Will and Ariel Durant
The Story of Civilization
Volume eight. The Age of Louis XIV
Simon & Schuster, New York 1963
Chapter XXII: Spinoza: 1632-77
I. The young heretic
II. Theology and politics
III. The Philosopher
VIII. The state
IX. The chain of influence
I. The young heretic
This strange and lovable character,
who made the boldest attempt in modern history to find a philosophy that could
take the place of a lost religious faith, was born in Amsterdam on November 24,
1632. His ancestors can be traced to the town of Espinosa, near Burgos, in the
Spanish province of Leon. They were Jews who, as conversos to Christianity,
included scholars, priests, and Cardinal Diego d’Espinosa, onetime grand
Part of the family, presumably to escape the Spanish Inquisition, migrated to
Portugal. After a period of residence there, at Vidigueira, near Beja, the grandfather
and father of the philosopher moved to Nantes in France, and thence, in 1593,
to Amsterdam. They were among the first Jews who settled in that city, eager
to enjoy the religious freedom guaranteed in 1579 by the Union of Utrecht. By
1628 the grandfather was regarded as head of the Sephardic community in Amsterdam;
at various times the father was warden of the Jewish school there and president
of the organized charities of the Portuguese synagogue. The mother, Hana Debora
d’Espinoza, came to Amsterdam from Lisbon. She died when Baruch was six years
old, leaving him a consumptive heredity. He was brought up by the father and
a third wife. As «Baruch» was Hebrew for blessed, the boy was later named Benedictus
in official and Latin documents.
In the synagogue school Baruch was
given a predominantly religious education, based upon the Old Testament and the
Talmud; there was also some study of Hebrew philosophers, especially Abraham
ibn Ezra, Moses ben Maimon, and Hasdai Crescas, with perhaps some dippings into
the Cabala. Among his teachers were two men of prominence and ability in the
community, Saul Morteira and Manasseh ben Israel. Outside of school Baruch received,
in Spanish, considerable instruction in secular subjects, since his father wished
to prepare him for a business career. In addition to Spanish and Hebrew he learned
Portuguese, Dutch, and Latin, with later a touch of Italian and French. He developed
a fondness for mathematics, and made geometry the ideal of his philosophical
method and thought.
It was natural that a youth of exceptionally
active mind should raise some questions about the doctrines transmitted to him
in the synagogue school. Perhaps even there he had heard of Hebrew heresies.
Ibn Ezra had long ago pointed out the difficulties involved in ascribing to Moses
the later parts of the Pentateuch; Maimonides had proposed allegorical interpretations
of some otherwise indigestible passages in the Bible, 2
and had suggested some doubts about personal immortality, 3
and about Creation as against the eternity of the world. 4
Crescas had ascribed extension to God, and had rejected all attempts to prove
by reason the freedom of the will, the survival of the soul, and even the existence
of God. In addition to these predominantly orthodox Jews, Spinoza must have read
Levi ben Gerson, who had reduced Biblical miracles to natural causes, and had
subordinated faith to reason, saying, «The Torah cannot prevent us from considering
to be true that which our reason urges us to believe». 5
And only recently, in this Amsterdam community, Uriel Acosta had challenged the
belief in immortality, and, humiliated by excommunication, had shot himself (1647).
The vague recollection of that tragedy must have deepened the turmoil in Spinoza’s
mind when he felt slipping from him the upholding theology of his people and
In 1654 his father died. A daughter
claimed the whole estate; Spinoza contested her claim in court, won his case,
and then turned over to her all of the legacy but a bed. Now dependent upon himself,
he earned his bread by grinding and polishing lenses for spectacles, microscopes,
and telescopes. In addition to tutoring some private pupils, he became an instructor
in the Latin school of Frans van den Ende, ex-Jesuit, freethinker, dramatist,
and revolutionary. 6 There Spinoza
improved his Latin; perhaps he was stimulated by van den Ende to study Descartes,
Bacon, and Hobbes; he may now have dipped into the Summa theologiae of Thomas
Aquinas. He seems to have fallen in love with the headmaster’s daughter; she
preferred a more affluent suitor, and Spinoza, so far as we know, made no further
move toward marriage.
Meanwhile he had begun to lose his
faith. Probably before reaching the age of twenty he had ventured, with all the
pain and trepidation that such moltings bring to sensitive spirits, upon some
exciting ideas – that matter may be the body of God, that angels may be phantoms
of the imagination, that the Bible said nothing of immortality, that the soul
is identical with life. 7 He might
have kept these proud heresies to himself had his father lived; and even after
his father’s death he might have remained silent had not some friends importuned
him with questions. After much hesitation, he confessed to them the tremors of
his faith. They reported him to the synagogue.
It has often been pointed out, but
must always be borne in mind, that the leaders of the Jewish community in Amsterdam
were in a difficult position in dealing with heresies that attacked the fundamentals
of the Christian as well as the Jewish creed. The Jews enjoyed in the Dutch Republic
a religious toleration denied them elsewhere in Christendom; but that could be
withdrawn if they tolerated among themselves ideas that might unsettle the religious
basis of morality and social order. According to the biography of Spinoza written
in the year of his death by a French refugee in Holland, Jean Maximilien Lucas,
the students who reported Baruch’s doubts falsely added the charge that he had
expressed scorn of the Jewish people for thinking itself especially chosen by
God, and for believing that God was the author of the Mosaic Code. 8
We do not know how far we can trust this account. In any case the Jewish leaders
must have resented any disruption of the faith that had been a tower of strength
and a well of comfort to the Jews through centuries of bitter suffering.
The rabbis summoned Spinoza, and chided
him for disappointing the bright hopes that his teachers had held for his future
in the community. One of these teachers, Manasseh ben Israel, was absent in London.
Another, Saul Morteira, pleaded with the youth to abandon his heresies. In fairness
to the rabbis we must note that Lucas, though strongly sympathetic with Spinoza,
records that when Morteira recalled the loving care he had given to the education
of his favorite pupil, Baruch «answered that in return for the trouble Morteira
had taken in teaching him the Hebrew language, he [Spinoza] would now be glad
to teach his instructor how to excommunicate». 9
This seems quite out of character with all else that we hear of Spinoza, but
we must not let our affections select the evidence; and (to vary a remark of
Cicero’s) there is hardly anything so foolish but we can find it in the lives
of the philosophers.
We are told that the synagogue leaders offered Spinoza an annual
pension of a thousand gulden if he would promise to take no hostile step against
Judaism, and would show himself from time to time in the synagogue. 10
The rabbis appear to have invoked against him at first only the «lesser excommunication»,
which merely excluded him, for thirty days, from intercourse with the Jewish
community. 11 We are told that
he accepted this sentence with a light heart, saying, «Good; they are forcing
me to do nothing that I would not have done of my own free will»; 12
probably he was already living outside the Jewish quarter of the city. A fanatic
tried to assassinate him, but the weapon only tore Spinoza’s coat. On July 24,
1656, the religious and secular authorities of the Jewish community solemnly
pronounced from the pulpit of the Portuguese synagogue the full excommunication
of «Baruch d’Espinosa», with all the customary curses and prohibitions: no one
was to speak or write to him, or do him any service, or read his writings, or
come within the space of four cubits’ distance from him. 13
Morteira went before the Amsterdam officials, notified them of the charges and
the excommunication, and asked that Spinoza be expelled from the city. They sentenced
Spinoza to «an exile of some months». 14
He went to the nearby village of Ouverkerk, but soon returned to Amsterdam.
His knowledge of Hebrew won him several friends in a little circle
of students led by Lodewijk Meyer and Simon de Vries. Meyer had degrees in philosophy
and medicine; in 1666 he published Philosophiae Sacrae Scripturae interpres,
which subordinated the Bible to reason; it may have reflected – or influenced
– the views of Spinoza. De Vries, a prosperous merchant, was so fond of Spinoza
that he wished to give him two thousand florins; Spinoza refused to take them.
When de Vries neared death (1667) he proposed, being unmarried, to make Spinoza
his heir; Spinoza persuaded him to leave the entire estate to a brother; the
gratified brother offered him an annuity of five hundred florins; Spinoza accepted
three hundred. 15 Another Amsterdam
friend, Johan Bouwmeester, wrote to Spinoza, «Love me, for I love you with all
my heart». 16 Next to philosophy,
friendship was the chief support of Spinoza’s life. In one of his letters he wrote:
Of all the things that are beyond my power, I value nothing
more highly than to be allowed the honor of entering into bonds of friendship
with people who sincerely love truth. For, of things beyond our power, I believe
there is nothing in the world which we can love with tranquility except such
He was not quite a recluse, nor an ascetic. He approved «good food
and drink, the enjoyment of beauty and growing plants, the hearing of music,
visits to the theater»; 18 it was
on such a visit that the attempt had been made to kill him. He had still to fear
attack; on his signet ring was one word: Caute, carefully. 19
But far more than amusements, more even than friendship, he loved privacy and
study and the peace of a simple life. According to Bayle it was «because the
visits of his friends too much interrupted his speculations» 20
that Spinoza in 1660 left Amsterdam to live in the quiet village of Rijnsburg
– «town on the Rhine» – six miles from Leiden. The Collegiants, a Mennonite sect
resembling the Quakers, made their headquarters there, and Spinoza found welcome
in one of their families.
In that modest dwelling, now preserved as the Spinozahuis, the
philosopher wrote several minor works, and Book I of the Ethics. He composed
in 1662 a Short Treatise on God, Man, and His Well-Being; but this was largely
a reflection of Descartes. More interesting is the fragment De Intellectus Emendatione
(On the Improvement of the Intellect), which was set aside, unfinished, in that
same year. Within its forty pages we get a preview of Spinoza’s philosophy. We
feel the loneliness of the outcast in its first sentences:
After experience had taught me that all things that frequently
take place in ordinary life are vain and futile; when I saw that all the things
I feared, and which feared me, had nothing good or bad in them save in so far
as the mind was affected by them, I determined at last to inquire whether there
might be anything which might be truly good and able to communicate its goodness,
and by which the mind might be affected to the exclusion of all other things.
He felt that riches could not do this, nor fame (honor), nor the
pleasures of the flesh (libido); turmoil and grief are too often mingled with
these delights. «Only the love towards a thing eternal and infinite feeds the
mind with pleasure ... free from all pain». 21
This could have been written by Thomas a Kempis or Jakob Bohme; and indeed there
always remained in Spinoza a note and mood of mysticism that may have come to
him from the Cabala, and now found nourishment in his solitude. The «eternal
and infinite good» which he had in mind could be termed God, but only in Spinoza’s
later definition of God as one with nature in its creative powers and its laws.
«The greatest good», says the Emendatione, «...is the knowledge of the union
which the mind has with the whole of nature. ... The more the mind understands
the order of nature, the more easily it will be able to liberate itself from
useless things»; 22 here is Spinoza’s
first phrasing of the «intellectual love of God» – the reconciliation of the
individual with the nature of things and the laws of the universe.
This eloquent little treatise states also the aim of Spinoza’s
thinking, and his understanding of science and philosophy. «I wish to direct
all sciences in one direction or to one end, namely, to attain the greatest possible
human perfection; and thus everything in the sciences that does not promote this
endeavor must be rejected as useless». 23
Here is quite a different strain from that which we heard in Francis Bacon; the
progress of the sciences is a delusion if they merely increase man’s power over
things without improving his character and desires. That is why the chef-d’oeuvre
of modern philosophy will be called Ethics despite its long metaphysical prelude,
and why so much of it will analyze the bondage of man to desire, and his liberation
II. Theology and politics
The circle of gentlemen students whom Spinoza had left behind in
Amsterdam heard that he had begun, for a pupil in Rijnsburg, a geometrical version
of Descartes’ Principia philosophiae. They importuned him to complete
it and send it to them. He did, and they financed its publication (1663) as Renati
Des Cartes Principia Philosophiae more geometrico demonstrata. We need note
only three things about it: that it expressed Descartes’ views (for example,
on free will), not Spinoza’s; that it was the only book of Spinoza’s printed
in his lifetime over his own name; and that in an appended fragment, Cogitata
metaphysica, he suggested that time was not an objective reality, but a mode
of thinking. 24 This is one of
several Kantian elements in Spinoza’s philosophy.
In Rijnsburg he made some new friends. The great anatomist Steno
became acquainted with him there. Henry Oldenburg, of the Royal Society, coming
to Leiden in 1661, went out of his way to visit Spinoza, and was deeply impressed;
returning to London, he began a long correspondence with the unprinted but already
famous philosopher. Another Rijnsburg friend, Adriaan Koerbagh, was summoned
before an Amsterdam court (1668), charged with «intemperate» opposition to the
prevailing theology; one magistrate sought to implicate Spinoza as the source
of Koerbagh’s heresies; Koerbagh denied this, and Spinoza was spared; but the
young heretic was sentenced to ten years in prison, where he died after he had
served fifteen months of his term. 25
We can understand why Spinoza did not rush into print.
In June, 1663, he moved to Voorburg, near The Hague. For six years
he lived in the home of an artist, still polishing lenses and composing the Ethics.
The desperate defensive war of the United Provinces against Louis XIV frightened
the Dutch government into tighter restrictions on the expression of ideas. Nevertheless
Spinoza published anonymously, in 1670, a Treatise on Theology and Politics that
became a milestone in Biblical criticism. The title page of this Tractatus
theologico-politicus stated the purpose: «to set forth that freedom of thought
and speech not only may, without prejudice to piety and the public peace, be
granted, but that also it may not, without danger to piety and the public peace.
be withheld». Spinoza disclaimed atheism, supported the fundamentals of religious
belief, but undertook to show the human fallibility of those Scriptures upon
which the Calvinist clergy based their theology and intolerance. The clergy in
Holland were using their influence, and their Biblical texts, to oppose the party
led by the de Witts, which favored liberal thought and negotiations for peace;
and Spinoza was warmly devoted to that party and to Jan de Witt.
As I marked the fierce controversies of philosophers raging
in Church and state, the source of bitter hatred and dissension ..., I determined
to examine the Bible afresh in a careful, impartial and unfettered spirit, making
no assumptions concerning it, and attributing to it no doctrines which I do not
find clearly therein set down. With these precautions I constructed a method
of scriptural interpretation. 26
He noted and illustrated the difficulty of understanding the Hebrew
of the Old Testament; the Masoretic text – which filled in the vowels and accents
omitted by the original writers – was partly guesswork, and could hardly give
us an indisputable prototype. He profited much, in the earlier chapters of this
treatise, from Maimonides’ Guide to the Perplexed. He followed Abraham ibn Ezra
and others in questioning the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch. He denied
that Joshua had composed the Book of Joshua; and he ascribed the historical books
of the Old Testament to the priest-scribe Ezra, of the fifth century B.C. The
Book of Job, he thought, was a Gentile production translated into Hebrew. Not
all these conclusions have been accepted by later research; but they were a brave
advance toward understanding the composition of the Bible; and they preceded
by eight years the more scholarly Critique du Vieux Testament (1678) of
Richard Simon. Spinoza pointed out that in several instances the same story or
passage was repeated in different places in the Bible, sometimes in the same
words, sometimes in divergent versions; the one case suggesting common borrowing
from an earlier manuscript, the other raising the question as to which account
was the Word of God. 27 There were
chronological impossibilities and contradictions. In his Epistle to the Romans
(III, 20-28) Paul taught that man can be saved only by faith, not by works; the
Epistle of the Apostle James (II, 24) taught precisely the opposite; which was
God’s view and Word? Such diverse texts, the philosopher pointed out, have generated
bitterest – even murderous – quarrels among theologians, not the good conduct
that a religion should inspire.
Were the Old Testament prophets the voice of God? Evidently they
were not ahead of the knowledge shared by the educated classes of their time;
«Joshua», for example, took it for granted that the sun, until he «stopped» it,
revolved around the earth. 28 The
prophets excelled not in learning but in intensity of imagination, enthusiasm,
and feeling; they were great poets and orators. They may have been divinely inspired,
but if so it was by a process that Spinoza confessed himself unable to
Perhaps they dreamed that they saw God; and they may have believed in the reality
of their dream. So we read of Abimelech that «God said unto him in a dream» (Gen.
xx, 6). The divine element in the prophets was not their prophecies but their
virtuous lives; and the theme of their preaching was that religion lies in good
conduct, not in sedulous ritual.
Were the miracles recorded in the Bible real interruptions of the
normal course of nature? Did the sins of men bring down fire and flood, and did
the prayers of men give fertility to the earth? Such stories, Spinoza suggested,
were used by the Scriptural authors to reach the understanding of simple men
and move them to virtue or devotion; we must not take them literally.
When, therefore, the Bible says that the earth is barren because
of men’s sins, or that the blind were healed by faith, we ought to take no more
notice than when it says that God is angry at men’s sins, that he is sad, that
he repents of the good he has promised or done, or that, on seeing a sign, he
remembers something he had promised; these and similar expressions are either
thrown out poetically, or related according to the opinions and prejudices of
the writer. We may be absolutely certain that every event which is truly described
in Scripture necessarily happened – like everything else – according to natural
law; and if anything is there set down which can be proved in set terms to contravene
the order of nature, or not to be deducible therefrom, we must believe it to
have been foisted into the sacred writings by irreligious hands; for whatsoever
is contrary to nature is contrary to reason, and whatsoever is contrary to reason
is absurd. 30
This was probably the most forthright
declaration of independence yet made for reason by a modern philosopher. So far
as it was accepted, it involved a revolution of profounder significance and results
than all the wars and politics of the time.
In what sense, then, is the Bible the Word of God? Only in this:
that it contains a moral code that can form men to virtue. It contains also many
things that have led – or been adapted – to human deviltry. For the generality
of men (too obsessed with daily cares to have leisure or capacity for intellectual
development) the Biblical stories can be a beneficent aid to morality. But the
emphasis of religious teaching should always be upon conduct rather than creed.
It is a sufficient creed to believe in «a God, that is, a supreme being who loves
justice and charity», and whose proper worship «consists in the practice of justice
and love towards one’s neighbor». No other doctrine is necessary. 31
Aside from that doctrine, thought should be free. The Bible was
not intended to be a textbook of science or philosophy; these are revealed to
us in nature, and this natural revelation is the truest and most universal voice of God.
Between faith or theology and philosophy ... there is no connection,
or affinity. ... Philosophy has no end in view save truth; faith ... looks for
nothing but obedience and piety. ... Faith, therefore, allows the greatest latitude
in philosophical speculation, allowing us without blame to think what we like
about anything, and only condemning, as heretics and schismatics, those who teach
opinions that tend to produce hatred, anger, and strife. 32
So Spinoza, in his own optimistic variation, renewed Pomponazzi’s
distinction between two truths, the theological and the philosophical, each of
which, though contradictory, may be allowed to the same person in the one case
as a citizen, in the other as a philosopher. Spinoza would allow to secular officials
the right to compel obedience to the laws; the state, like the individual, has
the right of self-preservation. But he adds:
With religion the case is widely different. Since it consists
not so much in outward action as in simplicity and truth of character, it stands
outside the sphere of law and public authority. Simplicity and truth of character
are not produced by the constraint of laws, nor by the authority of the state;
no one the whole world over can be forced or legislated into a state of blessedness;
the means required for such a consummation are faithful and brotherly admonition,
sound education, and, above all, free use of the individual judgment. ... It
is in every man’s power to wield the supreme right and authority of free judgment
... and to explain and interpret religion for himself. 33
The public practice of religion should be subject to state control,
for though religion may be a vital force in molding morality, the state must
remain supreme in all matters affecting public conduct. Spinoza was as firm an
Erastian as Hobbes, and followed him in subordinating the Church to the state,
but he cautioned his readers, «I speak here only of the outward observances,
... not of ... the inward worship». 34
And (probably having Louis XIV in mind) he rose to hot indignation in denouncing
the use of religion by the state for purposes contrary to what he conceives as
basic religion – justice and benevolence.
If, in despotic statecraft, the supreme and essential mystery be
to hoodwink the subjects, and to mask the fear, which keeps them down, with the
specious garb of religion, so that men may fight as bravely for slavery as for
safety, and count it not shame but highest honor to risk their blood and their
lives for the vainglory of a tyrant; yet in a free state no more mischievous
expedient could be planned or attempted. [It is] wholly repugnant to the general
freedom ... when law enters the domain of speculative thought, and opinions are
put on trial and condemned on the same footing as crimes, while those who defend
and follow them are sacrificed not to public safety, but to their opponents’
hatred and cruelty. If deeds alone could be made the ground of criminal charges,
and words were always allowed to pass free, ... seditions would be divested of
every semblance of justification, and would be separated from mere controversy
by a hard and fast line. 35
In examining the Scriptures Spinoza faced the fundamental issue
between Christians and Jews: Had Christianity been unfaithful to Christ in rejecting
the Mosaic Law? In his opinion that Law was intended for the Jews in their own
state, and not for other nations, not even for the Jews themselves when living
in an alien society; only the moral laws in the Mosaic Code (like the Ten Commandments)
have eternal and universal validity. 36
Some passages in Spinoza’s discussion of Judaism reveal a strong resentment of
his excommunication, and an anxiety to justify his rejection of the synagogue’s
teachings. But he joined the Jews in hoping for their early restoration to an
autonomous Israel. «I would go so far as to believe that ... they may even raise
up their state anew, and God may elect them a second time». 37
He made several approaches to Christianity. He apparently read
the New Testament with increasing admiration for Christ. He rejected the notion
of Christ’s physical resurrection from the dead, 38
but he found himself in such sympathy with the preaching of Jesus that he conceded
to him a special revelation from God:
A man who can by pure intuition comprehend ideas which are
neither contained in, nor deducible from, the foundation of our natural knowledge,
must necessarily possess a mind far superior to those of his fellow men; nor
do I believe that any have been so endowed save Christ. To him the ordinances
of God leading to salvation were revealed directly without words or visions,
so that God manifested himself to the Apostles through the mind of Christ, as
he formerly did to Moses through the supernatural voice. In this sense the voice
of Christ, like the voice which Moses heard, may be called the voice of God;
and it may be said that the wisdom of God (wisdom more than
took upon itself in Christ human nature, and that Christ was the way of salvation.
I must at this juncture declare that those doctrines, which certain churches
put forward concerning Christ, I neither affirm nor deny, for I freely confess
that I do not understand them. ... Christ communed with God mind to mind. Thus
we may conclude that no one except Christ received the revelation of God without
the aid of imagination, whether in words or vision. 40
This olive branch offered to the Christian leaders could not conceal
from them that the Tractatus theologico-politicus was one of the boldest
pronouncements yet made in the conflict between religion and philosophy. Hardly
had it appeared when the church council of Amsterdam (June 30, 1670) protested
to the Grand Pensionary of Holland that so heretical a volume should be allowed
to circulate in a Christian state. A synod at The Hague, petitioned him to ban
and confiscate «such soul-destroying books». 41
Lay critics joined in the attack upon Spinoza; one called him Satan
Jean Le Clerc described him as «the most famous atheist of our
Lambert van Velthuysen accused him of «craftily introducing atheism ... destroying
all worship and religion from the very foundation». 44
Luckily for Spinoza, the Grand Pensionary, Jan de Witt, was one of his admirers,
who had already conferred upon him a small pension. As long as de Witt lived
and ruled, Spinoza could rely on his protection. That was to be for only two
III. The Philosopher
In May, 1670, shortly after publication of the Tractatus,
Spinoza moved to The Hague, perhaps to be nearer to de Witt and other influential
friends. For a year he stayed in the house of the Widow van Velen; then he passed
to the home of Hendrik van der Spyck on the Pavilioensgracht; this building was
bought in 1927 by an international committee, and is preserved as the Domus Spinozana.
There he remained to the end of his life. He occupied one room on the top floor,
and slept in a bed that during the day could be folded into the
He «was sometimes three whole months without stepping out of doors», Bayle tells;
perhaps his consumptive lungs made him fearful of the winter damp. But he had
many visitors, and (again according to Bayle) he occasionally «visited persons
of importance ... to discourse of state affairs», which «he understood
He continued to polish lenses; Christian Huygens commented on their
He kept an account of his expenditures; we learn therefrom that he lived on four
and a half sous per day. His friends insisted on helping him, for they must have
seen that his confinement to the house, and the dust from his lens polishing,
were aggravating his constitutional ailment.
The protection that he received from Jan de Witt ended when a mob
assassinated both the de Witt brothers in the streets of The Hague (August 20,
1672). Hearing of the murder, Spinoza wished to go out and denounce the crowd
to its face as ultimi barbarorum, the lowest barbarians, but his host locked
the door and prevented him from leaving the house. 48
Jan de Witt’s will left Spinoza an annuity of two hundred francs. 49
After the death of de Witt the civil power fell to Prince William Henry, who
needed the support of the Calvinist clergy. When a second edition of the Tractatus
theologico-politicus appeared in 1674, the Prince and the Council of Holland
issued a decree prohibiting the sale of the book; and in 1675 the Calvinist consistory
of The Hague published a proclamation bidding all citizens to report at once
any attempt to print any writing by Spinoza. 50
Between 1650 and 1680 there were some fifty edicts, by church authorities, against
the reading or circulation of the philosopher’s works. 51
Perhaps such prohibitions shared in spreading his fame into Germany,
England, and France. On February 16, 1673, Johann Fabritius, professor in the
University of Heidelberg, wrote «to the very acute and renowned Philosopher Benedictus
de Spinoza» in the name of the liberal Elector of the Palatinate, Prince Charles
His Serene Highness ... has commanded me to write to you ...
and ask whether you are willing to accept an ordinary professorship of philosophy
in his illustrious university. You will be paid the annual salary which the ordinary
professors enjoy today. You will not find elsewhere a prince more favorable to
distinguished geniuses, among whom he reckons you. You will have the utmost freedom
of philosophizing, which he believes you will not misuse to disturb the publicly
established religion ...
Spinoza replied on March 30:
Most Honourable Sir:
If I had ever experienced a wish to take on a professorship
in any faculty, I could have desired no other than that which is offered me through
you by his Serene Highness the Elector Palatine. ... Since, however, it was never
my intention to give public instruction, I cannot be induced to embrace this
glorious opportunity ... For first, I think that if I want to find time for instructing
youth, then I must desist from developing my philosophy. Secondly, ... I do not
know within what limits that freedom of philosophizing ought to be confined in
order to avoid the appearance of wishing to disturb the publicly established
religion. For schisms arise not so much from an ardent love of religion as from
men’s various dispositions, or the love of contradiction. ... I have already
experienced these things while leading a private and solitary life; much more
then are they to be feared after I shall have risen to this degree of dignity.
Thus you see, Most Honored Sir, that I am not holding back in the hope of some
better fortune, but from love of peace. 52
Spinoza was fortunate in his refusal,
for in the following year Turenne devastated the Palatinate, and the university
In May, 1673, amid the invasion of the United Provinces by a French
army, an invitation came to Spinoza from a colonel in that army to visit the
Great Conde’ at Utrecht. Spinoza consulted the Dutch authorities, who may have
seen in the invitation an opportunity to open negotiations for a desperately
needed truce. Both sides gave him safe-conducts, and the philosopher made his
way to Utrecht. Meanwhile Conde’ had been sent elsewhere by Louis XIV; he sent
word (according to Lucas) 53 asking
Spinoza to wait for him; but after several weeks another message said that he
was indefinitely delayed. It was apparently at this time that Marechal de Luxembourg
advised Spinoza to dedicate a book to Louis, assuring him of a liberal response
from the King. 54 Nothing came
of the proposal. Spinoza returned to The Hague, to find that many citizens suspected
him of treason. A hostile crowd gathered about his house, shouting insults and
throwing stones. «Do not be troubled», he told his landlord; «I am innocent,
and there are many ... in high places who well know why I went to Utrecht. As
soon as you hear any disturbance at your door I will go out to the people, even
if they should treat me as they treated the good de Witt. I am an honest republican,
and the welfare of the Republic is my aim». 55
His host would not let him go, and the crowd dispersed.
He was now forty-one. A portrait in the Domus Spinozana
at The Hague shows him as a fine type of Sephardic Jew, with flowing black hair,
heavy eyebrows, black, bright, and slightly somber eyes, a long straight nose,
altogether a rather handsome face, if only in comparison with Hals’s Descartes.
«He was extremely neat in his appearance», reported Lucas, «and never left his
house without wearing clothes that distinguished the gentleman from the pedant». 56
His manners were grave but amiable. Oldenburg noted his «solid learning combined
with humanity and refinement». 57
«Those who have been acquainted with Spinoza», wrote Bayle, «...all say that
he was sociable, affable, honest, friendly, and a good moral man». 58
To his neighbors he spoke no heresy; on the contrary, he encouraged them to continue
their church attendance, and occasionally he accompanied them to hear a sermon. 59
More than any other modern philosopher he achieved a tranquillity born of self-control.
He rarely replied to criticism; he dealt with ideas rather than personalities.
Despite his determinism, his uprooting from his people, and his illness, he was
far from being a pessimist. «Act well», he said, «and rejoice». 60
To know the worst and believe the best might have been the motto of his thought.
Friends and admirers made a path to his door. Walter von Tschirnhaus
persuaded him to let him see the manuscript of the Ethics. «I beg you», wrote
the mathematician-physicist, «to help me with your usual courtesy wherever I
do not rightly grasp your meaning». 61
Probably through this eager student Leibniz won access to Spinoza (1676), and
presumably to the still unpublished masterpiece. The surviving members of Dr.
Meyer’s circle in Amsterdam came to see him, or were among his correspondents.
His letters to and from European scholars shed unexpected light upon the intellectual
climate of the time. Hugo Boxel repeatedly urged him to admit the reality of
ghosts. In 1675 the anatomist Steno sent from Florence a touching appeal for
Spinoza’s conversion to Catholicism:
If you wish, I shall willingly take upon myself the task of
showing you ... wherein your teachings are behind ours, although I should wish
that you ... would offer to God a refutation of your own errors ... in order
that if your first writings have turned aside a thousand souls from the true
knowledge of God, the recantation of them, reinforced by your own example, may
lead back to him a thousand thousand with you as with another Augustine. I pray
with all my heart that this grace may be yours. Farewell. 62
The fascination of Catholicism captured also Albert Burgh, son
of Spinoza’s friend Conraad Burgh, treasurer general of the United Provinces.
Albert, like Steno, had become a convert while traveling in Italy. In September,
1675, he wrote to Spinoza not so much soliciting as challenging him to accept
the Roman Catholic faith:
How do you know that your philosophy
is the best among all those which have ever been taught in the world, or are
actually taught now, or ever will be taught in the future? ... Have you examined
all those philosophies, ancient as well as modern, which are taught here and
in India and everywhere throughout the world? And even if you have duly examined
them, how do you know that you have chosen the best? ...
If, however, you do not believe in Christ, you are more wretched
than I can say. But the remedy is easy: return from your sins, and realize the
fatal arrogance of your wretched and insane reasoning. ... Will you, you wretched
little man, vile worm of the earth, ... dare, in your unspeakable blasphemy,
to put yourself above the Incarnate, Infinite Wisdom? ...
From your principles you will not explain thoroughly even one
of those things which are accomplished in witchcraft ..., nor will you be able
to explain any of the stupendous phenomena among those who are possessed by demons,
of all of which I have myself seen various instances, and I have heard most certain
Spinoza, in part, replied (December, 1675):
What I could scarcely believe when
it was related me by others, I at last understand from your letter; that is,
that not only have you become a member of the Roman Church ... but that you are
a very keen champion of it, and have already learned to curse and rage petulantly
against your opponents. I had not intended to reply to your letter, ... but certain
friends who with me had formed great hopes for you from your natural talent,
earnestly prayed me not to fail in the duty of a friend, and to think rather
of what you recently were than of what you now are. ... I have been induced by
these arguments to write to you these words, earnestly begging you to be kind
enough to read them with a calm mind.
I will not here
recount the vices of priests and popes to turn you away from them, as the opponents
of the Roman Church are wont to do. For they usually publish these things from
ill-feeling, and ... in order to annoy rather than instruct. Indeed, I will admit
that there are found more men of great learning, and of an upright life, in the
Roman than in any other Christian Church; for since there are more ... members
of this Church, there will also be found in it more men of every condition. ...
In every Church there are many very honest men who worship God with justice and
charity ... For justice and charity are the surest sign of the true Catholic
faith ..., and wherever these are found, there Christ really is, and where they
are lacking, there Christ also is not. For by the spirit of Christ alone can
we be led to the love of justice and charity. If you had been willing duly to
ponder these facts within yourself, you would not have been lost, nor would you
have caused bitter sorrow to your parents. ...
Your asked me,
how I know that my philosophy is the best among all those which have ever been
taught in the world, or are taught now, or will be taught in the future. This,
indeed, I can ask you with far better right. For I do not presume that I have
found the best philosophy, but I know that I think [it] the true one. ... But
you who presume that you have at last found the best religion, or rather the
best men, to whom you have given over your credulity, how do you know that they
are the best among all those who have taught other religions, or are teaching
them now, or will teach them in the future? Have you examined all those religions,
both ancient and modern, which are taught here and in India, and everywhere throughout
the world? And even if you have duly examined them, how do you know that you
have chosen the best? ...
Do you regard it as arrogance and pride because
I use my reason, and acquiesce in that true Word of God which is in the mind
and can never be depraved or corrupted? Away with this deadly superstition; acknowledge
the reason which God has given you, and cultivate it, if you would not be numbered
among the brutes. ... If you will ... examine the histories of the Church (of
which I see you are most ignorant), in order to see how false are many of the
Pontifical traditions ... and by what ... arts the Roman Pontiff, six hundred
years after the birth of Christ, obtained sovereignty over the Church, I doubt
not that you will at last come to your senses. That this may be so, I wish you
from my heart. Farewell. 64
Burgh joined the Franciscan order,
and died in a monastery in Rome.
Most of Spinoza’s extant correspondence was with Oldenburg. We
are surprised to find that much of it deals with science, that Spinoza carried
on experiments in physics and chemistry, and that his letters are illustrated
with many diagrams. This correspondence was interrupted in 1665. Oldenburg was
arrested in 1667, and was held in the Tower of London on suspicion of dealing
with a foreign power. On his release he turned to religion, and when he resumed
correspondence with Spinoza (1675) he joined in the effort to win him back to
some form of orthodox Christianity. He begged him to take the story of Christ’s
resurrection not allegorically but literally. «The whole Christian religion and
its truth», he thought, «rests on this article of the Resurrection; and if it
is taken away, the mission of Christ and his heavenly teaching
He finally gave up Spinoza as a lost soul, and discontinued the correspondence (1677).
All through the years from 1662 Spinoza had been working on the
Ethics. As early as April, 1667, he wrote to Oldenburg that he was thinking of
publishing it, but «I am naturally afraid lest the theologians ... take offense,
and with their usual hatred attack me, who utterly loathe quarrels». 66
Oldenburg urged him to publish, «however much the theological quacks may
but Spinoza still hesitated. He allowed some friends to read parts of the manuscript,
and probably profited from their comments, for he repeatedly revised the treatise.
The clamor aroused by the Tractatus theologico-politicus justified his
caution. The murder of the de Witts, and the suspicions directed against him
after his visit to the French army, further troubled him; and it was not till
1675 that he made another move to put the Ethics into print. He reported the
results to Oldenburg:
At the time when I received your letter of 22 July, I was setting
out for Amsterdam with the intention of getting printed the work about which
I have written to you. While I was engaged in this matter a rumor was spread
everywhere that a book of mine about God was in the press, and that in it I endeavored
to show that there is no God. This rumor was believed by many. Therefore certain
theologians ... seized the opportunity of bringing complaints against me before
the Prince and the magistrates. ... When I heard all this ... I decided to postpone
the publication I was preparing. 68
He put the manuscript away, and turned
to writing a treatise on the state, Tractatus politicus, but death came
upon him before he could finish it.
On February 6, 1677, Georg Hermann Schuller, a young physician,
wrote to Leibniz: «I fear that Mr. Benedictus Spinoza will soon leave us, as
the consumption ... seems to grow worse every day». 69
Two weeks later, while the rest of the household were absent, the philosopher
entered upon his final suffering. Schuller alone (not Meyer, as formerly supposed)
was with him at the time. Spinoza left instructions that his modest belongings
be sold to pay his debts, and that such manuscripts as he had not burned be published
anonymously. He died on February 20, 1677, without any religious
He was buried in a cemetery of the New Church of The Hague, near the tomb of
Jan de Witt. The manuscripts – chiefly the Ethics, the Tractatus politicus,
and the treatise On the Improvement of the Intellect – were prepared for the
press by Meyer, Schuller, and others, and were printed at Amsterdam toward the
end of 1677.
And so we come at last to the book into which Spinoza had poured his life and solitary soul.
He called it Ethica ordine geometrico
demonstrata, first because he thought of all philosophy as a preparation
for right conduct and wise living, and second because, like Descartes, he envied
the intellectual asceticism and logical sequence of geometry. He hoped to build,
on the model of Euclid, a structure of reasoning in which every step would follow
logically from preceding proofs, and these would at last be irrefutably derived
from axioms universally received. He knew that this was an ideal, and he could
hardly have supposed it proof against error, for he had by a similar method expounded
the Cartesian philosophy, with which he did not agree. At least the geometrical
scheme would make for clarity; it would check the confusion of reason by passion,
and the concealment of sophistry with eloquence. He proposed to discuss the behavior
of men, and even the nature of God, as calmly and objectively as if he were dealing
with circles, triangles, and squares. His procedure was not faultless, but it
led him to rear an edifice of reason imposing in its architectural grandeur and
unity. The method is deductive, and would have been frowned upon by Francis Bacon;
but it claimed to be in harmony with all experience.
Spinoza began with definitions, mostly taken from medieval philosophy.
The words he used have changed their meaning since his day, and now some of them
obscure his thought. The third definition is fundamental: «I understand Substance
to be that which is in itself and is conceived through itself; I mean that, the
conception of which does not depend upon the conception of another thing from
which it must be formed». He does not mean substance in the modern sense of material
constituents; our use of the word to mean essence or basic significance comes
closer to his intent. If we take literally his Latin term substantia,
it indicates that which stands under, underlies, supports. In his correspondence 71
he speaks of «substance or being»; i.e., he identifies substance with existence
or reality. Hence he can say that «existence appertains to the nature of substance»,
that in substance, essence and existence are one. 72
We may conclude that in Spinoza substance means the essential reality underlying
This reality is perceived by us in two forms: as extension or matter,
and as thought or mind. These two are «attributes» of substance; not as qualities
residing in it, but as the same reality perceived externally by our senses as
matter, and internally by our consciousness as thought. Spinoza is a complete
monist: these two aspects of reality – matter and thought – are not distinct
and separate entities, they are two sides, the outside and the inside, of one
reality; so are body and mind, so is physiological action and the corresponding
mental state. Strictly speaking, Spinoza, so far from being a materialist, is
an idea list: he defines an attribute as «that which the intellect apprehends
of substance as constituting its essence»; 73
he admits (long before Berkeley was born) that we know reality, whether as matter
or as thought, only through perception or idea. He believes that reality expresses
itself in endless aspects through an «infinite number of attributes», of which
we imperfect organisms perceive only two. So far, then, substance, or reality,
is that which appears to us as matter or mind. Substance and its attributes are
one: reality is a union of matter and mind; and these are distinct only in our
manner of perceiving substance. To put it not quite Spinozistically, matter is
reality externally perceived; mind is reality internally perceived. If we could
perceive all things in the same double way – externally and internally – as we
perceive ourselves, we should, Spinoza believes, find that «all things are in
some manner animate» (omnia quodammodo animata); 74
there is some form or degree of mind or life in everything. Substance is always
active: matter is always in motion; mind is always perceiving or feeling or thinking
or desiring or imagining or remembering, awake or in sleep. The world is in every
part of it alive.
God, in Spinoza, is identical with
substance; He is the reality underlying and uniting matter and mind. God is not
identical with matter (therefore Spinoza is not a materialist), but matter is
an inherent and essential attribute or aspect of God (here one of Spinoza’s youthful
heresies reappears). God is not identical with mind (therefore Spinoza is not
a spiritualist), but mind is an inherent and essential attribute or aspect of
God. God and substance are identical with nature (Deus sive substantia sive
natura) and the totality of all being (therefore Spinoza is a pantheist).
Nature has two aspects. As the power of motion in bodies, and as
the power of generation, growth, and feeling in organisms, it is natura naturans
– nature «creating» or giving birth. As the sum of all individual things, of
all bodies, plants, animals, and men, it is natura naturata – generated
or «created» nature. These individual entities in generated nature are called
by Spinoza modi, modes – transient modifications and embodiments of substance,
reality, matter-mind, God. They are part of substance, but in our perception
we distinguish them as passing, fleeting forms of an eternal whole. This stone,
this tree, this man, this planet, this star – all this marvelous kaleidoscope
of appearing and dissolving individual forms – constitute that «temporal order»
which, in On the Improvement of the Intellect, Spinoza contrasted with the «eternal
order» that in a stricter sense is the underlying reality and God:
By series of causes and real entities I do not understand ...
a series of individual mutable things, but the series of fixed and eternal things.
For it would be impossible for human weakness to follow up the series of individual
mutable things [every stone, every flower, every man] ... Their existence has
no connection with their essence [they may exist, but need not], or ... is not
an eternal truth ... This [essence] is only to be sought from fixed and eternal
things, and from the laws inscribed in those things as in their true codes, according
to which all individual things are made and arranged; nay, these individual and
mutable things depend so intimately and essentially (so to speak) on these fixed
ones, that without them they can neither exist nor be conceived. 75
So a single, specific triangle is a mode; it may but need not exist;
but if it does it will have to obey the laws – and will have the powers – of
the triangle in general. A specific man is a mode; he may or may not exist; but
if he does he will share in the essence and power of matter-mind, and will have
to obey the laws that govern the operations of bodies and thoughts. These powers
and laws constitute the order of nature as natura naturans; they constitute,
in theological terms, the will of God. The modes of matter in their totality
are the body of God; the modes of mind in their totality, are the mind of God;
substance or reality, in all its modes and attributes, is God; «whatever is,
is in God». 76
Spinoza agrees with the Scholastic philosophers that in God essence
and existence are one – His existence is involved in our conception of His essence,
for he conceives God as all existence itself. He agrees with the Scholastics
that God is causa sui, self-caused, for there is nothing outside him. He agrees
with the Scholastics that we can know the existence of God, but not his real
nature in all his attributes. He agrees with St. Thomas Aquinas that to apply
the masculine pronouns to God is absurd but convenient. 77
He agrees with Maimonides that most of the qualities we ascribe to God are conceived
by weak analogy with human qualities.
God is described as the lawgiver or prince, and styled just,
merciful, etc., merely in concession to popular understanding and the imperfection
of popular knowledge 78 ... God
is free from passions, nor is he affected with any emotion [affectus]
of joy or sorrow 79 ... Those
who confuse divine with human nature easily attribute human passions to God,
especially if they do not know how passions are produced in the mind. 80
God is not a person, for that means a particular and finite mind;
but God is the total of all the mind (all the animation, sensitivity, and thought)
– as well as of all the matter – in existence. 81
«The human mind is part of a certain infinite intellect» 82
(as in the Aristotelian-Alexandrian tradition). But «if intellect and will appertain
to the eternal essence of God, something far else must be understood by these
two attributes than what is commonly understood by men». 83
«The actual intellect, ... together with will, desire, love, etc., must be referred
to the natura naturata, not to the natura naturans»; 84
that is, individual minds, with their desires, emotions, and volitions, are modes
or modifications, contained in God as the totality of things, but not pertaining
to Him as the law and life of the world. There is will in God, but only in the
sense of the laws operating everywhere. His will is law.
God is not a bearded patriarch sitting on a cloud and ruling the
universe; He is «the indwelling, not the transient, cause of all things». 85
There is no Creation, except in the sense that the infinite reality – matter-mind
– is ever taking new individual forms or modes. «God is not in any one place,
but is everywhere according to his essence». 86
Indeed, the word cause is out of place here; God is the universal cause not in
the sense of a cause preceding its effect, but only in the sense that the behavior
of anything follows necessarily from its nature. God is the cause of all events
in the same way that the nature of a triangle is the cause of its properties
and behavior. God is «free» only in the sense that He is not subject to any external
cause or force, and is determined only by His own essence or nature; but He «does
not act from freedom of will»; 87
all His actions are determined by His essence – which is the same as to say that
all events are determined by the inherent nature and properties of things. There
is no design in nature in the sense that God desires some end; He has no desires
or designs, except as the totality contains all the desires and designs of all
modes and therefore of all organisms. In nature there are only effects following
inevitably from antecedent causes and inherent properties. There are no miracles,
for the will of God and the «fixed and unchanged order of nature» are one; 88
any break in «the chain of natural events» would be a self-contradiction.
Man is only a small part of the universe. Nature is neutral as
between man and other forms. We must not apply to nature or to God such words
as good or evil, beautiful or ugly; these are subjective terms, as much so as
hot or cold; they are determined by the contribution of the external world to
our advantage or displeasure.
The perfection of things is to be judged by their nature and
power alone; nor are they more or less perfect because they delight or offend
the human senses, or because they are beneficial or prejudicial to human nature 89
... If, therefore, anything in nature seems to us ridiculous, absurd, or evil,
it is because we know only in part, and are almost entirely ignorant of, the
order and interdependence of nature as a whole; and also because we want everything
to be arranged according to the dictates of our human reason. In reality that
which reason considers evil is not evil in respect to the order and laws of nature
as a whole, but only in respect to the laws of our reason. 90
Likewise there is no beauty or ugliness in nature.
Beauty ... is not so much a quality of the object beheld, as
an effect in him who beholds it. If our sight were longer or shorter, if our
constitutions were different, what we now think beautiful we should think ugly.
... The most beautiful hand, seen through the microscope, will appear horrible 91
... I do not attribute to nature either beauty or deformity, order or confusion.
Only in relation to our imagination can things be called beautiful or ugly, well-formed,
or confused. 92
Order is objective only in the sense
that all things cohere in one system of law; but in that order a destructive
storm is as natural as the splendor of a sunset or the sublimity of the sea.
Are we justified, on the basis of this «theology», in calling Spinoza
an atheist? We have seen that he was not a materialist, for he did not identify
God with matter; he says quite clearly that «those who think that the Tractatus
[theologico-politicus] rests on the identification of God with nature
– taking nature in the sense of a certain mass of corporeal matter – are entirely
wrong». 93 He conceived God as
mind as well as matter, and he did not reduce mind to matter; he acknowledged
that mind is the only reality directly known. He thought that something akin
to mind is mingled with all matter; in this respect he was a panpsychist. He
was a pantheist, seeing God in all things, and all things in God. Bayle, Hume,
and others 94 considered him an
atheist; and this term might seem justified by Spinoza’s denial of feeling, desire,
or purpose in God. 95 He himself,
however, objected to «the opinion which the common people have of me, who do
not cease to accuse me falsely of atheism». 96
Apparently he felt that his ascription of mind and intelligence to God absolved
him from the charge of atheism. And it must be admitted that he spoke repeatedly
of his God in terms of religious reverence, often in terms quite consonant with
the conception of God in Maimonides or Aquinas. Novalis would call Spinoza «der
Gottbetrunkene Mensch», the God-intoxicated man.
Actually he was intoxicated with the whole order of nature, which
in its eternal consistency and movement seemed to him admirable and sublime;
and in Book I of the Ethics he wrote both a system of theology and the metaphysics
of science. In the world of law he felt a divine revelation greater than any
book, however noble and beautiful. The scientist who studies that law, even in
its pettiest and most prosaic detail, is deciphering that revelation, for «the
more we understand individual objects, the more we understand God». 97
(This sentence struck Goethe as one of the profoundest in all literature.) It
seemed to Spinoza that he had honestly accepted and met the challenge implicit
in Copernicus – to reconceive deity in terms worthy of the universe now progressively
revealed. In Spinoza science and religion are no longer in conflict; they are one.
Next to the nature and operation of
the cosmos the greatest puzzle in philosophy and science is the nature and operation
of the mind. If it is difficult to reconcile an omnipotent benevolence with the
neutrality of nature and the fatality of suffering, it seems just as hard to
understand how an apparently external and material object in space can generate
an apparently immaterial and spaceless idea, or how an idea in the mind can become
a motion in the body, or how idea can contemplate idea in the mystery of consciousness.
Spinoza tries to avoid some of these problems by rejecting Descartes’
assumption that body and mind are two different substances. Body and mind, he
believes, are one and the same reality, perceived under two different aspects
or attributes, just as extension and thought are one in God. There is then no
problem of how body acts upon mind or vice versa; every action is the simultaneous
and unified operation of both body and mind. Spinoza defines mind as «the idea
of the body»; 98 i.e., it is the
psychological (not necessarily the conscious) correlate or accompaniment of a
physiological process. The mind is the body felt from within; the body is the
mind seen from without. A mental state is the inside, or internal aspect, of
bodily action. An act of «will» is the mental accompaniment of a bodily desire
that is moving into physical expression. There is no action of the «will» upon
the body; there is a single action of the psychophysical (mental-material) organism;
the «will» is not the cause, it is the consciousness of the action. «The decision
of the mind, and the desire and determination of the body are ... one and the
same thing, which, when considered under the attribute of thought ..., we call
a decision (decretum), and which, when considered under the attribute
of extension, and deduced from the laws of motion and rest, is called a determination»
(a finished action). 99 Hence «the
order of the actions and passions [movements] of our body are simultaneous in
nature with the order and passions of the mind». 100
In all cases of the supposed interaction of mind and body the actual process
is not the interplay of two distinct realities, substances, or agents, but the
single action of one substance, which, seen from outside, we call body, and which,
seen from within, we call mind. To every process in the body there is a corresponding
process in the mind; «nothing can happen in the body which is not perceived by
the mind». 101 But this mental
correlate need not be a thought; it may be a feeling; and it need not be conscious;
so a sleepwalker performs any number of actions while he is «unconscious». 102
This theory has been called «psychophysical parallelism»; however, it supposes
parallel processes not in two different entities, but in one psychophysical unity
On this basis Spinoza proceeds to a mechanistic description of
the knowledge process. Probably following Hobbes, he defines sensation, memory,
and imagination in physical terms. 103
He takes it as evident that most knowledge originates in impressions made upon
us by external objects; but he admits to the idealist that «the human mind perceives
no external body as actually existing save through ideas of modifications in
its body». 104 Perception and
reason, two forms of knowledge, are derived from sensation; but a third and higher
form, «intuitive knowledge», is derived (Spinoza thinks) not from sensation but
from a clear, distinct, immediate, and comprehensive awareness of an idea or
event as part of a universal system of law.
Anticipating Locke and Hume, Spinoza rejects the notion that the
mind is an agent or entity possessing ideas; «mind» is a general or abstract
term for the succession of perceptions, memories, imaginations, feelings, and
other mental states. «The idea of the mind, and the mind itself» at any moment,
«are one and the same thing». 105
Nor are there any distinct «faculties» such as intellect or will; these also
are abstract terms for the sum of cognitions or volitions; «intellect or will
have reference in the same manner to this or that idea, or to this or that volition,
as ‘stoniness’ to this or that stone, or ‘man’ to Peter or Paul». 106
Neither do idea and volition differ; a volition or act of «will» is merely an
idea that has «affirmed itself» 107
(i.e., has lasted long enough to complete itself in an action, as ideas, if unimpeded,
automatically do). «The decision of the mind ... is nothing but the affirmation
which the idea necessarily involves insofar as it is an idea 108
... Will and intellect are one and the same thing». 109
From another standpoint what we call will is simply the sum and
play of desires. «By desire ... I understand all the efforts, impulses, appetites,
and volitions of a man, which ... not infrequently are so opposed to one another
that he is drawn hither and thither, and knows not where to turn». 110
Deliberation is the alternating domination of body-and-thought by conflicting
desires; it ends when one desire proves powerful enough to maintain its corresponding
mental state long enough to pass into action. Obviously (says Spinoza) there
is no «free will»; the will at any moment is just the strongest desire. We are
free insofar as we are allowed to express our nature or our desires without external
hindrance; we are not free to choose our own nature or our desires; we are our
desires. «There is in no mind absolute or free will, but the mind is determined
for willing this or that by a cause which is determined in its turn by another
cause, and this again by another, and so on to infinity». 111
«Men think themselves free because they are conscious of their volitions and
desires, but are ignorant of the causes by which they are led to wish and desire»; 112
it is as if a stone flung through space should think it is moving and falling
of its own will. 113
Possibly the Calvinist fatalism in the «climate of opinion» that
Descartes and Spinoza lived in as residents of Holland may have shared with the
Galilean mechanics (Newton’s Principia had not yet appeared) in molding the mechanistic
theory in Descartes and the determinist psychology in Spinoza. Determinism is
predestinarianism without theology; it substitutes the primeval vortex or nebula
for God. Spinoza followed the logic of mechanism to its bitter end; he did not,
like Descartes, confine it to bodies and animals; he applied it to minds as well,
as he had to, since to him mind and body were one. He concluded that the body
is a machine, 114 but he denied
that determinism makes morality useless or insincere. The exhortations of the
moralist, the ideals of the philosophers, the stigma of public condemnation,
and the penalties of the courts are still valuable and necessary; they enter
into the heritage and experience of the growing individual, and therefore into
the factors that form his desires and determine his will.
Into this apparently static philosophy Spinoza inserts two dynamic
elements: first and generally, that matter and mind are everywhere united, that
all things are animated, that they have in them something akin to what in ourselves
we call mind or will; second and specifically, that this vital element includes
in everything a conatus sese preservandi – an «effort at self-preservation».
«Everything insofar as it is in itself endeavors to preserve its own being»,
and «the power or endeavor of anything ... to persist in its own being is nothing
else than ... the essence of that ... thing». 115
Like the Scholastic philosophers who said that esse est agere (to be is
to act) and that God is actus purus (pure activity); like Schopenhauer,
who saw in will the essence of all things; like those modern physicists who reduce
matter to energy – Spinoza defines the essence of each being through its powers
of action; «the power of God is the same as his essence»; 116
in this aspect God is energy (and energy might be named, in addition to matter
and mind, as a third attribute which we perceive as constituting the essence
of substance or reality). Spinoza follows Hobbes in ranking entities according
to their capacity for action and effectiveness. «The perfection of things is
estimated solely from their nature and power» 117
– but in Spinoza perfect means per-factum, complete.
Consequently he defines virtue as a power of acting or doing; «by
virtue and power (potentia) I understand the same thing»; 118
but we shall see that this «potency» means power over ourselves perhaps even
more than power over others. 119
«The more each one seeks what is useful to him – i.e., the more he endeavors
and is able to preserve his being – the more he is endowed with virtue. ... The
endeavor to preserve oneself is the only basis of virtue». 120
In Spinoza virtue is biological, almost Darwinian; it is any quality that makes
for survival. In this sense, at least, virtue is its own reward; «it is to be
desired for its own sake; nor is there anything more excellent or more useful
to us ... for the sake of which virtue ought to be desired». 121
As the endeavor for self-preservation (the «struggle for existence»)
is the active essence of anything, all motives derive from it, and are ultimately
self-seeking. «Since reason postulates nothing against nature, it postulates,
therefore, that each man should love himself, and seek what is useful to him
– I mean what is truly useful to him – and desire whatever leads man truly to
a greater state of perfection [completion], and finally that each one should
endeavor to preserve his being as far as in him lies». 122
These desires need not be conscious; they may be unconscious appetites lodged
in our flesh. Taken altogether, they constitute the essence of man. 123
We judge all things in terms of our desires. «We do not strive for, wish, seek,
or desire anything because we think it to be good; we judge a thing to be good
because we ... desire it». 124
«By good (bonum) I understand that which we certainly know to be useful
to us». 125 (Here is Bentham’s
utilitarianism in one sentence.)
All our desires aim at pleasure or the avoidance of pain. «Pleasure
is man’s transition from a lesser state of perfection [completion, fulfillment]». 126
Pleasure accompanies any experience or feeling that enhances the bodily-mental
processes of activity and self-advancement. 127
«Joy consists in this, that one’s power is increased». 128
Any feeling that depresses our vitality is a weakness rather than a virtue. The
healthy man will soon slough off the feelings of sadness, repentance, humility,
and pity; 129 however, he will
be readier than the weak man to render aid, for generosity is the superabundance
of confident strength. Any pleasure is legitimate if it does not hinder a greater
or more lasting pleasure. Spinoza, like Epicurus, recommends intellectual pleasures
as the best, but he has a good word for a great variety of pleasures.
There cannot be too much merriment. ... Nothing save gloomy
... superstition prohibits laughter. ... To make use of things, and take delight
in them as much as possible (not indeed to satiety, for that is not ... delight),
is the part of a wise man; ... to feed himself with moderate pleasant food and
drink, and to take pleasure with perfumes, ... plants, dress, music, sports,
and theaters. 130
The trouble with the conception of pleasure as the realization
of desires is that desires may conflict; only in the wise man do they fall into
a harmonious hierarchy. A desire is usually the conscious correlate of an appetite
which is rooted in the body; and so much of the appetite may remain unconscious
that we have only «confused and inadequate ideas» of its causes and results.
Such confused desires Spinoza called affectus, which may be translated
by emotions. He defines these as «modifications of the body by which the power
of action in the body is increased or diminished ... and at the same time the
ideas of these modifications» 131
– a definition vaguely recognizing the role of internal (endocrine) secretions
in emotion, and remarkably anticipating the theory of C.G. Lange and William
James that the bodily expression of an emotion is the direct and instinctive
result of the cause, and that the conscious feeling is an accompaniment or result,
not a cause, of the bodily expression and response. Spinoza proposed to study
the emotions – love, hate, anger, fear, etc. – and the power of reason over them,
«in the same manner ... as if I were dealing with lines, planes, and bodies»; 132
not to praise or denounce them but to understand them; for «the more an emotion
becomes known to us, the more it is within our power, and the less the mind is
passive to it». 133 The resulting
analysis of the emotions owed something to Descartes, perhaps more to Hobbes,
but it so improved upon them that when Johannes Müller, in his epochal Physiologie
des Menschen (1840), came to treat of the emotions, he wrote: «With regard
to the relations of the passions to one another, apart from their physiological
conditions, it is impossible to give any better account than that which Spinoza
has laid down with unsurpassed mastery» 134
– and he proceeded to quote extensively from the Ethics.
An emotion becomes a passion when, through our confused and inadequate
ideas of its origin and significance, its external cause dictates our feeling
and response, as in hatred, anger, or fear. «The mind is more or less subject
to passions according as it has more or less adequate ideas». 135
A man with poor powers of perception and thought is especially subject to passion;
it is such a life that Spinoza describes in his classic Book IV, «Of Human Bondage».
Such a man, however violent his action may be, is really passive – is swept along
by an external stimulus instead of holding his hand and taking thought. «We are
driven about by external causes in many ways, and, like waves driven by contrary
winds, we waver and are unconscious of the issue and our fate». 136
Can we free ourselves from this bondage,
and become in some measure the masters of our lives?
Never completely, for we remain part of nature, subject (as Napoleon
was to say) to «the nature of things». And since the emotions are our motive
force, and reason can be only a light and not a fire, «an emotion can neither
be hindered nor removed save by a contrary and stronger emotion». 137
Hence society rightly seeks to moderate our passions by appealing to our love
of praise and rewards, our fear of blame and punishment. 138
And society rightly labors to instill in us a sense of right and wrong as another
check to passion. Conscience, of course, is a social product, not an innate endowment
or divine gift. 139
But to use the imaginary rewards and punishments of a life after
death as stimulants to morality is an encouragement to superstition and quite
unworthy of a mature society. Virtue should be – and is – its own reward, if
we define it, like men, as ability, intelligence, and strength, and not, like
cowards, as obedience, humility, and fear. Spinoza resented the Christian view
of life as a vale of tears, and of death as a door to heaven or hell; this, he
felt, casts a pall over human affairs, clouding with the notion of sin the legitimate
aspirations and enjoyments of men. To be daily thinking of death is an insult
to life. «A free man thinks of nothing less than of death, and his wisdom is
a meditation not on death but on life». 140
Nevertheless Spinoza seems at times to flutter around the idea
of immortality. His theory of mind and body as two aspects of the same reality
committed him in logic to view their death as simultaneous. He affirms this quite
clearly: «The present existence of the mind, and its power of imagining, are
taken away as soon as the mind ceases to affirm the present existence of the
body»; 141 and again: «The mind
can imagine nothing, nor can it recollect anything that is past, except while
the body exists. 142 In Book
V some hazy distinctions appear. «If we look at the common opinion of men, we
shall see that they are indeed conscious of the eternity of their minds, but
they confound this with duration, and attribute it to imagination and memory,
which they believe remain after death». 143
Insofar as the mind is a series of temporal ideas, memories, and imaginations
connected with a particular body, it ceases to exist when that body dies; this
is the mortal duration of the mind. But insofar as the human mind conceives things
in their eternal relationships as part of the universal and unchanging system
of natural law, it sees things as in God; it becomes to that extent part of the
divine eternal mind, and is eternal.
Things are conceived as actual in two ways by us, either insofar
as we conceive them to exist with relation to certain time and space, or insofar
as we conceive them to be contained in God [the eternal order and laws], and
to follow from the necessity of the divine nature [those laws]. But those things
which are conceived in this second manner as true or real we conceive under a
certain species of eternity [sub quadam specie aeternitatis – in their
eternal aspect], and their ideas involve the eternal and infinite essence of
When we see things in that timeless way we see them as God sees
them; our minds to that extent become part of the divine mind, and share eternity.
We attribute to the human mind no duration which can be defined
by time. But as there is nevertheless something else which is conceived under
a certain eternal necessity through the essence of God, this something will be
necessarily the eternal part which appertains to the mind 145
... We are certain that the mind is eternal insofar as it conceives things under
the species of eternity. 146
Let us suppose that in contemplating the majestic sequence of apparent
cause and effect according to apparently everlasting laws, Spinoza felt that
through «divine philosophy» he had escaped, like some sinless Buddha, from the
chain of time, and had shared in the viewpoint and tranquility of an eternal
Despite this seeming reach for the moon, Spinoza devoted most of
his concluding Book V, «Of Human Liberty», to formulating a natural ethic, a
fount and system of morals independent of survival after death, though fondly
using religious terms. One sentence reveals his starting point: «An emotion which
is a passion ceases to be a passion as soon as we form a clear and distinct idea
of it» 147 – that is, an emotion
aroused in us by external events can be reduced from passion to controlled feeling
by letting our knowledge play upon it until its cause and nature become clear,
and its result in action can, through remembered experience, be foreseen. One
method of clearing up an emotional state is to see the events that begot it as
part of a chain of natural causes and necessary effects. «Insofar as the mind
understands all things as necessary, it has more power over the emotions, and
is less passive to them» 148
– less given to passions. No one becomes passionate at what he considers natural
and necessary. Anger at an insult can be cooled by viewing the offender as the
product of circumstances outreaching his control; grief over the passing of aged
parents can be moderated by realizing the naturalness of death. «The endeavor
to understand is the first and only basis of virtue», 149
in Spinoza’s sense of this word, for it reduces our subjection to external factors,
and increases our power to control and preserve ourselves. Knowledge is power;
but the best and most useful form of that power is power over ourselves.
So Spinoza works his Euclidean way to the life of reason. Recalling
his three kinds of knowledge, he describes merely sensory knowledge as leaving
us too open to domination by external influences; rational knowledge (reached
by reasoning) as gradually freeing us from bondage to the passions by letting
us see the impersonal and determined causes of events; and intuitive knowledge
– direct awareness of the cosmic order – as making us feel ourselves part of
that order and «one with God». «We should expect and bear both faces of fortune
with an equal mind; for all things follow by the eternal decree of God in the
same way as it follows from the essence of a triangle that its three angles will
make two right angles». 150 This
escape from thoughtless passion is the only true freedom; 151
and he who achieves it, as the Stoics used to say, can be free in almost any
condition in any state. The greatest gift that knowledge can give us is to see
ourselves as reason sees us.
On this naturalistic basis Spinoza arrives at some ethical conclusions
surprisingly like Christ’s:
He who rightly knows that all things follow from the necessity
of divine nature, and come to pass according to eternal, natural, and regular
laws, will find nothing at all that is worthy of hatred, laughter, or contempt,
nor will he deplore anyone; but as far as human virtue can go, he will endeavor
to act well ... and rejoice. 152
... Those who cavil at men, and prefer rather to reprobate vices than to
inculcate virtues ..., are a nuisance both to themselves and to others. 153
... A strong man hates no one, is enraged with no one, envies no one, is
indignant with no one, and is in no wise proud. 154
... He who lives under the guidance of reason endeavors as much as possible
to repay hatred, rage, contempt, etc., with love and nobleness. ... He who wishes
to avenge injuries by reciprocal hatred will live in misery. Hatred is increased
by reciprocated hatred, and, on the contrary, can be demolished by love. 155
... Men under the guidance of reason ... desire nothing for themselves
which they do not also desire for the rest of mankind. 156
Does this control of emotion by reason contradict, as some 157
have thought, Spinoza’s admission that only an emotion can overcome an emotion?
It would unless the following of reason could itself be raised to an emotional
level and warmth. «A true knowledge of good and evil cannot restrain any emotion
insofar as the knowledge is true, but only insofar as it is considered as an
emotion». 158 This need, and
perhaps a desire to kindle reason with phrases hallowed by piety and time, led
Spinoza to the final and culminating thought of his work – that the life of reason
must be inspired and ennobled by the «intellectual love of God». Since God, in
Spinoza, is the basic reality and invariable law of the cosmos itself, this amor
intellectualis dei is not the abject propitiation of some nebular sultan,
but the wise and willing adjustment of our ideas and conduct to the nature of
things and the order of the world. Reverence for the will of God and an understanding
acceptance of the laws of nature are one and the same thing. Just as the mathematician
finds a certain awe and ecstasy in viewing the world as subject to mathematical
regularities, so the philosopher may take the deepest pleasure in contemplating
the grandeur of a universe moving imperturbably in the rhythm of universal law.
Since «love is pleasure accompanied by the idea of an external cause», 159
the pleasure we derive from viewing – and adapting ourselves to – the cosmic
order rises to the emotion of love toward the God who is the order and life of
the whole. Then «love toward a being eternal and infinite fills the mind completely
with joy». 160 This contemplation
of the world as a necessary result of its own nature – of the nature of God –
is the ultimate source of content in the mind of the sage; it brings him the
peace of understanding, of limitations recognized, of truth accepted and loved.
«The highest good (summum bonum) of the mind is the knowledge of God,
and the highest virtue of the mind is to know God». 161
Thus Spinoza mated the mathematician
and the mystic in his soul. He still refused to see in his God a spirit capable
of returning man’s love, or of rewarding litanies with miracles; but he applied
to his deity the tender terms that for thousands of years had inspired and comforted
the simplest devotees and the profoundest mystics of Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity,
and Islam. Cold in the solitude of his philosophic empyrean, longing to find
something in the universe to receive his adoration and his confidence, the gentle
heretic who had viewed the cosmos as a geometrical diagram ended by seeing and
losing all things in God, by becoming, to the confusion of posterity, the God-intoxicated
«atheist». The compulsion to find meaning in the universe made the exile from
every faith conclude his seeking with the vision of an omnipresent divinity,
and an exalting sense that, if only for a moment, he had touched eternity.
VIII. The state
Perhaps, when Spinoza had finished the Ethics, he felt that, like
most Christian saints, he had formulated a philosophy for the use and salvation
of the individual rather than for the guidance of citizens in a state. So, toward
1675, he set himself to consider man as a «political animal», and to apply reason
to the problems of society. He began his fragmentary Tractatus politicus
with the same resolve that he had made in analyzing the passions – to be as objective
as a geometer or a physicist:
That I might investigate the subject matter of this science
with the same freedom of spirit as we generally use in mathematics, I have labored
carefully not to mock, lament, or execrate human actions, but to understand them;
and to this end I have looked upon passions, such as love, hatred, anger, envy,
ambition, pity, and the other perturbations of the mind, not in the light of
vices of human nature, but as properties just as pertinent to it as are heat,
cold, storm, thunder, and the like to the nature of the atmosphere. 162
Since human nature is the material of politics, Spinoza felt that
a study of the state should begin by considering the basic character of man.
We might understand this better if we could imagine man before social organization
modified his conduct by force, morality, and law; and if we would remember that
underneath his general and reluctant submission to these socializing influences
he is still agitated by the lawless impulses that in the «state of nature» were
restrained only by fear of hostile power. Spinoza follows Hobbes and many others
in supposing that man once existed in such a condition, and his picture of this
hypothetical savage is almost as dark as in The Leviathan. In that Garden of
Evil the might of the individual was the only right; nothing was a crime, because
there was no law; and nothing was just or unjust, right or wrong, because there
was no moral code. Consequently «the law and ordinance of nature ... forbids
nothing ... and is not opposed to strife, hatred, anger, treachery, or in general
anything that appetite suggests». 163
By «natural right», then – i.e., by the operations of «nature» as distinct from
the rules and laws of society – every man is entitled to whatever he is strong
enough to get and to hold; and this is still assumed between species and between
states; 164 hence man has a «natural
right» to use animals for his service or his food. 165
Spinoza moderates this savage picture by suggesting that man, even
in his first appearance on the earth, may have been already living in social
groups. «Since fear of solitude exists in all men – because no one in solitude
is strong enough to defend himself and procure the necessaries of life – it follows
that men by nature tend towards social organization». 166
Men, then, have social as well as individualistic instincts, and society and
the state have some roots in the nature of man. However and whenever it came
about, men and families united in groups, and the «natural right», or might of
the individual was now limited by the right or might of the community. Doubtless
men accepted these restrictions reluctantly, but they accepted them when they
learned that social organization was their most powerful tool for individual
survival and development. So the definition of virtue as any quality that makes
for survival – as «the endeavor to preserve oneself» 167
– has to be enlarged to include any quality that makes for the survival of the
group. Social organization, the state despite its restraints, civilization despite
its artifices – these are the greatest inventions that man has made for his preservation
Therefore Spinoza anticipates Voltaire’s answer to Rousseau:
Let satirists laugh to their hearts’ content at human affairs,
let theologians revile them, let the melancholy praise as much as they can the
rude and barbarous isolated life, let them despise men and admire the brutes;
despite all this, men will find that they can prepare with mutual aid far more
easily what they need. ... A man who is guided by reason is freer in a state
where he lives according to common law than in solitude where he is subject to
no law. 168
And Spinoza rejects also the other end of the law-less dream –
the utopia of the philosophical anarchist:
Reason, can, indeed, do much to restrain and moderate the passions,
but we saw ... that the road which reason herself points out is very steep; so
that such as persuade themselves that the multitude ... can ever be induced to
live according to the bare dictates of reason must be dreaming of the poetic
golden age, or of some stage play. 169
The purpose and function of the state should be to enable its members
to live the life of reason.
The last end of the state is not to dominate men, nor to restrain
them by fear; rather it is to set free each man from fear, that he may live and
act with full security and without injury to himself or his neighbor. The end
of the state ... is not to make rational beings into brute beasts and machines
[as in war]; it is to enable their bodies and their minds to function safely.
It is to lead men to live by, and to exercise, a true reason. ... The end of
the state is really liberty. 170
Consequently Spinoza renews his plea for freedom of speech, or
at least of thought. But yielding, like Hobbes, to fear of theological fanaticism
and strife, he proposes not merely to subject the church to state control, but
to have the state determine what religious doctrines shall be taught to the people.
Quandoque dormitat Homerus.
He proceeds to discuss the traditional forms of government. As
became a Dutch patriot resenting the invasion of Holland by Louis XIV, he had
no admiration for monarchy, and he sharply counters Hobbes’s absolutism:
Experience is supposed to teach that it makes for peace and
concord when all authority is conferred upon one man. For no political order
has stood so long without notable change as that of the Turks, while none have
been so short-lived, nay, so vexed by seditions, as popular or democratic states.
But if slavery, barbarism, and desolation are to be called peace, then peace
is the worst misfortune that can befall a state. ... Slavery, not peace, comes
from the giving of all power to one man. For peace consists not in the absence
of war, but in a union and harmony of men’s souls. 171
Aristocracy, as «government by the best», would be fine if the
best were not subject to class spirit, violent faction, and individual or family
greed. «If patricians ... were free from all passion, and guided by mere zeal
for the public welfare ..., no dominion could be compared with aristocracy. But
experience itself teaches us only too well that things pass in quite a contrary
And so Spinoza, in his dying days, began to outline his hopes for
democracy. He who had loved the mob-murdered de Witt had no delusions about the
multitude. «Those who have had experience of how changeful the temper of the
people is, are almost in despair. For the populace is governed not by reason
but by emotion; it is headlong in everything, and easily corrupted by avarice
and luxury». 173 Yet «I believe
democracy to be of all forms of government the most natural, and the most consonant
with individual liberty. In it no one transfers his natural right so absolutely
that he has no further voice in affairs; he only hands it over to the majority». 174
Spinoza proposed to admit to the suffrage all males except minors, criminals,
and slaves. He excluded women because he judged them by their nature and their
burdens to be less fit than men for deliberation and government. 175
He thought that ruling officials would be encouraged to good behavior and peaceful
policies if «the militia should be composed of the citizens only, and none of
them be exempted; for an armed man is more independent than a man unarmed». 176
The care of the poor, he felt, was an obligation incumbent on the society as
a whole. 177 And there should
be but a single tax:
The fields, and the whole soil, and, if it can be managed,
the houses, should be public property, that is, the property of him who holds
the right of the commonwealth; and let him lease them at a yearly rent to the
citizens. ... With this exception, let them all be free and exempt from every
kind of taxation in time of peace. 178
Then, just as he was entering upon
the most precious part of his treatise, death took the pen from his hand.
IX. The chain of influence
In the great chain of ideas that binds the history of philosophy
into one noble groping of baffled human thought, we can see Spinoza’s system
forming in twenty centuries behind him, and sharing in shaping the modern world.
First, of course, he was a Jew. Excommunicated though he was, he could not shed
that intensive heritage, nor forget his years of poring over the Old Testament
and the Talmud and the Jewish philosophers. Recall again the heresies that must
have startled his attention in Ibn Ezra, Maimonides, Hasdai Crescas, Levi ben
Gerson, and Uriel Acosta. His training in the Talmud must have helped to sharpen
that logical sense which made the Ethics a classic temple of reason. «Some begin»
their philosophy «from created things», he said, «and some from the human mind.
I begin from God». 179 That was
the Jewish way.
From the philosophers traditionally most admired he took little
– though in his distinction between the world of passing things and the divine
world of eternal laws we may find another form of Plato’s division between individual
entities and their archetypes in the mind of God. Spinoza’s analysis of the virtues
has been traced to Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. 180
But «the authority of Plato, Aristotle, and Socrates», he told a friend, «has
not much weight with me». 181
Like Bacon and Hobbes, he preferred Democritus, Epicurus, and Lucretius. His
ethical ideal may echo the Stoics; we hear in it some tones of Marcus Aurelius;
but it was fully consistent with Epicurus.
He owed more to the Scholastic philosophers
than he realized, for they came to him through the medium of Descartes. They
too, like Thomas Aquinas in the great Summa, had attempted a geometrical exposition
of philosophy. They gave him such terms as substantia, natura naturans,
attributum, essentia, summum bonum, and many more. Their
identification of existence and essence in God became his identification of existence
and essence in substance. He extended to man their merger of intellect and will
Perhaps (as Bayle thought) Spinoza read Bruno. He accepted Giordano’s
distinction between natura naturans and natura naturata; he may
have taken term and idea from Bruno’s conato de conservarsi; 182
he may have found in the Italian the unity of body and mind, of matter and spirit,
of world and God, and the conception of the highest knowledge as that which sees
all things in God – though the German mystics must have spread that view even
into commercial Amsterdam.
More immediately, Descartes inspired him with philosophical ideals,
and repelled him with theological platitudes. He was inspired by Descartes’ ambition
to make philosophy march with Euclid in form and clarity. He probably followed
Descartes in drawing up rules to guide his life and work. He adopted too readily
Descartes’ notion that an idea must be true if it is «clear and distinct». He
accepted and universalized the Cartesian view of the world as a mechanism of
cause and effect reaching from some primeval vortex right up to the pineal gland.
He acknowledged his indebtedness to Descartes’ analysis of the passions. 183
The Leviathan of Hobbes, in Latin translation, obviously evoked
much welcome in Spinoza’s thought. Here the conception of mechanism was worked
out without mercy or fear. The mind, which in Descartes was distinct from the
body and was endowed with freedom and immortality, became, in Hobbes and Spinoza,
subject to universal law, and capable of only an impersonal immortality or none
at all. Spinoza found in The Leviathan an acceptable analysis of sensation, perception,
memory, and idea, and an unsentimental analysis of human nature. From the common
starting point of a «state of nature» and a «social compact» the two thinkers
came to contrary conclusions: Hobbes, from his royalist circles, to monarchy;
Spinoza, from his Dutch patriotism, to democracy. Perhaps it was through Hobbes
that the gentle Jew was led to Machiavelli; he refers to him as «that most acute
Florentine», and again as «that most ingenious ..., foreseeing man». But he escaped
the confusion of right with might, recognizing that this is forgivable only 184
among individuals in the «state of nature», and among states before the establishment
of effective international law.
All these influences were tempered and molded by Spinoza into a
structure of thought awe-inspiring in its apparent logic, harmony, and unity.
There were cracks in the temple, as friends and enemies pointed out: Oldenburg
ably criticized the opening axioms and propositions of the Ethics, 185
and Überweg subjected them to a Germanically meticulous analysis. 186
The logic was brilliant, but perilously deductive; though based upon personal
experience, it was an artistry of thought resting upon internal consistency rather
than objective fact. Spinoza’s trust in his reasoning (though what other guide
could he have?) was his sole immodesty. He expressed his confidence that man
can understand God, or essential reality and universal law; he repeatedly avowed
his conviction that he had proved his doctrines beyond all question or obscurity;
and sometimes he spoke with an assurance unbecoming in a spray of foam analyzing
the sea. What if all logic is an intellectual convenience, a heuristic tool of
the seeking mind, rather than the structure of the world? So the inescapable
logic of determinism reduces consciousness (as Huxley confessed) to an epiphenomenon
– an apparently superfluous appendage of psychophysical processes which, by the
mechanics of cause and effect, would go on just as well without it; and yet nothing
seems more real, nothing more impressive, than consciousness. After logic has
had its say, the mystery, tam grande secretum, remains.
These difficulties may have shared in the unpopularity of Spinoza’s
philosophy in the first century after his death; but resentment was more violently
directed against his critique of the Bible, prophecies, and miracles, and his
conception of God as lovable but impersonal and deaf. The Jews thought of their
son as a traitor to his people; the Christians cursed him as a very Satan among
philosophers, an Antichrist who sought to rob the world of all meaning, mercy,
and hope. Even the heretics condemned him. Bayle was repelled by Spinoza’s view
that all things and all men are modes of the one and only substance, cause, or
God; then, said Bayle, God is the real agent of all actions, the real cause of
all evil, all crimes and wars; and when a Turk slays a Hungarian it is God slaying
Himself; this, Bayle protested (forgetting the subjectivity of evil) was a «most
absurd and monstrous hypothesis». 187
Leibniz was for a decade (1676-86) strongly influenced by Spinoza. The doctrine
of monads as centers of psychic force may owe something to omnia quodammmodo
animata. At one time Leibniz declared that only one feature of Spinoza’s
philosophy offended him – the rejection of final causes, or providential design,
in the cosmic process. 188 When
the outcry against Spinoza’s «atheism» became universal, Leibniz joined in it
as part of his own conatus sese preservandi.
Spinoza had a modest, almost a concealed, share in generating the
French Enlightenment. The leaders of that combustion used Spinoza’s Biblical
criticism as a weapon in their war against the Church, and they admired his determinism,
his naturalistic ethic, his rejection of design in nature. But they were baffled
by the religious terminology and apparent mysticism of the Ethics. We can imagine
the reaction of Voltaire or Diderot, of Helvetius or d’Holbach, to such statements
as «The mental intellectual love towards God is the very love of God with which
God loves himself». 189
The German spirit was more responsive to this side of Spinoza’s
thought. According to a conversation (1780) reported by Friedrich Jacobi, Lessing
not only confessed that he had been a Spinozist through all his mature life,
but affirmed that «there is no other philosophy than Spinoza’s». 190
It was precisely the pantheistic identification of nature and God that thrilled
the Germany of the romantic movement after the Aufklärung under Frederick
the Great had run its course. Jacobi, champion of the new Gefühlsphilosophie,
was among the first defenders of Spinoza (1785); it was another German romantic,
Novalis, who called Spinoza «der Gottbetrunkene Mensch»; Herder thought
that he had found in the Ethics the reconciliation of religion and philosophy;
and Schleiermacher, the liberal theologian, wrote of «the holy and excommunicated
Spinoza». 191 The young Goethe
was «converted» (he tells us) at his first reading of the Ethics; henceforth
Spinozism pervaded his (nonsexual) poetry and prose; it was partly by breathing
the calm air of the Ethics that he grew out of the wild romanticism of Götz
von Berlichingen and Die Leben des Jungen Werthers to the Olympian
poise of his later life. Kant interrupted this stream of influence for a while;
but Hegel professed that «to be a philosopher one must first be a Spinozist»;
and he rephrased Spinoza’s God as «Absolute Reason». Probably something of Spinoza’s
conatus sese preservandi entered into Schopenhauer’s «will to live» and
Nietzsche’s «will to power».
England for a century knew Spinoza chiefly through hearsay, and
denounced him as a distant and terrible ogre. Stillingfleet (1677) referred to
him vaguely as «a late author [who] I hear is mightily in vogue among many who
cry up anything on the atheistical side». A Scottish professor, George Sinclair
(1685), wrote of «a monstrous rabble of men who, following the Hobbesian and
Spinosian principle, slight religion and undervalue the Scripture». Sir John
Evelyn (1690?) spoke of the Tractatus theologico-politicus as «that infamous
book», a «wretched obstacle to the searchers of holy truth». Berkeley (1732),
while ranking Spinoza among «weak and wicked writers», thought him «the great
leader of our modern infidels». 192
As late as 1739 the agnostic Hume shuddered cautiously at the «hideous hypothesis»
of «that famous atheist», the «universally infamous Spinoza». 193
Not till the romantic movement at the turn of the eighteenth into the nineteenth
century did Spinoza really reach the English mind. Then he, more than any other
philosopher, inspired the youthful metaphysics of Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley
and Byron. Shelley quoted the Tractatus theologico-politicus in the original
notes to Queen Mab, and began a translation of it, for which Byron pledged a
preface; a fragment of this version came into the hands of an English critic,
who, taking it for a work by Shelley himself, called it a «schoolboy speculation
... too crude for publication entire». George Eliot translated the Ethics with
virile resolution, and James Froude 194
and Matthew Arnold 195 acknowledged
the influence of Spinoza on their mental development. Of all the intellectual
products of man, religion and philosophy seem to endure the longest. Pericles
is famous because he lived in the days of Socrates.
We love Spinoza especially among the
philosophers because he was also a saint, because he lived, as well as wrote,
philosophy. The virtues praised by the great religions were honored and embodied
in the outcast who could find a home in none of the religions, since none would
let him conceive God in terms that science could accept. Looking back upon that
dedicated life and concentrated thought, we feel in them an element of nobility
that encourages us to think well of mankind. Let us admit half of the terrible
picture that Swift drew of humanity; let us agree that in every generation of
man’s history, and almost everywhere, we find superstition, hypocrisy, corruption,
cruelty, crime, and war: in the balance against them we place the long roster
of poets, composers, artists, scientists, philosophers, and saints. That same
species upon which poor Swift revenged the frustrations of his flesh wrote the
plays of Shakespeare, the music of Bach and Handel, the odes of Keats, the Republic
of Plato, the Principia of Newton, and the Ethics of Spinoza; it built the Parthenon
and painted the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel; it conceived and cherished, even
if it crucified, Christ. Man did all this; let him never despair.
Kayser, Spinoza, 41.
Maimonides, Guide to the Perplexed, I, Introd.; II, Props.
III, Props. 22, 30, etc.
Ibid., II, pp. 17f.
II, Prop. 2, Introd.; Zeitlin, Maimonides, 151.
Later van den Ende served the Dutch as a secret
agent in Paris; he was captured by the French government, and was
hanged (1676). [Martin, H., Louis XIV, I, 403.]
Jewish Encyclopedia, VIII, 29.
Lucas, Life of Spinoza, in Clark, Great Short Biographies, 718.
Ibid., 719, 720.
Graetz, History of the Jews, V, 93.
Graetz, V, 94.
Wolf, A., in Spinoza, Correspondence, 49.
Spinoza, Correspondence, 146, Letter xix.
Spinoza, Ethics, Part IV, Prop. 45, Scholium II.
Waxman, History of Jewish Literature, II, 263.
Bayle, Selections, 305.
Spinoza, On the Improvement of the Intellect, Nos. 1-10.
Ibid., Nos. 13 and 41.
Roth, Leon, Spinoza, p. 25.
Brunschvicg, L., Spinoza et ses contemporains, p. 138.
Spinoza, Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, Pref.
Ibid., Ch. ix.
Ch. ii, p. 33.
Ch. i, p. 24.
Ch. vi, p. 92.
Ch. xiv, p. 186.
Ibid., p. 189.
Ch. vii, p. 118.
Ch. xix, p. 245.
Preface, p. 5.
Ibid., p. 8.
In Kayser, 202.
Correspondence, 348 (Letter LXXV).
Cf. the Sophia of the Book of Wisdom, and the Logos of the Fourth Gospel.
Tractatus, Ch. i, p. 18.
Meyer, R. W., Leibniz and the 17th Century Revolution, 47.
Bayle, Selections, 305-6.
Lucas, in Clark, 724. Some scholars
question the acquaintance of Spinoza with Jan de Witt. Cf. Clark, The Seventeenth Century, 223n.
Putnam, Censorship of the Church of Rome, II, 255.
Correspondence, Letter XLVIII.
Kayser, 262-65; Enc. Brit., XXI, 234b.
Correspondence, Letter I.
Bayle, Selections, 306.
Spinoza, Ethics, iv, 50, scholium.
Correspondence, Letter LXV.
Bayle, Selections, 308.
Ethics, i, 8; Scholium II.
Ibid., i; Definition IV.
ii, 13, scholium.
On the Improvement of the Intellect, Nos. 99-101.
Ethics, i, 15.
Language usually makes Nature feminine
and God masculine; by identifying them Spinoza does more justice to the female
or productive principle in reality. Perhaps the masculinization of God was part
of the patriarchal subordination of woman, who is, after all, the main stream of human reality.
Tractatus, p. 65.
Ethics, v, 17.
Ibid., i, 8; Scholium II.
Cf. Wolfson, H, Philosophy of Spinoza, II, 158.
Letter XXXII; Ethics, ii, 11, corollary.
Ethics, i, 17, note.
Ibid., i, 31.
Ethics, i, 32, Corollary 1.
Tractatus, pp. 44, 92.
Ethics, i, appendix.
Tractatus, p. 202.
Ethics, i, appendix.
Including Wolfson, H., II, 348.
Ethics, v, 24.
ii, 2, scholium.
ii, 48, scholium; Letter II.
Ethics, ii, 49.
iii, 2, scholium
ii, 49, corollary.
iii, Definition I.
Ethics, i, appendix.
iv, Definition VIII.
v, 20, scholium.
iv, 20, 22, corollary.
iv, 18, scholium.
iii, 9, scholium.
iv, Definition I.
iii, 11, scholium; iv, 59.
iii, appendix. Nietzsche echoes
these definitions. «What is good? All that enhances the feeling of power... What
is happiness? The feeling that power is increasing». [Nietzsche, Antichrist, No. 2.]
Ethics, iv, 45, scholium; iv, 50, 53-54.
iv, 42, 45, Scholium II.
iii, Definition III.
v, 3, corollary.
Müller, Johannes, Physiologie des Menschen (1840), II, 543-48.
Ethics, iii, I, corollary.
iii, 59, scholium.
iv, 51, scholium; 58, scholium.
iii, 59; Definition XXVII.
iii, 12, scholium.
v, 34, scholium.
v, 29, scholium.
v, 31, scholium.
iv, 50, scholium.
iv, appendix, xiii.
iv, 48, scholium.
E.g., Bidney, Psychology and Ethics of Spinoza, 246.
Ethics, iv, 14.
Ibid., iii, appendix, Definition vi.
Improvement of the intellect, Introd.
Ethics, iv, 28.
Tractatus Politicus, i, 4.
Ibid., ii, 8.
Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, Ch. xvi, p. 201;Tractatus Politicus, ii, 4.
Ethics, iv, 37, Scholium I.
Tractatus Politicus, vi, I.
Ethics, iv, 20, 22.
Ibid., 35, scholium; 73.
Tractatus Politicus, i, 5.
Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, Ch. xx, p. 259.
Tractatus Politicus, vi, 4.
Ibid., xi, 2.
Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, Ch. xxvii.
Tract. Pol., xi, 4.
Ibid., vii, 17.
Ethics, iv, appendix, 17.
Tract. Pol., vi, 12.
In Bevan and Singer, Legacy of Israel, 451.
Wolfson, H., Spinoza, II, 233f.
Letter to Hugo Boxel, in Correspondence, 290.
Jewish Encyclopedia, XI, 517.
Ethics, iii, preface; v, preface.
Tract. Pol., x, i; v, 7.
Oldenburg to Spinoza, in Correspondence, Letter III.
Überweg, History of Philosophy, II, 64-74.
Bayle, article «Spinoza».
Jewish Enc., XI, 519.
Ethics, v, 36.
Garland, Lessing, 174.
Brandes, G., Main Currents of 19th Century Literature, I, 170; III, 257; IV, 75.
Robertson, Free thought, II, 168.
Hume, Treatise on Human Nature, Book I, Part iv, No. 5; Vol. I, pp. 228-29.
Froude, Short Studies in Great Subjects, I, 219-67.
Arnold, Matthew, «Spinoza», in Essays in Criticism.