An Introduction To Spinoza

Matthew Gindin
Aug 25, 2019 · 17 min read
Photo by Lum3n.com from Pexels

In 1665 an excommunicated Jew living in Amsterdam wrote a book with the simple name “Ethics”, and the odd subtitle “proved in geometric fashion.”

The thought of Baruch Spinoza (Benedito de Espinoza, 24 November 1632–21 February 1677), over three centuries later, is still being mined for insights in fields as diverse as psychology, neuroscience, ecology, political theory, feminism, metaphysics, ontology and ethics- in other words, almost everywhere.

Spinoza has wide appeal and famously appeals to people on opposing sides of various spectrums. He was beloved both by Novalis, the German romantic poet who called him “that God-intoxicated man” and the atheist poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. He had a massive influence both on Hegel, who wrote that “all philosophy must now begin with Spinoza” and Nietzsche, who though he generally hated other philosophers, liked him. He was the favorite philosopher of Albert Einstein, who when asked if he believed in God once said that he “believed in the God of Spinoza.”.

Bertrand Russell wrote, “It was through the union of the love of truth and the love of humanity, combined with an entire absence of self-seeking, that he achieved a nobility, both in life and in speculation, which has not been equaled by his predecessors or successors in the realm of philosophy.”

Gilles Deleuze called Spinoza the “prince of philosophers,” and he has also been a huge influence on contemporary European political and ethical philosophy. First “rediscovered” by philosophers in Italy and France like Badiou, Deleuze, Balibar, and Gramsci, Spinoza studies now attracts extensive academic attention in many other countries as well, including in North America.

I think there is a good reason for the rebirth of interest in Spinoza- his ingenious, iconoclastic, and compelling philosophy possesses both startling insights and tools for transforming both the self and the way we see and experience reality. Spinoza offers practical ways to foster sanity and the creation of a positive human future. With regards to the sanity part, I can speak from personal experience. Spinoza has given me insights, “cognitive fixes” which at times save me daily from despair, depression, and anger.

In his time, however, Spinoza was rejected by the Jewish community and forced to publish his works on the underground under a pen name or to leave them unpublished altogether for fear of being jailed or killed. As Matthew Stewart points out in his excellent The Courtier and The Heretic, “A leading French theologian named him ‘the most impious and the most dangerous man of the century.’ A powerful bishop denounced him as ‘that insane and evil man, who deserves to be covered with chains and whipped with a rod.’

Who Was Spinoza?

Spinoza’s family were Sephardic Jews from Portugal who had settled in Amsterdam following the Inquisition (1536) which had resulted in forced conversions and expulsions of Jews. Amsterdam was part of the non-Catholic Dutch Republic which was both Protestant and (relatively) tolerant towards Jews and other religious sects at the time.

Spinoza was the son of Hanna and Michael deSpinoza and had a brother named Gabriel. After Michael died, Spinoza began to run the family merchant business with Gabriel. Spinoza had a religious upbringing but by his late teens was studying philosophy and going his own way. He would continue to do that throughout his life- relentlessly.

The elders of the community became concerned and finally sent two yeshiva students to pretend to be interested in his thoughts in order to gather evidence against him. The young Spinoza, then twenty-four years old, was brought before the Rabbinic council where he heard testimony against him and then the reading of an extremely harsh decree of excommunication¹.

For Spinoza’s part, he said that he welcomed the expulsion: he would now be free to live, think and speak as he pleased. He went so far as to compare his excommunication to the Jews being liberated from Egypt. He moved out of the Jewish community and spent the rest of his life writing, exchanging letters with scientists, philosophers, and theologians from across Europe, and making a living as a lens grinder. He never married, living quietly as a boarder with different Dutch families. He was offered a post in philosophy at the University of Heidelberg but turned it down, worried that he would not be able to speak freely if given a public role. He died at the age of 45 from respiratory problems, probably from breathing in glass dust. His masterpiece, the Ethics, was published by his circle of friends after his death.

Spinoza’s Works

Spinoza’s first original work, and his major one while he was alive was about religion and politics (The Treatise on Politics and Theology- Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, 1670). It caused severe controversy and scandal, was both burned and banned and called by one Christian preacher “a book forged in hell.”

Spinoza was also working on “The Ethics”, but he held off publishing it due to the response to his first book. News had reached him that the government was aware he planned to publish it and had already given orders to do whatever was needed to stop its publication². The Ethics was published illegally after Spinoza’s death and spread on the growing European underground market for banned literature (you can read a guide to it I’m writing here). It quickly became an illicit sensation throughout Europe and was, like his first book, also burned and banned by authorities, including being put on the Vatican’s list of banned literature. For two centuries afterward calling someone a “Spinozist” was akin to calling them a witch, a heretic, or a Communist and was not something you would do in polite company.

So what exactly was in these terrifying books?

Spinoza’s Writings

The Treatise on Theology and Politics argued that the Bible was not written by God but by people. It also argues that the Jews were not specially chosen by God and that the Torah was nothing more than the ancient laws of Israel, a political document meant to design a specific society, not a holy book for all people. Spinoza argued that the prophets were actually philosophers who understood the truths they grasped through their imagination, but were not literally receiving messages from God. Spinoza argued that the Bible should be studied academically like any other literature, not as though it existed in a special class of its own. Last but far from least, Spinoza spent a large portion of the book arguing that countries should be democratic and should protect freedom of thought and philosophy, thus separating religion and government. In the mid-seventeenth century, no one had argued any of these things so publicly and explicitly. To do so was to risk your life, and if Spinoza’s works had come out openly under his own name during his lifetime it is unlikely he would have survived. His like-minded friend Adrian Koerbagh died in prison³.

The Ethics

In Spinoza’s posthumously published masterpiece he tried to provide an integrated and comprehensive system of thought covering God, physics, psychology, knowledge, ethics, and the good life. He intended the book to be a juggernaut of rational argument, a crystalline logical structure whose conclusions were undeniable. Opinions on his success are varied, of course, but the text has become one of the most widely admired and respected philosophy texts of the western world.

The book aims, fundamentally, at showing the way to freedom and happiness for a human being. In an earlier work, Treatise on The Improvement of the Understanding, Spinoza had written:

After experience had taught me that all the usual surroundings of social life are vain and futile; seeing that none of the objects of my fears contained in themselves anything either good or bad, except in so far as the mind is affected by them, I finally resolved to inquire whether there might be some real good having power to communicate itself, which would affect the mind singly, to the exclusion of all else: whether, in fact, there might be anything of which the discovery and attainment would enable me to enjoy continuous, supreme, and unending happiness.

Spinoza, in other words, like the Buddha or the Stoics, was looking for what was really, truly, lastingly good. The Ethics is his report on what he found, and everything he thought others needed to know about it.

Spinoza and God

Many of the arguments of the Ethics are easy to understand, but Spinoza’s comments on God remain controversial, with people arguing for both pantheist or atheist interpretations. Spinoza himself angrily denied being an atheist, and it seems clear to me that the pantheist interpretation is the correct one. Spinoza argued both for pantheism and panpsychism⁴. Spinoza argued that God was one limitless, intelligible, and intelligent being, an infinite intellect which endlessly unfolds the universe out of its own being (and within its own being).

For Spinoza God is not a person, and does not create for any reason or towards any purpose. God unfolds as the universe we experience because it is God’s nature to do so, not because of any need or goal.

Famously, Spinoza used the phrase “God, or nature” (deus sive natura) in the early part of the Ethics, suggesting they were the same thing. At the time was seen as a shockingly offensive suggestion. Spinoza was clear, though, that he referred to nature as an active, creative intellect and power, what he called natura naturans (“nature naturing”). God, who is the Totality, unfolds according to the laws of its own being without choice or purpose. The unfolding is intelligent and intelligible, and all beings are manifestations of God (which he called, using latin scholastic language, modes) whether tables, human beings, or parakeets.

For Spinoza, as for Jewish Kabbalists, all is God, though they would agree on few other things. It should be noted that as well as denying anthropomorphic descriptions of God, Spinoza denied anthropocentric conceptions of nature. He was adamant that the universe does not exist for the sake of human beings any more than for the sake of dogs or the planet Saturn. The universe, or God, exists for its own sake.

Spinoza also denied that anything was inherently good or bad; for Spinoza “good and bad” were labels we apply to things which do or do not serve different human purposes. He argued that the best definition of good and bad was things which either do, or do not, increase our rational understanding, and thus of our power of rational action.

A thing in nature is not good or bad, it might be bad for a human being but good for a bat, for instance. Similarly, Spinoza also denied that anything in nature was beautiful or ugly in an of itself, but rather that everything that exists is perfect; its value does not depend on the opinions of human beings.

Spinoza argued that humans will be happy when they understand God, because understanding God naturally makes one happier (I’ll explore the reasons for this below). The more humans understand God, the more they will love God, because understanding God makes humans happy and strong, and so naturally they will love the basis of their happiness. They do not love God because God loves anyone back, however. In the sense that God can be said to love, God loves every single creation equally, i.e. God does not love a religious sage more than a worm or an amoeba, a virus or a plastic cup⁵.

Mind and Body

Spinoza wrote just years after Descartes, the Catholic philosopher and mathematician. Descartes argued that the soul and the body are separate things which interact through the brain. Spinoza disagreed and argued that the mind and body were not separate and there is no soul apart from the body. He argued that the mental and the physical were in fact two aspects of the same reality (one thing seen two different ways). Thus a thought is one event which can be viewed two ways: as a neuron firing or as a conscious experience. Spinoza thus he rejected materialism (the belief that only the physical is real), idealism (the belief that only the mental is real), and mind-body dualism (the belief that there is a non-physical soul or mind which can be separated from a physical body). For Spinoza there is only one reality and only one “thing”- God- which we know under two aspects- the mental and the physical.

Freedom

Spinoza’s ultimate goal was to discover how human beings can be virtuous and happy, which is why he called his book Ethics. Spinoza argued that people should use their reason to make choices that are best for our whole being, not just a part of it (like our stomach, for instance) and should not be ruled by our emotional reactions to things, which are always based on a partial, distorted understanding. For Spinoza to be ruled by our emotions was to be enslaved and reactive, living under the control of external things. To live under the command of reason was to live from ourselves, expressing our virtue as human beings. This should not be misunderstood as a dry rationalism or as individualism, though, as we’ll see in brief here and in more detail in my forthcoming commentary on the Ethics, which I’ll be posting on Medium.

The more one understands, the more effective one’s choices will be. Our goal should be to replace our “inadequate ideas” (partial, incorrect, emotionally loaded and distorted understandings) with “adequate ideas” (understandings which are accurate and take in the full causal complexity of the situation). This understanding not only includes a grasp of all the relevant facts but views all activities and events as the predetermined unfolding of the totality and logic of Gods being.

That word “predetermined” brings us to the most controversial aspect of Spinoza’s philosophy: according to Spinoza, while people do make choices, they do not make them freely and cannot make different choices than the ones they actually do make. According to Spinoza the only reason we think we have free will is that we don’t understand all of the causes of our own behavior. In other words, if we actually understood all of the psychological, social, historical, genetic, and scientific causes behind any given choice we would see we could not have made a different one than we did. This point has been echoed in modern times by Heidi Ravven, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, Raoul Martinez, Galen Strawson, Jay Michaelson, and many other neuroscientists, physicists, and philosophers, despite its perennial unpopularity amongst the general public.

Spinoza wrote that we could be at peace with things when we understand that everything that happens unfolds from the logic of God/nature, including us, our personalities, and our choices. People do not have free will but simply flow like any other natural phenomenon, like a river or a tree. With typically dry humor Spinoza wrote, “If a rock was conscious, it would think it threw itself through the air.”

Spinoza argued that viewing things this way leads to two consequences. The first is peace. When we understand that things could not have been other than they are and are not the fault of either ourselves or our “enemies” or anyone else, we are freed from guilt, blame, anger, bitterness and a host of other draining and destructive emotions. What happens is exactly what could possibly have happened. Reality is the possible. Or to put it more technically, the borders of reality are coterminous with the borders of the possible; what did not happen by definition could not have happened.

Spinoza argues that the principal task of a human being is increasing their understanding, from which better action will follow. The condition for better action is better understanding; if we want to act better, we must increase our understanding and help others increase theirs. Spinoza argued that God alone is free, but only in the sense that there is nothing outside God that constrains God’s choices. He felt that human beings should strive to be free like God, which means that our decisions come from our own human nature (reason) and not from mere reactivity.

To say that the view that free will is an illusion faces popular hurdles would be an understatement. Without free will, sinners and criminals would not be worthy of blame, and any system of justice that emphasized punishing them rather than deterring, rehabilitating, or restraining them would lose its rationale. Those of us who work hard and do right would not “deserve” our success. Although we might enjoy our accomplishments, they would not be a source of pride. Conversely, we would be unable to feel that others poverty or suffering was well deserved.

Spinoza did not argue for fatalism or passivity. The idea that since everything is determined we should “not do anything” is based on an inadequate idea of how things work. We have no choice but to act and choose our actions as wisely as we can, and to delude ourselves that we are choosing to “do nothing” is just to make another choice, and a stupid one. We must choose, and deciding not to choose as well as we can would just be a foolish choice. Rather what we must understand, after we have made our choice, is that in fact we could not have made a better one. This frees us from guilt and wasted energy on remorse and self-hatred. What Spinoza seeks is not to stop us from acting, which is impossible, but rather to remove our pride, dejection and angst over our actions and with it several other unpleasant emotions like anger, pride, self-loathing, and regret.

Spinoza argued that the wise person was joyful and his life was a meditation on life, and criticised the religious of his time for being penitent, self-hating, and morose. He also argued in favor of laughter and the pleasures of the world, which as long as they are not enjoyed in excessive or unhealthy ways should be rejoiced in, not feared. He argued people flourish in connection to and collaboration with others, and that society should be based on rational co-operation. “There is nothing so useful to humans,” Spinoza wrote, “as other humans.”

Spinoza and Eastern Philosophy

It's worth briefly noting at this point the similarity between what Spinoza is saying and some Asian and Indian ontologies. Some Vedantins, for example, assert that all of reality is one and that everything unfolds as an expression of the one impersonal and imperishable being. They also deny free will. Some Buddhists assert, as Spinoza does, that all of reality is conscious. Some argue that beings do not have separate selves, that all moral judgments are relative to the context, that everything unfolds with a regular causal nexus, and that all things are interdependent. All of these ideas find parallels in Spinoza.

There are also important differences. Many Asian yogas, or philosophically informed disciplines, cultivate knowing reality through stilling the intellect and conceptual thought, whereas Spinoza emphasizes knowing reality through its cultivation and clarification. Both Buddhism and Hinduism contain many streams which teach that desire should be abandoned, but Spinoza sees desire as the essence of all living things and believes that desire needs not to be extinguished but led by reason. These are crude polarities, and one could argue that these differences are not as great as they at first seem- but I’ll leave that question for another time.

Spinoza’s Afterlife

Spinoza came to have a great influence on the philosophers of the European enlightenment. Many scholars believe his views helped inspire the fight for tolerance, freedom of thought, speech and religion, and the growth of democracy. They also helped to spur the growth of nature mysticism, scientific naturalism, pantheism, and materialism (depending on how Spinoza was interpreted). Scholars have shown that his thought had an indirect but powerful influence on the founding fathers of the United States.

In some quarters things have drastically changed for Spinoza: in his lifetime his books were made illegal by the Dutch government, while today a copy of Spinoza’s Ethics sits in the Dutch parliament as a book “representative of the fundamental beliefs of the Dutch people.”

Over the next several months I hope to post a series of shorter essays exploring many different aspects of Spinoza’s thought and its relationship to issues like free will, politics, pychotherapy, self-help, the ecological crisis, and….well, you’ll see. Come back and have a look.

Notes

[1] The Lords of the ma’amad, having long known of the evil opinions and acts of Baruch de Espinoza, have endeavoured by various means and promises, to turn him from his evil ways. But having failed to make him mend his wicked ways, and, on the contrary, daily receiving more and more serious information about the abominable heresies which he practised and taught and about his monstrous deeds, and having for this numerous trustworthy witnesses who have deposed and borne witness to this effect in the presence of the said Espinoza, they became convinced of the truth of the matter; and after all of this has been investigated in the presence of the honourable chachamin [sages], they have decided, with their consent, that the said Espinoza should be excommunicated and expelled from the people of Israel.

By the decree of the angels, and by the command of the holy men, we excommunicate, expel, curse and damn Baruch de Espinoza, with the consent of God, Blessed be He, and with the consent of all the Holy Congregation, in front of these holy Scrolls with the six-hundred-and-thirteen precepts which are written therein, with the excommunication with which Joshua banned Jericho, with the curse with which Elisha cursed the boys and with all the curses which are written in the Book of the Torah. Cursed be he by day and cursed be he by night; cursed be he when he lies down, and cursed be he when he rises up; cursed be he when he goes out, and cursed be he when he comes in. The Lord will not spare him; the anger and wrath of the Lord will rage against this man, and bring upon him all the curses which are written in this book, and the Lord will blot out his name from under heaven, and the Lord will separate him to his injury from all the tribes of Israel with all the curses of the covenant, which are written in the Book of the Law. But you who cleave unto the Lord God are all alive this day. We order that no one should communicate with him orally or in writing, or show him any favor, or stay with him under the same roof, or within eight feet of him, or read anything composed or written by him.

[2] A measure of the caution those sympathetic to Spinoza had to assume can be found in the example of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, who, as Stewart points out, was in the process of making contributions to the fields of “ chemistry, chronometry, geology, historiography, jurisprudence, linguistics, optics, philosophy, physics, poetry, and political theory.”

In a personal letter Leibniz described Spinoza’s work as “horrible” and “terrifying.” To a famous professor, he called it “intolerably impudent.” To a friend he confided, “I deplore that a man of such evident culture should have fallen so low.” Yet, as Stewart writes, “in the privacy of his study, Leibniz crammed his notebooks with meticulous commentaries on Spinoza’s writings. He exchanged secret letters with his public nemesis, addressing him as ‘celebrated doctor and profound philosopher.’” Leibniz sent a request to look at the manuscript copy of the Ethics through friends, and in November 1676 he traveled to The Hague and met privately with Spinoza.

[3] The common way of looking at things at the time was that countries were ruled by Kings and aristocrats (the powerful and wealthy) who had a divine prerogative to rule. There was one true religion- Christianity (or Judaism). Each country had one religion and others were illegal or at best tolerated as long as they kept quiet and obedient to the state religion. There was very limited freedom of thought, speech or philosophy, and the Bible was seen as the unique book written by God for all peoples- with bitter battles fought over which type of Christianity understood the Bible right, of course, as well as suppression of Jewish views. Spinoza’s views were seen by those in power as a radical threat. Among liberal Christian thinkers and political and philosophical radicals his book was welcomed with excitement, however, and his ideas quickly expanded the sense of what could be thought and said.

[4] Pantheism is, in brief, the assertion that God and the universe are identical. Panpsychism means that everything is conscious. As we shall see (and as conclusively demonstrated by both Michael Della Rocca and Yitzhak Melamed, for my more skeptical academic readers) Spinoza clearly argues that everything is conscious, though that does not mean that everything possesses self-consciousness or a complex mind.

[5] It is, however, an interesting corollary of Spinoza’s thought that God does not love itself since love is associated with an increase in joy and joy results from an increase in one’s wellbeing. God’s wellbeing never increases or decreases, so God experiences neither joy nor love in and of Itself. However when human beings understand and love God, God rejoices in Itself through that human mind, and thus Spinoza asserts that human love of God is in fact God’s love of Itself.

Matthew Gindin

Written by

Trying to be both civic and civil. Freelancer available for hire. https://www.matthewgindin.com/ https://www.patreon.com/mzgindin

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade