THIS strange and lovable character, who made the boldest attempt in modern history to find a philosophy that could take the place of a lost religious faith, was born in Amsterdam on November 24, 1632. His ancestors can be traced to the town of Espinosa, near Burgos, in the Spanish province of León. They were Jews who, as conversos to Christianity, included scholars, priests, and Cardinal Diego d’Espinosa, onetime grand inquisitor. 1 Part of the family, presumably to escape the Spanish Inquisition, migrated to Portugal. After a period of residence there, at Vidigueira, near Beja, the grandfather and father of the philosopher moved to Nantes in France, and thence, in 1593, to Amsterdam. They were among the first Jews who settled in that city, eager to enjoy the religious freedom guaranteed in 1579 by the Union of Utrecht. By 1628 the grandfather was regarded as head of the Sephardic community in Amsterdam; at various times the father was warden of the Jewish school there and president of the organized charities of the Portuguese synagogue. The mother, Hana Debora d’Espinoza, came to Amsterdam from Lisbon. She died when Baruch was six years old, leaving him a consumptive heredity. He was brought up by the father and a third wife. As “Baruch” was Hebrew for blessed, the boy was later named Benedictus in official and Latin documents.

In the synagogue school Baruch was given a predominantly religious education, based upon the Old Testament and the Talmud; there was also some study of Hebrew philosophers, especially Abraham ibn Ezra, Moses ben Maimon, and Hasdai Crescas, with perhaps some dippings into the Cabala. Among his teachers were two men of prominence and ability in the community, Saul Morteira and Manasseh ben Israel. Outside of school Baruch received, in Spanish, considerable instruction in secular subjects, since his father wished to prepare him for a business career. In addition to Spanish and Hebrew he learned Portuguese, Dutch, and Latin, with later a touch of Italian and French. He developed a fondness for mathematics, and made geometry the ideal of his philosophical method and thought.

It was natural that a youth of exceptionally active mind should raise some questions about the doctrines transmitted to him in the synagogue school. Perhaps even there he had heard of Hebrew heresies. Ibn Ezra had long ago pointed out the difficulties involved in ascribing to Moses the later parts of the Pentateuch; Maimonides had proposed allegorical interpretations of some otherwise indigestible passages in the Bible, 2 and had suggested some doubts about personal immortality, 3 and about Creation as against the eternity of the world. 4 Crescas had ascribed extension to God, and had rejected all attempts to prove by reason the freedom of the will, the survival of the soul, and even the existence of God. In addition to these predominantly orthodox Jews, Spinoza must have read Levi ben Gerson, who had reduced Biblical miracles to natural causes, and had subordinated faith to reason, saying, “The Torah cannot prevent us from considering to be true that which our reason urges us to believe.” 5 And only recently, in this Amsterdam community, Uriel Acosta had challenged the belief in immortality, and, humiliated by excommunication, had shot himself (1647). The vague recollection of that tragedy must have deepened the turmoil in Spinoza’s mind when he felt slipping from him the upholding theology of his people and his family.

In 1654 his father died. A daughter claimed the whole estate; Spinoza contested her claim in court, won his case, and then turned over to her all of the legacy but a bed. Now dependent upon himself, he earned his bread by grinding and polishing lenses for spectacles, microscopes, and telescopes. In addition to tutoring some private pupils, he became an instructor in the Latin school of Frans van den Ende, ex-Jesuit, freethinker, dramatist, and revolutionary.* There Spinoza improved his Latin; perhaps he was stimulated by van den Ende to study Descartes, Bacon, and Hobbes; he may now have dipped into the Summa theologiae of Thomas Aquinas. He seems to have fallen in love with the headmaster’s daughter; she preferred a more affluent suitor, and Spinoza, so far as we know, made no further move toward marriage.

Meanwhile he had begun to lose his faith. Probably before reaching the age of twenty he had ventured, with all the pain and trepidation that such moltings bring to sensitive spirits, upon some exciting ideas—that matter may be the body of God, that angels may be phantoms of the imagination, that the Bible said nothing of immortality, that the soul is identical with life. 7 He might have kept these proud heresies to himself had his father lived; and even after his father’s death he might have remained silent had not some friends importuned him with questions. After much hesitation, he confessed to them the tremors of his faith. They reported him to the synagogue.

It has often been pointed out, but must always be borne in mind, that the leaders of the Jewish community in Amsterdam were in a difficult position in dealing with heresies that attacked the fundamentals of the Christian as well as the Jewish creed. The Jews enjoyed in the Dutch Republic a religious toleration denied them elsewhere in Christendom; but that could be withdrawn if they tolerated among themselves ideas that might unsettle the religious basis of morality and social order. According to the biography of Spinoza written in the year of his death by a French refugee in Holland, Jean Maximilien Lucas, the students who reported Baruch’s doubts falsely added the charge that he had expressed scorn of the Jewish people for thinking itself especially chosen by God, and for believing that God was the author of the Mosaic Code. 8 We do not know how far we can trust this account. In any case the Jewish leaders must have resented any disruption of the faith that had been a tower of strength and a well of comfort to the Jews through centuries of bitter suffering.

The rabbis summoned Spinoza, and chided him for disappointing the bright hopes that his teachers had held for his future in the community. One of these teachers, Manasseh ben Israel, was absent in London. Another, Saul Morteira, pleaded with the youth to abandon his heresies. In fairness to the rabbis we must note that Lucas, though strongly sympathetic with Spinoza, records that when Morteira recalled the loving care he had given to the education of his favorite pupil, Baruch “answered that in return for the trouble Morteira had taken in teaching him the Hebrew language, he [Spinoza] would now be glad to teach his instructor how to excommunicate.” 9 This seems quite out of character with all else that we hear of Spinoza, but we must not let our affections select the evidence; and (to vary a remark of Cicero’s) there is hardly anything so foolish but we can find it in the lives of the philosophers.

We are told that the synagogue leaders offered Spinoza an annual pension of a thousand gulden if he would promise to take no hostile step against Judaism, and would show himself from time to time in the synagogue. 10 The rabbis appear to have invoked against him at first only the “lesser excommunication,” which merely excluded him, for thirty days, from intercourse with the Jewish community. 11 We are told that he accepted this sentence with a light heart, saying, “Good; they are forcing me to do nothing that I would not have done of my own free will”; 12 probably he was already living outside the Jewish quarter of the city. A fanatic tried to assassinate him, but the weapon only tore Spinoza’s coat. On July 24, 1656, the religious and secular authorities of the Jewish community solemnly pronounced from the pulpit of the Portuguese synagogue the full excommunication of “Baruch d’Espinosa,” with all the customary curses and prohibitions: no one was to speak or write to him, or do him any service, or read his writings, or come within the space of four cubits’ distance from him. 13 Morteira went before the Amsterdam officials, notified them of the charges and the excommunication, and asked that Spinoza be expelled from the city. They sentenced Spinoza to “an exile of some months.” 14 He went to the nearby village of Ouderkerk, but soon returned to Amsterdam.

His knowledge of Hebrew won him several friends in a little circle of students led by Lodewijk Meyer and Simon de Vries. Meyer had degrees in philosophy and medicine; in 1666 he published Philosophiae Sacrae Scripturae interpres, which subordinated the Bible to reason; it may have reflected—or influenced—the views of Spinoza. De Vries, a prosperous merchant, was so fond of Spinoza that he wished to give him two thousand florins; Spinoza refused to take them. When de Vries neared death (1667) he proposed, being unmarried, to make Spinoza his heir; Spinoza persuaded him to leave the entire estate to a brother; the gratified brother offered him an annuity of five hundred florins; Spinoza accepted three hundred. 15 Another Amsterdam friend, Johan Bouwmeester, wrote to Spinoza, “Love me, for I love you with all my heart.” 16 Next to philosophy, friendship was the chief support of Spinoza’s life. In one of his letters he wrote:

Of all the things that are beyond my power, I value nothing more highly than to be allowed the honor of entering into bonds of friendship with people who sincerely love truth. For, of things beyond our power, I believe there is nothing in the world which we can love with tranquility except such men. 17

He was not quite a recluse, nor an ascetic. He approved “good food and drink, the enjoyment of beauty and growing plants, the hearing of music, visits to the theater”; 18 it was on such a visit that the attempt had been made to kill him. He had still to fear attack; on his signet ring was one word: Caute, carefully. 19 But far more than amusements, more even than friendship, he loved privacy and study and the peace of a simple life. According to Bayle it was “because the visits of his friends too much interrupted his speculations” 20 that Spinoza in 1660 left Amsterdam to live in the quiet village of Rijnsburg—“town on the Rhine”—six miles from Leiden. The Collegiants, a Mennonite sect resembling the Quakers, made their headquarters there, and Spinoza found welcome in one of their families.

In that modest dwelling, now preserved as the Spinozahuis, the philosopher wrote several minor works, and Book I of the Ethics. He composed in 1662 a Short Treatise on God, Man, and His Well-Being; but this was largely a reflection of Descartes. More interesting is the fragment De Intellectus Emendatione (On the Improvement of the Intellect), which was set aside, unfinished, in that same year. Within its forty pages we get a preview of Spinoza’s philosophy. We feel the loneliness of the outcast in its first sentences:

After experience had taught me that all things that frequently take place in ordinary life are vain and futile; when I saw that all the things I feared, and which feared me, had nothing good or bad in them save in so far as the mind was affected by them, I determined at last to inquire whether there might be anything which might be truly good and able to communicate its goodness, and by which the mind might be affected to the exclusion of all other things.

He felt that riches could not do this, nor fame (honor), nor the pleasures of the flesh (libido); turmoil and grief are too often mingled with these delights. “Only the love towards a thing eternal and infinite feeds the mind with pleasure . . . free from all pain.” 21This could have been written by Thomas à Kempis or Jakob Böhme; and indeed there always remained in Spinoza a note and mood of mysticism that may have come to him from the Cabala, and now found nourishment in his solitude. The “eternal and infinite good” which he had in mind could be termed God, but only in Spinoza’s later definition of God as one with nature in its creative powers and its laws. “The greatest good,” says the Emendatione, “. . . is the knowledge of the union which the mind has with the whole of nature. . . . The more the mind understands the order of nature, the more easily it will be able to liberate itself from useless things”; 22 here is Spinoza’s first phrasing of the “intellectual love of God”—the reconciliation of the individual with the nature of things and the laws of the universe.

This eloquent little treatise states also the aim of Spinoza’s thinking, and his understanding of science and philosophy. “I wish to direct all sciences in one direction or to one end, namely, to attain the greatest possible human perfection; and thus everything in the sciences that does not promote this endeavor must be rejected as useless.” 23 Here is quite a different strain from that which we heard in Francis Bacon; the progress of the sciences is a delusion if they merely increase man’s power over things without improving his character and desires. That is why the chef-d’oeuvre of modern philosophy will be called Ethics despite its long metaphysical prelude, and why so much of it will analyze the bondage of man to desire, and his liberation through reason.

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