Spinoza, Baruch (1632-1677) Dutch
The greatest of the modern philosophers brought rational approach to the enquiry of great questions like God and human destiny. He laid the groundwork for the 18th century Enlightenment. His masterpiece Ethics never found light of the day in his lifetime. The reason was simple. He was excommunicated* for his heretical thinking from the Jewish community in Amsterdam and the odium of it had preceded his brief life; however stoicism of his race was in his blood as a result of persecution running through centuries, and made him think his own thoughts and make a living by an useful trade of polishing lenses. If he, despite all odds became the greatest ( Frederick Hegel on one occasion speaking to his contemporaries said thus: ‘You are either Spinozit or not a philosopher at all.’) it still owed to his Jewish identity. The fact that he was born a Jew was both a curse and a blessing.
All his works were put on the proscribed list (index librorum prohibitorum) by the Roman Catholic Church. He was greatly influenced by Bruno (1548-1600) whose dictum, ‘all reality is one substance’ naturally would make him oppose Descartes’ mind-body dualism. Bruno perished under inquisition and if the Catholic Church proscribed Spinoza the reason was obvious.
Spinoza’s thinking however latched on to an idea of Descartes that all forms of matter had a ‘homogeneous’ substance, and it propelled him in the direction his precocious mind was taking, and served as light clearing many dark recesses of doubts on way. In 1656 he was excommunicated on charges of heresy and the upshot of it was his father refused to receive him and his sister tried to cheat him out of a small inheritance. (He contested the case in court and won. He duly handed the bequest over to his sister.) Rejected by his family and friends, an assassination attempt on his life made him leave Amsterdam. He changed his name to Bernard de Spinoza and disciplined his life to extreme thrift. He was happy living within his modest means and many influential men of his day found him stimulating and his company congenial. Some of them offered help but he refused stipends and money saying, ‘Nature is satisfied with little; if she is, I am also.’
He finally settled in The Hague in 1670 economically secure and surrounded by rich and powerful friends who looked up to him with great respect.
As a person he was of middle size, his face pleasing, and skin somewhat darker and his hair curly and eyebrows dark and long stamping his Portuguese ancestry in his looks.
Spinoza chose not to found a sect and he founded none and yet philosophy after him was permeated with his thought. The great German polymath Goethe was converted after one reading of Ethics and also was cured of wild romanticism of his past. Spinoza supplied what his yearning soul had sought, dass wir entsagen sollen-‘that we must accept the limitations Nature puts on us.’
There is a statue of him at The Hague erected from public subscription collected from every part of the educated world. At the unveiling of it (1882) Ernest Renan made a moving speech at the conclusion he said thus.’ This man from his granite pedestal, will point out to all men, the way of all blessedness which he found; and ages hence, the cultivated traveler, passing by this spot, will say in his heart, ‘the truest vision ever had of God came, perhaps, here.’
In 1656 the 24-year old Spinoza was summoned before the elders to answer the charges of heresy. One of the sticking points was his doubt regarding the belief in another life. The Synagogue was concerned such a view, contrary to the essence of Christianity would seem inimical to the community that had welcomed them into their midst. For their security in the host country the Dutch Calvinists had to be appeased and no cost was to be reckoned too little. The same mindset that had prompted Caiaphas to say about Jesus was alive in the elders of his time. (‘It was expedient that one man should die for the people’- Jn.18: 14) If the Synagogue had not spared Jesus or Uriel a Costa it was not going to spare the young Spinoza either.
The young skeptic was offered $500 in annuity for his silence and outward loyalty to the Synagogue and his faith. He refused.
On July 27, 1656, he was excommunicated with all the somber formalities of Hebrew ritual. During the reading of the curse, wailing of the great horn was heard and lights were put out one after the other, indicating the quenching of spiritual life of the man under curse. Spinoza took it under quite courage. He did not join another sect for comfort and determined, as he was to seek his own salvation. The form of the Synagogue and shape of elders that guided it was a mode far from the ‘substance’ of God that moved him. Mode pandered to circumstances and compromised wherever it suited while his soul was ever fixed. His life was his proof to his thought.
(ack: Will Durant- The story of Philosophy: Pub. The Washington Square Press-1964)