Durant 1926: The Education of Spinoza

Reference: The Story of Philosophy

This paper presents Chapter IV Section 1.2 from the book THE STORY OF PHILOSOPHY by WILL DURANT. The contents are from the 1933 reprint of this book by TIME INCORPORATED by arrangement with Simon and Schuster, Inc.

The paragraphs of the original material (in black) are accompanied by brief comments (in color) based on the present understanding.  Feedback on these comments is appreciated.

The heading below is linked to the original materials.


I.2 The Education of Spinoza  

It was this Odyssey of the Jews that filled the background of Spinoza’s mind, and made him irrevocably, however excommunicate, a Jew. Though his father was a successful merchant, the youth had no leaning to such a career, and preferred to spend his time in and around the synagogue, absorbing the religion and the history of his people. He was a brilliant scholar, and the elders looked upon him as a future light of their community and their faith. Very soon he passed from the Bible itself to the exactingly subtle commentaries of the Talmud; and from these to the writings of Maimonides, Levi ben Gerson, Ibn Ezra, and Hasdai Crescas; and his promiscuous voracity extended even to the mystical philosophy of Ibn Gebirol and the Cabbalistic intricacies of Moses of Cordova. 

Spinoza was a committed Jew, who voraciously studied his religion.

He was struck by the latter’s identification of God and the universe; he followed up the idea in Ben Gerson, who taught the eternity of the world; and in Hasdai Crescas, who believed the universe of matter to be the body of God. He read in Maimonides a half-favorable discussion of the doctrine of Averroes, that immortality is impersonal; but he found in the Guide to the Perplexed more perplexities than guidance. For the great Rabbi propounded more questions than he answered; and Spinoza found the contradictions and improbabilities of the Old Testament lingering in his thought long after the solutions of Maimonides had dissolved into forgetfulness. The cleverest defenders of a faith are its greatest enemies; for their subtleties engender doubt and stimulate the mind. And if this was so with the writings of Maimonides, so much the more was it the case with the commentaries of Ibn Ezra, where the problems of the old faith were more directly expressed, and sometimes abandoned as unanswerable. The more Spinoza read and pondered, the more his simple certainties melted away into wondering and doubt. 

The more Spinoza read and pondered, the more his simple certainties melted away into wondering and doubt. 

His curiosity was aroused to inquire what the thinkers of the Christian world had written on those great questions of God and human destiny. He took up the study of Latin with a Dutch scholar, Van den Ende, and moved into a wider sphere of experience and knowledge. His new teacher was something of a heretic himself, a critic of creeds and governments, an adventurous fellow who stepped out of his library to join a conspiracy against the king of France, and adorned a scaffold in 1674. He had a pretty daughter who became the successful rival of Latin for the affections of Spinoza; even a modern collegian might be persuaded to study Latin by such inducements. But the young lady was not so much of an intellectual as to be blind to the main chance; and when another suitor came, bearing costly presents, she lost interest in Spinoza. No doubt it was at that moment that our hero became a philosopher. 

His curiosity was aroused to inquire what the thinkers of the Christian world had written on those great questions of God and human destiny. 

At any rate he had conquered Latin; and through Latin he entered into the heritage of ancient and medieval European thought. He seems to have studied Socrates and Plato and Aristotle; but he preferred to them the great atomists, Democritus, Epicurus and Lucretius; and the Stoics left their mark upon him ineffaceably. He read the Scholastic philosophers, and took from them not only their terminology, but their geometrical method of exposition by axiom, definition, proposition, proof, scholium and corollary. He studied Bruno (1548-1600), that magnificent rebel whose fires “not all the snows of the Caucasus could quench,” who wandered from country to country and from creed to creed, and evermore “came out by the same door wherein he went,”—searching and wondering; and who at last was sentenced by the Inquisition to be killed “as mercifully as possible, and without the shedding of blood”—i. e., to be burned alive. What a wealth of ideas there was in this romantic Italian! First of all the master idea of unity: all reality is one in substance, one in cause, one in origin; and God and this reality are one. Again, to Bruno, mind and matter are one; every particle of reality is composed inseparably of the physical and the psychical. The object of philosophy, therefore, is to perceive unity in diversity, mind in matter, and matter in mind; to find the synthesis in which opposites and contradictions meet and merge; to rise to that highest knowledge of universal unity which is the intellectual equivalent of the love of God. Everyone of these ideas became part of the intimate structure of Spinoza’s thought. 

Spinoza was influenced by Stoics cardinal virtues and Bruno’s “all reality is one in substance, one in cause, one in origin; and God and this reality are one.”

Finally and above all, he was influenced by Descartes (1596-1650), father of the subjective and idealistic (as was Bacon of the objective and realistic) tradition in modern philosophy. To his French followers and English enemies the central notion in Descartes was the primacy of consciousness—his apparently obvious proposition that the mind knows itself more immediately and directly than it can ever know anything else; that it knows the “external world” only through that world’s impress upon the mind in sensation and perception; that all philosophy must in consequence (though it should doubt everything else) begin with the individual mind and self, and make its first argument in three words: “I think, therefore I am” (Cogito, ergo sum). Perhaps there was something of Renaissance individualism in this starting-point; certainly there was in it a whole magician’s-hat-full of consequences for later speculation. Now began the great game of epistemology,* which in Leibniz, Locke, Berkeley, Hume and Kant waxed into a Three Hundred Years’ War that at once stimulated and devastated modern philosophy. 

*Epistemology means, etymologically, the logic (logos) of understanding (epi-steme),—i. e., the origin, nature and validity of knowledge.

Finally and above all, Spinoza was influenced by Descartes (1596-1650), father of the subjective and idealistic tradition in modern philosophy.

But this side of Descartes’ thought did not interest Spinoza; he would not lose himself in the labyrinths of epistemology. What attracted him was Descartes’ conception of a homogeneous “substance” underlying all forms of matter, and another homogeneous substance underlying all forms of mind; this separation of reality into two ultimate substances was a challenge to the unifying passion of Spinoza, and acted like a fertilizing sperm upon the accumulations of his thought. What attracted him again was Descartes’ desire to explain all of the world except God and the soul by mechanical and mathematical laws,—an idea going back to Leonardo and Galileo, and perhaps reflecting the development of machinery and industry in the cities of Italy. Given an initial push by God, said Descartes (very much as Anaxagoras had said two thousand years before), and the rest of astronomic, geologic and all non-mental processes and developments can be explained from a homogeneous substance existing at first in a disintegrated form (the “nebular hypothesis” of Laplace and Kant); and every movement of every animal, and even of the’ human body, is a mechanical movement,—the circulation of the blood, for example, and reflex action. All the world, and every body, is a machine; but outside the world is God, and within the body is the spiritual soul. 

Descartes’ view was that everything (other than God and soul) was mechanical.

Here Descartes stopped; but Spinoza eagerly passed on. 


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