5 Things You Never Knew About Spinoza

5 Things You Never Knew About Spinoza

Spinoza: a renegade thinker whose life was far from boring. From stab wounds to spiders, how many of these strange facts did you know about Spinoza?
5 Things You Never Knew About Spinoza

Even though Spinoza died nearly 350 years ago, his radical philosophy remains relevant today – perhaps more than ever. But what about Spinoza the man? It’s maybe no surprise that the renegade thinker’s life was just as unconventional as his philosophy. Spinoza would surely have disapproved of such a personalised approach, preferring his philosophy to speak for itself, but let’s indulge our curiosity all the same!

Imprint page of Spinoza's Tractatus Theologico-Politicus
Spinoza didn’t learn Latin – the language of his philosophical works – until he was 20

1) Spinoza the Linguist

Spinoza was born in Amsterdam, but Dutch wasn’t his first language. He was raised in a community of Sephardic Jews that had fled prosecution in Portugal. His mother tongue was Portuguese, but he grew up also speaking Spanish and Hebrew. It was only in his 20s that he began studying Latin, the language of his philosophical works, with Franciscus van den Enden – a notorious free thinker and former Jesuit, who also initiated him into philosophy. He probably also spoke French, and possibly Italian and German because of the family importing business and his multicultural milieu. Spinoza’s penchant for linguistics continued throughout his life. When he died, he was working on a compendium of Hebrew grammar.

2) Cloak and Dagger

Photograph of a 17th century dagger
The opposite of a fashion victim: Spinoza’s cloak saved him from a stab wound

Spinoza’s unorthodox views on Jewish dogma, such as the contention that Moses did not author the first five books of the Hebrew bible, put him at odds with Amsterdam’s Jewish community. When he was 22, he was attacked on the steps of the synagogue by a man brandishing a dagger. Spinoza was saved from injury thanks to his voluminous cloak, which was slashed during the attack. Spinoza reportedly continued to wear the unmended cloak as a badge of honour. Later that year, he was finally excommunicated and banned from having any contact with the Jewish community, including his own family.

3) A Most Peculiar Pastime

Photograph of a spider eating an ant on a spiderweb
Before CSI or My Favourite Murder: Spinoza got his gory entertainment from tormenting spiders

According to Colerus, an early biographer, Spinoza liked to amuse himself by transferring a spider he had caught into a rival spider’s web, pitting them against each other in mortal combat. Another variation was throwing a fly or two into the mix. These insect battles reportedly made Spinoza roar with laughter. He also enjoyed examining his insect finds under a microscope.

4) Spinoza’s Deadly Day Job

Line image of a 17th century microscope
17th century microscopes were potentially deadly

It’s very possible that the microscope Spinoza employed to study insects was made by his own hand, since Spinoza earned a modest living as a lens grinder, fashioning lenses for delicate scientific instruments. It would seem that he excelled at his job and his lenses were reputedly of high quality. One of his celebrity clients was astronomer Christiaan Huygens, famous for describing Saturn’s rings and discovering Titan, Saturn’s largest moon. Spinoza died quite young at the age of 44 from a lung ailment, exacerbated or even caused by years of inhaling glass dust as a result of his lens grinding job.

5) A Close Call

Photograph of a 17th century key
Under lock and key: Spinoza’s landlord saved his life by locking him in

A few months before Spinoza’s death, he was visited by the young Leibniz, and they spent several days in intense philosophical discussions. Spinoza told Leibniz about his anger when, four years earlier, rioters had tortured, lynched and partially eaten Jan de Witt, the leader of Dutch Republic who fostered a climate of religious and political tolerance during its Golden Age, along with his brother. Spinoza wanted to post a placard at the site of the massacre with the words ‘Ultimi barbarorum‘ (the lowest of barbarians), which would surely have gotten him killed. Fortunately, his landlord realised the danger and locked him in the house, thus saving him from being torn to pieces by an angry mob.

By Tatiana Reznichenko

Photograph of Tatiana Reznichenko cycling through Spinoza’s homeland, the Netherlands
Tatiana Reznichenko cycling through Spinoza’s homeland, the Netherlands
Affects, Actions and Passions in Spinoza cover image

Tatiana Reznichenko is the translator of Chantal Jaquet’s Affects, Actions and Passions in Spinoza. Tatiana is based in Paris and translates books and scholarly works from French, Russian and Italian into English.

Affects, Actions and Passions in Spinoza offers a new analysis of the mind–body relationship in Spinoza’s work. It is the first volume in Edinburgh University Press’ new Spinoza Studies series, which broadens the understanding of Spinoza in the Anglophone world by translating central works by Continental scholars into English for the first time.

Image credits

Spinoza’s Tractatus Theologico-Politicus (Public Domain). Source: http://www1.odn.ne.jp/gakuju/kyokai/spkLocator-e.html via Wikimedia Commons
Damascus Dagger made by Tim Lively (CC BY-SA 3.0). Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Pink and Orange Spider Near Black and Yellow Insect on a Spider Web during Daytime (CC0). Source: Pexels.
M0010770 Campani’s microscope, 17th century (CC BY 4.0). Source: Wellcome Collection via Wikimedia Commons.
A Post Medieval iron key, FindID 193092 (CC BY-SA 2.0). Source: Portable Antiquities Scheme via Wikimedia Commons.

Naomi Farmer
Naomi Farmer
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