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Spinoza on truth, religion, and salvation.


WHILE HE WAS IN PRISON, Antonio Negri, the well-known Italian philosopher, coauthor of the bestseller Empire, and the supposed brain behind the Italian terrorist group The Red Brigade, wrote a book about Spinoza entitled: La anomalia salvaje. Spinoza's thinking is characterized here as an untamable, savage anomaly. The anomaly was not that Spinoza was the only one of the great thinkers of the early modern age who was not a Christian. Whatever Negri's reasons for calling him an anomaly, I would argue the most likely reason is that Spinoza was the only great philosopher who took the new, scientific way of thinking completely seriously, even down to its most unacceptable consequences. He considered the new science of Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, Descartes and others to really reveal the truth. In his eyes, this implied a devastating criticism of the whole traditional, Judeo-Christian worldview. Of course, later enlightenment thinkers would, partly under his influence, engage in similar criticism, but, as I will show, also with respect to them, Spinoza constitutes a new sort of anomaly. In his eyes, the rejection of the age-old beliefs did not and could not mean the dissolution of religion, since religion is such a powerful social phenomenon. Like all social phenomena, it appears in forms that can be more or less detrimental or advantageous to human well-being. This feature of religion has to be taken into account in any realistic form of political thinking.

One of the central implications of the new, scientific way of thinking was the rejection of teleology or final causation in nature. Once this cornerstone of the traditional view is eliminated, all the other central doctrines come tumbling down as well, as Spinoza demonstrates with great clarity in the Appendix to Ethics I:
   All the prejudices that I undertake to point out here depend on one
   fact: that men commonly suppose that all natural things act on
   account of an end, as they themselves do. Indeed they think it
   certain that God himself directs all things towards a certain end,
   for they say that God has made everything on account of man, and
   man in order that be might worship God. This, therefore, I shall
   consider first. I shall seek first of all the cause of the fact
   that many people acquiesce in this prejudice, and that all people
   are inclined by nature to embrace it. Then I shall show that it is
   false, and finally how prejudices about good and bad, merit and
   wrongdoing, praise and blame, order and confusion, beauty and
   deformity, and other matters of this sort, have arisen from it.
   However, this is not the place to deduce these from the nature of
   the human mind. It will be sufficient if I take as a basis here
   something which everyone must admit: namely, that all human beings
   are born ignorant of the causes of things, and that all have an
   appetite for seeking what is useful to them, and that they are
   conscious of this. For from this it follows, first, that human
   beings think themselves to be free in so far as they are conscious
   of their volitions and of their appetite, and do not even dream of
   the causes by which they are led to appetition and to will, since
   they are ignorant of them. It follows, secondly, that human beings
   do everything on account of an end; namely, on account of something
   that is useful, which they seek. From this it comes about that they
   always seek to know only the final causes of things that have been
   done, and when they have heard these they are satisfied, because
   they have no cause for future doubt. But if they cannot learn these
   final causes from another, nothing remains for them but to turn to
   themselves and to reflect on the ends by which they themselves are
   usually determined to similar things, and so they necessarily judge
   the mind of another from their own mind. Further, since they find,
   both inside and outside themselves, many means which contribute
   greatly to the procurement of what is useful to them--for example,
   eyes for seeing, teeth for chewing, vegetables and animals for
   food, the sun for light, the sea for breeding fish--it has come
   about that they consider all natural things as if they were means
   to what is useful for them. And since they know that these means
   were discovered and not made by them, they had reason to believe
   that there is someone else who made these means for their use. For
   after they had considered things as means, they could not believe
   that they themselves had made these things, but they had to infer,
   from the means that they themselves commonly made for themselves,
   that there exists some governor or governors of Nature, endowed
   with human freedom, who have taken tare of everything for them, and
   have made everything for their use. And since they had never heard
   anything about the mind of these beings, they had to judge it from
   their own, and so they asserted that the gods arrange everything
   for the use of men, in order that they might bind men to them and
   be held by them in the highest honor. From this it came about that
   each person, in accordance with his own way of thinking, thought
   out different ways of worshipping God, so that God might love them
   above the rest, and direct the whole of Nature to the advantage of
   their blind desire and insatiable avarice. So this prejudice turned
   into a superstition, and put down deep roots in the mind, which was
   the cause of the fact that each person endeavored mightily to
   understand and to explain the final causes of all things. (1)

Let us spell out what, in Spinoza's view, are the consequences of the new scientific view of Nature:

1. Anti-anthropomorphism. The new science shows the untenability of common-sense knowledge based on sense perception, and of the philosophical-theological worldview so closely allied with this common-sense thinking. The traditional worldview is anthropomorphic through and through. It is the result of a projection on reality of categories expressing our emotions, desires and illusions, rather than a view of things as they are in themselves.

2. Anti-anthropocentrism. (2) Contrary to what we spontaneously believe, we are not, either individually, or as a group, or as a species, the center of things. These are childish, but almost inevitable thoughts, the result once again of a lack of knowledge and of human desire. What the new science tells us is that we, like all other things in nature, are the result of blind, efficient causes. Man is not a kingdom within the (divine) kingdom of nature. As Pascal, Spinoza's contemporary, also realized, we live on a tiny planet in some corner or another of an endlessly vast universe, the "silence" of which terrified him. (3)

3. Anti-providence. There are no final causes, there is no design or teleology in nature, and there is no divine providence. We are not wanted in the context of a big scheme of things or in a plot set up by a kind of God-as-Superman. There is no plan in which the Jewish people, or any other people, or any individual, plays a special role. An implication of this view is that the idea of progress, or of a movement towards a better future guaranteed by the nature of things, is also unacceptable.

4. Determinism. We are just one part of an unending process without purpose, part of the endless production of continually new combinations and configurations of things. Our body is like that of all other bodies governed by the iron laws of physics. This implies that all bodily actions are in principle perfectly explicable with respect to their causes and their effects.

5. No free will. If all bodies are completely determined, and if it is also true that the mind is simply the expression of the body in the realm of the attribute of Thought, then mental actions are equally completely determined. The parallelism of body and mind, interpreted as two real aspects of the same reality, leads inevitably to the denial of free will. Our will is nothing bur the expression of conatus, the life force we happen to be.

It is obvious that, according to Spinoza, the implications of the new scientific worldview are diametrically opposed to the basic tenets of Judeo-Christian religion: the belief in a personal God; the belief in a divine, providential plan within creation, with the Jewish people, and then with all believers and nonbelievers; the belief in a final judgment and in personal immortality, even of the body. All these beliefs are bur the result of a lack of knowledge and irrational desires. Yet, paradoxically, this does not lead to a rejection of the notion of God (atheism), of notions of good and bad (cynicism), or of ordinary religion (antireligion). On the contrary, the first book of the Ethics bears as its title De Deo. Spinoza's philosophy is called an Ethics, having as its central problem the question of the good life, and his second masterpiece, the Tractatus Theologico-politicus, although containing a harsh critique of the superstitious forms of religion, accepts the possibility of a form or forms of religiosity that contribute to the peace and well-being of the ordinary believer. (4) All of this means that if Spinoza's philosophy is early enlightenment, (5) it is a form of enlightenment that is very different from what is usually or often understood as enlightenment: an antireligious, amoral and atheistic ideology. In the following sections, Spinoza's peculiar form of modern thinking will be investigated with respect to three main topics: onto-theology, ethics, and the theory of ordinary religion.


After the death of God, there is one illusion that is more alive than ever in our culture: the illusion of the self (and of the capacity and at the same time the obligation to give meaning to oneself on the basis of free will). Spinoza's denial of free will is also the denial of this Cartesian self. As Spinoza sometimes puts it, we are "like clay in the hands of the potter." (6) Actually, there is not even a potter, but rather a blind watchmaker. Paradoxically, the philosopher who demolishes the illusion of the self continues to talk about God. De Deo are the first words of the Ethics. And the famous equation Deus sive Natura (not Natura sive Deus) appears for the first time only in the preface to Ethics IV. (7)

Spinoza clearly thinks it is possible to talk in a truly theoretical and nonanthropomorphic way about God. The "true" God must now be understood in light of the new reading of the book of nature by Galileo, who said that this book "is written in the language of mathematics, and its characters are triangles, circles, and other geometrical figures without which it is humanly impossible to understand a single word of it; without these one is wandering in a dark labyrinth." (8) For Spinoza it is also crucially true--as Richard Mason has pointed out--that the study of the Book of Nature is the study of God. (9) The study of physics is not the end of theology, but rather the deciphering and contemplation of the necessary, modal expressions of the divine substance, of divine power or energy. Science is called on here to play its role within the framework of an onto-theology, leading to a new ethics. (10) The idea of science (physics) as possibly connected with the search for the good life in full consciousness of the new view of things, and not simply as an instrument for the gratification of the whimsical desires of the self--this idea of science has been gradually lost in modern culture, even though it can be found in some exceptional figures, such as Einstein, who thought of himself as very close to Spinoza. (11) Unless a nonanthropomorphic idea of God within the context of a scientific onto-theology is preserved, is the temptation not irresistible to consider science as just a machine for the pursuit of pleasure?

Definition 6 of Ethics I provides us with Spinoza's conception of God: "an absolutely infinite entity, that is, a substance consisting of infinite attributes, each of which expresses eternal and infinite essence." God, in other words, is the only really real or independent thing or substance; all other things are necessary modifications of this one substance, finite expressions of one of the eternal and infinite attributes constituting the nature of the substance. God is at the same time necessarily causa sui and causa omnium rerum, (12) the source of all modifications of reality, for example, of all physical or mental forms of being studied in physics and psychology. Spinoza's God, as the ultimate Source of everything real, is an apersonal God. Infinite Intellect and Will are only (infinite) modifications of one of God's attributes. Infinite Intellect and Will do not belong to God's proper nature, constituted only by the infinite attributes. (13) They form, to use an expression of the Korte Verhandeling, a Son of God not having the same nature as the Father, who is not a Person at all. (14) Spinoza clearly thinks that in order to properly link physics and psychology to ethics, it is necessary first to develop an onto-theology, to study the nature and properties of the Ultimate Source of everything, God. (15) In Ethics I, Spinoza not only establishes the reality of God as defined in Der. 6 (in the proofs of God's existence); (16) he also deduces the fundamental properties of God's nature (17) and of God's power. (18) Over the course of these demonstrations, it becomes clear that God should not be confused with the universe, with the totality of things. God is the Source, Force, or Energy (the Natura naturans) underpinning (substans) everything. The totality of all things, expressing God's nature and displaying its power, is called the Natura naturata.
   Before I go any further, I wish to explain here--or rather to give
   a reminder--of what we are to understand by active and passive
   Nature [Natura naturans and Natura naturata]. For I judge that it
   has now been established by what has gone before that by 'active
   Nature' we are to understand that which is in itself and is
   conceived through itself, or, such attributes of substance as
   express eternal and infinite essence; that is ... God, in so far as
   he is considered as a free cause. By 'passive Nature' I understand
   everything which follows from the necessity of the nature of God,
   or, of each of the attributes of God; that is, all the modes of the
   attributes of God, in so far as they are considered as things which
   are in God, and which can neither exist nor be conceived without
   God. (19)

The new philosophical ethics requires more than the theoretical insight that we are a necessary part of the infinite whole of things from which we emerged at a certain moment and into which we will inevitably disappear again. It finds its culmination in a new philosophical religion which consists in knowledge, not of the whole, but of the substance underneath the whole, and in the attitude and emotion Spinoza calls the (intellectual) love of God. (20)


Although Spinoza's universe is characterized by strict determinism, the central aim of his philosophy is a practical, ethical, and subsequently also a political one. This is obvious, if only from the titles of his major works, starting with the Korte Verhandeling (Short Treatise on God, Man and his Well-Being) and up to his Tractatus Politicus. Spinoza is a compatibilist: he accepts that the truth of determinism is compatible with advocating and trying to lead an ethical life. We know that good and bad are not objective categories of things, but because we humans are also inevitably striving beings, the question of the good life remains an inescapable question, even for the scientist. Scientist or not, we are constantly being affected in all sorts of ways that inevitably lead to desires with respect to the future. We inevitably try, using whatever information we can get as to means and ends, to repeat agreeable, good experiences, and to escape disagreeable, bad experiences. Even though everything is determined, the acquisition of more appropriate information can be a factor changing (in a determined way) the course of our behavior. New experiences, for example, the joy of scientific thinking, can (and will necessarily) change our conception of the good, and therefore our desires and activity.

The new ethics of Spinoza presupposes two elements: 1) the discovery of higher forms of pleasure or of the good; 2) the discovery of scientific information about the causes and effects of our emotions and actions. The combination of those two factors leads to new desires for a higher good (the ideal of the really good life) (21) guided by hypothetical imperatives that adapt causal insights to our striving (the precepts of reason concerning what is acceptable or unacceptable in our emotions.) (22) The psychological insight into the causes and effects of jealousy, in combination with the desire for the highest good or the life of the free man, leads to the insight that jealousy is bad (at least for the sort of individuals we have become). As a consequence we will (necessarily) try to escape situations leading to jealousy. In general, almost everybody sooner or later has the experience that the goods we ordinarily strive for--sensual pleasure, riches, honor--systematically lead to misery, to "moral sickness." (23) On the contrary, the discovery of the comfort of philosophizing (inevitably) leads to a desire for the real good. According to the young Spinoza, this is the beginning of philosophy as an ethical endeavor (see the beginning paragraphs of the Tractatus de intellectus emendatione). (24)

The new ethics of Spinoza consists in a number of precepts of reason (dictamina rationis), which rational people will try to implement in order to come as close as possible to the model of the free man, the ideal of the good life. This is precisely the matter developed in Ethics, book IV. As the (only) axiom of Ethics IV indicates, human beings are just particular things, and of any particular thing it is true that there is always "another which is more powerful than it and by which it can be destroyed." This means that the endeavor of the rational man who knows about the real good and bad can always be overruled by circumstances. Secondly, emotions (like jealousy) can be conquered, not by rational thinking as such, but by rational thinking which itself is associated with stronger emotions. No wonder that Ethics IV bears the title "On human servitude, or, on the strength of the emotions." (25) Even the rational man "is such that he is often compelled, even though he sees what is better for himself, to follow what is worse." (26) Rational ethical life leads to experiences of defeat, or, as Spinoza expresses it, with a quote from the Bible: "He that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow." (27) Spinoza hastens to add: "I do not say this in order that I may infer from it that being ignorant is preferable to having knowledge, or that the intelligent man is in no way different from the fool in respect of control of the emotions. Rather, I say this because it is necessary to know both the power and the lack of power of our nature...." (28)

Ethics, the question of good and bad, would not exist, were it not for man's emotions and striving. The central ethical problem then concerns what difference that rational knowledge of the emotions and of the relative value of the goals they make us pursue can make in the real context of emotional life itself. Knowledge of the precepts (for example, about the undesirability of jealousy) is a rather abstract knowledge, (29) and knowledge of the ideal of the good life is, as Spinoza says himself, more imaginary than real. (30) No wonder that in real life, this knowledge is often not powerful enough emotionally to override pressing affects (like jealousy). The moral Spinoza draws from this is "to act well and to rejoice" (bene agere et laetari) (31), to gladly accept the fact that we are only a part of Nature. The question is whether this almost stoic conclusion of Spinoza in Ethics IV is his final answer. We know, if only from the sequence of Book V, that it is not. The second part of his ethics properly speaking (Ethics V) culminates in a way of life that he himself describes as one of piety and religion, pietas et religio. However, first something must be said about his conception of ordinary, "revealed" religion, which provides a way of life not for the man who has tasted from the tree of knowledge, but for the many.


Spinoza's encounter with modern thought and science meant that he could not remain faithful to his Jewish religion. We now know that his expulsion from the synagogue was due to his desire that a lawsuit he was involved in concerning his father's inheritance would be decided not, as custom required, by the Jewish court, but by the state magistrate. (32) Nevertheless, it is clear that by that time (1656), he had already lost his faith. Interestingly enough, his attitude towards religion was not one of hatred; he became a student of religion as "a natural phenomenon," (33) a sociopolitical phenomenon of enormous importance. The result was his Tractatus Theologico-politicus. He was also one of the first to develop a scientific, exegetical, and hermeneutical study of the Bible. (34) As a necessary tool for this study, he even wrote a Hebrew Grammar.

In his theory of the emotions (Ethics III), Spinoza already shows that there is an intrinsic relation between emotions, politics, ethics, and ordinary religion. (35) Without emotions like benevolence and self-esteem, common-sense ethics is impossible to understand. Reference to the collective emotions of fear and hope, pride and recognition, along with anthropomorphic and anthropocentric ideas of the deity, is essential to an understanding of politics and religion, and their interconnection. In his Tractatus Theologico-politicus and Tractatus Politicus, Spinoza elaborates on these ideas. He demonstrates how fear and hope--provided they are combined with pride in the form of a desire to obtain an elevated place in the order of things, leading to the idea of a special election--are characteristic of what he calls superstitious religiosity. (36) Without the close link with the emotions, religious notions and images do not make sense. Religion works via stories, ceremonies, and rites, which give form to the religious emotions. (37) People or groups in power or wanting power will inevitably make use of these strong social levers.

Religion is neither the work of the devil, nor of pure unreason. It is a natural phenomenon which, depending on the circumstances, can take very different forms. (38) As the subtitle of the Tractatus Theologico-politicus indicates, the book's central task is to investigate the conditions under which freedom of thought (including philosophy and science), piety (religion), and peace (politics) can go together. There must then be forms of religion that allow this positive combination. Spinoza effectively distinguishes between superstition and what one could abbreviate as "purified" religion, purified, that is, of dogmatism and fanaticism. (39) In the latter form, religion can contribute to a truly humane form of politics. What is most surprising, however, is that he sees religion as providing real salvation for the many, for those without the opportunity to embark on the "arduous way" (40) of philosophical salvation: "men can achieve blessedness simply through obedience without understanding." (41) The fundamental emotions in which this salvation (beatitudo) of the believer consists are analogous to those present in philosophical religion: love of God and peace of mind. (42) I say "analogous" because, in the case of the philosopher, these emotions must also be somehow different, since they presuppose other, adequate forms of cognition. This is why Spinoza says that the vera beatitudo can only be reached by the philosopher. (43) Clearly, salvation for the ordinary believer is the reward, not of true insight into reality, but of a certain way of life: a peaceful, just, and charitable way of living with one's neighbors together with a deep trust in one's God. (44) Again, there is some similarity with the idea from the Ethics that salvation is not the reward of virtue, but virtue itself. (45)

Spinoza's conception of institutionalized religion seems much more sophisticated and true to the facts than that held by many Enlightenment thinkers, for whom religion was of necessity a purely destructive force both in individual and collective life--a force that should be eradicated by all possible means. Spinoza, to the contrary, has a realistic view of religion, just as he has of politics. Both are dominated by collective emotions, imaginations, and expectations. In both cases, these complexes can have an either disastrous or positive impact on human well-being. What is important here is to discover the causes responsible for either form, and to implement clever means of bending in the desired direction what cannot be avoided anyway. One important element Spinoza thought he had discovered in this respect was the necessity of a strict subordination of public religion to state power. It is remarkable that, in the Ethics, emotions, which the rational man considers as bad and which play an almost inevitable role in religion, are considered to be not only inevitable, but even good, from the point of view of the social good:
   Because men rarely live in accordance with the dictate of reason,
   these two emotions--namely humility and repentance, and besides
   these, hope and fear--bring more advantage than harm ... For this
   reason it is not surprising that the prophets, who looked to the
   common advantage and not to that of a few, recommended humility,
   repentance and reverence so much. And indeed, those who are liable
   to these emotions can be led much more easily than others, so that
   they finally live in accordance with the guidance of reason, that
   is, so that they are free and enjoy the life of the blessed. (46)


As is clear from the Ethics itself, the ethics of the recta ratio, (47) with its precepts of reason helping to achieve the ideal of the good life, is not Spinoza's final word. In Book V, Spinoza demonstrates what is required to transcend the attempt at a rational mastery of one's passions, which is characterized by inevitable setbacks and at best leads to a kind of stoic acceptance of life. Instead of talking about precepts and the ideal of the free man, Spinoza now speaks of remedies (remedia), which will consolidate man's virtue to such a degree that he is capable of real salvation. Spinoza discloses that, under certain conditions, the human mind can, so to say, produce medicines of its own, strengthening its health to such a degree that it reaches a state of real happiness. A careful investigation of these "remedies," a summary of which is offered by Spinoza himself, (48) shows that they require a transition from the rational point of view towards a higher kind of knowing, an intuitive knowledge (scientia intuitiva), and to the way of life, emotions, and attitudes related to it. (49) Again, it is clear that this ultimate development in ethical life operates within ordinary life, in the context of ordinary human emotionality. Salvation does not simply consist in the highest form of knowledge; this knowledge must at the same time be experience, emotion, or in other words, religion (religio). Yet, this religion is conditioned by and presupposes rational knowledge of the emotions, given by the theory of the emotions as developed in Ethics III. In this sense, it is a strictly modern, philosophical kind of religion.

Reaching the state of true health, which is at the same time bliss, is like becoming eternal in time. This dual perspective, of reaching salvation in time, and of somehow escaping time in time, is explicitly present in the two subsections of Ethics V: P1-20 and P21-40. The second section especially develops the doctrine of salvation as consisting in intuitive knowing and the concomitant emotions and attitudes. The culmination of Spinoza's ethics is not pietas, implying the appropriate relations vis-a-vis others (and oneself), but pietas et religio, implying a kind of religious relation between oneself and God, and via God, again to oneself and others. No wonder Spinoza did not want to give up the notion of God.

What exactly is this intuitive knowledge? What are these emotions and attitudes that constitute salvation? The interpretation of Ethics V is notoriously very difficult, leading many commentators to despair. (50) Yet, it seems to me that major elements of Spinoza's thought can be established with sufficient certainty. (51) The good life does not consist in eliminating the passions, which is only possible in death; rather, it consists in mastering the passions through knowledge. This mastery involves the presence of new active emotions, which constitute blessedness or salvation. The knowledge that produces mastery over our emotions and leads to blessedness consists primarily in a rationally-based knowledge of the emotions that inevitably affect us in our daily life. Still, it is not rational knowledge by itself that is important; it is rational knowledge of emotions as applied to our concrete emotional life. What is required is to be attentive to our own emotional life, and to consider our own emotions from the objective, rational perspective. However, one more element is necessary. In order to arrive at intuitive knowledge, the emotions, our emotions, thus contemplated, must be seen at the same time as particular and specific effects of God's power. In the same breath, the joy produced by this contemplation and this contemplation itself are grasped as effects of God. This inevitably leads to love of God (Amor Dei), (52) a love for a God who "[s]trictly speaking ... loves no one and hates no one." (53) This is the salvation of the philosophical religion.

In the second section of Ethics V (P20-40), Spinoza further investigates both intuitive knowledge and the active emotions, in which our blessedness or highest happiness consists. Intuitive knowledge is clearly a kind of contemplative knowledge of one's own concrete self and experiences as eternal modifications of God. (54) This necessarily leads to active emotions, the intellectual love of God (amor intellectualis Dei), (55) the highest contentment of mind (acquiescentia animi), or, in other words, the highest pleasure accompanied by the idea of oneself and of one's virtue. (56) This contentment of mind related to the love of God and of oneself "is not in fact distinguished from glory (by Defs. 25 and 30 of the Emotions)." (57) Insofar as we conceive of our own emotions and actions as having their source in ourselves (and ultimately in God), we rejoice in ourselves, or in other words, we experience contentment of mind, and we see ourselves and God as praiseworthy. This glory we experience is totally void of conceit, because we know at the same time that all we are and all we are capable of is ultimately God's doing. (58) That contentment of mind or bliss, which is at one with our understanding and loving God, automatically becomes praise of God. Self-glorification is reverence. (59)

In effect, there are two perspectives in Ethics V, but it seems unnecessary to talk about a progression in stages as some commentators do. (60) The second perspective seems to clarify in the first a certain dimension, the dimension of eternity, the dimension of the breakthrough in time of real freedom as related to the reaching of intuitive knowledge and the active emotions going with it. It is in real life that the mind reaches an intuitive view of things sub specie aeternitatis (61) and experiences the kind of emotions that constitute eternal blessedness. In the Korte Verhandeling, Spinoza called this "coming to be eternal" in time a "rebirth" (wedergeboorte). (62) Contentment of mind does not involve an awareness of time, bur a timeless joy or contentment, blessedness itself, in other words, "the mind [simply being] endowed with perfection itself." (63) Spinoza does consider the mind to be "eternal, or immortal"; but this immortality has nothing to do with personal existence "after death," (64) as people usually think. (65)

Spinoza describes religion as follows: "whatever we desire and do of which we are the cause in so far as we have an idea of God, i.e., in so far as we know God, I relate to 'religion'." (66) Religion then is desire and action as related to our knowledge of God. Ethics V shows that without the active emotions of an intellectual love of God and a reverence towards God, the desires and actions constituting religion could not exist. (67) Blessedness is not the reward for piety and religion, for the active desires and actions towards others and towards God; (68) blessedness is piety and religion. (69) Blessedness "is simply the contentment of mind that arises from the intuitive knowledge of God, the attributes of God, and the actions that follow from the necessity of his nature." (70)


How should one make sense of all these quasi-religious words and utterances which at the same time urge us to leave behind their meaning in ordinary religion? "Immortality or eternity" has nothing to do with "immortality" in the sense of a reward in the afterlife for a life of piety and religion. How can there be salvation without hope for personal immortality? How can there be eternal bliss in time? How can there be love of and reverence for a God that is the apersonal substance or Natura Naturans? It is possible to track down all the proofs made by Spinoza on these topics, and yet to fail completely to see what it is all about. Spinoza seems to be aware of this himself. He requires us to have certain experiences and certain emotions as we go along with the proofs. Only then will "we sense and experience that we are eternal." (71)

Perhaps it is possible to get an inkling of what it is all about by making certain comparisons with other forms of religiosity. There is the form in which salvation is equally divorced from ideas of a personal, anthropomorphic God and personal immortality, but is, on the contrary, related to the idea of an impersonal Godhead and a reality that is completely without purpose, sometimes even described as Nothingness. Ina very interesting chapter on "Spinozistic Pantheism," Timothy Sprigge compared some of Spinoza's ideas "with aspects of Hindu feeling which find something to reverence in the terrifying side of nature, as well as in its benign side." (72)

One can also try to compare Spinoza with other thinkers in the West who advocated a nontheistic religiosity as related to a rational-scientific worldview, for example, with Einstein, whom one can consider as a kind of Spinozist. Einstein saw science not primarily as a means for progress, but as a great, meaningful endeavor in its own right, which should be pursued for its own sake. He thought that the preservation of this great and meaningful endeavor was almost impossible without reverence for Nature. Scientific investigation of nature could even, at moments of grace, result in or be accompanied by a cosmic religious feeling, a kind of religious feeling of awe and reverence towards Nature. (73)

Here, I myself will use another strategy. I will try to evoke what it is all about by investigating not the thought of a like-minded philosopher-and-scientist, but (part of) a poem by a soulmate scientist-and-poet. The poem called "Begrip" ("Understanding") is to be found in Leo Vroman's 1989 collection of poems Dierbare Ondeelbaarheid/

Precious Indivisibility (a substance indivisible and at the same rime precious to us--how very Spinozistic). (74)

Als ik de grens aanraak van mijn vermogen worden mijn zolen even grondig plat kriebelt er iets boven mijn ellebogen en begrijp ik: nu begrijp ik wat.

Dan krijg ik wel eens tranen in mijn ogen niet van het begrepene maar doordat ik merk hoe kinderaehtig opgetogen ik weer ben met wat ik nooit bezat.

Lieve natuur door de natuur bedrogen omhels ik de natuur en blijf ik pogen in haar te baden die ik al aanbad. ...

When I come to the limits of my powers Suddenly my soles are flattened drastically I feel an itch above my elbows and I understand: now I understand something.

Then tears will sometimes come into my eyes. Not from what's understood but rather because I realize how childishly excited I am again by what I've never possessed.

Beloved nature by nature deceived I embrace nature and I keep on trying To bathe in her whom I have long adored. ...

In this poem, the scientist sees his own activity and his own emotions as part of nature, a part in which nature paradoxically comes to self-reflection. In self-reflection, the scientist knows the joy of understanding, bur at the same time recognizes this understanding as inevitably somewhat illusory, not because it is in any way doubtful, but because he realizes that what seems to be his highest creativity is but nature acting through him. In this subtle recognition of himself and of his self-conscious activity, the scientist comes to a tender acceptance of himself ("beloved nature"), and a love for that of which he is a part ("I embrace Nature"). Insight into what may look like a harsh truth (that I am only a part of Nature) combines with the joyful experience of one's own activity and leads to tender feelings for oneself and love for that which makes everything possible, including these paradoxical experiences. The whole dialectic of this peculiar self-perception and emotional self-awareness combined with the awareness of and feelings towards the apersonal God-Nature poetically described here, seems to me to be very close to what Spinoza tried to describe as blessedness or salvation. A kind of love and reverence is possible towards an apersonal Godhead. The seeing of the nonanthropomorphic and nonanthropocentric truth is paradoxically combined with salvation. "Enchantment... through disenchantment." (75)

Catholic University of Leuven

(1) Texts and editions used: Spinoza Opera, 4 vols., ed. Carl Gebhardt (Heidelberg: Carl Winters, reprint 1925). Where applicable, citations are abbreviated by volume, page and line number. Thus "3:116.32" means "Volume 3, page 116, line 32." Other abbreviations used: P = proposition; S = Scholium; Cor = correlarium. Translations used: Spinoza, Tractatus Theologico-politicus, trans. Samuel Shirley (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1999). Spinoza, Ethics, ed. and trans. G. H. R. Parkinson (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000).

(2)On Spinoza's anti-anthropocentrism, see Herman De Dijn, "Knowledge, Anthropocentrism and Salvation" in Spinoza, ed. Gideon Segal and Yirmiyahu Yovel, The International Library of Critical Essays in the History of Philosophy, ed. Tom Campbell (Dartmouth: Ashgate, 2002), 341-55. Originally published in Studia Spinozana 9 (1993): 247-61.

(3) On Spinoza and Pascal, see Richard Mason, Spinoza or Pascal? Two Views on Religion, Medcdelingen vanwege het Spinozahuis 76 (Delff: Eburon, 2000).

(4) See also Herman De Dijn, "Spinoza and Revealed Religion," Studia Spinozana 11 (1995): 39-52.

(5) On the influence of Spinoza on the Dutch Early Enlightenment (and elsewhere), see Jonathan I. Israel, Radical Enlightenment: Philosophy and the Making of Modernity 1650-1750 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001X, especially Part II.

(6) Spinoza, Tractatus Theologico-politicus, note 34 to Chapter 16.

(7) See also Spinoza, Ethics IV, P4.

(8) Citation (from Galileo's The Assayer) in Peter Machamer, "Galileo's machines, his mathematics, and his experiments", in The Cambridge Companion to Galileo, ed. Peter Machamer (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 64.

(9) Richard Mason, The God of Spinoza: A Philosophical Essay, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997).

(10) See also Herman De Dijn, "Metaphysics as Ethics," in God and Nature. Spinoza's Metaphysics, ed. Yirmiyahu Yovel (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1991), 119-131.

(11) On Einstein and Spinoza, see Herman De Dijn, "Einstein and Spinoza: Science and Religion," in Tradition and Renewal: Philosophical Essays Commemorating the Centennial of Louvain's Institute of Philosophy, ed. D. A. Boileau and J. A. Dick (Leuven: Leuven University Press, 1992), 1-13; Herman De Dijn, Einstein en Spinoza, Mededelingen vanwege het Spinozahuis 64 (Delft: Eburon, 1991), 15.

(12) Spinoza, Ethics I, P25S.

(13) Ibid., Ethics I, P17S; P31 and P32, Cor2. See Herman De Dijn, Spinoza: The Way to Wisdom (West Lafayette, Ind.: Purdue University Press, 1996), 209.

(14) Spinoza, Korte Verhandeling, 1:9 (1:48.19-25); and 2:22 (1:101n1.28-33).

(15) De Dijn, Spinoza. The Way to Wisdom, chapter 9.

(16) Spinoza, Ethics I, P11.

(17) Ibid., P11-15

(18) Ibid., P16-36

(19) Ibid., P29S.

(20) See section 5 of this paper.

(21) Spinoza, Ethics IV, P67-73.

(22) Ibid., P38-66.

(23) Spinoza, Tractatus de intellectus emendatione, [section] 7.

(24) For an excellent introduction to the beginning, ethical paragraphs of the Tractatus de intellectus emendatione, see Theo Zweerman, L'introduction a la philosophie selon Spinoza. Une analyse structurelle de l'introduction du Traite de la Reforme de l'Entendement suivie d'un commentaire de ce texte, (Leuven: Presses Universitaires de Louvain, 1993). For an in-depth analysis of the whole of the Tractatus de intellectus emendatione as an introduction to the Ethics, see Herman De Dijn, Spinoza: The Way to Wisdom.

(25) On Ethics IV as a kind of provisional ethics, see Herman De Dijn, "Ethics IV: the Ladder, not the Top: The Provisional Morals of the Philosopher," in Ethica IV: Spinoza on Reason and the "Free Man," ed. Yirmiyahu Yovel and Gideon Segai, (New York: Little Room Press, 2004), 37-56.

(26) Spinoza, Ethics IV, Preface.

(27) Ibid., P17S.

(28) Ibid.

(29) Ibid., P18S.

(30) Ibid., P62S.

(31) Ibid., P73S.

(32) See Odette Vlessing, "The Excommunication of Baruch Spinoza: a Struggle between Jewish and Civil Law," in Dutch Jewry: Its History and Secular Culture (1500-2000), ed., Jonathan Israel and Reinier Salverda (Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2002), 141-172. For an excellent biography of Spinoza, see Steven Nadler, Spinoza: A Life, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999).

(33) Decades later, David Hume wrote his Natural History of Religion (first published 1757).

(34) Spinoza, Tractatus Theologico-politicus, Chapter 7.

(35) See also Herman De Dijn, "Spinoza's Theory of the Emotions in Its Relation to Therapy," in Oxford Studies in Early Modern Philosophy, vol. 5, ed. Daniel Garber and Steven Nadler (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 71-90.

(36) Spinoza, Tractatus Theologico-politicus, Preface. See also Susan James, Spinoza on Superstition: Coming to Terras with Fear, Mededelingen vanwege het Spinozahuis 88 (Budel: Damon, 2006).

(37) Spinoza, Tractatus Theologico-politicus, Chapter 13.

(38) See also Herman De Dijn, "Spinoza and Revealed Religion," Studia Spinozana 11 (1995): 39-52.

(39) Spinoza, Tractatus Theologico-politicus, Chapter 15.

(40) Spinoza, Ethics V, P42S.

(41) Spinoza, Tractatus Theologico-politicus, Chapter 15, 232.

(42) See also Herman De Dijn, "Spinoza and Religious Emotions," in Religious Emotions: Some Philosophical Explorations, ed. Willem Lemmens and Walter Van Herck (Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2008), 105-119.

(43) Spinoza, Tractatus Theologico-politicus, Chapter 5, 121.

(44) Herman De Dijn, "Spinoza and Religious Emotions," section 4.

(45) Spinoza, Ethics V, P42.

(46) Ibid., IV, P54S.

(47) Ibid., Appendix, Preface.

(48) Ibid., V, P20S.

(49) On the relation between Ethics IV and V, see Herman De Dijn, "Ethik als Heilkunde des Geistes (5p1-5p20)," in Baruch de Spinoza: Ethik, ed. Michael Hampe and Robert Schnepf (Berlin: Akademie Verlag, 2006), 267-82; see also Herman De Dijn, Spinoza: The Way to Wisdom, chapter 11.

(50) See Jonathan Bernett, A Study of Spinoza's Ethics (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1984), 357.

(51) Excellent commentaries here are: Alexandre Matheron, Individu et communaute chez Spinoza (Paris: Minuit, 1969), and Pierre Macherey, Introduction a l'Ethique de Spinoza. La cinquieme parti-Les voies de la liberation (Paris: PUF, 1995).

(52) Spinoza, Ethics V, P15.

(53) Ibid., P17 Cor.

(54) Ibid., P24-31.

(55) Ibid., P32 Cor.

(56) Ibid., P27 Dem.

(57) Ibid., P36S.

(58) Ibid.

(59) For a contemporary study of the importance of reverence, see Paul Woodruff, Reverence: Renewing a Forgotten Virtue, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001).

(60) See also Herman De Dijn, "Ethik als Heilkunde des Geistes," 273.

(61) Spinoza, Ethics V, P29 and P29S.

(62) Spinoza, Korte Verhandeling, 1:22 (1:100.7).

(63) Spinoza, Ethics V, P36S.

(64) Ibid., P41S.

(65) On Spinoza's views on immortality, see Steven Nadler, Spinoza's Heresy: Immortality and the Jewish Mind (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2001), reviewed by Herman De Dijn in Tijdschrift voor Filosofie 64 (2002): 614-15.

(66) Spinoza, Ethics IV, P37 S1.

(67) See also Herman De Dijn, "Spinoza and Religious Emotions," section 3.

(68) Spinoza, Ethics V, P41S.

(69) Ibid., P42.

(70) Ibid., IV, App. 4.

(71) Ibid., V, P23 S.

(72) Timothy Sprigge, Theories of Existence (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1984), 158; on the relation with other "Eastern" forms of religiosity, see Jon Wetlesen, The Sage and the Way: Spinoza's Ethics of Freedom (Assen: Van Gorcum, 1979).

(73) See also Herman De Dijn, "Over Einsteins visie op religie en wetenschap" in De dobbelstenen van Albert Einstein: Over kosmische religiositeit, Spes Cahier 6, ed. Jochanan Eynikel (Antwerpen: Tertio, 2006), 15-22.

(74) Leo Vroman, Dierbare ondeelbaarheid (Amsterdam: Querido, 1989), 24. English translation by Chris Emery, which first appeared in Herman De Dijn, "Comfort without Hope: The Topicality and Relevance of Spinoza," The Low Countries: Arts and Society in Flanders and the Netherlands 13 (2005): 286-88.

(75.) See Herman De Dijn, Spinoza: The Way to Wisdom, 261.

Correspondence to: Herman De Dijn, Institute of Philosophy, Kardinaal Mercierplein 2, B-3000 Leuven, Belgium.
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