Spinoza, Benedict (Baruch) de
Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2nd ed., vol. 9
New York: Thomson
Dutch Jewish philosopher Benedict de Spinoza
was best known for his Ethics (1677), which laid out in geometric form
arguments for the existence of an impersonal God, the identity of mind and body,
determinism, and a way of overcoming the dominance of the passions and achieving
freedom and blessedness. His Theological-Political Treatise (1670) was
a landmark in the history of biblical criticism. He was also, in that work, the
first major philosopher in the Western tradition to argue for democracy and for
freedom of thought and expression.
In the port of Amsterdam (1632-1656)
Spinoza was born into the Portuguese Jewish community
in Amsterdam in the same year Galileo published his Dialogue Concerning the
Two Chief World Systems. His father, Michael, was an immigrant who had fled
Portugal, with other members of his family, to escape the persecution of the Inquisition.
At that time the Dutch Republic was one of the few places in Europe where Jews
could worship freely. In Amsterdam Michael became a fairly prosperous merchant
in the import-export business and a prominent member of the Portuguese synagogue.
But Baruch, as Benedict was first called, encountered his own problems
with religious intolerance. In 1656, when he was twenty-three, the synagogue expelled
him for what the sentence of excommunication described as “abominable heresies”
and “monstrous deeds.” Although Spinoza had received an orthodox religious education
in his congregation’s school, he rebelled early on against central tenets of Judaism
and began to take an interest in the new philosophy of Descartes, Hobbes, and
Galileo. After his excommunication he was known by the Latin version of his name,
Benedict (which means “blessed” in Latin, as Baruch does in Hebrew).
was a common form of discipline in the Amsterdam synagogue, often imposed for
minor offenses and for short periods, with a provision that the sentence could
be lifted if the offender performed some penance. Spinoza’s excommunication was
unconditional and quite harsh. The elders cursed him with exceptional severity;
no one in the Jewish community (including members of his own family) could associate
with him. For a long time historians did not know exactly what heresies he was
accused of. But in the mid-twentieth century, research in the archives of the
Inquisition disclosed a report from a Spanish priest who had spent several months
in Amsterdam. His report revealed that the main doctrinal charges against Spinoza
were: (1) that he held that God exists “only philosophically”; (2) that he maintained
that the soul dies with the body; and (3) that he denied that the law of Moses
was a true law. The “monstrous deeds” probably included his unrepentant resistance
to authority when threatened with excommunication.
Becoming a philosopher (1656-1661)
Michael de Spinoza died two years
before the excommunication. At that time Baruch took over the family business 
in partnership with his younger brother,
Gabriel. But the punishment prescribed for his heresy made it impossible for Benedict
to continue running his father’s firm (which was, in any case, in financial trouble
as a result of the first Anglo-Dutch war). There is little definite information
about Spinoza’s life during the years immediately after his excommunication. Probably
he remained in Amsterdam for most of this period, and began working as a lens
grinder, a craft in which he earned a reputation for excellence. Perhaps he lodged
at first with Francis van den Enden, a former Jesuit at whose school he had been
learning Latin. Van den Enden may also have helped to shape his inclinations toward
the new philosophy, religious heterodoxy, and democratic politics. Perhaps Spinoza
earned room and board by assisting Van den Enden in teaching Latin. Very probably
he played parts in the comedies of Terence, which Van den Enden had his students
perform in 1657 and 1658. Possibly he assisted the Quakers in their attempts to
convert the Jews by translating some of their literature into Hebrew.
Sometime between 1656 and 1661 it appears that Spinoza did some formal study of philosophy
at the University of Leiden. The Dutch Republic was the first place where Cartesianism
took hold, having been introduced in 1640 by Regius, a professor of medicine at
the University of Utrecht. Cartesianism was highly controversial. Voetius, a professor
of theology at Utrecht, challenged Regius’s doctrine that the union of soul and
body is one of two separate substances, defending the scholastic-Aristotelian
doctrine that the soul is the substantial form of the body. In 1642 the university
forbade the teaching of Cartesianism. Later in the 1640s there were similar controversies
at the University of Leiden. In 1646 Heerebo-ord, a professor of logic at that
university, defended the Cartesian method of doubt as a way of achieving certainty.
Revius, a professor of theology at Leiden, replied that the method of doubt would
lead to atheism and accused Descartes of Pelagianism. In 1647 their controversy
led the university to ban the discussion of Descartes’ philosophy, pro or con.
Nevertheless, in the late 1650s Leiden was a place where one could study Cartesian
By the end of the 1650s, Spinoza had established a circle
of friends, the most notable of whom were Jan Rieuwertsz, a bookseller and publisher
of Dutch translations of Descartes’ works, who was later to become Spinoza’s publisher;
Jan Glazemaker, translator into Dutch of Descartes’works, who was later to translate
most of Spinoza’s works into Dutch; Peter Balling, the Amsterdam agent of various
Spanish merchants, who was to translate
Spinoza’s first published
work, an exposition of Descartes, into Dutch; the brothers Jan and Adriaan Koerbagh,
the latter of whom died in prison for publishing Spinozistic views; and Lodewijk
Meyer, a prominent member of Amsterdam literary circles, who wrote, in 1666, a
work entitled Philosophy, Interpreter of Holy Scripture.
Meyer’s work anticipates some of the themes of Spinoza’s Theological-Political Treatise
(TPT), though it differs from Spinoza in the solution it proposes. Meyer complains
that theologians try to settle their controversies by appeals to scripture but
that their interpretations of scripture are so insecurely based that the controversies
never end. Meyer thinks Descartes’ work holds the key to ending these debates.
He proposes to doubt everything alleged to be the teaching of scripture if it
is not based on a solid foundation. Accepting the Cartesian doctrine that God
is not a deceiver, and assuming that the books of the Old and New Testaments are
the word of God, Meyer concludes that if a proposed interpretation of scripture
conflicts with what philosophy shows to be the truth, we can reject that interpretation
as false. This is a modernized version of the Maimonidean approach to scripture
that Spinoza rejected in the TPT.
Spinoza’s friends in Amsterdam
shared an interest in Cartesian philosophy and in a religion which involves minimal
theological doctrine, emphasizing the love of God and neighbor. Many were affiliated
with the Colle-giants, a liberal protestant group which had broken away from the
Reformed Church after the Synod of Dort in 1618, and which had neither a clergy
nor a creed. Many of Spinoza’s friends also had a connection with the University
Evidently Spinoza began writing his earliest philosophical
works during this period: almost certainly the never-finished Treatise on the
Emendation of the Intellect; probably his Short Treatise on God, Man, and
his Well-Being, a systematic presentation of his philosophy, foreshadowing
his Ethics, but never put into final form; and an early version of the
Theological-Political Treatise, which may have developed out of a defense
of his religious opinions he wrote in Spanish, addressed to the synagogue. The
Treatise on the Intellect was first published in his Opera posthuma;
the Short Treatise was not discovered until the nineteenth century, in
two manuscripts which apparently stem from a Dutch translation of a lost Latin
original. The defense to the synagogue has never been found, though it seems possible
to infer some of its likely content from the version of the Theological-Political
Treatise published in 1670. 
The Treatise on the Emendation of the Intellect
The order of composition of
Spinoza’s earliest works has been debated, but there now seems to be a consensus
that the Treatise on the Emendation of the Intellect (TEI) is the earliest
of his surviving works. It is a good place to start the exposition of Spinoza’s
philosophy, since it explains his motivation for becoming a philosopher. Spinoza
begins the TEI by writing that experience had taught him that all the things men
commonly pursue – wealth, honor and sensual pleasure – are empty and futile. The pursuit
of these supposed goods does not lead to true peace of mind. Sensual pleasure
is transitory and, when past, is followed by great sadness. The desires for honor
and wealth are never satisfied; when we achieve some measure of them, our success
leads only to a never-ending quest for more of the same. When we are unsuccessful,
we experience great sadness. The pursuit of honor has the special disadvantage
that it puts us at the mercy of others’ opinion.
The pursuit of
wealth is subject to the uncertainties of fortune, as Spinoza might have learned
from his experience as a merchant during the first Anglo-Dutch war. So Spinoza
says he finally resolved to seek a good which would give him a joy unalloyed with
sadness and which he thought could be found in love for something eternal and
infinite. Achieving that highest good, he concluded, would involve perfecting
his own nature by acquiring knowledge of the union the mind has with the whole
of nature. This decision evidently came only after the excommunication, though
it probably culminated a period of reflection which began several years earlier.
Spinoza’s primary purpose in this work is to develop a theory of
knowledge which will enable him – “with others if possible” – to attain the knowledge
which is the highest good. He conceives that project as requiring a healing and
purification of the intellect. To this end he offers a classification of the different
ways we can ‘perceive’ things so that he can choose the best. He enumerates four
ways by which he has been lead to affirm something without doubt: (1) because
someone has told him so; (2) because he has come to believe it by random experience;
(3) because he has inferred the essence of a thing from something else (but not
adequately); and (4) because he has come to perceive the thing through its essence
alone or through knowledge of its proximate cause.
Of the numerous examples Spinoza gives of things he has come to believe in these ways, one must
suffice here. Suppose we are given three numbers, a, b, and c, and
wish to find a fourth number, d, which is to c as
b is to a. (1) Some will be able to find d because they have
been taught a rule which tells them to multiply b and c, and divide
the product by a. (2) Others will construct that rule for themselves by
generalizing from simple cases where the answer is obvious. (3) Still others will
have learned the rule by working through its demonstration in Euclid’s Elements.
And finally, (4), some will simply see, intuitively, the answer to the problem,
without going through any inferential process. Surprisingly, given his fondness
for demonstration in the Ethics, Spinoza rejects all of the first
three paths to knowledge, and he claims that only the fourth way of affirming
things will lead us to the perfection we seek. But, he says ruefully, the things
he has so far been able to understand by this kind of knowledge are very few.
The middle portion of the TEI is a search for a method of acquiring
knowledge in this fourth way. The reasoning here is obscure and seems to present
difficulties which may explain why Spinoza never finished this work. For example,
he claims that truth needs no sign and that having a true idea is sufficient to
remove all doubt. But the method is supposed to teach us what a true idea is and
how to distinguish it from other perceptions. That quest seems to assume that
we do need a sign to recognize a true idea.
The concluding sections
of the work, however, contain suggestive hints about Spinoza’s metaphysical views
during this period. A proper application of the method, it seems, will require
us to order our ideas in a way which reflects the order of things in nature, reflects,
that is, the causal structure of nature. This in turn requires that we begin by
understanding what he calls “the source and origin of Nature,” which he identifies
with “the first elements of the whole of nature.” He then makes a distinction
between ‘uncreated’ things that “require nothing but their own being for their
explanation” and ‘created’ things, which depend on a cause (other than their own
nature) for their existence. The first elements of the whole of nature would evidently
be uncreated things which exist in themselves, independently of anything else.
Spinoza explains that if something exists in itself, it is its own cause. Everything
else in nature presumably would depend in some way on the first elements. But
how do ‘created’ things depend on ‘uncreated’ things? And how can something be
its own cause?
Toward the end of the TEI Spinoza makes another distinction,
which may help to answer these questions. He distinguishes between what he calls
the series of fixed and eternal things and the series of singular, changeable 
things. The singular changeable things are apparently
the particular, finite things we encounter in our daily experience. The fixed
and eternal things are said to be present everywhere, to be the causes of all
things, and to have laws “inscribed in them,” according to which the singular,
changeable things come to be and are ordered. There are, it appears, two causal
orders, one of which relates singular, changeable things to other singular, changeable
things, the other of which relates them to fixed and eternal things. The true
progress of the intellect requires understanding how singular, changeable things
are related to the series of fixed and eternal things. To trace their connection
with the series of other singular, changeable things would be impossible, because
of the infinity of that series. But it would also not give us insight into the
essences of the singular changeable things.
What does this mean?
In particular, what are these fixed and eternal things? One plausible conjecture
is this: central to Descartes’ philosophy is the claim that philosophy is like
a tree whose roots are metaphysics, whose trunk is physics, and whose branches
are all the other sciences. What underlies this metaphor is Descartes’ idea – present
both in his cosmological treatise, The World, and in his Principles
of Philosophy – that the fundamental laws of physics – such as the principle of
inertia and the principle of conservation of motion – can be deduced from the attributes
of God (in particular, from his immutability). From these fundamental laws of
physics, which apply to all bodies, we can deduce other, more specific laws which
apply to particular kinds of bodies (such as magnets) and which are the subjects
of the special sciences (such as medicine and mechanics). In principle it should
be possible to deduce all the laws governing the operations of physical objects
from the fundamental laws of physics. And everything which happens in the physical
world (except insofar as it involves the intervention of mental acts, which are
outside the causal network) is governed by scientific laws.
Suppose Spinoza accepted the broad outlines of this Cartesian vision of a unified science.
He would not have accepted the idea that minds can operate as uncaused causes,
interfering with what would otherwise be the course of physical nature. And he
would not have accepted the idea that the will of a personal God is the ultimate
cause of the fundamental laws of physics. But he does seem to have accepted the
idea that there are fundamental laws of physics, from which all the other laws
of physical nature can in principle be deduced, and that all the operations of
physical objects can be understood in terms of these laws. On this hypothesis,
the first elements of the whole of nature, which are among the fixed
and eternal things, would be those general features of extended nature which the
fundamental laws of physics describe. The other fixed and eternal things, which
are connected in a finite series running between the first elements and the singular
changeable things, would be the general features of nature which the derivative
laws of physics describe. And the singular, changeable things would be the particular
physical objects whose operations are explained by these laws. The order of ideal
science reflects the causal structure of nature.
This account may
give the impression that Spinoza thought of science as a wholly a priori enterprise
which proceeds by the intuition of first principles and deduction of theorems
from those first principles. But the final sections of the TEI make it clear that
Spinoza recognized that achieving knowledge of singular, changeable things would
require some appeal to experience. The laws of nature describe general, unchanging
facts, which hold at all times and places. They are not sufficient by themselves
to explain why events in the physical world happen at the particular times and
places they do. To understand that, Spinoza thinks, we must appeal to “other aids,”
to experiments which will enable us to determine by what laws of eternal things
the particular event occurred. But before we can conduct fruitful experiments,
we must first come to understand the nature of our senses so that we will know
how to use them. Since that would appear to require knowledge of singular things,
there seems to be a problem of circularity here, which may be one reason why Spinoza
never succeeded in finishing this treatise.
One puzzle about the
TEI, not resolved by the above interpretation, is what the relation is between
the “first elements of the whole of nature” and Spinoza’s later metaphysical categories.
In the TEI Spinoza never uses the terms ”substance,” “attribute,” and “mode,”
which are fundamental to the metaphysics of the Ethics. If the first elements
are the uncreated things Spinoza mentions in the TEI’s theory of definition, then
we might be inclined to identify them with the one substance, God. The uncreated
things exist in themselves, or are their own cause, and the concept of existing
in itself is one Spinoza later used to define substance. Moreover, the first elements
are supposed to be “the source and origin of Nature.” Although Spinoza does not
refer to them as God, it is natural to think that “the source and origin of Nature”
must be God in any philosophy which acknowledges the existence of God. The problem
is that there is, evidently, a plurality of first elements, and only one substance,
only  one God. The next work we consider may provide a solution to this puzzle.
The Short Treatise on God, Man, and His Well-being
It is clear that Spinoza intended the Treatise
on the Emendation of the Intellect as a prelude to a systematic exposition
of his philosophy; from the correspondence it seems almost certain that some version
of The Short Treatise on God, Man, and His Well-being (ST) was the systematic
exposition the TEI was intended to introduce. Spinoza probably began writing it
while he was still living in Amsterdam, but he must have finished it after he
moved to Rijnsburg in the summer of 1661, when he apparently sent a copy of the
Latin manuscript back to his friends in Amsterdam. This manuscript would then
have been translated into Dutch for the members of his circle who could not read
Latin. It is that Dutch manuscript, or manuscripts descended from it, which provides
the basis for our knowledge of the ST.
Spinoza was still uncertain
about publishing the ST as late as April 1662, when he had already made a start
on expounding his philosophy in the geometric style of his Ethics. He had
initially written the ST at the request of his friends, but only for private circulation,
not publication. It appears that he sent them the manuscript some time after he
moved to Rijnsburg. He hesitated to publish this work because he knew it was theologically
unorthodox and he was reluctant to invite the attacks he knew would come from
the conservative Calvinist clergy.
The surviving manuscripts present
many textual difficulties. Frequently we do not know whether what we are reading
is originally from Spinoza’s hand, an addition by an early reader, a mistranslation
of the Latin original, or a copyist’s error. It appears that even in those portions
of the manuscripts we can confidently ascribe to Spinoza, the views he holds,
or the ways he expresses or argues for those views, reflect an early, formative
stage of his thought. There also seem to be different strata in the manuscripts
themselves, reflecting different stages in his thought. Often the argument is
In spite of these difficulties, the ST can be very
instructive. Many of the central theses of the Ethics are already present
in this work; it is interesting to see the form they take here. Like Descartes,
Spinoza holds that God exists necessarily. He accepts versions of the onto-logical
and causal arguments Descartes had used to prove this in the Meditations.
The work does not yet have the distinctively Spinozistic arguments used in the
Ethics. He defines God as a being consisting of infinite attributes,
each perfect in its kind. This is not a definition Descartes had explicitly given,
though it is one he might have accepted. From the correspondence we know Spinoza
thought it followed from the definition Descartes did give, that God is by definition
a supremely perfect being.
Unlike Descartes, and anticipating the
Ethics (though often with different arguments), Spinoza contends that no
substance can be finite; that there are no two substances of the same kind; that
one substance cannot produce another; that God is an immanent cause; that both
thought and extension are attributes of God; that man is not a substance,
but a mode of substance; that the human soul (or mind) is a mode of thought, the
idea of its body, which is, a mode of extension. Spinoza also argues in this work
for theses which appear in the Ethics without argument, such as the identification
of God with Nature. Early in the ST he contends that, because no attributes can
exist in the divine intellect which do not exist in Nature, Nature must be a being
which consists of infinite attributes, each perfect in its kind. So Nature satisfies
the definition of God.
The identification of God with Nature and
the claim that God is an extended substance are only two of several claims Spinoza
makes in this work which he might have expected to arouse theological opposition.
Also provocative are his contentions that because God is supremely perfect, he
could not omit doing what he does; and that the properties of God commonly included
in lists of his attributes – omnipotence, omniscience, eternity, simplicity, and
so on – are not, strictly speaking, divine attributes, which tell us what
God is in himself, but only modes, which can be attributed to him in virtue of
some or all of his attributes. Omniscience, for example, presupposes thought;
so it must be a mode, not an attribute; but it applies to God only in virtue of
the attribute of thought, not in virtue of the attribute of extension. Eternity,
on the other hand, would apply to God in virtue of all of his attributes. But
it is not an attribute, because it does not tell us what God is. It only
tells us something about the manner of God’s existence, that he exists timelessly
and immutably. Spinoza also argues that, because God is omnipotent, he does not
give laws to men which they are capable of breaking (who could disobey the will
of an omnipotent being?); that he does not love or hate his creatures; and that
he does not make himself known to man through words, miracles, or any other finite
The God of the ST, like the God of the Ethics, is
a philosopher’s God, an eternal first cause of all things, quite remote from the
God who revealed himself to the Jews through his prophets, chose them as his people,
performed  miracles on their behalf, rewarded them
when they obeyed his laws, and punished them when they disobeyed. Presumably something
like this is what Spinoza meant when he said to the elders of the synagogue that
God exists “only philosophically” and that the law of Moses is not a true law,
that it does not, as Judaism supposes, represent a divine command which people
may either obey or disobey at their peril.
If there is no divine
law which is binding on us, how, then, should we conduct ourselves? Here Spinoza
develops at considerable length a theme he only hinted at it in the TEI: that
we must set aside worldly goods to seek a good which can give us joy unmixed with
sadness, transferring our love for finite, transitory things to something eternal
and infinite, perfecting our nature by acquiring knowledge of “the union the mind
has with the whole of nature.” Progressing towards this perfection requires us
to rid ourselves of irrational passions, which depend on the lowest form of cognition,
Like the Ethics, the ST (normally) counts three
forms of cognition, not the four counted in the TEI. The first, opinion, combines
the first two forms of perception enumerated in the TEI: beliefs we form on the
basis of what others have told us and beliefs based on what the TEI called “random
experience.” As an example of an irrational passion based on opinion, Spinoza
offers the hatred which Jews, Christians, and Muslims often have for one another,
based on unreliable reports about the others’ religions and customs, and/or hasty
generalizations from an inadequate acquaintance with members of the other religion.
‘Opinion’ in the ST corresponds to what Spinoza calls ‘imagination’ in the Ethics.
We can make progress towards overcoming these irrational passions
if we pass from opinion to what the ST sometimes calls ‘belief and sometimes calls
‘true belief.’ However designated, this stage of cognition involves more than
what the phrases suggest: in Spinoza’s usage ‘true belief implies not only that
the belief is true but that the believer has a firm rational basis for it. True
belief, the second of three modes of cognition in the ST, is equivalent to the
third of the four modes of cognition in the TEI (and to what Spinoza calls ‘reason’
in the Ethics). So it would involve rational demonstration from certain
How does true belief enable us to overcome our irrational
passions? Partly, it seems, by eliminating beliefs formed through unreliable ways
of perceiving things, but partly also by enabling us to recognize that man is
a part of nature (where this implies that man must follow the laws of nature,
that his actions are as necessary as those of any other thing in
nature) and partly by teaching us that good and evil are not something inherent
in the things we judge to be good and evil, but that they are related to human
nature. The good is what helps us to attain what our intellect conceives to be
perfection for a human being; evil is what hinders our attaining it (or does not
But as in the TEI, Spinoza does not think this form
of cognition can take us all the way to our goal. That requires the highest form,
which this work usually calls ‘clear knowledge,’ or ‘science,’ which we achieve
when we are not merely convinced by reasons but are aware of and enjoy the thing
itself. If we achieve this kind of knowledge of God, we will come to love Him
and be united with Him, as we now love and are united with the body. In our union
with Him, we will be released from the body and achieve an eternal and immutable
This affirmation that we can achieve immortality looks
like a startling departure from one of the views for which Spinoza was condemned
by the synagogue – that the soul dies with the body. In other respects the ST seems
to remain committed to the early heresies and to enable us to understand Spinoza’s
reasons for holding them. In this instance, it looks as though Spinoza has reverted
to what his community regarded as orthodox belief. But as we will see when we
come to the Ethics, it does not appear that the ‘immortality’ Spinoza allows
is a personal immortality.
In the preceding section we noted a puzzle
about Spinoza’s early metaphysics: How are the “first elements of the whole of
nature,” which the TEI said were the “source and origin of nature,” related to
the categories of Spinoza’s later metaphysics? If the first elements are “uncreated
things,” then Spinoza’s theory of definition in the TEI implies that they exist
in themselves, which would mean that they are substances. But the first elements
are evidently many; and there is supposed to be only one substance.
In the ST the answer appears to be that the first elements of nature are the attributes,
which Spinoza defines as existing through themselves and known through themselves,
in contrast with the modes, which exist through and are understood through the
attributes of which they are modes. So the attributes taken individually satisfy
the definition of substance that Spinoza will give in the Ethics. The reason
there is nevertheless only one substance is that the many attributes are attributes
of one being, God or Nature. 
The ST also tells us what
the other “fixed and eternal” things of the TEI might be. Here for the first time
Spinoza makes his distinction between natura naturans, defined as a being
we conceive clearly and distinctly through itself (all the attributes, or God),
and natura nat-urata, the modes which depend on and are understood through
God. He divides natura naturata into universal and particular modes, identifying
only one universal mode in each attribute: motion in extension and intellect in
thought. These he describes as infinite, eternal, and immutable, proceeding immediately
from God, and in turn the cause of the particular modes, which are ‘corruptible’:
they are changeable, have a beginning, and will have an end. The idea underlying
the identification of motion as a “universal” mode of extension is that, in accordance
with the mechanistic program of the new philosophy, the particular properties
of individual extended objects are a function of the different degrees of motion
of their component parts.
Rijnsburg years (1661-1663)
By mid-summer of 1661 Spinoza had moved to Rijns-burg, a quiet village near Leiden,
which had been the center of the Collegiant sect. The extant correspondence begins
during this period, so we are much better informed about these years in Spinoza’s
life. Much of the correspondence is with his Amsterdam friends, but his correspondents
also include Henry Oldenburg, who became the first secretary of the nascent Royal
Society, and Robert Boyle, the British chemist and advocate of the mechanical
philosophy. By the fall Spinoza had begun to put his philosophy into geometric
form. An early experiment with a geometric presentation appears as an appendix
to the ST; another version can be reconstructed from the correspondence with Oldenburg,
whom Spinoza had sent a draft which improved on the draft in the appendix of the ST.
In the following year, Spinoza undertook to teach Cartesian
philosophy to a student named Casearius. He prepared for Casearius a geometric
presentation of Part II of Descartes’ Principles of Philosophy, which deals
with the foundations of Cartesian physics, along with some thoughts on topics
in metaphysics. When his friends learned of this work, they urged him to add to
it a geometric presentation of Part I of Descartes’ Principles; Lodewijk
Meyer offered to write a preface for the work and help him polish it for publication.
Spinoza agreed, hoping that by establishing himself as an expert in Cartesian
philosophy, he would ease the way toward the publication of his own ideas.
Parts I and II of Descartes’ Principles of Philosophy Demonstrated Geometrically (1663)
Although the preface Meyer wrote for this
work proclaimed that Spinoza’s work was no more than an exposition of Descartes’
Principles – and that this was true even for the appendix, which Spinoza
called Metaphysical Thoughts – in fact his work is more than that. For one
thing, Spinoza also draws on other Cartesian works in constructing his account
of Descartes’ philosophy. Sometimes his reconstruction implies a criticism of
the way Descartes himself argued for his positions. Sometimes he is openly critical
of Descartes’ assumptions. And sometimes (particularly in the appendix) he uses
this venue to develop his own ideas, independently of Descartes. An interesting
example involves the question of miracles. He offers a reason for doubting them
along the lines he subsequently published in the TPT But in this work he does
not endorse the argument; he merely leaves it as a problem for the theologians.
Perhaps his most important differences with Descartes in this mainly
expository work are those he asked Meyer to call attention to in his preface:
that he does not think the will is distinct from the intellect, or endowed with
the freedom Descartes attributed to it; and that he does not think the human mind
is a substance, any more than the human body is a substance. Just as the human
body is “extension determined in a certain way, according to the laws of extended
nature, by motion and rest, so also the human mind, or soul, is … thought determined
in a certain way, according to the laws of thinking nature, by ideas” (Gebhardt
I, 132). He also disassociates himself from the Cartesian claim that some things – such
as the nature of the infinite – surpass human understanding. He claims that these
and many other things can be conceived clearly and distinctly, provided the intellect
is guided in the search for truth along a different path from the one Descartes
followed. He does not say precisely how that path would have to differ, but he
does say that the foundations of the sciences Descartes laid are not sufficient
to solve all the problems arise in metaphysics. We need to find different foundations
for the sciences.
In April 1663, shortly before the publication of his exposition of Descartes, Spinoza
moved from Rijnsburg to Voor-burg, a village outside the Hague. During his first
two years in Voorburg, Spinoza must have worked intensively on his Ethics,
for by the summer of 1665 he had a draft far  enough
advanced that he was thinking about finding someone to translate it into Dutch.
Having grown up in a community whose main languages were Spanish, Portuguese,
and Hebrew, Spinoza did not feel entirely comfortable writing philosophy in Dutch.
In 1665 he seems to have conceived the Ethics as being divided into three
parts, the last of which would probably have corresponded roughly to the last
three parts of the final version.
During this period he also entered
into a correspondence with a Dutch merchant and would-be philosopher, Willem van
Blijenbergh, who had read his exposition of Descartes and had many questions for
the author. Van Blijenbergh wondered about the existence of evil, and about how,
if evil existed, this fact could be reconciled with the creation of the world
by God – and indeed, its continuous creation, from one moment to the next. He wanted
to know what it meant to say that evil is only a negation in relation to God,
and how he could distinguish which portions of Descartes’ Principles merely
articulated Descartes’ views and which ones expressed Spinoza’s views. He wondered
what Spinoza’s view of the relation between mind and body implied about the immortality
of the soul.
Van Blijenbergh was a committed Christian who believed
that scripture was the ultimate authority on any philosophical question it addressed.
His approach to scripture was the opposite of Meyer’s: If his reason persuaded
him of something contrary to what scripture taught, he would mistrust his reason
rather than scripture. This was not a promising basis for a dialogue with Spinoza.
Spinoza found the exchange of letters an unproductive use of his time and broke
it off as soon as he could. But the correspondence with Van Blijenbergh seems
to have persuaded him that he must diminish the authority of scripture before
he could get a fair hearing for his own philosophy. By the fall of that year he
had set the Ethics aside to return to work on his Theological-Political
Treatise, which he intended to “expose the prejudices of the theologians,”
clear himself of the charge of atheism, and argue for freedom of thought and expression,
which he saw as threatened by the authority of the preachers.
stimulus for this shift in his writing may have been an incident involving his
landlord, Daniel Tydeman, a painter and member of the Reformed Church. The minister
of the local church had died, and Tydeman was on the committee appointed to select
his successor. Tydeman seems to have been a theological liberal, perhaps with
Collegiant inclinations. The committee nominated a man they found sympathetic
theologically but encountered opposition from conservatives in the
congregation, who sought to discredit the committee’s candidate by claiming, among other things,
that Tydeman had living in his house a former Jew, now turned atheist, who “mocked
all religions” and was “a disgraceful element in the republic.” The committee’s
candidate was rejected.
These were difficult years for the Dutch
Republic. The plague had returned to Europe in 1663 and had been so virulent that
Spinoza felt it necessary to leave Voorburg to spend several months of the winter
of 1664 at the country house of relatives of a friend. Competition between the
Dutch and the English for control of maritime trade led to war between the two
countries from 1664 to 1667, the second such war in a little over a decade. No
sooner had that war ended than there were threats of a new war with France, whose
king, Louis XIV, had expansionist ambitions. And there was tension between the
leaders of the Republic and the princes of the house of Orange.
tension went back to the early days of the Republic. In the mid-sixteenth century
the area now occupied by the independent nations of the Netherlands, Belgium,
and Luxemburg was a unit within the Holy Roman Empire, ruled by the King of Spain.
Toward the end of the century, the seven northern provinces (the modern Netherlands)
succeeded in breaking away from Spanish rule, largely under the leadership of
William I, Prince of Orange and Stadholder of the provinces of Holland, Utrecht,
and Zeeland, though his son, Maurice of Nassau, also played a key role. The Stadholders
were originally governors of the provinces, representing the Spanish crown and
charged with the administration of justice. During the revolt against Spain, the
Stadholders of the house of Orange sided with the rebels and provided the military
leadership the provinces needed. Sometimes they worked in collaboration with the
States-General, an assembly representing all the provinces. Sometimes they competed
with the leadership of the States-General for power. Later princes of Orange developed
In the late 1640s the Prince of Orange was
William II, who unsuccessfully opposed the Treaty of Westphalia (1648), which
ended the eighty-year war for Dutch independence from Spain (as well as the Thirty
Years War, which had embroiled most of Europe since before Spinoza was born).
The States-General, dominated by the province of Holland and Dutch mercantile
interests, favored the treaty. When William died unexpectedly in 1650, the position
of the Orange party was weakened. His son, William III, was not born until just
after his father’s death. For  many years the minority
of the young prince provided the leaders of the States-General with an excuse
to leave the office of Stadholder vacant. The functions the Stadholder had performed
fell to the States-General, under the leadership of Jan de Witt, who generally
had great success in defending his country against many challenges. But as William
III neared adulthood, the tensions between the De Witt party and the Orange party
increased, particularly when the affairs of the Republic were not going well,
as was the case at the end of the 1660s.
Spinoza was sympathetic
to the De Witt regime, strongly preferring it to the Orangist alternative. But
some historians have exaggerated his closeness to De Witt, trusting too much to
contemporary accounts. De Witt’s political enemies, bent on discrediting him,
sometimes claimed a close association between him and Spinoza – suggesting, for
example, that De Witt had assisted in the editing and publishing of the TPT. And
Spinoza’s friends sometimes told similar stories – for example, that De Witt had
often visited Spinoza to discuss affairs of state – apparently with the intention
of magnifying Spinoza’s reputation by associating him with a political leader
whom many regarded as a hero. Though De Witt and Spinoza would have agreed in
opposing the monarchic ambitions of the Prince of Orange, Spinoza was a democrat,
whereas De Witt favored an oligarchic republic. They would have agreed in opposing
the desire of the more conservative members of the clergy, in alliance with the
princes of Orange, to enforce a strict Calvinist orthodoxy. But Spinoza favored
a very expansive freedom of thought, whereas De Witt recognized the necessity,
if only as a matter of practical politics, of making accommodations to the Reformed
In the Theological-Political Treatise (TPT) Spinoza
speaks in glowing terms about the freedom of the Dutch Republic:
Since we happen to have that rare good fortune, that we live in a Republic in which
everyone is granted complete freedom of judgment, and is permitted to worship
God according to his understanding, and in which nothing is thought to be dearer
or sweeter than freedom, I believed I would be doing something neither unwelcome,
nor useless, if I showed not only that this freedom can be granted without harm
to piety and the peace of the Republic, but also that it cannot be abolished unless
piety and the Peace of the Republic are abolished. (Gebhart III, 7)
But Spinoza knew all too well that the Republic was
not as free as he claimed.
In 1668 his friend Adriaan Koerbagh had
published A Flower Garden of All Kinds of Loveliness, ostensibly a treatise
explaining the meanings of foreign words which had become part of Dutch but in
fact a critique of all the organized religions known in the Dutch Republic. In
this acerbically written book, Koerbagh anticipated a number of the claims Spinoza
made two years later in the TPT: He denied that the books of the Bible were written
by the men to whom they were traditionally ascribed; he proposed that Ezra, the
postexilic priest and scribe who wrote the book of Ezra, was responsible for the
existing form of the Hebrew Bible, having compiled and attempted to reconcile
the inconsistent manuscripts which had come down to him; and he argued that a
proper interpretation of the Bible would require a thorough knowledge of the languages
it was written in and the historical contexts its authors wrote in. Like Spinoza,
he did not deny that there was something solid and consistent with reason in scripture;
but that solid element in scripture was not its theology.
was arrested – along with his brother, Jan, who was suspected of complicity in the
work – and, with the encouragement of the Reformed clergy, tried for blasphemy by
the civil authorities in Amsterdam. Jan was released after a few weeks, but Adriaan
was found guilty after a lengthy inquest, during which he was questioned about
his association with Spinoza and Van den Enden. Sentenced to a fine of 4,000 guilders
and ten years in prison, to be followed by ten years’ exile, he died a little
more than a year after his imprisonment from the harsh conditions in the prison.
The influence of the Reformed clergy on Dutch politics perhaps explains
why Spinoza and the other members of his circle showed the interest they did in
the work of Hobbes. Probably Spinoza had known some of Hobbes’ work for years,
since Hobbes’ first published work of political philosophy, De cive (On
the Citizen), had been available in a language he could read since 1642. It is
likely that this would have been one of the works Van den Enden called to his
attention when he was encouraging his interest in the new philosophy. But before
1667, Spinoza’s inability to read English would have prevented him from gaining
first-hand knowledge of Leviathan, which developed Hobbes’ religious views
more fully than De cive had. Two events in the late 1660s changed that:
in 1667 Abraham van Berckel, a friend of Spinoza’s (and of the Koerbagh brothers),
translated Leviathan into Dutch; and in 1668 an edition of Hobbes’ complete
Latin works  (including
a Latin translation of Leviathan) was published in the Netherlands. Although
it may seem paradoxical to Anglophone readers of Hobbes, who think of him primarily
as a defender of absolute monarchy, Hobbes’ theory was attractive to republicans
in the United Provinces because of his advocacy of state control over religion.
In Holland in the 1660s conservative Christianity was a problem for them, much
as it had been for the royalists in England in the 1640s.
The Theological-Political Treatise (1670)
It is no accident that Spinoza
treats religion and politics in one work. The preface to the TPT illustrates one
way in which these subjects are linked. Spinoza begins with reflections on the
psychological origin of superstition, which he attributes to the uncertainty of
our lives and the role fortune plays in them. Much of what happens to us depends
on circumstances over which we have no control. We do not know whether things
will go well or badly for us, and we fear what may happen if they go badly. So
we would like to believe in some story which offers us the hope of gaining control
over our lives. In this mood we may believe that the future can be predicted from
the entrails of birds or affected by prayer and the performance of rituals. That
belief puts us at the mercy of unscrupulous priests and the politicians who use
them. “The greatest secret of monarchic rule,” Spinoza writes in the preface,
“is to keep men deceived, and to cloak in the specious name of religion the fear
by which they must be checked, so that they will fight for slavery as they would
for salvation, and will think it not shameful, but a most honorable achievement,
to give their life and blood that one man may have a ground for boasting.“
If the politicians use the priests to provide divine authority for their rule, the
priests also use the politicians, trading their support for the enactment of laws
condemning opinions contrary to those they endorse. These condemnations enhance
their authority, giving official sanction to the idea that the priests have a
special expertise in matters of religion. Spinoza speaks with respect of Christianity,
which he sees as a religion whose true spirit calls for love, peace, restraint,
and honesty toward all. But he deplores the fact that the Christians of his day
are no more prone to display these virtues than the members of any other religion,
a fact he attributes to the wealth, honor, and power accorded to its clergy. These
incentives attract the worst kind of men to the ministry, men who for their personal
ends are willing to exploit the credulity of the people for personal gain, to
teach them contempt for reason, and to stir up hatred of those who disagree with them.
Spinoza proposes to remedy this evil by challenging
the assumptions with which the priests approach scripture. They assume as a principle
of interpretation that scripture is, in every passage, true and divine. Since
scripture often appears to be inconsistent, they invent forced, reconciling interpretations
whose only value is their apparent smoothing over of contradictions. And because
scripture often appears to be contrary to reason in other ways, they are prone
to invent metaphorical readings of scripture to make it conform to their beliefs.
This procedure reverses the proper order of things. We should seek first to determine
the meaning of scripture and only after that should we make a judgment about its
truth and divinity.
But how should we determine the meaning of scripture?
Spinoza’s fundamental rule is that we should attribute to scripture as its teaching
nothing we have not clearly understood from its history. By a “history of scripture”
Spinoza understands, first, an account of the vocabulary and grammar of the language
in which its books were written and which its authors spoke. This will tell us
what meanings its words can have in ordinary usage and what ways of combining
those words are legitimate. Second, a history of scripture must organize what
scripture says topically, so that we can easily find all the passages bearing
on the same subject; it must also note any passages which seem ambiguous or obscure
or inconsistent with one another. Next, it must describe the circumstances under
which the book was written, who its author was, what his character was, when he
wrote and for what reason, for what audience, and in what language. And, finally,
it must tell us how the book was first received, into whose hands it fell, how
many different readings there are of various passages, and how it came to be accepted
as sacred. What Spinoza is proposing here is that we apply to the interpretation
of scripture the scholarly criteria Renaissance humanists had applied to the classics
of pagan antiquity (with the exception that for the pagan works the question of
their acceptance as sacred does not arise).
The result of applying
these rules does not inspire confidence in the historical accuracy of scripture:
the historical books were not written by the authors to whom tradition ascribed
them – Moses, Joshua, Samuel, and so on – but were compiled by a much later editor,
whose knowledge of the events these books described was based on manuscripts which
had come into his possession but are now lost. Spinoza conjectures that this editor
was  Ezra. Moreover, not only was Ezra’s knowledge
of the early history of the Jews second-hand knowledge of long-ago events, but
he also reworked the texts to smooth out inconsistencies and make them tell the
story he wanted to tell: that when the people of Israel obeyed God’s laws, they
prospered, whereas evil befell them when they disobeyed.
of Spinoza’s conclusions about the Bible were radically new. In the twelfth century
Abraham ibn Ezra had hinted in his commentary on the Torah that the first five
books of the Bible, in the form in which we have them, were written much later
than the events they described. In the 1650s Isaac de la Peyrère and Thomas
Hobbes had drawn similar conclusions more openly. But Spinoza was more systematic,
thorough, and blunt than any of these predecessors. Unlike La Peyrère and
Hobbes, he had the advantage of knowing the texts well in the original Hebrew,
of knowing the medieval Jewish interpretive tradition, and of having a well-developed
theory of interpretation, a theory which set a new standard for Biblical scholarship.
Unlike Ibn Ezra, he did not pull his punches:
Those who consider
the Bible, as it is, as a letter God has sent men from heaven, will doubtless
cry out that I have committed a sin against the Holy Ghost, because I have maintained
that the word of God is faulty, mutilated, corrupted and inconsistent, which we
have only fragments of it, and finally, which the original text of the covenant
God made with the Jews has been lost. (Gebhardt I, 138)
It’s hardly surprising that when Hobbes read the TPT, he commented that he had not
dared to write so boldly.
Spinoza did not object only that our knowledge
of biblical history was based on unreliable texts, he also criticized biblical
theology as embodying the opinions of men whose conception of God was based on
the imagination rather than the intellect. The prophets, he argued, were outstanding
for their personalities, their moral qualities, and their knack for expressing
themselves in powerful language. But they were not philosophers. They thought
of God as the maker of all things, existing at all times, who surpassed all other
beings in power; but they did not understand that God was omniscient and omnipresent,
or that He directed all human actions by his decree. They imagined that He had
a body, which was visible (though you would die if you looked upon it), and that
He had emotions, like compassion, kindness, and jealousy. Moreover, they were
not strict monotheists.
They believed that there were other Gods
who were subordinate to the God of Israel and that He had entrusted the care of
other nations to these lesser Gods. So their conceptions of God were very inadequate.
And they often accommodated their theology to the even more primitive capacities
of their audience.
In his rejection of Biblical theology, Spinoza
even goes so far as to suggest that it is anthropomorphism to think of God as
having a mind. What, then, can God be? Spinoza never answers that question directly,
but he does say that God’s guidance is “the fixed and immutable order of nature.”
When we say that all things are ordered according to the decree and guidance of
God, this is the same as saying that all things happen according to the laws of
nature. It is a natural consequence of this view that there can be no miracles,
no divine interventions in the order of nature. If there were an event contrary
to the laws of nature, that would be an event contrary to divine decree. If God
is omnipotent, this is impossible.
God’s omnipotence also makes
it irrational to conceive of God as a lawgiver of the kind portrayed in the Bible.
The biblical God is conceived as being like a king who issues commands which his
subjects have the power to obey or disobey. They will prosper if they obey and
suffer if they disobey. But the laws which are truly divine are principles of
natural necessity – like the laws according to which motion is transferred from
one body to another in a collision. No one has any choice but to “obey” these
laws; it is not a contingent matter whether someone acts in accordance with them.
(Nevertheless, even after stating this conclusion quite clearly early in the TPT,
Spinoza regularly adopts some of this anthropomorphic language himself, later
in his work, when he argues that the primary purpose of scripture is to encourage
obedience to God, not to inculcate correct beliefs about God.)
Spinoza questions much of the history and theology of the Hebrew Bible – and delicately
avoids any extended discussion of the Christian New Testament – he denies that he
has spoken unworthily of scripture. Scripture is divine and sacred when it moves
men toward devotion toward God, as it can do and often does. But it is not inherently
sacred. If men neglect it, or interpret it superstitiously, as they can and often
do, it is no more sacred than any other writing. There is a core ethical teaching
in scripture which is so pervasive that it cannot have been corrupted by any misinterpretation:
that we should love God above all else, and love our neighbors as ourselves; that
we should practice justice, aid the poor, kill no one, covet no one’s possessions,
and so on. These prescriptions deserve our utmost respect. If we seek to 
follow them wholeheartedly, we will be treating
scripture as sacred, whether we think of those prescriptions as the commands of
a heavenly king or regard them (in the manner of Hobbes) as theorems about what
is conducive to our self-preservation and to living in the best way possible.
Spinoza does not endorse only the ethical teachings of scripture.
He also thinks there are core theological teachings which are central to scripture
and which are in some sense true: for example, that God exists; that he provides
for all; that he is omnipotent; that things go well for those who observe their
religious duties but badly for the unprincipled; that our salvation depends only
on God’s grace; and so on. In his way, he does endorse these teachings. But his
approval of them is hedged. There is a popular way of understanding them which
assumes that the God of whom they speak is a changeable personal agent who acts
from freedom of the will, who prescribes laws as a prince does, and who has desires
which humans will frustrate if they disobey his commands. And there is a philosophical
way of understanding them, according to which God is the fixed and immutable order
of nature who acts from the necessity of his own nature and whose “laws” are eternal
truths, the violation of which is followed only by natural punishments, not supernatural
ones. Presumably the philosophical way of understanding these doctrines is the
right way to understand them from the standpoint of truth. But the popular way
of understanding them is not to be despised if it produces conduct in accordance
with the ethical teachings of scripture. If it does, it is to be respected, honored,
Insofar as Spinoza endorses a minimalist theology,
which avoids most controversial doctrines, concentrating on those which elicit
broad agreement and which emphasizes the importance of works as the path to salvation,
the TPT is in the tradition of Erasmian liberalism. This outlook provides him
with a religious argument for tolerating diversity of opinion in the realm of
religion. Philosophy and theology are separate areas, neither of which should
be the handmaiden of the other. Theology is concerned with revelation, which in
turn is concerned with obedience, not with speculative truth. In judging whether
or not a person’s faith is pious, we must look only to his works. If they are
good, his faith is as it should be.
In the political portions of the TPT, Spinoza supplements
this religious argument for freedom of thought and
expression with a political argument. He seeks to show, from fundamental political
principles, that allowing this freedom is compatible, not only with religion, but
also with the well-being of the state. Indeed, he will go further
and argue that the well-being of the state requires freedom of thought
The foundations of his political thought look very
Hobbesian; the liberal conclusions he draws from them seem rather un-Hobbesian.
Like Hobbes, Spinoza believes that the condition of man in the state of nature –
that is, in any state where there is no effective government – is wretched and insecure.
Human beings are very egoistic. Everyone seeks what considerations he would develop
to be to his own advantage, with little concern for the well-being of others or
the long-term consequences of his actions or the moral repercussions for civil
society. Moreover, humans generally have an impoverished understanding of what
is in their interest, valuing such goods as wealth, honor, and sensual pleasure
more than they should, and knowledge and the control of their passions less than
they should. If they did not have laws to restrain them, laws which alter their
calculations of self-interest, they would not practice justice and loving-kindness;
their lives would be full of conflict, hatred, anger, deception, and misery. In
the state of nature there is, by definition, no human law to restrain them. And
Spinoza takes himself to have shown that God cannot be conceived as a lawgiver.
It follows that in the state of nature, though each person is permitted to do
whatever he has the power to do, he has no joy from this freedom.
But, like Hobbes, Spinoza also assumes that people are smart enough to see that their
condition in the state of nature is wretched and to see what they must do to escape
it: create a civil society by agreeing with other people to transfer their power
to defend themselves to society, creating a collective entity which will have
sufficient power to make and enforce laws for the common protection and advantage.
Not only will this arrangement provide them with security, but it will also make
possible cooperative enterprises which improve the lives of everyone in the state,
enabling them to seek the highest good: the knowledge of things through their
first causes, that is, the knowledge of God, which leads to the love of God. (Positing
this – or anything else – as our highest good is very un-Hobbesian.)
In some respects, Spinoza goes further than Hobbes in his conception of what the
creation of the state involves. He thinks that when individuals agree to form
a civil society, they must surrender to it whatever rights they possessed in the
state of nature. If they wanted to reserve certain rights to themselves, they
would have to establish some means of protecting those rights; establishing these
means would divide and consequently  destroy
the sovereignty of the state. (Although Hobbes favored absolute sovereignty, he
argued that some rights, like the right to defend oneself against attack, were
inalienable.) Just as Spinoza thinks that the right of individuals in the state
of nature is limited only by their power, so the right of the state is limited
only by its power. Since it is not, and cannot be, bound by any laws, what it
can do, it may do.
Is the formation of the state, then, really as
rational an act as Spinoza presents it as being? The state, which can call upon
the collective might of all (or at least, most) of its members, seems potentially
much more dangerous to each of its members than any individual in the state of
nature. As Locke wrote in response to the similar views of Hobbes, “this is to
think that men are so foolish that they take care to avoid what mischiefs may
be done them by polecats, or foxes, but are content, nay think it safety, to be
devoured by lions.” But Spinoza thinks people can rationally run this risk because
he thinks that even in a monarchy or aristocracy the state will normally avoid
commanding things contrary to the interests of the people. If it did, it would
risk losing its power and hence its right to command.
in the TPT Spinoza is mainly thinking of the state which emerges from this process
as a democratic one, that is, one in which decisions of the state are to be made
by a general assembly of all the people. He acknowledges that in certain circumstances
other forms of political organization may be desirable. In his posthumously published
Political Treatise (PT) he recommended ways of structuring monarchies and
aristocracies which provide the citizens with protection from their rulers. But
in the TPT he focuses most of his attention on democracy, which he regards as
the most natural form of government.
In the state of nature all
men were equal; they retain that equality in civil society when the state is a
democracy because no one in a democracy is subject to his equals. In the state
of nature, all people are free because they are subject to no laws; they retain
their freedom in civil society insofar as they are subject only to laws in whose
formation they have participated – laws, moreover, guided by the principle that
the well-being of the people is the supreme law, not the well-being of the ruler.
A man can be free even when he is acting according to a command, if the command
is rationally aimed at his advantage. Indeed, he is truly free only when he is
acting wholeheartedly according to the guidance of reason. (Unlike Hobbes, Spinoza
favors a positive conception of liberty, not a negative one which regards it merely
as the absence of impediments to the agent’s preferred actions.)
Rule by one man, or by a few men, might be justifiable if that man (or those men)
had some ability which went beyond ordinary human nature. But Spinoza seems to
think that this is not normally the case. And, like Machiavelli, Spinoza thinks
that the people are less prone to unwise actions than are autocratic rulers.
To those of us who are accustomed to a system in which the actions of government
are constrained by a written constitution which provides protection for individual
liberties, it may seem that a political theory that calls for men to give up all
their rights to the state is an unpromising basis for a defense of freedom of
thought and expression – even if the state is a democratic one. Spinoza may have
thought, as Rousseau did, that if the legislators are making laws which bind themselves
as much as they do others, that fact will provide a sufficient incentive for them
not to impose undue burdens. But this thought seems to ignore the possibility
that a majority will make decisions that it believes to be for the common good,
even if the minority regards them as tyrannical.
In the TPT Spinoza’s primary remedy for this
problem is not an institutional one. He relies on the
facts that in his theory the right of the state is limited by its power and that
its power is inevitably limited by the recalcitrance of human nature. Some of
the things a state might wish to command are things its citizens cannot change
at will, such as their beliefs and their emotions. The threat of punishment for
believing or loving as a person does cannot cause that person to believe or love
otherwise. But if the state lacks the power to control its citizens’ beliefs and
actions, then it also lacks the right to control these things.
fact that the state lacks the right to control what it lacks the power to control,
in itself, is no protection. But Spinoza emphasizes that it is impossible for
people to surrender their right (or transfer their power) to the state in such
a way that they are not feared by the people to whom they have surrendered their
right. Any government is in greater danger from its own citizens than it is from
any external enemy, for its control over its citizens and its ability to respond
to enemies both depend ultimately on the voluntary obedience of a substantial
number of its own citizens. Hobbes put the point well in Behemoth, his
history of the English Civil War: “The power of the mighty hath no foundation
but in the opinion and belief of the people.… If men know not their duty, what
is there that can force them to obey the laws? An army, you will say? But what
shall force the army?“ Spinoza would almost
certainly not have known Behemoth – which
was finished in 1668 but first published in a pirated edition in 
1679, and then only in English – but he might have come to appreciate
the basic point by reading and reflection on Hobbesian works he did know, or by
reflection on the works of classical historians like Tacitus and Quintus Curtius,
whose writings may also have helped Hobbes see this point.
If all governments are vulnerable to destruction
from within, those which seek to rule
by violence are the most vulnerable. And no rulers are more violent than those
which make it a crime to hold controversial opinions, since they criminalize behavior
the citizen cannot change at will. When the government seeks to do what it cannot
do, not only does it exceed its right, it also creates resentment among those
citizens who feel they are being treated unjustly. It cannot do this without harm
to its own power to maintain itself. The most the government can accomplish is
to suppress the expression of opinion, not the opinions themselves. But to the
extent that it succeeds in suppressing expression, it creates a culture in which
people think one thing and say another. It destroys the honesty necessary to the
well-being of the state, encouraging deception, flattery and treachery, all of
which are destructive of the social order.
What is particularly
pernicious about this result is that it makes enemies of just those citizens whose
education, integrity of character, and virtue would make them most useful to the
state. Spinoza is sometimes portrayed as the epitome of cool rationality, but
on this subject he is passionate:
What greater evil can be imagined
for the State than that honorable men should be exiled as unprincipled because
they hold different opinions and do not know how to pretend to be what they are
not? What, I ask, can be more fatal than that men should be considered enemies
and condemned to death, not because of any wickedness or crime, but because they
have a mind worthy of a free man? Or that the gallows, the scourge of the evil,
should become the noblest stage for displaying the utmost endurance and a model
of virtue, to the conspicuous shame of the authorities? (Gebhardt III, 245)
may be thinking here of cases like that of Judah the Faithful, whom he refers
to in his correspondence. Judah was a Spanish converso (that is, a Jew
forcibly converted to Christianity) who reverted to Judaism. Burned at the stake
by the Inquisition when Spinoza was twelve, his case was well-known in the Amsterdam
Jewish community. As the flames roared up around him, he sang a
hymn which begins “I offer up my soul to you, Oh Lord.” He died still singing
this hymn. Spinoza cites this case in response to a Christian correspondent who
tried to persuade him of the truth of Christianity by citing the many martyrs
who had died for their faith. Spinoza’s reply was that Judaism claimed, with justice,
to count many more martyrs to its faith.
The Hague (c. 1670-1677)
during the winter of 1669-1670, Spinoza moved to the Hague, first renting a room
from a widow and, after about a year, relocating to the home of the painter Hendrik
van der Spyck, where he was to live for the rest of his life. In early 1670 the
TPT was published in Amsterdam by Jan Rieuwertsz, but with a title page claiming
publication in Hamburg, by a fictitious publisher named Heinrich Künraht.
Reaction was immediate and vehement. In June the ecclesiastic court of the Reformed
Church in Amsterdam condemned the work as “blasphemous and dangerous.” Similar
denunciations followed from church groups in The Hague, Leiden, and Utrecht. Nor
was it only conservative Calvinists who were shocked by his work. Theological
liberals, including those sympathetic to the new philosophy, such as Frans Bur-man
and Philip van Limborch, also opposed it. Burman called it an “utterly pestilential
book” which must be attacked and destroyed. Between 1670 and 1672 the church authorities
repeatedly called for the suppression of the TPT, along with Meyer’s Philosophy,
the Interpreter of Holy Scripture and Hobbes’ Leviathan.
there was no formal prohibition of the TPT until 1674, and it did in fact circulate
widely among the learned audience to whom it was addressed. This does not mean
that the civil authorities tolerated it. De Witt’s position seems to have been
that the city governments had ample authority, under anti-Socinian legislation
passed in 1653, to confiscate copies of Spinoza’s book. There was no need to increase
the notoriety of this book, and its sales, by calling special attention to it.
In many parts of the Republic the civil authorities did make efforts to suppress
it, as they did in the other countries to which it spread. That these efforts
did not prevent the work from being widely read was due to the ingenuity and dedication
of Spinoza’s publisher. However, when Spinoza learned that Rieuwertsz had commissioned
a Dutch translation of the TPT which would have made it available to a wider audience,
he asked that it be withheld, as it was until sixteen years after his death.
1672 has been called a “year of disaster” in the history of the Dutch Republic. In
March, England resumed its  naval war with
the Republic, attacking a Dutch convoy. In April France declared war. In May the
French army began its invasion, followed quickly by two German armies, under the
Prince-Bishop of Münster and the Elector of Cologne. The overwhelming forces
of the invaders quickly conquered most of the Dutch provinces. Only by opening
the dykes to flood a large swath of land, from the Zuider Zee in the north to
the river Waal in the south, was the government able to prevent the invaders from
occupying the province of Holland.
These were extreme and unpopular
measures. The people were deeply divided between those who wanted to surrender
and those who wanted to resist. In June, Jan de Witt, wounded in an assassination
attempt, resigned his position as Grand Pensionary, leader of the States of Holland.
William III had been appointed captain-general of the army in February; in July
he became Stadholder of the provinces of Zeeland and Holland, and the dominant
political power in the Republic. In August De Witt’s brother, Cornelis, who had
been imprisoned on a charge of plotting against the Stadholder’s life, was acquitted.
When an angry mob gathered outside the prison where he was being held, Jan went
to the prison to escort his brother to safety. The mob murdered both brothers,
dismembering their bodies, roasting them and eating them. When Spinoza learned
of this, he tried to rush into the street, carrying a sign reading ultimi barbarorum,
“the worst of barbarians.” Fortunately, his landlord prevented him from carrying
out this act of protest.
In 1673 Spinoza had an opportunity to leave
the Netherlands when the University of Heidelberg offered him a professorship.
It appears that the Elector Palatine, who was responsible for the offer, knew
Spinoza as the author of a highly regarded exposition of Descartes but not as
the author of the TPT He charged a professor at the university, Louis Fabritius,
with the task of making the offer. Fabritius knew that Spinoza was the author
of the TPT. He couched his offer in terms which he probably knew Spinoza would
refuse, assuring him that he would have “complete freedom to philosophize” but
noting that the Elector assumed Spinoza would not “misuse use that freedom to
disturb the publicly established religion.” In declining, Spinoza gave two reasons:
first, he feared that teaching would interfere with his research, and second,
he did not know what limits he would have to impose on himself to avoid appearing
to disturb the established religion.
By 1675 Spinoza was satisfied
enough with his revisions of the Ethics that he visited Amsterdam to give
the manuscript to Rieuwertsz for publication. But the theologians
learned of his plans and complained to the civil authorities. So Spinoza gave
up on this attempt to publish his masterwork, leaving it to appear in his Opera
In his last years Spinoza began two additional works
which he did not live to finish: his Compendium of Hebrew Grammar and his
Political Treatise. Both these works are in some sense byproducts of the
TPT. The biblical criticism of the TPT had emphasized that to understand scripture
it was essential to understand the language in which it was originally written.
But Spinoza believed no existing grammar explained it adequately. The Hebrew
Grammar was intended to fill that gap. And although the TPT had provided foundations
for political philosophy, it had not dealt with practical questions about the
merits of the different forms of government and the best ways of organizing them.
The Political Treatise aimed to remedy that lack.
In February 1677 Spinoza died of a debilitating lung disease, probably aggravated by inhaling
the glass dust produced by grinding lenses. By December his posthumous works were
published in nearly simultaneous Latin and Dutch editions, the Opera posthuma
and the Nagelate schriften. Because the Dutch translations must have been
done from manuscripts rather than from the printed text of the Latin edition,
the Dutch translations provide a check on the proofreading of the editors of the
Opera posthuma, a fact which has aided recent critical editions of Spinoza’s
works. The Latin edition included the Ethics, the correspondence (originally
seventy-five letters to and from Spinoza), and three unfinished works, the Treatise
on the Intellect, the Political Treatise, and the Hebrew Grammar.
Neither edition included the Short Treatise, manuscripts of which were
not discovered until the nineteenth century. Subsequent scholarship has also added
twelve letters to the correspondence. We’ll conclude with an account of the works
which first appeared posthumously, beginning with the Political Treatise.
The Political Treatise (1677)
Though Spinoza expressed a strong preference for democracy in the TPT, he also recognized
that it might not be the most suitable form of government for all situations.
Like Machiavelli, whose work he studied closely, he thought it was not an easy
matter to impose a new form of government on people who had become accustomed
to a different form. So part of what he seeks to do in the Political Treatise
(PT) is to work out principles for organizing the alternatives he regards as inherently
less desirable. He offers detailed proposals for the best way to 
organize a monarchy or an aristocracy so that it can be stable
and serve the interests of its citizens as well as possible.
The sensible design of any form of government must take into account the known features
of human nature. For example, because no one has so powerful a mind that he always
sees the good and never yields to his passions, and because “kings are not Gods,
but men, who are often captivated by the Sirens’ song,” even in a monarchy it
is unwise to put all decision-making power in the hands of one man. If it is necessary
to have a monarchy, the king should be guided in his decisions by a large, broadly
based council of advisors. Indeed, Spinoza proposes that the king be required
to choose from among the proposals recommended by his council. He does not explain
how this requirement is to be enforced.
Similarly, he thinks an
aristocracy will work best if the power to make and repeal laws, and to appoint
ministers of state, is granted to a large council drawn from the patrician class.
He regards the size of that council as critical to its proper functioning, on
the theory that the larger the deliberative body, the more apt it is to have in
it some men outstanding for their wisdom, and the less apt it is to favor irrational
policies. But he would provide a smaller council of syndics, also drawn from the
patrician class, to insure that the legislative council follows the prescribed
procedures and that the ministers faithfully execute the laws.
intended to add a discussion of democracy to this work but lived to complete only
a few paragraphs on that topic. What he does say about democracy has embarrassed
many of his modern admirers because he excludes women from the political process
on the ground that they are naturally unequal to men (and because men are apt
to overrate the intelligence of beautiful women). We can only speculate about
what else he might have said, but it seems likely that he would have acknowledged
that even democracy – understood as a form of government in which all adult males
who are neither servants nor criminals nor men of ill repute are entitled to vote
in the legislative assembly and to hold political offices – has inherent problems
that require some form of constitutional protections.
The Compendium of Hebrew Grammar (1677)
As indicated above, Spinoza
undertook this work because he believed that a thorough understanding of biblical
Hebrew was essential for interpreting scripture, that no existing Hebrew grammar
provided an adequate understanding of the language, and that he
could succeed where his predecessors had failed. The first of these reasons would
generally be acknowledged as valid. The second may have been true in Spinoza’s
day but is probably not true now. To what extent Spinoza’s grammar has contributed
to our improved understanding of the Hebrew language and the Bible is a matter
for historians of Hebrew linguistics and biblical scholarship to judge. The primary
question here is whether this work contributes anything to our understanding of
Spinoza’s philosophy. Regrettably the answer to that question seems to be “no.”
The most important
work included in the Opera posthuma is the Ethics, a systematic
account of Spinoza’s philosophy written in a style modeled on Euclidean geometry,
beginning with a set of axioms and definitions, and attempting to show, by formal
demonstrations, what conclusions these assumptions lead to. From time to time
Spinoza interrupts the construction of proofs to elaborate on particularly important
topics, in prefaces, scholia, and appendices. These tend to contain his most accessible
and memorable passages. But the bulk of the work is written in a format which
increases its difficulty for many readers, however much they may admire the commitment
to rigor. The formal definitions Spinoza gives of his key terms sometimes raise
more questions than they answer. The axioms are not always intuitively obvious.
And the demonstrations are not always perspicuous. The forbidding style of the
work may explain why, for the first hundred years after Spinoza’s death, the TPT
was the most influential of his main works. It was only toward the end of the
eighteenth century that the Ethics began to find an appreciative audience.
Some of the difficulty of the work may be alleviated by recognizing
that Spinoza does not expect his readers to find all the axioms obvious or all
the demonstrations compelling. He arrived at his final set of axioms only by trying
out different axiomatizations on his correspondents and modifying them in response
to criticism, supplying arguments for assumptions the correspondents questioned.
Often he provides more than one demonstration of a proposition, recognizing that
his readers may not be convinced by the first demonstration. And at one point,
having come to a conclusion he expects his readers to find particularly surprising,
he implores them to refrain from judgment until they have followed the argument
carefully to its conclusion. The implication seems to be that the system is to
be judged partly by its ability to  explain,
comprehensively and consistently, a wide range of data.
is divided into five parts. The first attempts to demonstrate the existence of
God and determine his properties; the second explores the nature of the mind,
with particular attention to the human mind; the third gives an account of man’s
emotional nature, systematizing what Spinoza takes to be the laws of human psychology;
the fourth seeks to explain why we are so often the victims of self-destructive
passions and propounds an ideal of human nature we can and should strive to attain;
the fifth part tries to show how we can control our passions and achieve blessedness.
In the Appendix to Part I, Spinoza provides a useful summary of
its main conclusions: that God, defined as a substance consisting of infinite
attributes, exists necessarily; that God is the only substance, everything else
being a mode of God; that God is the free cause of all things; that everything
else is so dependent on God that it cannot be or be conceived without him; and
that God has predetermined all things, not from freedom of the will, but from
the necessity of his nature.
To this we might add that Spinoza also
claims to show in Part I that infinitely many modes follow from the necessity
of the divine nature. Some of these modes follow from God’s absolute nature – that
is, follow from God’s nature unconditionally – and hence are themselves infinite
and eternal. Other things – particular, finite things – express God’s attributes in
a determinate way, and do not follow from God’s absolute nature, but from one
of God’s attributes insofar as it is modified by another modification which is
also finite. So each finite mode has as part of its causal history an infinite
series of other prior, particular, finite things.
Spinoza is often
referred to as a pantheist, a term usually taken to mean that God is identical
with nature, understood as the totality of things. But Spinoza identifies God
with nature only in the sense that he identifies God with His attributes, those
eternal elements in nature which exist in themselves and are conceived through
themselves. When Spinoza identifies God with Nature, it is with what he calls
Natura naturans (active or productive nature). The modes which follow from
and express God’s attributes he calls Natura naturata (passive or produced
nature) (Ethics I, Prop. 29, Schol.). They are not God. Their defining
properties are logically opposed to God’s: they exist in another, through which
they are conceived. Nor are they a part of God, since it is incompatible with
God’s nature to have parts (Ethics I, Prop. 29, Schol.).
everything which exists is either an attribute, whose existence is absolutely
necessary, or a mode, and because all modes either follow from God unconditionally
or else are necessary in relation to other modes of God, Spinoza concludes that
there is nothing contingent in nature. All things are determined by the necessity
of the divine nature to exist and act as they do. God could not have produced
them in any other way than He did.
This is what Spinoza says. What
does it mean? From the seventeenth century to the twenty-first many interpreters
have understood the doctrine that there is only one substance, of which everything
else is a mode – Spinoza’s monism, in effect – as implying that there is only one
ultimate subject of predication and that everything else is in some way a predicate
of that one subject. This is a prima facie plausible way to understand his monism,
given the close historical connection between the idea of substance and the idea
of an ultimate subject of predication. But it is not obviously an attractive way
of understanding Spinoza’s monism on reflection. In what sense might a particular
thing, like a human being, for example, be predicated of God?
Pierre Bayle advanced this line of interpretation in the seventeenth century,
he took it to imply that the properties of finite things must really be properties
of God. And he understandably thought Spinoza’s monism, so interpreted, was absurd.
God would be constantly changing his properties as the properties of finite things
changed (though Spinoza insists that God is immutable). He would have unseemly
human properties, insofar as people behaved improperly or criminally (though Spinoza
is resolutely opposed to anthropomorphism). And he would have contradictory properties
at the same time, as one finite thing had one property and another had its opposite.
In the late twentieth century Jonathan Bennett (1985) advanced a
variation on Bayle’s interpretation which avoids some but not all of these unhappy
consequences. He suggested that when we say of a finite thing that it has a certain
property, what we are really saying is that the universe, conceived under one
of God’s attributes, has some property at a certain location. That property is
not necessarily the one we ascribe to the finite thing. For example, when we attribute
a property to a physical object, we are saying that the universe, conceived under
the attribute of extension – that is, space itself – has some property at that particular
point. If I say that the peach I am about to peel is ripe, I am saying that space
has, in that region, some quality I conceptualize as 
ripeness; I am not attributing ripeness either to that region of
space or to space as a whole.
This interpretation avoids the problem
of ascribing contradictory properties to God by understanding apparently contradictory
predications as applying to the universe at different locations: Space
is qualified here by whatever property I conceptualize as ripeness; it is qualified
there by whatever property I conceptualize as unripeness. (How this works for
modes of attributes other than extension is unclear.) It avoids the problem of
ascribing human properties to God by remaining agnostic about the properties of
space which underlie the properties we ascribe to humans and other finite things.
(We do not know what properties of the universe underlie the fact that I love
someone whom you do not love, but they are evidently not human properties.) But
it does not avoid the problem that, on this view, God is constantly changing.
Whenever some finite thing changes, God is changing at that location.
The main alternative interpretation (Curley 1969, 1988) emphasizes the equally strong
traditional connection between the idea of substance and the idea of independent
existence. When the TEI first introduced the contrast between things which exist
in themselves and things which exist in something else, Spinoza glossed that contrast
as one between things which are their own cause and things which are caused by
something other than themselves. He did not explain it in terms of predication.
The things which exist in themselves – the first elements of the whole of nature – were
supposed to be fixed and eternal and to have laws “inscribed in them.” If we identify
the first elements of the whole of nature with the attributes, then we can infer
that Spinoza conceived attributes like thought and extension as eternal entities
involving laws of nature so fundamental that they do not admit of explanation
in terms of anything more basic. On this reading Spinoza dreamed of a final scientific
theory whose most basic principles would be, and could be seen to be, absolutely
necessary. That is why the attributes exist in themselves and are conceived through
According to this interpretation, some things follow
from the fundamental laws without the aid of any other propositions. These are
the eternal, immutable things which follow from God’s absolute nature,
the infinite modes of the Ethics (or universal modes in the ST). They are
those general features of reality corresponding to the derived laws of nature,
like motion and rest, which involve laws pertaining to anything possessing motion
or rest. They follow from the attributes because the lower level laws can be deduced
from and hence explained by the most fundamental laws. (Spinoza
provides us with a sketch of such a deduction in Part II of the Ethics.)
Although these modes themselves are infinite (in the sense that the laws they
involve apply throughout nature) and eternal (in the sense that the laws are immutable),
the series of causes which produces them is finite. Explanation of one law by
another deduces the less general law (say, a law governing the transfer of motion
in a particular kind of impact) from more general laws (say, the law that motion
is conserved in all causal interactions). The series of general causes must come
to an end because there is a logical limit to the generality of laws. Once you
have formulated a law so general that it applies to everything which possesses
a certain attribute, no more general law is possible. It is thus in the nature
of the attributes that they cannot be explained through anything else.
Other things – the finite modes of the Ethics, the singular changeable things of
the TEI – do not follow from the absolute nature of God’s attributes but
do follow from God’s attributes as modified by the infinite modes and other
finite modes. This is a reflection of the fact that particular events cannot be
explained by laws alone but require information about other particular events
for their explanation. Their necessity is not absolute but relative to the existence
of the other events essential to their explanation.
this sort must be true if Spinoza’s system is to allow for the reality of change.
Spinoza insists that things follow from God’s nature with the same necessity with
which the properties of a triangle follow from its nature. This is why he is often
criticized for assimilating the causal relation to that of entailment. If everything
followed logically from the absolute nature of God, which is eternal and
immutable, nothing could fail to share in that eternity and immutability. Because
the infinite modes do follow from God’s absolute nature, they share the
eternity and infinitude of their cause. But not everything follows from God’s
absolute nature. Specifically, the particular finite things do not follow unconditionally
from the infinite and eternal things. So its members are not infinite and eternal.
This is why change is possible.
This dependence of the finite on
other finite things also explains why the world must have no beginning. It contains
particular things whose behavior can only be explained if we add information about
antecedent conditions to the general facts we appeal to in our explanation. Those
particular things constitute a series which cannot have an end, because each member
of the series must have an explanation and can only be explained by the 
existence of some particular thing(s) prior to it (plus the laws of nature).
This reading of Spinoza’s metaphysics has the
advantage of identifying something in nature – the first elements of nature, or
the attributes – which can plausibly be thought to be eternal, immutable, ultimate
principles of explanation for everything else in the universe. Because Spinoza’s
system requires something eternal and infinite as an object of the love which
is supposed to provide us with pure joy, this seems an important consideration.
This reading also has the advantage of identifying something in nature which can
plausibly be thought to follow logically from the first elements alone and to
function as an intermediate between the ultimate principles of explanation and
the finite things whose behavior is to be explained. The idea that there is a
series of infinite and eternal things intermediate between God and finite things
is one of the most distinctive features of Spinoza’s metaphysics in contrast to
This reading also has what may be thought to be a
disadvantage: it implies that not everything in nature is absolutely necessary.
The finite modes are portrayed here as not following unconditionally from the
fixed and eternal things but as requiring other finite modes for their explanation
and as being necessary only in relation to those other finite modes and the infinite
modes. But this feature of the interpretation may not really be a disadvantage;
Spinoza’s discussion of necessity suggests that he thought things are necessary
in two very different ways (Ethics I, Prop. 33, Schol. 1). Some are necessary
in virtue of their own nature; others are necessary in virtue of their cause.
Particular finite things, such as this or that human being, do not involve any
inherent necessity (Ethics II, Ax. 1). They are necessary just insofar
as the order of nature (the series of prior finite causes) makes them necessary.
The theory of mind-body identity in Part II of the Ethics
is best approached by viewing it as a subversion of Cartesian dualism. Descartes
sought to make belief in personal immortality rational by showing that the mind
and the body are really distinct from one another. His strategy was to set up
a thought experiment in which we clearly and distinctly conceive the possibility
of the mind’s existing without the body. We can, he claimed, find reasonable grounds
for doubting the existence of the whole physical world by reflecting on the powers
of God. An omnipotent being could, if he chose, create in us representations of
physical objects without creating any physical objects. But we cannot find reasonable
grounds for doubting our own existence as thinking things. Any hypothesis we entertain
to cast doubt on our existence, such as deception by God, will entail
that we think, and hence, that we exist. So we are compelled to affirm our existence
as thinking things but not compelled to affirm the existence of our body (or any
other extended object).
If we can clearly and distinctly conceive
of the mind as existing without the body, then it is logically possible for it
to exist without the body. If it is logically possible for it exist without the
body, then it could exist without the body. (If it is logically possible
for two things to exist separately, then an omnipotent being could cause them
to exist separately. And Descartes thinks he has shown that there is an omnipotent
being. So the possibility of their existing separately is not merely a logical
one. There is a being which has the power to bring this about, if he wishes.)
But if two things are such that one can exist without the other, they are really
distinct. This entails that the mind is not necessarily destroyed when the body
is destroyed, and that establishes the possibility of immortality. Whether
that possibility is realized depends on the inscrutable will of God. So Descartes
makes no serious attempt to prove actual immortality.
did, however, modify the strictness of this dualism when he added that the mind
is not present in the body “as a sailor is present in his ship,” that it is, instead,
closely united to it, so that mind and body together constitute one thing and
are “substantially united.” What seems to have motivated this doctrine of substantial
union – which is not obviously consistent with the dualism – was Descartes’ recognition
that there is a particularly intimate connection between the human mind and the
human body. When something happens in my body, normally I am not aware of it in
the external way in which I am aware of things which happen in bodies not mine.
I feel my body’s need for food as hunger, its need for drink as thirst, damage
done to it as pain, and so on. These interested, action-motivating bodily sensations
are what make this particular body peculiarly mine.
seems to have been deeply impressed by the intimacy of the relationship Descartes
described, and particularly by the facts that the mind’s capacities are a function
of those of the body and that changes in the mind strictly parallel those in the
body. For example, my mind’s capacity for higher-level thought seems to be a function
of my brain’s complexity; its ability to think clearly and its mood are both closely
correlated with my body’s blood alcohol level. A Cartesian might dismiss some
of these phenomena as mere coincidences. Others he might regard as examples of
the body acting on the mind. But Spinoza thinks that because mind and body belong
to such fundamentally disparate conceptual categories, 
we cannot posit a causal relationship between them. And he would not dismiss any
such regularity in nature as a coincidence. What we should say instead is that
the mind and the body are one and the same thing conceived under different attributes.
Spinoza has a metaphysical argument for supposing that this identity
of modes of thought with modes of extension exists not only in human beings but
also runs throughout the whole of nature. Suppose that God is an infinite, perfect
substance who possesses the attributes of thought and of extension. As an infinite
and perfect thinking thing, he must have in his intellect an idea of every existing
mode of extension. If he did not, there would be gaps in his knowledge. Equally,
as an infinite and perfect thinking thing, he cannot have in his intellect an
idea of a mode of extension as existing if no such mode exists. If he did, he
would be in error. So in God there must be a one-to-one correspondence between
the modes of extension which exist and their representations in God. Moreover,
since this correspondence is necessary, it is not possible for the modes of thought
to exist without their corresponding modes of extension. The converse is also
impossible. This entails that the modes of thought and the modes of extension
are not, in Cartesian terms, really distinct from one another. They are conceptually
distinct, insofar as they are conceived under different attributes. This is why
there can be no causal relation between them. But they are not capable of existing
apart from one another.
This argument leads to some surprising conclusions
from which Spinoza does not shrink. For example, it entails that every extended
thing in nature corresponds to a mode of thought which is, in some sense, its
“mind.” This doctrine is known as panpsychism. Spinoza clearly does think that
all finite physical things other than humans have something like the minds
humans have. Insofar as he affirms a continuity between humans and other animals,
his panpsychism seems quite reasonable, much more reasonable than the Cartesian
view that non-human animals are merely machines without any sensations. Moreover,
other philosophers before Spinoza – like Montaigne – had argued that animals were
capable of displaying intelligence and emotions. What is puzzling about Spinoza’s
panpsychism is its apparent implication that even the simplest material objects
have something like a mind. We can diminish the shock of this claim to some degree
by recollecting that Spinoza would probably not think that the minds of the simplest
material objects are very much like human minds. If our capacity for higher-order
thinking depends on our having a very complex brain, then presumably
a carbon atom does not have the capacity to solve quadratic equations. But it
is still unclear what the ascription of mentality to very simple physical objects
One unsurprising consequence of this view of the relation
between mind and body is that Spinoza denies that the mind is capable of acting
freely in the way Descartes tended to understand freedom. Descartes was quite
ambiguous about the kind of freedom he wanted to claim for us. In the Fourth Meditation
he seemed, initially, to interpret freedom of the will indeterministically, as
a power to either do something or not do it, independently of any external causes.
Then he reflected that there were two cases where he might not, in fact, be able
to act otherwise, though he did not want to deny that he was free in those cases:
one is the case where he sees something so clearly that he cannot help but assent
to it; the other is the case where God, in an act of grace, disposes his inmost
thoughts in a certain way. So he revised his initial definition, adding a clause
which would make freedom compatible with certain kinds of determinism: we can
be free if our intellect presents something so clearly to the will that it cannot
judge otherwise; and we can be free even if God is determining our actions, so
long as we are not aware of that determination, so long as we seem to ourselves
to be the initiators of our actions. But this was another area where he was unable
to maintain consistency. In the Principles of Philosophy he reverted to
an indeterminist conception of freedom and pronounced the problem of reconciling
human freedom with God’s preordination of all things insoluble.
rejects any indeterminist conception of freedom. This was evident already in Part
I of the Ethics, where he held that all finite things are determined to
exist and act the way they do by an infinite series of prior finite things. But
his acceptance of mind-body identity provides an additional reason for denying
indeterminism in humans. Descartes would have allowed that determinism reigned
in the physical world except insofar as minds were capable of intervening in it
to cause events which would have gone differently but for that intervention. If
the mind and the body are one and the same thing, conceived in different ways,
then the mind will not be able to intervene in the physical world as an uncaused
cause. The decisions of the mind are just the appetites of the body, conceived
under a different attribute. When they are conceived under the attribute of extension,
they are conceived as part of a causal network which determines their character.
Since the order and connection of ideas mirrors the order and connection of extended
things, modes  of thought must also be part
of a causal network that determines their character, a network whose members are
conceptually distinct from, but really identical with, the corresponding modes
of extension. Spinoza concedes that it often seems to us that our acts of will
have no antecedent causes; but he thinks all this shows is the inadequacy of our
Consistently with this deterministic picture of
things, Spinoza turns in Part III of the Ethics to an attempt to provide
a systematic human psychology, explaining the laws according to which the human
mind operates. He writes in the Preface to Part III,
in nature which can be attributed to any defect in it, for nature [read Natura
naturans] is always the same, and its virtue and power of acting are everywhere
one and the same, i.e., the laws and rules of nature, according to which all things
happen, and change from one form to another, are always and everywhere the same.
(Gebhardt II, 138)
So, if we are to understand anything, we must understand it in terms
of the universal laws of nature. When we understand human actions and emotions
in this way, we will no longer be disposed to curse them or find them ridiculous.
We will see them as an inevitable result of the circumstances under which they
Like Hobbes, Spinoza makes the striving to persevere in
existence the fundamental law of human behavior. He sees an analogy between that
striving and the principle of inertia which was fundamental in the new physics
and treats it as constituting the essence of each individual. His conviction that
there is this analogy leads him to a revised understanding of what constitutes
human activity: We should think of ourselves as active just to the extent that
our actions can be adequately understood in terms of our striving to persevere
in being. But he also thinks of the striving as encompassing more than just continuation
in existence. In addition, it seeks to increase our perfection, or power of action.
When we succeed in doing that, we experience the increase as joy; when our power
of acting is diminished, we experience the decrease as sadness. In a way, Spinoza
is a hedonist. We seek to maximize our joy and minimize our sadness. But the underlying
changes in perfection, or power of action, are really at the core of these strivings.
Spinoza’s psychology is generally egoistic in the sense that he
thinks what we basically seek, insofar as we are active or self-determined (that
is, insofar as what we do is determined by our own nature) is something we imagine
to be good for ourselves (that is, to involve or lead to our joy).
But his egoism does not exclude our taking an interest in the interests of others.
If we conceive an external object – a person, or an institution, say – as a cause
of joy in us, we will love that object and seek our own good by seeking its good.
Similarly, if something in itself neutral is associated in our experience with
something either positive or negative, we will come to have positive or negative
feelings toward the inherently neutral thing. And to the extent that a thing is
like us in some degree, we will tend to share its feelings: to feel sadness when
it is sad, and joy when it is joyful. This is the psychological basis for pity
and benevolence. We can minimize our own sadness and maximize our own joy by seeking
to minimize the sadness of others like us and maximizing their joy.
are fairly simple and benign cases. But the same psychological laws which explain
pity and benevolence also explain, less happily, racial and religious hatred.
We are less apt to feel sympathy for those we think of as unlike us. And we are
apt to generalize to a whole group the negative emotions we have experienced toward
some members of that group. What interests Spinoza most in human psychology is
the complexity of our emotions and the psychological conflicts we regularly experience.
If something affects us with both joy and sadness, we will feel conflicting emotions
of love and hatred; a similar process will unfold if we imagine that something
which usually affects us with sadness is like another thing that usually affects
us with joy. The uncertainty of our knowledge of human affairs makes us prey to
both hope and fear, which are inseparable from each other. But we are subject
to wishful thinking, which inclines us to believe the things which give us hope.
That is the root cause of superstition. And acting on irrational beliefs is a
recipe for disappointment and despondency. Hatred, envy, and jealousy are as natural
to us as love, benevolence, and friendship. These conflicting emotions are constantly
fluctuating as external circumstances change, with the result that “we toss about,
like waves on the sea, driven by contrary winds.” For the most part we are not
the masters of our fate.
Because Spinoza is a determinist who takes
his doctrine to imply that we should bear calmly both good fortune and bad and
condemn no one for his behavior, and because he frequently embraces subjectivist-sounding
theories of ethical language – as when he writes that good and evil are nothing
positive in things, considered in themselves, but just modes of thinking – it has
often been thought that he has no ethical theory – or at least that he cannot consistently
have one. But Spinoza called his masterwork  Ethics,
and Part IV of that work is full of what look like ethical judgments.
He tells us that the knowledge of God is the mind’s greatest good, that joy in
itself is good and sadness evil, that pleasure can be excessive and evil, that
pain can be good, that love can be excessive, that hatred can never be good, and
so on. How can these judgments be true if good and evil are only “modes of thinking”?
The answer seems to be that Spinoza makes a distinction between
the ordinary, nonphilosophical use of ethical terms, which is highly subjective
and undisciplined, and the philosophical use of the same language. If we reflect
on the use of terms like good and evil in connection with members
of a natural kind, like man, we will recognize that they signify varying degrees
of approximation to an ideal of perfection or completeness. Unaided by philosophy,
we are apt to have varying conceptions of that ideal. But there is a way of conceiving
the ideal human being which will necessarily attract us as soon as we form a clear
idea of it. Spinoza uses the term “free man” as a label for that ideal and the
term “good” as a label for those things we know will help to achieve our goal.
The free person is defined as one who is led by reason alone and
characterized by his disregard of death and concentration on life; by his willingness
to accept risks, when that is called for, and his wisdom in determining when it
is not called for; by his determination to avoid the favors of the ignorant, when
accepting them might compromise his integrity; by his gratitude to other free
men for their acts of genuine love and friendship; by his honesty; and by his
obedience to the laws of the state, not from fear of punishment but from his commitment
to the common good.
The psychology of Part III holds that all men,
to the extent that they determine their own actions and are not the slaves of
fortune, pursue what they take to be their own good. The ethical theory of Part
IV holds out the ideal of the free man as an enlightened egoist. Freedom is not
mere self-determination but informed self-determination. The free man recognizes
that, left to himself, he would lead a miserable life, that achieving his optimal
state requires the cooperation of other men, that nothing is more useful to him
than his fellow men, and that they are the more useful the more they share his
dedication to the pursuit of knowledge, a noncompetitive good which is only increased,
not diminished, by being shared. He is not an ascetic. He knows that his body
requires the moderate use of pleasant food and drink, and that beautiful natural
objects and works of art, music, theater, and other such things
are goods anyone can enjoy without detriment to others. He understands that the
greater the joy with which we are affected, the greater the perfection to which
we gravitate, and the more we participate in the divine nature. Spinoza is apprehensive
about human sexuality, knowing how easily sexual desire can become obsessive and
The central problem of ethics for Spinoza is not
that of knowing what is good but that of pursuing it single-mindedly “I see and
approve the better,” he writes, quoting Ovid, “but I follow the worse.” Parts
III and IV are concerned with explaining why we are often unable to pursue the
good we clearly see. Part V tries to help us overcome the unhealthy dominance
of the passions which underlies this weakness of the will. Descartes, whose moral
philosophy was heavily influenced by the Renaissance revival of stoicism, thought
that the mind could exercise an absolute control over the passions. Spinoza is
not so optimistic. But he does think that we can increase our power over them
and make them less harmful to us.
One promising remedy for our harmful
passions is to correct the false beliefs they often involve. Most of the emotions
Spinoza analyzes in Part III incorporate some cognitive element. He defines hatred,
for example, as sadness accompanied by the idea of something external to us as
the cause of our sadness. Indignation is hatred toward someone whom we imagine
as having done evil to someone (or something) else. If we come to understand that
the person we hate or toward whom we feel indignation is at most a partial cause
of those negative consequences, that his actions are no more than the most recent
link in a chain of causes which extends into the infinite past, this will diminish
our negative emotions toward that individual, redirecting them toward the prior
causes and diffusing them over those causes. This process may not immediately
diminish our overall level of negative emotions. But if it diminishes the negative
feelings we have toward the proximate cause of our sadness, it may make it easier
for us to behave well toward that person and break the vicious circle of harm
and retaliation which is the cause of so much human misery.
Part V of the Ethics concludes with a puzzling series of propositions dealing
with the eternity of the mind. Astonishingly, given his earlier doctrine that
the mind and body are one and the same thing, conceived under different attributes,
Spinoza now maintains that the human mind is not entirely destroyed with the body
but that something of it remains which is eternal. The eternal portion of the
mind is apparently the part which understands 
things “under a species of eternity,” that is, that sees them as necessary by
understanding them under the second or third of the three kinds of cognition which
the Ethics assumes, reason or intuitive science. Because Spinoza assumes
that it is possible to increase our understanding of things by the second and
third kinds of cognition – understanding more things in those ways at one time than
we do at another – this implies that we can increase the portion of our mind which
is eternal, even though eternity is supposed to entail that whatever is eternal
has no relation to time. We can make sense of much of Spinoza’s philosophy, but
so far this part of the Ethics has resisted the best efforts of sympathetic
interpreters. It is clear that it is not a doctrine of personal immortality, for
Spinoza regards memory of the individual’s past as essential to personal identity,
and he is quite emphatic that the portion of the mind which is eternal has no
memory of any past. Perhaps the best thing we can say is that Spinoza thought
that there was some truth, badly articulated, in the traditional doctrine of personal
immortality and thought (wrongly) that his philosophy could give a coherent explanation
of that truth.
In another way, however, Spinoza may achieve some
reconciliation with traditional religion in these final portions of the Ethics.
Because he identifies God with nature (natura naturans), he can claim that
the more we understand Nature, the more we understand God. When we understand
nature by the third kind of cognition, intuitive science, we not only have the
highest form of cognition we can have, but we also experience the greatest possible
satisfaction. We then experience joy accompanied by the idea of God as the cause
of our joy. This means that we love God. Together the knowledge of God and the
love which is inseparable from that knowledge constitute our highest good, not
because God is a king who will reward us with a happiness extrinsic to our love
for him but because the knowledge and love of God inherently involve the highest
happiness we can know.
This attempt at an accommodation with traditional
religion may not succeed. It is true that Spinoza’s “God” has many of the properties
of God, as the concept of God came to be developed by philosophically minded theologians
in Judaism and Christianity: He is a perfect being, infinite, eternal, the first
cause of all things, himself neither needing nor being susceptible of any explanation.
Because, in Spinoza’s view, knowledge of God can be the cause of the greatest
joy we can experience, he can be the object of a love which surpasses any love
we can have for finite things. But because, according to Spinoza, God is supremely
perfect, he is as incapable of joy (passage to a greater perfection)
as he is of sadness (passage to a lesser perfection). So he is also incapable
of love or hate, which are species of joy and sadness. We cannot rationally expect
Spinoza’s God to return our love. Nor can we expect him to watch over us like
a loving father. Spinoza’s God, being perfect, has no goals, no states he desires
to reach (or maintain). To ascribe desire to Spinoza’s God would be to conceive
him as imperfect, a contradiction in terms. A fortiori, he is not seeking our
welfare and cannot provide a refuge from the uncertainty of fortune. He cannot
be affected by prayer or ritual. He does not issue laws accompanied by promises
of reward for obedience and threats of punishment for disobedience. His laws are
ones we cannot break.
Because Spinoza’s God differs in so many respects
from the God of traditional religion, even in its most philosophical forms, it
is understandable that many religious-minded critics have regarded his philosophy
as a form of atheism. But from Spinoza’s point of view these criticisms only show
a misunderstanding of the nature of God. The founders of the traditional religions,
he thinks, were in a position like that of the first students of geometry, when
geometry was still an empirical science. Relying on what Spinoza would call imagination,
the early geometers had only very crude ideas of the objects they were studying.
They could not have given a properly scientific definition of a triangle or a
circle from which they could demonstrate precise theorems about the nature of
these objects. So they made mistakes about them, thinking, for example, that the
ratio of the circumference of a circle, to its diameter is 3:1.
But though they may not have had the same definitions of these objects as later geometers,
they were still attempting to develop a theory of the same objects. They were
just handicapped by the inadequate ideas they had about those things. Similarly
handicapped by their reliance on imagination – on the dreams of prophets and reports
of revelation passed down through tradition – the philosophers and theologians
of the organized religions got some things right and many things wrong. They saw
the truth, not clearly, but as if through a cloud. Spinoza’s claim not to be an
atheist depends on whether he was, as he believed, the Euclid of theology. Spinoza’s
admirers have inclined to the view that he was.
On the two hundredth
anniversary of his death a collection was taken to erect a statue to Spinoza in
the Hague. When the statue was unveiled in 1882, Ernest Renan concluded his address
with words which sum up the feelings of those admirers: “Woe to him who in passing
should hurl an insult at this gentle and pensive  head…
This man, from his granite pedestal, will point out to all men the way of blessedness
which he found; and ages hence, the cultivated traveler, passing by this spot,
will say in his heart, ‘The truest vision ever had of God came, perhaps, here.’”
Bayle, Pierre; Bennett, Jonathan;
Boyle, Robert; Cartesianism; Democracy; Descartes, René; Determinism and
Freedom; Essence and Existence; Ethics, History of; Galileo Galilei; Hobbes, Thomas;
Human Nature; Jewish Philosophy; La Peyrère, Isaac; Laws, Scientific; Machiavelli,
Niccolò; Mind-Body Problem; Panpsychism; Philosophy of Mind; Regius, Henricus
(Henry de Roy); Rousseau, Jean-Jacques; Spinozism.
Works by Spinoza
The Collected Works of Spinoza.
Vol. 1. Edited and Translated by Edwin Curley. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University
Press, 1985. The second and final volume is in progress.
Spinoza Opera. 4 vols. Edited by Carl Gebhardt. Heidelberg: Carl Winters Universitäts-buchhandlung,
1925This is the current standard original-language edition, which will eventually
be superseded by Moreau’s edition.
Spinoza Oeuvres. Edited by Pierre-François Moreau.
Paris: Presses Universitaires de France. As of
June 2005 only one volume had appeared (in 1999), containing the Theological-Political
Treatise, with a critical edition of the text by Fokke Akkerman and a translation
by Moreau and Jacqueline Lagrée. A comprehensive edition is planned, with
critically edited versions of the original language texts and French translations
on the facing pages.
Spinoza, Complete Works. Edited by Michael
L. Morgan and translated by Samuel Shirley. Indianapolis: Hackett, 2002. This
is the only complete English-language edition.
Works about Spinoza
Allison, Henry. Benedict de Spinoza: An Introduction. New Haven, CT: Yale University
Bennett, Jonathan. A Study of Spinoza’s Ethics.
Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1984.
Curley, Edwin. Behind the Geometrical
Method. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1988.
Curley, Edwin. “Homo Audax: Leibniz, Oldenburg and the Theological-Political
Treatise.” Studia Leibnitiana, supp. 1991.
“Maimonides, Spinoza and the Book of Job.” In Jewish Themes in Spinoza’s Philosophy,
edited by Heidi Ravven and Lenn Goodman. Albany: SUNY Press, 2002.
Curley, Edwin. “Notes on a Neglected Masterpiece, I: Spinoza and the Science of Hermeneutics.”
In Spinoza: The Enduring Questions, edited by Graeme Hunter. Toronto: University
of Toronto Press, 1994.
Curley, Edwin. “Notes on a Neglected Masterpiece,
II: The Theological-Political Treatise as a Prolegomenon to the Ethics.”
In Central Themes in Early Modern Philosophy, edited by J. A. Cover and
Mark Kulstad, Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1990.
Curley, Edwin. Spinoza’s Metaphysics. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1969.
Curley, Edwin. “The State of Nature and its Law in Hobbes and Spinoza.” Philosophical
Topics 19 (1991): 97-117.
Curley, Edwin, and Pierre-François Moreau. Spinoza: Issues and Directions. Leiden: Brill, 1990.
Curley, Edwin, and Greg Walski. “Spinoza’s Necessitarianism Reconsidered.” In New Essays
on the Rationalists, edited by Rocco Gennaro and Charles Huenemann. Oxford:
Oxford University Press, 1999.
Damasio, Antonio. Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow and the Feeling Brain. Orlando, FL: Harcourt, 2003.
Della Rocca, Michael. Representation and the Mind-Body Problem in Spinoza. Oxford:
Oxford University Press, 1996. Donagan, Alan. Spinoza. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988.
Garrett, Don, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Spinoza.
Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1996.
Garrett, Don. “Ethics IP5: Shared Attributes and the Basis of
Spinoza’s Monism.” In Central Themes in Early Modern Philosophy, edited by J. A. Cover and Mark Kulstad,
Indianapolis: Hackett, 1990.
Garrett, Don, “Teleological Explanation in Spinoza and Early Modern
Rationalism.” In New Essays on the Rationalists, edited by
Rocco Gennaro and Charles Huenemann. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.
Grene, Marjorie, ed. Spinoza, a Collection of Critical Essays.
Garden City, NY: Anchor, 1973.
Israel, Jonathan. The Radical Enlightenment, Philosophy
and the Making of Modernity, 1650-1750. Oxford: Oxford University
Koistinen, Olli, and John Biro, eds. Spinoza: Metaphysical
Themes. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.
Lloyd, Genevieve. Part of Nature, Self-knowledge in Spinoza’s
Ethics. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1994. Mandelbaum, Maurice, and Eugene Freeman, eds.
Spinoza: Essays in Interpretation. LaSalle, IL:
Open Court, 1975. Nadler, Steven. Spinoza, A Life. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge
University Press, 1999.
Nadler, Steven. Spinoza’s Heresy. Oxford: Oxford University
Press, 2001. Smith, Steven, Spinoza, Liberalism and the Question of Jewish
Identity. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1997.
Wolfson, Harry Austryn. The Philosophy of Spinoza. 2 vols.
Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1934.
Yovel, Yirmiyahu, ed. Desire and Affect: Spinoza as Psychologist.
New York: Little Room Press, 1999.
Yovel, Yirmiyahu, ed. God and Nature. Leiden:
E. J. Brill, 1991. Yovel, Yirmiyahu. Spinoza and Other Heretics. Vol. 1:
The Marrano of Reason. Vol. 2: The Adventures of
Immanenece. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1989.
Yovel, Yirmiyahu, and Gideon Segal, eds. Spinoza. Aldershot,
U.K.: Ashgate, 2002.
Yovel, Yirmiyahu, and Gideon Segal, eds. Spinoza on Knowledge
and the Human Mind. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1994.
Yovel, Yirmiyahu, and Gideon Segal, eds. Spinoza on Reason and the Free Man. New York: Little
Room Press, 2004.