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Spinoza: Cursed be he by day; and cursed be he by night

Three hundred and fifty years ago, Spinoza was excommunicated. This affords Peter Cave the excuse to remind us of this most tolerant philosopher – of his life, metaphysics and humanity.

Spinoza’s name does not trip off the lips of many people, and those from whose lips it trips typically know only that he was a pantheist, identifying God with Nature. His life, character and thinking were interwoven; so, let us pick and mix Spinozist episodes, tales and arguments to give a flavour of his philosophy.


Baruch, Bento, Benedict and Benedictus – which is Spinoza? All of them. The names mean ‘blessed person’. And his friends – and many readers later, from Goethe to Einstein – revered him for his integrity and devotion to an intelligible universe. Blessed person indeed!

Spinoza was born on 24th November 1632, in Amsterdam. Our Spinoza was given the Jewish name, ‘Baruch’; but was called at home by the Portuguese ‘Bento’. His father, Michael, and his mother, Hanna, were Jewish immigrants from Portugal. Portuguese was their – and Bento’s – mother tongue. Hanna was Michael’s second wife, his first having died in 1627. A third wife came along, soon after Hanna’s death in 1638. On excommunication, young Bento took the names’ latinizations, namely ‘Benedict’ or ‘Benedictus’.

His surname, from the Spanish for ‘thorny’, received transformations: ‘de Espinosa’; ‘Despinoza’; ‘Spinoza’. A religious critic wrote that “Spinoza’s espinos (thorns), in impiety’s field, aim to shine with a fire that consumes them”.


On the 27th July 1656, at the age of twenty-three, Spinoza suffered the odd curse or two, or three, courtesy of his Amsterdam synagogue, Talmud Torah:

“Cursed be he by day and cursed be he by night; cursed be he when he lies down and cursed be he when he rises up. Cursed be he when he goes out and cursed be he when he comes in... The Lord will not spare him, but then the anger of the Lord and his jealousy shall smoke against that man, and all the curses that are written in this book shall lie upon him, and the Lord shall blot out his name from under heaven. And the Lord shall separate him unto evil out of all the tribes of Israel, according to all the curses of the covenant that are written in this book of the law.”

And, we might add, cursed be he when he eats hard-boiled eggs, but also when softly boiled or scrambled. Maybe even, cursed be he when he’s being cursed, and cursed be he when not?

This last question brings to mind a Godly paradox. An omnipotent God can do anything; so he can make immovable posts. Hold on, he can do anything, so he can move such posts – therefore, he cannot make immovable posts. But hold on, he can do anything… Spinoza’s God generates no such puzzles of omnipotence: Spinoza’s God is no superhuman.


The curses formed part of the excommunication, the cherem or expulsion of the Blessed Spinoza from the Amsterdam Jewish community. Others were excommunicated, but with considerably less vehemence. The Senhores of the ma’amad (the synagogue’s governing board) cited the horrible heresies that Spinoza practiced and taught – but what were they?

Spinoza had published no works by then; but from his teenage years, he questioned the authority of Jewish thinkers and Scriptures. He started his own investigations, attending van den Enden’s free-thinking school, where he learnt Latin, and Descartes’ new science, and philosophy (and, later, taught and presented Cartesianism in geometrical order). In Portugal, his parents had been marranos, that is Jews who for safety’s sake, were forced publicly to declare themselves Christians. Perhaps this background, together with Dutch merchants’ chatter, stimulated Spinoza’s enquiring mind; but that in itself merited no curses.

The evidence is that by his youthful twenties, Spinoza was treating God as material, a personal afterlife as mythical, and the Jewish Law false. Clearly his treatment of theology did not go down well with the rabbis. Christians also disapproved.


“After experience had taught me that all the things which regularly occur in ordinary life are empty and futile, and I saw that all the things which were the cause or object of my fears had nothing of good or bad in themselves, except insofar as the mind was moved by them, I resolved at last to try to find out whether there was something which… would continuously give me the greatest pleasure.”

Thus opens the unfinished Emendation of the Intellect. Spinoza started afresh, in the early 1660’s with his masterpiece the Ethics, the work questing similarly as the Emendation, yet brimming with metaphysics. The title of the Ethics continues, demonstrated in geometric order, announcing that the work covered God, mind, emotions, human bondage, and freedom.

Spinoza is serious about the geometric order: the Ethics consists, in Euclidean manner, of definitions, axioms, propositions for proving, proofs and QEDs. Happily, there are also passages of elegant prose.

The enterprise is stunning. It is trying to establish a comprehensive, unified science. Spinoza offers an understanding of the universe; from this comes an understanding of man (being part of the universe), an explanation of man’s servitude and unhappiness, and the route to freedom and happiness. Man is no kingdom within a kingdom, as if separate from and disturbing nature’s laws.


Spinoza thinks he proves God’s existence (four times over). Novalis labelled him “God-intoxicated” – yet Marxists applauded his materialism. Some philosophers claim him idealist, but Soviet philosophers embraced his alleged atheism. Readers beware: controversies continue: Spinozist terms have eccentric meanings. Some of the following assessments demand caveats of ‘it seems’.

Spinoza’s God is neither the Jewish God of Abraham, nor the Christian God identified with Christ, nor, for that matter, Allah. His God has no jealousies, rewards or concerns. Spinoza speaks of Deus sive Natura: God or Nature. With the stress on ‘God’ he identifies the active generative aspect of Nature; with stress on ‘Nature’, the things thus generated. Talk of God’s purposes, intentions or decisions is engagement with fairies.

‘Substance’ is key here. To Spinoza it means ‘that which depends on nothing else, and which can be grasped without anything else’. This rules out pigeons, pebbles and people as substances – and indeed for Spinoza, even rules out the universe as a substance distinct from God. Thus the arguments of Descartes and many others are rejected. There is, Spinoza argues, but one substance – God or Nature. Thus Creator and created are identified. Seeming individual things – ducks, stilettos, ourselves – are akin to waves on the ocean, being modifications of the one ultimate substance.

This one substance has two known attributes, extension and thought; that is, the physical and psychological. It arguably also has an infinite number of unknown attributes. A person’s mind and body are the same ‘mode’ [‘thing’] expressed under the two known attributes – metaphorically, akin to a lens being convex and concave, but from different perspectives. Technically speaking, the mind is the idea of the body. The modification that is my thinking a pigeon is present, just is my body’s state caused by aforesaid pigeon. They are one and the same, expressed under different attributes.

No sharp distinction exists between people, animals and the seeming inanimate. All these modes have both extended and thought manifestations – though to very, very different degrees.


Courtesy of his excommunication, no Jew was permitted to communicate with Spinoza or accord him favours; none should stay with him or be within four cubits [two metres] of his vicinity.

This was not good for the family business. (It probably imported dried fruit.) Since his father’s death, Spinoza, somewhat reluctantly, had been running the business. Reports exist of his being punched, payments failing to be collected, his hat being damaged.

Excommunication had enormous significance – and, a couple of years before Spinoza’s excommunication, Spinoza’s father and stepmother had died. Thus, much changed in his life; yet the excommunication, he commented, did not force him to do anything that he would not have done of his own accord, but for the scandal. Apparently, he refused financial bribes to keep quiet his views and return to the synagogue.

Spinoza became a lens grinder and polisher, settled in a village, attended Leiden University’s lectures, moved to Voorburg, and then to The Hague. He renounced most of his inheritance, avoiding the burdens of possessions. He was thought of as ascetic, except for some pipe smoking and wine. Occasionally, as diversion, he cast flies into the cobwebs of competing spiders, laughing at the ensuing battles. “Nothing human is alien to me,” he once said.

Needing freedom of speech, he declined a professorship with strings attached. Seemingly, his life was solitary; yet as his thinking became more widely known, he met visiting scientists and philosophers. His excommunication had led to greater opportunities for thought and joy than life in the dried fruit trade.


“The nicest hand looks terrible, when viewed through a microscope,” noted Spinoza, who skillfully built both microscopes and telescopes. Leibniz, Huygens and others spoke of his marvellous instruments. Spinoza dealt in optical theory as well as technology, conducting empirical observations at both the micro and cosmic level, corresponding with, for example, Boyle and Oldenburg of London’s Royal Society concerning chemical analyses and astronomical observations. On his death, his small library was found to consist largely of mathematical and scientific works.

Spinoza aspired to place empirical results within mathematical structures of definitions, axioms and proofs, arguing that there must be causes and explanations for everything, and that causal relations are relations of logical necessity. He ridiculed explanations in terms of design and purpose, such as Boyle’s suggestion that fish were ‘swimmingly designed’. He rejected putative causal explanations that ended with refuge in God’s will – that was the sanctuary of ignorance.


In the late 1660’s, Spinoza wrote the Theological-Political Treatise (published 1670). It aimed in part to show the importance of freedom of expression for scientific practice, social stability and happiness – an aim akin to John Stuart Mill’s, two hundred years later. Understanding nature for Spinoza is understanding God. Although Mill would have rejected that language, he supported the intellectual quest behind it.

The Dutch Republic had been very tolerant under the liberal Jan de Witt (a political friend), with Spinoza writing of “this most flourishing republic where excellent people of all nations and sects live together with high unanimity.” Such, though, was already sounding optimistic, since around then, Koerbagh, who published Spinoza’s thinking, was sentenced to several years in a house of severe correction. Things grew even more precarious concerning toleration with the invasion by French and German armies, and de Witt’s barbaric murder.


Thus the Treatise was described, the book that Spinoza hoped would show his views as non-atheistic. Mind you, it was a commercial success, running to many editions.

With God being impersonal, the Scriptures could contain no Godly words – for an impersonal God lacks words. To think otherwise risked worshipping images – namely, paper and ink. To conceive God as issuing commands, answering prayers, permitting miracles, is to be swayed by superstition. The Bible is but an historical compilation that could not possibly be written by those it claims. We might rightly admire some moral messages – and Spinoza pays tribute to Jesus Christ – but there is no reason to think the Bible contains philosophical truths. Understanding Scripture is to understand man-made historical documents. Biblical investigations should proceed on scientific grounds: a controversial doctrine at that time.


“A man of good sense would prefer to break the ground with his teeth and nails than to cultivate as shocking and absurd a philosophy.” Thus wrote Pierre Bayle of Spinoza’s claim that there is only one substance, God. In Spinoza’s system, continued Bayle, those who say “The Germans have killed ten thousand Turks” speak falsely, unless meaning “God modified into Germans has killed God modified into ten thousand Turks”. Spinoza therefore has God hating himself, asking favours of himself, and so forth.

Spinoza’s claim that individual items are modifications of one substance generates difficulties, but, re-using the wave analogy, waves just are the ocean being thus and so over here, and they might well cause the ocean’s being different over there.


Could there be both a material substance, and a totally distinct and independent mental ‘thinking’ substance? Spinoza conceives of a substance with an infinite number of attributes – God. And so, since God would have the attribute of thought, any mental substance could not be something independent of God. Nor indeed could material substance be – for God also has that attribute, having an infinite number of attributes.

A fallacy occurs here, for ‘infinite’ does not amount to ‘all’. The series of even numbers is infinite in extent, but does not include all numbers. To get Spinoza out of that scrape, his God must possess all attributes.


It is reported that Spinoza fell in love with Clara Maria, his frail but clever, witty Latin tutor (in fact, van den Enden’s teenage daughter), and aimed to marry her. But Clara was successfully wooed by another. No further romance is mentioned. Thence, Spinoza’s recipe for happy living is to avoid distractions of wealth, honour and sensual pleasure. At least after the latter, repentance comes naturally, he comments.

Some attack Spinoza for considering women inferior, drawing attention to comments about unmanly compassion, womanish tears and superstition; but Spinoza thinks all mankind driven by superstition. He mentions women’s inconstancy and deceptiveness, but these are judged by men who are badly received by lovers. Of course, given the sexes’ biological differences, there should be psychological differences, mind and body being one. Good reasoning, though, brings out what is common to humanity – presumably, to man and woman both.

Spinoza notes that women and men have never satisfactorily ruled together, judging that men love women from lust, esteeming their wisdom proportionate to their beauty. Spinoza leaves women politically disadvantaged, given their lack of economic independence. He sounds uneasy, and, at the unfinished end of his Political Treatise, he adds, “But of this enough”.


Spinoza, the moralist, is naturalist. Understanding Nature guides us in how best to survive and be happy and free. In Spinoza’s completely deterministic universe, nothing could have been otherwise: but playing a re-defining hand, Spinoza tells us that freedom is rather, acting from our natures, not from external constraints. Even so, we remain in bondage, dominated by passions, “agitated by contrary winds like waves of the sea” (Spinoza in pessimistic voice).

Reason provides escape. Understanding the inevitability of external pressures upon us liberates us from them. Winthrop’s grasping the causes of Winifred’s slap, walk-out, and other cavortings and consequent pains, anger and jealousy, helps to reduce the force of these consequences. Bewildered though, we may question how and whether escape occurs here; how Spinoza justifies our concern for our future; and moreover, how people relate, if they are completely determined.

Ultimately, the intellectual love of God [ie towards not from] saves us from the passions. In Spinoza’s definition, love is joy accompanied by the idea of the joy’s external cause. Adequate knowledge involves grasping how ideas of objects derive from Nature, that is, God. Such understanding is joyful because the mind is then active. True knowledge is love not passion.


A century after Spinoza’s death, Bishop Berkeley identifies Spinoza as the infidels’ great leader. On different grounds, Hume (himself atheistically inclined) attacks Spinoza, for his hideous hypothesis of substance. Later, George Eliot translated the Ethics, reading it as scientific rationalism; yet Romantic poetsWordsworth, Coleridge, Byron and Shelley were mystically inspired by the unity of man and nature it proclaims.

Spinoza told of a worm in the blood that, from its perspective, considered the blood as the whole, not as mere part of a greater. True understanding is of the whole under the aspect of eternity (sub specie aeternitatis). As Shelley wrote in Adonias:

The One remains, the many change and pass;
Heaven’s light forever shines, Earth’s shadows fly;
Life, like a dome of many-colour’d glass,
Stains the white radiance of Eternity…

Such inspiring eternity, in the 1950s, led Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben Gurion, to lobby for the removal of the curses against Spinoza: pointlessly, for on Spinoza’s death, his ultimate exclusion was realized.


On Spinoza’s death, his Ethics mysteriously was offered for sale to Leibniz, eager to snap it up; but the sale was thwarted.

Leibniz had spent a few days in The Hague, in 1676, meeting Spinoza many times and at great length, and even presenting a proof of God’s existence. How did the conversations between the quick-witted, worldly, power-loving diplomat, published widely, arguably the greatest intellect of his day; and the unworldly, tranquil, thoughtful, very private Spinoza, go?

Leibniz distanced himself from Spinoza, claiming that they had met merely for a few hours, almost by accident, and calling Spinoza’s proofs pitiful. Leibniz could not handle Spinoza’s commitment to everything possible being not only actual but necessary. He pulled back from that precipice by insisting that there are things that could have existed but do not; that God chose, between possible worlds, the best possible to actualize. But for Spinoza this was contradictory, suggesting that God could lack something.


Spinoza admired Machiavelli. Like Machiavelli, he criticized utopian theorists. “They conceive men not as they are, but as they wish them to be.” Surprisingly, he probably had Hobbes in mind here, and not just obvious targets such as Plato. Even Hobbes, who concentrates on man’s self-interested motivation, assumes people willing to transfer their natural rights to a sovereign, and to stand by that commitment. More hard-headed, Spinoza believed promises are kept only if some utility is secured. To maintain power, leaders must consult the common good, permit freedom of expression, and institute democracy, thereby ensuring that the mad impulses of minorities are diluted. Hobbesian man values glory and possessions, bringing him into conflict with others; For Spinoza, man’s true well-being is non-competitive, residing in adequate understanding, and the resultant tranquillity.


Van den Enden, Spinoza’s teacher, is sometimes blamed for Spinozism. Who knows who influenced whom more? Like Spinoza, van den Enden argued for freedom of speech, democracy, and some civil, political and legal equality. He was also a determinist and won the accolade of ‘atheist’. Unlike Spinoza, his career additionally involved that of loving women.

Van den Enden came to a sticky end. Having been found guilty, in Paris, of plotting against the French crown, in 1674 he was hanged.


A free man thinks of nothing less than he does of death; his wisdom is a meditation on life. Yet Spinoza thinks a little about death. His double aspect theory, whereby mind and body are one and the same under different attributes, quickly rules out afterlives, once bodies are destroyed. Yet Spinoza mysteriously writes of things which pertain to mind’s duration without body: something of the mind remains that is eternal. But what this is cannot be personal survival for Spinoza. In as far as we grasp the deductive order of the necessary truths, not from temporal perspectives, but under the aspect of timeless eternity, sub specie aeternitatis – and this is what reason gives us – thus far we identify ourselves with that eternal order. This secures eternity for us – the cost, it seems, being the loss of ‘us’. This is not the afterlife in any traditional sense.


Spinoza strove to understand nature and man without recourse to the supernatural; he sought the laws of physics and psychology, and indeed, of political science. He wanted to know how best we should live; again without supernatural appealings, but by understanding how to adapt ourselves to our environment. ‘Good’ needs to be grasped in terms of what is valuable to mankind, not through Godly commands.

Superstition had disrupted his life – and the world – through religious wars, persecution and intolerance; through mistaken hopes, and fears of divine judgement. In contrast, the happy life requires liberty and freedom of thought. True, Spinoza spoke of God; but talk of God as having characteristics akin to man’s is to him as misleading as thinking that the heavenly constellation known as ‘the dog’ barks.


Spinoza died on 23rd February 1677, of consumption, doubtless aggravated by years of lens dust. He was buried in the New Church on the Spuy. Braving condemnations from the orthodox religious, high ranking free-thinkers attended the funeral, paying their respects to Spinoza and his intellectual journey.

Spinoza left no will, but he did leave instructions that his writing desk, with papers within, be sent to Rieuwertzen, an Amsterdam publisher. Despite attempts to thwart publication, the Ethics, with other works, appeared by the end of the year.

Spinoza’s Ethics ends, “if salvation were at hand, and could be found without great effort, how could nearly everyone neglect it? But all things excellent are as difficult as they are rare”.

On 25th June 1678 the States of Holland and West-Friesland banned his works as “profane, atheistic and blasphemous” – curses, so to speak, without anyone left to curse – excellence being made more rare.

© Dr Peter Cave 2006

Peter Cave lectures for the Open University and for City University in London. He is Chairman of the Humanist Philosophers’ Group: pc@petercave.com.

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