Spinoza lived from 1632 to 1677 in Holland, had an excellent education, knew the writings of Jewish philosophers, and was considered quite intelligent even at an early age. The Amsterdam community expected him to become a rabbi. His views are unalike the notions of most Jews at his time and now, but he would not have been criticized had he not expressed them at the wrong time.
The Jews who settled in Holland were mostly refugees from the appalling persecution in Spain, 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 unclear and therefore dangerous right to maintain a synagogue when they escaped to Holland, but they lacked complete freedom and peace of mind. They felt that they must be very circumspect in what they said and did and not to offend the Christian government in the city in any way. They were deathly afraid that the government officials would see even the behavior of a single Jew as an act of rebellion that was supported by the entire Jewish community.
Since the average Jew and non-Jew in the seventeenth century believed in such things as the ever presence of God, a soul, the inerrancy of the Bible, faith rather than reason, the power of prayer, and the existence of helping angels, and since the Christians killed even their fellow religionists who rejected these notions, the Jewish officials excommunicated several Jews who held contrary views to protect the rest of the Jewish community from Christian outrage and death. One of these was Spinoza, who was excommunicated at age 24, in 1656. Spinoza said that God can be seen in the laws of nature, doubted the immortality of the soul, argued against faith, and denied the existence of angels. The Jewish community did not realize that Spinoza’s ideas were not new and that the respected twelfth century Jewish sage Moses Maimonides had the same opinions.
Jewish and non-Jewish thinkers called Spinoza’s ideas atheistic and immoral. But, then, as years passed, scholars began to recognize the value of his philosophy. The following are some of his teachings in a bit more detail:
- There are fixed laws of nature that people should study and understand in a scientific and rational manner, making decisions based on the facts that this study reveals, not on beliefs, faith, dogmatism, tradition, or superstition – and certainly not on ideas rejected by logic, science, and the human senses such as what we can see.
- Everything is determined by nature, not by miracles, magic, prayers, or incantations.
- There are no defects in the laws of nature. God does not need to interfere in this world to change anything. God is not like the plumber who needs to return to the work he did to make repairs; God got it right the first time.
- People are not the center of the universe.
- God functions in nature. Scholars differ regarding this point. Spinoza may have meant that God does not exist and what we call God is nature. This is called pantheism. It is a view that Maimonides rejected. However, Spinoza may have meant that the human mind cannot know anything positive about God, only negatives, such as there cannot be more than a single God, and all we can really know about God is from what God created or formed, namely the laws of nature. This is also Maimonides’ view, the way he understood Exodus 33:17-23, when Moses beseeched God to tell him what God is.
- Thinking is also affected by natural laws. Cause and effect exist in physical nature; a specific action is followed by a specific result. The same occurs with thinking. It is frequently possible to predict what a person will think based on what has just occurred to the person. Spinoza’s critics contend that this idea 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: there is a natural law of cause and effect in regard to both actions and thought.
- The “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.” But, 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.
- As the ancient Greek Aristotle taught, a person must act according to the nature of humans 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, not follow others like a faithful dog, or sit passively like a bouquet of roses hoping to be sniffed or like a chair that their master can sit upon. Humans must exert themselves physically and mentally, both intellectually.
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 an annoying heretic and do everything in their power to banish him and his kind far from their sight. However, it may be a good idea to rethink this position because Spinoza may be right in whole or in part. And he may be saying what Maimonides said before him.