Skip to main content

Spinoza: The Heretic and Ex-Orthodox Jew

By Paul So ~

In one of the articles in Ex-Christian called the Trapped with Mennonites, I posted a comment about Spinoza, a 17th century philosopher to try to comfort the author. Surprisingly, I received a lot of likes (approximately 13) and some couple replies from people who express interest in Spinoza. In hindsight, this shouldn’t be surprising, because nowadays anyone who hears about Spinoza will either hate him or love him. People who are mostly non-religious, secular, and free-thinking will most likely like Spinoza. Spinoza’s importance in modernity cannot be overstated, he basically helped established the foundation of the Enlightenment (a.k.a. Age of Reason). Spinoza did this by arguing for secularism and civil liberties such as freedom of speech and freedom from religion. Furthermore, Spinoza argued that the bible is not the product of divine revelation, but created by primitive superstitious men with poor understanding of science. Spinoza’s metaphysical worldview was the precursor of the idea that we should understand the world without the lens of organized religions and supernatural beings, this helped fuel the idea that modern science should study Nature independently of superstition. However, Spinoza was not an ex-Christian, rather he was a Jew who was more or less an “Ex-Orthodox Jew” who use to share many similar beliefs with Christianity. While Jews during his time did not believe in the divinity of Jesus and the validity of the New Testament, they did believe in many things that today’s Christian still believe in: Soul, Afterlife, Angels, Demons, Prophecies, Miracles, Creationism, personal God, Divine Revelation, Scriptural Authority, etc. Spinoza rejected all of it and left his Jewish community. This brings up the question:
English: Cover of a publication of Baruch Spin...
English: Cover of a publication of Baruch Spinoza's work (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Why write about Spinoza if he isn’t an Ex-Christian? My answer to that question is that in some sense Spinoza has a lot in common with the Ex-Christians. He was born into a very religious community that believed in a lot of the same things that Christians believe in. However, when Spinoza begin to examine the belief system he was brought up with by reading the Torah and carefully examining the Jewish philosophy and theology, he found contradictions and philosophical problems that he found difficult to reconcile with. Spinoza explored furthermore only to find himself reading works of non-Jews such as Descartes, Hobbes, Machiavelli, Galileo, Copernicus, etc. This led him to further doubt his belief-system, eventually he left it for good. His story runs parallel with many Ex-Christians, but he also has very interesting views about the world that I think is worth sharing with the Ex-Christian community. I will first begin with a short biography of Spinoza and then explain his metaphysical view of world. I only request that my readers try to read carefully and patiently, because Spinoza’s metaphysical view is difficult to grasp.

Spinoza was a Dutch-Jewish philosopher from the 17th century; he was a heretical Jew who was excommunicated from his Jewish community in Amsterdam. While scholars are not sure about the exact reasons for his excommunication, the general idea is that Spinoza was excommunicated for his heresy. Spinoza’s excommunication was unlike the excommunication of other Jews. Most Jewish excommunications are rare and temporary, since they are conditioned on whether or not the excommunicated wants to return to his community to repent for his heresy. However, Spinoza’s excommunication was permanent; he cannot return to his community even if he wanted to. Prior to his excommunication, Spinoza was given 30 days to repent for his heresy, but he refused to do so. It is said that Spinoza was even bribed to repent, but he refused the offer. This leaves scholars curious as to what makes Spinoza so different from other excommunicated Jews. There is one thing that all scholars of Spinoza will agree on, which is that Spinoza’s heresy is related to the fact that he rejected all the traditional beliefs of Judaism: Spinoza rejected the existence of Soul, Angels, Demons, Miracles, Divine Creationism, the possibility of Afterlife, Divine Revelation, validity of Prophecy, Biblical literalism, Tradition, Scriptural authority, and last but not least the existence of a personal God. What lead to this rejection? Scholars can only infer from what they know that Spinoza carefully examined the Torah, Jewish Philosophy, and eventually non-Jewish sources, which lead him to find contradictions in the bible and philosophical problems with the medieval notion of God. His exposure to Galileo (which is very likely) and Descartes made him question the philosophical view accepted by top-notch Jewish Rabbis at the time. However, Spinoza tried to hide his doubt since revealing it would only cause pain to his father (his mother died when he was very young). He decided to wait for the right moment. Conveniently, though unfortunately, Spinoza’s father died. This gave Spinoza the opportunity to gradually reveal his doubt, but Spinoza still tried to keep it low profile until some of his so-called friends found out about his heretical views. After his excommunications, Spinoza entered into the non-Jewish secular, yet religious, society where he made contributions that made him famous and infamous. He published couple books, two which made him infamous.

Initially, Spinoza demonstrated his high aptitude, intelligence, and knowledge in Descartes’ philosophy which impressed his non-Jewish peers. They asked him to publish a book on Descartes’ philosophy, which Spinoza did. Spinoza published the book “Principle of Cartesian [or Descates’] Philosophy” which attempts to display Descartes’ philosophy in the geometrical form; Spinoza used the geometrical method to expound in Descartes’ philosophy, which means he used axioms, propositions, corollary, conclusions, and such to elaborate on it. This made Spinoza very popular among the well-educated peers. However, later on Spinoza’s published a very controversial book Theologico-Political Treatise which reveals that he does not believe that the bible is the byproduct of divine revelation; because it is full of contradictions and superstition, the primitive writers of the bible simply demonstrate poor understanding of science. Spinoza argued that the bible should not be read as the byproduct of divine revelation, but rather should be read as a human literature from a historical perspective. Spinoza even went as far to say that the scientific methods that help us to understand Nature should be the same methods to help us understand the bible as a byproduct of humankind; the bible, like anything else, has the natural explanation. This was controversial, because virtually every theologians and biblical scholars at the time believe that since the Bible is divinely revealed (or inspired) it must be an exception to the scientific methods. Spinoza simply showed that it is not the exception, but part of the rule. Spinoza also argued that we should live in a secular society in which religion does not control our lives; instead we need the state to deal with the public life by protecting our civil liberties such as the freedom of speech. This made Spinoza one of the earliest advocates of Secularism; some scholars such as Jonathan Israel would go as far to say that he is the one of the founders of secularism. Despite publishing his book while trying to preserve his anonymity (he did not use his real name), people eventually found out who really wrote it. His book caused a lot of controversy and backlash; it was banned from almost every corner of Western Europe. It drew a lot of attention and criticism from theologians, philosophers, clergymen, and politicians. At one point, some people demand that Spinoza should be put to death. However, in the long run, Spinoza was referred as the father of modern biblical scholarship. Spinoza’s second book called The Ethics was only published posthumously, by his friends, because Spinoza did not want to publish it given what happened with his previous controversial publication; he thought that publishing it would mean drawing the last straw to his death, so he decides to keep it hidden until after his death. It is his book The Ethics that made Spinoza extremely controversial to the point that he was demonized in virtually every corner of Western Europe. The name “Spinoza” became synonymous with the devil, atheism, and heresy. It is his book “The Ethics” which elaborated on his metaphysical worldview which I will explain later on.

Spinoza also became a famous lens grinder, since the lens Spinoza crafted became very popular among famous scientists such as Christian Huygens, who praised Spinoza’s lens for its exquisite precision. Many famous astronomers and biologists during the 17th century would use Spinoza’s lens for telescope and microscopes. Unfortunately, Spinoza died because of his lens grinding career, it turned out that he inherited tuberculosis, which was exacerbated by breathing in the dust of glass from his work. In his deathbed, Spinoza did not confess his sins to be saved; on the contrary he simply died in peace. While people tried to spread rumor that he did confess his sins to the priest to be saved, Spinoza’s doctor adamantly insist that he never did it. Spinoza died without turning back.

While many people at the time thought Spinoza would be the stereotypical godless hedonistic atheist who commits crimes, Spinoza was actually a kind and gentle soul; his only act of cruelty was apparently the pleasure in seeing spiders fight each other to the death. It turns out that Spinoza was rather a very gentle, calm, and gregarious person who is rarely seen to be angry out of passion. Spinoza was also considered to be benevolent; there is a story when Spinoza was being sued by his half-sister so she could acquire all his inheritance from his dead father. Spinoza took the legal case to the secular court, rather than the religious Jewish courts, to settle the matter. This gave Spinoza the advantage to win the case, which he did. However, even though Spinoza won the case against his half-sister who tried to sue him, he gave most of the inheritance to her anyways since she needed them. Spinoza only kept what he needed. This is only an indication of both Spinoza’s personality and his commitment to living for his philosophy. At some point after his death, his critics admit that despite the fact that they disagree with his philosophy, he is probably one of the rare individuals who proved to them that one can live a saintly secular life without God.

Spinoza, however, was more than just the lens grinder, the father of modern biblical scholarship, and the secular saint. He was a philosopher who believed in God, but his God was not a personal God. It is the kind of God that Albert Einstein believed in, since it just happens to be the case that Einstein’s view of God was inspired by Spinoza’s metaphysics. You might guess that Spinoza was a deist, but even he didn’t believe in a deistic God, since for Spinoza God and Nature are not two separate realities, instead both God and Nature refer to the same reality which Spinoza called “Substance” (It is appropriate to think God and Nature are synonymous). Spinoza believed in the God which he also referred to as “Substance”, which in philosophy means “something that can exist (and continue to exist) independently without depending on something else”. However, unlike most philosophers such as Descartes who believe in God as one among many substances, Spinoza believed that there is only one substance which he calls “Deus Sive Natura” or “God or Nature”. To understand this idea of God better, Spinoza does not believe in an anthropomorphic deity who is a cosmic sky father or a supernatural being that is like a human being except with supernatural powers. Spinoza does not believe in the personal God that has feelings, plans, judgments, intentions, purpose, love, and such. He thought such idea of God only misunderstand what God really is. For Spinoza, God is Nature, but for him there are two important distinctions: Natura Naturans and Natura Naturata. Natura Naturans is Latin for “Nature Nurturing”, whereas Natura Naturata is Latin for “Nature Nurtured”. The former is active in so far as Nature nurtures something; the latter is passive, in so far as something is being nurtured by Nature. For Spinoza, God is Nature in so far as it is “Natura Naturans”, whereas the universe is “Natura Naturata”. What this means is that God as Nature is the reality which self-generates the universe; it is the eternal principle that generates and organizes the fabric of the universe, so in this sense God as Nature “nurtures” the universe. So “Natura Naturata” depends on “Nature Naturans”. Later on I will explain what this means, but for now I will try to explain Spinoza’s metaphysics of God or Nature.

While Descartes believed that the body and the soul exist as two separate Substances, Spinoza believed that the body and the soul are not two separate Substances since there is only one Substance which is God; there is only one being that does not depend on anything to exist. However, this Substance has infinity of attributes that constitutes its essence. Among these attributes, there are two known attributes: Thought and Extension (extension is another word for physicality). These two attributes, like all other attributes, are simply two different aspect of one same reality, which makes them identical to each other. However, it doesn’t stop there: Thought and Extension give rise to the modes of Thought and Extension respectively. Modes, unlike Substance, always depend on something else to exist. Modes are contingent properties or features of Substance, similar to the fact that wrinkles are features of the skin or waves are feature of the ocean. In Spinoza’s metaphysical system, there are three kinds of modes: immediate infinite modes, mediate infinite modes, and finite modes. The immediate infinite subsumes the mediate infinite mode, and the mediate infinite mode subsumes the finite mode. These modes make up “Natura Naturata” which follows from the essence or attributes of God as “Natura Naturans”.

Immediate infinite modes are kind of like the laws of Nature, but more specifically they are the intelligible order of Nature, the intelligible order of extension and the intelligible order of thought. These intelligible orders are simply like an eternal template of what the universe should look like; they overlay the patterns and rules that the universe should follow. They are called immediate because they follow immediately from the nature of God. The mediate infinite mode is the whole composite universe which exhibits and follows the intelligible order of Nature in both thought and extension. The mediate infinite mode also follows from the nature of God, but only through the immediate infinite mode. Thus, the mediate infinite mode is essentially the universe being governed by the immediate infinite mode which is basically like the laws of Nature. Both of these, however, are not deliberately created by God; they are only a direct manifestation of the nature of God, specifically God’s attributes. Such direct manifestations are simply appearance of the ultimate reality.

The finite modes are individual finite things like you, me, laptop, birds, sun, earth, clouds, mountains etc; these are the same modes that make up the whole universe as the mediate infinite mode. With human beings in particular, our “body” and “mind” are only modes of “extension” and “thought” respectively, but they are aspects of one same reality; my body and mind are actually the same, since they are only aspects of one same reality which is God (or Nature). Our existence, like all other finite modes, is simply manifestation of God (or Nature) and its attributes. For example, the book next to me is the finite manifestation of God’s attribute of Extension and the very thought I am having right now is the finite manifestation of God’s attribute of Thought. These modes do not exist separately from God (or Nature), they are individual manifestations of the one unified and infinite reality. These finite modes make up the whole composite universe (mediate infinite mode), so they also follow the intelligible order of Nature (immediate infinite mode). They follow the intelligible order of Nature by being causally connected or interdependent to one another. All finite things in the universe are connected to each other due to the intelligible order of nature that preconceives the universe to be a holistic interdependent whole. All of these modes from the immediate infinite mode to the finite mode are merely manifestations, reflection, or appearances of the nature of God, namely God’s attributes Thought and Extension. These modes cannot exist without God, they are immanent in God. These modes are not “outside” of God the same way our universe is external to the divine creator of Judea-Christian tradition. On the contrary, these modes are within God. In other words, Spinoza believes that God and Universe are not separate from each other; the universe (which consists in the immediate infinite mode, mediate infinite mode, and the finite modes) is simply the manifestation of what God essentially is. The reason why Spinoza believes this is because for Spinoza there is only one Substance, there can be no separate reality external to this Substance. Furthermore, Spinoza believes that this one Substance is infinite in so far as it has infinity of attributes. All of those attributes are simply myriad aspects of eternal nature of Existence, which encompasses everything without missing out on something. Thus, nothing can exist beyond God or Nature (Deus Sive Natura). Since Nature or God is infinite, everything must inevitably be within God. Overall, both the finite modes and mediate infinite modes follow the intelligible order of Nature of Thought and Extension, but these modes in turn manifest the nature of God. This manifestation means that they are essentially an intelligible and orderly appearance of a reality that is also intelligible and orderly.
As you can see, Spinoza’s God is pretty abstract and impersonal. God is Nature in so far as it is the “Natura Naturans” which is the organizing and eternal principle that embodies “Natura Naturata”. For Spinoza, God is not a cosmic sky father who is the source of emotional comfort, but rather God is simply source of unity, intelligibility, structure, order, and individuality of all things; God manifests itself as the unified, intelligible, structured, and orderly universe. Instead of being the source of emotional comfort, Spinoza’s God is the source of awe and wonder which he calls “Intellectual Love of God”. The “intellectual love of God” is simply the awe and wonder of the sublimity of Nature; it is the kind of awe and wonder that cultivates from understanding Nature. For Spinoza, there is no worship or prayer, only understanding Nature. However, unlike the Judea-Christian God, Spinoza’s God does not reciprocate or respond at all; it is not a person, but simply the very basic set of eternal truths that manifests itself as Nature. It is the underlying structure or substratum of all existence, without self-conscious emotions, plans, judgment, or intentions. This means that there is no cosmic “purpose” in this world the same way there is a divine plan in Judea-Christian tradition. There is only reality that simply follows from the nature of God, it is simply a consequence of what God is rather than what God intends.

However, such “Intellectual Love of God”, for Spinoza, is only possible when the person tries to have a more detached and objective third-person point of view. When the person tries to look at things from the outside, the person is getting close to what Spinoza calls Sub Specie Aeternitatis, which is the Latin for “Perspective from Eternity”. This is simply the fancy word for looking at thing with the “big picture” mentality. When someone tries to understand reality from reality’s “point of view”, that person realizes how he (or she) fits into the big picture of the cosmos. The irony is that Spinoza does not believe in free-will as popularly understood by religious believers; since Spinoza does not believe in the soul and believes that every finite mode is causally interdependent due to the intelligible order of Nature, he believes that virtually any human action has a cause. Human actions are usually caused by human emotions, and those emotions are simply reactions to external circumstances. This made Spinoza a determinist, but he did not reject human freedom completely which is a very important point to make. Spinoza believes that human beings can learn to control their emotions by simply understanding them. He did not call for suppressing or repressing human emotions, but simply understanding the cause of those emotions. For Spinoza, there are two kinds of emotions: passive emotions and active emotions. Passive emotions are reactions to external circumstances; it’s what simply happens to us when external circumstances cause us to react to it in a certain way. For example, if I see a Lion in front of me, my emotional reaction would be fear. The existence of the Lion in front of me, including my perception of it, causes me to be in the emotional state of fear. This makes me into a passive being. However, on the other hand, an active emotion derives not from external circumstances, but rather it derives from the power of understanding. This power of understanding is our natural capacity, by exercising this natural capacity we exercise the power that gives rise to joy, which empowers us to live well. The difference is that with the active emotions it follows from exercising our natural capacity to understand ourselves and Nature, whereas with passive emotions it follows from external circumstances having power over us. Spinoza believes that living a good life in this world is trying to optimize our active emotions as much as possible by understanding ourselves better from the perspective of Eternity. Since we are finite modes which are manifestations of God or Nature, to understand ourselves better in order to increase our sense of joy and wonder is to understand reality better. For Spinoza, there is no distinction between self-knowledge and the knowledge of reality, for self-knowledge is the road to understanding God by the intellectual love of God. It is also the road to a kind of spiritual liberation which can liberate people from what Spinoza’s called “Human bondage” or the “bondage of passions”. To avoid confusion, Spinoza is not saying that emotions are bad; rather he is saying that the passive emotions such as fear, anger, hatred, envy, and greed are usually the negative emotions that often make us suffer. Self-knowledge or the intellectual love of God liberates people from the passive emotions by increasing active emotions to the point that it reaches pure tranquility from understanding one’s place in reality.

This is a very elaborate metaphysical picture of the world, but notice how Spinoza never conjures up supernatural causes such as angels, demons, witches, or the anthropomorphic deity. Spinoza rejects miracles; he believes that everything in Nature has a cause that is explained by the intelligible order of Nature (i.e. laws of Nature). The intelligible order of Nature itself immediately follows from the nature of God as the direct manifestation, but God does not deliberately create laws of Nature like the programmer deliberately creates algorithms or software programs. This view of reality was so radical during Spinoza’s time, because Spinoza basically rejected the existence of a personal God who intervenes on natural and human affairs. Furthermore, Spinoza rejected the idea of the afterlife in which our personality continues to persist after our bodily death. Instead, Spinoza believes that the part of us that understands reality will always be part of reality even after our death, but this part of us is not a conscious being with a personality and ego, it would be sort of like information or data that derives from understanding reality. However, at the same time, it is a very beautiful and awe-inspiring metaphysical system, because essentially it is saying that divinity is not beyond us but it is here and now where we find divine happiness.

Spinoza’s metaphysics made him not only an original thinker, but also a philosopher who was way ahead of his time. Spinoza believes that there are set of truths and intelligible order of Nature that governs how Nature works, which is something that most people have not thought of. Spinoza conceived of the unifying theory of everything that explains how everything hangs together in the big picture without resorting to supernatural explanations. His project was to conceive Nature as an intelligible coherent system of interconnected reality without supernatural causes, completely and exhaustively understood in Nature’s terms rather than that of some cosmic sky father. To some extent, Spinoza’s conception of reality lives on to this day in the incarnation of String Theory. Some String Theorists, according to Rebecca Goldstein, told Goldstein that they also consider themselves Spinozists, because like Spinoza they are trying to find the single theory that explains everything. Even before String Theory, Einstein was deeply inspired by Spinoza’s view of reality, he once said:

“It seems to me that the idea of a personal God is an anthropomorphic concept which I cannot take seriously. I feel also not able to imagine some will or goal outside the human sphere. My views are near to those of Spinoza: admiration for the beauty of and belief in the logical simplicity of the order and harmony which we can grasp humbly and only imperfectly. I believe that we have to content ourselves with our imperfect knowledge and understanding and treat values and moral obligations as a purely human problem — the most important of all human problems.”

Einstein was not entirely a Spinozist, but his picture of reality was deeply inspired by Spinoza. While Spinoza’s metaphysics might be somewhat obsolete by today’s standard, it was quite ahead of its time. What I find most appealing about Spinoza is his uncompromising attempt to understand reality in the most sublime, elegant, and awe-inspiring manner without supernatural beliefs of organized religions. I think I share Einstein’s view of God, except I do not want to call it “God”. I think the term “Nature” suffices. To be sure, we can’t know for sure whether Spinoza’s metaphysics is true. It is probably false given the rise of quantum mechanics which shows that Spinoza’s determinism may not be true. Nonetheless, the very spirit of Spinoza’s metaphysics lives on as the relentless attempt to understand reality without supernaturalism and superstition.