Benedict de Spinoza was the most prominent rationalist philosopher of the 17th century. He laid the groundwork for the Enlightenment Movement that happened in the 18th century. He was also instrumental to the growth of modern biblical criticism as well as the conceptions of the universe and self. He made substantial contributions to almost all the areas of philosophy. Benedict’s writings showed that he was influenced by Machiavelli, Descartes, Stoicism, Hobbes, Jewish Rationalism thinkers, Avicenna, and Aristotle. He is best remembered for his work Ethics which earned him a reputation as one of the most important thinkers in Western Philosophy. We shall briefly look at his historical account in this article:
Benedict was born in Jodenburt, Amsterdam on November 24, 1632. He was given the name Baruch by his Jewish parents who had migrated from Portugal to Amsterdam in order to escape the Inquisition. His father, Michael, was a successful merchant and well-respected in the community. His mother, Hanna, died when Benedict was almost 6years old.
Benedict began his education at the Talmud Torah School where he was taught liturgy, Torah, rabbinical commentaries, Hebrew, and prophetic writings. Even though he was a star pupil, Benedict never reached the advanced levels of his study. At 17years, he left school to work in his father’s importing business. It was during this time he came in contact with free-thinkers who studied developments in science and philosophy.
In 1663, Benedict began studying Latin with a former Jesuit named Francis van den Enden. His association with Francis introduced him to modern philosophy and scholasticism. In 1654, his father died when Benedict was 21 years old. However, he continued his studies with Francis and even adopted the Latin name Benedictus de Spinoza. Due to his friends’ influence, Benedict began to promote views that were at odds with the Jewish customs and laws. Things got to a head in 1656 when the leaders of his community accused him of abominable heresies and monstrous deeds. These elders issued a writ which pronounced curses on him and also excommunicated him from the society.
Even though he was now an outcast, Benedict still continued studying with Francis. Also, he abandoned his father’s business and took up lens grinding as an occupation. In 1661, he left Amsterdam and settled in the town of Rijinsburg. It was at Rijinsburg he began writing down his philosophy. His first work Treatise on the Emendation of the Intellect was an essay on how to create a philosophical method. He followed this with Short Treatise on God, Man and His Well-Being.
In 1663, he moved to Voorburg and settled into a quiet life. At the promptings of his friends, he started a work that analyzed Descartes’ Principles of Philosophy. The writing known as Rene Descartes’ Principles of Philosophy, Parts I and II, Demonstrated According to the Geometric Method became the only work published under his name. It was also at this time he would begin to work on his masterpiece Ethics.
In 1670, he moved to The Hague where he witnessed a political upheaval by reactionary forces. This event prompted him to write the Theological-Political Treatise which he published anonymously. This work was seen as scandalous and caused a great deal of alarm in the public. In 1677, Benedict died in The Hague.
Benedict de Spinoza was a man filled with controversial ideas. Even in death, he was still not free from controversy as his books were banned in Holland. He questioned the nature of the Divine and the authenticity of the Hebrew bible. His many accomplishments earned him the nickname “Prince of Philosophy.”
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