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Baruch (or Benedict) Spinoza (1632-1677), was one of the most important philosophers of the European tradition of rationalism. He was a member of the Sephardic Jewish community of Amsterdam, and received a thorough education in the tradition of medieval philosophical texts as well as in the works of Descartes, Hobbes, and other writers of the period.

Contact with dissident Christian movements and with the scientific and philosophical thought of Descartes led Spinoza to distance himself from orthodox life. Not yet 24 years old, Spinoza rejected traditional interpretations of Scripture and thus deviated from Jewish orthodoxy. In 1656 he was deemed a heretic, cast out of the synagogue, and cursed with all the curses of the firmament. In 1656 he was expelled from the synagogue at Amsterdam on charges of heretical thought and practice, after which he Latinized his name to Benedict.

For a short time Spinoza was exiled from Amsterdam, but he returned and began his life again, supporting himself by grinding lenses for optical instruments, Spinoza stayed for a period of time in the vicinity of Amsterdam, where he gave private lessons and carried on a wide correspondence. In order not to compromise his freedom of thought and speech, he repeatedly refused a chair at the University of Heidelberg, but nevertheless became celebrated in his own day and was regularly visited by other philosophers; among others, Gottfried Leibniz.

In 1660 he moved to Voorburg and then on to the Hague, where he lived with great frugality on a small pension. In 1672 Spinoza undertook a small diplomatic mission to the invading French army, but on his return he was under suspicion as a spy and narrowly escaped being killed by the mob. Spinoza lived out his remaining years in the same frugal state, writing and corresponding. He died of phthisis, possibly brought on by his trade as a lens-grinder. There remain numerous testimonies to his simplicity, virtue, charm, and courage.

“Nature abhors a vacuum.”

“Do not weep; do not wax indignant. Understand.”

“Peace is not an absence of war, it is a virtue, a state of mind, a disposition for benevolence, confidence, justice.”

“There is no hope unmingled with fear, and no fear unmingled with hope.”

“Minds, nevertheless, are not conquered by arms, but by love and generosity.”

“The greatest pride, or the greatest despondency, is the greatest ignorance of one’s self.”

“All excellent things are as difficult as they are rare.”

“The highest activity a human being can attain is learning for understanding, because to understand is to be free.”

“Men are deceived if they think themselves free, an opinion which consists only in this, that they are conscious of their actions and ignorant of the causes by which they are determined.”