Baruch Spinoza Borrowed His Basic Philosophy from ibn Ezra and Maimonides
Non-Jews consider Baruch (or Benedict) de Spinoza an esteemed philosopher. Many feel that he breathed fresh air into philosophy and helped launch the open-minded enlightenment in the seventeenth century. Rebecca Goldstein, in her 2006 volume Betraying Spinoza, writes, with some exaggeration, that he “produced one of the most ambitious philosophical systems in the history of Western philosophy.” Yet, the leaders of Amsterdam Jewry excommunicated him and most Jews reject his opinions to this day.
Spinoza is criticized, sometimes quite vehemently, by many Jews and non-Jews. Two of his ideas appear to be especially objectionable to the public, both derived from his basic notion that the world functions according to the laws of nature – i.e., that all that happens in the world is due to natural laws: (1) nature and God are identical, and (2) human thinking is prompted and controlled by natural laws. He is accused as being a pantheist (a believer that the universe, God and nature are the same) for his first teaching because it seems to deny the existence of God; he is accused of being a denier of free will for his second.
- Who was Baruch Spinoza?
- Why did his community excommunicate him?
- What was his basic philosophy?
- What did he really say about “God and nature” and “free will”?
- Are Spinoza’s basic teachings similar in any way to those of Abraham ibn Ezra and Moses Maimonides?
- Did Spinoza derive ideas from these two sages?
- Did he carry the ideas of his two predecessors to an extreme?
Who was Baruch Spinoza?
Baruch de Spinoza was given a Hebrew first name at birth, which he changed to the Latin name Benedict after his excommunication. His first name, whether in the original Hebrew or its Latin equivalent, means “blessed.” His family name “Spinoza” derives from the Portuguese word “thorn.”
Spinoza came from a wealthy family dealing in business. Having fled from Portugal to Holland to escape the vicious persecution of the Inquisition, his parents settled in Amsterdam, where he was born. He lived a short life of forty-four years, from 1632 to 1677. He had an excellent Jewish education and was considered to be quite intelligent even at an early age. The Amsterdam community expected him to become a rabbi.
Spinoza learned Latin and secular subjects in secret. The Christian community hung his teacher, a non-Jew, because the Christians were led to believe that his ideas were contrary to the orthodox Christian faith.
The Concerns of the Amsterdam Community
The Jews who settled in Holland were mostly refugees from the appalling persecution in Portugal and other countries. They had been forced to hide their true religious beliefs, becoming Marranos – ostensible Christians – while living in these lands. They obtained a somewhat precarious right to maintain a synagogue in Holland, but they lacked complete freedom and peace of mind. Jews in Holland felt that they must be very circumspect and take pains not to offend the Christian government in any way. They were deathly afraid that the behavior of a single individual could be seen by the governmental officials as an act of rebellion supported by the entire Jewish community.
Since the average non-Jews and average Jews believed in many similar things, such as the sanctity of the Bible and the existence of helping angels, and since the Christians killed even fellow religionists who disagreed with them (as they did with Spinoza’s teacher), the officials of the Jewish governing body excommunicated several Jews, banning them from the community to protect themselves from Christian outrage. One of these was Baruch de Spinoza, who was excommunicated when he was twenty-four years old, in 1656.
Interestingly, Spinoza lived at the time of the fervent Shabbetai Zevi messianic movement. Zevi lived from 1626 to 1676. Following his conversion to Islam, Zevi passed away, only a year before Spinoza’s own death. The misguided false messiah’s mass movement reached its feverish climax in 1666, ten years after Spinoza was excommunicated.
The reasons behind Amsterdam’s Jewish leadership’s choice not to excommunicate Zevi (whose ideas based on his insistence that he was the expected messiah were accepted by many Amsterdam Jews) when he first introduced his bizarre beliefs are not known. Perhaps it was because Zevi had a large following, and it was difficult for the few community leaders to combat a large group. Or it may have been because Zevi’s notions appeared at first to be more “orthodox” or “right wing,” and such a “right-wing” and extremist attitude was at that time, as it is today, acceptable. In any event, it is a sad commentary on Amsterdam’s Jewish leadership, for these reasons are irrational. Furthermore, ironically, Zevi did more harm to Judaism than did Spinoza.
While Spinoza was attending the local rabbinical school, he raised questions and expressed “radical ideas” that were contrary to the popular views of the time, both Jewish and Christian. He doubted the existence of angels and the immortality of the soul. He expressed the view that God can be seen in the laws of nature.
The Jewish community did not realize that Maimonides also rejected the literal view of angels (in his view, “angels” was a metaphoric way of speaking about the forces of nature) and the immortality of the soul (stating that only the intellect lived after the body’s death). Maimonides also taught that the laws of nature expressed the desire of God, the creator of nature, and that people can only understand God by understanding nature (physics and metaphysics).
The synagogue officials offered Spinoza a large bribe to recant his ideas, but he refused. He was excommunicated – that is, he was banned from the community and the community members were forbidden to speak to or have any dealings with him. According to an unverified tradition, one fanatic even tried to kill him. To save himself, Spinoza fled to another city in Holland.
The rest of Spinoza’s life was untroubled. He lived frugally and had friends who respected him. He worked as a lens polisher and received a small pension from his friends who respected both him as a person and his ideas and wanted to ensure that he had a reasonably easy life. The pension was a small one because Spinoza refused to accept large sums. He was offered a job as a professor of philosophy at Heidelberg University – on the condition that he not teach ideas contrary to those accepted by most Christians. He refused the offer, just as he rejected the bribe tendered by the Jewish community. Unfortunately, the dust produced when he polished lenses aggravated his congenital tuberculosis and contributed to his early death at age forty-four.
He published little during his lifetime due to his concern that his ideas would cause a furor amongst both Jews and non-Jews.
What is Spinoza’s Philosophy? How Does it Compare to That of ibn Ezra and Maimonides?
For roughly one hundred years after his death, Jewish and non-Jewish thinkers called Spinoza’s views atheistic and immoral; at the time, the masses sought truth only through faith and superstition, notions that Spinoza rejected. Then non-Jewish philosophers began to recognize the value of his philosophy. Today many modern philosophers accept his views as powerful, stimulating and refreshingly modern. The following are some of his teachings:
- There are fixed laws of nature. People should study and understand these laws in a scientific and rational manner, making decisions based on the “facts” that this study of nature reveals. Decisions should be based on what is true or false, not beliefs, faith, dogmatism, tradition or superstition.
This is the rational approach of modern science. It is also the teaching of ibn Ezra and Maimonides. Spinoza knew the views of these thinkers; he mentions them in his writings and developed his ideas from what he read.
- Natural laws are the cause of everything that occurs. Everything is determined by nature, not by miracles, magic, prayers or incantations. God knew all that would occur and provided for everything with the laws of nature. Therefore He does not need to interfere further in this world to change anything.
This is also the view of ibn Ezra and Maimonides.
- The world is devoid of defects. There are no defects in the laws of nature.
This is also Maimonides’ and ibn Ezra’s teaching. Maimonides wrote that the “good” God can only produce good. Evil, he insists, is a result of one of three things: what people do to themselves, what people do to each other or what people perceive to be bad because they focus only on themselves and not on what is good for the world as a whole.
- People are not the center of the universe.
Maimonides wrote that once people understand that certain things that occur benefit the universe as a whole, they can understand that even though they are hurt, the occurrence is good for the universe as a whole. This teaching of Maimonides’ negates the opinion of some rabbis who taught that man was created last because he is the purpose of creation and everything was created for his use.
- God functions in nature.
If Spinoza means by this statement that nature is God – which is pantheism – his opinion does not align with the philosophy of ibn Ezra and Maimonides. However, Maimonides, as previously stated, teaches that God is not involved in the affairs of this world. God established the laws of nature and the world functions according to the perfect laws that God made. It is therefore possible that Spinoza is reflecting this teaching of Maimonides in his own words. Both were convinced that for practical purposes, God can only be understood through nature. Alternatively, Spinoza may have derived his basic thought from Maimonides and extended – extrapolated – Maimonides’ views, going beyond the barrier of Maimonides’ understanding – for Maimonides did not deny the existence of God.
- Thinking is also affected by natural laws. Cause and effect exist in physical nature and matters can be predicted to a certain extent – in the sense that if one takes a specific action, a specific result may be expected to occur. The same is true with thinking. In many cases, it is possible to predict what a person will think based on what has just occurred to the person.
Spinoza’s critics contend that this idea of Spinoza’s denies free will because it states that a person is compelled to think particular thoughts. They misunderstand his point. Spinoza is saying nothing more than what modern psychologists say, that there is a natural law of cause and effect both in regard to actions and thought. The cause does not force a thinking person to think or act in a certain way; it merely inclines him to act that way. For example, if someone hits an inanimate object – like a ping-pong ball – the inanimate object will spring forward because of cause and effect. Similarly, if a person is standing in a jungle and sees a white hunter slap a cannibal, the watcher can make a safe bet about what the cannibal will want to eat for supper. However, if someone slaps a civilized intelligent individual, the slapped civilized individual’s initial reaction might be to consult a lawyer, but after a moment of reflection he or she might take a different tack. Spinoza is simply saying that there is cause and effect that prompts thoughts as there is with physical objects such as the ping-pong ball, but a person can control and modify these thoughts.
- The foundation of virtue and law is improvement of self and society. Spinoza’s states in proposition 18 in part iv of his Ethics: “the very foundation of virtue is the endeavor (by a person) to preserve the individual self, and happiness consists in the human capacity to preserve its self.” In proposition 10, he teaches that while looking out for one’s own happiness, one must be careful not to hurt others because harming others eventually harms the individual who causes harm. “Our good is especially in the friendship that links to other humans and to advantages for society.”
Maimonides expresses this idea when he states that the purpose of the Torah laws is threefold: to teach proper ideas, to help individuals improve and to improve society.
- A person’s conduct should be determined by human nature – and not the nature of vegetation, animals or inanimate objects. Since the nature of humans is their reasoning ability, people must conduct their lives by using reason.
This is basic to the philosophy of ibn Ezra and Maimonides as well as modern science.
Over the years, Spinoza has been vilified and labeled an atheist and immoral.
Spinoza’s controversial views include the conviction that God is not involved in the happenings on earth and that the universe functions by the laws of nature. The laws of nature are good, perfect for the functioning of the universe. They only seem bad when people focus on themselves, see that they are hurt and complain that nature is evil.
Prayer or magic, says Spinoza, cannot affect these laws of nature because they are already fixed. One should not rely on superstitious conduct or worthless behavior to change unchangeable nature. Instead, people should try to find out as much as possible about the world and use the knowledge they attain and reason in making decisions.
Humans, Spinoza insists, are not the center of the universe; it is naïve to believe that everything was created for humans. Additionally, Spinoza teaches – and modern scientists agree – that nature affects not only inanimate objects but human behavior and thinking as well.
It is no surprise that people who believe that God is present in the world, changing nature when people pray for changes, who think of themselves as the most important element of the universe – in short, most of humankind – would vilify Spinoza as a heretic and do everything in their power to banish him and his kind far from their sight.
Though considered controversial, Spinoza’s rational approach was, in fact, based on other well-known rational thinkers, such as Maimonides and ibn Ezra, who were widely accepted by Judaism, as we will see in the next chapter.