Baruch Spinoza, the “prince of philosophers,” is considered by many to be a standard by which other philosophers model themselves.
A leading voice in the 17th century world, academic Georg Wilhelm Friedrich once said of the Jewish philosopher, “You are either a Spinozist or not a philosopher at all.”
Spinoza was born in 1632 in Amsterdam, to Sephardic Jewish parents. He belonged to a local Jewish community that had fled Spain following the Alhambra Decree, which largely expelled the Jewish population in 1492.
As a young boy, Spinoza spoke Spanish, Hebrew, Portuguese, Dutch, French and Latin. He studied at yeshiva and was on the path to scholarship, but the death of his father at the age of 21 led Spinoza to take over the family’s merchant business to support his siblings.
Ultimately, after some financial difficulties, Spinoza’s younger brother took over the trade, freeing the young man to once again pursue scholarly goals.
By this time, Spinoza was known to congregate with several fringe groups that promoted dissidence and anti-cleric thinking. This reputation led to Spinoza’s excommunication from his Talmud Torah congregation, on grounds of “abominable heresies” and “monstrous deeds.” Leaders at the congregation appealed to city officials as well, causing Spinoza’s expulsion from Amsterdam altogether.
Spinoza would ultimately return to Amsterdam, though he spent the rest of his life moving from place to place. During his travels, he worked on several important philosophical works, still held up today as key references in the field. What is often called his masterpiece, “The Ethics,” earned him a spot as one of the West’s most important contributors to philosophy.
In his book, “Thinkers of the New Left,” writer Roger Scruton said: “Spinoza wrote the last indisputable Latin masterpiece, and one in which the refined conceptions of medieval philosophy are finally turned against themselves and destroyed entirely.”
Some of Spinoza’s other famous works include “A Theological Political Treatise” and “A Short Treatise on God, Man and His Well being.” And while these works would become incredibly well regarded centuries later, Spinoza enjoyed little appreciation for his prolific writings in life.
Spinoza died on February 21, 1677, at the Hague. He was 44.