Spinoza, Baruch

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Spinoza, Baruch or Benedict

(spinō`zə), 1632–77, Dutch philosopher, b. Amsterdam.

Spinoza's Life

He belonged to the community of Jews from Spain and Portugal who had fled the Inquisition. Educated in the orthodox Jewish manner, he also studied Latin and the works of René Descartes, Thomas Hobbes, and other writers of the period, and also had a thorough grounding in scholastic theology and philosophy. His independence of thought led to his excommunication from the Jewish group in 1656; at about that time he abandoned the Hebrew form of his name, Baruch, for the Latin form, Benedict.

Until about 1660, Spinoza lived in or near Amsterdam, and afterward he lived in Rijnsburg, Voorburg, and The Hague. He was a lens grinder of great skill, but this activity was probably more related to his scientific interests than to any economic necessity. With his needs largely provided for by a series of grants, pensions, and bequests, he lived modestly, devoting much of his time to the development of his philosophy. Spinoza became known in spite of his retiring mode of life; he had wide correspondence and was visited by other philosophers. In 1673, he was offered a professorship at Heidelberg, but he elected to retain his peaceful life and especially his independence of thought. He died of tuberculosis, apparently aggravated by his inhaling glass dust from lens grinding. Through Gotthold Lessing, Johann Gottfried von Herder, and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Spinoza influenced German idealism. During his lifetime and for a period afterward, however, his pantheism was regarded as blasphemous, which is one reason why most of his writing was published after his death.

Spinoza's Works

His major works, virtually all of which are available in English translation, include a rewording (1663) of part of Descartes's work, A Treatise on Religious and Political Philosophy (1670, the only example of his own thought published in his lifetime), and his important Ethics, probably finished in 1665 but published posthumously (1677). His Opera Posthuma (1677) also include his Political Treatise, Treatise on the Improvement of Understanding, Letters, and Hebrew Grammar. He began a translation of the Hebrew Bible and was one of the first to raise questions of higher criticism of the Bible.


Spinoza's philosophy is deductive, rational, and monist. He shares with Descartes an intensely mathematical appreciation of the universe: Things make sense when understood in relation to a total structure; truth, like geometry, follows from first principles with a logic accessible and evident to man's mind. Whereas for Descartes mind and body are different substances, Spinoza holds that the two are different aspects of a single substance, which he called alternately God and Nature. Just as the mind is not substantially alien to the body, so Nature is not the product or agency of a supernatural God. The universe is a single substance, capable of an infinity of attributes, but known through two of them: physical "extension" and "thought." God is not the creator of a Nature beyond himself; God is Nature in its fullness.

Spinoza's rationalism, unlike that of later idealists, does not proceed at the expense of empirical observation. "Adequate ideas" are a coherent logical association of physical experiences. When ideas are confused or contradictory it is not because they are false (in the sense of contrary to fact) but because they are incomplete or improperly related to the totality of experience.


Spinoza's ethics proceed from a premise similar to that of Hobbes—that men call "good" whatever gives them pleasure—but they reach very different conclusions. Human beings, indeed all of Nature, share a common drive for self-preservation, the conatus sese conservandi. By this drive all individuals seek to maintain the power of their being, and in this sense virtue and power are one. But in Spinoza's system power is discovered to be a knowledge of necessity. Powerful, or virtuous, persons act because they understand why they must; others act because they cannot help themselves.

To be free is to be guided by the law of one's own nature (which in Spinoza's rational universe is never at variance with the law of another nature); bondage consists in being moved by causes of which we are unaware because our ideas are confused. Another important feature of Spinoza's ethical system is his view of the intellect as active. He rejects the distinction between reason and will that assumes that ideas can be passively entertained. All thinking is action, and all action has its accompaniment in thought. What accounts for action is not an agency (the will) beyond the intellect, but ideas. Ideas are active and move us to act; an absence of action may be accounted an absence of insight: knowledge, virtue, and power are one.

Political Philosophy

Politically, Spinoza and Hobbes again share assumptions about the social contract: Right derives from power, and the contract binds only as long as it is to one's advantage. The important difference between the two men is their understanding of the ends of the system: for Hobbes advantage lies in satisfying as many desires as possible, for Spinoza advantage lies in an escape from those desires through understanding. Put another way, Hobbes does not imagine a community of individuals whose desires can be consistently satisfied, so repression is always necessary; Spinoza can imagine such a community and such consistent satisfaction, so in his political and religious thought the notion of freedom, especially freedom of inquiry, is basic.


See biographies by S. Nadler (1999) and R. Goldstein (2006); H. A. Wolfson, The Philosophy of Spinoza (2 vol., 1934; repr. 1969); G. H. R. Parkinson, Spinoza's Theory of Knowledge (1954, repr. 1964); H. Allison, Benedict de Spinoza (1975); S. Hampshire, Spinoza (1975); L. Strauss, Spinoza's Critique of Religion (1982).

Spinoza, Baruch


(Benedict de Spinoza). Born Nov. 24, 1632, in Amsterdam; died Feb. 21, 1677, in The Hague. Dutch materialist philosopher, pantheist, and atheist. Son of a Jewish merchant.

After his father’s death in 1654, Spinoza became head of the family business. At the same time, he entered into scholarly relationships and friendships outside the Jewish community of Amsterdam, especially among those opposed to the Calvinist church, which was dominant in the Netherlands. Spinoza was greatly influenced by his Latin tutor, Van Den Ende, who was a follower of Vanini, and also by U. Acosta, an exponent of Jewish free-thinking. In 1656 the leaders of the Jewish community of Amsterdam pronounced upon Spinoza the herem, or “great excommunication.” To escape persecution, Spinoza took up residence in the countryside, where he was forced to earn his living by grinding lenses. He later lived in Rijnsburg, a suburb of The Hague, where he composed his philosophic works.

In his struggle against the oligarchic leadership of the Jewish community, Spinoza became a resolute foe of Judaism. Ideologically and politically, he was an advocate of republican government and an opponent of monarchy.

Initially, Spinoza’s philosophic views were influenced by Maimonides, Crescas, Ibn Ezra, and other medieval Jewish philosophers. Spinoza overcame these early influences by assimilating the pantheistic and materialist views of G. Bruno, the rationalist method of R. Descartes, mechanistic and mathematical natural science, and the philosophy of T. Hobbes, who influenced Spinoza’s sociological doctrine. Through the use of mechanical-mathematical methodology, Spinoza strove to create an integral picture of nature. Continuing the traditions of pantheism, Spinoza made the identity of god and nature the central point of his ontology; he understood nature as a unitary, eternal, and infinite substance that excludes the existence of any other principle and is thus the cause of itself (causa sui). Although he recognized the reality of infinitely diversified individual things, Spinoza understood these things as a totality of modes— individual manifestations of a single substance.

The qualitative characteristics of substance were revealed by Spinoza in the concept of the attribute as the inalienable property of substance. Although in principle the number of attributes is infinite, only two attributes—extension and thought—are accessible to finite human intelligence. Unlike Descartes, who dualisti-cally counterposed space and thought as two independent substances, Spinoza saw these as two attributes of one and the same substance.

In his examination of the world of individual things, Spinoza emerged as one of the most radical exponents of determinism and one of the most radical opponents of teleology; this was highly esteemed by Engels (see K. Marx and F. Engels, Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 20, p. 350). At the same time, by advancing a mechanistic interpretation of determinism, identifying causality with necessity, and viewing the fortuitous merely as subjective category, Spinoza arrived at the viewpoint of mechanistic fatalism. He was convinced that the whole world was a mathematical system and could be fully known by the geometric method. In Spinoza’s scheme, the infinite mode of motion-and-rest was to link the world of individual things, which were in a state of mutual interaction, with substance conceivable in the attribute of extension. Another infinite mode, infinite intellect (intellectus infinitus), was to link the world of individual things with substance conceivable in the attribute of thought. Spinoza asserted that in principle all things are animate, although to differing degrees. The basic property of infinite intellect, however, was “always to know everything clearly and distinctly” (Izbr. proizv., vol. 1, Moscow, 1957, p. 108), and Spinoza assigned this property solely to human beings.

Taking a naturalistic view of humans as part of nature, Spinoza asserted that body and soul were mutually independent as a consequence of the ontological independence of the two attributes of substance. He combined this view with a materialist tendency in explaining the human activity of thought: the dependence of man’s thinking on his bodily state is revealed, according to Spinoza, at the stage of sensory cognition. Sensory cognition constitutes the first kind of knowledge, also called opinion (opinio). Sensory cognition, according to Spinoza, often leads to error; although it is an inadequate reflection of the object, it nonetheless contains an element of truth.

Spinoza’s rationalism most strikingly manifested itself in the juxtaposition of understanding (intellectio), the sole source of authentic truth, to sensory cognition. In Spinoza, understanding emerges as a second kind of knowledge, consisting of reason (ratio) and intellect (intellectus).

The attainment of adequate truths, which is possible only at this stage, is conditioned by the fact that the human soul as a mode of the attribute of thought is capable of comprehending everything that derives from substance. It is possible, too, by virtue of the fundamental thesis of rationalist panlogism, which identifies the principles of thought with the principles of being: “the order and connection of ideas are the same as the order and connection of things” (ibid., p. 407).

The third kind of knowledge is intuition, which is the foundation of authentic knowledge. Genetically, Spinoza’s doctrine of intuition was linked with the doctrines of mystical pantheism concerning the “inner light” as the source of nondiscursive, unmedi-ated communication with god and with Descartes’s doctrine concerning the axioms of the clear and precise mind as the foundation of all knowledge. Intuition is interpreted by Spinoza as intellectual; it provides knowledge of things from the aspect of eternity—as absolutely essential modes of a single substance.

In the area of anthropology, Spinoza rejected the idea of the freedom of the will; will, for Spinoza, coincided with reason. Extending the laws of mechanistic determinism to human behavior, Spinoza demonstrated the necessary character of all human actions without exception. At the same time, he lent support to the dialectical idea of the compatibility of necessity and freedom, an idea expressed by the concept of free necessity. Since Spinoza identified freedom with knowledge, the striving for self-knowledge became for him the strongest human drive. Spinoza put forth a thesis concerning intellectual love of god (amor Dei intellectualis) and the concept of the immortality of the human soul, a notion linked to the pantheistic conception of the death of a human being as the return to the unified substance.

Spinoza’s philosophic system also embraces ethics. At the center of his concept of a secularized morality is the idea of the “free man” directed in his activity solely by reason. In Spinoza, principles of hedonism and utilitarianism are combined with the positions of an ascetic, contemplative ethics.

Like other exponents of the theory of natural law and the social contract, Spinoza deduced the laws of society from the characteristics of unchanging human nature. He believed that it was possible to harmoniously combine the individual egoistic interests of citizens with the interests of the entire society.

Although pantheistic in appearance, Spinoza’s philosophy was profoundly atheistic in content. By going beyond the conception of double truth, Spinoza was able to lay the foundations for a scientific critique of the Bible. Fear, according to Spinoza, was the cause of religious superstitions. Spinoza’s anticlericalism was bound up with his recognition of the political role of the church as the closest ally of monarchical government. At the same time, in the spirit of “natural religion,” Spinoza asserted that genuine religion, the basis of which was philosophic wisdom, had to be distinguished from superstition. The Bible is superfluous for the free man guided by reason alone but is essential for the majority of people—the “crowd”—which lives only by passions and is incapable of being guided by reason.

Spinoza’s atheism had an enormous influence on European freethinking of the 17th and 18th centuries. At the same time, adherents of romanticism and F. Schleiermacher interpreted Spinoza’s teaching in a religious and mystical spirit. In the late 19th and 20th centuries, when religious consciousness reached a crisis stage, E. Renan, L. Brunschvicg, and other bourgeois philosophers attempted to interpret Spinoza’s teaching in the spirit of the “new” religion. Spinoza’s atheistic and naturalistic ideas were taken up by D. Diderot and other French materialists of the 18th century and greatly influenced German philosophers of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, especially G. Lessing, J. W. von Goethe, and J. Herder. F. W. J. von Schelling, G. Hegel, and L. Feuerbach were also influenced by Spinoza. The influence on Hegel is seen especially in panlogism, the dialectics of the integral interpretation of the world, and the dialectical conception of freedom in its connection to necessity.


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Oeuvres, vols. 1–3. Paris, 1964–65.
In Russian translation:
Izbr. proizv, vols. 1–2. Moscow, 1957.


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