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Why Was Spinoza Excommunicated?

September 16, 2013 @ 3:30 pm - 5:00 pm

Portrait image of Steven Nadler in front of a window wearing glasses and a blue shirt with hand at chin
Monday Seminar:

Steve Nadler

Senior Fellow (2013-2017)

William H. Hay II Professor of Philosophy, Philosophy, UW-Madison


In July of 1656, the twenty-three year old Baruch de Spinoza received the harshest writ of herem (excommunication) ever issued by the Amsterdam Portuguese-Jewish congregation. Full of vitriol and curses, the ban was final; Spinoza never reconciled with his community. But why was Spinoza punished with such extreme prejudice? The ban document mentions only his “abominable heresies” and “monstrous deeds”, without telling us what exactly they are. Spinoza had not yet published anything. So there is a bit of a mystery here. On the other hand, for anyone familiar with his mature philosophical treatises, there really can be no mystery as to why one of history’s most original and radical thinkers was ostracized by Amsterdam’s rabbis and the Jewish community’s lay leaders. In this talk, we will look at some of the main theses of Spinoza’s philosophy, in order to get a better sense of what so troubled his contemporaries.


Steven Nadler is the William H. Hay II Professor of Philosophy and the Evjue-Bascom Professor in Humanities at UW-Madison, where he has been teaching since 1988. He specializes in the history of early modern philosophy (especially the seventeenth century) and in medieval Jewish philosophy. His books include Spinoza: A Life (Cambridge, 1999, winner of the Koret Jewish Book Award); Rembrandt’s Jews (Chicago, 2003, named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize); The Best of All Possible Worlds: A Story of Philosophers, God, and Evil (Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 2008); A Book Forged in Hell: Spinoza’s Scandalous Treatise and the Birth of the Secular Age (Princeton, 2011); and The Philosopher, the Priest, and the Painter: A Portrait of Descartes (Princeton, 2013).


September 16, 2013
3:30 pm - 5:00 pm
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University Club, Room 212
432 East Campus Mall
Madison, Wisconsin 53703 United States