By Martijn Icks and Rudmer Bijlsma
At first glance, the Jewish-Dutch philosopher Baruch de Spinoza (1632-1677) seems an unlikely target for character assassination. The man, characterized as “the noblest and most lovable of the great philosophers” by Bertrand Russell, shunned the spotlight and lived in relative obscurity in the seventeenth-century Dutch Republic. He moved from the bustle of his native Amsterdam to eventually settle in The Hague. Rejecting the fame and fortune his intellect and erudition could have brought him, Spinoza earned a living grinding lenses for binoculars, microscopes and telescopes.
Meanwhile, he wrote the philosophical works for which he became famous, most notably Theologico-Political Treatise (1670) and his magnum opus, Ethics, which was published posthumously. As far as we can tell, he was true to the philosophical maxims he espoused, keeping his passions under control and showing little to no interest in the many vices the world had to offer. It is hard to imagine someone leading a less offensive life.
Yet Spinoza came under fierce attacks as the author of “a book forged in hell” and as a “blasphemer and formal atheist”. His ideas became so notorious that the Dutch authorities, which were usually quite lax in what they allowed to appear in print, decided to ban the Theologico-Political Treatise. After the philosopher’s death, the Catholic Church placed his works and even his correspondence on the Index of Prohibited Books.
At the heart of the outrage lay the fact that Spinoza rejected both personal immortality as it was traditionally envisaged and the notion of a personal, conscious and caring God as imagined in the Judeo-Christian tradition. As the philosopher argued, God could be equated with the universe and everything that existed in it. In his works, he frequently speaks of Deus sive Natura, “God or Nature”, since to him the two were synonymous.
Because of this remarkable position, Spinoza has often been labelled a pantheist. However, many considered that God in the impersonal, Spinozist sense of the word was no God at all. To them, there was only one label that fit the perfidious freethinker: atheist. It was a word that came with a lot of baggage. Devout Christians (which included most of the population of Europe in Spinoza’s day) were of the opinion that there could be no morality without God imposing rules and punishing the wicked. According to John Locke, atheists were untrustworthy and could therefore never be good citizens. In general, it was assumed that they led a libertine, debauched lifestyle.
Spinoza, of course, was the exact opposite of this, which is probably why so few attacks were directed against his actual conduct. Even the philosopher’s fiercest critics knew better than to smear him with allegations that would lack all credibility. However, they did take him and those he inspired to task for their ungodly ideas. In the decades after Spinoza’s death, to be labelled a “Spinozist” became a grave accusation that severely damaged one’s status and career prospects. The philosopher’s very name was turned into a demonizing label, used to assassinate the character of his followers.
These days, calling someone a Spinozist is unlikely to cause much reputational damage. However, accusations of atheism are still a social and political death sentence in many cultures. As for Spinoza, he may have been more charmed by another description applied to him: “the God-intoxicated man”.