Baruch Spinoza

In a time when freedom of thought was risky and freedom of expression downright dangerous, Baruch Spinoza certainly stands out for the ideas he posited in his philosophical approach. Spinoza was, by far, the most radical of the group of early modern philosophers that contributed to the foundation of our philosophies today, who by definition were a radical group. His thoughts and formulas were enough to earn him the enmity of not just one, but two major religions in the country where he lived; and it could be that a certain wariness led him to an early grave.

Baruch Spinoza was born in Amsterdam in 1632; although many of the important early modern philosophers had contact and even lived in the Netherlands for a time (John Locke was one) Spinoza is the only marked name on the list to have been born and led his whole life in that country.

Spinoza's family were Jewish merchants who ran a profitable importing business in the city. His mother died when he was just six years old, and Spinoza would receive the traditional Jewish education. How he did as a student, and what exactly his teachers thought of him, is not known, as he would later receive the Jewish equivalent to an excommunication. It is believed, however, that his keen intellect could not have helped but be noticed in this closed education system; some have postulated that had he refrained from broadcasting doubts later on, he might have been a rabbi.

Before he was kicked out of the Jewish faith forever, Spinoza would be forced to leave the school anyway. Caught in one of the interminable wars between the European powers, Spinoza's father would die at sea when Baruch was 17, leaving him to run the family business.

War and his own youth, and possibly leanings away from a mercantile life, would mean that Spinoza's turn as family leader did not see the smile of fortune. The establishment soon found itself deeper and deeper in debt, and eventually Spinoza offloaded control of the whole thing to his younger brother.

At the age of 24, Spinoza was issued a writ of Chereem, which, as mentioned above, is the Hebraic equivalent of excommunication. The writ is issued only when a person has committed monstrous deeds against the faith, although in the case of Spinoza no formal records have been found stating the exact deeds he committed. However, in his later writings Spinoza gave historians some hints, as he denies many of the tenets central to the Jewish faith (it is likely that not only did this offend his own religious leaders, but also that they felt they might be in some danger from the Christian community for Spinoza's declarations, which were offensive to this religion, as well).

After receiving chereem, Spinoza would leave Amsterdam and take up residence in the Hague, possibly attending a school run by Franciscus van den Enden. It is during these years that Spinoza appears to have fully developed his philosophical ideas and writings. Although, only one, Theologico-Political Treatise, would be published during his lifetime (1670). The public reaction to this essay was alarming to Spinoza in the extreme, so much so that he immediately began to live a sort of undercover life as a philosopher; he continued to write, to entertain friends for discussions, and was offered various positions at schools and so on, but he never accepted a post or money for his work. In fact, Spinoza preferred to earn his living as a lens grinder.

For this reason, almost all of Spinoza's work was not fully known until after his death (from a version of lung disease) in 1677. His landmark and career defining work, Ethics had just been published the year before, and all the rest of Spinoza's work, including scientific discoveries, would be published much later through the efforts of his supporters.

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Understanding Philosophy

Sunday, April 20, 2014