Baruch Spinoza was born in 1632 to a Portuguese Sephardi family living in Amsterdam, and would become one of the earliest philosophers of the Enlightenment. He is well worth celebrating on his birthday, though not without controversy.
Raised in the Amsterdam Jewish community, Spinoza had to stop his studies of Talmud to join the family importing business at age 17, and later actually earned his living as a lens grinder, gaining much repute at it. He was a thinker, a man of contemplation, who turned down teaching positions and other honors and appointments, preferring solitude. A scientist, he believed that both scientists and philosophers should be free to go where the trail leads them without any bonds or restrictions from religion and religious dogma.
Remember that Amsterdam was an active port and lively cosmopolitan city in that time. Spinoza spoke Portuguese and also knew Hebrew, Spanish, Dutch, some French, and ultimately Latin became the language in which he wrote (often under the name Benedictus, Latin for Baruch). Those were also the times of René Descartes (1596-1650) and Isaac Newton (1643-1727), and so many others who influenced Spinoza’s thinking. There were forces afoot creating a rending between the ancient religions and the modern possibilities. Spinoza seemed to bridge the two. Though he wrote many short works, his two most famous books were Theologico-Political Treatise and what many consider his master work, published in 1674 (after his death), Ethics Demonstrated with Geometrical Order, the name of which is often cited only as “Ethics,” thus shortchanging the pretext. He presents his discussions as geometric theories and proofs, and continues his certainty that God has created all that is and we have only to understand it.
“I do not presume that I have found the best philosophy. I know that I understand the true philosophy. If you ask in what way I know it, I answer: In the same way as you know that the three angles of a triangle are equal to two right angles.”
Certainly Maimonides before him had been a man of science and faith. And Spinoza’s thoughts, influenced by the intellect around him, seemingly flowed easily among religious and scientific thoughts. Yet unfortunately on July 27, 1656, he was excommunicated by the Sephardi elders, in a scathing and unforgiving document which curses him in no uncertain terms. (An attempted reconsideration of it put by the Portuguese-Israelite commune of Amsterdam to their chief rabbi in 2012 failed.) This was unfortunate because Spinoza was known among philosophers as a God-inspired individual. Yet even the Christians of the time accused him of being an atheist and worse. All of this seems to have sent him elsewhere in the Netherlands to continue his contemplation, including Rijnsburg and Voorburg.
Spinoza would go on to write about what philosophers consider to be basic groundworks of political democracy, morality, and control of passions leading toward virtue and happiness. He sought to naturalize religious views to their bases without dogma and ceremony, toward greater recognition of God, including analysis of Torah to find the “true religion” within.
In modern times, Spinoza was referred to by David Ben-Gurion as “the first Zionist of the last 300 years.”
Baruch Spinoza died on February 21, 1677, at age 44, from a lung illness (not unusual for lens grinders), and is buried in the churchyard of the Nieuwe Kerk in The Hague.