Skip to content
Catholic Online Logo

(d'Espinosa, Despinoza).

Born at Amsterdam, 24 Nov., 1632; died at The Hague, 21 Feb., 1677. He belonged to a family of Jewish merchants of moderate means, and was originally called Baruch, a name that he later translated into its Latin equivalent Benedict. His father's name was Michael, his mother, Michael's second wife, was called Hana Debora. In 1641 Michael married a third wife who was named Hester de Espinosa. The family probably had some connexion with the little town of Espino in Spanish Galicia, and with the celebrated Marrano family there called Espinosa. (The Marranos were Spanish Jews compelled to conform outwardly to Christianity.) Baruch attracted attention in the school for Portuguese Jews at Amsterdam by his talents and application to study. He made rapid progress in Hebrew and the study of the Talmud, and his teachers, especially Rabbi Saul Levi Morteira, had the greatest hopes of his future. It was intended that he should become a rabbi. The subtle methods of the teachers of the Talmud undoubtedly trained his intellect and led it particularly to reasoning by analogy. The moral teaching of the Haggada had a great and permanent influence upon his code of living. However, the difficulties in regard to the Scriptures, which he deduced from what he read, made a stronger impression upon him than their solutions. Thus he was a troublesome and critical pupil, although at the same time a modest one. He read and despised the Cabalists; yet traces of their influence are recognizable in his philosophy ; mention should here be particularly made of the book called "Zohar" and of Herrera's work "Porta cœli". He studied industriously the Jewish writers on the philosophy of religion, especially Maimonides, Gersonides, Chasdai Kreskas, and Ibn Esra, and later adopted much from them. The writings of the Arabian philosopher Al Farabi and of his commentator Ismail show striking similarities, even in the smallest details, with the later system of Spinoza. There are also clear evidences of connexion between the strange work of Ibn Tofail, the story of "Hai Ibn Joktan", and the conceptions of Spinoza.

About 1651 Spinoza, unable to see his way clearly, seems for a short time to have abandoned metaphysical studies, and to have fought a hard battle with his passions. Even at this time he was looked upon with suspicion by orthodox Jews. He now devoted himself to the natural philosophy of Descartes. Coming back in his way to metaphysics, he completely overcame the scepticism, and, resuming his first studies, began to lay the foundation of his new system. The philosophy of Descartes aided him in recasting the notions which he had previously acquired. After the death of his father in 1654, Spinoza was almost completely cast off by his family and, having no means, taught in the private Humanistic school of the ex- Jesuit and freethinker Franz van den Enden. Here he perfected himself in Latin and continued his philosophical investigations by the study of St. Augustine, the Stoics, Scholasticism (in a somewhat superficial manner), the philosophy of the Renaissance and that of some modern writers, especially of Hobbes. His later psychology shows extraordinary similarities with the teachings of Marcus Marci and of Glisson.

Spinoza now frequented almost exclusively the society of Christians, i.e. of the free-thinking sort, and especially of Mennonites. His lifelong friendships, as known from his letters, date in part from this period. In 1656 he was formally expelled from the Jewish community and soon afterwards from Amsterdam. A somewhat legendary attack upon his life is said to have been made about this time. He never became a Christian. He now began to dictate in Latin some of the principles of his philosophy to a company of pupils at Onderkerk near Amsterdam. A Dutch translation of this dictation exists in two manuscripts which were discovered in 1853 and 1861 by Friedrich Müller, a Dutch bookseller. The translation as found in these manuscripts had been largely revised, had notes that were traceable, however, to Spinoza himself, and had been somewhat unskillfully handled by an editor. Since the discovery the manuscripts have been published a number of times both in the original text and in translations. The characteristics of the later system of the "Ethics" are evident in this "Korte Verhandeling van God, de Mensch, en deszelos Welstand". But neither the doctrine of the one and only Divine substance, nor the higher unity of "extension" and "thought" in the infinite and the finite, nor the instinct of self-preservation, is clearly expressed in it. Spinoza, obliged to seek some other means of support, became a very skilful grinder of lenses; his work commanded good prices. About 1660 he retired to the village of Rijnsburg near Leyden. The little house in which he lived still stands, and has been bought by admirers of the philosopher ; it contains a fine library. Here Spinoza devoted himself to a revision of the "Korte Verhandeling" which was never completed. The result of these labours was an important unfinished treatise "De intellectus emendatione", with preparations for his great work, the "Ethics", and the development of the "geometrical method". While at Rijnsburg he was greatly stimulated in his work by the reports of the lectures of the professors of philosophy of Leyden (among whom should be included Geulincx), which were brought to him by students of the university. While at this village he also became acquainted with the celebrated Stensen, and had here a pupil named Casearius, whom he instructed in the Cartesian philosophy. In 1663 Spinoza published a book under his own name called "Renati des Cartes principiorum philosophiæ Pars I et II, more geometrico demonstratæ", and a supplement to this under the title, "Cogitata metaphysica". The work does not give Spinoza's own philosophy, but glimpses of his views may be found in it.

While at Rijnsburg Spinoza also taught by correspondence some young friends at Amsterdam who had moved to Voorberg, near The Hague. His acquaintance with scholars and statesmen increased. He was witty, was esteemed as a great Biblical critic and mathematician, and had the reputation of possessing a fine politcal sense. Jan de Witt and van Beuningen held him in high regard. Huygens interested himself in Spinoza's lenses. Great expectations were expressed of his philosophy by Heinrich Oldenburg of Bremen, who had visited Spinoza at Rijnsburg, and now, in connexion with Robert Boyle, was active in London as the secretary of the Royal Society, and by the learned Ludwig Meyer. While living at Voorburg Spinoza worked hard on a lengthy treatise to which he later gave the title of "Tractatus theologico-politicus". He drew largely for this work from the Arabian and Jewish philosophy of religion and from the old rabbinical exegesis. But his main sources were early, little-known Jewish heretics and obscure Christian writers of his own time, especially Peyrère's "Systema theologicum ex Præadamitarum hypothesi" (1655). Spinoza's political views were largely inspired by Jan de Witt and his friends; the same opinions are to be found in the writings of other Dutch political writers of the same period, e.g. van Hove. Spinoza, however, in publishing his treatise, had special aims in view. It was intended to establish and enlarge the ecclesiastical and political principles of Jan de Witt and at the same time to lead the way to the publication of his own philosophy. According to Spinoza the Holy Scripture of the Old Testament are not without error and are not inspired in the strict sense. They do not teach us with certainty as to the nature of God and His characteristics, but only concerning obedience to God, piety, and love. Consequently the text of the Bible can never come into conflict with philosophy and civil law. But, according to Spinoza, the limitations of philosophy and law are also clearly defined. As it is only in the State that justice and law, injustice and transgression are conceivable, the individual, in order to be able to live according to reason, must surrender his rights to the community. Then, too, he must obey the government in everything, even against his reason and conviction, unless a command contradicts universal feeling, as the murder of parents. Freedom of thinking and speaking, however, cannot be forbidden by the State; if it has the power to do this, the right, indeed, cannot be denied it, but the prohibition would be disadvantageous to it, because its onwn existence would be endangered by such tyranny. No man can ever act according to his covictions, if a law of the State stands in the way. Thus Spinoza upholds only a partial freedom of conscience. On the other hand the government has the right to supervise the external practice of religion. It is easy to understand that the Church councils and synods of Holland took energetic measures against this work, which appeared anonymously in 1670. Up to 1676 at least thirty-seven decisions or edicts against the work had appeared.

From 1670 Spinoza lived at The Hague , at first in the Verkade, then not far from this spot in the Paviljoensgracht, near the monument erected in 1880. Both houses are still in existence, but the latter, in which Spinoza died, has lately been completely rebuilt. The philosopher laboured with zeal on his great work; in order to be independent and undisturbed in elaborating his system of philosophy he declined a call to a professorship at Heidelberg. His plan to publish his system of ethics in 1675 failed, owing to the opposition of his enemies. Originally Spinoza seems to have had the intention to found a kind of philosophical world-religion. He believed that the basic ideas of his view of the world were to be found among the old Hebrews, in Christ, and in St. Paul. In his opinion this philosophy, without the Holy Scripture , sufficed for the truly wise. In order to understand his conception of the original Christianity it must be remembered that his acquaintance from the beginning had been among latitudinarian Christians, who emphasized the moral life, not dogma, that, with many of his Christian friends, he regarded the Antitrinitarians as the most genuine Christians, that he found traces of his philosophy in the writings of Christian mystics, and finally that among the first writings which had introduced him to Christianity had been Hobbes's books "De cive" and "Leviathan". Towards the end of his life Spinoza had bitter disappointments, which, however, seldom disturbed his stoical composure. He lived tranquilly at The Hague in the midst of his work, his correspondence, and his friends. He began an exceedingly interesting political treatise in which he did not change his earlier views but rather carried them further. He also wrote a short treatise on the rainbow, and a Hebrew grammar, and, as it seems, translated the Pentateuch. He was a victim to the disease from which his family suffered, consumption, and this was aggravated by his work in grinding lenses. He died peacefully, in the presenc eof a physician who was a friend. Even the other people in the house did not know he was dying. The little he left was, as it were, a mirror of his life. Spinoza was a very frugal and unselfish man. He declined all money and pensions that he did not absolutely require. His way of living could not be simpler; it was only for books that he spent relatively large sums. The virtues which he most highly prized and consistently practised were control of the feelings, equability of spirit, love of country, loyalty and industry, moderation and love of the truth. In society he was animated and witty; he enjoyed being alone, and yet was kindly disposed towards his fellow men. Union with God, as he conceived of the Deity, i.e. as a thinking and infinite, necessarily existing, immanent cause of all existence, and love for this Being were to him the highest of all things. He was immovably convinced that his was the true philosophy, could scarcely understand any view that deviated from his own, was hard and unjust in the judgments of other thinkers, was not easily approached with objections, and was incapable of appreciating with historical objectivity other views of the world.

In 1677 his literary remains were published under the title "B. D. S. Opera posthuma". In this publication were included his system of ethics, the unfinished political tractate, the treatise "De emendatione intellectus", letters to and from him, and lastly his compendium of Hebrew grammar. The Dutch translation of the same year has great critical value. The tractate on the rainbow was first published anonymously in Dutch at The Hague in 1687. The problems added for the calculus of probabilities are not by Spinoza. The philosopher seems to have destroyed his translation of the Pentateuch ; the Spanish apology which he drew up when expelled form the synagogue has not, so far, been found.

It is impossible to describe in a short article the Spinozistic system as a whole. For it is just the rigidly unified, minute construction of that system and the labyrinth of its thought processes that are of importance for the history of philosophy as an original creation. On the other hand, the elements, bases, and individual results are neither new nor original. Spinoza's view of the world is so constructed that the final results can be reached with equal logic from its epistemological and psychological assumptions, and from its ethical and metaphysical axioms. The view of Spinozism held by the present writer, which frequently varies from the views formerly held, can merely be indicated in what follows.

According to Spinoza there are no universal notions. Only that is thinkable which actually exists or will exist at some time. Further, only the necessary is thinkable. Existence and necessity, however, cannot be deduced from the nature of finite things; we must therefore conceive of a Being ( God ) necessarily existing and necessarily acting, from which all else follows of necessity. This Being is not the cause but the first principle in the manner of mathematical entities; the things come from it by mathematical sequence, for only in this way, says the philosopher, can the immutability of the first principle be maintained, onlyl thus is a relation of the infinite to the finite thinkable; and only in this way is the unity of nature preserved, without fusing the substance of God with that of finite things. Yet the axion "God= Nature " is valid because the things necessarily following from the Being of God belong in some way to God. Only the Being of God is independent; Spinoza calls this Being alone substance. All things ( modi ) must be founded in the attributes of God. This is one approach to Spinozism.

Another is the following: Spinoza observed in nature, on the one side, only systems of motion and rest which were derived from one another in an endless series of causes and effects; on the other side, running exactly parallel to these, but not influenced by them, a series of ideas. These systems of motion and ideas cannot be understood of themselves alone, but only with the aid of the notions of extension and thought, and these two notions contain in themselves the characteristic of infinity. Thus we are brought to a necessarily existing Being on whom all other beings must depend in their existence and nature. The facts of experience, as conditio sine qua non, lead us to the knowledge that the change which we observe can only be explained by an instinct of self-preservation existing in all things, which constitutes their individual nature. This instinct, then, is the relative factor in the scientific construction of ethics and politics. T he Absolute, which corresponds to it and establishes it, consists of the immanently working, countless attributes of the universal substance. This is the second approach to Spinozism.

We now come to a third: Scepticism is completely overcome only when the idea is nothing else than the objective side of the process of movement which is identical with it under another point of view. Only then does the succession of things fully coincide with the succession of ideas. Thus truth and certainty are the same. The fact tht there are ill-defined and false ideas can, accordingly, only be explained in that these ideas, so far as they do not prove themselves to be arbitrary combinations and fictions, are merely part-knowledge. Such part-knowledge, however, signifies that the one with such knowledge is in some sense part of an absolute intelligence. Therefore the part-extension identical with and corresponding with the part-knowledge is only a part of an infinite and indivisible extension. Consequently, in the infinite also, extension and thought are, absolutely considered, identical; as relative things they are different. Applied to ethics this doctrine signifies that good and evil have meaning only from the point of view of an incomplete part-knowledge; aplied to politics it sets up for the individual life the axiom right is might, and ascribes to the State the creation of right.

Lastly, ethics as a doctrine of happiness, which is really Spinoza's starting-point, leads to the same result. His main question was, how is perfect happiness possible? Now he could only conceive of perfect peace and happiness on the supposition that all earthly happenings proceed as the necessary consequence of the nature of the absolutely infinite Being; whowever recognizes this and rests lovingly in this knowledge enjoys perfect peace. The aim of life is to attain this knowledge cognitio subspecie æternitatis . From this opinion, however, it follows necessarily that the individual acts of knowledge proceed in some manner from God's own thought (the soul therefore is no substance ), that the nature of the individual soul is an individual instinct towards perfection ( comatus in suo esse perseverandi –in order to preserve the continuity of all self-consciousness), that evil proceeds from a lack of adequate knowledge, that the material is only another side of the spiritual, because otherwise Spinoza would have had to suppose a second source of evil besides imperfect knowledge.

These statements show also the way in which Spinoza can be refuted. It must be shown that God's unchangeableness does not involve the necessity of all Divine action; it must be proved that the dependence of the finite upon the infinite does not demand a counter-relation in the infinite, and that there is a metaphysic world of pure possibility and universal conceptions. Further, it must be shown that an objectively true knowledge is possible, even though the order of ideas does not run strictly parallel to the order of things, and though the two orders are not identical. The positive contradictions of this identity in the finite must be revealed, and it must be shown that in the Spinozistic psychology the continuity of self-consciousness, notwithstanding the instinct of self-preservation, is destroyed, and that the part-knowledge of Spinoza, with the system of happiness built upon it, involves an impenetrable mystery and therefore is untenable as a philosophical view of the world. Some friends and later admirers of Spinoza thought they could combine his philosophy with Christianity. A hopeless attempt in this direction is made in the introduction to the "Opera posthuma" written by Ludwig Meyer. Jarrig Jellis, Spinoza's friend, also exerted himself to bring Spinozism and Christianity together. More ingenious and profound but also exceedingly sophisticated is the treatise issued anonymously in 1684 by Abraham Cuffeler, "Specimen artis ratiocinandi naturalis et artificialis ad pantosophiæ principia manuducens". A number of writers leave one in doubt as to whether they did not use Christianity merely as a cloak. Others, e.g. Bredenburg, and Wittich in his "Anti-Spinoza", adopted only individual principles of Spinozism. When in the second half of the eighteenth century the reputation of Spinoza was again revived both in Germany and France simultaneously, the effort was once more made to reconcile Spinozism and Christianity. Mention might here be made of Heydenreich, Herder, and Sabatier de Castres.

That in the present time Spinoza has again become very modern is traceable to nine reasons: his criticism of the Scriptures, his doctrine of free-thought, his theory of the State as the source of right, his doctrine of happiness founded on necessity, his doctrine of morals dissociated from positive religion, his axiom Deus sive Natura and the justification of this axiom, his conception of the identity of thought and movement in the Absolute, his distinction of absolute and relative knowledge, finally his realism in the theory of knowledge to which many modern philosophers are returning.


More Encyclopedia

The Catholic Encyclopedia is the most comprehensive resource on Catholic teaching, history, and information ever gathered in all of human history. This easy-to-search online version was originally printed in fifteen hardcopy volumes.

Catholic Encyclopedia

Designed to present its readers with the full body of Catholic teaching, the Encyclopedia contains not only precise statements of what the Church has defined, but also an impartial record of different views of acknowledged authority on all disputed questions, national, political or factional. In the determination of the truth the most recent and acknowledged scientific methods are employed, and the results of the latest research in theology, philosophy, history, apologetics, archaeology, and other sciences are given careful consideration.

No one who is interested in human history, past and present, can ignore the Catholic Church, either as an institution which has been the central figure in the civilized world for nearly two thousand years, decisively affecting its destinies, religious, literary, scientific, social and political, or as an existing power whose influence and activity extend to every part of the globe. In the past century the Church has grown both extensively and intensively among English-speaking peoples. Their living interests demand that they should have the means of informing themselves about this vast institution, which, whether they are Catholics or not, affects their fortunes and their destiny.

Copyright © Catholic Encyclopedia. Robert Appleton Company New York, NY. Volume 1: 1907; Volume 2: 1907; Volume 3: 1908; Volume 4: 1908; Volume 5: 1909; Volume 6: 1909; Volume 7: 1910; Volume 8: 1910; Volume 9: 1910; Volume 10: 1911; Volume 11: - 1911; Volume 12: - 1911; Volume 13: - 1912; Volume 14: 1912; Volume 15: 1912

Catholic Online Catholic Encyclopedia Digital version Compiled and Copyright © Catholic Online


Newsletters

Newsletter Sign Up icon

Stay up to date with the latest news, information, and special offers

Daily Readings

Reading 1, Job 3:1-3, 11-17, 20-23
1 In the end it was Job who broke the silence and ... Read More

Psalm, Psalms 88:2-3, 4-5, 6, 7-8
2 may my prayer reach your presence, hear my cry for ... Read More

Gospel, Luke 9:51-56
51 Now it happened that as the time drew near for him ... Read More

Saint of the Day

Saint of the Day for September 30th, 2014 Image

St. Jerome
September 30: St. Jerome, who was born Eusebius Hieronymous Sophronius, was ... Read More

Inform, Inspire & Ignite Logo

Find Catholic Online on Facebook and get updates right in your live feed.

Become a fan of Catholic Online on Facebook


Follow Catholic Online on Twitter and get News and Product updates.

Follow us on Twitter