Benedict De Spinoza

(1632 – 1677)

“He alone is free who lives with free consent under the entire guidance of reason,” proclaimed the Dutch philosopher Benedict Spinoza[1], and then proceeded to earn his own freedom. Spinoza is one of the greatest of the modern philosophers, and is remembered not only for his philosophy but also for the nobility of his character. Regarded as “the most impious atheist that ever lived upon the face of the earth”[2] in his own time, a modern student can’t help feeling love, admiration and sympathy for this great intellectual. Russell calls him “the noblest and most lovable of the great philosophers”[3]. Most modern philosophers have similarly expressed a positive opinion of Spinoza’s character.

Spinoza belonged to the Jews that had fled to Amsterdam from Portugal to escape the Inquisition. He was educated in Jewish learning and was an excellent student. Soon, however, he began to have doubts regarding different problems of theology, which led him to increasing deviation from the traditional Jewish doctrines. He studied philosophy and was greatly influenced by Descartes. His heretical ideas began to spread and he was excommunicated from the Jewish community in 1656. Attempts were also later made in his life to assassinate him. Spinoza found himself in bitter and terrible isolation and spent the rest of his life quietly, devoted to the development of his philosophy. Only a few books were published in his own lifetime, and his greatest work Ethics Geometrically Demonstrated was published after his death.

In Tractatus Theologico-Politicus (The Treatise on Religion and State), Spinoza anticipates a great deal of later work on Biblical criticism or ‘higher criticism’. Spinoza maintains that the language of Bible is deliberately and intentionally metaphorical and that the prophets used to express their ideas and thoughts allegorically to make them influential and understandable for the uneducated masses. Their objective was not to give a logical and reasonable account of religious ideas but to present them in a style, which would attract and affect the people. This is the reason for the abundant accounts of miracles and supernatural events; people tend to believe that God is at work only when nature is abrogated. They conceive of God and nature as two separate entities but who in reality are not separate. Interpreted in this metaphorical manner, Spinoza maintains, Bible contains nothing contrary to reason, and reveals the profound and deep insight of the great religious leaders.

Ethics is unique and important because it presents philosophy in a very different manner—geometrically. Descartes had put forward the principle that philosophy should look up to mathematics as an ideal but he himself didn’t act upon it devotedly. This was done by Spinoza, who expressed his thought in the style of Euclid with definitions, axioms, and theorems. This makes him difficult to read and understand. He begins with a small number of axioms and definitions, and deduces his whole philosophy from them. His attempt is splendid and the reader of Ethics is bound to admire it. But it nevertheless reveals the hold of rationalism on Spinoza; he believed that one can understand the whole universe and the human life only by the logical analysis and extrapolation by deduction of self-evident axioms. Descartes believed the same, and so did Leibniz. This is the hallmark of the rationalistic tradition of philosophy. Rationalism has gone out of practice with the advent of scientific outlook, according to which facts about the world and universe have to be discovered by observation and experiments. They cannot be discovered by merely theoretical means or reason alone.

Ethics can be seen as consisting of three parts. The first putting forward Spinoza’s metaphysics, the second giving a theory of emotions and the third explains a theory of ethics, which is perhaps the most original part of Spinoza.

Spinoza is a proponent of Pantheism[4] and monism. Descartes believed in dualism; he had considered the world to be made up of two distinct substances which he called mind and matter. Although Descartes did believe in God as a separate substance which was superior to both mind and matter, but the world nevertheless existed separately from God. Spinoza believes in only one substance, which he calls God. The world as a whole is a single substance, whose parts are not capable of existing alone. There is only one underlying reality of the world, and all individual or particular things are its expressions in different forms. Spinoza calls them modes, a temporary expression of the substance. You, your house, all the different animals and plants, this planet itself are all modes. There is another distinction between ‘temporal order’ and ‘eternal order’. The former is the world of individual things and particular events, while the latter is the world of laws governing these things and events. Spinoza sees nature under a double aspect: natura naturata (nature begotten, or God’s creation or passive nature), which consists of the particular things and contents of nature, and natura naturans (nature begetting or God creating or active nature) the active, vital and creative aspect of nature, which gives rise to the contents of the passive nature[5]. All these different distinctions are more or less the same for Spinoza: Substance and modes, eternal order and temporal order, active nature and passive nature, God and the world. These dichotomies are synonymous and explain the same thing.

Hence, Spinoza is led to deny an anthropomorphic concept of God. Most people, even though they may not admit this fact, have an idea of God in their mind that resembles that of a man in power, such as a king. It is foolish of humans to think of God as an aristocrat of a male sex seated in the stars; if triangles had religion, their God would have been three sided! Spinoza believes that God is the underlying design and laws of the universe. All that is, is in God.

Spinoza does not think of God as separate from nature. He doesn’t believe in a God that reveals his presence by the abrogation of a set of ‘natural’ laws. Instead, Spinoza envisions a God that is revealed in the order and harmony of nature. For Spinoza, the will of God and the laws of the nature are one and the same thing.

In the universe presented by Spinoza, determinism prevails over everything and nothing can escape from the laws. Consequently, there is no free will [Not, at least, in the common sense view of ‘free will’] and no element of chance in the events of the world. We are as much bound by these laws as the objects are by laws of physics. A result of this determinism is that it is logically impossible that the events could have happened place in any other way than they have in this world.

There is no such thing as good or evil in the universe. These are terms relative to human existence; God is independent of all such classifications. “I would warn you that I do not attribute to nature either beauty or deformity, order or confusion. Only in relation to our imagination can things be called beautiful or ugly, well-ordered or confused.” But then what of the evil that we see in this world? Was the mass killing of Jews by Hitler not an evil thing? Is the persecution being faced by Palestinians not evidence that the world is being plagued by evil? Spinoza answers that this evil exists only from the view of us finite creatures. There is no evil in the world when things and events are seen in relation to the whole, and not as individual, finite happenings. Therefore, all evil is illusory.

Spinoza denies the dualism between mind and matter. He considers them as two attributes of God, who has infinite attributes but we are only aware of two of them. There is only one underlying reality, seen inwardly as mind and thought, and seen outwardly as matter and motion. Since there are not two different substances, Spinoza doesn’t face the problem of interaction between mind and matter, which so haunted the Cartesians. Will (the series of ideas) and intellect (the series of actions or volitions) are also, for Spinoza, the same things and the difference is only a matter of degree. Volition is just an idea which has remained long enough in the consciousness to become an action.

All free will is an illusion. Man considers himself free because he is aware of his actions but not of their causes. We are bound by the same cosmic law that binds everything else. Spinoza gives the example of a stone projected in space thinking that it determines its own trajectory and target; same is with humans, like the thrown-stone we are bound to move in the trajectory defined by nature’s laws, but being conscious only of our desires, we fabricate the false idea of free will.

Spinoza believes self-preservation to be the fundamental motive of passion; everything attempts to preserve its own being. However, this desire of self-preservation will change its shape when one becomes aware of the reality of the world and God. He would realize that real self-preservation is not in maintaining the appearance of separateness but rather in unification with the whole. Spinoza believes that wrong actions are due to ignorance and that if a man is really aware of the reality of things, he would never do something wrong.

Time is meaningless for Spinoza; whatever happens is a part of an eternal timeless universe. All events that happen are of temporary nature and the wise man attempts to see them as God sees them, sub specie aeternitatis, from the perspective of eternity. Therefore, all emotions that are related with time, such as fear, hope or expectation, are disapproved by Spinoza. Since time is illusory, there is no difference between the past and the future, and to think so is contrary to reason. Only due to ignorance do we believe that we can change or prevent the future events; they are as much as determined as the past and nothing that we do will ever change them.

There is, of course, no survival after death in the religious sense. Personal survival is certainly not possible, but there is nevertheless an impersonal sort of survival which arises by our union with the whole.

Spinoza interprets freedom as self-knowledge; when I understand the causes underlying my actions and volitions, when I see myself as a part of an undivided whole, when I become aware of what I do and why I do, then I am free. We cannot change what is going on, because whatever happens happens due to the eternal law of God. As far as man is an unwilling part of the whole, he is in bondage, but when he understands the reality and sees things from the perspective of eternity, he is free. It may be difficult to lead such a life, “But all excellent things are as difficult as they are rare.”[6]

There is, however, a contradiction in Spinoza’s philosophy which Spinoza didn’t seem to realize. If everything in nature is determined, then it means that the attitude of a person is also determined; one would be powerless to change it. Yet, Spinoza speaks of changing one’s attitude to see things from perspective of eternity and hence achieving a peace of mind. But if everything in the nature, including my attitude, is determined then it is not in my power whether to see things from the perspective of eternity or finitude of human life. As Avrum Stroll writes, “But if all events in nature are determined, then one is essentially powerless to alter his attitudes. Either he will be determined to have the sort of attitude Spinoza suggests or he will be determined not to have it. But if the latter, there is nothing he can do about acquiring it.”[7]

Although Spinoza’s metaphysics and ethics are strongly interrelated in the original philosophy and former is the basis of the latter, Russell believes that it is possible to view Spinoza’s ethics separately from his metaphysics. Seen in isolation, Spinoza’s ethics is concerned about human conduct in the full realization of the narrow limits of human power. Man becomes a victim of several misfortunes throughout his life, and it is in this case that Spinoza’s idea of the meaninglessness of time is effective. Death should not be feared. Of course, it should be avoided in all cases, if possible but it should be not be accompanied by a horror or dread of death. We should see our personal troubles in the view of the infinite stretch of time, and we will realize that they are only misfortunes to us and not to the universe. The importance of this ethical point of view is best expressed by Russell: “There are even times when it is comforting to reflect that human life, with all that it contains of evil and suffering, is an infinitesimal part of the life of the universe. Such reflections may not suffice to constitute a religion, but in a painful world they are a help towards sanity and an antidote to the paralysis of utter despair.”[8]


[1] His original name was Baruch Spinoza, which he later changed to Benedict Spinoza.
[2] Will Durant, The Story of Philosophy, Pocket Books , page 158
[3] Bertrand Russell, History of Western Philosophy, Routledge, London, page 552
[4] The doctrine that equates God with the universe and its phenomenon
[5] Compare this with Bergson’s élan vital.
[6] Ending sentence of Spinoza’s Ethics
[7] Philosophy Made Simple, Richard H. Popkin and Avrum Stroll , Doubleday & Company, Inc. USA, page 36
[8] Bertrand Russell, History of Western Philosophy, Routledge, London, page 562