Seventeenth century Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza. Photo: Google


What do the writings of Baruch Spinoza, a remote, 17th century Dutch philosopher of Dutch philosopher of Jewish Portuguese origins, have to say about the predicaments of the 21st century?

A lot, because the fanaticisms that he faced alone in his time have multiplied in ours. The fanaticism of his times provoked religious wars; the current ones — arising from blind, narcissistic, exclusionary identities — dispute, with equal ferocity, the kingdom of this world.

Yesterday, the soldiers of faith marched; today the crusaders of race, nation, class, language, ideology, gender and culture proliferate. Then, the inquisitors excommunicated the heretics. Now, the enlightened right or left “cancel” those who think differently from them or burn them alive on social networks.

And as if that were not enough, political absolutism, the trickery that passes for truth, the wars of conquest and ethnic cleansing that we thought had been extirpated from history, have returned with renewed impetus.

For all these reasons, Spinoza — a universal pioneer in the public exercise of reason, the search for objective truth, the defense of republican civility, freedom and tolerance — has much to say to our century.

Spinoza’s radical critique of the theological-political powers had its origin in the historical wound suffered by his ancestors: the expulsion of the Jews from Sepharad, as they called their centennial Iberian home. For nearly a century, the Spinozas took refuge in Portugal, where they hid their faith by adopting Christian names and rites, but without losing the combative spirit to recover the freedom of belief that was natural to them and that was cruelly denied them.

For actively defending it, they supported rebellions against the absolutism of Felipe II in Portugal and some died at the stake of the Inquisition. Others emigrated for a time to Nantes, France, and finally settled in Amsterdam, where, on Nov. 24, 1632, Baruch (Hebrew name meaning “blessed”) was born.

In 1656, the best-known episode in Spinoza’s life took place: his excommunication from the Jewish community in Amsterdam. Why did his co-religionists go to that extreme? If they had suffered so much to persevere in their faith, they needed to combat heterodoxy, which they interpreted as an error and a betrayal.

But the young Spinoza understood that the only way to overcome all intolerances was to fight it at the root, and, for this, he dedicated his short life (he died at the age of 44) to conceive a kind of “philosophical religion” based not on the authority of the Scriptures, but in the understanding of nature (which he equated with God) and the defense of freedom of thought.

There are two apparently contradictory concepts of freedom in Spinoza’s vision. In his magnum opus “Ethics,” which postulates universal determinism, freedom operates within a context of uncontrollable passions that the philosopher tries to understand as natural facts. He thus studies hatred, envy, pride and so on. It is not an easy-to-read book, but whoever is not daunted by its “more geometric” structure and enters that enchanted forest of thought, arrives at a sensation of unusual understanding, clarity and peace. For Spinoza, truth helps us to survive.

But on the other hand, in his “Theological-Political Treatise” and “Political Treatise,” Spinoza defends, perhaps for the first time, universal tolerance.

No one can abdicate his freedom of judgment and feeling; and since every man is, by inalienable natural right, master of his own thoughts, it follows that men who think in diverse and contradictory ways cannot, without disastrous results, be forced to speak only according to the dictates of the supreme power.

Spinoza was a solitary thinker, but his solitude was not one in which his thought finds concreteness, but rather it is backed the that of other human beings. The natural outlet of his work is the polis.

“Spinoza has had the virtue of inspiring devotions,” the late Argentine author Jorge Luis Borges told me one autumn morning in 1978. He was right.

Classics and romantics, liberals and revolutionaries, poets and visionaries, idealists and materialists each read Spinoza’s works in his own way, deciphered it, and, also, reinvented it.

The September issue of Mexican culture and history magazine Letras Libres is dedicated to Spinoza with texts, and includes texts that are practically an act of devotion to him. My forthcoming book of mine, titled “Spinoza in Parque México,” will be as well.

The above article first appeared in Reforma and is being republished in Pulse News Mexico with express prior permission.

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