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Qwiz5 Quizbowl Essentials – Baruch Spinoza

Baruch Spinoza was one of the most influential and idiosyncratic philosophers of the 17th century. Born in Amsterdam to a Portuguese-Jewish family, Spinoza was recognized as a genius from an early age, and he seemed destined for a career as a rabbi. In 1656, however, Spinoza was formally excommunicated from the Jewish community. Even though he was a mere 17 years old, Spinoza had already started espousing the controversial beliefs that would define his philosophy. These beliefs included a critique of sectarian religion and a belief in democratic and humanist values. Spinoza may have been at odds with his contemporaries, but he is celebrated today for his dazzling intellect and philosophical foresight.

By analyzing questions, you can see patterns emerge, patterns that will help you answer questions. Qwiz5 is all about those patterns. In each installment of Qwiz5, we take an answer line and look at its five most common clues. Here we explore five clues that will help you answer a tossup on Baruch Spinoza.


Spinoza’s Tractatus Theologico-Politicus (Theological-Political Treatise, henceforth abbreviated TPT) was published anonymously in 1670. In the TPT Spinoza provides an account of religion that distinguishes between divine and ceremonial law. Spinoza casts doubt on the claim that Moses composed the Torah, and he decried what he saw as the worship of biblical texts rather than the study of their underlying laws. The TPT’s political program follows from these insights, with Spinoza arguing in favor of a more representative government that would not interfere with an individual’s personal faith.


Ethics is the most thorough articulation of Spinoza’s philosophy. Inspired by Euclid, Spinoza structures his Ethics around a series of axioms and related propositions. A brief sketch of Ethics by its sections follows below. Part 1, On God, comments on the nature of God; we’ll elaborate on it later in this guide. Part 2, On the Nature and Origin of the Mind, critiques the Cartesian mind-body duality then in vogue. Part 3, On the Origin and Nature of Emotions, relates how all things experience an urge to continue in their existence. Spinoza claims this urge, conatus, determines our emotional states. Part 4, On Human Bondage, relates how humans are dominated by their passions and emotions. The final section, Of the Power of the Intellect, offers a way out. We must use our reason to see things sub specie aeternitatis, that is, as they appear under the aspect of eternity. Passion and emotions are temporary but reason, emanating from God, is eternal.


An idea that is closely associated with Spinoza is the concept of pantheism. In the first section of Ethics Spinoza comments on the nature of God by arguing that God is the same as nature. Let’s unpack this a little bit, because it’s complicated. Spinoza claims that everything in the cosmos is of one substance, and that substance is God. Thus, in his eyes, an individual entity “God” is synonymous with the complex, multifaceted entity we might call “Nature” or “The Universe.” Spinoza seeks to skirt the controversial follow-up to this proposition—if God is Nature, and the parts of Nature exist independently of each other, then they exist independently of God—by using the word “modes.” With this word choice Spinoza seems to suggest that the objects in Nature are not independent of God but rather expressions of Him.


Spinoza’s last work—unfinished at the time of his death—is his On the Improvement of Understanding. In the work Spinoza sets out to propose a philosophical method to better distinguish between truth and falsehood. The treatise is appropriately subtitled On the Emendation of the Intellect. Subjects addressed in On the Improvement include perception, memory, and the intellect.


As we have said before, Spinoza’s views were radical for their time. In fact, his arguments in the Tractatus were so radical that they incensed the Jewish community of Amsterdam. The Jewish Synagogue of Amsterdam, known as the Esnoga, issued a formal excommunication, a cherem, against Spinoza in 1656.


Quizbowl is about learning, not rote memorization, so we encourage you to use this as a springboard for further reading rather than as an endpoint. Here are a few things to check out:

  • Visit this website to learn more about Amsterdam’s Jewish Quarter, the place of Spinoza’s birth.

  • Spinoza’s religious convictions are still a matter of debate, with some claiming he didn’t believe in God at all.

  • Think Spinoza’s propositions and treatises are a little dry? Composer Michael Zev Gordon may take issue with you there.

  • For an approachable summary of some of Spinoza’s key points in The Ethics, check out this video.

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