Philosopher, Mystic, Rosicrucian
by Gary L. Stewart
On November 24, 1632, a great philosopher was born in Holland of Spanish-Portuguese Jewish parents. Benedict Spinoza—an original thinker destined to become one of the world's greatest modern philosophers—has exercised such a profound impact upon modern thought that even today there is much debate upon his philosophy, and only within the last 100 years has his influence been thoroughly recognized for its effect on today's thinking. Spinoza was little understood in his time, consequently was labeled an atheist, and was excommunicated from his Jewish faith when he was just 24 years old. Only about a century ago were his writings seriously examined and his pantheism fully realized. It was then that the label "the God-intoxicated philosopher" was ascribed to him.
Spinoza is one of the few people who can be called a true individual. Yet, in accordance with his philosophical beliefs, he denied such individuality by recognizing that true individuality is the realization of universality. He lived his life accordingly and, as a result, he became misunderstood and eventually obscure until now. In the past, a newspaper article cast doubts about the contention that Spinoza was a Rosicrucian. The news writer proposed that Spinoza used the rose symbol on his personal seal not to identify himself as a Rosicrucian but, rather, to coincide with his name—the argument being that the name "Spinoza" is similar to the Latin espinosa which means "rose with sharp thorns" and consequently the rose he used "has no Rosicrucian significance." We must ask, then, what proof can support the contention that Benedict Spinoza was indeed a Rosicrucian? The question may seem simple enough; however, the answer is far more complex than is often realized. Therefore, it is necessary to divert our attention momentarily from the specific question at hand to a brief and general historical approach.
Traditionally, the Rosicrucian movement kept membership strictly confidential. There are many reasons for this, but the primary ones applicable here are political and religious. Rosicrucians have always taught, among other things, freedom of thought and religion. In the 17th Century persecution by the Church against any allegedly "heretical" person or group was intense. At that time the church viewed independent thinking as not only dangerous but also as undermining its very existence. Needless to say, it was necessary for such individuals to hide there affiliation or even deny it when accused of membership. As a group, the Rosicrucian brotherhood instructed its initiates in past ages to maintain a vow of secrecy and not to reveal even their own affiliation unless permitted to do so by a high official in the Order.
Another point to consider is that the history of the Rosicrucian tradition is divided into two categories: the chronological, where documentation is available; and the traditional, where Rosicrucian history is related by word of mouth. It should be noted, however, that much of the movement's traditional history can be documented through careful and painstaking research if one knows what to look for.
In the 16th and 17th Centuries, Rosicrucian authors used pseudonyms in connection with their work, and only members of the Rosicrucian brotherhood knew their true identities. Naturally, public references would have no such information at their disposal. As a result, unless an individual authored books explaining the Rosicrucian movement or its teachings, which many did in their own names or through pseudonyms known only to other members, there was no outward indication of any Rosicrucian affiliation. Given the times, just because persons did not publicly reveal their affiliation with the movement does not mean they were not privately affiliated with this secret organization. And, on the other hand, an individual's public claim of Rosicrucian affiliation does not necessarily prove membership. However, we can basically utilize five general points to verify membership:
Five Points Of Past Membership
- Personal revelation by the individual.
- Work signed by a Rosicrucian symbolic name.
- Traditional accounts from the brotherhood itself referring to a personal affiliation.
- Manuscripts and books containing terminology and symbols distinctly Rosicrucian.
- Indirect reference through friends and associates.
The case of Spinoza's affiliation is quite interesting and the last three points are most readily applicable in this regard.
Rosicrucian Content in Published Works
Through published material it is known that Spinoza is maintained as having been a Rosicrucian. First, we can divide that claim into two parts, thus approach-ing the "proof' dualistically. The term "Rosicrucian" can be used generically as "Rosicrucian in thought" or, secondly, specifically, as being affiliated with a "Rosicrucian group or body." In the former writings most notably his Ethics are very much in agreement with Rosicrucian philosophy. In our terminology we would not only relegate Spinoza as a rationalist, which he indeed was, but also as a mystical pantheist which concurs so closely with the Rosicrucian teachings that it seems almost identical in many instances. There are many ideas in Spinoza's works which point in that direction.
For instance, we can briefly state that Spinoza's definition of God is likened to an omnipotent, impersonal essence infusing all existence and inseparable from that existence. This definition accounts for Spinoza's pantheism. Then, simply, Spinoza proceeds to explain how creation manifests by using a rather complex structure of explanation, as do the Rosicrucians.
We recognize that there is much academic philosophical debate concerning whether Spinoza could be classified as a true mystic, and we may refer to the many Spinoza Symposiums that are held annually in the Netherlands, and specifically to the one held in Leiden in 1973. And even though we are sympathetic with the "mystic" argument, the point is irrelevant to the argument of Spinoza's Rosicrucian connections. Along the same train of thought, academically and philosophically it could also be argued, based upon many tenets of Rosicrucian philosophy, whether or not Rosicrucians were really mystics. It all depends upon how one defines mysticism.
Publication Notations of Rosicrucian Terminology and Symbols
Point 4, referring to manuscripts and books containing Rosicrucian terminology and symbols, throws new light upon the verification of Spinoza's membership. Disregarding the "rose" argument mentioned earlier, let us refer to the title page of Spinoza's Theological and Political Treatise where we find the Latin phrase apud Henricum Kunraht. First of all, Heinrich Khunrath died in 1605, almost thirty years before Spinoza was born. Then, we may wonder, why does the name appear? If we look a little further we find that Heinrich Khunrath was a Rosicrucian and that his major work Amphitheatre of Eternal Wisdom contained seven Arcanes, or Rosicrucian Keys. We find on one of his plates the symbol of the Hieroglyphic Monad designed by the English Rosicrucian John Dee. That symbol also appeared next to the invitation to Christian Rosenkreuz in the third Rosicrucian Manifesto published in the 17th Century—the Chymical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreuz.
It is a distinct possibility that a chain of Rosicrucian influence was being passed on traditionally from person to person, showing a Rosicrucian link. If we translate Spinoza's apud Henricum Kunraht to "in the house of Heinrich Khunrath," perhaps Spinoza was revealing his Rosicrucian association in the roundabout manner used by many other Rosicrucians throughout history to reveal their association.
Perhaps the argument by itself is not conclusive. Intentional obscurity never is. But that coupled with the "rose" argument which could quite conceivably refer to a double meaning, along with Point 5, the indirect reference through friends could effectively argue against the claim that Spinoza was not a Rosicrucian.
Known Friends and Associates
We can learn much about a person by looking at his friends and associates. Even though Spinoza was excommunicated from the Jewish faith, and also avoided by much of the non-Jewish population of Holland, he still circulated in some rather influential circles. Were his associates Rosicrucian? Did his philosophical meetings have a Rosicrucian undercurrent? We know for a fact that Spinoza was in contact with, and impressed by, two Rosicrucians. First, there was Wilhelm Gottfried Leibnitz, whose affiliation with the Order is established by a published letter stating that he was at one time the secretary of a Rosicrucian Lodge. And secondly, there was Dr. Helvitius, whom Spinoza commented to in a letter to Jarig Jellis concerning Dr. Helvitius' alchemical transmutation. Spinoza allegedly observed one such transmutation. Also, we find that Spinoza's well-known friend, Jan de Witt, the Grand Pensionary of Holland, was tutored at an early age by Isaac Beekman, a known Rosicrucian. Could such influence have a lasting effect upon Jan de Witt as is often the case? And, if so, could that influence have been passed on to Spinoza?
Without actual written verification in Spinoza's own hand claiming Rosicrucian affiliation, it can be argued that he was not a Rosicrucian by claiming the above illustrations as mere suppositions. Perhaps, even any one of the above arguments by itself could be disregarded as inconsequential. However, all together, they will, at the very least, shed some doubt among those who deny Spinoza's Rosicrucian affiliation. Keeping in mind the necessary obscurity of 17th Century Rosicrucian members and even outright denials made out of deception in order to protect the movement, the "hints" left behind are one way of keeping historical records intact. Yet, it is often difficult for the uninitiated historian to be able to pick up on such "hints." This is obvious in many of the written histories that have been published recently and in the past concerning the Rosicrucians. And this also contributes to the difficulty in the identification of a personage as being a Rosicrucian.
Most of you have probably at one time or another, read an article or a book published outside of our Order on the subject of Rosicrucian history, and perhaps you have found certain points of disagreement. We can say that many such works are the result of well-meaning but incomplete research. Sometimes it is even difficult to gain an historical perspective regarding recent times, let alone several centuries in the past. For example, there was an article on the Rosicrucians which claimed that an Order was started in this century by "Dr. H. Spencer Clymer"! If it is that difficult to be accurate today, then imagine the difficulty in researching the past where we have access to far less factual material.
In conclusion, we can state with a reasonable amount of certainty, that Spinoza was a Rosicrucian, as his life and writings exemplify those characteristics which we should consider to be of the classic Rosicrucian movement. Various signs point to the validity of this argument, and we feel that the subtle "hints" we have described in this article can be relied upon to determine this mystic philosopher's relationship in regards to the Rosicrucian tradition.