Baruch Spinoza ( born Benedito de Espinosa, Portuguese 24 November 1632 – 21 February 1677, later Benedict de Spinoza) was a Dutch philosopher of Sephardi Portuguese origin. The breadth and importance of Spinoza’s work was not fully realized until many years after his death.
By laying the groundwork for the 18th-century Enlightenment and modern biblical criticism, including modern conceptions of the self and the universe, he came to be considered one of the great rationalists of 17th-century philosophy His magnum opus, the posthumous Ethics, in which he opposed Descartes’ mind–body dualism, has earned him recognition as one of Western philosophy’s most important thinkers.
In the Ethics, “Spinoza wrote the last indisputable Latin masterpiece, and one in which the refined conceptions of medieval philosophy are finally turned against themselves and destroyed entirely.” Hegel said, “You are either a Spinozist or not a philosopher at all.” His philosophical accomplishments and moral character prompted 20th-century philosopher Gilles Deleuze to name him “the ‘prince’ of philosophers”.
Spinoza’s given name varies between different languages: Hebrew: Baruch Spinoza, Portuguese: Benedito or Bento de Espinosa and Latin: Benedictus de Spinoza; in all these languages, the given name means “Blessed”. Spinoza was raised in the Portuguese Jewish community in Amsterdam.
He developed highly controversial ideas regarding the authenticity of the Hebrew Bible and the nature of the Divine. The Jewish religious authorities issued a cherem (Hebre, a kind of ban, shunning, ostracism, expulsion, or excommunication) against him, effectively excluding him from Jewish society at age 23.
His books were also later put on the Catholic Church’s Index of Forbidden Books.
Spinoza lived an outwardly simple life as a lens grinder, turning down rewards and honours throughout his life, including prestigious teaching positions.
Spinoza died at the age of 44 allegedly of a lung illness, perhaps tuberculosis or silicosis exacerbated by fine glass dust inhaled while grinding optical lenses. Spinoza is buried in the churchyard of the Christian Nieuwe Kerk in The Hague.
Spinoza’s ancestors were of Sephardic Jewish descent and were a part of the community of Portuguese Jews that had settled in the city of Amsterdam in the wake of the Alhambra Decree in Spain (1492) and the Portuguese Inquisition (1536), which had resulted in forced conversions and expulsions from the Iberian peninsula.
Attracted by the Decree of Toleration issued in 1579 by the Union of Utrecht, Portuguese “conversos” first sailed to Amsterdam in 1593 and promptly reconverted to Judaism.
In 1598 permission was granted to build a synagogue, and in 1615 an ordinance for the admission and government of the Jews was passed. As a community of exiles, the Portuguese Jews of Amsterdam were highly proud of their identity.
The Spinoza family (“de Espinosa” or “Espinosa” in Portuguese and in Spanish; it could also be spelled as “de Espinoza” or “Espinoza” in both languages) probably had its origins in Espinosa de los Monteros, near Burgos, or in Espinosa de Cerrato, near Palencia, both in Northern Castile, Spain. The family was expelled from Spain in 1492 and fled to Portugal. Portugal compelled them to convert to Catholicism in 1498.
Spinoza’s father was born roughly a century after this forced conversion in the small Portuguese city of Vidigueira, near Beja in Alentejo. When Spinoza’s father was still a child, Spinoza’s grandfather, Isaac de Spinoza (who was from Lisbon), took his family to Nantes in France. They were expelled in 1615 and moved to Rotterdam, where Isaac died in 1627.
Spinoza’s father, Miguel (Michael), and his uncle, Manuel, then moved to Amsterdam where they resumed the practice of Judaism. Miguel was a successful merchant and became a warden of the synagogue and of the Amsterdam Jewish school. He buried three wives and three of his six children died before reaching adulthood.
Spinoza spent his remaining 21 years writing and studying as a private scholar.
Spinoza believed in a “Philosophy of tolerance and benevolence” and actually lived the life which he preached.
He was criticized and ridiculed during his life and afterwards for his alleged atheism. However, even those who were against him “had to admit he lived a saintly life”. Besides the religious controversies, nobody really had much bad to say about Spinoza other than, “he sometimes enjoyed watching spiders chase flies”.
After the cherem, the Amsterdam municipal authorities expelled Spinoza from Amsterdam, “responding to the appeals of the rabbis, and also of the Calvinist clergy, who had been vicariously offended by the existence of a free thinker in the synagogue”.
He spent a brief time in or near the village of Ouderkerk aan de Amstel, but returned soon afterwards to Amsterdam and lived there quietly for several years, giving private philosophy lessons and grinding lenses, before leaving the city in 1660 or 1661.
During this time in Amsterdam, Spinoza wrote his Short Treatise on God, Man, and His Well-Being, “of which two Dutch translations survive, discovered about 1810.”
Spinoza moved around 1660 or 1661 from Amsterdam to Rijnsburg, (near Leiden), the headquarters of the Collegiants.
In Rijnsburg, he began work on his Descartes’ “Principles of Philosophy” as well as on his masterpiece, the Ethics. In 1663, he returned briefly to Amsterdam, where he finished and published Descartes’ “Principles of Philosophy” (the only work published in his lifetime under his own name), and then moved the same year to Voorburg.