Little Bits of History

February 21

Posted in History by patriciahysell on February 21, 2017

1677: Benedito de Espinosa dies. We know him as Baruch Spinoza. He was a Dutch philosopher of Sephardic Jewish/Portuguese origin and born in the Dutch Republic. His family had moved to Amsterdam after the Portuguese Inquisition began forcing conversions on the Iberian peninsula. These exiles found acceptance in Amsterdam and were proud of their heritage, survival, and community. The senior Spinoza was a successful merchant as well as active in the local synagogue. The port city also brought many ships in and along with their products for sale came an influx of people, ideas, and experiences. This helped to foster a city of tolerance.

Spinoza grew up speaking Portuguese but also knew Hebrew, Spanish, Dutch, and Latin. He may have also spoken French. He had a traditional Jewish upbringing and educational opportunities. He may have been headed towards becoming a rabbi but at the age of 17, when his older brother died, he quit school and joined the family importing business. At the age of 20, he was learning Latin from a former Jesuit who was a radical democrat who may have been responsible for introducing his young pupil to scholastic and modern philosophy, up to and including the heretical Rene Descartes. After the senior Spinoza died, Baruch went to teach at his Jesuit mentor’s school.

It was at this time that Spinoza became acquainted with many other Christian religions as well as anti-clerical belief systems. He slowly broke away from his Jewish beliefs and eventually was expelled from the Jewish community as a heretic. He spent the rest of his life writing and studying as a private scholar. He was able to publish only one work under his own name during his lifetime, Descartes’ “Principles of Philosophy”. He kept working on what would become his masterpiece work, published posthumously, Ethics.

In his famous book, he posited that God did exist but was abstract and impersonal. He was opposed to Descartes’ mind-body dualism but also disagreed with other anti-Cartesian philosophies. Spinoza believed in strict determinism, today rather akin to quantum mechanics. Spinoza rationalized that everything in Nature, that is everything that exists, is one Reality or one substance and there is only one set of rules which govern all. He saw God and Nature as two names for the same thing. Reality is perfection and anything we find imperfect is due to our lack of understanding. Our inability to understand is because the universe is vast and complex but our striving to understand more and better is our salvation.

All things excellent are as difficult as they are rare.

Peace is not an absence of war, it is a virtue, a state of mind, a disposition for benevolence, confidence, justice.

The endeavor to understand is the first and only basis of virtue.

Ambition is the immoderate desire for power. – all from Baruch Spinoza

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