The so-called Enlightenment period encompasses a surprisingly diverse collection of thinkers, if not always in ethnic or national origin, at least in intellectual disposition, including perhaps the age’s most influential philosopher, the “philosopher’s philosopher,” writes Assad Meymandi. Baruch Spinoza did not fit the image of the bewigged philosopher-gentleman of means we tend to popularly associate with Enlightenment thought.
He was born to a family of Sephardic Portuguese Marranos, Jews who were forced to convert to Catholicism but who reclaimed their Judaism when they relocated to Calvinist Amsterdam. Spinoza himself was “excommunicated by Amsterdam Jewry in 1656,” writes Harold Bloom in a review of Rebecca Goldstein’s Betraying Spinoza: “The not deeply chagrined 23-year-old Spinoza did not become a Calvinist, and instead consorted with more liberal Christians, particularly Mennonites.”
Spinoza read “Hebrew, paleo-Hebrew, Aaramaic, Greek, Latin, and to some degree Arabic,” writes Meymandi. “He was not a Muslim, but behaved like a Sufi in that he gave away all his possessions to his step sister. He was heavily influenced by Al Ghazali, Baba Taher Oryan, and Al Farabi.” He is also “usually counted, along with Descartes and Leibniz, as one of the three major Rationalists,” Loyola professor Blake D. Dutton notes at the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, a thinker who “made significant contributions in virtually every area of philosophy.”
One might say without exaggeration that it is impossible to understand Enlightenment thinking without reading this most heterodox of thinkers, and in particular reading his Ethics, which is itself no easy task. In this work, as Alain de Botton puts it in his School of Life introduction to Spinoza above, the philosopher tried “to reinvent religion, moving it away from something based on superstition and direct divine intervention to something that is far more impersonal, quasi-scientific, and yet also, at times, serenely consoling.”
One might draw several lines from Spinoza to Sagan and also to Wittgenstein and other modern skeptics. His critiques of such cherished concepts as prayer and a personal relationship with a deity did not qualify him as a religious thinker in any orthodox sense, and he was derided as an “atheist Jew” in his time. But he took religion, and religious awe, very seriously, even if Spinoza’s God is indistinguishable from nature. To imagine that this great, mysterious entity should bend the rules to suit our individual needs and desires constitutes a “deeply distorted, infantile narcissism” in Spinoza’s estimation, says de Botton.
For Spinoza, a mature ethics instead consists in finding out how the universe works and accepting it, rather in the way of the Stoics or Nietzsche’s use of the Stoic idea of amor fati. It is within such acceptance, what Bloom calls Spinoza’s “icy sublimity,” that true enlightenment is found, according to Spinoza. Or as the de Botton video succinctly puts it: “The free person is the one who is conscious of the necessities that compel us all,” and who—instead of railing against them—finds creative ways to live within their limitations peacefully.
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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness
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