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Great Minds - Baruch de Spinoza

Baruch de Spinoza was a 17th-century Portuguese-Jewish philosopher of the Enlightenment known for pioneering the rationalist school. He was born on 24 November 1632 and attended the Jewish school and the synagogue, where he studied Hebrew and the works of Jewish and Arabian theologians. Spinoza's father hoped his son would become a rabbi, so he provided him with suitable educational opportunities aligned with orthodoxy. But when Spinoza turned 20, he started taking lessons from Frances van den Enden, who introduced him to medieval scholastic philosophy. Van den Enden also introduced him to modern science and likely discussed Descartes' philosophy, as Descartes had spent most of his creative life in Holland.

This experience was crucial for Spinoza. He became dissatisfied with the religious teachings of rabbis after being exposed to philosophical and scientific methodologies. The rabbis, in turn, disapproved of his interest in natural science and studying the Latin language, in which so many heresies and blasphemy are temptingly expressed. At 23, Spinoza was excommunicated from the Portuguese-Jewish synagogue of Amsterdam. It was the most severe punishment ever issued by that community. The surviving document refers to the young man’s ‘abominable heresies’ and ‘monstrous deeds’. The community leaders proclaimed that they hereby ‘expel, excommunicate, curse, and damn Baruch de Spinoza’. He is to be ‘cast out from all the tribes of Israel’ and his name is to be ‘blotted out from under heaven’.

In 1677, Spinoza published his magnum opus, Ethics. The book addresses a key question: 'What exists?' Spinoza’s answer is: 'Except God, no substance can be granted or conceived' and 'Whatever is, is in God, and nothing can exist or be conceived without God'. Ethics attributes a central role to God, but this God is nothing like the one found in the Judeo-Christian tradition. Spinoza contends that God is not “like man, consisting of a body and a mind, and subject to passions”. To consider God with feelings, beliefs, hopes, desires, or emotions would be “superstitious” and contrary to faith. Nor is Spinoza’s God a good, wise, just lawgiver who will reward those who obey its commands and punish those who go astray. Believers in that kind of deity are motivated more by fear, and the fear of divine fury is not a healthy foundation to build faith. Their actions are driven “not so much by the love of God as by fear of hell.”

Instead, Spinoza's philosophy offers the seamless unity of God and nature. He believed that everything that exists is part of God. God is not some distant force but is present in everything around us, including people, animals, and mundane objects. Nowadays, this idea is known as "pantheism," and it is often attributed to Spinoza. However, some have criticised this view for downplaying God's transcendent power. They claim that Spinoza denied the fundamental difference between God and his creations, thus diminishing the exclusivity of the divine creator.

Spinoza did not declare himself an atheist but remained a staunch defender of God. To him, the teaching of Scripture is straightforward: ‘Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against one of your people, but love your neighbour as yourself’ (Leviticus 19:18) and ‘He who loves others has fulfilled the law’ (Romans 13:8). Drawing on these verses, Spinoza, claims that 'true religion' and 'true piety' does not require belief in any historical events, mysterious occurrences, or rigid doctrines. Neither does it impose any religious rituals. It does not demand the acceptance of any particular theological viewpoints about God's nature or philosophical claims about the universe and its origins. The divine law directs us to treat others justly and kindly. This means upholding justice, helping the helpless, avoiding coveting other people's possessions, and so on. Spinoza argues that all other rituals or ceremonies prescribed by the Bible's commandments are empty practices that do not contribute to blessedness and virtue. It is not what we believe, but what we do matters.

We can say without any equivocation or hesitation that Spinoza took God seriously, regardless of the interpretation we choose to give to his works. No wonder, when Rabbi Goldstein asked Albert Einstein, ‘Do you believe in God?’ Einstein replied, ‘I believe in Spinoza’s God who reveals himself in the orderly harmony of what exists, not in a God who concerns himself with the fates and actions of human beings’.

*First Published in Touchstone May 2024

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