Spinoza: Finding Freedom in Understanding

The philosopher who inspired Einstein

Steven Gambardella
Jan 19 · 9 min read
By the age of 23 Baruch Spinoza was subjected to an attempt on his life and had been cursed and ostracised from his community. His philosophical and spiritual beliefs had put him at odds with society but made him a prophet to modern thinkers like Albert Einstein. Rembrandt van Rijn, The Sacrifice of Isaac (detail), 1635 (source: Wikipedia).
The Dutch Republic had won its freedom from the Spanish monarchy. In the seventeenth century the Republic became immensely wealthy. The combination of its riches and religious tolerance led to a golden age of culture, philosophy and science in the Netherlands. Because of tensions around Europe, the Republic was fragile by the time Spinoza was working. The freedom of the Dutch Republic was jealously guarded by militias like the one in this famous painting by Rembrandt van Rijn.The Night Watch or The Militia Company of Captain Frans Banning Cocq”, 1642. (source: Wikipedia)
Portrait of Spinoza by an unknown artist. (source: Wikipedia)

Ethics

At the root of the “abominable heresies” so upsetting to Jews and Christians was Spinoza’s peculiar — but ancient — idea of God. Spinoza believed that God was in everything: us, the world, the sky, space, animals, particles and other people. God and nature, according to Spinoza’s philosophy, are the same thing.

The Jewish Bride, c. 1658, Rembrandt van Rijn. Jews fleeing from the Catholic Inquisitions in Portugal and Spain found a home in the tolerant Dutch Republic. The refugee community made a significant contribution to the relatively liberal Dutch culture. However, their sanctuary was precarious due to the rise of militant protestants supporting William of Orange’s claim to the states. It is believed by some that Spinoza was ostracised by the community because his outspoken heretical views drew too much attention.
  1. Of the Nature and Origin of Mind— what is existence?
  2. Of the Origin and Nature of the Affects — what is our place in existence?
  3. Of Human Bondage, or the Powers of the Affects — Do we have free will?
  4. Of the Power of the Intellect or On Human Freedom — How should we live?

Substance, Nature and God

In the first chapter, tackling the tricky “why anything?” question, Spinoza works his way down: down into things themselves to the root of existence.

Rembrandt van Rijn, The Philosopher in Meditation, 1634. (source: Wikipedia) Having been rejected by his community and derided as an atheist, Spinoza spent a great deal of time alone. The philosopher is believed to have lived a saintly life dedicated to reason and science. He corresponded with philosophers, theorists and scientists and courted danger in his outspokenness in defence of secular freedoms.
Rembrandt van Rijn, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp, 1632. (source: Wikipedia) Spinoza did not believe in the immortality of the soul. The philosopher believed that our body and spirit are one and the same thing and unified with God. “Mind” and “matter” are simply different “modes” of the same substance.

Everything is Perfect

“God or Nature” is limitless and perfect. If that’s the case then everything is as it should be. Everything is perfect.

Einstein

Spinoza’s philosophical system is one of the most influential in history. Even if they found problems with Ethics, countless philosophers have expressed admiration for the philosopher’s ambition. Spinoza is one of the few to theorise an all-encompassing system that seeks to explain the most difficult questions we face.

Albert Einstein photographed by Ferdinand Schmutzer (source: Wikipedia). Einstein wrote in 1929: “I believe in Spinoza’s God, who reveals himself in the harmony of all that exists, not in a God who concerns himself with the fate and the doings of mankind.”

Courage of Convictions

What captures the popular imagination is the courage of Spinoza’s convictions. Despite an assassination attempt, despite being accursed, ostracised and even offered bribes, the philosopher never renounced his views. He was offered a professorship with a generous salary, but Spinoza chose to study and teach privately, lest his views were compromised.


Steven Gambardella

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I write about history, art and philosophy and how these subjects can help you in life and work. Email: stevengambardella [at] gmail [dot] com.