An Animated Introduction to Baruch Spinoza: The “Philosopher’s Philosopher”

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.

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

An Ani­mat­ed Intro­duc­tion to Voltaire: Enlight­en­ment Philoso­pher of Plu­ral­ism & Tol­er­ance

The Diderot Effect: Enlight­en­ment Philoso­pher Denis Diderot Explains the Psy­chol­o­gy of Con­sumerism & Our Waste­ful Spend­ing

How to Teach and Learn Phi­los­o­phy Dur­ing the Pan­dem­ic: A Col­lec­tion of 450+ Phi­los­o­phy Videos Free Online

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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