Baruch Spinoza

Spinoza

Modern philosophy

Spinoza was a 17th century Dutch philosopher (1632-1677). He distanced himself from Judaism and was excommunicated as a result. He earned his living by cutting and polishing lenses for spectacles and microscopes. Faced with censorship, and the risks involved, he gave up on publishing his main work, the Ethics, during his lifetime. This was not published until his death, along with other works including On the Improvement of the Understanding and A Theologico-Political Treatise.


Spinoza's works summarised on this site

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The Ethics

Spinoza sets out in geometrical order, in the form of propositions that deduce from one another, his conception of the world and of the wise man


Bibliography

Here are the essential books if you want to better understand this author's thought:

Scruton, Roger (2002). Spinoza: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press
Koistinen, Olli, (ed.). 2009. The Cambridge Companion to Spinoza's Ethics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Israel, Jonathan (2023). Spinoza, Life and Legacy. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Della Rocca, Michael (ed.) 2018. The Oxford Handbook of Spinoza. Cambridge: Oxford University Press
Stolze, Ted and Warren Montag (eds.), The New Spinoza, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997

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Biography: life of Spinoza

Childhood

Baruch Spinoza was born in Amsterdam in 1632, to a Jewish family who had fled the persecution of the Inquisition. They were therefore a Marrano Portuguese Jewish family, i.e. forcibly converted to Christianity but remaining attached to Judaism, who took refuge in the Netherlands, a more tolerant nation at the time.

Baruch, "blessed" in Hebrew, attended Jewish primary schools, where he studied both theology and business. He then deepened his knowledge of the Torah and the thought of Maimonides.

In 1654, his father died, and Spinoza took over from him as head of the family trading house.

The discovery of philosophy

At that time a republican and libertine philosopher, Franciscus van den Enden, had just founded a school in Amsterdam. Spinoza enrolled there, learned Latin, and discovered the thoughts of Hobbes, Bacon, Machiavelli.

He probably begins to question the beliefs of his community, since he attracts the hostility of some of its members.

As a result, he suffers an assassination attempt: a man throws himself at him with a knife, and he is said to have kept the coat with holes in it as a reminder of what madness religion can lead to. However, we do not know whether the fact is accurate or legendary.

What is certain is that in 1656, he was excommunicated for heresy by the high authorities of his community. It is not known what exact statement was the cause of this sentence.


This does not seem to affect Spinoza too much, and he does not seek to reintegrate it, by making an act of contrition for example. He prefers to leave, for Leiden, where he continues his studies of philosophy.

He learned to cut glass, and specialised in making optical lenses for spectacles and microscopes: this became his new profession. This is a rare case of a philosopher becoming a craftsman.

the statue of Spinoza in Amsterdam, the Netherlands
The statue of Spinoza in the Netherlands, Amsterdam

The beginning of writing

He moved to Rijnsburg, and presented to friends the contents of what would become A Short Treatise on God, Man and His Well-Being (which would not be published until the 19th century).

In 1661, he began to write the On the Improvement of the Understanding. This remained unfinished, because Spinoza set about two other projects.

Firstly, he was at that time giving private philosophy lessons to a pupil, and introducing him in particular to Cartesian doctrine. This was the opportunity for him to publish his first work, Descartes' Principles of Philosophy, in 1663.

Above all, he embarked on a far more ambitious project: the Ethics, his most famous work.

On the Improvement of the Understanding would therefore be neglected, and its writing forever interrupted, despite later attempts.

This work, like the Short Treatise, will not be published. They would only appear posthumously, after the philosopher's death.


In 1663, Spinoza moved to Voorsburg, a small town on the outskirts of The Hague. He continued writing the Ethics, and expounded certain passages to friends, asking them to remain discreet, so as not to get into trouble with the authorities.

The publication of the Treatise

In this troubled period, two political parties were competing: the republican party, led by the De Witt brothers, "modernist", carrying values of peace, against the Calvinist party, of William of Orange, warmonger, retrograde.

Seeing that the people were plebisciting the Calvinist party, Spinoza decided to temporarily interrupt the writing of The Ethics, and embarked on a new enterprise: writing A Theologico-Political Treatise.

He asks the question: why does a people choose servitude, rather than freedom? Why such irrationality?

Its sulphurous content naturally exposes it to censorship. Which is why it is published under a false name, and a false place of publication. The fact that it was written in Latin limited the risk of legal action.

However, despite the precautions taken, Spinoza was soon identified as the real author of the book. The work unleashed the wrath of the authorities, as well as the almost general disapproval of the intellectuals of the time, including Cartesians and certain free spirits such as Leibniz.

"Spinozist" became an insult. He suffers curses, threats, insults from the religious, the learned.

End of life

With the assassination of the De Witt brothers, the future becomes even darker.

William of Orange put an end to the liberal state of mind in the Netherlands (formerly the United Provinces), and to the relative tolerance that prevailed there, which made it even more difficult for Spinoza to publish his writings.


There should be no further hope of publishing the Ethics. An attempt in The Hague, quickly aborted (following the opening of a trial), dissuaded him.

He gave up in the face of the risks, preferring to throw himself into writing his latest work, Political Treatise.

However, although he seemed isolated, he began to receive visits from many thinkers such as Leibniz, who were seduced by the boldness of his thought. These wanted to know the content of the Ethics, of which they had heard, even if it meant denying these visits afterwards, in order to escape censorship themselves.


He died in 1677 at The Hague, but his manuscripts were preciously preserved by his friend Meyer and then published, causing a public outcry.

Main works

A Short Treatise on God, Man and His Well-Being
On the Improvement of the Understanding
The Principles of Cartesian Philosophy
A Theologico-Political Treatise
The Ethics