Benedict of Spinoza (1632-1677) | Number 147
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Sidney Morgenbesser, the “apostate” philosopher from Columbia University, reportedly wrote on the board as an exam question: “Some say that Marx and Freud have gone too far. How far would you go? Baruch (Latinized to ‘Benedict’) Spinoza called Jesus the Christ, and even among this company of unbelieving Jews, it’s quite a distance. Nevertheless, if Christianity and Islam are of Judaic origin, one could say that the work of Spinoza is also, since it finds its origin, among other things, in a concern for the Bible, which he criticized. like no one else before, but never ignored. .
Spinoza and the rabbis Samuel Hirszenberg 1907
by Spinoza Theological-political treatise (1670) wielded great influence largely due to his attempt to rid himself of constraints on the freedom of thought of religious leaders – originally the rulers of his synagogue. Spinoza was excommunicated from Amsterdam’s Jewish community for heresy – for making known his unorthodox views on the nature of God, at a time when such an act had real consequences. The ban the community imposed on him prohibited his fellow Jews from speaking to him or even approaching within six feet of him. Spinoza spoke of Jesus as the Christ and he wrote in Latin for a Gentile audience in part because he had no other viable options.
His family came from converse Jews – Spanish Sephardic Jews who were forced to adopt Christianity on pain of death by the Inquisition. Some of Spinoza’s ancestors had come to the Netherlands to freely practice Judaism which they had never abandoned; but his own research in theology led him to come into conflict with the guardians of Jewish orthodoxy. He brought to the fore a question he suggested that an intellectual predecessor, Abraham ibn Ezra, had about the authorship of the Torah (the first five books of the Old Testament, including the Laws of Moses ), which Jewish tradition attributes to Moses, at the dictation of God. Ibn Ezra had kept his doubts quiet, whether out of prudence or fear, argues Spinoza. However, Spinoza refrained from actually condemning the Torah. It shows an appreciation for simple piety, even barely. He is more interested in freeing himself from the influence of those who abuse the faith by exercising intellectual censorship to which they have no legitimate right.
After the death of her father, Spinoza’s sister unjustly sought to claim the inheritance. Spinoza took her to court, won the case, and then immediately handed it over to her anyway. He lived frugally, refusing offers of support from his friends, as well as offers of academic posts, either out of a desire to remain independent, or out of a philosophical spirit, or both. Spinoza’s life came mainly from his profession as a lens grinder, which allowed him to work in the field of optics, engaging with other personalities who shared his interest. [including Christiaan Huygens; see elsewhere in this Issue]. Natural philosophy was yet to evolve into the various disciplines we know today as science, and “scientists” were preoccupied with religion, metaphysics, and experimentation. Spinoza died at the age of forty-four, on February 21, 1677, of a disease of the lungs, probably caused or exacerbated by the glass dust he breathed in the exercise of his profession.
Portrait of Spinoza circa 1665
Sigmund Freud would teach that we are initiated by our parents into certain habits and routines, and continue with them, gradually getting rid of what is inessential as we go. For Spinoza in his Treatise on the improvement of the intellect (1677), however, it describes the process we go through in coming to learn what there is to know: sifting through received opinion to see what is true, rejecting what is false, and passing it on to the community. next generation the remaining knowledge. What is to be noted is that prejudice – prior practice or opinion – is not opposed by Spinoza to knowledge, but rather, prior practice or opinion is the body of knowledge from from which the truth is refined, in a continuous process.
Spinoza’s real coup does not come in the form of a critique of Orthodox Judaism, but in his construction of an alternative theology in the Ethics (1677). The Ethics is an amazing book in that it takes the general approach of the Greek mathematician Euclid and applies it to philosophy and theology. Each chapter begins with a few simple definitions and from these derive dozens of propositions and corollaries. The God who emerges in the first chapter is not the harsh father berating his children for edification, but rather a kind of cross between the God of Israel, in his unity, and the Aristotelian god who is the cause. without a cause of the universe. It is the famous “God or Nature” of Spinoza (Deus, sive Natura). He derives this idea from reading the Aristotelian concept of “substance” as one thing rather than several things. Substance for Spinoza means everything that can exist without relying on anything else to exist. He maintains that there can only be one of these substances – God – and that everything that exists depends on it for its existence. Thus started all the scholastic arguments on “Socrates is a substance” or “whiteness is a substance”. On the contrary, the substance is expressed in different modes, such as the mode of thought or the mode of extension (things extend across physical space). This distinction that Spinoza borrows from Descartes; but by making thought and extension attributes of a single substance, it unites body and mind to a point beyond the possibility of their separation. Because if the substance is one, then the body and the spirit (and therefore ourselves) are only attributes of it: parts of a whole whose totality is the individual entity, God or nature. The idea that there is a Being separate from the beings that He creates – the orthodox vision of God of the Abrahamic religions – is folded over that of the philosophical vision of God as the cause of himself; self-sufficient nature existing eternally.
In a Greek rather than Jewish movement, Spinoza reduces morality to conventions that have arisen and been tested by our lives in society, calling things “bad” that we find bad and “good” those that we find good. Spinoza never really broke with the ancestral morality in which the Commandments were given; he simply questioned their origin and spoke beyond them. Indeed, Spinoza minimizes in his thought the morality which derives from the Torah, but it remains an integral part of it. However, he characterizes the Mosaic revelation as having been given to the people because they could not discern the truth without its promptness, although the wise philosophers (himself included) could. This set the stage for a less delicate turn in his history, in which he identifies Christianity as more naturally coinciding with what is open to reason than Judaism. So it is the Gentiles before whom he throws his pearls, not the Jews.
The ban imposed on Spinoza by Orthodox Judaism has still not been lifted.
© Brad Rappaport 2021
Brad Rappaport is a civil servant in New York, where he also lives.