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Monthly Archives: September 2008

Deleuze on Spinoza and Plotinus and Luminosity

Emanate, Immanent and the Spatiality of Light

Because the distinction between Deleuze’s distinction between emanate and immanent is an interesting one, I thought I would post some of Deleuze’s thoughts on Plotinus in reference to Spinoza here, for the convenience of investigative readers. If interested, follow the link below. (Other thoughts on Plotinus and Spinoza are found in his Expressionism in Philosophy: Spinoza pages 170-178):

One of Plato’s disciples, Plotinus, speaks to us at a certain level of the One as the radical origin of Being. Here, Being comes out of [sort de] the One. The One makes Being, therefore it is not, it is superior to Being. This will be the language of pure emanation: the One emanates Being. That is to say the One does not come out of itself in order to produce Being, because if it came out of itself it would become Two, but Being comes out of the One. This is the very formula of the emanative cause. But when we establish ourselves at the level of Being, this same Plotinus will speak to us in splendid and lyrical terms of the Being that contains all beings, the Being that comprehends all beings. And he issues a whole series of formulae which will have very great importance for the whole philosophy of the Renaissance. He will say Being complicates all beings. It’s an admirable formula. Why does Being complicate all beings? Because each being explicates Being. There will be a linguistic doublet here: complicate, explicate…

…Why? Because this was undoubtedly the most dangerous theme. Treating God as an emanative cause can fit because there is still the distinction between cause and effect. But as immanent cause, such that we no longer know very well how to distinguish cause and effect, that is to say treating God and the creature the same, that becomes much more difficult. Immanence was above all danger. So much so that the idea of an immanent cause appears constantly in the history of philosophy, but as [something] held in check, kept at such-and-such a level of the sequence, not having value, and faced with being corrected by other moments of the sequence and the accusation of immanentism was, for every story of heresies, the fundamental accusation: you confuse God and the creature. That’s the fatal accusation. Therefore the immanent cause was constantly there, but it didn’t manage to gain a status [statut]. It had only a small place in the sequence of concepts.
Spinoza arrives…

…It’s with Plotinus that a pure optical world begins in philosophy. Idealities will no longer be only optical. They will be luminous, without any tactile reference. Henceforth the limit is of a completely different nature. Light scours the shadows. Does shadow form part of light? Yes, it forms a part of light and you will have a light-shadow gradation that will develop space. They are in the process of finding that deeper than space there is spatialization. Plato didn’t know [savait] of that. If you read Plato’s texts on light, like the end of book six of the Republic, and set it next to Plotinus ‘s texts, you see that several centuries had to pass between one text and the other. These nuances are necessary. It’s no longer the same world. You know [savez] it for certain before knowing why, that the manner in which Plotinus extracts the texts from Plato develops for himself a theme of pure light. This could not be so in Plato. Once again, Plato’s world was not an optical world but a tactile-optical world. The discovery of a pure light, of the sufficiency of light to constitute a world implies that, beneath space, one has discovered spatialization. This is not a Platonic idea, not even in the Timeus.

Found here 


Spinoza and Plotinus, some morning thoughts

I ran across a LiveJournal entry that touched on something I have always found of interest, the relationship of Spinoza to Plotinus:

It’s amazing how much Spinoza resembles Plotinus.

Plotinus said that, instead of creation ex nihilo, existence emanated from God.

Emanation ex deo (out of God), confirms the absolute transcendence of the One, making the unfolding of the cosmos purely a consequence of its existence; the One is in no way affected or diminished by these emanations.

This mirrors Spinoza’s idea that “creation” (so to speak) was necessary because God exists; and that the world is the way it is, and could be no other way, because of the nature of God. And though physical things are contingent (limited by things outside of themselves), God/substance is the only non-contingent, necessary thing, because God is not acted upon by outside agents (there is nothing outside of God). Existence necessarily exists, because of the nature of God, but the modes of existence are contingent.

In Plotinus’ view, it’s the ulimate destiny of contingent things to reunite with the One. I haven’t read anything about ultimate ends in Spinoza’s Ethics, but if I remember correctly, he agrees (kinda) with Plotinus. Not only is it our fate to disappear into God (to become one with the Force!)–a fate which we have no choice about–we should actively assent to it, in order to increase our happiness.

The conceptual parallels between Spinoza and Plotinus have always appeared to me to be significant, as it seems that somehow through Plotinus Spinoza had an inheritance of the “degrees of Being” interpretation of power and truth. One does not know if he received this Neo-Platonic inheritance through Augustine or through an early youth exposure to Kabbalistic thinking that was rife in the religious community at the time, but very few interpreters seem to give it much weight, preferring instead the Cartesian root-stem. But Spinoza vectorial treatment of knowledge and his General defintion of the affects surely demands such an additional analysis. That I know of, only Deleuze (EiP:S, pp 170 -178) gives substantive consideration to this continuance, as he touchily tries to parse out Spinoza’s immanencefrom Plotinus’s emanation, a perhaps vital distinction (dictionary bending, one that always gets me flipping the pages to re-familiarize myself with these two words).

Such a connection proves significant because it bears on “ladyelaine’s” final paragraph here the path to freedom, for Hegel too thought that Spinoza’s position ultimately lead to an acomism, the collapse of all that exists into an non-distinct whole, a Blob of Being, without reflection. Hegel’s view was likely held because reflection was the gem-stone of his personal brilliant crown, the manner by which he pulled himself free, and originally from Spinoza gravity, the analytic that distinguished himself. Spinoza was missing the Reality of the “negation”, but was he? Hegel’s saving of the “soul”, the surety that the human soul was special, made of a distinction that was different in kind from the manner of distinctions that made rocks, and lakes and even sun’s light distinct somehow fails to grasp the grandeur of Spinoza’s treatment of the negation. The negation is indeed Real, but real as a comprehensive expression of the whole, wholeness against which the vectors of knowledge and power leverage themselves as completing. My own conceptions are composed of illusionary negations (distinctions of separation) only insofar as they limit my ability to act. Following Augustine in some way, they are composed of a relative poverty, degrees of privation. And this privation is only resolved through addition, an addition that is both bodily and relatively clear (insofar as).

I believe that a subtle key is that the “active assent” that ladyelaine intuits to be missing from Spinoza, only at first blush only seems absent, because it is everywhere. Every thought Spinoza asserts is an assertion. This is only retarded by imagining that a “person” is at the center of this assertion, instead of being composed by it. ladyelaine elsewhere touches on the difficulty she has in accepting that mind can be ascribed to something that is not a person (here). This of course is an ultimate question. Is it coherent to think of a rock having “mind”? Or, perhaps more tempting, is it coherent to think that a rock has “information”? It seems to me is that Spinoza proposes a unique monist (and material) solution, one that allows us to see that as minds we much necessarily combine with other minds, and (a very signficant “and”) as bodies we must combine with other bodies, forming compositional, thinking and affective wholes (however fleetingly). And, our freedom depends on it.

Related: Becoming Intense and Longitude: Deleuze and Guattari , Deleuze Lecture on Spinoza

Spinoza: Not As Abused As Is Said

Two Kinds of Disparagment Found In the Huygens Letters

I am looking at the references to Spinoza made by Christiaan Huygens, coming to them with the expectation that they would reveal a general disparagement of the man, either in terms of his optical knowledge, or in terms of his person, for these letters have been characterized as proof of a certain diminishment Spinoza had suffered in the minds of those who came to know him.

I quote below two sources that typify this kind of conclusion.

It is however the letters which Christiaan Huygens wrote to his brother Constantijn between 9 September and 11 May 1668, which provide us with the clearest evidence that by then, those engaged on actual research into dioptrics had begun to take a somewhat patronizing attitude to Spinoza’s theorizing on the subject. They make it perfectly clear that although Huygens valued “our Israelite’s” practical skill in producing first-rate lenses, he thought it very unlikely that he was capable of adding anything of value to the understanding of optical phenomena (97)

Spinoza’s Algebraic Calculation of the Rainbow & Calculation of Chances, by Michael John Petry  

Over time, he earned praise from some notable experts for his expertise in lens and instrument construction. Huygens, writing to his brother from Paris in 1667 (when Spinoza was living in Voorburg) noted that “the [lenses] that the Jew of Voorburghas in his microscopes have an admirable polish.” A month later, still using the somewhat contemptuous epithetet – occasionally replaced in his letters by “our Israelite” – he wrote that “the Jew of Voorburg finishes [achevoit] his little lenses by means of the instrument and this renders them very excellent (183) 

Spinoza: A Life, by Steven Nadler

The Optical Israelite

While Petry finds in these letters clear evidence for an accumulation of doubt as to Spinoza’s capacities as an optical thinker, the relegation of him to simply that of an excellent craftsman, Nadler acknowledging that although Spinoza’s instrument achievements were much respected, strongly suggests that he was seen merely as a “Jew”, or perjoratively as “our Israelite”. The picture that is left by these writers and others is that somehow Spinoza was seen in a poor intellectual and ethnic light by the Huygnses.

In looking at these letters, this simply does not seem to be the case. Firstly, Nadler’s implied characterization that in these letters Spinoza is ONLY the Jew or Israelite does not hold. He is also “Le Sieur Spinoza” , “Sir Spinoza” (September 9, 1667, May 11 1668), and just “Spinoza” several times. He is also addressed in combination of “Spinoza et Monsieur Hudde” (Semptember 23, 1667); whether this is a sign of his diminishment in contrast to Mr. Hudde, or one of familiarity is hard to weigh. In fact it is hard to measure the full texture of the Jewish nomenclatures, some of which Nadler finds distinctly “contemptuous”. There very well may be social contempt in these, but the title “the Jew of Voorborg” may be a title Spinoza had somehow informally gained in circles, and not simply one of Christiaan’s invention, and though “our Israelite” may strike our eyes in a jarring fashion, it is difficult to parse out the affection from the diminishment, if indeed there is such. (To understand what Huygens means by “our Israelite” one for instance may have to anachronistically ask, Is Spinoza diminishing others when he refers to the “Brazilian” in his waking dream, as an “Ethiopian” [Ep. 17].)  Because of these telescopic difficulties across centuries, at the very least I want to present the picture of the Huygenes social relationship to Spinoza as more complex and varied than what I assumed by reading the tale of these references without looking at them. And I wish to open the possibility that there was more social respect there, against the tremendous currents of the prejudice of the times, than otherwise would be assumed possible in a less nuanced reading, a respect that Spinoza had personally earned across social barriers.

Petry’s point I am unclear on, for in the letters Spinoza’s optical (vs. craft) acumen does not seem to be in question. There seems to me to be clear evidence rather that Spinoza rather had collaborated with the well-respected mathematician Johannes Hudde on calculations for a 40 ft. lens (Sept 23, 1667), and that these calculations had perhaps influenced Huygens’ own calculations for even longer lenses. Perhaps Petry has in mind Huygens’ thoughts in his May 11, 1668 letter, where Huygens discusses his new eyepiece with Constantijn. Spinoza certainly had no knowledge of the optics of this eyepiece, or its principles, but if I am reading Huygens correctly, this is his proposed solution to spherical aberration using only spherical lenses (against a hyperbolic solution). Not only would Spinoza have no knowledge of these principles, neither would any other man in Europe, Johannes Hudde included. I am unsure if we could say that this was a “patronizing attitude”. I am certainly open to evidence to the contrary.

Others have suggested Christiaan’s warnings to Constantijn should keep quiet about his invented lenses, and not reveal them to Spinoza, proves that he regarded Spinoza to be a “competitor” in lens-making. I find this an odd, or perhaps incomplete conclusion. Christiaan’s invention simply was not ready to be made public, and he knew Spinoza to be at times in close contact with Oldenburg, the secretary of the Royal Society of London. Spinoza had kept Oldenburg abreast of the details of Huygens’s progress. There is a sense though in which Spinoza may have been a competitor to Christiaan. The Huygens brothers may have had an intimate relationship to lens-grinding, and there are signs that Constantijn grew cold to Christiaan’s instructions when Christiaan had gone to Paris. The lenses ground during the time of their separation are thought by Anne van Helden to have been entirely farmed out to craftsmen. If though Constantijn continued his conversations about optics and lenses with his neighbor Spinoza, having lost his brother partner to fame in Paris, indeed Spinoza may have represented, however slightly, an emotional threat to Christiaan. It seems, by several accounts, that Spinoza was an engaging man to talk with. Any disparagement we may find in these letters from Christiaan, insofar as we find it, I think should be understood within this context as well, that the brothers were extremely close on the subject and practice of lens-grinding.

The Text of van Gutschoven’s Letter to Huygens No. 1148

[Posted here is the full original text of Huygens letter 1147, for which there are some comments here A Method of Grinding Small, Spherical Lenses: Spinoza ]

No. 1147.

[G. van Gutschoven] à [Christiaan Huygens].


Apendice au No. 1146.

Instrumentum ad vitra minoris sphaerae terenda.

Laminam eream AB schamno tornatorio affixam excavabis secundum circulum CD cuneo parato in formam circuli aequalis circulo vitri formandi. dice aequalis circulo maximae sphaerulae cuius lens particulam referat. in hoc excabato canali CD, atteres vitra capulae affixa et canali appressa : modo capulam in manu continuo dum vitrum attertur vertas, ut ex omni parte vitrum aequaliter atteratur : consultissimum autem erit laminam horizontalier circumagatur, nam hoc modo non tam facile arena decidet, vltimam autem polituran vitro addes simili lamina sed stannea terra tripolitana inserta : vel lamina simili lignea ex lingo aliquot molliori, quale est salicis, vel populi.

Lentes cavas formabis sphaerula stannea vel plombea EF schamno tornatorio affixa ut vides, polies vero eadem sphaerula vel lignea ut superius dictum terra tripolitana inserta.

Hoc concavo cono schamno tornatorio affixo, scabies vitrorum limbos polies, ne dum ultimam in charta inducimus vitro polituram, particulae tenuiores vitri exfilientes et in poros chartae sese infinuantes vitrum deturpent.

A Method of Grinding Small, Spherical Lenses: Spinoza

Van Gutschoven’s Design for Grinding Small Lenses: Letter No. 1147

We have in a letter written to Christiaan Huygens by G. van Gutshoven, descriptions and diagrams of the essential processes for grinding small spherical lenses, as they were likely shared by most contemporaries of the age. The letter is surely a response to a request from Christiaan who may have been in need of smaller lens grinding techniques, either due to his future interest in compound eye-pieces for telescopes, or in regard to the question of the best lenses for microscopes which would later arise in discussions between himself and Johannes Hudde and Spinoza as well. In any case, van Guschoven an Antwerp mathematician, was Huygens’ initial teacher of the complete essentials of lens grinding in the first place, which he gave to him ten years before in a letter dated Feb. 10, 1653. It was by the aid of these instructions, among others,  that Huygens was able to grind one of the most powerful lenses in Europe, and discover the rings of Saturn in 1656.

This letter is dated only as 1663 by the editors of Huygens’s Oeuvres. 1663 was the year that Spinoza had moved to Voorburg, where the Huygens family kept their Hofwijck country estate. That spring Spinoza rented rooms in the home of master painter Daniel Tydeman, but a five minute walk from the Hofwijck. But Christiaanwas not yet there. He was living in Paris with his father who was attempting to curry the diplomatic favor of King Louis XIV, an effort which would result in Constantijn Sr.’s son becoming the secretary to Louis’ Royal Academy of the Sciences, in 1666.

None of this has occurred yet. Christiaan and Spinoza have not yet met (unless they crossed paths momentarily in the summer of 1663, when a traveling Christiaan took leave of Paris to go to London in the off-season). Huygens would not arrive in Holland and develop his relationship to Spinoza until after May of 1664.

What this letter reveals to us though is the basic mechanism and techniques used in the grinding of small lenses. We know that Spinoza made microscopes (and telescopes) at least since the year of 1661, and in his coming debates over techniques and optics with Christiaan he would champion much smaller, more highly curved lenses for microscopes, against Huygens’ designs of lesser magnification. One would think that from van Gutschoven’s descriptions we can receive a sense of the physical practices that preoccupied Spinoza for many of his daylight hours, specializing at times in these smaller lenses.

It should be noted that the Huygens brothers by this time are among the best lens-grinders in Europe, and Christiaan had already worked on several sophistocated semi-automated designs of grinding machines. These instructions must have been experienced as extremely rudimentary to Christiaan (or perhaps, it is from another date).

The letter has three figures, pictured below. The first of these shows a vertical grinding form that is likely of iron or copper. One can see the core movement of a lathe, as foot petal likely drove the strap that turns the shaft, spinning the form concentrically. For larger lenses the form would be hollow, holding the concavity of a curvature that one would want the glass to have. Here though, the small lens is to be ground in the “canal” near its lip:

“Now in this hollowed out canal C D you will grind glasses affixed to a handle and pressed into the canal, with the handle in the hand continuously; while grinding the glass you would turn it until all parts of the glass are equally ground.”

After this equanimity is roughly achieved, attention is turned to the “laminate” or layered strip A B, which turns so the top of it is horizontal to the turner’s bench. By van Gutschoven’sdirection, the laminate is of a soft wood, polar or willow. (Other techniques of the day call for paper.) The roughness of dimples are by hand ground away, and Tripoli, which is a chalky substance made of the remains of microscopic marine life, is added to the laminate to smooth the way.

After this, there is a third process recommended which can either be done in a concave wooden form G H, it too aided by Tripoli, pictured here:

Or, what seems to be a pillow (plombae), affixed to a lathe shaft EG:

There are several things of interest here. The date of the letter makes this description contemporaneous with Spinoza’s own practices, so one might assume a basic correspondence. The grooved canal method strikes one as similar to those a-centric grinding techniques discs used by diamond polishers which Spinoza may have come in contact with either briefly as a merchant of gems, or simply by growing up in a community where gem polishing. The process remained unchanged for several hundred years as late 19th century illustration below shows:

Like the diamond polisher, it is quite possible that Spinoza’s form was oriented horizontally, and not as van Gutschoven suggests, vertically. This was part of a gradual change in lens grinding techniques, much of it initiated by gem polishing influences. The horizontal mould simply made the glass easier to control, and the variable polishes to be administered more cleanly. For this reason, any polishing with Tripoli also occurred on a horizontal, turning wheel. The grinding forms designs that I have seen that the Huygens were using now all had a horizontally oriented lap. 

The second thing to note that in 1667 and 1668, after Christiaan had come to know Spinoza and become familiar with Spinoza’s techniques, he clearly did not still feel comfortable with the limits of van Gutschoven’s design, whenever he had received it, as he in repeated letters urged his brother about the fineness of Spinoza’s small lens polishing. Spinoza’s technique was not that of van Gutschoven. It is my feeling that he had developed, either though his associations in the community he grew up in, those influenced by the practices of gem polishing, means of polishing that were not common to the rest of Europe. Whether these be methods of grit application, the use of diamond dust, particular designs of a simple but effective lathe, one can only surmise. But it seems that Spinoza’s glasses were of a quality and luminosity that made them distinct.

Here is the Latin Text of van Gutschoven’s letter: The Text of van Gutschoven’s Letter to Huygens No. 1148


Aside from this I would want our investigative imagination to extend itself to the physical understanding of these practices, and the conceptual impression they would leave upon a thinking man who engaged in them repeatedly. This has been a theme of my thinking, that if Spinoza had been a potter we may do well to think about his metaphysics and arguments in terms of the potter’s wheel with which he was familiar. The grinding lathe is not so different from the potter’s wheel, and van Gutshoven’s diagrams give us a visual vocabulary for the kinds of effects and exertions that Spinoza produced in perfecting his craft. What in particular these diagrams allow, apart from the general understanding of the grinding lathe, is the picture of a grooved grinding practice, the canal, which varies from the greater method of placing a glass blank within a concave metal form. If indeed Spinoza used this method for his small objectives for microscopes, we can think along with him in the craft of it, and see him bent over the lip of the spinning canal.

As pictured here before, here is an example of a foot petaled lathe from the year 1647, that used by Hevelius. It may give us a dynamic sense of the physical engagement:

Here is a closer look at the Hevelius Lathe: Spinoza’s Grinding Lathe: An Extended Hypothesis

Spinoza and Ovid

Michael Weiss discusses the book Betraying Spinoza with it author: A Kibitz on Pure Reason (Day Two). I have have to say that the book was not a favorite of mine, though the combination of veiled and unveiled personal observation, fiction and nonfiction was a unique take on Spinoza, a man who is sometimes overly caricatured by our needs to make him be a certain kind of person.

But I write here momentarily on something Michael Weiss says in passing, his note of the “inner warmth” of Spinoza beneath the “outer carapace”, signaled by Spinoza’s use of Ovid in the Ethics, hinting at an exoteric and an esoteric Spinoza:

I quite liked your narcissism quote, although my Penguin translation of The Ethics doesn’t put it so poetically as that – a shame, given the citations of Ovid with which Spinoza peppered a few of his axioms. This lure towards the romantic furnishes us with a clue, I think, about Baruch’s unacknowledged biases, since he thought the antique pangs of a fellow outcast fit for such a hyper-rationalist treatise on how best to stifle those pangs. Augustus likely gave Ovid the boot for his decadence and estimation of eros above the stuffy political conservatism and jingoism of imperial Rome. Spinoza had his own epicurean tastes, so I wonder if the frequent nods to the love poet aren’t further evidence of his inner warmth despite the outer carapace.

This caused me to think of my own love for Spinoza’s Ovid quotes and suggestions. In the wider view, I actually find Spinoza quite humorous at times. There have been guesses on what part Spinoza would have played in Terence’s “Andria” and “Eunuchus”, put on by van den Enden’s group in ’57 and ’58 (Leopold, Proietti), a point brought out by Wim Klever. I love the picture of Spinoza acting on stage as a 25 year old. But mostly, I have liked Spinoza’ remarkable Ovid Amores II xix reference when discussing the nature of the courtesan, and the facts of social binding, a Nietzschean: 


Iron is he who would love what the other has set down.

Let us hope while we fear and fear while we hope, we lovers

And let rare repulse make a place for a vow. (4-6)

The wordplay of the Latin is intense, and that Spinoza would draw on such multiplicitous lines is suggestive. Spinoza must have quoted favorite lines from memory (!), for he transposes the two initial lines, and significantly perhaps, suppresses the conciliatory conclusion of mutual conflict, the “locum voto”, the space for a vow (must we revisit the rumor of his lost love for van den Enden’s daughter?),


Let us hope while we fear, and fear while we hope, we lovers

Iron is he who would love what the other sets down. (Ep31c)

Spinoza’s contextually Ovidian argument:

If we imagine that someone enjoys some thing that only one can possess, we shall strive to bring it about that he does not possess it.
Schol: We see, therefore, that for the most part human nature is so constituted that men pity the unfortunate and envy the fortunate, and with greater hate the more they love the thing they imagine the other to possesses. We see, then, that from the same property of human nature from which it follows that men are compassionate [misericordes], it also follows that the same men are envious and ambitious (E3p32).

He who strives, only because of an affect, that others should love what he loves, and live according to his temperament, acts only from impulse and is hateful…since the greatest good men seek from an affect is often such that only one can possess it fully [ut unus tantum eius possit esse compos, hinc fit], those who love are not of one mind in their love-while they rejoice to sing the praises of the thing they love, they fear to be believed (E4p37s1)

I find these to be incredibly subtle and suggestive parts of his argument, and the poem they are drawn from provocative in subject. And lastly, one must remember that Colerus tells us that he would place spiders in a web to fight, amusing himself at the gladiatorial display. I have a feeling that Spinoza was something more than the man (image) we have made of him.


related thoughts: Spinoza and His Courtesan

Huygens’s Comments On Spinoza’s Theory of the Microscope to His Brother

[Opening Comment: I post below an extensive excerpt from a significant letter by the hand of Christiaan Huygens. It is has been cited by biographers for two main reasons. For one, the initial sentence is stated as evidence for Huygens’ regard for apparently an argument or demonstration that Spinoza had put to him in Voorburg, one possibly with some conjunction with Johannes Hudde:

“It is true that experience confirms what is said by Spinoza, namely that small objectives in the microscope represent the objects much finer than the large ones.”

What is not mentioned is that this is the first sentence of a letter devoted to its theme of a compromise with Spinoza (and Hudde) over the issue of small lenses and greater magnfication). Far from being a sidenoteof the letter, Huygens has Spinoza’s argument in the forefront of his mind.

What is also considered significant about this letter (and others like it) is the way that Spinoza is addressed. Here, at the end, not by his name, but as being called “the Israelite”, (and elsewhere as “the Jew”). This is meant in the eyes of many interpreters to signify the distance that Huygens kept between himself and Spinoza, implying that he is merely “the Jew” or “the Israelite” in letters. Indeed there were likely uncrossable social status barriers between the two, but the impression left by some that Spinoza was merely “the Israelite” is not deserved, for the very letter opens with his name and his overarching position.

Other than these two much-traveled points, grafted from the letter, and others related to it, what I find most suggestive is that Spinoza’s position seems to be one shared with Johannes Hudde (they are paired at the end of the selection), and Huygens has responded to Spinoza’s point by with a compound microscope construction of a unique design, whose compromise magnification is measured at 30x. This leaves open the question as to whether Spinoza’s argument was for simple or complex microscopes (or both), but gives us a baseline from which to assesss the magnification achieved by Spinoza’s instruments, for they must be significantly greater than 30x. 

For those unfamiliar, Christiaan Huygens, was one of the most incandescent scientific minds of the 17th century (he invented the pendulum clock and discovered the rings of Saturn in the same year!). It is thought that Spinoza and he spent some significant time together in discussion between at least 1664 and the summer of ‘1665, as they were neighbors in the town of Voorburg until Christiaan left for Paris in the summer of ’66. At the time of the writing of this letter Huygens had already become the Secretary to the newly formed Royal Academy of the Sciences of France, and he write to his brother Constantijn Jr., who remained a neighbor to Spinoza. Constantijn was Christiaan’s partner in lens-grinding and instrument making, something that seemed to be a bond between them.

Christiaan Huygens
Huygens’ Letter to Constantijn  
Letter No. 1638

Christiaan Huygens à Constantyn Huygens, frère.
A Paris ce 11 Maj 1668

Il est vray que l’experience confirme ce que dit Spinosa que les petits objectifs au microscope representent plus distinctement les objects que les grands, avec des ouventures proportionelles, et sans doute la raison s’en peut donner, quoyque le Sieur Spinosa ni moy ne la scachions pas encore, mais aussi de l’autre costè il est certain qu’on distingue plus de profondeur aux objects quand l’objectif est moins convexe. de forte qu’il faut tenir le milieu entre l’un et l’autre pour avoir des microscopes qui sassent uneffect agreeable, mais si on ne cherche qu’a grosser beaucoup il faut des petites lentilles. I’ay essayè vostre derniere proportion avec vos objectifs et deux oculaires joints l’un contre l’autre qui font un bon effect sinon que les points paroissent trop, et bien plus que lors qu’on n’emploie qu’un oculaire seul de 2 pouces, et la raison y est toute evidente, puis que l’un est de 3 pouces et l’autre de 2 ½. Il vaudroit donc mieux que l’un fut de 4 ou 5 pouces du premier, parse qu’ainsi les points de l’un ni de l’autre ne paroistront pas.

Nostre anciene maniere avoit les deux oculaires si pres de l’oeil que cela empeschoit les points d’estre veus, a quoy contribuoit encore beaucoup l’ouuerture de l’objectif un peu grande. car estant petite et la multiplication forte, il est malaise que les points de l’oculaire pres de l’oeil ne paroissent, et le meilleur remede est de faire d’une matiere qui n’aye que fort peu de points. I’ay dans mon microscope un petit oculaire de 6 lignes, qui est de telle matiere, et aussi blanche que du crystal de roche; avec cela elle est fort bonne et souffe pour le moins aussi grande ouuerture que vostre petite que je vous renvoie. Je retiens l’autre pour faire des essays et vous en remercie. le poly est fort bon.

Voicy les mesure de la vraye Campanine, avec la quelle j’ay estè comparer la miene, qui a cause de la grande ouverture que j’avois donnè a l’objecif estoit beaucoup plus Claire, mais en recompense un peu moins distincte que l’autre, qui en effect est un peu somber, mais, pourtant tres excellente. J’ay du depuis ester cy mon ouverture, mais cela fait paroistre les points des oculaires qui en sont assez chargez.

L’ouverture chez l’Abbè Charles est cellecy. [insert the figure of a circle, approx. 1.25 cm in diameter]

Le diaphragme tel [insert the figure of a circle, perhaps a touch less in diameter]

Du trou de l’oeil au premier oculaire [insert the figure of a line segment, approx. 2.5 cm]
Du premier au second oculaire.
[insert the figure of a line segment, approx. 6.5 cm]
Du second oculaire au troisieme.
[insert the figure of a line segment, approx. 6.75 cm]

Je prens tousjours du milieu de l’epaisseur des verres.
Les 3 oculaires ont chacun leur distance de foier d’ 1 pouce 10 lignes.
L’objectif est de 2 pieds 5 pouces.
Toute la longueur de la lunette 3 pieds 3 pouces, qui est moindre de 4 pouces que la meine. tout est mesure de Rhynlande.
Pour ce qui est de ma nouuelle methode de composer un petit cave avec un objectif, le ne trouve pas qu’il y ait de vos petites formes qui vous puissent servir. mais pour un verre planoconvexe de 2 pieds 8 pouces comme vous en saites, il saut un oculaire don’t l’une des superficies soit travillee dans un creux comme cettuicy [insert figure of a small concave-plano lens] dont le demidiametre soit 289/1000 d’un pouce, et l’autre sur une boule don’t le demidiametre soit 187/1000 d’un pouce, [insert figure of a circle approx. .6 cm in diameter] qui est telle, de forte que vostre lentille creuse sera de cette forme [insert a concave-convex figure, with two small protruding notches near the axis], et il faut tourner le costè convexe vers l’oeil. Cette lunette grossira 30 fois, er pour cela il faut travailler l’objectif un peu grand, a fin de luy donner grande ouverture. Le costè convexe doit estre en dehors. Ce composè, suivant la demonstration, doibt faire autant que les verre hyperboliques, parce que le concave corrige les defauts de l’objectif qui vienent de la figure spherique, c’est pourquoy je ne puis pas determiner l’ouverture de l’objectif qui peut ester pourra ester 3 ou 4 sois plus grande qu’a l’ordinaire, mais si nous la pouvons seulement faire double ce fera beaucoup gaignè et la clartè sera assez grande pour la multiplication de 30. L’oculaire ne doibt avoir qu’une petite ouverture et qui soit prise justement au milieu. Il n’est pas necessaire de vous recommander le secret. et quand mesme l’invention ne reussiroit pas je ne voudrois pas que vous en dissiez rien l’Israelite, a fin que par luy, Hudden ou d’autres ne penetrassent dans cette speculation qui a encore d’autres utilitez.

Pour autheur de dioptrique je n’en vois pas encore de meileur que Kepler, dont il y a un exemplaire dans la bibliotheque de mon Pere, outre celuy que j’ay emportè, qui est reliè avec d’autres traitez. demandez moy ce que vous n’y comprendrez pas, et ce que vous voulez scavoir d’avantage, et je vous esclairci…


[I post this letter for two reasons. Firstly, its body should be made easily available to others researching, or even thinking about Spinoza and his place amid 17th century sciences. It is an informed, first-hand response to a theoretical position that Spinoza held. Secondly, and unfortunately, because my French is nearly non-existent, aided by software and careful thought.

It is my hope that someone would be moved so as to accurately translate the text into English (or another language for that matter), which we may be able to post as an effective and accurate on-line source. Perhaps even the donation of a paragraph or so by individuals, so that this would be translated by community would be interesting. My email is 

It should be noted, the measurements of the figures to be inserted are only thumbed approximations meant only for visualization, and not for fact. ]

Govert Bidloo’s 1698 Reference to a Spinoza Microscope

Dutch Republic Stadtholder and King of England, William III

No Second Spinoza Scope

For those that have been following my thought process and research, for a brief moment I believed we may have found another user of a Spinoza microscope, Govert Bidloo in a 1698 open letter to van Leeuwenhoek on the nature of the flatworm parasite F. hepatica. Unfortunately in looking at the text of the letter yesterday I found it only to be a thorough-going reference to Theodor Kerckring’s own use of a Spinoza microscope in his 1670 Specilegium anatomicum, thus far the only first hand account of observations made with an instrument fashioned by Spinoza’s hand.

But the citation is not without merit. As I pointed out in a previous post, in addition to being professor of Medicine and Anatomy at Leiden University, Bidloo was apparently a republican pamphleteer at the time of great social unrest, and the year before his friend Eric Walten had died in prison as a result of the vehiment side taken in the the Berkker controversy, under the force of the vague charge of being a dangerous Spinozist. In this context, the reference to Spinoza’s microscope in a scentific discourse looking to elucidate the source of diseases of the body seems to be something more than coincidence. Spinoza’s lens, and Kerckring’s observations through it, is positioned by Bidloo between two perceived kinds of diagnostic failure.

Bidloo’s Letter: The Importance of Invading Animalcules and Worms

Here is a lengthy excerpt from Bidloo’s published letter, a passage which follows a record of past observations of possible disease causing worms and animalcules (remember, the distinct etiological sources of human disease are largely unknown at this point in history). The catalogue [only the tail of of which is included here] presents numerous body parts and their reported invaders, the body becoming more and more invested, and it is at the end of this that Kerckring is now cited:

Worms in the legs, the scrotum, and a tumor and bladder full of fulls are mentioned by the Misc. Cur., Years 3 and 4, Obs. 173, and the Year 7, Obs. 16.

In scabies and varioles they are described by Borellus [l.c.], Obs. 72.

In pustules, varioles, and the whole of the body: Rhodius [l.c.], Obsc. 64, Part 3.

A wholly wormy man (alas! that only this disease were somewhat rare!) is reported by the Danes in their [Acta Hafn.[ Part 3, Obs. 11.

Severe symptoms caused by mites are reported by Hildanus [l.c.], Obs. 96, as well as by Benetus [l.c.] in his last Obs., Part 35: “a constant production of worms from infancy to great age. Observations about aged worms of different forms, big and small worms, and other animalcles in all parts of the body are to be found. The dispute, or rather the argument will now have to concern the question of whether these animalcules, which are admitted to be found in the parts of living human bodies, can or cannot be causes of diseases and their symptoms, the more so because, amongst others, TH. KERCKRING, a man who has gained a great reputation in anatomy and medicine, doubts it, when on p. 177 in his [Specilegium anatomicum] Obs. 93 he tries to demonstrate the uncertainty of the opinion that is formed about things in anatomy by means and with the aid of magnifying glasses. He deduces this uncertainty: 1. from the smallness of the sharp centers of the field of view; 2. from the change of color; 3. from the alternate inspection of several parts so that what now seems to be separate in reality is united, nay, united physically. But after having highly commended a certain magnifying glass and its maker, B. Spinoza, he adds these words: by means of this my admirable instrument I saw very wonderful things, viz. that the intestines, the liver, and all the tissue of the other intestines are filled with an infinite number of tiny animalcules; however, a person who considers that a house which is inhabited is clean and bright, but nevertheless wears away through the constant maintenance of those who inhabit it, will tend to doubt whether these animalcules spoil or maintain these parts through their continuous movement.

Although I am not aware what great acceptance, credence, and confidence the unfounded reputations of experience, example, and reports of so-called happenings and so on have received and kept not only among the common people, but unfortunately also among some prominent persons, I will not now oppose or cite any authors who deny or affirm that diseases and their symptoms are caused by worms and other animalcules in the human body. For, to express my opinion both frankly and respectfully, I think that any experience, observation, and example will never by applicable, unless at best somewhere in general, in particular. (translation and notes by J. Jansen, 1972, 53-55)

Animalcules and the Body Politic

But in tension to the full spirit of Kerckring’s reservations about microscopy, and after his own Cartesian warning as to any individual diagnosis achieved through direct observation or experience, Bidloo goes on to express extreme caution to those commonly connecting disease to the states of the blood and bile, instead of thinking about the kinds of damage that can be done the transportation systems of the fluids of the body by animalcules and worms. “Over the former more words, and of the latter, more solid proofs can be produced” (60). Bidloo believes that much of the quackery of blood and bile diagnoses, can be relieved by the direct understanding of the kinds of damage tiny animals can do to the ducts and tissues of the human body, something he imagines the microscope to have revealed the body to be rife with. By his account, animalcules proliferate, bite into organs, pierce and insinuate ducts, ferment the “saps”, and cast their excrement, eggs and young all about. It is the Cartesian dream of understanding the micro-causations of the body, projected upon a image of a body teeming with invaders. (How tempting it must have been for Dutch anatomists to read the heath of the body as dependent upon an essential mechanism of ducts and their transportation of fluids, once the nature of the blood’s circulation was revealed [Harvey 1616, 1628], as the land itself was a canal-rich economy, filled with lucretive waterways in every direction.) 

Put aside by Bidloo is Kerckring’s equanimity of observation though, the inability to tell if the swarms of animals are the sign that the body’s home is florishing in the glow of vivacity, or is being spoiled and overrun by inhabitation. Kerckring’s wider view of the possible symbioses of an organism, in keeping perhaps with Spinoza’s whollistic conception of the interdependency of an expressive mechanism, for Bidloo falls to the sure evidence of minute and proliferate causes of bio-destruction: parasites corroding the canals of the body. This makes an interestingly thought-picture for the personal physician to William III, King of England and Dutch Republic Stadtholder, a man in favor republican values in criticism of the Reformed Chuch. One may suppose that Reason and close observation will guide us into discovering the plethora of worms and animalcules in society, those infesting and injuring the transportation systems and organs of healthy conduct. In citing Spinoza’s lens, and Kerckring’s vision of the teeming animalcules and worms, Bidloo evokes a complex of reason and invasion, a political eco-vision in which the proverbial Scylla (the chicanery of vaguely-diagnosing, self-serving “experts”) is torqued against the threatening Charybdis (a chaos of rabble and infestation), given over to the steerage of social health. Importantly, Spinoza’s lens is juxtaposed, (symptomatically), as a kind of clear crystal manifestion of the narrows through which the two can be negotiated.


Leibniz’ “optical” Response to the Theologico-Political Treatise

Letter 45, Leibniz to Spinoza…

Leibniz wrote a short, almost entirely ignored by scholarship letter to Spinoza whose subject seems to be a lens invention of Leibniz’s, a “pandochal” (all receiving) lens which may have been something of a fish eye. What is of interest is the nature of the optical conflation Leibniz seems to be performing, and how this letter is sent right in the middle of the brewing tempest of the Spinoza’s blasphemous and anonymous Theological-Political Treatise. Leibniz appears to be offering, as he slandering Spinoza on the side, an optical Ideal world of pure perception, one which Spinoza ultimately shrugs off.

The Problem of the TTP

Leibniz’ letter to Spinoza on an issue of optics occurs just as he is positioning himself in correspondence with others who are outraged by Spinoza’s recently published Theologico-Political Treatise. Some of exchange:

Graevius writes on April 12, 1671, concerning TTP,

Last year there appeared this most pernicious book, whose title is Discursus Theologico-Politicus, a book which, having pursued a Hobbesian path, nevertheless quite often deviates rather far even from that, sets up the height of injustice as natural law, and having undermined the authority of sacred scripture, has opened the window very wide to ungodliness. Its author is said to be a Jew, named Spinoza, who was previously excommunicated from the synagogue because of his wicked opinions, but his book has also been proscribed for the same reason by the authorities. I think that you have seen it, but if you haven’t, I shall make it a point to have a copy sent to you. (A I, i, 142)

Leibniz’s replies, May 5 1671:

I have read Spinoza’s book. I grieve that a man of his evident learning should have fallen so far into error. Hobbes’ Leviathan has laid the foundations of the critique he carries out against the sacred books, but that critique can be shown to often be defective. These things tend to overturn the Christian Religion, which has been established by the precious blood of the martyrs and by such great labors and vigilance. If only someone could be stirred to activity who was equal to Spinoza in erudition, but [dedicated?] to the Christian cause, who might refute his frequent paralogisms and abuse of oriental letters. (A I, i, 148)

And then after his Letter 45 and 46 exchange with Spinoza, he writes to Gottlieb Spitzel, urging an erudite refutation,

Doubtless you have seen the book published in Holland, called The Liberty of Philosophizing. They say the author is a Jew. He employs a judgment which, while indeed erudite, is at the same time interspersed with much poison against the antiquity, genuineness, and authority of the sacred scripture of the Old Testament. In the interests of piety he should be refuted by some man solidly learned in Oriental studies, such as yourself or someone like you. (A I, i, 193)

Leibniz’s optical letter to Spinoza, given the epistolary machinations – and it is interesting that Leibniz hides from Spitzel the fact that he already knows Spinoza to be the author of TTP as Spinoza had incriminatingly offered to send Leibniz a copy of the text – reads as a scientico-political entreaty to the author of the Theologico-Political Treatise, an engagement of radical politics through science. This is supported by the very nature of the optical work that Leibniz includes. If one reads Leibniz’s very short A Note on Advanced Optics (“Notitia opticae promotae”) one sees that the intent of the work is to see in the perfection of optics a unification of all people under a rational perception of the world, framed as a distinctly political ambition of drawing heroic men together on a single path. Leibniz’s newly invented “Pandochal” (all-receiving [of rays]) lens, seems to manifest for him the rational and political power of his thought.

“Notitia opticae promotae” and J. Hudde

Also of significance is that Leibniz requests that his “Notitia opticae promotae” be forwarded to Johannes Hudde, who is on the verge of being appointed as Burgomaster of Amsterdam (a position he would hold for 30 years). Spinoza writes back that Hudde tells him that he is quite busy, but will look at the text in a week or two. This shows that Hudde and Spinoza are still in contact (despite the climbing rancor over his TTP); but also, it is from Hudde’s optical treatise, “Specilla circularia” that Spinoza composes much of his anti-Cartesian, or at least anti-hyperbolic, arguments. Leibniz, having himself studied Hudde’s Specilla, seems to be aware of this connection between the two men, and his conflation of the political and the optical in the Notitia, in part as a response to Spinoza’s Theologico-Political Treatise, marks out what is at stake in the literalization of optical metaphors for some at the time.

Given this, it is most interesting how Spinoza responds to Leibniz’s Notitia and letter. He takes up, not in the least, the invitation of an optical-political conflation, but simply asks for a clarification how Leibniz conceives of spherical aberration, and thus how his Pandochal lenses might allow an aperture any size. And, then a month later offers to send Leibniz a copy of the Theologico-Political Treatise, if he had not read it.

Spinoza’s Refusal

Whether this separation out of the questions of optics from the questions of politics by Spinoza represents extreme circumspection on his part, or a genuine difference in concept with Leibniz, we cannot say with certainty. It makes sense that at this time Spinoza must be very sure of the motives of all who respond to his TTP, as his friend Koerbagh has only recently died in prison over published texts (August . But I suspect that optical theory does not represent for Spinoza what it does for Leibniz. It does not hold “secrets” which will put all of man into much more rational communication. I suspect that this is because Spinoza’s path to freedom is quiet divorced from metaphors of light, pictures or imagery, and that he viewed the products of observations accomplished through telescopes and microscopes with as informing, but not revealing the nature of things.

Leibniz’s exactly timed letter and its implicit optical-political conflation makes a very good case study for Spinoza. For Spinoza would like to treat even something as fluid as human emotion as if it were the lines and planes of Euclidean geometry. His resistance to Leibniz’ enthusiasm for his pandochal lens, and the rhetoric of illustrious men marching together on the rational path, marks out I think, a certain sobriety toward questions of science; or perhaps greater finesse in understanding the totality of causes at play at that very volatile crossroads in history, the full and ballasting weight of the joined, imaginary perception of the social, something not to be solved by, or even addressed by the capacities of a paricular kind of lens.

Spinoza and Tuberculosis: His Disease and Devotion

[Tuberculosis can be a difficult disease to diagnosis. The following is working under the assumption that the diagnosis of “phthisis” for Spinoza’s long-running pulmonary problems is best understood as the disease tuberculosis.]

The Influence of Disease

It is interesting that of all the influential facts we seem to have about Spinoza’s life, his tuberculosis may be neglected only as much as his lens-grinding has been. Very little of how debilitating this disease can be, nor its chronic nature seems to be considered when framing a picture of Spinoza’s motivations for life decisions. At most his tuberculosis, called in biographies “phthisis” (its name derived from Greek) gives us a remote picture of a man made weak and coughing at times. Then there is the oft repeated, unsupported, yet romantically satisfying thought that he died not only of his TB, but also from inhalations of glass dust from his lens-grinding. The facts of the disease seldom seem to enter into the explanations for Spinoza’s decisions and life turns.

Spinoza’s early biographer Colerus tells us that Spinoza had been suffering from tuberculosis for more than 20 years when Spinoza died at the age of 44, in February of 1677:

Spinosa was a Man of a very weak Constitution, unhealthy and lean, and had been troubled with a Pthysick above twenty years, which oblig’d him to keep a strict course of Dyet, and to be extreamly sober in his Meat and Drink. Nevertheless, his Landlord, and the people of the House did not believe that he was so near his end, even a little while before he died, and they had not the least thought of it.

If we track backwards, this would place the first bout with tuberculosis very close to the date of his father’s death (March 28, 1654), and his taking over of the family firm (September 1654). Spinoza’s step mother, Esther, died only five months before his father did (October 14, 1653), after a year of serious illness, itself a year after Spinoza’s own sister Miriam had died. Tuberculosis is a highly contagious disease when symptomatic, (if living 24-hours-a-day exposed for two months it is estimated that you have a 50% chance of being infected).

To more fully picture the condition, the symptoms of active tuberculosis include:

– A cough which may last three or more weeks and may produce discolored or bloody sputum
– Unintended weight loss
– Fatigue
– Slight fever
– Night sweats
– Chills
– Loss of appetite
– Pain with breathing or coughing (pleurisy)

That Spinoza may have contracted tuberculosis from his father (or other family members), and may himself have become symptomatic in the year 1656 or so is not something that many people have considered. (To his credit, Nadler does momentarily bring up the idea that Spinoza may have suffered from the same thing that killed his step-mother (Spinoza: A Life, 155); why he notes the step-mother and not his father I do not know. These are years that we have very little historical record of, and a struggle with the illness may very well be a reason for this (the highest risk for developing of the disease is in the first two years after infection). When Spinoza applied for orphan status in March of ’56 (two years after his father died), and when the cherem is read against him in July of the same year, removing him from the community, having failed to pay the family firm’s imposta tax, he may indeed already have been tubercular, and perhaps even seriously so. This would make his excommunication something of a quarantine, not only of ideas, but also in a vividness of metaphor, of body and illness. A cutting off of an already diseased limb. We really need not go that far, though it should be considered. We have had such a variety of motivations projected onto Spinoza and his situation at this time, from Jonathan Israel’s thought that Spinoza was during this period attempting to be excommunicated by being outrageous simply to climb out from the burden of onerous debts, to Wim Klever’s notion that Spinoza at this point was so invested in his political and spiritual education with Van den Enden, long broken from the community, the excommunication was but a trifle. Either of these may be so, but if Spinoza had by now become symptomatic, his illness certainly would have played into his inability to run the firm to profit, or more significantly, his desire to no longer conduct that kind of vigorous business or to remain in the community 0f his youth. No matter the thesis for his excommunication and his change of attitude towards the values in life, the facts of an onset of a lethal diseased that might have killed many of his family members certainly would play an informing role.

Chekhov’s Example

Tuberculosis does not always head in a straight line, by my understanding. It can be recurrent. Chekov, for instance, who like Spinoza also suffered from the disease over a twenty-year period. A first onset expressed itself in an initial bout of fevers in December of 1883, and then three days of coughing up blood a year later in December of 1884. It was not until six years after these, from the strain of trans-Siberian travel, that again the disease seemed to surface, much more forcefully. Chekhov, like Spinoza, died in his 44th year, at the peak of his intellectual and creative powers. [Citing “Chekhov’s Chronic Tuberculosis” (1963), by Brian R. Clarke]. This is how one medical information website describes the nature of the disease’s chronic mechanism:

In addition, TB can spread to other parts of the body. The body’s immune (defense) system, however, can fight off the infection and stop the bacteria from spreading. The immune system does so ultimately by forming scar tissue around the TB bacteria and isolating it from the rest of the body. Tuberculosis that occurs after initial exposure to the bacteria is often referred to as primary TB. If the body is able to form scar tissue (fibrosis) around the TB bacteria, then the infection is contained in an inactive state. Such an individual typically has no symptoms and cannot spread TB to other people. The scar tissue and lymph nodes may eventually harden, like stone, due to the process of calcification of the scars (deposition of calcium from the bloodstream in the scar tissue). These scars often appear on x-rays and imaging studies like round marbles and are referred to as a granuloma. If these scars do not show any evidence of calcium on x-ray, they can be difficult to distinguish from cancer.

Sometimes, however, the body’s immune system becomes weakened, and the TB bacteria break through the scar tissue and can cause active disease, referred to as reactivation tuberculosis or secondary TB. For example, the immune system can be weakened by old age, the development of another infection or a cancer, or certain medications such as cortisone, anticancer drugs, or certain medications used to treat arthritis or inflammatory bowel disease. The breakthrough of bacteria can result in a recurrence of the pneumonia and a spread of TB to other locations in the body. The kidneys, bone, and lining of the brain and spinal cord (meninges) are the most common sites affected by the spread of TB beyond the lungs.

“experience had taught me”

At the very least, if Spinoza was showing symptoms of the disease as early as 1656, as Colerus’ very rough estimate would place them, Spinoza’s life decisions to not pursue wealth, but rather a life of philosophy, must be cast in a slightly different psychological light. Spinoza writes of his change of mind in The Emendation of the Intellect:

After experience had taught me that all the usual surroundings of social life are vain and futile; seeing that none of the objects of my fears contained in themselves anything either good or bad, except in so far as the mind is affected by them, I finally resolved to inquire whether there might be some real good having power to communicate itself, which would affect the mind singly, to the exclusion of all else; whether, in fact, there might be anything of which the discovery and attainment would enable me to enjoy continuous, supreme, and unending happiness.

I say “I finally resolved,” for at first sight it seemed unwise willingly to lose hold on what was sure for the sake of something then uncertain. I could see the benefits which are acquired through fame and riches, and that I should be obliged to abandon the quest of such objects, if I seriously devoted myself to the search for something different and new. I perceived that if true happiness chanced to be placed in the former I should necessarily miss it; while if, on the other hand, it were not so placed, and I gave them my whole attention, I should equally fail (Elwes translation).

This is thought to have been Spinoza’s earliest philosophical text, before the Short Treatise, Shirley placing its composition between the years 1657 and 1660. What, we may ask, was this “experience” that has taught Spinoza the futility of social life, the uncertainty of “fame and riches”. Are these generic experiences that all of us would have, or perhaps the particularities of watching his father die in tubercular fashion, after a life of substantial monetary and honorific gain? Or, more jarringly, was it the onset of the same disease, the same coughing up of blood, that he had seen his father and his step-mother succumb to? This would certainly have a life-turning effect. Spinoza continues in the opening of the Emendation, actually referencing the analogy of fatal illness and remedy as the very mode of his decision making:

For I saw that my situation was one of great peril and I was obliged to seek a remedy with all my might, however uncertain it might be, like a sick man suffering from a fatal malady, who, foreseeing certain death unless a remedy is forthcoming, is forced to seek it, for therein lies all his hope (Shirley translation).

Is this just a proximate reference, or is Spinoza speaking literally of his own onset of illness?

We see no evidence for debilitation in April of ’55 in the record of Spinoza’s subpoena and physical confrontation with the Alvares brothers. He is struck so hard his hat comes off, something which might afford a reference to physical weakness, but none is mentioned. In fact, from the vague description it seems that only the hat seems worse for wear, leaving the impression of a firm man. And in ’58, from Fra Tomás’ 1659 report to the Spanish Inquisition, we find Spinoza to have a handsome face “de buena cara” with light, clear, but perhaps pale skin, blanco. This would seem to put him in good health. The only thing I would mention is that in this report there is great contrast given between his very dark hair and eyes, and the paleness of his skin. Prado, in whose company Spinoza is in, has a “brownish” complexion on the other hand. While he may have been in good health at the time, the paleness of his skin may have been due to some convalescence. In 1659 he is described by another informant for the Inquisition as having a “well-formed body, thin, long black hair, a small moustache of the same color, a beautiful face”.

Yet as we have seen from the example of Chekhov, an attack of tuberculosis does not necessarily leave one debilitated for life. The body’s immune system can indeed isolate the infection, and return one to health, even robust health, only to be susceptible to the disease later, at times of great stress or weakness. Assuming that his disease was that of tuberculosis, one cannot conclude that Spinoza’s health was never robust, as some have thought.

The Beginnings of “Isolation” and a Conserve of Roses

A great deal of investigative imagination and analysis has gone into the question as to why Spinoza left Amsterdam for the much more quiet Rijnsburg in 1661. Gullan-Whur suspects that something had frightened Spinoza in a way that the excommunication had not, perhaps something to do with the Spanish Inquisition. Perhaps an increasing pressure from Dutch authorities and Jewish reaction made it unsafe for Spinoza to continue his Amsterdam life, some feel. And there is the account of a knife attack outside the theatre, if it is to be believed. Alternately, some think that he went to Rijnsburg to be closer to the Collegiant movement. Spinoza’s very good, generous friend Jarig Jelles bought a large new house on the Herengracht in Amsterdam in 1660, but Spinoza did not move in. First he moved to near  “near ” Ouderkerk, and then to Rijnsburg near Leiden’s university. Why? It is mentioned that his move towards isolation was so that he could be away from distractions from friends, so that he could concentrate on his work, and this is no doubt true. But is it too much to notice that his withdrawal from friends and the air of the city may have been really a question of health? Was it not that tuberculosis struck him again, and it is was in full view of his mortality, and even questions of contagiousness, a theoretical need for fresh air, that brought him to concentrated isolation?

By September 1661 he writes to Oldenburg that his Short Treatise, (one may say his most overtly spiritual work) is still a work in progress. There is no hint of his illness in their correspondence. In the winter of ’62/’63 he has the company of Johannes Caesarius, who is living with him, helping him in a none-too-satisfactory fashion with the geometrical treatment of Descartes’ philosophy. Gullan-Whur reads Caesarius to be Jan Casier, a student of Van den Enden’s school, now a young, Dutch Reformed ordinand (1642-77). As a collaborative biographical note of perhaps significant correspondence during this period, Adriaan Koerbagh, Spinoza’s friend and comrade in spirit of the same age, had received his doctor of medicine from nearby Leiden University in 1659, with a dissertation on the causes of Tuberculosis, Disputio medica unauguralis de Phthisi. In 1661, the year that Spinoza moved to Rijnsburg, Koerbagh became a Doctor of Law, again at nearby Leiden, and in Koerbagh’s later political trial he admits that he had discussed philosophical matters with Spinoza numerous times in the years 1661-63. Having conducted a study of the causes of tuberculosis, one wonders if Koerbagh had ever seen Spinoza as a patient. Or if Adriaan himself had tuberculosis which weakened him (as he would died only within a few months of being sentenced to prison and hard labor in 1669). Along this thin line of argument, is it a coincidence that a conserve of roses is the only conserve mentioned in Koerbagh’s Bloemhof  (1668). The suppressed Bloemhof  was a 672 page dictionary of terms written by Adriaan and his brother, meant to demystify the use of foreign phrases and technical jargon, putting into the vernacular the verbal obfuscations by which eclesiastical, medical and legal “experts” carried out much of its authority over the common man. In June 1665 it is for a conserve of roses that Spinoza says he is waiting (Letter 28), writing to the physician Johan Bouwmeester who was an intimate of Adriaan Koerbagh. Spinoza had visited his friends in Amsterdam earlier in the year, and during his visit to the city he seems to have suffered a recurrence of his tuberculosis:

At the same time I also expected some of the conserve of roses which you promised, although now for a long time felt better. On leaving there, I opened a vein once, but the fever did not abate (although I was somewhat more active even before the bloodletting because of the change of air, I think). But I suffered two or three times with tertian fever, though by good diet I have at last rid myself of it and sent it packing. Where it went I know not, but I don’t want it back.

At this time Spinoza has just moved from Rijnsburg to Voorborg near the Hague. Likely having finished first drafts of parts I and II of a then tripart Ethica, he makes a break and begins his work on the Politico-Theological Treatise. Spinoza distinctly associates the “air” of Amsterdam with the onset of his illness. It would appear likely that this causal belief was consistent in his life, and thus part of his reason for moving out of Amsterdam in the first place. One can also ask, something I’ve not seen considered, was the renewed attack of his disease in some way linked to the much discussed break from the Ethics, and his turn to political issues of the day?

Voorburg, Not So Quiet

At this point I would like to take up some of the psychological criticism aimed at Spinoza by his biographer Gullan-Whur. In making her assessment of a certain flaw in Spinoza’s self-perception she provides us with a rather telling description of the house Spinoza moved into in Voorburg. She points out that although Spinoza, in her opinion, plays the role of the isolated sage, being crankily troubled by intrusions, he moved into one of the most bustling, connected locations in all of Voorburg:

Voorburg was a rural village, but Benedictus had not chosen to live in a peaceful part of it, for the Kerkstraat houses, huddled on a terrace and generally having only a gable loft above their ground floors, were flanked by the market place and a boat-servicing harbour beside the Vliet. Yet, whole this lodging was feverishly cacophonous compared with sleepy Katwijkerlaan, he never complained…nothing was easier that getting to any Dutch city from Voorburg. The philosopher could leave home almost at the ringing of the horse-boy’s bell to catch the trekschuit. Voorburg being on the way to everywhere (the canal system joined the River Schie at Delft, and continued south to Rotterdam and Dordrecht), he should have foreseen a continuous flow of callers (154-155)

She goes onto conclude that Spinoza himself does not own up to his own emotional needs for company, caught up in the production of his own image. I might suggest that Gullan-Whur has severely misread Spinoza’s contradictory needs for isolation and for contact. This essentially is the mindset of the chronically, if sporatically, ill. Rather than this being a profound conflict of conscience, or the inability for Spinoza to understand his own needs, Spinoza’s tuberculosis and his philosophical/scientific endeavours required both isolation and contact. Indeed I would suggest that it was likely the disease that forced Spinoza to reconsider his life, and it was this ever-present relationship to his own body and mortality that made his rationalist philosophy most concerned with the freedoms of the body. Gullan-Whur’s example of reading the man is actually instructive for all interpretations which ignore his physical histories. In fact Iwould think that all of Spinoza’s metaphysical positions on the body should benefit from being seen in the light of  a possible continual threat and experience of tuberculosis. 


It is persuasive to infer, and least as persuasive as any other reasoning I have encountered, that Spinoza’s father and step-mother indeed died of tuberculosis, and that Spinoza had contracted the illness from them. On average, people have a 50 % chance of becoming infected with tuberculosis if they are in close contact eight hours a day for six months. If Colerus’s estimate is right that Spinoza had struggled with the disease for more than twenty years, this would put his first attack right at the decisive years of the late 50s, as Spinoza was forming his new political and theological relationships with Van den Enden and Prado, leaving behind the family business. (By stating this length as more than 20 years, Colerus at the very least seems to want to place the illness before Spinoza’s milestone move from Amsterdam.) This encounter with a disease that may have killed his father and step-mother surely would have shaped the decisions Spinoza was making. And the resultant dedication to philosophy, science and selective isolation should not be considered outside of this persistent awareness of both his disease and the effects it may have had on others. All the complexities of influence that we can convincingly conjure up may very well pale to the experience of the fatal fever and cough a year after you watched your father and step-mother, and perhaps even sister, pass under similar conditions. It is agreed that this is a time of plagues, and the death of family members and close friends, certainly by 1664 was not uncommon. This does not mitigate the personal effect the disease would have had upon Spinoza in the determinative years of 1655-1658, not to mention the consequences of managing the disease over a lifetime.

Why the timing and substance of the disease has not been well considered by biographers and interpreters of Spinoza’s life, I do not quite understand, except for the recognizable need to comprehend the man in terms of much vaster, more abstract historical and intellectual factors.