The theory of everything (or is there a theory for everything?)
Suppose you stumbled upon a revolutionary idea. I am talking about a big idea. You think the Earth is round while everyone else thinks it’s flat. You think the sun is at the center of the universe, not the Earth. Your idea might intrigue some, but upset almost everyone. How far would you go sticking to your idea, defending it, fighting for it? What if you have absolute faith in your idea? What if you stumbled upon what you believe is The Theory of Everything?
Baruch Spinoza, a 17th century philosopher, came upon such big ideas. Rebecca Goldstein, a philosopher and novelist, called Spinoza the renegade Jew who gave us modernity. Antonio Damasio, a professor of neuroscience at the University of Southern California found inspiration in Spinoza’s ideas for his own understanding of consciousness. Albert Einstein found his own God in Spinoza’s: “I believe in Spinoza’s God,” Einstein wrote, “who reveals himself in the lawful harmony of the world, not in a God who concerns himself with the fate and the doings of mankind.” And Joaquin Garcia, a Spanish man and a civil servant, skipped work for 6 years, just so he could study Spinoza (nobody at work noticed).
Baruch Spinoza was born into a world of intolerance. In 1492, his ancestors, Jews of Sephardic descent, were expelled from Spain and fled to Portugal. They then fled the Portuguese inquisition for fear of forced religious conversion and execution. They finally arrived in the Netherlands, a more tolerant land, where they were allowed to practice Judaism.
Intolerance was not directed only toward other religions, but towards new ideas in general. Galileo Galilei, for example, insisted that the sun, not the Earth, lies motionless at the center of the universe. The inquisition, in return, found him “vehemently suspect of heresy.” He was placed under house arrest for the rest of his life, and publication of any of his work was forbidden (Italy, 1633).
Intolerance was not limited to the Christian world. In Amsterdam, Netherlands, Uriel Da Costa, a philosopher and a skeptic from Portugal, was called before the rabbinic leadership of Amsterdam for uttering blasphemous views against Judaism. He was fined a large sum of money and excommunicated. Years later, in front of the whole congregation, in a crowded synagogue, da Costa read from a written confession detailing his numerous transgressions. Then, leaning against a column, his hands tied, his back bare, he was publicly given 39 lashings (the maximum allowed was 40). He was then forced to lie on the floor while the entire congregation trampled over him. Only then did the Rabbi announce da Costa’s excommunication to be lifted. In 1640, demoralized and depressed, da Costa shot himself in the head. The first bullet missed the target, the second did him in.
Spinoza’s ideas about the nature of man and God were radical. Synagogue officials warned Spinoza, then offered him a large bribe to recant his ideas. A fellow Jew attempted to stab Spinoza on the steps of the synagogue. Protected by a large cloak, the knife barely missed Spinoza’s slim body. Spinoza kept the torn cloak as a souvenir, for years.
In July, 1656, the Jewish congregation of Amsterdam issued a writ of cherem (excommunication, expulsion from the community) against the 23-year-old Spinoza. The document does not detail the transgressions Spinoza was accused of, but his views must have been more abominable than da Costa’s, and his persistence more intolerable, for unlike da Costa before him, Spinoza’s excommunication was never lifted. Even for a time of great intolerance, the language of the writ stands out as being unusually harsh: “Cursed be he [Spinoza] by day and cursed be he by night; cursed be he when he lies down, and cursed be he when he rises up; cursed be he when he goes out, and cursed be he when he comes in… The anger and wrath of the Lord will rage against this man… We order that no one should communicate with him orally or in writing, or show him any favor, or stay with him under the same roof, or within four ells of him, or read anything composed or written by him.”
Born into a community of exiles–Jews who fled their country because they believed in a different God–Spinoza became an exile within his own community for believing in a different idea of God.
“This compels me,” Spinoza said about the writ of excommunication, “to nothing that I should not otherwise have done.”
Spinoza withdrew to a life of solitude. In a humble study room, he systematically formulated a deep philosophical view of the whole universe.
The beat of my heart; the jump of a spider; the migration of a butterfly: where are all these drawing their signal from? Could a Spinoza’s “Theory of Everything” resolve the mystery better than contemporary scientists? I shall return.
Editor’s note: Dr. Shahar Madjar is a urologist at Aspirus and the author of “Is Life Too Long? Essays about Life, Death and Other Trivial Matters.” Contact him at email@example.com.