‘But all things excellent are as difficult as they are rare’: the letters of Baruch Spinoza

Of all the letters written by and to Baruch Spinoza, less that one hundred are known to scholars today. When the philosopher died in The Hague in 1677, he was living alone; his friends moved quickly to spirit away his manuscripts, delivering them post-haste to the printer Jan Rieuwertsz. in Amsterdam. This is how works including the Tractatus de intellectus emendation, the Ethica, Spinoza’s Hebrew Grammar, and his unfinished Tractatus politicus, together with seventy-four of his philosophical letters, appeared in print that very same year, under the title B. D. S. Opera Posthuma. With the exception of just a handful, the manuscripts of the letters that passed through the offices of Rieuwertsz. have not been traced.

Metadata for the surviving letters, however, may be found in Spinoza’s catalogue in EMLO. This publication situates the philosopher’s correspondence alongside that of the Royal Society’s secretary Henry Oldenburg, who was one of Spinoza’s main correspondents, and that of the Dutch mathematician Christiaan Huygens, who was an admirer of — in particular — Spinoza’s skill as a lens-grinder and of his contribution to the design and construction of telescopes. Each letter record in EMLO’s calendar has been linked to its corresponding entry in the Spinoza’s Web project (based in the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies at the University of Utrecht) where images of the manuscripts that have been located, of known manuscript copies (for example, those in the hand of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz), and of the printed texts of these letters may be consulted.

Spinoza’s Web project. (Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies, University of Utrecht)

The Spinoza Web project was established with funding from the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research [NWO], and its database and ‘The Timeline Experience’ were released in their current beta format in 2016. The ambition of this project is to assemble all primary source documentation and to provide ‘a source-based contextual approach pertaining to this philosopher who, revered and reviled, has had countless rumours and myths attached to his name over the course of the centuries’.[1. See Spinoza’s Web, < https://spinozaweb.org/ >, accessed 15 December 2017.]

Spinoza’s work continues to be of relevance. ‘I took great pains not to laugh at human actions, or mourn them or curse them,’ he wrote, ‘but only to understand them. So I’ve contemplated human affects — like love, hate, anger, envy, love of esteem, compassion, and the other emotions — not as vices of human nature, but as properties which pertain to it in the same way heat, cold, storms, thunder, etc., pertain to the nature of the air.'[2. See B. de Spinoza, The Collected Works of Spinoza, ed. and tr. Edwin Curley (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016), vol. II, p. 505.] In the introduction to his English edition of the letters, A. Wolf noted that Goethe considered Spinoza’s correspondence to be ‘the most interesting book one can read in the world of uprightness and of humanity’.[2. See Goethe’s Gespräche, ed. Woldemar Frhr. von Biedermann (1909), vol. 1, p. 35 and The Correspondence of Spinoza, ed. and tr. A. Wolf (London, 1928), p. 24.] It is to be hoped that everyone consulting EMLO will join Spinoza’s already considerable following to take advantage of these links in EMLO and explore what is to be found in Spinoza’s Web.

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