Durant 1926: Excommunication (Spinoza)

Reference: The Story of Philosophy

This paper presents Chapter IV Section 1.3 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.3 Excommunication

These were the mental antecedents of the externally quiet but internally disturbed youth who in 1656 (he had been born in 1632) was summoned before the elders of the synagogue on the charge of heresy. Was it true, they asked him, that he had said to his friends that God might have a body—the world of matter; that angels might be hallucinations; that the soul might be merely life; and that the Old Testament said nothing of immortality? 

When Spinoza was 24 he was summoned before the elders of the synagogue on the charge of heresy.

We do not know what he answered. We only know that he was offered an annuity of $500 if he would consent to maintain at least an external loyalty to his synagogue and his faith; that he refused the offer; and that on July 27, 1656, he was excommunicated with all the sombre formalities of Hebrew ritual. “During the reading of the curse, the wailing and protracted note of a great horn was heard to fall in from time to time; the lights, seen brightly burning at the beginning of the ceremony, were extinguished one by one as it proceeded, till at the end the last went out—typical of the extinction of the spiritual life of the excommunicated man—and the congregation was left in total darkness.”

When Spinoza refused to retract what he had said he was excommunicated with all the sombre formalities of Hebrew ritual.

Van Vloten has given us the formula used for excommunication:

The heads of the Ecclesiastical Council hereby make known, that, already well assured of the evil opinions and doings of Baruch de Espinoza, they have endeavored in sundry ways and by various promises to turn him from his evil courses. But as they have been unable to bring him to any better way of thinking; on the contrary, as they are every day better certified of the horrible heresies entertained and avowed by him, and of the insolence with which these heresies are promulgated and spread abroad, and many persons worthy of credit having borne witness to these in the presence of the said Espinoza, he has been held fully convicted of the same. Review having therefore been made of the whole matter before the chiefs of the Ecclesiastical Council, it has been resolved, the Councillors assenting thereto, to anathematize the said Spinoza, and to cut him off from the people of Israel, and from the present hour to place him in Anathema with the following malediction: 

With the judgment of the angels and the sentence of the saints, we anathematize, execrate, curse and cast out Baruch de Espinoza, the whole of the sacred community assenting, in presence of the sacred books with the six-hundred-and-thirteen precepts written therein, pronouncing against him the malediction wherewith Elisha cursed the children, and all the maledictions written in the Book of the Law. Let him be accursed by day, and accursed by night; let him be accursed in his lying down, and accursed in his rising up; accursed in going out and accursed in coming in. May the Lord never more pardon or acknowledge him; may the wrath and displeasure of the Lord burn henceforth against this man, load him with all the curses written in the Book of the Law, and blot out his name from under the sky; may the Lord sever him for evil from all the tribes of Israel, weight him with all the maledictions of the firmament contained in the Book of Law; and may all ye who are obedient to the Lord your God be saved this day. 

Hereby then are all admonished that none hold converse with him by word of mouth, none hold communication with him by writing; that no one do him any service, no one abide under the same roof with him, no one approach within four cubits length of him, and no one read any document dictated by him, or written by his hand.

This formal formula for excommunication seriously condemns and expels one from the Jewish community.

Let us not be too quick to judge the leaders of the synagogue; for they faced a delicate situation. No doubt they hesitated to subject themselves to the charge that they were as intolerant of heterodoxy as the Inquisition which had exiled them from Spain. But they felt that gratitude to their hosts in Holland demanded the excommunication of a man whose doubts struck at Christian doctrine quite as vitally as at Judaism. Protestantism was not then the liberal and fluent philosophy which it now becomes; the wars of religion had left each group entrenched immovably in its own creed, cherished now all the more because of the blood just shed in its defense. What would the Dutch authorities say to a Jewish community which repaid Christian toleration and protection by turning out in one generation an a Costa, and in the next a Spinoza? Furthermore, religious unanimity seemed to the elders their sole means of preserving the little Jewish group in Amsterdam from disintegration, and almost the last means of preserving the unity, and so ensuring the survival, of the scattered Jews of the world. If they had had their own state, their own civil law, their own establishments of secular force and power, to compel internal cohesion and external respect, they might have been more tolerant; but their religion was to them their patriotism as well as their faith, the synagogue was their center of social and political life as well as of ritual and worship; and the Bible whose veracity Spinoza had impugned was the “portable Fatherland” of their people; under these circumstances, they thought, heresy was treason, and toleration suicide. 

It appears that the elders of the community had no other option. They had to excommunicate Spinoza for the survival of their small community in Holland.

One feels that they should have bravely run these risks; but it is as hard to judge another justly as it is to get out of one’s skin. Perhaps Menasseh ben Israel, spiritual head. of the whole Amsterdam community of Jews, could have found some conciliatory formula within which both the synagogue and the philosopher might have found room to live in mutual peace; but the great rabbi was then in London, persuading Cromwell to open England to the Jews. Fate had written that Spinoza should belong to the world. 

Fate had written that Spinoza should belong to the world. 


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