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Pervasive Divinity: Spinoza's Substance


TABLE OF CONTENTS [click to go to chapters]
I. General Notions
II. Life and Works
III. Metaphysics
IV. Man and Ethics
V. Politics
VI. Conclusion


I. General Notions

Of the two problems left unsolved by Descartes (the determination of the relationship God and the world and between the soul and the body), Spinoza answers the first by affirming the unity of substance and reducing the world to a modification of this single substance. Neo-Platonic thought and the definition of substance given by Descartes (that which so exists as to need no other for its existence) justify, as far as Spinoza is concerned, the abolition of all duality, and the affirmation of the oneness of substance. This accomplished, he logically and inexorably develops all the pantheistic consequences implicit in the oneness of substance.

The second problem left by Descartes (the relationship between the soul -- "res cogitans" -- and the body -- "res extensa") remains open and unsolved in Spinoza. He reduces these two Cartesian substances to two attributes; and to explain their mutual dependence he is obliged to affirm dogmatically the existence of the psycho-physical law, in virtue of which what happens in the "attribute" of the soul automatically finds its correlative in the "attribute" of the body.

II. Life and Works

Baruch (or, as it was often rendered in its Latin equivalent, Benedictus) Spinoza (picture) was born in Amsterdam in 1632 of Jewish parents who had emigrated to Holland from the Iberian Peninsula. He received his early education in the Jewish academy of Amsterdam, where he acquired a knowledge of Scripture and of medieval Hebrew philosophy. The rationalism of his thinking while he was a student for the rabbinate resulted in his being invited to retract certain heterodox views. But in 1656, when he refused to make the retraction, he was expelled and excommunicated from the Synagogue of Amsterdam, and exiled from the city by the Protestant authority.

After a brief period of wandering, he settled down at The Hague, where he lived quietly, absorbed in the formulation of his system of thought. He provided for his limited material needs by preparing optical lenses. A small group of friends also gave him aid. During this time he refused a professorship at Heidelberg rather than compromise his freedom of thought. Wasted away by tuberculosis, he died at The Hague on February 21, 1677. His worldly possessions were barely sufficient to pay the debts contracted during his illness.

His principal works are: Tractatus brevis de Deo, De homine et ejus Felicitate (Short Treatise Concerning God, Man and His Happiness); Tractatus Theologico-Politicus (Theological-Political Treatise), which is unfinished; and Ethica More Geometrico Demonstrata (Ethics Demonstrated Through the Method of Geometry), his greatest work, which was published posthumously.

III. Metaphysics

Spinoza begins with the Cartesian concept of substance: that which exists by itself and which is conceived by itself -- which means, that thing whose concept has no need of the concept of any other thing in order to be formed. Spinoza logically and rationally develops the latent pantheism of this Cartesian teaching to its extreme consequences.

For Spinoza, substance is the unconditioned, the absolute, God. It is unique and embraces all reality (this is pure pantheism); it is eternal, outside the limits of time, infinite, endowed with infinite attributes or perfections.

Of this infinity of attributes we know only two, thought and extension. Thus Spinoza abolished the Cartesian duality of substance ("res extensa" and "res cogitans"), reducing them to two perfections or attributes of the single substance.

Substance and its attributes constitute the "Natura naturans," God. From God conceived of as "Natura naturans" necessarily proceed, as the unfolding of God's very nature, man and the world of things, which Spinoza calls modes or modifications of the substance of God (Natura naturata"). The modes are determinations, temporal and finite aspects, of the divine attributes, thought and extension. They can be likened to the whitecaps on the ocean; they appear for a moment, only to be reabsorbed by the same waters that have produced them. We are thus in the realm of pure monistic-immanentist pantheism, whose terms are represented by substance, attributes and modes.

The supreme law which governs Spinoza's reality is necessity: ironbound laws bind God to His attributes, and also determine these attributes in their modes of realization. God is free in the sense that nothing can impede the necessary and spontaneous unfolding of His nature, and not in the sense that He can choose different means of self-determination. Causality in God is a natural and necessary process which excludes all purpose or finalism.

Another fundamental law of Spinoza's metaphysics is that of psycho-physical parallelism, which regulates the world of attributes, both in the divine substance and in its derived modes. The attributes of thought and extension are irreducible, according to the Cartesian concept, and any transition from one to the other is impossible.

Still, the series of phenomena manifesting themselves in thought coincides perfectly with the series of phenomena of extension. In other words, the order of ideas coincides with the order of bodies. This coincidence is guaranteed by the unity of substance of which such phenomena are the appearances or manifestations. Granted the irreducibility of thought to extension, no interaction between soul and body is possible; but granted psycho-physical coincidence or agreement, every manner of being and of operation of thought finds its equivalent in the being and operation of extension. Thus on the one hand there is the idea of a circle and on the other hand, corresponding to it, the actual existing circle.

In virtue of this psycho-parallelism and of the irreducibility of thought to extension, truth for Spinoza does not consist in the agreement of the mind with the thing, but in the correspondence of the mind of the knowing subject with the mind of the known subject.

Baruch Spinoza
IV. Man and Ethics

In a pantheistic metaphysics such as that of Spinoza, in which there is a single substance and all things are but finite and temporal modifications of this substance, there is no place for the traditional concept of man as a separate substance existing in himself and composed of a rational soul and a material body. Man, for Spinoza, is a derived mode of the attributes of God; the spirit is a mode of the attribute of thought, and the body a mode of the attribute of extension. Granted the principle of the mutual independence of thought and extension, it would be impossible to have any action of the spirit on the body.

Nor is there place in the metaphysics of Spinoza for an ethics in which the end of man is attained through human actions proceeding from free will. Free will is denied by Spinoza as impossible. Acts of the will can be reduced to cognitive acts, because by virtue of the psycho-physical law every act of knowledge has its corresponding act in the practical sphere.

Even though Spinoza denies the existence of the soul and the freedom of man, he recognizes various psychical activities in both the rational and the physical order. He envisions three stages of knowledge: As a further application of his psycho-physical law, he believes that there is complete parallelism between these three stages of knowledge, their three practical consequences, and the three degrees of morality corresponding to them. He explains this as follows:

• 1. Sensible cognition is a subjective, inadequate and imperfect method of knowledge. It apprehends the world in the multiplicity of individual beings and not in relation to the eternal, to God. In this stage, man considers all beings as absolutes, contending with each other and opposing him. The practical aspect of this grade of knowledge is passion, for man is here in a state of passivity in his relation to things. Errors appear when man believes that he can make things different from what they actually are, that he can act upon them. The moral condition corresponding to this stage is slavery, for man lives in actual dependence as regards the external world.

• 2. General rational knowledge embraces things in their indissoluble bond which, at the summit of the chain of causality, connects them with God. Things are known "sub specie aeternitatis." This is the stage of science. In its practical aspect, such knowledge frees us from passion. Man is in a state of contemplation of the impassible and imperturbable order of the universe. The moral attitude here is Stoicism.

• 3. Intuition is the knowledge of the finite essences in their origin through the consideration of the necessary and immutable order of the infinite essence of God. On this level, the diversity of beings is known in the unity of the divine substance, and man, while he is still limited by time, quantity and number, is freed from the consequences of the mutations and imperfections of nature. This mode of knowledge corresponds in the practical order to intellectual love of God, which is joy and enthusiasm deriving from the knowledge of a particular thing, together with the knowledge of its cause, God. For Spinoza, this love of man for God is returned by God, not as love between persons (for personality is excluded from his metaphysics), but inasmuch as man is identical, in a pantheistic sense, with God. This is a moral state of perfection in which the love of man for God is identical with the love of God for man, as it is merely love of God for Himself.

V. Politics

Spinoza treated the political problem and the religious problem in his Tractatus theologico-politicus.

The methods of government of state and Church, for Spinoza, are not conducive to the elaboration of a rational philosophy. Actions performed in view of the temporal and eternal punishments threatened by the state or by the Church depend on fear and hope, which for Spinoza are irrational passions. For Spinoza, too, the ultimate end of man is, as we realize, for him to know God through reason and to act in conformity with this knowledge. The state must aid man in this rational knowledge of God.

Spinoza holds that the state arose from a pact entered into by men, who at first lived in a condition of irrational nature and in perpetual war. Through this pact the members now composing the state renounced the use of force and violence in favor of authority or a sovereign who is the center of the state. The sovereign may use violence and force against the irrational instincts of his subjects. But this use of force is limited by rationality. Thus, if it should happen that the subjects are more rational than the sovereign, then by psycho-physical parallelism the state would fall, to give place to the rise of another state more rational than the first. Thus, according to Spinoza, has come about the passage from the natural state to the rational state, with a tendency to perfect rationality.

Benedict Spinoza
VI. Conclusion

Spinoza developed Cartesian Rationalism to its extreme consequences. He begins with the concept of substance, which, because it does not require another concept in order to be understood and to exist, is a clear concept and must be one. But he concludes with the most absolute pantheism.

Spinoza's system did not meet with good reception at first, perhaps because it was not understood. Idealism took it over because it found in it the principal lineaments for a metaphysics in the idealist sense.

Christopher Hitchens, in his book GOD IS NOT GREAT, has an excellent appraisal of Spinoza's place in philosophy and religion:

    [...] The Vatican, and the Calvinist authorities in Holland, heartily approved of this hysterical Jewish condemnation [refers to the Amsterdam synagogue's cherem, or damnation, or fatwa, concerning his work] and joined in the Europe-wide suppression of all Spinoza's work. Had the man not questioned the immortality of the soul, and called for the separation of church and state? Away with him! This derided heretic is now credited with the most original philosophical work ever done on the mind/body distinction, and his meditations on the human condition have provided more real consolation to thoughtful people than has any religion. Argument continues about whether Spinoza was an atheist: it now seems odd that we should have to argue as to whether pantheism is atheism or not. In its own expressed terms it is actually theistic, but Spinoza's definition of a god made manifest throughout the natural world comes very close to defining a religious god out of existence. And if there is a pervasive, preexisting cosmic deity, who is part of what he creates, then there is no space left for a god who intervenes in human affairs, let alone for a god who takes sides in vicious hamlet-wars between different tribesof Jews and Arabs. No text can have been written or inspired by him, for one thing, or can be the special property of one sect or tribe. [...] As with Newton and Galileo building on Democritus and Epicurus, we find Spinoza projected forward into the mind of Einstein, who answered a question from a rabbi by stating firmly that he believed only in "Spinoza's god," and not at all in a god "who concerns himself with the fates and actions of human beings".

    Spinoza's de-Judaized his name by changing it to Benedict, outlasted the Amsterdam anathema by twenty years, and died with extreme stoicism, always persisting in calm and rational conversation, as a consequence of the powdered glass that entered his lungs. His was a career devoted to the grinding and polishing of lenses for telescopes and medicine: an appropriate scientific activity for one who taught humans to see with greater acuity. "All our modern philosophers," wrote Heinrich Heine, "though often perhaps unconsciously, see through the glasses which Baruch Spinoza ground".

More on/by this clever fellow:
Spinoza's EthicsBooks by and about Spinoza
• Essay: On the Improvement of the Mind, by Spinoza
• Critical Essay: Spinoza, on Freedom, Ethics, and Politics, by Edward W. Younkins, Ph.D.
• More about Spinoza (and so much more, again, all over the 'Net... try and google it!)
Ethics by Spinoza
"On the Improvement of the Understanding" by Spinoza
"A Theologico-Political Treatise" by Spinoza
• A Dedication to Spinoza's Insights (Joseph B. Yesselman)
• Jonathan F. Bennett modern translation: Benedict Spinoza Texts
Studia Spinoziana
...and so on and so forth...

~ ~ ~ * * * ~ ~ ~

Peace is not an absence of war, it is a virtue, a state of mind, a disposition for benevolence, confidence, justice.
~Baruch Spinoza

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2 Utterly Enriching Reactions:

  • Thanks for this useful site. Spinoza seems to have believed in universal determinism and correspondence between consciousness and external events on a basis of causality, which I heartily agree with. However, I am not sure about the level of correspondence you describe between phenomena of extension and those of mind. That all mental events have their ultimate origin in phenomena is perhaps true, certainly seems true to me, but mythical events for example do not happen in the external world.
    A trivial coment I fear on this great man, whose stock can only rise as more people search for a modern form of religion.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 6 November 2007 at 15:07:00 GMT  

  • Thanks for the useful comment.
    Spinoza is one of my predilect thinkers, because of his innovative clarity of thinking in a down-to-earth "human" way.
    As for mythical events, you may be quite right... perhaps we should look into that part of reality that always merges into myth to create "mytho-logy".
    I hope to hear from you again, less anonymously!



    By Blogger daubmir, at 6 November 2007 at 19:28:00 GMT  

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