Printer Friendly


Born: 1632, Amsterdam, the Netherlands

Died: 1677, near The Hague, the Netherlands

Major Works: Principles of the Philosophy of Rene Descartes (1663); Thoughts on Metaphysics (1663); Theological-Political Treatise (1670); Ethics Demonstrated According to the Geometrical Order (posthumous, 1677); Short Treatise on God, Man, and his Well-Being (posthumous, 1851).

Major Ideas

There can be only one infinite, divine substance, comprising all of reality

Infinite substance must have an infinity of attributes.

God and nature (understood as substance) are identical inasmuch as God is infinite.

Substance is self-caused and depends on nothing other than itself whether for its existence or for its differentiation into various modes.

What we perceive to be a world consisting of numerous and different finite creatures is actually the whole of God or Nature in its attribute of extension.

Since thought and extension are attributes of the one substance, the problem of dualism is overcome.

The problem with religion and theology is that they confuse their approach to God with rational truth and turn from piety to dogmatism and superstition.

Philosophy and religion are distinct and separate approaches to the divine, the former dealing with rational truths about God, the latter with obedience and worship.

Freedom of judgment and freedom of inward piety are inalienable rights of human beings.

The just exercise of sovereign power by a contractually or covenantally constituted government is suitable to the preservation of liberty in religious as well as civil matters.

Baruch or Benedict Spinoza, the greatest Western Jewish philosopher after Maimonides and, arguably, the most brilliant metaphysician among the continental rationalists of the seventeenth century, was the child of a Portuguese Jewish family that had migrated to the Netherlands at the end of the sixteenth century. There, in an atmosphere of religious toleration, Spinoza was trained in the religious and philosophical traditions of Judaism. He was, at an early age, tutored in Hebrew and in the Old Testament, the Talmud, and the mystical tradition of the cabala. His earliest encounter with philosophy, apart from the Neoplatonic elements of the cabala, was surely his reading of Maimonides. He was a superb linguist, conversant in Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch, Hebrew, and Latin. He learned the Latin language, in which his major philosophical works were written, from Christian teachers, one of whom, Francis van den Ende, was a Cartesian mathematician who offered the young Spinoza instruction in mathematics and contempor ary philosophy as well.

By the age of twenty-four (1656), Spinoza had reached conclusions concerning God and the world and concerning the interpretation of Scripture that were unacceptable to the Jewish community in the Netherlands. After attempts to convince the young philosopher of his errors, the rabbis of Amsterdam solemnly excommunicated and anathematized him.

Following his excommunication, Spinoza fled Amsterdam and entered a life of relative seclusion. He chose to earn his living as a lens grinder and to spend his quiet hours in philosophical meditation and writing. Spinoza's correspondence, beginning in 1660, with Henry Oldenburg, secretary of the Royal Society, indicates not only his profound immersion in the thought of Descartes, Bacon, Boyle, and Huygens but also his progress in writing various works, including his masterpiece, the Ethics. Of Spinoza's works, only three were published during his lifetime: the Principles of the Philosophy of Rend Descartes, published in 1663 with a preface by his friend, Ludwig Meyer, and with the Thoughts on Metaphysics as an appendix; and the Theological-Political Treatise, which appeared anonymously in 1670 The correspondence contains evidence of Spinozas hopes in 1675 to publish the Ethics together with an account of the complaint against his purported atheism, spread by a group of unnamed "theologians and "Cartesians." W arned by friends that "the theologians were everywhere lying in wait' for him, Spinoza withheld publication

In 1673 Spinoza was offered the chair of philosophy at the University of Heidelberg by the elector of the palatinate. The letter, written by one of the professors Ludwig Fabritius, includes assurances of academic freedom in Spinoza's pursuit of his ideas, noting the Electro's confidence that Spinoza would not "disturb" public religion. Spinoza's polite refusal of the position noted both that he feared for his time, granting the burden of teaching, and that he wondered about the "limits within which the freedom of [his] philosophical teaching would be confined," given his assumption that religious disturbarices arose not so much from actual beliefs as from "love 'of contradiction" and desire to distort and debate.

In his own time and for a full century after his death, Spinoza's philosophy was not only largely unappreciated it was often thorough]y despised and, because of its radically different conception of the divine, branded heretical by Jews and Christians alike, and indeed viewed as atheistic. (Spinoza, of course never denied the existence of God, but he defined God in a manner so unacceptable to most of his contemporaries that they viewed his belief as a form of atheism.) Revival of interest in Spinoza and the total reappraisal and revaluation of his 'work began toward the end of the eighteenth century with the early German Romantics--Lessing, Goethe Herder, and Novalis. Far from identifying Spinoza as an atheist, the last of these referred to him as a man intoxicated with the divine." The philosopher and theologian Schleiermacher called him "holy," and Hegel has been quoted as stating that "to he a philosopher, one must first become a Spinozist."

Theological-Political Treatise

In the Theological-Political Treatise, as intimated by the title, Spinoza addresses the great question of the relationship between theology or religion and politics. Specifically, he takes as his point of departure the freedoms of conscience and judgment with regard to religion experienced by citizens of the Dutch republic and the remaining problems that he sees about him in the claims made by competing religions upon the public good. People hold a series of "misconceptions" about religion that "like scars of [their] former bondage" lead to superstition and threaten to return the republic to a condition of spiritual slavery. Spinoza notes that those who use their belief in a Supreme Being as a justification for their own success or as a means of release from ill fortune most easily fall prey to superstition and, most typically, "clog men's minds with dogmatic formulas" and turn religion into an oppressive system.

These abuses, Spinoza argues, arise out of a mistaken view of religion. A right understanding of the Bible not only "leaves reason absolutely free," but also demonstrates that "Revelation and Philosophy stand on totally different footings." In arguing this point, Spinoza became one of the first scholars to apply historical and critical judgment to the text of Scripture and to recognize not only that a careful reading of the text indicated problems of authorship--such as the multiple, non-Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch, the "five books of Moses"--but that such a reading also made clear that the religious statements and demands made in Scripture were adapted by its authors to the "popular intelligence" of ancient Israel. Thus, the Mosaic law does not attempt to convince Israel by reason of the truth of certain ideas about God, but to bind Israel by oath and covenant to a pattern of life promising reward for obedience and punishment for disobedience. This, argues Spinoza, is not a matter of knowledge but r ather a matter of faith leading toward obedience. Similarly, the Gospel enjoins faith and obedience: It does not bestow rational knowledge of God.

Even seemingly rational statements about the divine attributes offered by Scripture are offered not for the sake of rational knowledge of the divine being but in order that people of all sorts, even the most ignorant, will be drawn to acknowledge the superiority of the God who is one, omnipresent, all-powerful, just, and forgiving. The attributes lead to devotion.

This radical distinction between theology and philosophy, obedience and knowledge, and faith and reason allowed Spinoza to free both religion and rational inquiry from their traditional antagonisms, and to cut in a single blow the Gordian knot of scholastic argument on the problem of revelation and reason. It is totally opposed to the nature of both approaches to the divine that one ought to be subordinated to the other--whether reason to faith or faith to reason. Spinoza could criticize the rabbis (and by extension the Christian theologians) for claiming that reason and philosophy ought to be subservient to Scripture and that a rational truth ought to be set aside when it appears to contradict a biblical statement. He also criticized those who held that a doctrine like the incorporeality of God ought to be held on the basis of a text in Scripture rather than on the basis of reason--even though reason clearly attests to the same view. It cannot be proved by reason, Spinoza noted, but known only from biblical religion that human beings are "saved by obedience alone"--while, on the other hand, it must be reason, standing on its own abilities of discernment, that decides for the incorporeality of divine being against the passages in Scripture stating that God has hands and feet.

It would be utterly foolhardy, Spinoza concludes, to assent to anything against the dictates of reason. Reason is the greatest of the divine gifts, a living light, and a far higher manifestation of "God's Word" than any "dead letter." This does not mean, of course, that religion must be rejected, but only that its certainties be understood as belonging to the realm of morality rather than to that of rationality or philosophy. Freedom of thought insures the separation of religion or theology from philosophy and, therefore, insures also the integrity of both.

The separation of religiosity from rationality or theology from philosophy, grounded on a principle of freedom of thought, leads Spinoza back at a somewhat higher level to his original point--the importance of a right understanding of religion and of freedom of thought in relation to the state. Specifically, Spinoza proposes to identify the "right and ordinance of nature" as the foundation of any view of the state and to define the extent and limit of freedom of thought in "the ideal state." Spinoza points out that "nature" as such is not ruled by the laws of reason and that "nature," understood in an abstract and general sense, has the right to do whatever is naturally possible. Even so, human beings, living according to nature and the "laws of desire," can do as they will to please, preserve, and protect themselves. Nature, in short, does not forbid strife, hatred, anger, or deceit. This does not mean, of course, that nature is evil-but only that nature is far greater and wider than the human sphere and th at the ultimate good of nature cannot be discerned by beings who know only a part of the whole.

Granting that the laws of nature as a whole do not necessarily serve the specifically human interest of "man's true benefit and preservation," the individual and corporate life of humanity can better be governed by "the laws and assured dictates of reason." Whereas certain individual rights, such as freedom of judgment and feeling or freedom of inward piety are inalienable, the natural rights of individuals to self-preservation must be handed over, in and through a covenant or compact, to the "body politic" in general, to the end that it has a "sovereign right."

Spinoza assumes that irrational commands that could disturb public peace and harmony and precipitate the ruin of a society are virtually impossible in a democracy governed by the rule of the majority--with the result that he advocates the full possession of sovereign right by a democratic government both in temporal and in spiritual matters.

Since God reigns in the world not by the immediate exercise of divine power but through the agency of temporal rulers, religion must be exercised within the bounds set by temporal authorities and must support "public peace and well-being." Inward piety, of course, Spinoza comments, is an inalienable right of the individual, but the outward exercise of one's religion must conform to the rule of justice and charity as understood by the laws of the state. Even so the authority of the sovereign extends even to judgments in matters of morality, to membership in or excommunication from the church, and to works of charity. Indeed, it is by the reservation of ultimate right in all of these matters to the temporal power that the right of individuals to think and speak freely is best and most fully preserved. "The true aim of government," writes Spinoza, "is liberty Government, rightly constituted, will therefore enable human beings "to develop their minds and bodies in security, and to employ their reason unshackled ; neither showing hatred, anger or deceit nor watched with eyes of jealousy and injustice."


Spinoza's Ethics represents his most concerted attempt to come to terms with the great philosophical questions of the existence and identity of God, the nature and origin of the human mind in relation to God the origin and nature of the emotions, the power of the emotions as they restrict freedom of choice the nature of understanding or intellect as the basis of human freedom, and the intellectual love of God as the foundation of eternal blessedness The Ethics; then, contains far more than is typically associated with the subject area of "ethics It serves Spinoza as the vehicle for the exposition of an entire system of the rational knowledge of God world human nature, and human destiny paralleling but not restrained by the concerns expressed by religion in terms of piety and obedience.

The order and style of the Ethics, indicated by its full title, Ethics, Demonstrated According to the Geometrical Order consists in a single, massive, deductive argument from fundamental propositions to final goals, halted in its course only by an occasional excursus or appendix, like Spinoza's "digression on the nature of bodies" (after part 2, prop. xiii) which follows, in fact, quite naturally from the preceding discussion of the body as "the object of the idea constituting the human mind."

Five terms, defined by Spinoza at the very beginning of the Ethics, are crucial to his thought: substance, self-caused, attribute, mode, and God. His view of substance draws on the Cartesian definition- "an existent thing which requires nothing but itself in order to exist." A substance, according to Spinoza, is "that which is in itself, and is conceived through itself," which is to say, substance must be both ontologically and epistemologically independent. A substance, moreover, must be different in nature and attribute from every other substance and, consequently, cannot be produced by any other substance. This means that substance is and must be self-caused, which is to say, the nature of a substance is such that it involves its own existence.

Attribute and mode are, for Spinoza, the fundamental characteristic and the modification of substance, respectively. The attribute of any substance is what "the intellect perceives as constituting the essence of substance." The mode indicates the way a substance is conceived or disposed, not in itself, but in relation to other things. Spinoza not only assumes that different substances cannot share attributes but also that the greater the substance, the greater will be the number of its attributes-with the result that absolutely infinite substance must have an infinite number of attributes. These definitions lead Spinoza to the conclusion that there can only be one substance and that the one substance is God, who alone is necessarily existent, self-caused, and infinite.

Once Spinoza has postulated the identity of God with substance, he can argue that the two fundamental Cartesian substances, thought and extension, are in fact only primary attributes of the one substance. There remains, therefore, no problem of dualism: The one absolute substance acts in ways that we perceive as thought and extension. The definition of mode now becomes of paramount importance to Spinoza's teaching concerning the world. If God is the one substance or "nature" and there is a fundamental, substantial identity between "nature producing" (natura naturans) and "nature having been produced" (natura naturata), then the difference between infinite being and finite being must be one of disposition or arrangement rather than one of substance.

God, as the ultimate and sole substance, is not determined in his actions by any other being or substance and is, therefore, free. Nonetheless, God produces the entire order of finite things necessarily as the result of the infinite perfection of the divine attributes: God cannot either refuse to produce the order of finite things or produce another, different order. Spinoza's God is not, after all, transcendent and "other." God is nature itself and necessarily expresses his perfection in the perfect modification, arrangement, and disposition of his attributes in and through the diversity of the finite order. The one infinite nature or God can, thus, be understood in two ways-either as the One God and as natura naturans or as the infinite order of finite things and as natura naturata.

This view of God as nature and of the order of finite being as an infinite series of modifications in the divine substance does not, on the surface, harmonize easily with the high value set by Spinoza's Theological-Political Treatise on human freedom. Spinoza does, in fact, deny what is usually identified as "free will." The entire finite order is conditioned and is predisposed to move and act as it does. Human beings are no exception. Nonetheless, Spinoza readily acknowledges that we experience freedom, particularly in the form of freedom from external coercion. He can also speak of the freedom of the mind and its exercise of reason over the emotions--a freedom that corresponds with his distinction between rational knowledge of the world order and a more or less confused and vague "imagination" arising directly from the senses.

Just as Spinoza can argue the right of nature in general to do whatever is possible, so also can he argue that every individual thing, as determined by its own individual nature, has an inclination (conatus) to maintain its being and increase its power. This inclination, which belongs to nature itself, can be guided by reason away from "servitude" to the emotions toward a freedom grounded in understanding and love of God, which is to say, towards a clear, unimpeded understanding and appreciation of the ultimate order of nature. The virtuous life known to reason is, according to Spinoza, the life most conducive to the identification of what is useful to humanity and to the preservation of one's being, and is therefore the life that, given, the right development of understanding, proceeds most naturally from our most fundamental inclinations. Within the large-scale determinism of Spinoza's system, therefore, understanding and reason function as the natural means of opening the individual to the higher possibil ities inherent in and, in a sense, determined by nature as a whole.

Life in "obedience to reason" brings about agreement "in nature" among individual human beings. Both at an individual level (as expressed in the Ethics) and in the context of civil society (as discussed in the Theological-Political Treatise), freedom, whether from the internal coercion of the emotions or from the external coercion of political forces, belongs to the ultimate harmony of nature as discerned by reason. Spinoza can, therefore, allow for moral progress, granting the possibility of intellectual or rational clarification, just as he can explain the modification, change, and development of physical things in the natural order-as evidence of the life of nature as a whole in its realization of the possibilities inherent in it and, equally, as evidence of the fundamental inclination of all things to preserve themselves in being. Freedom then, belongs not to a realm of volitional or moral indeterminacy, but to the intellectual grasp of inherent possibilities in the world order. What Spinoza does not ans wer is whether or not this improvement and the freedom it brings is a possibility for all human beings.

Further Reading

Hallett, H. F. Benedict de Spinoza. The Elements of His Philosphy. London: University of London, Athlone Press, 1957.

Parkinson, G. H. R. Spinoza's Theory of Knowledge. Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1954.

Roth, L. Spinoza, Descartes and Maimonides. Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1924. A significant comparative study that places Spinoza's thought into the context of the philosophies that were most influential in his development.

Wolfson, H. A. The Philosophy of Spinoza. 2 vols. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1934. A valuable study that documents closely Spinoza's relationship to Jewish philosophy and mysticism.
COPYRIGHT 1999 COPYRIGHT 1992 Ian P. McGreal
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1999 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Publication:Great Thinkers of the Western World
Article Type:Biography
Date:Jan 1, 1999
Previous Article:GEORGE FOX.
Next Article:JOHN LOCKE.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2019 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters