Baruch Spinoza, the first of "us"

By Razib Khan | July 31, 2006 10:04 am

Alex points me to this Rebecca Goldstein op-ed in The New York Times marking the excommunication of Baruch Spinoza. I am actually reading Goldstein’s biography of Spinoza, Betraying Spinoza: The Renegade Jew Who Gave Us Modernity, and just finished Matthew Stewart’s The Courtier and the Heretic: Leibniz, Spinoza, and the Fate of God in the Modern World. Most of you probably know the name Spinoza from Einstein’s assertion that he “believe in Spinoza’s God,” the pantheistic entity which suffused existence itself.
Update: James H. has more at The Island of Doubt.

Stewart, and Goldstein from what I can gather (see the subtitle of her book), both argue that Spinoza was the predecessor of the 18th century Enlightenment, the intellectual flowering which serves in many ways as the bedrock for modernity as such. I tend to believe this is true, and though Spinoza’s a priori philosophy as worked out in Ethics leaves me rather cold (its format is not particularly accessible to the imagination), his personal biography is something that I find inspirational. Spinoza was an exile many times, his people were Jewish refugees from Portugal, themselves exiled from Spain in 1492. But because of his heterodox beliefs Spinoza was himself exiled from the “Portuguese nation” of Hebrew faith, instead of communal acceptance he strove for his own individual fulfillment. No longer part of the Jewish community of Amsterdam Spinoza did not become a Christian. Rather, he remained apart, and though his days were spent grinding glass his nights were filled with the life of the mind, and his reputation as a philosopher illuminated the republic of letters. Though Spinoza left the Jewish people and faith behind him, that did not mean that his contemporaries no longer viewed him as a Jew. The eminent Dutch scientist Christiaan Huygens referred to him in personal correspondence as “Our Jew.” And yet though he remained a Jew to his contemporaries he was a man who was defined by his own choices, his own beliefs, in his personal life. Though the world might have viewed him always as a Jew and heretic, Spinoza heralded the emergence to prominence of a peculiar sort of individual who was unmoored from communal ties and taboos. His appeal to me should be obvious to regular readers. Born into a minority community in the West, stamped by the color of my skin as the exotic Other, I have spent much of my life rejecting all that was expected of me by birth and claiming what I expected of myself.
Nevertheless, I do think it is important for those of who attempt to walk in Spinoza’s shoes to acknowledge that that path is not for most of humanity. According to Stewart Spinoza himself understood this and even mooted the possibility of a “public religion” to safeguard morals and peace of mind for the masses. The question in the end for me, as a conscious follower of the Spinozan way is this: how can we forward the perpetuation of our kind into the future in a present where we are greatly outnumbered?

  • SteveG

    You might want to also look at Max Jammer’s “Einstein and Religion” to see a nice discussion of spinoza’s influence on Uncle Albert.

  • John Emerson

    If I’m not mistaken Spinoza’s glass-grinding was fairly technical lens-grinding for scientific purposes. He died of lung disease which may have been caused by glass dust. (Henry David Thoreau was also a sort of techie who ground graphite, and also died of lung disease.)
    Spinoza is said to be very hard to read and I’ve never tried. I wonder whether his naturalism or pantheism didn’t have an aspect of providence or design, as Marcus Aurelius’s did — “everything works for the best”. I was disappointed with M.A., anyway.

  • Luis

    John Emerson wrote: “Spinoza is said to be very hard to read and I’ve never tried”.
    I’ve only read his “Ethics” but he’s not that hard. Just as most philosophers from that period, he’s very methodic and therefore his writting style may be unapealing for modern mentality. But it can be a good reading if you take it calmly.
    “I wonder whether his naturalism or pantheism didn’t have an aspect of providence or design…”
    He does seem somehow determist, at least in a first reading, (maybe that helped make him popular in Puritan Netherlands) and he also likes to appeal to causality “ad infinitum”, as God is defined as infinite in time and substance.
    Personally I find his approach quite interesting in that instead of starting from the human mind, as Descartes for instance did, he begins almost directly defining God. That is, if nothing else, quite thought-provoking.
    I like this first part of his Ethics and I can agree with it largely. Then I don’t follow so easily his reasonings nor find necessary to agree with him.
    In the last part of the book he actually postulates quite conservative ideas, probably because his elitist viewpoint. Anyhow, his ideas have inspired many particularly non-conventional thinkers of Modernity, so he’s worth a reading or two surely.
    My two cents.

  • razib

    He does seem somehow determist,
    yes, though it could be argued he was a compatibilist because of the uncertainty of human knowledge.

  • John Emerson

    Actually, the difficulty people told me about wasn’t page-by-page, but do to the systematic nature of Spinoza’s writing. It was claimed that until you’d mastered the whole thing, you didn’t really understand any part of it.

  • Luis

    “Actually, the difficulty people told me about wasn’t page-by-page, but do to the systematic nature of Spinoza’s writing. It was claimed that until you’d mastered the whole thing, you didn’t really understand any part of it”.
    Well, if that’s the case, I don’t have the slightest idea of what I’m talking about, as I’ve only read the whole work once. But as Hakim Bey suggested: who says one has necessarily to uderstand fully another’s idea to make use of it?
    Nevertheless, I find that suggestion suspiciously “scholastic”. I have used Spinoza’s reasoning often when dealing with theo-philosophical subjects and nobody could say that I was ranting. But, as I said above, I don’t understand fully the rest of his main book nor I have enough interest in it (at least so far) as to study it in greater depth. Maybe I’m mising something but still I think I can understand well enough his “heretic” concept of God, without mastering his whole work.
    But, in any case, the best way to know is reading it yourself and reaching your own conclussions. Only first hand you can know what good old Baruch actually meant.

  • iGollum

    Have a look at ‘Looking for Spinoza’ by Antonio Damasio; it’s about the origins of feelings and emotions in the brain, tying modern science with what Spinoza had written on these matters in his time. Very interesting.


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


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