By Baruch de Spinoza
Forgotten Books, 2008, 164 pages
Whether one agrees or not with the ideas of the Dutch philosopher of Portuguese Jewish origin, Baruch de Spinoza, also called Bento de Espinosa and Benedictus de Spinoza (1632-1677), one must admit that his views are thought-provoking. They made an enormous impression upon philosophical thinking and how people read the Bible. Spinoza’s family escaped to Holland from Portugal because of religious persecution, because they were Jews.
This book of some seventy-five letters to and from Spinoza reveals some parts of his philosophy and some information about the attacks made against him. We read letters from friends asking him to clarify some of his teachings, including letters we might consider frivolous, but were serious to their authors. One correspondent asked if ghosts exist. The writer felt male ghost exist but not female one. Spinoza did not believe in ghosts. Another from a prior student of his informed Spinoza that he had converted to the Roman Catholic religion, and in several pages begged Spinoza to follow him. He offered many proofs, including that the Catholic doctrine was taught by “holy virgins innumerable.” Spinoza was not persuaded.
It is true that because of his intellect, Spinoza didn’t have the same ideas about God and the world that was taught and believed by Jews, Christians, and Muslims of his age. But should his synagogue have excommunicated him? Many scholars explain that it was not his ideas that bothered the Jews, but the Dutch Jewish leaders feared that unless they excommunicate Spinoza, as enlightened as Holland was, the country’s leaders would suppose that Jews accept Spinoza’s ideas, which deny many Christian teachings, and would take revenge and massacre the entire Jewish community. Thus the excommunication was self defense. We see this fear in a few Spinoza letters when he was concerned that his writings might fall into the hands of people who would kill him for what he thinks.
Virtually all the letters are from Christians and many question his philosophy. One letter, for example, charges Spinoza with confusing God and nature and denying miracles and divine revelation. He replies: “The supposition of some that I endeavor to prove in the Tractatus Theologica-Polticus the unity of God and nature (meaning by the latter a certain mass or corporeal matter) is wholly erroneous” [page 30]. He denies the existence of miracles and states that revelation is “in all things and especially in the human mind” [page 30]. He wrote that we need not insist that only laws revealed by God are good; “moral principles, whether they have received from God the form of laws or not, are nevertheless divine and salutary” . He felt that all people, of all religions are good if they practice “justice and charity towards their neighbor” . He encouraged that “Scripture should only be expounded through Scripture” , thereby opposing the view of many Bible commentators that we can derive messages and meanings from the Bible, resolve seeming contradictions, clarify obscure messages and event, and prove our views of morality, by ideas that are not even hinted in the Bible.
There are Spinoza notions that many people will reject. He held, for example, the view “that God is absolutely and really the cause of all things which have essence, whatsoever they may be.” However, he continues, crime, evil, error, and the like are not essences, “therefore God was not the cause of them, though He was the cause of Nero’s act and intention” . While some would say that it is impossible to describe God, Spinoza, as many other philosophers, wrote that God is eternal, not made of parts, infinite, indivisible, has no imperfection, and no other being like God exists [89 and 90].
Spinoza was offered a position at a university on the condition that he does not “disturb the religion publically established” . He declined because he realized: “Religious quarrels do not arise so much from ardent zeal for religion, as from men’s various dispositions and love of contradiction, which causes them to habitually distort and condemn everything, however rightly it may have been said. I have experienced these results in my private and secluded station, how much more should I have to fear them after my elevation to this post of honor” .
Unfortunately, the intolerance that Spinoza experienced is still prevalent. This is a shame since there is much people can learn from others.