Reasonable Doubt – Spinoza redux

Ever since I began reading widely in college, the name, Spinoza, has been coming up among the ranks of significant thinkers in western history. So, I’ve known he was out there and that he was important but much more than that I couldn’t have told you until I read the following article by Rebecca Goldstein in the NY Times.

I probably always avoided delving into the man because such journeys into deep philosophy are generally taxing and may end up feeling unproductive after you’ve exerted the effort to see what the buzz was about and deciding it wasn’t worth the effort or it was impenetrable or whatever.

Well, in this case, I think I by passed an important figure out of laziness.

Spinoza, was excommunicated by the Jewish community of Amsterdam in 1656 at the age of 23 for making the assertion that no group or religion could rightly claim infallible knowledge of the Creator’s partiality to its beliefs and ways.

Think about that for a moment in the context of today’s world of fundamentalists – each claiming exclusive divine authorization and approval and each believing everyone else is wrong. The man was clearly ahead of his times and paid dearly for expressing his vision then.

Spinoza’s collected works belonged to both Thomas Jefferson and to John Locke and through them, his thoughts influenced the composition of one of the founding documents of the United States – The Declaration of Independence.

The following article is an easy read and it will place Spinoza’s thought in its proper context for you.

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THURSDAY marked the 350th anniversary of the excommunication of the philosopher Baruch Spinoza from the Portuguese Jewish community of Amsterdam in which he had been raised.

Given the events of the last week, particularly those emanating from the Middle East, the Spinoza anniversary didn’t get a lot of attention. But it’s one worth remembering — in large measure because Spinoza’s life and thought have the power to illuminate the kind of events that at the moment seem so intractable and overwhelming.

The exact reasons for the excommunication of the 23-year-old Spinoza remain murky, but the reasons he came to be vilified throughout all of Europe are not. Spinoza argued that no group or religion could rightly claim infallible knowledge of the Creator’s partiality to its beliefs and ways. After the excommunication, he spent the rest of his life — he died in 1677 at the age of 44 — studying the varieties of religious intolerance. The conclusions he drew are still of dismaying relevance.

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