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THURSDAY marked the 350th anniversary of the excommunication of the philosopher Baruch Spinoza from the Portuguese Jewish community of Amsterdam in which he had been raised.
Given the events of the last week, particularly those emanating from the Middle East, the Spinoza anniversary didn’t get a lot of attention. But it’s one worth remembering — in large measure because Spinoza’s life and though have the power to illuminate the kind of events that at the moment seem so intractable and overwhelming.
The exact reasons for the excommunication of the 23-year-old Spinoza remain murky, but the reasons he came to be vilified throughout all of Europe are not. Spinoza argued that no group or religion could rightly claim infallible knowledge of the Creator’s partiality to its beliefs and ways. After the excommunication, he spent the rest of his life — he died in 1677 at the age of 44 — studying the varieties of religious intolerance. The conclusions he drew are still of dismaying relevance.
The Jews who banished Spinoza had themselves been victims of intolerance, refugees from the Spanish-Portuguese Inquisition. The Jews on the Iberian Peninsula had been forced to convert to Christianity at the end of the 15th century. In the intervening century, they had been kept under the vigilant gaze of the Inquisitors, who suspected the “New Christians,” as they were called even after generations of Christian practice, of carrying the rejection of Christ in their very blood. It can be argued that the Iberian Inquisition was Europe’s first experiment in racialist ideology.
Spinoza’s reaction to the religious intolerance he saw around him was to try to think his way out of all sectarian thinking. He understood the powerful tendency in each of us toward developing a view of the truth that favors the circumstances into which we happened to have been born. Self-aggrandizement can be the invisible scaffolding of religion, politics or ideology.
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