On Spinoza

“Monday Musings” for Monday November 30, 2015

Volume V. No 49/257


Bernard Baruch Spinoza, The Rebellious Philosopher

by Assad Meymandi, MD, PhD, DSc (Hon), DLFAPA*

Bernard Baruch Spinoza had a vast mind the size of the Central Park and the Hyde Park put together. I have always thought in my imagination how nice it would be to have permission to just amble around Spinoza’s vast mind. As we prepare for this leisurely sojourn, it is a good idea to know a little bit about the man:  He was born on November 24, 1632 in Amsterdam. His parents and grandparents were Portuguese Jews who, because of intolerance and anti-Semitism, emigrated to Amsterdam and converted into Christianity. By the way, this was a common thing in those days. We know of a French Jewish teenager, at the age of 14 emigrated to France, converted into Catholicism and worked his way up to become Court Composer for the Sun King, Louis XIV. Jean Batiste Lully was the czar of music in all of Europe in the 17th century. His majestic overture with dotted rhythm is instantly recognizable after 350 years. Christian Bach, one of J. S. Bach’s 22 children, went to Milan converted into Catholicism to get a job at the Milan Cathedral. Lorenzo De Ponte a Jewish Italian boy by the name of Conegliano family converted into Catholicism and became a priest. He was later defrocked because of un-cloth like behavior with the ladies of his parish. We know him as the librettist for Mozart’s famous three buffo Operas, Don Giovanni, Marriage of Figaro, and Cosi Fan Tuti.

These immigrants who chose to be citizens and were not born citizens make impressive contributions to their adopted lands. An aside, the issue of immigration and education for immigrants reminds us that 83% of Nobel Prize winners since its inception in 1901 have been immigrants who chose to be Americans and were not born Americans. We must nurture and encourage intellect and learning wherever there is potential regardless of nationality, geography and ethnic origin. Back to Spinoza. He learned Hebrew, paleo- Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek, Latin and to some degree Arabic. He was a polyglot and polymath. Spinoza became known in the Jewish community for positions contrary to prevailing Jewish belief of the period, wherein he harbored critical positions towards the anti-Maimonidean.

The philosophy of Baruch Spinoza is a systematic, logical, rational philosophy developed by him in the seventeenth century in Europe. It’s a system of ideas built from basic building blocks with an internal consistency with which Spinoza tried to answer life’s major questions and in which he proposed that “God exists only philosophically.” He was heavily influenced by thinkers such as Descartes, Euclid and Thomas Hobbes as well as theologians in the Jewish philosophical tradition such as Maimonides, but his work was in many respects a departure from the Judeo-Christian tradition. He was influenced by Muslims. We will see that as we tour the vast expanse of his mind. Spinoza was a restless man. He considered it hypocritical to follow the writings and teaching of Maimonides and other Jewish religious text. On 27 July 1656, the Jewish community issued to him the writ of Cherem, a kind of excommunication. Righteous indignation on the part of the synagogue elders of Spinoza’s heresies was not the sole cause for his excommunication; there was also the practical concern that his ideas, which disagreed equally well with the orthodoxies of other religions as with Judaism, would not sit well with the Christian leaders of Amsterdam and would reflect badly on the whole Jewish community, endangering the limited freedoms that the Jews had achieved in that city. The terms of his Cherem were severe. He was, in Bertrand Russell’s words, “cursed with all the curses in Deuteronomy and with the curse that Elisha pronounced on the children who, in consequence, were torn to pieces by the she-bears.” The Cherem was, atypically, never revoked. Following his excommunication, he adopted the first name Benedictus, the Latin equivalent of his given name, Baruch; they both mean “blessed”. In his native Amsterdam he was also known as Bento (Portuguese for Benedict or blessed) de Spinoza, which was the informal form of his name. The ban, written in Portuguese, is still preserved in the archives of the Amsterdam community. The pronouncement preceding the ban reads:

The chiefs of the council make known to you that having long known of evil opinions and acts of Baruch de Spinoza, they have endeavored by various means and promises to turn him from evil ways. Not being able to find any remedy, but on the contrary receiving every day more information about the abominable heresies practiced and taught by him, and about the monstrous acts committed by him, having this from many trustworthy witnesses who have deposed and borne witness on all this in the presence of said Spinoza, who has been convicted; all this having been examined in the presence of the Rabbis, the council decided, with the advice of the Rabbi, that the said Spinoza should be excommunicated and cut off from the Nation of Israel.

There is a tremendous historical parallel between Spinoza and Martin Luther (coincidentally, today in 1521 Martin Luther was tried Diet of Worms). They both started to study the Law, Baruch in Amsterdam, Luther in Wittenberg, they were both rebellious and contemptuous of orthodoxy, they were both ex-communicated form the mainstay religious institutions, Spinoza from Synagogue and Luther from Catholic Church. This is topic for another lecture…

After his Cherem, Spinoza became acquainted with several Collegiants, members of an eclectic sect with tendencies toward rationalism. He began reading and studying Rene Descartes who was 46 years his elder. Many of his friends belonged to dissident Christian groups which met regularly as discussion groups and which typically rejected the authority of established churches as well as traditional dogmas. Textbooks and encyclopedias often depict Spinoza as a solitary soul who eked out a living as a lens grinder. In reality, he had many friends but kept his needs to a minimum. One reviewer noted “No one has ever come nearer to the ideal life of the philosopher than Spinoza.” Another wrote: “As a teacher of reality, he practiced his own wisdom, and was surely one of the most exemplary human beings ever to have lived… In outward appearance he was unpretending, but not careless. His way of living was exceedingly modest and retired; often he did not leave his room for many days together. He was almost incredibly frugal; his expenses sometimes amounted only to a few pence a day.” He appears to have had no sexual life. Spinoza also corresponded with Peter Serrarius, a radical Protestant and millennarian merchant. Serrarius is believed to have been a patron of Spinoza at some point. By the beginning of the 1660s, Spinoza’s name became more widely known, and eventually Gottfried Leibniz and Henry Oldenburg paid him visits, as stated in Matthew Stewart’s The Courtier and the Heretic. Spinoza corresponded with Oldenburg for the rest of his short life.

Descartes has been described as “Spinoza’s starting point.” Spinoza’s first publication was his geometric exposition (formal math proofs) of Descartes, Parts I and II of Descartes’ Principles of Philosophy (1663). Spinoza has been associated with Leibniz and Descartes as “rationalists” in contrast to “empiricists”. From December 1664 to June 1665, Spinoza engaged in correspondence with Blyenbergh, an amateur Calvinist theologian, who questioned Spinoza on the definition of evil. Later in 1665, Spinoza notified Oldenburg that he had started to work on a new book, the Theologico-Political Treatise, published in 1670. Leibniz disagreed harshly with Spinoza in Leibniz’s own published Refutation of Spinoza, but he is also known to have met with Spinoza on at least one occasion, as mentioned above, and his own work bears some striking resemblances to specific important parts of Spinoza’s philosophy, known as Monadology.

When public reactions to the anonymously published Theologico-Political Treatise were extremely unfavourable to his brand of Cartesianism, Spinoza was compelled to abstain from publishing more of his works. Wary and independent, he wore a signet ring engraved with his initials, a rose, and the word “caute” (Latin for “cautiously”). The Ethics and all other works, apart from the Descartes’ Principles of Philosophy and the Theologico-Political Treatise, were published after his death, in the Opera Posthuma edited by his friends in secrecy to avoid confiscation and destruction of manuscripts. The Ethics contains many still-unresolved obscurities and is written with a forbidding mathematical structure modeled on Euclid’s geometry and has been described as a “superbly cryptic masterwork.”  Spinoza eventually reconciled with the teachings of Moses Maimonedes and even wrote pieces in which he agreed with Maimonedes Oath and assertions about “self-discovery”. We will get to it if time allows.

Going back to the vast mental space of Spinoza, we see that he is talking fondly of his putative association with a group of very close friends spanning over 1300. It is like holding frequent séances where he talks in person with these friends. The first is Saint Augustine of Hippo, born 354, died 430, author of more than six million words. Spinoza is very high on St Augustine. He calls St Augustine the most brilliant “doubter” of all. “The boy stole apples, lied to his parents, stole from his parents and sold stuff to support his gambling habits while still in elementary school, yet after his conversion at age 32, he began to shape up and became a superb specimen of human being. Many scholars think that his short 1660 essay, Korte Verhandeling van God, de Mensch en Deszelvs Welstand  (Short Treatise on God, Man and His Well-Being) was the heavy influence of St Augustine, especially his last three books of the 13 books of Confessions, Memory, Time and Intellect.


Later in life, he made a u-turn and we can hear him talk about our physician colleague, Moses Maimonides of Cordoba. The man was a doctor, a Rabbi, a philosopher, a writer, a clinician, and a counselor to the Caliphs, a Jewish Boy who was special physician to the Muslim Caliphs. He re-read the Torah, Commentary on the Mishna (Hebrew Pirush Hamishnayot), written in Judeo-Arabic, Sefer Hamitzvot (trans.The Book of Commandments), Sefer Ha’shamad (Letter of Martydom), Mishneh Torah, also known as Sefer Yad ha-Chazaka, a comprehensive code of Jewish law and Guide for the Perplexed, a philosophical work harmonizing and differentiating Aristotle’s philosophy and Jewish theology, all written in Judeo-Arabic, though he had read them all as a child. As the result of this re-read, Baruch’s three famous and essential treatises were born:

  • Tractatus de Intellectus Emendatione(On the Improvement of the Understanding). Project Gutenberg
  • 1663. Principia philosophiae cartesianae (Principles of Cartesian Philosophy, translated by Samuel Shirley, with an Introduction and Notes by Steven Barbone and Lee Rice, Indianapolis, 1998). Gallica. In Latin ONLY.
  • 1670. Tractatus Theologico-Politicus (A Theologico-Political Treatise). Project Gutenberg: Part 1;Part 2;Part 3;Part 4; Pdf Version
  • 1675/76 Tractatus Politicus (Unfinished) Pdf Version

These carry the heavy hand of Moses Maimonides. Spinoza goes on to talk about his other trans-century buddies, one of whom is St Thomas Aquinas. Spinoza is so impressed by Aquinas because he translated all of Aristotle from Greek to Latin. It is believed that the beginning or anlagen of Spinoza’s work in ethics and dualism and his intellectual love affair with Euclid and Descartes starts with his reading Aquinus work and learning how to think and how to argue from that friend and master. The only book that bears Spinoza’s name on the spine is the fruit of that love affair, published in 1677, Ethica Ordine Geometrico Demonstrata (The Ethics,  translation by Jonathan Bennett.

The first translation of this work into Hebrew was done by Samuel ibn Tibbon Teshuvot, of collected correspondence and response, including a number of public letters on resurrection and the afterlife, on conversion to other faiths, and Iggereth Teiman – addressed to the oppressed Jewry of Yemen. Treatise on Logic (Arabic: Maqala Fi-Sinat Al-Mantiq) has been printed 17 times, including editions in Latin(1527), German (1805, 1822, 1833, 1828), French (1935), and English (1938), and in an abridged Hebrew form.

Just like Hyde Park, where people convene and converse, we see  a group of students gathered around Spinoza asking him about pre-Socratic philosophers, and he goes back to Thales Miltus of 624 BC. Spinoza is high on Thales and thinks Thales hung the moon. He invented scientific method inductive and deductive reasoning. Much of his reference to Thales is incorporated in Spinoza’s Treatise of God, Man and his Well-being. He also speaks highly of and examines the convention of four elements of fire, air, earth and water. He is equally enthusiastic about the contribution of other pre-Socratic philosophers, Pythagoras, Ephesian, Eleatic and Atomist Schools. When we ask him his favourite philosopher, he shakes his head and with reverence and awe admits that the God-like philosopher in his book is Zaratustra or Zoroaster, the father of dualism Good and Evil.  He then mentions Renee Descartes (1596) a major figure in rationalism, helped him and Gottfried Leibniz, to oppose the empiricists Hobbes, Locke, Berkeley, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Hume. You can hear Spinoza saying “Leibniz, Descartes and I well versed in mathematics as well as philosophy could counter those superficial naturalists.” In an uncharacteristic mood of put down, Spinoza walking away parapathetically saying “why, John Locke studied medicine but did not even manage to get his MD degree and cannot practice medicine. What good does it do to go to school, learn all that anatomy and physiology dissect all those corpses yet never lay a hand on a patient. Look at how well the other boys, friends of John Locke, people like Huntington are doing….   did not even Descartes and Leibniz contribute greatly to science as well?” As the inventor of the Cartesian coordinate system, Descartes founded analytic geometry, the bridge between algebra and geometry, crucial to the discovery of infinitesimal calculus and analysis. He is best known for the philosophical statement “Cogito ergo sum” (French: Je pense, donc je suis; English: I think, therefore I am; or I am thinking, therefore I exist), found in part IV of Discourse on the Method (1637 – written in French but with inclusion of “Cogito ergo sum”) and §7 of part I of Principles of Philosophy (1644 – written in Latin).

Authors who have tried to situate Spinoza vis-à-vis psychoanalysis have pondered several different kinds of questions. W. Aron (1977) asked about the overall influence of Spinoza on Freud’s thought. C. Rathbun (1934) noted that the libido, a fundamental concept of psychoanalysis, is adumbrated in Spinoza’s concept of conatus, an inborn drive that leads to striving and persisting. On Walter Bernard’s reading (1946), it is perhaps closer to eros or desire. But what, according to these authors, were Spinoza’s therapeutic principles? These works today appear dated, indicative as much of the intellectual state of psychoanalysis, particularly in Anglo-Saxon countries, as of a poorly informed reading of Spinoza. Some authors, such as Abraham Kaplan (1977) recall that Spinoza’s philosophy was not a proto-psychoanalytic science, but a very knowledgeable metaphysics. Francis Pasche (1981) discusses the idea of “practical psychoanalysis.” Gilles Deleuze’s work on Spinoza, Expression in Philosophy (1992), has opened the way toward a confrontation between Spinozistic and psychoanalytic ethics. Finally, several psychoanalytic authors (Bertrand, 1984; Ogilvie, 1993; Burbage and Chouchan, 1993) have discovered unconscious implications in Spinoza’s philosophy.


*The writer is Adjunct Professor of Psychiatry, University of North Carolina School of Medicine at Chapel Hill, Distinguished Life fellow American Psychiatric Association, Life Member, American Medical Association; Life Member, Southern Medical Association, and Founding Editor and Editor-in-Chief, Wake County Physician Magazine (1995-2012).


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