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Edwin Curley

Spinoza, Benedict (Baruch) de

Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2nd ed., vol. 9
New York: Thomson Gale, 2006

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).

Excommunication 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 [169] 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 philosophy.

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 of Leiden.

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. [170]

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 [171] 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 [172] 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 quite obscure.

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 things.

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 [173] 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, opinion.

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 premises.

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 assist it).

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 constancy.

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. [174]

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.

Voorburg (1663–c.1670)

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 [175] 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.

Another 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.

This 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 monarchic ambitions.

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 [176] 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 Church.

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.

Koerbagh 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 [177] (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 [178] 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.

Not all 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.)

Although 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 [179] 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, and encouraged.

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 and expression.

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 [180] 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.

Moreover, 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.

The 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 [181] 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)

Spinoza 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)

Sometime 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.

Nevertheless, 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 [182] 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 posthuma.

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 [183] 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.

Spinoza 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.”

Ethics (1677)

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 [184] explain, comprehensively and consistently, a wide range of data.

The work 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.).

Because 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?

When 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 [185] 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 themselves.

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.

Something of 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 [186] 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 Cartesianism.

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.

Descartes 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.

Spinoza, too, 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, [187] 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 comes to.

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.

Spinoza 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 [188] 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 self-knowledge.

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,

Nothing happens 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 occurred.

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.

These 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 [189] 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 self-destructive.

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 [190] 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 [191] 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.’”

See also
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 Press, 1987.

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.

Curley, Edwin. “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 Press, 2001.

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.