by Assad Meymandi, MD, PhD, DLFAPA
Dr. Meymandi is in private practice as a psychiatrist and neurologist and serves as an adjunct professor of psychiatry at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is a noted physician, editor, and philanthropist who frequently speaks and writes on diverse topics that relate to his interests in medicine, the arts, religion, and philanthropy. He lives in Raleigh with his wife Emily.

Psychiatry (Edgemont) 2010;7(5):47–50

Spinoza had a vast mind the size of Central Park and Hyde Park put together. I have always thought in my imagination how nice it would be to have permission to just amble around Spinoza’s vast mental space.

Baruch Spinoza was born on November 24, 1632, in Amsterdam. His parents and grandparents were Portuguese Jews who, because of intolerance and antisemitism, emigrated to Amsterdam and converted to Christianity. He learned Hebrew, paleo-Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek, Latin, and to some degree Arabic. He was a polyglot and a polymath.

Spinoza became known in the Jewish community for positions contrary to prevailing Jewish belief of the period, wherein he harbored critical positions, and thus the seed of his Cherem (excommunication; etymology: Arabic/Aramaic Haram, forbidden as opposed to Halal, permitted) were sewn. He was not a Muslim, but behaved like a Sufi in that he gave away all his possessions to his step sister. He was heavily influenced by Al Ghazali, Baba Taher Oryan, and Al Farabi. For example Al Ghazali, who was a promoter of the philosophy of skepticism, which was the position that nothing can be known, was Spinoza’s favorite hero. Al Ghazali said, “Doubt is a musical note that embellishes the intellectual symphony of a man’s life.”

Spinoza was not a theologian; however, his treatises make one aware of a rich repository of spirituality, transcendence, and “Godliness.” His short life shows that he was an advocate of the theology of hope, possibility, and redemption.

Around 1663, Spinoza was an adamant anti-Maimonidean. Late in his life, he changed his mind and gave Maimonides his due respect. Also, he used well the rich resources he extracted from the Eastern philosophers to the point that his behavior (i.e., his lack of regard for money and material things, his giving up all his inheritance to his step-sister) demonstrated his Sufi lifestyle and mentality, even though he was not a Muslim.

The philosophy of Spinoza is systematic, logical, and rational and was developed by him in the 17th century in Europe. It is a system of ideas built from basic building blocks with an internal consistency with which Spinoza tried to answer life’s major questions and in which he proposed that “God exists only philosophically.” He was heavily influenced by well-known thinkers, such as Descartes, Euclid, and Thomas Hobbes, as well as theologians in the Jewish philosophical tradition, such as Maimonides, all of which I will review in this article, but his work was in many respects a departure from the Judeo-Christian tradition. He promoted pantheism and panentheism, which is a belief system that posits that God exists and interpenetrates every part of nature and timelessly extends beyond as well.

René Descartes is considered the father of modern philosophy and the founder of the rational method as applied to philosophical research. In fact, he was the first philosopher to begin with the impressions that are in our intellect (intellectual phenomenalism) and lay down the laws that reason must follow in order to arrive at reasonably certain philosophical data.

This phenomenalism did not find its full development in Descartes. Indeed, Descartes reached metaphysical conclusions that are no different from those of scholastic philosophy. He maintained the transcendency of God and upheld human liberty and Christian morality. But pantheism is sown deep in every form of immanentism (religious theories postulating that a deity, mind, or spirit is immanent in the world and in the individual). The rationalism of Descartes was to be quickly and logically bent in this direction by Spinoza, while other Cartesians, such as Malebranche and Leibniz, tried—with less logic—more middle-of-the-road solutions between pantheism and the transcendence of God. Descartes was a major figure in 17th-century continental rationalism, later advocated by Spinoza and Gottfried Leibniz and opposed by the empiricist school of thought consisting of Hobbes, Locke, Berkeley, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Hume.

Leibniz, Spinoza, and Descartes were all well versed in mathematics as well as philosophy, and Descartes and Leibniz contributed greatly to science as well. As the inventor of the Cartesian coordinate system, Descartes founded analytic geometry, the bridge between algebra and geometry, crucial to the discovery of infinitesimal calculus and analysis. He is best known for the philosophical statement cogito ergo sum (French: Je pense, donc je suis; English: I think, therefore I am; or I am thinking, therefore I exist), found in Part IV of Discourse on the Method (1637, written in French but with inclusion of cogito ergo sum) and Part I of Principles of Philosophy (1644 , written in Latin). Descartes has been described as “Spinoza’s starting point.” Spinoza’s first publication was his geometric exposition (formal math proofs) of Descartes, Parts I and II of Descartes’ Principles of Philosophy (1663).

Spinoza has been associated with Leibniz and Descartes as a “rationalist” in contrast to “empiricist.” From December 1664 to June 1665, Spinoza engaged in correspondence with Blyenbergh, an amateur Calvinist theologian, who questioned Spinoza on the definition of evil. Later in 1665, Spinoza notified Oldenburg that he had started to work on a new book, the Theologico-Political Treatise, published in 1670. Leibniz disagreed harshly with Spinoza in Leibniz’s own published Refutation of Spinoza, but he is also known to have met with Spinoza on at least one occasion, and his own work, known as Monadology, bears some striking resemblances to specific important parts of Spinoza’s philosophy.

Because of his rant against Jews and Jewish theology, the Jewish community issued to Spinoza the writ of Cherem, a kind of excommunication. Righteous indignation on the part of the synagogue elders at Spinoza’s heresies was not the sole cause for his excommunication; there was also the practical concern that his ideas, which disagreed equally well with the orthodoxies of other religions as with Judaism, would not sit well with the Christian leaders of Amsterdam and would reflect badly on the whole Jewish community, endangering the limited freedoms that the Jews had achieved in that city.

The terms of his cherem were severe. He was, in Bertrand Russell’s words, “cursed with all the curses in Deuteronomy and with the curse that Elisha pronounced on the children who, in consequence, were torn to pieces by the she-bears.” The cherem was, atypically, never revoked. Following his excommunication, he adopted the first name Benedictus, the Latin equivalent of his given name, Baruch; they both mean “blessed.” In his native Amsterdam, he was also known as Bento (Portuguese for Benedict or blessed) de Spinoza, which was the informal form of his name. The ban, written in Portuguese, is still preserved in the archives of the Amsterdam community. The pronouncement preceding the ban reads: “The chiefs of the council make known to you that having long known of evil opinions and acts of Baruch de Spinoza, they have endeavored by various means and promises to turn him from evil ways. Not being able to find any remedy, but on the contrary receiving every day more information about the abominable heresies practiced and taught by him, and about the monstrous acts committed by him, having this from many trustworthy witnesses who have deposed and borne witness on all this in the presence of said Spinoza, who has been convicted; all this having been examined in the presence of the Rabbis, the council decided, with the advice of the Rabbi, that the said Spinoza should be excommunicated and cut off from the Nation of Israel.”

There is a tremendous historical parallel between Spinoza and Martin Luther. They both started to study the law, Baruch in Amsterdam, Luther in Wittenberg, they were both rebellious and contemptuous of orthodoxy, and they were both ex-communicated from the mainstay religious institutions (Spinoza from the synagogue and Luther from the catholic church).

After his Cherem, Spinoza became acquainted with several collegiants, members of an eclectic sect with tendencies toward rationalism. This is when he began reading and studying Descartes. Many of his friends belonged to dissident Christian groups, which met regularly as discussion groups and typically rejected the authority of established churches as well as traditional dogmas.

Textbooks and encyclopedias often depict Spinoza as a solitary soul who eked out a living as a lens grinder; in reality, he had many friends but kept his needs to a minimum. One reviewer noted, “No one has ever come nearer to the ideal life of the philosopher than Spinoza.” Another wrote, “As a teacher of reality, he practiced his own wisdom and was surely one of the most exemplary human beings ever to have lived.” And yet another wrote, “In outward appearance he was unpretending, but not careless. His way of living was exceedingly modest and retired; often he did not leave his room for many days together. He was likewise almost incredibly frugal; his expenses sometimes amounted only to a few pence a day.” Spinoza appears to have had no sexual life.

By the beginning of the 1660s, Spinoza’s name became more widely known, and eventually Gottfried Leibniz and Henry Oldenburg paid him visits, as stated in Matthew Stewart’s, The Courtier and the Heretic.

Later in life, Spinoza made a u-turn and eventually reconciled with the teachings of Moses Maimonedes and even wrote pieces in which he agreed with Maimonedes and his assertions about “self-discovery.” Maimonedes was a doctor, a Rabbi, a philosopher, a writer, a clinician, and a counselor to the Caliphs. Spinoza was inspired to read the Torah, which was written in Judeo-Arabic, although he had read them all as a child. As the result of this re-read, Spinoza’s three famous and essential treatises were born: On the Improvement of the Understanding, Principles of Cartesian Philosophy, and A Theologico-Political Treatise. These works demonstrated the signature of Moses Maimonides.

When the public reactions to the anonymously published Theologico-Political Treatise were extremely unfavourable to his brand of Cartesianism, Spinoza was compelled to abstain from publishing more of his works. Wary and independent, he wore a signet ring engraved with his initials, a rose, and the word caute (Latin for “cautiously”). The Ethics and all other works, apart from the Descartes’ Principles of Philosophy and the Theologico-Political Treatise, were published after Spinoza’s death, in the Opera Posthuma edited by his friends in secrecy to avoid confiscation and destruction of manuscripts. The Ethics contains many still-unresolved obscurities and is written with a forbidding mathematical structure modeled on Euclid’s geometry and has been described as a “superbly cryptic masterwork.”

Spinoza was also impressed by Aquinas because he translated all of Aristotle from Greek to Latin. It is believed that the beginning or anlagen of Spinoza’s work in Ethics and dualism and his intellectual love affair with Euclid and Descartes starts with his reading Aquinas’s work, from which he learned how to think and argue. The only book that bears Spinoza’s name on the spine is the fruit of that love affair: Ethica Ordine Geometrico Demonstrata (The Ethics) (1677), translated by Jonathan Bennett.

The first translation of this work into Hebrew was done by Samuel Ibn Tibbon Teshuvot, who collected correspondence and response, including a number of public letters (on resurrection and the after life, on conversion to other faiths, and Iggereth Teiman – addressed to the oppressed Jewry of Yemen). Treatise on Logic (Arabic: Maqala Fi-Sinat Al-Mantiq) has been printed 17 times, including editions in Latin (1527), German (1805, 1822, 1833, 1828), French (1935), and English (1938), and in an abridged Hebrew form.

Spinoza was interested in another Arab polymath, philosopher, economist, and music advocate—Ibn Khaldoun (Abu Zayd Abdu-Rahman Bin Mohammad Ibn Khaldoun Al-Hamadi, 1332–1406). Ibn Khaldoun, the father of trickledown economics (Reaganomics), influenced many European economists, especially Austrian economists, including Ludwig Von Mises (1881–1973). In 1993, while studying Palladian Villas on an architectural tour of Italy, I was privileged to have lunch with Robert Mundell, former Chairman of Economic Advisors for the late President Reagan. Much of the enthusiastic discussion at the table centered around Ibn Khaldoun and Von Mises. Mundell won the Nobel Prize in Economics in 1999 for his analysis of monetary and fiscal policy under different exchange rate regimes. He created the Euro, the monetary unit that binds the economy of the European continent. He is now busy creating a similar economic unit of currency for Asia.

We know as a child, Spinoza gained a reputation of constantly and sometimes irritantly asking “why.” He had a reputation of being “that little WHY boy.” His mother was loving and helped him to find answers to his questions by buying him books and reading him bedtime stories. She even bought him a telescope to see and study the stars. He was very close to his mother, whom he lost at age seven.

Authors who have tried to speculate on Spinoza vis-à-vis psychoanalysis have pondered several different kinds of questions. W. Aron (1977) asked about the overall influence of Spinoza on Freud’s thought. C. Rathbun (1934) noted that the libido, a fundamental concept of psychoanalysis, is adumbrated in Spinoza’s concept of conatus, an inborn drive that leads to striving and persisting. On Walter Bernard’s reading (1946), it is perhaps closer to eros or desire. But what, according to these authors, were Spinoza’s therapeutic principles? These works today appear dated, indicative as much of the intellectual state of psychoanalysis, particularly in Anglo-Saxon countries, as of a poorly informed reading of Spinoza. Some authors, such as Abraham Kaplan (1977), recall that Spinoza’s philosophy was not a proto-psychoanalytic science, but a very knowledgeable metaphysics. Francis Pasche (1981) discusses the idea of “practical psychoanalysis.” Gilles Deleuze’s work on Spinoza, Expression in Philosophy (1992), has opened the way toward a confrontation between Spinozistic and psychoanalytic ethics. Finally, several psychoanalytic authors (Bertrand, 1984; Ogilvie, 1993; Burbage and Chouchan, 1993) have discovered unconscious implications in Spinoza’s philosophy. One last thing that impresses me personally is that Spinoza shares the concept of grace and salvation with Saint Augustine of Hippo, Moses Maimonides of Cordoba, Ibn Khaldoun, and Saint Thomas of Aquinas: The road map to salvation and grace is to know what is good inside of you, such as love, compassion, empathy, and selflessness and what is good outside of you, such as music, flowers, dance, poetry, connectedness with family and friends, and to be thankful by giving something back. Spinoza indeed gave much.