Baruch Spinoza

Baruch Spinoza was a man of many talents.

A lens-grinder by trade (he died of job-related lung disease at age 44), he was also a renowned ethicist and philosopher whose work influenced dozens of the intellectual giants of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, including Albert Einstein.  He is also considered the grandfather of modern biblical criticism and the inventor of the income tax.

I must confess that most of his philosophy speaks to me…not at all.  Nor was it understood by most of his contemporaries.  What was commonly known was that Spinoza, after careful study, had concluded that Moses had not, in truth, written the first five books of the bible.  For generations after his death, to call someone a Spinozist was, in the everyday lexicon, equivalent to calling him an atheist.

That may have become the typical understanding of his legacy, but his accomplishments were far wider than that.  By breaking with the idea that divine inspiration was the sole underlying source of all reliable truth, he was ushering in the Age of Reason.

Unfortunately, there was a rival claimant to having done that.  Not least of Spinoza’s claims to fame was engaging in an intellectual battle for precedence with Sir Isaac Newton…nearly fifty years after Spinoza’s death.

Newton saw Spinoza as a rival for the claim of being the godfather of the Age of Reason.  Despite his alchemy and obsession with an extremely convoluted theology, Newton saw himself not merely as a scientific empiricist, but the rationalist par excellence.  It was clearly an insupportable error that some gave that honor to Spinoza.

But it was not such a great display of Spinoza’s talent to have engaged in a feud with Newton, even a posthumous one.   Newton was famously jealous of his status and saw rivals all around him.  His constant feuds add a bit of comic relief to the sober beginnings of the Enlightenment.

At one time Newton discovered he needed a tool to calculate the way quantities varied with each other, rather than simply calculating the quantities themselves.  So he created a whole new system of mathematics using what he called fluxions.  Today, we call it Calculus.  Unfortunately, a bit earlier than Newton,  Gottfried Leibniz was facing and conquering this problem.  He, too developed a version of calculus.  Worse, it was simpler, more elegant, and used a tidier notation (which we still use today).

This was intolerable to Newton.  Since both men had developed their methods long before they published them, there was some legitimate room to question who had precedence.  However, from Newton’s point of view, there was obviously no real question.  Leibniz’s system was, a) inferior, b) incorrect, c) stolen, or d) all of the above.  Given Newton’s stature and the wealth of his real accomplishments, he won the debate.  It took generations before Leibniz received his due credit.

Equally intolerable to Newton was the existence of a more local genius: Robert Hooke.

Hooke, physically small and frail, was seven years Newton’s senior.  He had assisted Robert Boyle in his experiments and probably codified them into Boyle’s Law.  (Boyle was no mathematician.)  In the process he became a renowned physiologist and designer of experimental apparatus.  He published the first English book of microscopic observations, illustrating them himself.  He conducted experiments on light, gravity, pendulums, falling bodies, etc. A skilled architect, he was involved in the rebuilding of London after the Great Fire.  Along the way, he also designed the coil balance spring for watches.  In short, he was clearly one of the most brilliant polymaths of his age.

Newton considered that he alone was the most brilliant man of his age and expected everyone to acknowledge it.  It didn’t help that Hooke had at least as big an ego and was about as paranoid as Newton.  His work with pendulums and clocks led him into a long feud with Christian Huygens over who stole what from whom.  But in working on light and gravity, he was treading on Newton’s toes pretty directly.  Hooke claimed Newton stole his ideas and Newton returned the favor.  It went on for years.  But, just as with Leibniz, Newton’s prestige won out and it was years before Hooke was fairly appreciated.

But back to Spinoza.  It was not just for all of the above that I call him talented.  He accomplished something unimaginable.

He was lucky enough to be born into that center of European intellectual freedom, Amsterdam.  His family were Portuguese conversos who had fled to the Netherlands and reconverted back to Judaism.  In that atmosphere of freedom, the Jewish community flourished, and the Spinozas were a proud and active part.  And along came Baruch and the community had to adjust to a bona fide genius in their midst.

It takes genuine talent to found schools of ethics and philosophy.  It takes still more to be influential centuries after your death.  And arguably anybody who has a posthumous competition with the greatest genius of his time has no mean gifts.  But the true measure of his talent was what he caused to happen in the Jewish community of Amsterdam.

On July 27, 1656, Baruch Spinoza was excommunicated.

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