Victor Nuovo: Spinoza: the first secular Jewish intellectual

Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of essays about the Dutch philosopher Benedict Spinoza.
Historians have long observed that the Netherlands has played a leading role in the Renaissance, the great revival of learning and intellectual life in Europe after the Middle Ages. Two eminent role players are Erasmus and Spinoza.
Erasmus of Rotterdam (1466-1536), the great humanist scholar, led the revival of classical learning in northern Europe, without which the great Enlightenment in science and morals that followed would never have occurred. He was also a leading Christian reformer, whose reforms of Christianity proved more lasting and amicable than those of his contemporaries Martin Luther (1483-1546) and John Calvin (1506-1564). He envisioned Christianity as a purely moral religion, tolerant, free of doctrinal controversy and sectarian violence, well founded upon common principles of peace and love. He was a lover of virtue wherever it may be found, within or without the Church. He regarded Socrates and other eminent pagans as true saints.
Spinoza (1632-1677) was the first secular Jewish intellectual, which is to say, the originator of one of the most creative and fruitful traditions of modern culture. He was, I believe, the greatest modern thinker, and I hope that the essays that follow will make this evident.
He was of Jewish ancestry. His birth name was Baruch, which means “blessed,” and which he Latinized in later life; hence, Benedictus de Spinoza. His family was prominent in the Portuguese-Jewish community in Amsterdam, where they found refuge during the previous century. They were merchants, engaged in international trade, belonging to the worldwide network of the Jewish Diaspora.
The surname “de Spinoza” derives from the Portugese, “d’espinhosa,” meaning “from a thorny place,” which leading Spinoza biographer Steven Nadler interprets as follows. Nadler supposes that the family had originally settled in Spain, but in 1492, when Ferdinand and Isabella expelled the Jews, they fled the briar patch of persecution and found refuge in Portugal, only to suffer the same fate in their adopted land during the next century, thence they found refuge in Holland. In both instances, they had become victims of the Inquisition and of the cruel policies of the kings of Spain and Portugal, who were motivated by religious zeal and worldly greed.
During the 14th and 15th centuries, Jews in Spain and Portugal faced a choice: convert to Christianity or suffer confiscation of their wealth and expulsion. However, those who converted soon fell under suspicion by the Inquisition. Since their conversion was forced, it was most likely not sincere, and it was supposed that in their heart, and in secret, they remained Jews, which was often true. In any case, they were always under suspicion and regarded with contempt, vilified as “marranos,” that is, as ritually unclean, swine, pigs.
At the time of Spinoza’s birth, 1632, Holland offered a more humane refuge. The Dutch government was secular and republican; there was no monarchy, no established Church, although the Dutch Reformed Church stood at the sidelines of secular public life and, motivated by fanatical zeal, always ready to pounce. (The Dutch Reformed Church did pounce in 1672, when it lent its support to a coup, aided by religious mobs, which committed political murder by populist militias and by William III, Prince of Orange, who held the hereditary symbolic office of Stadtholder or head of state. In 1688, he and Mary, his English wife, became King and Queen of England. The Dutch Republic would survive — it was abolished in 1808 by Napoleon — but its glory and power were diminished.)
In 1655, when Spinoza was just 23, he was excommunicated by the elders of the Jewish synagogue. The reason was heresy. What Spinoza’s heresy was is unclear.
What is clear is that from that time on, he lived a wholly secular life. He practiced no religion, affiliated with no religious community, professed no faith. He became a stalwart supporter of the secular Dutch Republic, and during the coup of 1672 would have run out of his house to denounce the mobs had his friends not restrained him.
He gave up his interest in the family business. To support himself, he learned to grind lenses, which were used in scientific equipment. He soon became expert at it. If he had any community, it was the universal commonwealth of learning and of the new science, of whom he soon became a respected and highly regarded member. He corresponded with the learned in several countries, and many of them sought him out. How he achieved all this in so short a time, and how he acquired a mastery of Greek and Latin, and of the philosophical literature of antiquity, still lacks a sufficient explanation, and it will always be so, for there is very little evidence to go on.
It is most important to keep in mind that Spinoza resolved to live a wholly secular life and that he achieved this goal. He is often described as the first secular Jew, the first Jewish intellectual, which is a state of mind and moral character highly to be prized, a universal human excellence. I grew up among Jewish intellectuals, which was unavoidable for anyone educated in New York City public schools during the Great Depression years and after. My earliest serious ambition, when I came of age intellectually, was to be a Jewish intellectual, although I am not, so far as I know, of Jewish ancestry. It has not left me.
Now, this character of a secular Jewish intellectual is an indispensible key to understanding Spinoza. It is a latent but ever-present theme in the essays that follow, and I hope before I’m done to have explained it fully.
One aspect of it must be clear from the start: a Jewish intellectual is someone well schooled in biblical learning who now regards it without belief. The Bible is just like any great book, written in a peculiar idiom, in various historical contexts, expressing beliefs and aspirations common to a particular human society and its changing fortunes; it is an expression of their moral and political aspirations and disappointments. Hence it is not something from which one can just turn away. The Jewish intellectual regards the Bible with sincere regret, with a sense of having lost something highly valued, yet knowing that it is irrecoverable, because all of the pious claims made within it and about it are false.
What Spinoza was left with was a profound moral seriousness and a deep sense of irony. So, he set about interpreting the Bible as a secular book, yet possessing a noble yet worldly truth. More will follow.
Postscript: For anyone interested in reading more about Spinoza’s life and place in history, I would recommend two recent books, which offer more than enough. Steven Nadler, Spinoza, a Life, and Jonathan Israel, Radical Enlightenment.

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