Bendict Spinoza

  • Every man’s understanding is his own, and …brains are as diverse as palatesIt is far from possible to impose uniformity of speech for the more rulers strive to curtail freedom of speech, the more obstinately are they resisted; not indeed by the avaricous, the flatterers, and other numskulls, who think supreme salvation consists in filling their stomachs and gloating over their money-bags, but by those whom good education, sound morality, and virtue have rendered more free. Men, as generally constituted, are most prone to resent the branding as criminal of opinions which they believe to be true, and the proscription as wicked of that which inspires them with piety towards God and man; hence they are ready to forswear the laws and conspire against the authorities, thinking it is not shameful but honourable to stir up seditions and perpetuate any sort of crime with this end in view.Such being the constitution of human nature, we see that laws directed against opinions affect the generous-minded rather than the wicked, and are adapted less for coercing criminals than for irritating the upright; so that they cannot be maintained without great peril to the state(Theologico-Political Treatise, Chap 20)
  • If men’s minds were as easily controlled as their tongues, every king would sit safely on his throne, and government by compulsion would cease; for every subject would shape his life according to the intentions of his rulers, and would esteem a thing true or false, good or evil, just or unjust, in obedience to their dictates.
    • Ch. 20; translated by R. H. M. Elwes
  • The more a government strives to curtail freedom of speech, the more obstinately is it resisted; not indeed by the avaricious, … but by those whom good education, sound morality, and virtue have rendered more free. Men, in general, are so constituted that there is nothing they will endure with so little patience as that views which they believe to be true should be counted crimes against the laws. … Under such circumstances they do not think it disgraceful, but most honorable, to hold the laws in abhorrence, and to refrain from no action against the government.
  • We cannot doubt that the best government will allow freedom of philosophical speculations no less than of religious belief. I confess that from such freedom inconveniences may sometimes arise, but what question was ever settled so wisely that no abuses could possibly spring therefrom? He who seeks to regulate everything by law is more likely to arouse vices than to reform them. (Theologico-Political Treatise, Chap 20)
  • No, the object of government is not to change men from rational beings into beasts or puppets, but to enable them to develop their minds and bodies in security, and to employ their reason unshackled; neither showing hatred, anger, or deceit, nor watched with the eyes of jealousy and justice. In fact, the true aim of government is liberty. (Theologico-Political Treatise, Chapter 20)
  • When the religious controversy between Remonstrants and Counter-Remonstrants began to be taken up by politicians and the States, it grew into a schism, and abundantly showed that laws dealing with religion and seeking to settle its controversies are much more calculated to irritate than to reform, and that they give rise to extreme licence: further, it was seen that schisms do not originate in a love of truth, which is a source of courtesy and gentleness, but rather in an inordinate desire for supremacy. From all these considerations it is clearer than the Sun at noonday, that the true schismatics are those who condemn other men’s writings, and seditiously stir up the quarrelsome masses against their authors, rather than those authors themselves, who generally write only for the learned, and appeal solely to reason. In fact, the real disturbers of the peace are those who, in a free state, seek to curtail the liberty of judgment which they are unable to tyrannize over.

Baruch Spinoza

Life and Works
. . Method
. . Metaphysics
. . God / Nature
. . Mind and Body
. . Human Nature
. . Epistemology
. . Freedom
Internet Sources

Baruch Spinoza was born to Portuguese Jews living in exile in Holland, but his life among the Marranos there was often unsettled. Despite an early rabbinical education, he was expelled from the synagogue at Amsterdam for defending heretical opinions in 1656. While engaging privately in serious study of medieval Jewish thought, Cartesian philosophy, and the new science at Rijnburg and the Hague, Spinoza supported himself by grinding optical lenses, an occupation that probably contributed to the consumption that killed him. Private circulation of his philosophical treatises soon earned him a significant reputation throughout Europe, but Spinoza so treasured his intellectual independence that in 1673 he declined the opportunity to teach at Heidelberg, preferring to continue his endeavors alone.

Spinoza’s first published work was a systematic presentation of the philosophy of Descartes, to which he added his own suggestions for its improvement. The Principles of Descartes’s Philosophy (1663) contain many of the characteristic elements of his later work, but Spinoza seems to have realized that a full exposition of his own philosophical views would require many years of devoted reflection. In the meantime, he turned his attention briefly to other issues of personal and social importance. The Tractatus Theologico-Politicus (A Theologico-Political Treatise) (1670) is an examination of superficial popular religion and a vigorous critique of the miltant Protestantism practiced by Holland’s ruling House of Orange. Spinoza disavowed anthropomorphic conceptions of god as both logically and theologically unsound, proposed modern historical-critical methods for biblical interpretation, and defended political toleration of alternative religious practices. Christians and Jews, he argued, could live peaceably together provided that they rose above the petty theological and cultural controversies that divided them.

Although he published nothing else during his lifetime, metaphysical speculations continued to dominate Spinoza’s philosophical reflections, and he struggled to find an appropriate way to present his rationalistic conviction that the universe is a unitary whole. Bust of Spinoza Respect for deductive reasoning and for the precision of the Latin language led Spinoza to express his philosophy in a geometrical form patterned on that empolyed in Euclid’s Elements. Thus, each of the five books of Spinoza’s Ethica Ordine Geometrico Demonstrata (Ethics) (1677) comprises a sequence of significant propositions, each of which is deduced from those that have come before, leading back to a small set of self-evident definitions and axioms.

In Book I Spinoza claimed to demonstrate both the necessary existence and the unitary nature of the unique, single substance that comprises all of reality. Spinoza preferred the designation “Deus sive Natura” (“god or nature”) as the most fitting name for this being, and he argued that the its infinite attributes account for every feature of the universe. Book II describes the absolute necessity with which the two attributes best known to us, thought and extension, unfold in the parallel structure that we, with our dual natures, comprehend as the ideas and things with which we are acquainted in ordinary life. This account also provides for the possibility of genuine human knowledge, which must be based ultimately on the coordination of these diverse realms. Spinoza’s Tractatus de Intellectus Emendatione (On the Improvement of the Understanding) (1677) provides additional guidance on the epistemological consequences of his metaphysical convictions. Here Spinoza proposed a “practical” method for achieving the best knowledge of which human thinkers are capable.

Spinoza applied similar principles to human desires and agency in Books III-V of the Ethics, recommending a way of life that acknowledges and appropriates the fundamental consequences of our position in the world as mere modes of the one true being. It would be moral bondage if we were motivated only by causes of which we remain unaware, Spinoza held, so genuine freedom comes only with knowledge of what it is that necessitates our actions. Recognizing the invariable influence of desire over our passionate natures, we then strive for the peace of mind that comes through an impartial attachment to reason. Although such an attitude is not easy to maintain, Spinoza concluded that “All noble things are as difficult as they are rare.


Recommended Reading:Primary sources:

  • Spinoza Opera, ed. by C. Gebhardt (Heidelberg, 1925)
  • The Collected Works of Spinoza, Volume I, ed. by Edwin Curley (Princeton, 1985)
  • Benedict De Spinoza, Ethics including the Improvement of the Understanding, tr. by R. H. M. Elwes (Prometheus, 1989)
  • Baruch Spinoza, Theologico-Political Treatise, tr. by R. H. M. Elwes (Dover, 1951)

Secondary sources:

  • The Cambridge Companion to Spinoza, ed. by Don Garrett (Cambridge, 1995)
  • Henry Allison, Benedict de Spinoza: An Introduction (Yale, 1987)
  • Roger Scruton, Spinoza (Routledge, 1999)
  • Genevieve Lloyd, Routledge Philosophy Guidebook to Spinoza and the Ethics (Routledge, 1996)
  • Steven M. Nadler, Spinoza: A Life (Cambridge, 1999)
  • Edwin M. Curley, Behind the Geometrical Method: A Reading of Spinoza’s Ethics (Princeton, 1988)
  • Errol E. Harris, Spinoza’s Philosophy: An Outline (Humanity, 1992)
  • Harry Austryn Wolfson, The Philosophy of Spinoza: Unfolding the Latent Processes of His Reasoning (Harvard, 1983)
  • Spinoza: Metaphysical Themes, ed. by Olli Koistinen and John Biro (Oxford, 2002)
  • Steven Nadler, Spinoza’s Heresy: Immortality and the Jewish Mind (Oxford, 2002)

Additional on-line information about Spinoza includes: