Ethics in Spinoza’s Ethics

Authors: Steven Barbone (Associate Professor of Philosophy at San Diego State University.) & Jungwoo Seo (Torrey Pines High School.)

Baruch (meaning “blessed”) de Spinoza was born in 1632 to a Jewish family living in Amsterdam, a city that welcomed Jewish refugees fleeing the Spanish Inquisition, including Spinoza’s grandparents. His intelligence was recognized early on, and he was given an excellent education at the synagogue. Spinoza’s curious mind led him to study not only Jewish Scripture and philosophy but also the contemporary, or “new,” philosophy, exemplified by René Descartes’ Principles of Philosophy. Spinoza’s explorations drove him to reject orthodox Jewish thinking, and he was subsequently banned from the Jewish community with an especially harsh order of excommunication in 1656. This official document still exists, and the only insight it gives us about the justifications for this decisive action are Spinoza’s “evil opinions” and “monstrous deeds,” but it does not list what those opinions and deeds may have been.

Spinoza wasted no time moving on from his Jewish roots; he changed his name to Benedict and moved to Rijnsburg and then Voorburg, where he wrote and published under his own name Principles of Cartesian Philosophy (PPC). The PPC lays out the new Cartesian philosophy using the geometrical method Euclid employed for his Elements; i.e., it begins with a few definitions and axioms, which it uses to develop propositions, which are then used to demonstrate further propositions. This book brought Spinoza renown and respect from Europe’s scientists, theologians, and philosophers.

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