I have a fascination for secular saints, spiritual teachers who stand outside the religious boundaries and practice what they preach. Seventeenth-century Dutch philosopher Baruch de Spinoza is one of them. I got a chance to read Matthew Stewart’s book, “The courtier and the heretic: Leibniz, Spinoza and the fate of God in the modern world”. As the name suggests the book is as much about Leibniz, the German polymath as it is about Spinoza and their interaction. However, in this article, I would like to restrict myself to the brief sketch of life, times and work of Spinoza that I could create from this book.
Life: Born in a Jewish family emigrated from Portugal, Spinoza lived in the Netherlands from 1632 to 1677. He lived a life of double exile – his family was exiled from their native country and then he was excommunicated from the Jewish community because of his heretical views when he was twenty-three. After the death of his father and elder brothers, Spinoza and his younger brother managed the trading business for a few years before getting excommunicated.
During the day, Spinoza ground lenses for microscopes and telescopes. And at night, he polished his system of metaphysics. He lived a peaceful and solitary life of contemplation. However, he always had a few friends with whom he discussed his views and corresponded extensively with philosophers, scientists, and theologians across Europe. When he died, the inventory he left behind included two pairs of pants, seven shirts, and five handkerchiefs. His only luxury was a large bed with red curtains which he had inherited from parents.
Times: Spinoza grew up in Amsterdam during the Dutch golden age – times when Amsterdam was the center of world trade, tolerant of the incoming settlers and visiting traders, and most important it was a place where freedom of its citizens was valued. It was home to philosophers (Descartes), scientists (Huygens, Leeuwenhoek), painters, merchants and more. It was also a time when a new scientific order was beginning to rise on the backdrop of an established theocratic order.
Work: Key philosophical contributions of Spinoza are presented in two books: Theological-Political Treatise (1670) and Ethics (published posthumously in 1677). Here are a few sentences from the “The courtier and the heretic” that I found useful in understanding Spinoza’s ideas:
- God (or Nature or Substance) is the essence of the world (or universe). p. 158.
- This one Substance has infinite attributes. p. 159.
- Everything in this world is merely a “mode” of an attribute of this Substance. All creatures are nothing but modes. p. 160.
- Everything that happens, happens necessarily. p. 160.
- Things could not have been produced by God in any manner or any order different from that which exists. p. 160.
- Two of the infinite attributes of Substance are Thought and Extension. Under Thought, the Substance manifests as minds, ideas, and decisions. Under Extension, the Substance manifests as physical bodies. p. 168.
- Human beings have no free will in an absolute sense. Our experience of freedom consists only in this: that we are conscious of our desires but ignorant of the causes that determine them. p. 171.
- Happiness or freedom comes only from the knowledge of the union that the mind has with the whole of Nature (or God). p. 57.
- Freedom follows when we “realize ourselves” as it were. p. 174.
In short, I found the book quite helpful in understanding the life, times and philosophy of Spinoza. As a freelancer, a spiritual teacher, someone who enjoys solitude, frugal living and feels no sense of belonging to any religion, it isn’t surprising that I resonate with Spinoza.