Commentary Magazine

The Perennial Spinoza:
Radical Philosopher

Three hundred years ago, in 1656, the Portuguese Jewish community of Amsterdam proclaimed: “In accordance with the judgment of the angels and the decision of the elders, and with the consent of God and this holy community, we hereby excommunicate, expel, curse, and anathematize Baruch de Spinoza. . . .” About two years ago Premier David Ben Gurion of Israel published an article in which he proposed that the tercentenary of Spinoza’s excommunication serve as the occasion for an official revocation of that ban. Ben Gurion also suggested that the Hebrew University undertake the publication of Spinoza’s collected works in Hebrew. (Actually, a new edition of Spinoza’s Ethics, translated by Jacob Klatzkin, had already been made available some time before. When this translation first appeared, Franz Rosenzweig wrote that in many respects it expressed Spinoza’s meaning better than the philosopher himself had been able to do in the original Latin.)

Ben Gurion’s article provoked a heated debate. In Holland the Nieuw Israelietisch Weekblad protested sharply against the idea of lifting the ban of excommunication. In Israel, too, many voices were raised in defense of the Amsterdam synagogue. Rosenzweig tells us, incidentally, that Hermann Cohen, the great German Jewish philosopher, once justified the act of excommunication, declaring that the community had every right to expel a blasphemer and atheist.

The debate over Spinoza recurs periodically among Jews as well as in the world at large, for Spinoza has always been the object either of profound reverence or intense revulsion. In his lifetime he was both excommunicated and worshipped; after his death he was for a time utterly forgotten (“like a dog,” says Lessing), and then once more studied and honored by men as great as Goethe.

Of course, it is the fate of every important thinker to be blessed by some and damned by others, but there is a peculiar irony in the fact that Spinoza, the most dispassionate of all philosophers, should have kindled such passionate responses. That his work tampered with the nerve centers of Jewish religious belief and national pride is one way of accounting for this. Quite naturally we Jews should like to be able to claim him as our own. Yet how can we say he is ours when he renounced Judaism (as it was then practiced) no less than the Jewish community? This difficult question we shall not now consider, since it would involve us in a dispute over the validity of particular conceptions of religion and nationality. But there is a more strictly philosophic basis for the continuing Spinoza controversy which is of interest to us here.



The truth is that Spinoza the gentle, Spinoza the enemy of the passions, was one of the most radical philosophers who ever lived. He seized on a certain philosophic possibility and, with unprecedented consistency, thought it through to the end. His position on the most decisive metaphysical questions was wholly unequivocal—no one is less a philosopher of the mean. He renounced the middle ground, not only in religion, but in epistemology and ethics as well.

To begin with epistemology. The problem of knowledge centers on the question: is there a knowledge which can satisfy the innate human desire for certainty, a perception of phenomena so acquired as to carry with it the conviction that what is perceived could not possibly be otherwise? Until a short time ago—and in any case in Spinoza’s day—mathematics and geometry were considered the realm of such unquestionable perceptions. Consequently the problem of knowledge could be stated in terms of mathematics: can the world be known more geometrico? Spinoza’s answer to this question was an emphatic yes, and he proceeded to demonstrate it by presenting his metaphysics and ethics more geometrico.

Opposed to his view is the conviction that we cannot gain any real knowledge of the world by imitating the methods of mathematics, that the very desire to do so is quite meaningless. According to this school of thought, all we can do is observe phenomena in the hope of discovering certain dependencies which allow us to predict particular sequences of events with a high degree of probability. There is nothing else. This, roughly, is the doctrine of modern positivism. Between the two there are a great many mid-positions, of which the best known is Kant’s theory of a priori synthetic judgment. Kant holds that we can have a priori (and therefore intelligible) knowledge of phenomena because the experience which gives us this knowledge has in the first place been shaped by the structure of our reason; a priori knowledge, in other words, is both perceived and created by reason.

Now on this axis of polarity Spinoza’s position is one of unqualified extremism. He stands for a radical rationalism in metaphysics. This, however, does not mean that Spinoza believes man can know everything through reason. According to one of Spinoza’s axioms, only two of the infinite number of God’s attributes are accessible to us at all, extension and thought—that is to say, nature and spirit. Moreover, Spinoza tells us that man has, at best, only confused conceptions which hinder adequate knowledge But where knowledge exists—and genuine knowledge, says Spinoza, does exist, and can always be raised to greater completeness—it is adequate, encompassing the real nature of its object and providing an insight into the necessity of the object. Thus it is a knowledge which perfectly fulfills the requirements of reason.

How does Spinoza arrive at so radically rational a metaphysics? He begins by elaborating a set of “definitions and axioms” from which all else can be logically deduced. At the outset, therefore, we find him confining within his definitions all those metaphysical problems which have always resisted solution by rational methods, which torment human thought and will always torment it, thus rendering them powerless to disturb the logical development of his system. All doubt and paradox are shut up in these bristling axioms as in a fortress. The rest is left to logic and the magnificent apparatus of Spinoza’s deduction. In the center of this conceptual fortress stands the idea of the “self-caused” eternal “substance” which necessarily exists because its “essence includes existence,” and whose existence must be evident because existence is an element of its concept. Spinoza did not find this magic formula for himself; he came upon it in Scholastic philosophy, more particularly in St. Anselm’s famous “ontological proof of God,” perhaps the most honorable of all the intellectual tricks the mind of man has ever contrived.



The result of Spinoza’s method is one of the grandest constructions of the human spirit, a system whose deeply religious quality has exerted a profound influence on many great minds. The completeness and clarity of this intellectual structure truly exerts an effect like that of the starry heavens, tranquillizing and exalting. But this is not to say that those who are moved by Spinoza’s vision of the world—i.e. the results of his system—thereby become adherents of the system itself; very few followers of Spinoza have accepted his definitions and inferences in detail. As an example, we may take the most famous of Spinoza’s admirers, Goethe, who declared: “It should not be thought, however, that I could subscribe to Spinoza’s writings and declare my literal belief in them. Who could understand a man who, as Descartes’ pupil, lifted himself, through mathematical and rabbinical learning, to the summits of thought, who to this very day still seems to represent the goal of all speculative endeavor?”

Spinoza’s system is a logical creation. It is therefore natural to ask how modern logic feels about it. What Hans Reichenbach, one of the best-known representatives of modern scientific logic, says on the subject in his book, The Rise of Scientific Philosophy, is a characteristic expression of great sympathy evoked by Spinoza the man and thinker, and a complete rejection of his logical deductions. (A similar judgment was made by Fritz Mautner, the now almost forgotten precursor of modern logical and linguistic philosophy, in his book on Spinoza.) Reichenbach writes: “Among philosophers Spinoza enjoys a high reputation; I think this reputation is more the merit of his personality than of his philosophy. . . . His ethics, separated from its logical form, represents the creed of a dispassionate personality to whom self-control and intellectual work appear as the highest good. By projecting his ethics into logic, he reveals that his admiration for logic was greater than his abilities in it; in fact, the logic of his derivations is poor, and they cannot be understood without many tacit additions and psychological interpretations. By no means can his system be regarded as at least internally valid, that is, as correctly derived from his axioms. . . . Had Spinoza foreseen this result of the modern philosophy of mathematics, he would not have attempted to construct his ethics after the pattern of geometry.”

“But,” Reichenbach goes on, “invalid logical constructions can still have the psychological function of strengthening subjective beliefs, and fallacious reasoning can be the indispensable instrument of a creed.” And one final observation of Reichenbach’s: “The Socratic intellectualization of ethics was . . . used by him . . . for the construction of an ethics that disparages emotion. . . . From the time of the Stoics the conception of the philosopher as a man without passion has dominated public opinion . . . but I do not see why the rest of us, whose pleasures are of a more human variety, should feel inferior. What makes life worth living is passion; this rule applies to philosophers, too, and it looks as though Spinoza’s unfortunate passion for logic was not so different from the more sensational forms in which passion manifests itself in other persons.”



This invasion of the ethical domain by the logician is the keynote of Spinoza’s ethical philosophy. The questions of ethics are: What can man do? How is man to act? What does the occasional moral decision made by a man actually mean? Can we speak of a real action, a real intervention into events, a realization of values, if all action is determined, if everything happens by necessity? On these questions, too, Spinoza assumes a radical stance. For him, there can be no state of “becoming,” since that which exists is always and only eternal “being.” In Spinoza’s philosophy, the verse, “There is nothing new under the sun,” takes on absolute significance. Whatever happens comes about by the most rigorous necessity; and the fact of this necessity turns all “becoming,” and hence all human action, into mere “modifications” of being, stages in which being “expresses” itself. How then can we speak of ethics if no genuine action is possible? It was this question Nietzsche had in mind when he made his coarse but pointed criticism of Spinoza: “What is amor, what is deus, if every drop of blood is missing?” But Spinoza does make room for one human act in this most finished of all worlds: the act of knowing. It is the only process that does not contradict the necessity of all events, for it is the knowledge of necessity itself.

With this notion, Spinoza allows for the possibility of human action and defines its meaning: more perfect knowledge. To achieve adequate conceptions rather than confused ones is not only the path to virtue, but the very happiness which, for Spinoza, is the ultimate goal of all being. Our emotions are based on confused ideas; by transforming them into clear conceptions—i.e. knowledge—we conquer our passions. If we know the causes of suffering, we can conquer suffering. The more complete our knowledge becomes, the more fully it transforms itself into love. And so the cornerstone of Spinoza’s ethics is the love of God—that is, the love with which God loves himself.

Now whatever its theoretical difficulties, to say that true human action is limited to the knowedge of necessity can lead to a noble and successful practical ethics. The ethic that Spinoza the philosopher taught, Spinoza the man lived, and there is a beauty in his life which dazzled even his enemies. Everyone feels the “boundless unselfishness that shines from his every sentence.” Here stands a man who has conquered passion and freed himself from the love of gain, who is content with the barest necessities and will take from his friends only enough to keep himself alive; a learned man who refuses a flattering call from a university, who does not wish to become Professor Spinoza; a man who fights for intellectual freedom because without it there can be no knowledge of necessity; a man who teaches that human beings, like all living creatures, strive for happiness because he has learned that the only happiness is the pursuit and possession of knowledge. Spinoza taught and lived an ethic of selflessness in external things, of freedom in spiritual, and of love in Godly things. No wonder he became for Goethe “a saint whom I looked up to.”

We found above that Spinoza’s metaphysics violate the canons of formal logic. Here we can see how he stands in utter opposition to the other great stream of modern philosophy—existentialism. The limitation of all genuine action to the act of knowing contradicts the existential situation of contemporary man who, according to the existentialist creed, is concerned not with knowledge but with the adoption of an attitude, the definition of a relationship “toward.” In other words, Spinoza, to whom the knowledge of God was everything, nevertheless deprived man of an essential element of religious reality: the “approachability” of God, as Buber calls it, his “dialogue” relation with God.

What makes Spinoza’s love of God so different from the love which Buber, Rosenzweig, and the later Hermann Cohen understood as the true relation to God? Rosenzweig’s answer is this: “The Spinozist loves his neighbor because he knows that man in general, all men, or the world in general, all things, are kin. Against such a love, which springs from the essential, the universal, stands the other, whose source is in the individual experience, the deepest essence of all.” And Cohen (as quoted by Rosenzweig) gives this account: “The human being who stands before God is no longer the self of ethics . . . but the real human being, in the need and suffering of his sin-entangled actuality, and the thought of eternity can be no consolation, no help to him.” Therefore, the “pedantic leveling” of pantheism angers Cohen. He never tires of attacking Spinoza’s famous dictum that man cannot demand to be loved by God in return. (Goethe, on the other hand, was especially pleased by this side of Spinoza—“What is it to You, if I love You?”) Buber, for the same reasons, accuses Spinoza of helping the peoples of the world to cast off the “Thou-I” relationship to God, which Israel, out of her innermost essence, gave them through Christianity.



Spinoza has earned many admirers, but not a single follower. Though he founded no school he remains a milestone in the spiritual history of mankind. No one was completely convinced by his teachings, but the best were influenced by them. Philosophy has developed beyond Spinoza, and, in our time, against Spinoza, but without his work this development could not have taken place. How is this so?

The mighty conceptual structure reared by Spinoza rests, as we have seen, on a set of previously laid down definitions and axioms, which we have likened to conceptual fortresses. Spinoza offers no proof of these axioms; he presents them as self-evident, as if they were self-revelations of the truth. Here later philosophers could not follow him. They saw no way for finite man to know the laws of infinite being, to grasp the unity of the universe through the intuitions of reason. But we do retain another thing: the belief in this unity. And the greatness of Spinoza’s thought remains undiminished even if we substitute for his rational knowledge of the divine unity a decision to trust in that unity. We do not mean by “decision” merely what modern positivism calls “convention,” an agreement on the methodological assumptions of a given science; we mean an existential choice which is continually renewed and reaffirmed in the dynamic interplay between the “I” and the world, which serves as the basis of that interplay and of the moral attitude of the individual.

We can understand Spinoza’s meaning better if we interpret his definitions and axioms not as final statements of knowledge, but as hypotheses, as the freely sketched foundations for a whole edifice of knowledge which is rational only in itself.

By openly recognizing the hypothetical character of the axioms, we in a sense eliminate it. This is to alter the Spinozist system in its essence. But the liberty is justified by the insight it provides into the meaning of the system, into the existential situation out of which Spinoza’s philosophy arose and of which it is an expression. We identify the direction by the goal; the static concept of substance reveals the dynamic movement which led to it, and so we arrive at a belief in the unity of God, a faith in the meaningfulness of the world-process.

In Spinoza’s magnificent attempt to validate this faith through knowledge there lies a further faith-the faith in reason, the belief that the tools of the human mind can penetrate the world-process. Spinoza, of course, unhesitatingly traveled this road to its end, and found there his doctrine of the “third knowledge,” the direct, completely adequate, rational knowledge of God, or infinite substance. Here, again, philosophy could not follow him. But his unwavering conviction that rational knowledge was possible, his courageous effort to achieve it, to achieve a closer, more intimate relation with the universe through the operations of the mind, and above all, his existential faith in the meaning of the world, moved men and led them on, warmed them, calmed and heartened them.



As we have seen, Spinoza overcame passion through knowledge. He eliminated becoming; for everything that seems to “become” is in reality only a necessary “expression” of infinite being. What is the ethical significance of this radicalism of being? It lies in the tendency to conceive individual experience (what befalls me) as part of a great unity; every human joy and sorrow takes its place as an element in the unity of all phenomena. Ultimately this is the ethical meaning of the will to know: to subordinate the individual to the whole. Such an attitude toward what befalls me personally is bound to foster detachment from desires and passions and suffering. What befalls me from moment to moment no longer fills my whole horizon, no longer presents itself to me as a lone figure, but carries with it implications of the comprehensive oneness in which it resides. What before seemed meaningless acquires significance. Fear loses its terror, enemies their power to hurt, despair its sting. And if we have faith in the great unity, it becomes unnecessary to perceive it in everything around us; the ever renewed attempt to look beyond the individual suffices. Then a man grows calm, peaceful, friendly, charitable, happy; he gains distance from things and above all from himself; he sees himself as a part of the unity which he loves more and more deeply as he grasps it more and more fully.

The existential basis of Spinoza’s metaphysics and ethics, then, is his belief in the unity of the infinite world-process, or, in religious terms, his belief in the unity of God. There can be no question that this is the fundamental principle of the Jewish religion, the great revelation which the Jews brought to the peoples of the world. Spinoza pushed the idea of the unity of God to its furthest reaches, and on it he erected one of the mightiest intellectual structures the world has ever seen.

There is, however—as we have learned from Rosenzweig, Cohen, and Buber—another principle of Jewish religious thought which Spinoza completely ignored: the “approachability” of God. It has been said, indeed, that Spinoza only listened to the second part of the “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is one God”; he failed to hear the “Hear, O Israel.” (Without pursuing the matter, it might be pointed out that this one-sidedness is also a defect of his ethic.) Did he, therefore, betray Judaism? Did he, through his one-sided emphasis, disturb the development of the Jewish religion? Did he lead it finally into false paths? This does not seem to us to be the case; it was precisely the overemphasis on unity, the utter surrender to the “pan” in his theism, that first made the existential lack in his thought discernible. It is no accident that Buber, Rosenzweig, and Cohen achieved their sharpest formulation of the “encounter” with God in their struggle to come to terms with Spinoza. His one-sidedness was salutary; it led, on the one hand, to a deepening of the concept of unity, and, on the other, to a new grasp of the notion of “encounter.” Therefore we can say that Spinoza marks a decisive stage in the unfolding of the Jewish vision of God—of mankind’s vision of God.


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