Spinoza – An Unshackled Mind

The writings of Alice Bailey tell us of an “inner centre or subjective world government, whose members are responsible for the spread of those ideals and ideas which have led humanity onwards from age to age. This inner centre has always existed and the great leaders of the race, in every field, have been connected with it. The great idealists and world workers, (such as the Christ and His great brother, the Buddha, and those lesser workers, such as Plato, Spinoza, Abraham Lincoln, or Florence Nightingale) have all been associated with this centre.” (Esoteric Psychology, Vol. II)

In all fields of human thought and endeavor, there are individuals who anchor essential principles on which others can build; they erect the “scaffolding”, so to speak, and clear the pathways that lead to new developments in scientific, cultural, and religious fields. Baruch Spinoza was such a server.

Born in Holland in 1632 to a Jewish family descended from Portuguese Marranos, Jews who migrated to the Netherlands in the early seventeenth century in search of religious tolerance, Spinoza and his brother were the first of the family with the freedom to be raised in the Jewish religion. However, at an early age (23) Spinoza’s inquiring, truth-seeking mind caused him to be excommunicated by Amsterdam’s Jewish community for his “evil opinions” and “abominable heresies”, which he refused to renounce. As the poet and literary critic Adam Kirsch wrote in an article on Spinoza’s life and thought for The New Yorker, he wasn’t the first Jew to abandon Judaism, “but he might have been the first to do so publicly without becoming a Christian or Muslim. Instead, he fashioned a secular life, something that was hardly conceivable before the seventeenth century.” Spinoza became identified, “tarred”, with the designation of “atheist” in an age and society when that epithet was the ultimate condemnation, because his spiritual beliefs were simply irreconcilable with the established religions of the time. Instead, they arose, it seems, not out of scripture or orthodox traditions but from his inner intuitive reflections.

Banishment from his community of birth had consequences which forced Spinoza into a life of isolation similar to that of “shunning” or, in modern vernacular, being “cancelled”, yet in this state of isolation he was left free to develop his philosophical and religious ideas without needing to conform or adapt to a larger community. Living a quiet, solitary existence, supporting himself by grinding lenses for microscopes and telescopes (how appropriate a trade for one who saw existence with a unique clarity!), Spinoza was able to think and ponder about God according to his own inner light, liberated from orthodoxy. And his inner spiritual resources led him to mine a deep vein of truth.

In a new biography, Spinoza – Freedom’s Messiah, Ian Buruma writes that, for Spinoza, God “is the only infinite substance, from which all finite things emanate, and ‘in God’s infinite intellect no substance can be more perfect than that which already exists in Nature.’ Substance exists independently from anything else…God was not like some wise, moral, or majestic creator of the world; he was an active force present in everything, and always had been, and always would be.” The scholar of religions Karen Armstrong has written, “Spinoza’s God was the sum and principle of natural law, identical and equivalent to the order that governs the universe. God was neither the Creator nor the First Cause, but was inseparable from the material world, an immanent force that welded everything into unity and harmony…the contemplation of this immanent presence filled him with awe and wonder…the principle of thought itself, existent within the human mind when opened to the eternal and infinite reality of the God active within them, [is] an ecstatic perception that Spinoza called ‘beatitude’.” (A Case for God)

Esoteric teaching affirms that the first great psychological aspect of God is the tendency to synthesis, a tendency which runs through all nature, all consciousness, and is life itself. “The sweep of this instinct to synthesis underlies all universes, constellations, solar systems, planets, and kingdoms in nature”, we’re told, “as well as the activity aspect and achievement of man, the individual.” As Adam Kirsch writes, “In Spinoza’s universe there is no place outside nature where we can stand in order to exert force on it, since we ourselves are part of nature”. This might seem fatalistic and a denial of free will, but in the esoteric perspective it cuts to the essence of the will-to-good. Perhaps this view formed the basis for Spinoza’s inherent equanimity; as well, it might illumine Einstein’s judgment that “The most important decision we make is whether we believe we live in a friendly or hostile universe.” Spinoza understood that everything is as it must be, and that “all actions follow from God’s nature”.

According to Adam Kirsch, the cornerstone of Spinoza’s contribution was a wholly new way to understand the nature of God. So new and uncharted a spiritual path was his that he was almost universally deemed an atheist, yet Spinoza utterly rejected that designation, and nowhere in his writings did he deny the existence of God. Rather, he denied that God exists separate and apart from the universe, as He is conceived in the Abrahamic faiths. God, he believed, is “a being absolutely infinite” and without negation. It’s not possible for God to be “up in Heaven”, for instance, but not here, where we live. If God exists, then he must be absolutely everywhere, for nothing can exist apart from him. As Spinoza’s book Ethics states, “Whatsoever is, is in God, and without God nothing can be, or be conceived.” What he called God could just as well be termed Being or Nature: “the eternal and infinite Being, which we call God or Nature”. God, therefore, cannot be approached through prayer or known by miracles, for all is proceeding according to natural law.

These ideas first appeared publicly in his “Tractatus Theologico-Politicus”, which was published anonymously in 1669. Asserting in regard to religious matters that the best approach should be “allowing every man to think what he likes, and say what he thinks”, the author gave thanks for the “rare happiness of living in a republic, where everyone’s judgment is free and unshackled, where each may worship God as his conscience dictates”. However, the book was quickly deemed subversive and, by 1674 it was banned. When the “Tractatus” provoked such a hostile reaction among the public, Spinoza decided not to publish anything else; even his core work, Ethics, was left in manuscript form for his friends to print after his death

Nevertheless, his renown or notoriety, though unsought, attracted the attention of people whose minds were open enough to consider new and different ways of thinking, and gradually his fame spread widely throughout Europe. Spinoza never sought the limelight nor did he stoke controversy for its own sake; he simply lived his life quietly and with an extraordinary degree of equanimity that endeared him to his circle of friends, many of them free-thinking Christians who were open and receptive to new ideas about the right of the individual to think freely and independently of organized religion or state policies.

Spinoza believed that democracy was “of all forms of government the most natural, and the most consonant with individual liberty”, and that the best antidote to superstition is the study of science”, ideas that were shared by many thinkers of the Enlightenment but which the exceptional clarity of Spinoza’s mind was able to distil through personal contemplation—through the intuitive perception of Reality, in esoteric terms.

In the present time, when democratic values are being challenged in many societies and the dicta of “cancel culture” prevail too readily, there is much to be learned from Spinoza’s life. The biographer Jonathan Israel (Spinoza, Life and Legacy) writes that figures such as Spinoza helped to create the Radical Enlightenment, a tradition of political and religious thought which would ultimately transform the modern world. Democratic ideas that had been punishable in the mid-seventeenth century became the watchwords of the American and French revolutions a hundred years later. At the same time, as a freethinker who had been expelled by both Jewish and Christian congregations, Spinoza was a realist about human nature, for his experiences with religion and politics left him with no illusions about the wisdom of the masses. Free of a naïve assumption that his beliefs would be welcomed by everyone, regardless of religion, education, or social position, he didn’t intend his writings to reach a mass audience because he believed they would only misinterpret it. That’s why he wrote not in Dutch but in Latin, the language of the educated populace. Nevertheless, Spinoza endured a degree of notoriety usually associated with tyrants, for he knew firsthand the bigotry and fanaticism of which human beings were capable.

Although a free thinker in a violent, polarized time, Spinoza died not on the gallows but in his bed in 1677, of a lung condition that might have been related to glass particles inhaled while he was grinding lenses. An insight into the stabilizing equanimity of his character, which might have spared him from a violent end, is found in the inscription on a ring he wore: caute—“caution”, a quality essential to a philosopher in his interactions with non-philosophers. In spite of Spinoza’s unsought notoriety and banishment at such an early age, one biographer writes, “every report and witness testimony agreed that this man, whose blasphemous ideas brought him an infamy normally reserved for tyrants, was unimpeachably virtuous, living a modest, frugal, and kindly existence…a paragon of the philosophical life”.



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