Skip to main content

Spinoza's Views On Ethics, God And Substance

Spinoza philosopher (1632–1677)

Find out more about the singular philosopher Baruch Spinoza in this exploration of his views on ethics, God and substance. Uncover a fascinating new perspective!

Benedict de Spinoza was a 17th-century Dutch philosopher who created one of the most influential philosophical works of all time. His understanding of reality, free will, and ethics are still discussed and debated today. Explore here the fascinating philosophy behind his impressive works.

Spinoza's Views On Ethics, God And Substance

biography of Spinoza

Benedict de (Baruch) Spinoza (1632–1677), like Descartes and Leibniz, was a philosopher immersed in mathematical and scientific investigation. The greatest single influence on his thought was Descartes; he corresponded with men of science, such as Oldenburg (secretary to the newly formed Royal Society) and Boyle, and became an acknowledged expert in the science of optics, making his living (according to some accounts) as a lens-grinder. 

He was educated at the Jewish College in Amsterdam, to which city his Jewish parents had come from Portugal to escape persecution. Excommunicated from the synagogue for his sceptical beliefs, he settled among a group of enlightened Christians, who had formed a philosophical circle of which he soon became the leader. Then, leaving Amsterdam, he lived a secluded unworldly existence, refused offers of money and academic distinctions, and even withheld his great Ethics from the press, as much from love of truth and intellectual independence as from any fear of the censor. 

Spinoza's Views On Ethics, God And Substance 

Baruch Spinoza is one of the most important and controversial figures in the history of philosophy. His radical views on ethics, God, and substance have set him apart from his contemporaries, offering unique insights into some of the biggest questions that have long troubled humanity.

how did Spinoza die ?

He died of consumption, leaving his major work unpublished.

What is Spinoza's Metaphysics?

Spinoza’s metaphysics is central to his philosophical system. He believed that a single substance — God — was the basis of all existence, and that this same substance expressed itself in an unlimited number of attributes, including thought and extension. This fundamental building block of reality offered Spinoza an innovative way of integrating his philosophical views on ethics, God and substance into a unified view of reality.

How Does Spinoza Interpret the Bible?

Spinoza has a very different interpretation of the Bible than most religious thinkers. He believed that the books of the Bible were written by men, rather than written by divine insight. Instead of believing in literal interpretations, Spinoza thought that the proper interpretation of scripture was allegorical and could provide lessons about morality, psychology and justice. However, he considered the Bible to be useless as a means to gaining knowledge about God or nature.

How does Substance Dualism Relate to Ethics for Spinoza?

For Spinoza, substance dualism - or the belief that there is a difference between mind and body or between physical and spiritual realms - does not work with his ethical framework. Spinoza believed that mind and body are integrated aspects of one substance and that God is immanent within nature as its one substance, rather than being beyond it. Therefore, he viewed ethics in terms of what we perceive to be eternal laws, not obligations imbued by an external deity. As such, any moral decisions made by a person should take into account all available evidence and be judged in the way which most accurately reflects the natural laws governing our world.

Spinoza's works

His ideas were seen as a threat to both traditional religious orthodoxy as well as the emerging modern scientific thought of the time. He wrote many of his works while employed as a lens grinder and lived out the rest of his life in relative anonymity. His works established him as one of the main pillars of Western Philosophy.

Spinoza’s philosophy rests on two principles. First, a rationalist theory of knowledge, according to which what is ‘adequately’ conceived is for that reason true; secondly, a notion of substance, inherited through Descartes from the Aristotelian tradition of which Descartes himself was the unwilling heir. From the standpoint of metaphysics it is perhaps Spinoza’s greatest distinction that he examined this notion of substance, and refused to let it go until he had extracted from it every particle of philosophical meaning.

Ethical and Religious Beliefs.

One of the main themes in Spinoza's philosophy is the relationship between ethics and religion. He believed that a person's actual religious beliefs should not be confused with their ethical or moral behavior. Instead, morality should be based on understanding the natural laws of the universe. This perspective was extremely controversial for his time, and remains challenging even today, as we seek to balance our religious and moral lives with an appreciation of nature and science.

In Spinoza's philosophy, he argues that Nature (God) is ultimately the source of all ethical values. He believes that a person’s duty is to act in accordance with Nature and its laws, which enables them to become an even more perfect expression of God's power. According to Spinoza, this brings the person closer to Divinity and allows for greater overall fulfillment. Ultimately, he held that since we are all part of nature we should strive for the greatest good for ourselves and others.

As its title indicates, the Ethics is a work of ethical philosophy. Its ultimate aim is to aid us in the attainment of happiness, which is to be found in the intellectual love of God. This love, according to Spinoza, arises out of the knowledge that we gain of the divine essence insofar as we see how the essences of singular things follow of necessity from it. In view of this, it is easy to see why Spinoza favored the synthetic method. Beginning with propositions concerning God, he was able to employ it to show how all other things can be derived from God. In grasping the order of propositions as they are demonstrated in the Ethics, we thus attain a kind of knowledge that approximates the knowledge that underwrites human happiness. We are, as it were, put on the road towards happiness. Of the two methods it is only the synthetic method that is suitable for this purpose.

Spinoza theory of substance

The Cartesian notion of substance, appealing though it was on logical, scientific and metaphysical grounds, gave rise to problems that steadily increased in significance as their depth was perceived. 

What is the relation between substance construed as individual and substance construed as matter or stuff? How many substances are there? How, if at all, can we explain their interaction? If they can sustain themselves in existence, why do we need an explanation of their origin? Descartes and the Cartesians gave various answers to those questions, none of them felt to be satisfactory. Spinoza was quick to observe that the concept of substance is, nevertheless, the cornerstone of Cartesian metaphysics.

Hence each of those questions must be answered unequivocally and consistently if the metaphysical structure is to stand up to philosophical examination. If metaphysics collapses, then, Spinoza believed (and in this he was at one with all rationalist thinkers), so does the possibility of science.

In the Principles Descartes had touched on the problems posed by the concept of substance and made a distinction between the ‘principal attribute’ of a substance (the attribute which constitutes its nature, as extension is the nature of physical things and thought the nature of mind) and its ‘modifications’ or ‘modes’—the properties in respect of which it can change without ceasing to be what it is. He also noted an ambiguity in the term ‘substance’, which might be used in a wide sense, to denote any individual object, or in a restricted sense, to refer to that which depends upon nothing outside itself for its existence. In this restricted sense, he argued, only God is a substance.

It is this restricted idea of substance that provides the cornerstone of Spinoza’s metaphysics. A substance, he writes, is ‘in itself and conceived through itself’, or is ‘that the conception of which does not depend upon the conception of another thing from which it must be formed’. A substance must be intelligible apart from all relations with other things. Hence a substance cannot enter into relations and, in particular, can be neither the cause nor the effect of anything outside itself. To the extent that a thing is caused, it must be explained in terms of, and therefore ‘conceived through’, other things. A substance therefore cannot be produced by anything else: it is its own cause (causa sui)—which means, according to Spinoza’s definition, that its essence involves existence.

Spinoza, evidently influenced by Descartes, distinguishes the attributes of a substance from its modes. An attribute is that which ‘the intellect perceives as constituting the essence of a substance’, whereas a mode is that which is ‘in something else’ through which it must be conceived. The word ‘in’ here creates difficulties, but here is an analogy: a group of people join to form a club which then does things, owns things, organises things. 

The club is ‘in’ the members, in Spinoza’s sense. And when x is ‘in’ y, x can be understood fully only through y. Another way to put the point is: y is ‘prior to’ x, since we cannot understand x without a prior conception of y. In this sense, ‘a substance is prior in nature to its modes’.

The first part of the Ethics is devoted to God, defined as ‘a substance consisting of infinite attributes, each one of which expresses an eternal and infinite essence’. Spinoza follows Descartes in giving a version of the ontological argument. However, the proof has an interesting twist to it. Spinoza believes that all substances exist necessarily, since ‘it belongs to the nature of substance to exist’. But he also argues that ‘there cannot be two or more substances with the same nature or attribute’; in other words, substances cannot share attributes. Since God possesses all attributes, therefore, there can be no other substance besides God.

Everything that exists is ‘in’ God. God has ‘infinite attributes’. Extension is an attribute, since we perceive it as constituting the essence of the corporeal world: there is nothing more basic than extension to which the explanation of corporeal things could be referred. We have full (or, as Spinoza puts it, ‘adequate’) knowledge of the nature of extension through the science of geometry, and the existence of this systematic science of necessary truths is further proof that the idea of extension delivers God’s essential nature to our intellect.

Spinoza's pantheism

Spinoza holds the pantheistic view that God is identical to nature as a whole, and human beings are just little pieces of God. While pantheism is a hallmark of Eastern philosophy, it is a view of God that has largely been rejected by Western philosophers, two notable exceptions being the ancient Greek philosophers Parmenides and Plotinus. The traditional monotheistic conception of God is that he is an all-powerful being that created the universe, but stands apart from everything he creates: the universe is not a piece of God himself. This traditional monotheistic position—sometimes called the transcendent view of God—is completely at odds with the pantheistic position that the entire universe is God. This is what Spinoza holds, and it is this aspect of his philosophy that got him into so much trouble with his Jewish community. To understand God, according to Spinoza, we must look to nature itself and attempt to understand it. The first philosophical task that he sets out for himself in the Ethics is to prove the pantheistic position that God is the totality of the natural world, or, using his terminology, “Besides God, no substance can be granted or conceived” (Ethics, 1.14). 

The specific argument that he offers for his position is this:

1. There cannot exist in the universe two or more substances having the same nature or attribute.

2. God (defined as a substance consisting of infinite attributes, of which each expresses eternal and infinite essentiality) necessarily exists.

3. Therefore, besides God, no substance can be granted or conceived.

The specific pantheistic position he is advocating here is sometimes called “substance monism”, that is, there is only one substance that exists.

Spinoza monism

Extension is an attribute of God, and like all the attributes of God it is infinite in quantity (which means, to put it crudely, that space has no boundaries, a proposition for which Spinoza provides an independent proof). It remains to examine what other attributes God might have. The other candidate bequeathed by Cartesian philosophy was thought, which Descartes put forward as the essential characteristic of mind. Spinoza argued that this too must be an attribute of the single divine substance, since it can be conceived in itself and there is nothing beyond itself by reference to which we must conceive or explain it. It has modifications— specific thoughts, images and agglomerations of the same—just as extension has its modifications. But in the rational explanation of these it is to thought alone that we need refer; having referred to thought, we do not need to go beyond it to some more basic attribute through which thought itself must be conceived. This explains why the properties of thought are pellucid to us (although it is clear on reflection that thought and extension are pellucid in a different way and for different reasons). Thought, therefore, is another attribute of the divine substance.

While there are of necessity infinitely many such attributes, to finite beings only finite knowledge is available. Thus we can conceive God through the attribute of extension and through that of thought, while other manners of conception lie outside our intellectual capacity. In so far as the world is knowable to us, therefore, it consists of one thing, seen under two aspects, which correspond to its two knowable attributes. It can be seen either under the aspect of thought, in which case we call it God, or under that of extension, in which case we call it Nature.

Ethical Theory and Nature of God in Spinoza’s Philosophy.

God or Nature (Deus sive Natura) is the single existing thing which exists of necessity and, being cause of itself, persists through all eternity. Thought and extension are not mere properties of God: they each constitute God’s essence, and each therefore present to the intellect a full and adequate idea of what God is It is of course extremely puzzling to imagine in this way one thing with more than one essence: the concept of an ‘attribute’ only seems intelligible when construed epistemologically, as a reference to the two possible ways of knowing God; the alternative, ontological, conception, which attributes two separate essences to God, is extremely difficult to understand. But Spinoza definitely meant us to construe his theory ontologically, believing that only then will the full intellectual consequences contained in the concept of substance be understood. Only then could it be seen that the very same ontological argument that shows the existence of a substance, explains also the existence of thought and of extended matter. There ceases to be a distinction between creation and the creator, and the greatest theological problem therefore dissolves. Likewise there ceases to be a real distinction between mind and matter: so the greatest metaphysical problem also dissolves. Mind, matter, creation, creator—all these are simply names of the same eternal self-sustaining thing.

Spinoza mind and body

The theory of the attributes was partly intended by Spinoza to solve an outstanding question raised by Descartes’ philosophy of mind. If the mind is, or belongs to, a separate substance from that of the body, then how do mind and body interact? What mechanism can join two substances, so that changes in the one are explained by changes in the other? On Spinoza’s reading of ‘substance’ the suggestion is a nonsense, and his reading, he thought, is the only consistent one.

Spinoza’s solution to the problem of mind and body is ingenious, although hard to understand in its entirety. The mind and the body are one and the same thing, which is conceived now under the attribute of thought, now under the attribute of extension.’ The theory of the attributes implies not only that the one substance can be known in two ways, but that the same two ways of knowing apply also to the modes of that substance. The mind is a finite mode of the infinite substance conceived as thought; the body is a finite mode of the infinite substance conceived as extension—and these two finite modes are in fact one and the same. Spinoza summarises the theory by saying that the mind is the idea of the body.

However, when we describe a mode of thinking (an idea), we situate it in the total system of ideas (which is God, conceived under the attribute of thought). No explanation of an idea can be formulated, except in terms of other ideas. Similarly, when we describe a mode of extension, we situate it in the system of physical things, and explain it accordingly, through the attribute of extension. Mind and body are one thing; but they are conceptualised under rival and incommensurable systems. Hence, while we can assert in the abstract that they are identical, we can never explain a physical process in terms of a mental one, or a mental process in terms of a physical. This combination of doctrines has proved immensely puzzling to Spinoza’s commentators. On the one hand, he is a monist, believing that there is only one ultimate reality, of which everything is a mode; on the other hand, he admits a kind of dualism into his system, reaffirming the separateness of mind and body in the very act of denying it.

Perhaps the best way to grasp what Spinoza is saying is through a somewhat distant analogy. When I look at a picture I see physical objects: patches of pigment smeared on a canvas. And I can describe these objects so thoroughly as to account for the entire picture. In doing so, I do not mention the other thing that I see: a stag hunt passing before a country house. This too I could describe so thoroughly as to give a complete account of the picture. But the two accounts are incommensurable: I cannot cross from one to the other in midstream, so to speak. I cannot describe the lead hound as frantically pursuing a patch of ochre, or the area of chrome yellow fused with oxydised linseed oil as resting on the huntsman’s knee. In some such way, Spinoza is saying, the complete description of the body describes the very same thing as the complete description of the mind; but to explain mental states in terms of physical causes is to cross in midstream to another and incommensurate language.

External link 

Plato cosmology

Dark ages

Pre-socratic philosopher

Socratic trial

Persons and things

What, then, are we? To say that we are modes of the divine substance is not to say enough, for, as Spinoza realised, this does not yet grant to us our individuality. In particular, it does not settle the important question of how we can come to consider ourselves as things, even though, in the nature of the case, we cannot be substances. Thus Spinoza, having argued that there can be only one substance, attempted to reconcile this doctrine with the view that there is a potentially indefinite number of things. He did this by reversing Descartes’ argument about the wax.

The wax, it will be remembered, seemed not to possess any essential unity or identity beyond that of the stuff out of which it was composed. It could be broken up, melted, transformed in respect of every one of its properties except those which pertained to matter as such. Its individuality counted for nothing in comparison with its constitution. By contrast, Spinoza observes, there are certain modifications of fundamental substance which have a kind of innate resistance to changes of the kind undergone by Descartes’ lump of wax. Things resist damage, fracture and so on, or perhaps, if injured, they restore themselves out of their own inherent principle of existence. They endeavour, as Spinoza puts it, to persist in their own being. This endeavour (conatus) constitutes their essence, in so far as it makes sense to attribute essence to something that has neither the completeness nor the self-sufficiency of a genuine substance.

The obvious examples of these partial substances or individual things are organisms; and in describing their identity in terms of a conatus Spinoza was in effect reviving a concept from Aristotelian biology.

Organisms seem to have more conatus than inanimate things: they avoid injury, resist it, restore themselves when it is inflicted. This is why we are ready to attribute to them an individuality that we are not always willing to attribute to inanimate objects. We speak of a tree, a bird, a man; but only of a lump of wax, a heap of snow, a pool of water; thus identifying the first as individuals, the second only as quantities of some independently describable stuff.

In the case of persons we are also able to know this ‘conatus’ not only under the aspect of physical cohesion such as characterises all organic-life, but also under the aspect of thought. Under this aspect conatus appears as desire, or rather (since human beings have adequate knowledge of mentality) as desire accompanied by its own idea: what we might call self-conscious desire. It is this which (judged from the mental standpoint) constitutes our striving, and the satisfaction of which therefore constitutes our good.

Spinoza theory of knowledge

Spinoza’s theory of knowledge is an extension and refinement of the Cartesian theory of clear and distinct perception. For every idea there is an ideatum—an object conceived under the attribute of extension which exactly corresponds to the idea in the system of the world. Every idea is ‘of’ its ideatum, and therefore every idea possesses what Spinoza calls the ‘extrinsic’ mark of truth, namely an exact and necessary correspondence to its ideatum. Error is possible, however, since many ideas fail to possess the ‘intrinsic’ mark of truth, which is present only in ‘adequate’ ideas. Although the term ‘adequate’ comes from Descartes, it effectively replaces the notion of a ‘clear and distinct perception’, as Descartes had discussed this.

Every adequate idea is self-evident to the one who grasps it, and ‘falsity consists in privation of knowledge, resulting from inadequate or mutilated and confused ideas’. A prime example of this inadequacy is sensory perception. My image of the sun, for example, is of a small red disc resting on the horizon: and if I trusted sense-perception alone, I should be led into false conceptions, believing that the sun itself is the ideatum of this image, when in fact its ideatum is a process in me— something going on in my eye or brain.

Knowledge gained through sense-perception is assigned, in the Ethics, to the lowest of three levels of cognition: the level that Spinoza calls imagination or opinion. Such cognition can never reach adequacy, since the ideas of imagination do not come to us in their intrinsic logical order, but in the order of our bodily processes. By the accumulation of confused ideas we can arrive at a grasp of what is common to them—a ‘universal notion’, such as we have of man, tree or dog. But these are not in themselves adequate ideas, even if they constitute the meaning of our everyday general terms.

The second level of cognition, exemplified by science and mathematics, comes from the attempt to gain a full (adequate) conception of essences. This involves adequate ideas and ‘common notions’, since ‘those things which are common to all and which are equally in a part and in the whole can only be conceived adequately’. To return to our example: not being part of my body, the sun cannot be adequately known through modifications of my body, but only through the science— astronomy—that aims to provide an adequate idea of the heavenly bodies. This science will begin from geometry, which is the science of extension; but it will also employ such common notions as those of ‘motion and rest’.

The third level of cognition is intuition, or scientia intuitiva. ‘This kind of cognition proceeds from an adequate idea of the formal essence of certain attributes of God to the adequate knowledge of the essence of things.’

Spinoza seems to mean by intuition the comprehensive understanding of the truth of a proposition that is granted to the person who grasps it, together with a valid proof of it from self-evident premises, in a single mental act. ‘Cognition of the first kind is the only cause of falsity…while cognition of the second and third kinds is necessarily true.’ From our point of view, therefore, the truth of an idea consists in, and is understood through, its logical connection to the system of adequate ideas. The advance of knowledge consists in the replacement of confused and inadequate ideas by adequate conceptions, until, at the limit, all that we think follows inexorably from a self-evident conception of the nature of God.

Every idea is a mental glimpse of a physical process, and conversely every physical process is no more than an extended embodiment of an idea. It follows that ‘the order and connection of ideas is the same as the order and connection of things’. This proposition encapsulates a thoroughgoing rationalism. The relation between ideas, when considered purely from the aspect of thought, is a relation of logic: one idea follows from or provides a logical ground for another. And the only way in which an idea can give a satisfactory explanation of another idea is through such logical relations. We can explain the conclusion of a proof only by showing its logical relation to the premises. And that relation is one of necessity.

Likewise the order of things is an order which allows for explanation. In Spinoza’s view everything that happens, since it stems from the same ineluctable nature of the single divine substance, happens not by chance but by necessity. So the order of things must exhibit that necessity. We show why one event happens in nature by showing it to be a necessary consequence of all that preceded it. And the necessity here, which compels the sequence of nature, is exactly the same as the necessity explored in a mathematical proof. Indeed, if we saw all nature adequately, so that we conceived it not only under the aspect of extension but also under the aspect of thought, then it would appear to us exactly like a mathematical proof. Physical events, seen as their corresponding ideas, would be seen to follow from each other as ideas in a mathematical sequence.

Adequate knowledge of physical things comes about because we can have ideas of what is common to all physical processes. These common notions will reflect the universal properties of extension; hence, whatever they indicate by way of logical implications will correspond accurately to reality, since nothing in the physical world will originate in those universal properties except in accordance with the logical sequences of ideas which our common notions generate. It is the mark of such adequate ideas that, as soon as presented, they are grasped and adopted with certainty, like the clear and distinct ideas of Descartes. The certainty here is nothing but the reflection of the fact that we are so constituted that we cannot think otherwise. To be differently constituted is to be possessed of a nature that does not correspond to the common notions.

But, exhypothesi, these common notions are common because they reflect what is universal and necessary in nature. It is by abstract reasoning concerning these notions that an accurate understanding of the essence of things is obtained.

Spinoza human freedom

The theory just sketched has a powerful, and to many unacceptable, consequence. It turns out that there is as little freedom in the world of physical things as in the world of ideas: an effect follows from its cause with all the necessity of a mathematical theorem. Moreover, every human action arises out of the same unbroken chain of causal necessity as do the movements of the planets, the falling of trees, and the steady flow of rivers. Spinoza’s determinism is in fact totally rigid, and can be seen as a consequence not of some one or other dispensable metaphysical doctrine, but of the very conception of philosophy from which he began.

Once we grant the conception of God as causa sui, together, with the rationalist premise that there must be an explanation of everything, we are compelled to accept the view that the explanation of every event must refer back to God. For to find an explanation is to find a cause, and the cause of anything must lie either in it or outside it. If the cause lies in it, then the thing is causa sui, and therefore is itself God and identical with the whole of things. If the cause lies outside it, then it must lie in something else which in its turn must have a cause. Suppose that some given event might have been other than it is. It could have been otherwise only if it had been preceded by a chain of causes different from those which in fact occurred; and this would have been possible only if the first cause had itself been different. But that first cause, God, is causa sui, and therefore has all its properties by necessity. Therefore it could not be other than it is. Hence the supposition that anything might have been otherwise is absurd.

The order of concatenation of things is a single order, whether Nature is conceived under one or the other attribute; it follows therefore that the order of the action and passions of our body is simultaneous in nature with the order of the actions and passions of the mind… Now all these things clearly show that the decision of the mind, together with the appetite and determination of the body, are simultaneous in nature, or rather that they are one and the same thing, which, when it is considered under the attribute of thought and explained in terms of it, we call decision, and when considered under the attribute of extension, and deduced from the laws of motion and rest, we call causation.

Thus Spinoza’s solution of the problem concerning the relation between mind and body (namely that they are simply one and the same thing), while it overcomes all the difficulties concerning interaction which had bothered the Cartesians, has the inescapable consequence that there is no human freedom. Human beings are part of Nature, and the causal order of Nature is as rigid and unbreakable as the logical order of ideas.

The unfolding of events in Nature proceeds with the ineluctability of a mathematical proof pursued by an omniscient mind. What then does human freedom amount to, when the origins of every human act are contained incipiently in the primeval idea of God or Nature just as are the origins of every occurrence?

It is in addressing himself to this question that Spinoza developed the part of his philosophy for which he has ever since been most admired, the theory of human freedom, and the associated analysis of the passions.

Spinoza emotions

As its title implies, the Ethics was not designed merely as a treatise on metaphysics with various moral asides. On the contrary it was designed to treat of the moral life in terms which, while they gained their validity from a sound metaphysical base and implied no confusion concerning

Nature or God, were sufficiently definite to entail an account of the place of man in the natural world. This account would in its turn be adequate to found a true system of moral behaviour. Given his premises, Spinoza was more or less successful in this enterprise. The fact is the more surprising in that his moral views were by no means the received platitudes of the day, nor in any way predictable from the literature of the Christian and Jewish moralists who had been the overseers of his life and education. Not only did Spinoza argue that pity is ‘bad and useless’, and that ‘self-complacency is the greatest good that we can expect’; he also poured scorn on the resentment of the poor and ungifted, and recommended humility and repentance only to those unable to live according to the dictates of reason. The necessary bridge from the uncompromising determinism of the metaphysics towards this almost Nietzschean moral vision lies in the philosophy of the emotions.

Although Descartes had written a treatise on the ‘passions’, it is fair to say that Spinoza was the first great philosopher since Aquinas to attempt to explore human passions systematically, in full consciousness that man’s place in nature could not otherwise be described. It is from his theory of the passions that Spinoza derived his idea of freedom. God is free in that he is self-determining. But human beings cannot be free in that sense (a sense which can, logically, apply only to substance). What, then, does the distinction between freedom and unfreedom amount to?

Spinoza recognised that the distinction between the free and the unfree must be expressed in other terms than that of the distinction (imaginary for Spinoza) between the caused and the uncaused. In this he has been followed by many more recent philosophers. The first step in reconstructing the distinction between the free and the unfree lay in his theory of the passions.

In some respects Spinoza’s theory of the emotions shows similarities to the far sketchier and less imaginative theory propounded by his empiricist predecessor Hobbes. In particular, he took after Hobbes in supposing the various human emotions to be definable in terms of a relatively simple number of mental states, together with a specification of the content of the thoughts and desires peculiar to each individual passion. Thus Hobbes had defined fear as ‘aversion, with opinion of hurt from its object’ (Leviathan, I, vi). Hobbes thought he could specify the range of the emotions in terms of the specific beliefs and desires characteristic of each of them, although he was very unclear as to how those beliefs and desires are united.

In similar fashion Spinoza attempted to define emotions in terms of desire, pleasure and pain (for which he in turn offered definitions), and certain characteristic causes. 

Spinoza as to involve the concept of mentality. They involved particular conceptions of the world, and these define not just the causes but also the objects of the emotions. (The distinction here, between object and cause, is made clear by an example: I am afraid of what will happen at my meeting with the Chairman; what has caused my fear is thoughts about the Chairman’s past behaviour. The object here (my meeting with the Chairman) lies in the future and so cannot be the cause. This distinction between object and cause, vital to the theory of the emotions, was made with finesse by Aquinas, but not by Spinoza whose theory of the mind nevertheless brought it about that the oversight was cancelled out in the general account of the emotional life which followed from his premises.) It may seem odd that phenomena seemingly as arbitrary and fluctuating as the human passions could be treated by the geometrical method, so that conclusions concerning the nature of grief, remorse and jealousy could be seen to follow from the definitions and axioms of an incontrovertible metaphysics. 

But Spinoza, who in this, as in many respects, was close to medieval thought, was dissatisfied with conventional assumptions concerning the disorderliness of this material, and believed that many assertions about the emotional life which might appear to be the fruits of prolonged and fallible observation, were in fact demonstrably necessary. In thus reopening the field of the emotions to philosophical thought he became a principal guide to those later philosophers who have sought to understand them. There are many philosophers who would agree with Spinoza, for example, that we cannot hate a thing which we pity, or that no one envies the virtue of anyone save his equal; and who would agree with him, too, in seeing these propositions as necessary truths, to be established not by empirical investigation but by philosophical argument. In his definitions of the individual emotions and his drawing of such conclusions from them, Spinoza’s most lasting contribution to philosophy was made.

Activity and passivity

The essence of all emotion, for Spinoza, is passion. To the extent that he reacts to the world in an emotional way, a person is held to be passive towards it. Emotion is something suffered. The next step in Spinoza’s theory of freedom was to try to show an identity between suffering passion and being the victim of an external cause. A person is passive to the extent that his actions have their origin outside him. He is active to the extent that they have their origin within him. Now of course it follows from the metaphysics that, literally speaking, every action originates outside the agent, in God. But there is a matter of degree here.

Just as the doctrine of conatus allows us to postulate indefinitely many quasi-individuals in a world which, literally speaking, contains only one individual, so does it enable us to speak of the greater or lesser degree to which the causes of an action are contained within the body of the agent and therefore within his mind. Passivity is therefore a matter of degree.

The next step is to argue, from the premise that to every physical event in the body there is a mental event that constitutes its idea, to the conclusion that the more active a person is, the more his mind contains adequate ideas of the causes of his action. A person is more active in respect of his behaviour the more his consciousness contains an adequate idea of the behaviour and its cause. To have a completely adequate idea of the cause is to see it in relation to its own cause and so on, to the point of grasping the full necessity of the system of which the causes form a part. Spinoza further argues that this ever-increasing understanding of the causes of our action is the only legitimate concept of human freedom that we can postulate. Freedom is not freedom from necessity, but the consciousness of necessity.

Now an emotion, since it already involves an obscure perception of reality, can be refined, as it were, from the passive to the active, as that perception is improved. To the extent that this refinement occurs—to the extent, as we might put it, that the object of a feeling is more clearly and completely understood—to that extent does the emotion pass from passion to action, from something suffered to something done. The free man is the man who thus gains mastery over his emotions, transforming them into accurate conceptions of the world which he thereby dominates.

The change from passivity to activity is precisely what we mean by pleasure, and the reverse what we mean by pain. It is a small step from there to the conclusion that only the free man is truly happy, and that his freedom and his reason are one and the same. From these noble ideas Spinoza then unfolds his moral system, one aspect of which here deserves mention.

The intellectual love of God

Spinoza’s final moral vision has an Aristotelian and a Platonic aspect. Like the philosophers of the Platonic tradition, Spinoza wishes to locate the final wisdom and happiness of humans in the intellectual love of God (the love which informs the blessed souls of Dante’s Paradise). Plato and Aristotle

And he thinks he can make clear what this love consists in. To the extent that we understand something we obtain pleasure from it, and to the extent that such pleasure is pure—unmingled with confused ideas—to that extent does it constitute love. Now, understanding the universe in its totality cannot produce confused ideas, since the idea of the universe in its totality is the idea of God, which, to the extent that we grasp it, is adequate in us. The attempt to understand reality through that idea necessarily leads us to the love of reality; in other words to the love of God. But this love is active and intellectual, not passive and emotional; in acquiring it we come to participate in the divine nature.

 We see the world in its fullness, under the idea of God, and not in partial, confused or passive form. Seeing things thus, we see them, as Spinoza puts it, ‘under the aspect of eternity’. Eternity means, not endless time, but timelessness. We see the world as an entity which endures because it has no duration, which is infinite because it has no parts, and in which we participate because in it we are dissolved. Seeing the world thus is to see God. Other ways of representing God—as the personal, anthropomorphic, passionate creature of established religion—might be useful in encouraging moral sentiments among the ignorant, bringing as they do the ideas of divine retribution and reward; but they are insignificant to the philosophical mind. Moreover the moral life of the enlightened has no need of anthropomorphic religion. Seeing things sub specie aeternitatis, they recognise that happiness, freedom and virtue are one and the same, and therefore that virtue is strictly its own reward.


Spinoza’s vision, as it emerges in the Ethics, is thus one of sublime impersonality. We are happy to the extent that we share in the objective vision which is God’s (the vision of the world sub specie aeternitatis).

The first-person viewpoint of Descartes has been lost entirely. The ‘cogito’ appears only dimly reflected (in one of the incidental propositions of Part I); it plays no role in the validation of the system, and inevitably gives way to the third-personal vision towards which the Ethics tends.

This loss of epistemological doubt, and consequent abandonment of first-personal privilege as the basis of philosophy, is characteristic of post-Cartesian metaphysics, and the origin of the more powerful of the critiques which were to destroy it. In Spinoza, we see the most adventurous development possible of the ideas of God and substance as the medieval had expounded them. With rare intellectual honesty, he worked out what he considered to be the inevitable logical consequences of those concepts, at the same time arguing for their indispensability.

The result was a complete description of humanity, of nature, of the world and of God. The weak point of the philosophy lay not in its conclusions, but in its premises, and in particular in that fatal idea of substance which Spinoza had thought he both needed and could make intelligible

Popular posts from this blog

The Origins of Cynic Philosophers and Their Philosophy

Explore the history behind Cynic philosophy and discover what makes it unique among ancient worldviews. Read on to learn more about this fascinating branch of knowledge! Exploring the Origins of Cynic Philosophers and Their Philosophy  Cynicism is an ancient philosophy that emphasizes the pursuit of virtue through self-control, personal integrity, and autonomy in spite of life's hardships. This school of thought explored a variety of topics such as morality, justice, and honor to name a few. Learn more about the Cynics philosophy and its impact on later generations here! What is Cynic Philosophy? Cynic philosophy is a school of thought focused on living in accordance with nature. Its practitioners aimed to lead an authentic life that resists external influence and cultivates an unyielding sense of personal autonomy. Utilizing strict reason as its moderate, this ancient system of belief sought to rid the world of a variety of vices, including pride, greed, and ignorance. What is Dio

The Rise of Christianity Philosophy: A Historical Overview

Explore the fascinating history of the rise of Christianity philosophy with this comprehensive overview. Discover the key figures and ideas that shaped this influential movement. The Origins of Christianity Philosophy. The origins of Christianity philosophy can be traced back to the teachings of Jesus Christ, who emphasized love, compassion, and forgiveness. His teachings were spread by his disciples, who traveled throughout the Roman Empire, sharing the message of Christianity. Over time, early Christian thinkers such as Augustine and Thomas Aquinas developed a more systematic approach to Christian philosophy, incorporating ideas from Greek philosophy and other sources. These ideas would go on to shape the development of Western thought and culture. The Rise of Christianity Philosophy: A Historical Overview Rise of Christianity history , at first, was preached by Jews to Jews, as a reformed Judaism. Saint James, and to a lesser extent Saint Peter, wished it to remain no more than this

The Milesian school/ the Pre-Socratic philosophers

Explore the thought-provoking ideas of the Milesian School and discover how they revolutionized pre-Socratic philosophies. Get to know who the school's prominent figures were and what they contributed to knowledge.  What is the Milesian School and its Philosophers?  The Milesian School was a pre-Socratic school of philosophy founded in the Sicilian Greek city of Miletus. Its main figures were Thales, Anaximander, and Anaximenes—three of the first major philosophers to emerge in history. Their theories on cosmology, causation, and human nature shaped our understanding of the world today. Thales proposed that water is fundamental to all life; Anaximander theorized that the Earth began as an undifferentiated mass; while Anaximenes speculated that air is the primordial element to exist in the universe.  Thanks to these three philosophers and other Milesian thinkers who followed them, we have access to early revolutionary knowledge about our natural environment and our place within it.

An Introduction to the Philosophy of Thales

 The Philosophy of Thales  ( 624 - 546) BCE Explore the philosophical roots of ancient Greece with an in-depth look at the life and works of Thales, one of the earliest and most famous Greek philosophers. Learn about his groundbreaking theories on cosmology, mathematics, ethics, metaphysics, and more that have shaped our culture today. Thales was part of the Early Pre-socratics, which was a group of thinkers that formed the beginnings of Western philosophy and science. Heavily influenced by mythology, Thales believed in a single fundamental source for all things and argued that water was the basis for every living organism. His views ushered in a period of inquiry and exploration into divine ontology and enabled philosophical thought to flourish in Ancient Greece. Thales the philosopher Who was Thales and what did he do The history of western philosophy begins with Thales of Miletus in 585 BC.  Thales of Miletus was born 624   and died  546 BCE.  In every history of philosophy for stud