You might wonder what a 17th century Dutch-Jewish philosopher has to do with art. For me it all started in Philosophy 101 at Victoria College. Roger Bishop, our prof, had brilliantly taken us through Plato, Aristotle, St. Thomas Aquinas, and Rene Descartes, but when Baruch Spinoza came up I found my kind of guy. I loved his ideas about Nature. To Spinoza, a reasonable religious study would be that of our universe and all the natural wonder and laws within it.
I got a B+ for “Spinoza and the Natural Order” which I produced on my new Underwood portable. It was my first typewritten paper and it was probably pretty weak. Nevertheless, if I ever find it again, I’d like to look at it. I now realize the profound effect Spinoza had on my thinking, my painting, as well as my prejudices and attitudes that readers have sometimes noted.
Baruch (or Benedict) Spinoza (1632-1677) was born in Amsterdam in a period of relative tolerance and free-thinking. With the early death of his father and elder brother, their fruit importing business declined and failed. Young Baruch was unable to keep it together. At age 24, for some unknown blasphemy, he was banished from the Synagogue. This event had the effect of releasing him to correspond with thinkers from all over Europe. Alive to the world around him, Spinoza was in at the very birth of the Enlightenment. Supporting himself by grinding microscope and telescope lenses, he studied widely, wrote ardently, and died at age 44 from a glass-induced lung disorder. There is no evidence that he ever married or even had a girlfriend.
Today, Spinoza societies abound, universities study him and his books are still in print.
Spinoza felt that all things are worthy of interest and study. This includes human nature, esthetics, morality, institutions such as churches and governments, the tiniest animalcule or flower and the universe itself. “I do not ridicule or bewail,” said Spinoza, “I try to understand.” For a beginning painter and newly professed citizen of the world, this was good stuff. Drawing, composing, the creative process, and what I considered the evolved act of honouring our world in paint, seemed to me a high religion. “To understand,” said Spinoza, “is to be free.”
PS: “All things excellent are as difficult as they are rare.” (Baruch Spinoza)
Esoterica: In Spinoza’s world there was no room for shoddy research, shoddy work, platitudes, intellectual dishonesty or superstition. Everything in the universe was worthwhile and worthy and at least somewhat decipherable by reason. In those days of first-year college, I wore a bow tie even when painting. Once, on a balmy day at a place called Saanich Spit near where I lived in Victoria, British Columbia, I painted in the rumble seat of my Hupmobile coupe. As the sun sped toward the horizon and the great bowl of stars began to appear among the vaporous clouds, I read Spinoza’s The Ethics by flashlight. To this day I carry the book.
Opening up to learning
by Frank Pasian, Toronto, ON, Canada
I just read your letter on Spinoza and was sufficiently moved by it to want to write to thank you and to introduce myself. I have subscribed to other artists’ newsletters such as yours for brief periods in the past but found after a short time that they contained little in them that spoke to me. Yours is different. Your B+ on your philosophy paper brought back memories of brilliant professors I worshipped when at university many years ago and for whom I was able to produce only second rate papers. My grades were unimportant. What was important was the worlds and the awareness they opened up for me including the relative unimportance of grades.
I would like to say that I will now read some Spinoza even though I am a very undisciplined reader. But I do appreciate learning something about the way he thought and how he saw ‘the universe’. It makes one feel less isolated.
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The brilliance of excommunication
by Nancy Oppenheimer, Seneca, SC, USA
The Dispersion and Odyssey of the Jews filled the mind of the young Spinoza, whose family lived in Amsterdam, and with the help of the Christians there, the Jews built the second largest temple in the world. Spinoza was asked to recant the ideas of Bruno and Descartes that he was espousing. He was brought before the elders of his synagogue in 1656 on charges of heresy:
“Was it true that he had said to his friends that God might have a body, the world of matter; that angels might be hallucinations; that the soul might be merely life; and the old testament said nothing of immortality?” Spinoza refused an annuity of $500 if he would remain loyal to his synagogue, but he refused and was excommunicated. The nature of Spinoza’s questioning journey are timeless and food for the feast we curious artists find so bountiful.
The Rabbi’s curse
by Silvia Forrest, Vero Beach, FL, USA
When Spinoza was expelled from the synagogue, the Rabbis put the following curse on him:
“With the judgment of the angels and of the saints we excommunicate, cut off, curse, and anathematize Baruch de Espinoza, with the consent of the elders and all this holy congregation, in the presence of the holy books: by the 613 precepts which are written therein, with the anathema wherewith Joshua cursed Jericho, with the curse which Elisha laid upon the children, and with all the curses which are written in the law. Cursed be he by day and cursed be he by night. Cursed be he in sleeping and cursed be he in waking, cursed in going out and cursed in coming in. The Lord shall not pardon him, the wrath and fury of the Lord shall henceforth be kindled against this man, and shall lay upon him all the curses which are written in the book of the law. The Lord shall destroy his name under the sun, and cut him off for his undoing from all the tribes of Israel, with all the curses of the firmament which are written in the book of law.”
The multiple malediction concluded with an order requiring all Jews to avoid any contact with Spinoza, and to refrain on pain of punishment from reading “any paper composed or written by him.”
All this because he questioned the immortality of the soul and preached the separation from church and state! The Vatican joined the Rabbis in their condemnation of Spinoza. So one could say that he was an agent of unity between the Jews and the Catholic church!
By the way, I’m Jewish and I love Spinoza. My kind of guy.
Einstein’s shared view
by Ernst Lurker, East Hampton, NY, USA
The only reason I know about Spinoza is that Einstein seems to have shared his view of God. Here’s a quote of Einstein:
“It seems to me that the idea of a personal God is an anthropomorphic concept which I cannot take seriously. I feel also not able to imagine some will or goal outside the human sphere. My views are near to those of Spinoza: admiration for the beauty of and belief in the logical simplicity of the order and harmony which we can grasp humbly and only imperfectly.”
After having read a few of Einstein’s comments about this subject, they clarified my understanding of Einstein’s views and eventually they came close to my own. So, in that sense, I feel indebted to both.
Finding God through Nature
by Elle Fagan, Hartford, CT, USA
The idea of finding God through Nature is a lovely one, I’ve always thought — one that occurs pretty naturally to most people. Creation’s miracle is so good to refresh on at this time of year, when it is all bursting forth in one more spring — one more overwhelming celebration of life. His family having suffered Judeo/Christian oppression and confusion, it is only natural that the search for the spirit would send him somewhere – at least it was somewhere nice.
The world at our feet
by Karen R. Phinney, Halifax, NS, Canada
I am guessing you might have heard the CBC program, “Ideas, with Paul Kennedy,” where there was talk of Spinoza and his ruminations. Somewhere along the line I had heard of him – knew little of his philosophy – but was impressed at his broad-minded approach to life and all things that we humans study and work at. And his love of nature, which I share. Nature can help to heal us, I believe, when things “go south” and we may lose our bearings for a bit.
I have always been interested in a great many things – the world under our feet, (the archaeological and paleontological one), the world above us, and the natural world. Everything fascinated me and still does. I realized I wanted to understand how it all worked. I read and was superficially knowledgeable about some of that. And it means I have an eclectic view of art, as well. I love most of it; there isn’t much I can’t see some merit in. My own has tended to be eclectic too, as I seek new ways of self-expression. Recently, because of health issues with my husband, I have left the brushes untouched, but am feeling stirrings to return to that. It has been a rocky few months, but it’s getting better. And I hope to express myself again. I do want to know more about Baruch Spinoza.
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The gift of modernity
by Siobhán Dempsey, Cork, Ireland
I, too, found his beauty and sensitivity of our place and part in nature lead me to realize, “So that’s it.” I often wonder why he is not on more curricula. I presume, even in those bygone days, they had spin doctors. You, yourself, write inspiring and inculcating letters. Betraying Spinoza: The Renegade Jew Who Gave Us Modernity (Jewish Encounters) by Rebecca Goldstein — for anyone who has not the valuable commodity of reading the insightful meditations of Spinoza — although they should give it a go — this is a great book to get an idea of the man. Just so readable.
The life of Spinoza
by Susan Marx, Orange, NJ, USA
Spinoza (1632-77) was born in Amsterdam to Mikael and Hanna Deborah, Mikael’s second wife who died when Spinoza was a little boy of six. The family were Marranos, who had fled from Portugal in order to return to Judaism. The details of Spinoza’s Jewish education are still unclear, but he seems to have been taught by Rabbi Saul Morteira, teacher of Talmud at the Etz Hayyim school, and later taught himself, becoming especially proficient in medieval Jewish philosophy and general philosophy and science.
He seems to have also acquired a knowledge of the Kabbalah, and the philosophical system he developed in his own original way owes something to the Safed Kabbalist Moses Cordovero. There are echoes in Spinoza’s thought of Cordovero’s summary of the relationship of the universe to God: “God is the all but the all is not God,” although, according to the majority of his interpreters, Spinoza’s pantheism goes much beyond Cordovero in actually identifying the universe with God, as in his famous maxim: Deus sive natura (“God or nature”), that is, God is the name given to the universe as a whole, monotheism becoming, for Spinoza, monism. For Spinoza, God did not create nature but is nature, and neither intellect nor will can be ascribed to God.
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes Edward Davidson who wrote, “I now realize I have a lot more in common with my ‘thinking’ contemporaries than I heretofore even suspected. I’m afraid I’ve been focused on the unlettered because they make more noise than the rest of us.”
And also Ann Porter of Lake Hill, NY, USA, who wrote, “The first thing I remembered from college about Spinoza when I received this email is that he was a ‘monist,’ not a ‘dualist.’ ”
And also Jacob Stein who wrote, “The idea that God made people in his image was confronted with the thought that people made God in their image, and then Spinoza figured that God maybe wasn’t like a human at all, with demands and caprices, but was an all-permeating spirit that was present and available for study in every marvelous bit of Nature.”
Enjoy the past comments below for Spinoza and me…