic tendencies” (Popkin 2004:81). More pointedly, “Spinoza knew some key terms from Herrera’s system and employs them in his Ethics” (ibid:19).

In his Tractatus, Spinoza made a criticism of Kabbalists, whom he says were exclusivist in their desire to be seen as possessing divine secrets. He described Kabbalist writings as “mere childishness” (ibid:82). However, Spinoza also criticised Maimonides, who is seen today as a basic influence upon him. Circa 1700, Jacques Basnage asked a prominent rabbi of Amsterdam about Spinoza. He was told that Spinoza “plagiarised the views of the kabbalists and tried to make himself appear original by casting this in Cartesian terminology” (ibid). The rabbi is not named. Popkin suggests that this man was probably Isaac Aboab de Fonseca, a pupil of Herrera (ibid).

Another report confirms Kabbalistic associations. The German theologian Johann Wachter visited an old friend in Amsterdam, who had changed his Christian pietist identity by joining a Jewish community, while adopting the name of Moses Germanus. Wachter was told by this acquaintance that a pantheistic Kabbalism, associated with the Kabbala Denudata (1677-84), was  a basic ingredient of Spinoza’s metaphysics (ibid:82-3). The abridged Hebrew version of Herrera’s Gate of Heaven was translated into Latin by Knorr von Rosenroth in his Denudata. Wachter was familiar with the Latin text. In his own book Der Spinozismus im Judenthumb (1699), Wachter blamed Herrera for the creation of Spinoza’s pantheistic heresy. He revised his opinion in the Elucidarius Cabalisticus (1706), but was still confusing on this matter, not least because he attempted to reconcile Spinoza with Christian doctrine (Vassanyi 2011:224-233).

In terms of a third kind of knowledge, meaning the intuitive factor, Spinoza "can be read as a rational kabbalist" meaning an exposition departing from the "imagery and numerology" of popular Kabbalah (Popkin 2004:83). Spinoza was at odds with popular Kabbalism. In the Tractatus he mentioned Kabbalistic "triflers" who astonished him with their madness. "He was here referring to the contemporary attempts to read exotic meanings into Biblical texts via the arrangement of Hebrew letters; Spinoza probably did not regard himself in any way as a Kabbalist, and was definitely not in the 'letter mysticism' category" (Shepherd 2005:269).

Professor Richard Popkin (1923-2005) concluded that Spinoza was willing to borrow from the philosophical Kabbalism of Herrera "without taking anything from what he regarded as the lunatic fringe of kabbalism" (Popkin 2004:83). In contrast to this view, the deficient Kabbalistic interpretation of Wachter was replaced by an increasing preference for the rationalist and anti-religious aspect of Spinoza, as interpreted by eighteenth century radicals and "Spinozists."


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