The Renegade Jew who Gave us Modernity
By Rebecca N. Goldstein
Schocken Books, 2006, 287 pages
ISBN 10: 0805211594
ISBN 13: 978-0805211597
Reviewed by Israel Drazin - March 9, 2010
Rebecca Goldstein writes, with exaggeration, that Spinoza "produced one of the most ambitious philosophical systems in the history of Western philosophy." Her book is an excellent introduction to Spinoza even though it is not a scholarly evaluation, as it was never intended to be.
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, 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 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 precarious right to maintain a synagogue in Holland, but they lacked complete freedom and peace of mind. They felt that they must be very circumspect and not to offend the Christian government 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 believed in such things as God, a soul, faith, and the existence of helping angels, and since the Christians killed even fellow religionists who rejected these notions, the Jewish officials excommunicated several Jews who held contrary views to protect themselves from Christian outrage. 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:
1.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.
2. Everything is determined by nature, not by miracles, magic, prayers or incantations.
3. There are no defects in the laws of nature. God does not need to interfere in this world to change anything.
4. People are not the center of the universe.
5. 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. However, he may have meant that God is not involved in the affairs of this world since the world functions according to the perfect laws of nature.
6.Thinking is 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. In 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.
7.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.
8.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.
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, Spinoza may be right.