Who Was Spinoza and Why Should We Care?
WHO WAS BARUCH SPINOZA?
Bento (Baruch) de Spinoza was the most original and radical thinker of his time. His “scandalous” works were widely condemned by civil, academic and ecclesiastic authorities. One overwrought contemporary critic proclaimed that Spinoza’s Theological-Political Treatise was “a book forged in hell by the devil himself.” His writings are no easy read. And yet, he remains today perhaps the most relevant thinker from the history of philosophy.
Spinoza rejected the notion of an anthropomorphic, providential God; he argued that miracles are impossible; he demonstrated that the Bible is simply a work of human literature, and he showed that the belief in an afterlife where immortal souls are rewarded or punished is a pernicious superstitious fiction. True religion, he claimed, is nothing but the life of reason devoted to love, justice and charity. Spinoza was also the first to argue in a sustained and serious way for a tolerant, secular and democratic society.
THE LIFETIME BAN ON BARUCH SPINOZA
In July 1656, twenty-three-year-old Bento (Baruch) de Spinoza received a lifetime ban (herem or excommunication) from the Portuguese-Jewish community of Amsterdam. The extant document refers only to the young man’s “abominable heresies” and “monstrous deeds,” without telling us exactly what his offenses were. For anyone who reads Spinoza’s later philosophical treatises, however, there really is no mystery. In today’s dangerous circumstances, we can do no better than to turn to the lessons in rationality and virtue of this bold and “heretical” seventeenth-century philosopher.
RECOMMENDED READING ABOUT SPINOZA:
- The Spinoza Reader: The Ethics and Other Works, edited by Edwin Curley
- Think Least of Death: Spinoza on How to Live and How to Die, by Steven Nadler
- Benedict de Spinoza: An Introduction, by Henry Allison
- Spinoza’s Ethics, by Beth Lord
DISCUSSION QUESTIONS ON WHO WAS SPINOZA?:
- How are we to understand Spinoza’s claim that God is Nature? Is he an atheist?
- What does it mean to be “religious?” Does it necessarily involve a belief in God?
- What is the relationship between religion and morality?
- In what sense can we say that the Bible is “divine” or special?
- What does Spinoza think is “the right way of living?”
Nadler does a great job of giving us Spinoza “on one foot”., and also a sense of what life was like in his Amsterdam. Atheism is always out of style, and religious fanaticism is always either ascendant or waiting in the wings. We need all the rationality we can get. I’m inspired to do some more reading, both of Nadler’s books and of Spinoza himself.