Thursday, 7 October 2010

What makes self-development possible

“The human mind is designed for exercising memory and imagination,” wrote Baruch Spinoza in his Ethics in 1662. The book would be published only fifteen years later, but Spinoza didn't care, since he was recording his thoughts mainly for himself.

In the history of ideas, or for that matter, of entrepreneurship, few men have shown such extraordinary courage as Spinoza. His daring dismissal of safety and comfort in favour of an uncertain future estranged him from his family and made a pariah out of him, socially and financially.

Born into a wealthy family of Jewish merchants and destined to a life of economic comfort, Spinoza's free spirit began to outgrow the narrow traditions of his community already when he was a school kid in Amsterdam.

In July 1656, the rabbi of the synagogue, after having consulted the elders, gave Spinoza an ultimatum. He was to stop asking questions during lectures. He was to stop talking to other youth about tolerance and individual freedom. In a word, he was to stop being different and, instead, he was to become like everybody else in the community.

Although the rabbi uttered his threat in a soft voice, he painted clearly what consequences non-compliance would bring. Expulsion from the synagogue would be tantamount to lifelong ostracism. If Spinoza refused to conform to social conventions, all doors would be closed to him.

“We expect your answer on the last Sabbath this month,” concluded the rabbi, already anticipating his victory. At that time, Spinoza was 23 years old and the rabbi felt sure that no one would be foolish enough to throw away a bright professional future in an established community for the sake of some intellectual nonsense about truth.

On July 27th, Spinoza returned to the synagogue. The rabbi and the elders were awaiting him. “What have you decided?” he was asked. “Are you with us or are you on your own?”

“A man must be guided by reason, if he is to remain fully a man,” answered Spinoza. “Without the urge to understand and the freedom to search for answers, neither truth nor happiness are possible.”

After leaving Amsterdam, Spinoza moved thirty kilometres south and created a new community from scratch: a group of free-thinking intellectuals who would spread around the world his ideas about tolerance and change the course of History.

What would have happened if Spinoza had remained in his traditional community instead of starting a new tribe? As he wrote himself in his Ethics: “The essence of human thinking is to identify true ideas.” May you always have the courage and determination to follow them through.


[Image by Wolfgang Staudt under Creative Commons Attribution License. See the license terms under]