Baruch Spinoza was born in 1632 in Amsterdam and brought up in both traditional Jewish and secular philosophical traditions. Because of his studies in secular philosophy, he was excommunicated from the Jewish community. Driven out by the Jews and feared by the Christians as an atheist, Spinoza spent the rest of his short life in poverty, grinding lenses for a living.
“In his personal life, Spinoza, of all the great philosophers, comes closest to being a saint: on the day of his death he was calm and unafraid; in his life, in spite of vicious attacks made upon him, he never became angry, never lost his reasonableness.”
Spinoza taught us to live life in the context of eternity (“On the Improvement of the Understanding”). An individual who frames his thoughts, speech and conduct as if there is more to life than mere existence on earth will know that only the conscious mind is all he has that will continue after the transitional phase of death. He therefore puts great effort, time and commitment into purifying, stabilising and training his mind so that it is well-prepared for the hereafter.
Although there was no mention in Spinoza’s writings of Buddhist concepts of the mind and it is unlikely he had heard of Buddhism, I personally suspect he was the equivalent of a Bodhisattva – a Buddhist saint of infinite compassion who dedicates his or her existence to saving others. This was evident from his conduct and the belief among his contemporaries that he was an atheist.
Any Buddhist who understands the true nature of reality will tell you that even powerful deities who imagined themselves as “creators” of the universe, are only sentient beings as much subjected to the cycle of birth, death and rebirth as humans, animals and demons.
Here’s a moving passage at the end of Spinoza’s monumental Ethics:
“I have finished everything I wished to explain concerning the power of the mind over the emotions and concerning its freedom. From what has been said we see what is the strength of the wise man and how much he surpasses the ignorant who is driven forward by lust alone.
“For the ignorant man is not only agitated by external causes in many ways and never enjoys true peace of soul, but lives also ignorant, as it were, both of God and of things, and as soon as he ceases to suffer ceases also to be.
“On the other hand, the wise man in so far as he is considered as such, is scarcely ever moved in his mind, but, being conscious by a certain external necessity of himself, of God, and of things, never ceases to be and always enjoys true peace of soul.
“If the way which, as I have shown, leads hither seem very difficult, it can nevertheless be found. It must indeed be difficult, since it is so seldom discovered, for if salvation lay ready to hand and could be discovered without great labour, how could it be possible that it should be neglected almost by everybody ? But all noble things are as difficult as they are rare.”
This passage about “mind”, “ignorance, “noble things” and the exhortation to self-salvation, is similar to fundamental Buddhist texts.
It was the reading of Spinoza that first triggered in me the desire in 1972 (when I was a young man preparing to enter the working world) to study philosophy and to figure out how to live a well-informed life in the context of eternity.
Spinoza lived quietly as a lens grinder, turning down rewards and honours throughout his life, including prestigious teaching positions, and gave his family inheritance to his sister. His intellectual accomplishments and moral character prompted 20th Century philosopher Gilles Deleuze to name him “the prince of philosophers”.
Spinoza died in February 1677, age 44, probably of a lung illness caused by the fine glass dust inhaled while grinding the lenses. He is buried in the churchyard of the Christian Nieuwe Kerk in The Hague.
Read A Book Forged in Hell: Spinoza's Scandalous Treatise and The Birth of the Secular Age, both by Steven Nadler