Baruch Spinoza

The Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677) ranks as a major thinker in the rationalist tradition, and his Ethics is a classic of Western philosophy. In his writings the crucial issues of metaphysics are exemplified more clearly than in any thinker since Plato.

Baruch, or Benedict, Spinoza was born on Nov. 24, 1632, in Amsterdam, where his family had settled after fleeing religious persecution in Portugal. His grandfather, Abraham, was the acknowledged leader of the Jewish community, and his father was a successful merchant and active in civic affairs. Michael Spinoza had three children, of whom the future philosopher was the only son. Spinoza's mother died when he was 6, and his father and one sister died by the time he was in his early 20s. Little is precisely known about his early education except that biblical and Talmudic texts were studied at the synagogue school and that the young Spinoza showed a facility for languages and eventually mastered Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, Hebrew, Latin, Greek, and German. In 1656 Spinoza was expelled by his congregation on charges of atheism. The edict asked for God to curse him and warned "that none may speak with him by word of mouth, nor by writing, nor show any favor to him, nor be under one roof with him." The philosopher responded with calm detachment and Christianized his name to Benedict.


Teacher and Lens Grinder

For the next 4 years Spinoza worked as a teacher in a private academy in Amsterdam run by Francis van den Ende, a former Jesuit, a doctor, and a political activist. His future interests in mathematics, physics, and politics supposedly stem from this period. From 1660 to 1663 he lived near Leiden among a free religious sect who called themselves Collegiants, and there he wrote Principles of Cartesianism, Short Treatise on God, Man and His Well-being, and the first book of Ethics.

Spinoza then moved to a suburb of The Hague, where he worked as a lens grinder. The Ethics was completed between 1670 and 1675. In 1670 he anonymously published his Theological-Political Treatise. In addition to these not very extensive writings, Spinoza conducted a large correspondence with various scientists and philosophers. Two of the most important were Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the British Royal Society, and Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz, who visited him in 1676. Three years previously Spinoza had declined a professorship at the University of Heidelberg in order to preserve his "freedom of philosophizing." The same intellectual integrity is seen also in a letter to a former student who accused Spinoza of intellectual presumption. While acknowledging that he had not written the best philosophy, he stated "I do know that I think the true one." Spinoza died in The Hague on Feb. 20, 1677, of consumption aggravated by inhaling dust while polishing lenses.


Origins of Rationalism

Rationalism is the name ascribed to a movement of thought that originated in the 17th century, and it is usually associated with the names of René Descartes, Leibniz, and Spinoza. The point of departure for all rationalists is subjectivity: a discovery of the philosophic implications of the person with a heightened sense of his uniqueness, his inviolability, and, above all, the power of knowledge. Descartes began his career as a highly original mathematical physicist. He generalized from his conception of the method of mathematical reasoning and believed that its proper application might guarantee local certitude in all areas of knowledge. The justification of his theory of reasoning led Descartes to several metaphysical commitments concerning the nature of reality.

In simplest terms, Descartes maintained that God was a supreme rationalist who had created an orderly universe that could be known by following the clear and distinct ideas of reason. In order to avoid the determinist and irreligious implications of such a conception of the universe, Descartes separated the mind as a free spiritual power from the physical world of determined mechanical relations. With this step a set of contradictory dualisms between subject and object, thought and extension, spirit and nature, God and world, and freedom and necessity were bequeathed to philosophy. The only work that Spinoza published under his own name was René Descartes' Principles of Philosophy (1663), and although the book was mainly expository, he could not forbear pointing out that Descartes's errors resulted from his inability to follow out the metaphysical implications of the logic of rationalism, especially with respect to the notion of substance.


Spinoza's Ethics

Spinoza's Ethics consists of five books. Oddly enough, the first is about God and the meaning of substance. The second book deals with the mind and knowledge. The third, fourth, and fifth books seem concerned with topics usually associated with ethical discussions: the passions, human enslavement to the emotions, and finally human freedom by virtue of intellect. Hence the central concern of the treatise is to move from a consideration of God to the realization of human freedom by an analysis of knowledge and passion and their conflict. Thus, for Spinoza, an ethic that studies the purpose of life is simultaneously a metaphysic, a theory of knowledge, and a psychology of human nature.

This is made clearer if one is familiar with an earlier and unpublished work, which he called On the Improvement of the Understanding. In a highly personal manner Spinoza began by saying that he resolved to seek true happiness and joy "after experience had taught me that all the usual surroundings of social life are vain and futile." Men everywhere esteem "riches, fame, and the pleasures of sense," but their pursuit seems to diminish rather than to enhance men's lives through frustration or overindulgence. The only remedy for the wretchedness of life is to improve or literally "cure" the mind. Man's attitude toward reality is equal to his sense of what is true and important. In a striking passage Spinoza wrote: "All these evils seem to have arisen from the fact that happiness or unhappiness is made wholly to depend on the quality of the object which we love. When a thing is not loved, no quarrels will arise concerning it—no sadness will be felt if it perishes—no envy if it is possessed by another—no fear, no hatred, in short no disturbances of the mind."


Nature of Reality

Because of man's "mixed perceptions" and confused knowledge, he desires perishable objects. To see reality clearly, man would need an exact knowledge of himself and of general nature in order to understand the extent to which they can be modified in the search for lasting happiness. This can be accomplished only by a more and more inclusive understanding of reality. Imagine, Spinoza wrote to a correspondent, a parasite living in the bloodstream being asked to describe its environment. From its perspective each drop of blood would seem to be separate. But, in truth, the action of each independent drop can be understood only as a determined part of a larger system. And this system, in turn, is a small part of a larger whole. The ultimate aim of philosophic knowledge is what Spinoza called a "synoptic intuition" of all reality as a deductive system. And this is why the Ethics begins with a consideration of God as substance. In Spinoza's view the task is not so much to explain God as to understand what it means to be a man.

The Ethics is subtitled More Geometrics, and its geometrical method, using axioms, postulates, and definitions to prove its propositions, relates to the content as well as to the technique of exposition. As a rationalist, Spinoza aimed at nothing less than total certitude, and the clearest way was to utilize deductive reasoning. But the content of the system is such that the truth of each proposition depends, in part, on its necessary connection with the others.

The first book of the Ethics draws out the implications of one of the central assumptions of the Western metaphysical tradition: that the intrinsic order of nature is an effect of an ordering mind, God. The startling conclusion that Spinoza draws is that the words nature, substance, and God are interchangeable. There can be only one such being, who is self-caused and of which everything else is an effect. An effect manifests only what it has received from its cause, and the causal principle can only communicate what it is. With these axioms Spinoza argued monism, or the oneness of reality, in proposition after proposition; and the effect that, if God is causa sui and first cause (and if there is no such cause, then there is no reality), such an entity must be understood as an "absolutely infinite being." In logic, at least, there cannot be an infinite being and something else. Thus all finite existence must be rooted in a necessary existent, and there is one system of nature in which all limited things begin or cease inevitably according to causal sequences and interdependencies. Spinoza adopted a scholastic distinction to express the only conceivable differences that can be predicated of infinite being: Natura Naturans is nature as active or is God as the free cause that brings all things to pass according to necessary principles, and Natura Naturata is nature as passive or existent at any one moment.


Nature and Origin of the Mind

Spinoza's argument is conducted a priori, or without appeal to experience, and its truth or falsity rests on what the concept of substance entails logically. Accordingly, God exists by definition, or negatively one must posit a reason for the nonexistence of such a being and again only God would suffice. For him, reason is identical with cause, and the only legitimate distinctions that one can impute to the reason of the universe is to logically separate that which causes and that which is caused.

The second book of Ethics examines the nature and origin of the mind. An infinite substance possesses infinite attributes, but the mind perceives only two: thought and extension. Yet the relation between mind and matter is not dualistic but one of identity, for "thinking substance and extended substance is one and the same substance comprehended now under this and now under that attribute." To understand this doctrine, sometimes referred to as "psychophysical parallelism," the mind must overcome its reliance on sense knowledge ("opinion") and even advance beyond scientific understanding ("adequate ideas") of cause-and-effect relations to a synoptic vision ("intuition") of the complete system of reality. In this perspective the mind of man is an individually existing modification of infinite intelligence, the body is the object of that idea, and the two are like different sides of a coin.

With this understanding of man's place in nature, Spinoza took up the questions of moral life. Action occurs when an individual is the cause of his own conduct, and a passion when he is the partial cause. Virtue is the power of knowing how to act in accord with nature, whereas men suffer in proportion to the number of inadequate ideas that they have.

The essence of man is the struggle "to preserve in being." Adequate ideas replace passions, rational self-control supplants the impotence of desires. The issue is life itself: whether one is ensnared in "human bondage" as a prey to the whims of desire or external persons or objects, or one achieves the freedom that Spinoza calls "blessedness" and that is virtue's own reward. He was enough of a psychologist to see that ultimately passions can be overcome only by stronger passions. Thus in cultivating a knowledge and intellectual love of God man comes to know himself and to experience a freedom from external restraint.

Further Reading on Baruch Spinoza

For studies of Spinoza consult the following works: F. Pollock, Spinoza: His Life and Philosophy (1880); E. Caird, Spinoza (1902); H. A. Wolfson, The Philosophy of Spinoza (1934); and S. Hampshire, Spinoza (1956).