Baruch (Benedictus) Spinoza (1632-1677) was one of the greatest philosophers of all time. He was born into a Portuguese Marrano family (Jews who were forced to adopt Christianity in post-Islamic Spain, but secretly remained Jewish) that settled in Amsterdam, Holland. At an early age he helped his father run a trade business. Since he was self-educated and had a thirst for knowledge, he dedicated his nights to study. At first he studied the Jewish philosophers and then went on to learn Latin, general philosophy, literature and natural sciences. After his father died, Spinoza's connections with the Jewish community faded and he voiced opinions that led the Jewish leaders to excommunicate him from the community. He immediately was encircled by liberal minds like himself who supported him. Spinoza was also involved in scientific experiments and for this purpose he specialized in the polishing of lenses which he used in his observations.
Early on in developing his ideas he turned away from the traditional philosophy he knew so well - the philosophy of Rene Descartes and followers. Even then he had completely new ideas about how to deal with the problems that Descartes hadn't solved (mainly concerning matters of dualism such as body and soul, will and intellect, and God and the world). Spinoza dealt with these matters in "The Ethics" that he worked on for many years. Spinoza understood that his bold new work would not be accepted easily and its publication could endanger him. "The Ethics" was therefore published after his death.
During his lifetime, Spinoza anonymously published "The Theological-Political Treatise" (1670) that was a critique of the Bible and defended new ideas about management of the State. In his political writings he claimed that democratic rule is the most stable and effective of all methods of regime. Spinoza's preaching for personal freedom and liberty is of the essence of western thinking until this day. Spinoza also believed that, if religion did not weaken the spirit of the Jewish people and if religion was separated from the State, a Jewish State would be established in the future.
After the Second World War a copy of "The Theological-Political Treatise" that Spinoza personally gave to a friend on 23 July 1676 with a dedication in his hand writing (see the first day cover) reached G.H. Shikmoni at "The Spinoza House" in Haifa. This book was donated to the University of Haifa and it can be found there today. David BenGurion and many others saw Spinoza as a source of pride for the Jewish people along with Freud and Einstein. Einstein actually exclaimed that he believed in "Spinoza's God". According to this belief, nothing in nature occurs by coincidence and everything that happens is necessary.
The main issue in Spinoza's doctrine, involving the rare combination of extremely original and bold ideas for his time and classical philosophy, centers on God, not as the Creator but as Nature perceived as a systematic whole where every detail has its necessary place. This theory does not only relate to a particular area of thought but encompasses other areas - from theory of knowledge and ontology to psychology, ethics and political philosophy. It teaches a person the way to ultimate happiness and to the supreme experience of the "Intellectual Love of God". Spinoza's view of nature rested on the scientific way of thinking and many of his ideas were before their time. Although Spinoza created repercussions in his lifetime, and even more so after the enlightenment period in Germany in the 18th Century, no school of thought is named after him. The last twenty years have seen a revival in interest in Spinoza even amongst the philosophical schools of thought that were allegedly far from his philosophy.
Professor Amihud Gilead
Department of Philosophy
University of Haifa