Benedict Spinoza is often taken as the best example of a philosopher who let the life of the mind guide his actions:he was, by most accounts, a quiet and modest man who really believed that rational thought could turn us into more humane individuals, and a more humane society. His silent courage in dedicating himself to philosophy after being exiled from his community is seen as an example of moral courage. Spinoza is admired for his personal qualities.
In 2006, we have seen another rebellion against Western Culture, with another critique of the hidden messages and imperatives of Western philosophy and thought. Such rebellions are not something that is new. Two earlier rebellions that come to mind are those of William Blake, who said that "The stolen and perverted writings of Homer & Ovid: of Plato and Cicero, which all men ought to condemn, are set up by artifice against the Sublime of the Bible", and of the rebellion of Martin Heidegger, who thought that Western metaphysics was a turning away from Being. Spinoza isn't thought of as one of the thinkers that contributed to, or condoned, the more nasty aspects of Western culture. But that is perhaps because of the personal image we have of him, not of his philosophy as such. His status as a minority, being both black and Jewish, has contributed to the idea that he is an outsider to Western society.
However, if you read his major work, the Ethic, what can we detect about his philosophy's position in regards to the rest of Western Philosophy and culture? This book, published after his death, attempts to demonstrate, from first principles of metaphysics, the nature of humanity, and how and why they should act. To us, it seems like an overwhelmingly ambitious project, something that we can't take seriously in an over-rational area. Finding the logical falacies in his argument seems to be besides the point, because somewhere in between where he defines the nature of substance, and where he talks about the nature of human sexual jealousy, you know that he must have jumped to a conclusion somewhere. This was before Rousseau, though, so the obvious fact that emotions and logic couldn't always be reconciled wasn't so obvious. Other than the seeming impossibility of deriving human emotions from logic, there are a few other problems with Spinoza's philosophy: his belief in determinism, while philosophically sound on its own term, tends to go against people's intuition. His lack of belief in free will, as well as his belief that the highest good in life would be a placid, stoic understanding of the immanent nature of God makes some people feel that his philosophy is missing an aspect of human nature.
What interests me, however, is whether Spinoza's philosophy involves an exploration of what it means to be human, or whether it subordinates experience to a metaphysical order. My short answer, after having read the pages of Spinoza's Ethic, is that for all his claims of intellectual honesty (which from his life history certainly seem to be sincere, he sacrificed much to write this book), he is perhaps not going as many levels as deep as he should. His formalism, with its emphasis on a static world where human choice was illusionary, and where a rational man thinks only of what is, and does not reflect upon such things as his own death, all seems to be to me a way to ignore the philosophical problems of what it means to be human, and instead to place his (and our) existence into a metaphysical system. Spinoza, for his exile and heritage, was still in a way a loyal soldier of the philosophical currents of Europe, from Plato and Aristotle, through the Roman Empire and the Church.
There are many more technical aspects to Spinoza's major work. There are many ways to analyze it, and even on the issue that I selected, it would be quite possible to come to an opposite conclusion. Spinoza is a thinker that is not studied as much as he should be, especially since he had a great influence on rationalism, and also on ideas of a perfectible, enlightened society. When we read his thoughts, we should be critical of the reasons behind the rationalism.