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Spinoza, Benedictus de. Tractatus theologico-politicus [Hamburg: Apud Henricum Künraht [sic.], 1670.]

Baruch de Spinoza, 1632-1677.

The formidable and controversial philosopher Spinoza was formally excommunicated in 1656 by the Jewish community in Amsterdam.  

He wrote this Latin “Theological-Political Treatise” as a pre-emptive defense of his masterwork, Ethics.   A systematic critique of all organized religion, it also argued the then-revolutionary concept of the sovereignty of state over church.

Spinoza chose to have the Ethics published posthumously, fearing that religious groups and institutions would not only call for its censorship and banning, but for his own imprisonment as well as that of his publisher Jan Rieuwertsz.

To avoid similar treatment for the Tractatus, Rieuwertsz doctored the title page omitting the author’s name and substituting: “Hamburg, 1670”. This strategy was meant to circumvent Dutch censorship laws and to attract readers of ‘foreign books’. It was actually printed in 1672 in Amsterdam.

Spinoza was quickly unmasked as Tractatus’ author. The expected protests followed, but it remained legally available for 8 years until the Dutch civil authorities finally enforced a complete ban on the printing and selling – and ownership – of all his works.