One hundred years ago, Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677) was a famous philosopher, oft-quoted, well-respected, and notorious for his relationship with the religious authorities of his time. It is unclear why he fell out of fashion. We may have seen Spinoza’s statue in Amsterdam, or heard his name mentioned by this or that French philosopher, but of Spinoza himself, we know nothing. This is unfortunate seeing as Spinoza is one of the most practical and relevant philosophers. There are all sorts of ways that we can apply his philosophy today (as you’ve guessed I’m planning a series of posts on this theme). Henri Bergson, writing in the early 20th century, saw Spinoza as a philosopher of intuition. The Italian political theorist Antonio Negri has argued that Spinoza is the key to understanding globalization and the postmodern age.
This post will not explore the work of these thinkers. I want to focus on Spinoza himself.
Spinoza was the son of a Portuguese merchant who had fled to Amsterdam with his family to escape the Catholic Inquisition. Spinoza senior couldn’t have picked a better place to have moved the family business. It was the height of the Dutch Golden Age and Amsterdam was the trading capital of the world. Amsterdam, moreover, was an excellent spot for Spinoza to begin a philosophical education. Through the seventeenth century, the liberal climate of Amsterdam drew a hoard of political and religious refugees from other parts of Europe, stimulating a lively intellectual culture. Strolling through Dam Square, Spinoza would have rubbed shoulders with French Huguenots, German Anabaptists, Spanish heretics, and Scottish freethinkers amidst the hustle and bustle of the markets and trade. Spinoza formed the principles of his philosophy long before he considered himself a philosopher, as a young man on the streets of Amsterdam.