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H.F. Hallett

Biographical Note

Benedict de Spinoza. The Elements of his Philosophy.
London: Athlone press, 1957

Benedictus de Spinoza (Baruch Despinoza) was born at Amsterdam on 24 November 1632, of a family of refugee Jews from the Peninsula, probably (though ▒Espinoza▓ is also a Spanish place-name) more immediately from Portugal. Brought up as an orthodox Sephardic Jew, he received the customary training in letters and Talmudic theology. His people entertained high hopes for his future, but he appears to have become increasingly critical in outlook, and irregular in ritual observance, and was at last formally excommunicated by the Amsterdam synagogue in 1656. About this time he left Amsterdam and lived, first at Ouwerkerk, a village near by, and after 1660 at Rijnsburg in the vicinity of Leyden, associating with Mennonites and members of the anti-clerical Christian community of Collegiants, the headquarters of which was in the latter place. He now devoted himself to intellectual and scientific pursuits, earning his living by the manufacture of optical lenses for telescopes and microscopes. Our knowledge of his life and character is mainly derived from two early biographies: that of his near contemporary J. M. Lucas (see A. Wolf, The Oldest Biography of Spinoza), and that of J. Kohler (Colerus) published in 1706 (see F. Pollock, Spinoza, His Life and Philosophy, Appendix). He had learned, and perhaps also taught, Latin at the school of the free-thinking F. A. van den Ende, and he was evidently much impressed, and his originality stimulated, by the ▒new philosophy▓ of Descartes. His character comes down to us as that of a man devoted to the search after truth, and wholly disinterested in its pursuit, who gradually won a wide reputation both among his associates and also in the general republic of letters. From his writings also we can safely judge that sobriety, piety, and mental acuity were with him untinged by asceticism, bigotry, and pedantry; and, man of letters, and something of a hermit, as he was, he yet took a keen interest in public affairs. In the early years after his excommunication he appears to have been a prominent member of a philosophical discussion group, and it has been surmised that the MSS. later discovered and published as the Short Treatise on God, Man, and His Wellbeing were connected with this activity. His earliest published work, and the only one openly bearing his name, however, was the Geometrical Version of Descartes▓s Principles of Philosophy (with its Appendix of Metaphysical Reflections tacitly providing many a spinozistic gloss on the main work), which had its origin in some lessons he had given to a fellow-lodger. This was published in 1663, and was probably influential in gaining for him in 1673 an invitation from the Elector Palatine to the Chair of Philosophy at Heidelberg≈and that in spite of the clamour produced by [xiii] his second published work, the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus which had first appeared anonymously in 1670, but was already generally ascribed to him. Spinoza, however, preferred to continue the life of a private and independent scholar. In 1663 he had removed to Voorburg, near The Hague, where the latter work was completed; and in the year of its publication finally moved to The Hague, lodging after 1671 in the house by the Pavilion Canal which is now dedicated to his memory. Here the Ethics was completed and prepared for publication. News of this having got abroad, and garbled accounts of its nature rumoured, he decided to withhold publication, fearing a renewal of the clamour raised by the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus≈arranging with his printer in Amsterdam that in case of his death before a more favourable occasion should arise this work, together with his other literary remains, should then be brought to light. Though he was in poor health from the increasing inroads of phthisis, he died without other warning in the presence of his doctor alone on 21 February 1677. His posthumous works duly appeared in the same year. [xiv]