Baruch Spinoza

Baruch Spinoza

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Baruch Spinoza

The task of simply just surviving is for most of us a handful in itself in this life.
However, only a few in a life time choose not to be satisfied with only just survival rather they assume the yoke of redefining life for themselves and for others. In philosophy of religion, pantheism is usually in conflict with traditional religious authority, which claims that the pantheistic belief is nothing more than a blasphemous form of idolatrous worship. A man by the name Benedictus (Baruch) Spinoza took it upon his shoulders to construct an explainable theory of this deistic belief and as a result earned the name of the father of Pantheism. I, George Meza, had the privilege of investigating the life of this rational genius as he struggled along the path of enlightenment in a society that was as different to him as his theory of ethics was to the Synagogue and the Church. Spinoza’s works ranged from the political to the theistic, from the mathematical, to even the intellectual. I ask the question what trials and troubles in the life of Baruch Spinoza could birth such a passion for what was known at the time as heretical theology. What was the impact of Spinoza’s work on our technologically advanced society that has put aside terms such as G-d and ethic and has attempted to redefine the term free will?

The Spinoza family arrived in Amsterdam, via Portugal in 1498, due to persecution the family decided to go by the name Spinoza. Baruch’s father and grandfather were originally Spanish crypto-Jews -- that is, Jews who were forced to adopt Christianity in post-Islamic Spain, but secretly remained Jewish, Spinoza's parents had died when he was quite young, I believe that this was a major influence on his later work.

His father Michael died when he was 21; Baruch Spinoza was born in the Amsterdam quarter of Vloedenburg (now Waterlooplein quarter), Holland in November 24, 1632. What most people don’t know is that Spinoza was born to a traditional observant Jewish home and the foundation of his theories had traditional Judaism as its backbone. As historian Paul Johnson once said, “Judaism is a highly efficient social machine for the production of intellectuals”. When Queen Isabel and King Ferdinand initiated the inquisition in 1492, Jews had to find a new place of residence that would tolerate their social and religious differences.

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Much of Europe such as England, France and Italy were not happy to receive them; however, Amsterdam was significantly more tolerant, and the Jews who arrived, though not yet able to become citizens due to common anti-Semitism, where able to enjoy their religious practices much more openly than elsewhere in the European region. The Sephardic (Spanish) Jewish people refer affectionately to Amsterdam as "Little Jerusalem" and "Mokum."

Judaism is a religion of study, interpretation, commentary and argument, all of these attributes easily expressed Spinoza’s way of life. At the Jewish high school that Spinoza attended Spinoza learned philosophy and theology under one of the most brilliant Talmudist of the time the honorable Morteira of the Manasseh Ben Israel sect. At the time Amsterdam played a large role in the transformation of Jewish thought, which eventually lead to the development of Spinoza’s train of thought and his deistic beliefs. Even today, it is not uncommon to hear such Hebrew words as "mazel tov" (good luck) and "meshuga" (you’re crazy) in the Amsterdam dialect. Today Amsterdam has one of Europe’s largest Jewish historical museums in dedication to the Spanish/ Portuguese descendant Jews of Spinoza’s time. When Descartes move to Holland in 1629, the country had already been known for its gathering of intellectuals, it was only a matter of time since another great one would arise.

The Language of Spinoza’s home was either Ladino, a Hebrew Portuguese dialect or Portuguese for the family had fled religious persecution in Portugal after leaving Spain for the same reason some three generations before that. Spinoza was also well educated in Dutch, Latin, Spanish, Hebrew and Greek this accounts for the many languages in which his books were written in. Baruch’s name was Hebrew for “blessed”, however, that was not a name that he had earned in the eyes of the modern day clergy in that era. Through Spinoza’ studies in traditional Judaism he was always looked upon as the most brilliant and interested student in all his classes, however, the more he embraced in Judaism the more he felt empty through the inconsistencies with the doctrine. Eventually his turmoil made him turn to the study of Christianity and then philosophy, which left him even more confused than before. Although his religious teacher applauded his efforts in search for truth they were always more interested in the social opinion at the time. When Spinoza was 24 years old he wrote a paper stating his belief that God's will was not separate from the laws of nature. Spinoza viewed mind and matter as two attributes of a single, divine substance, the oneness of ultimate reality. Therefore, he believed that mind and body, although different in appearance, are not really separate entities. According to Spinoza, a human being is a finite version of God; therefore the human mind is a miniature of the universal mind of God. Spinoza said that mental processes are mechanic, and thus deterministic, following a causal chain. Part of his argument was that if God was perfect, and made this world perfect, then why would he break his own rules of nature in order to perform certain miracles, which by definition were acts beyond nature's.

As a pantheistic monist, Spinoza was of the belief that there is no dualism between God and the world; we need not go beyond the immediate present experience to seek for a being outside of it. God moves and lives in nature; the whole of it, the entire universe is God. The paper did not become too popular with the Christians of Amsterdam. The Jewish community, which under other circumstances may have been more tolerant, had no intentions of destroying the good relationship they enjoyed with their Dutch hosts. The Jewish community leaders in Amsterdam asked Spinoza to retract what he had written as an error of unscholarly truth. Nonetheless, Spinoza believed that what he had written was the truth. Spinoza steadfastly refused to retract his statement. After various unsuccessful attempts to change his mind, Spinoza was accused of heresy, materialism and "contempt for the Torah (the Hebrew scriptures) before the Tribunal of the Congregation which eventually lead his excommunication him from their community. This is often called an "excommunication," though there is really no such thing as "excommunication" in Judaism. Three years after his excommunication the Amsterdam Synagogue officially petitioned the municipal authorities to denounce Spinoza as a "menace to all piety and morals." Thus severing his ties to the Jewish people. And even until today the chief Rabbis of Israel have been petitioned to formally lift the curse upon him, however, this has not happened yet. Spinoza refused to retract something he deeply accepted as truth. Their refusals only lead Spinoza to a deeper conviction of documenting the elements of God and life. Due to the loss of his credibility and the death of his parents Spinoza choose to be known by the Latin form of his name Benedictus. For a time, Spinoza was associated with a former Jesuit who ran a school for children. Spinoza used this as an opportunity to further his own education and to supplement his income by teaching in the school. At this time he also learned the trade of lens grinding for glasses and telescopes. Spinoza’s comments against Judaism did not cease as a result of their rejection, Spinoza’s theory was that Moses did not write the Torah (The Jewish Bible) and that it rather developed itself through many authors over centuries. Therefore, the Bible text (The Torah) and its moral content had to be studied, analyzed, and critiqued like any other book. Biblical stories were not to be believed as literal; they were merely intended to teach abstract concepts through concrete examples. Because nature is governed by eternal acts of the all-encompassing God, miracles were impossible. Spinoza maintained that traditional rituals were superfluous and meaningless for the rational modern man. In his late twenties, he supervised a discussion group on philosophical and theological issues. Many of Spinoza's friends in his not-so-solitary years of study were members of the various dissident Christian groups collectively known as Collegiants. These small sects, who were sometimes little more than discussion groups, typically rejected all religious ceremonies for their slanderous theories on God and the universe. As his own ideas developed, he went on retreat from Amsterdam for three years to formulate them in writing. Spinoza left his hometown in 1660 and settled in Rijnsburg. This village was a refuge for collegiants, a Baptist sect to which friends of his belonged. He had a small room in the house of the surgeon H. Hooman, where he prepared lenses for optical instruments, and where he wrote down his meditations with a quill. There, he wrote A Short Treatise on God, Man and his Well-Being, and On the Improvement of the Understanding. He also composed a geometric version of Descartes' Principles of Philosophy, which friends encouraged him to publish. Part of the purpose of the work was to pave the way for publishing his own thoughts, which were critical of Cartesianism. By producing such a work, he could not later be accused be accused of not understanding Descartes. The work appeared in 1663 and was the only writing of Spinoza's published with his name on it during his life. Spinoza was many times given the opportunity to teach at the University of Heidelberg, however, Spinoza modestly rejecting the academic carrier in order to be free from any restrictions on his intellectual activities that might be made by theologians. Spinoza also rejected a pension offered him by Louis XIV, king of France, on the condition that he dedicates one of his works to the monarch.
Baruch Spinoza died of tuberculosis, apparently aggravated by his inhaling glass dust from lens grinding. During his lifetime and for a period afterward Spinoza influenced German idealism. Through men such Gotthold Lessing, Johann Gottfried von Herder, and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, his work was scholarly hit in no time across Europe. Carl Marx, the father of Communism, liked Spinoza, the father of pantheism, for what he took to be his materialistic account of the universe. With all the works that Spinoza was known for his “Ethica Ordine Geometrico Demonstrata” (1677 Ethics Demonstrated with Geometrical Order) had to have been his most popular, currently selling out his previous creations. Although opinions vary about Spinoza's sources (at his death only 161 volumes were found in his small library), no one can deny the considerable influence of Descartes.

On February 21, 1677 Baruch Spinoza died in The Hague of tuberculosis due to excessive glass dust inhalation. With the short 44 years that he lived on earth, Spinoza was feared and reviled as a dangerous atheist his life was nothing short of brilliant and exhaustive. I believe that this scenario is not foreign to any of the great revolutionaries of our time, with much triumph comes much sacrifice. Although Spinoza sacrificed much in his pursuit of the truth, his work was not recognized as great till during the middle of the 18-century when the world had evolved from their dark and simplistic comma. Today Baruch Spinoza is known as one of the world’s greatest rationalist who ever lived. It is a shame that it took so long to elevate Spinoza to the height where he belongs.
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