Spinoza: Finding Freedom in Understanding
The philosopher who inspired Einstein
“ 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.”
In July of 1656, the congregation of the Talmud Torah in Amsterdam lit candles, prayed, and issued a herem — a curse. The subject of that highest censure of Judaism was Baruch Spinoza. The young philosopher was accursed and expelled from the community that had raised him.
Not only was Spinoza a refugee Jew in a Christian country, he was now a refugee from his fellow refugees.
The censure reads:
“[H]aving 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 […] By the decree of the angels, and by the command of the holy men, we excommunicate, expel, curse and damn Baruch de Espinoza.”
The twenty-three year-old philosopher had been at odds with his community for his views for some time. Spinoza was outspoken at a time when the unusual freedoms of the 17th century Dutch Republic were being curtailed by religious fundamentalists.
The Republic had won liberation from the Spanish Empire in 1581 after a long war. The “Dutch Golden Age” followed in the seventeenth century as the arts and sciences flourished in its cosmopolitan cities. However, in Spinoza’s era militant Protestant Royalists sought to impose religious restrictions.
The Jewish community had found sanctuary in the Dutch Republic from the Portuguese Inquisition. As such they were in a precarious position; they were tolerated but instructed not to preach against Christianity. This blasphemous Jew was a liability to them.
The young philosopher was also a threat their belief system. He was attacked on the steps of the Synagogue by a knife-wielding assailant after he had questioned the authorship of the Torah. Spinoza kept his torn cloak as a souvenir of his lucky escape.
At the root of the “abominable heresies” so upsetting to Jews and Christians was Spinoza’s peculiar — but ancient — idea of God. Spinoza believed that God was in everything: us, the world, the sky, space, animals, particles and other people. God and nature, according to Spinoza’s philosophy, are the same thing.
Later in life Spinoza wrote The Ethics, a book that laid out his philosophy in a highly precise manner. The book is composed of five parts. Each part is structured with a rigorous logic that mimics Euclid’s Elements, the ancient handbook of geometry. They begin with definitions of terms, then axioms (self-evident truths (for example, if a=b then b=a is an axiom)) then Spinoza moves on to theorems.
These components are built on top of each other systematically. By the end of each chapter, Spinoza demonstrates a “truth” that is necessarily true by virtue of reason, not observation. This is important: Spinoza was a Rationalist, a philosopher who came to his conclusions without empirical observations of the world.
This is why Euclid’s Elements served as an ideal model for Ethics. Spinoza believed his ethical theory to be as necessarily true as the fact that a triangle has three sides.
The philosopher is often spoken of as a “philosopher’s philosopher” because he took on the most challenging questions by building a system with the power of reasoning. Ethics seeks to answer some of the most perplexing problems that mankind has grappled with. The chapter titles and the questions they seek to answer are as follows:
- Of God — why does anything exist?
- Of the Nature and Origin of Mind— what is existence?
- Of the Origin and Nature of the Affects — what is our place in existence?
- Of Human Bondage, or the Powers of the Affects — Do we have free will?
- Of the Power of the Intellect or On Human Freedom — How should we live?
Substance, Nature and God
In the first chapter, tackling the tricky “why anything?” question, Spinoza works his way down: down into things themselves to the root of existence.
Consider the table I’m working at now. The table is made of wood. Wood is composed of cellulose fibres and lignin. These are made up of phenolic polymers and polysaccharides, which can then be reduced to monosaccharides which are compounds of the elements carbon, hydrogen and oxygen.
We can further reduce down to subatomic particles such as electrons and protons and then quarks. Ultimately we hit a point where we reach an end to materiality. We reach what Spinoza defined as substance. For Spinoza “substance” is that which lies below the appearance of things.
Spinoza was a “monist”, he believed that there could only be one substance behind everything. The definition that he took for substance comes from René Descartes: substance is that which is not dependent on anything else.
No matter what you reduce down — tables, trees, people, planets, stars — you will find a substance that can no longer be reduced and nor is it dependent on anything else.
If substance can’t be reduced, it can’t be different. Therefore, the philosopher reasoned, there is only one substance. All the different things in the world are simply modifications of the same fundamental substance.
The computer I’m writing on now is dependent on millions of things to be here now: metal, glass, silicone, all the processes of manufacturing, the logistics of getting to me etc. All these are causes of its coming into being. But existence itself — substance — isn’t dependent on anything at all.
Things get interesting at this point. The one substance must be limitless and self-sufficient. This is because substance is outside of the laws of cause and effect.
Substance is the cause of all beings and therefore must be self-created (eternal). We’re now starting to see that “substance” as Spinoza defines it is identical to what we would expect God to be like (whether we believe in God or not).
Spinoza believed that God is the substance that lies beneath everything. If God is limitless, the philosopher reasoned that it must be the case. If God wasn’t in everything, God would not be all-powerful and infinite.
The common image of God in the Christian world is the paternal old man with the white beard in the clouds of Heaven. The Christian God enacts miracles and pays attention to what is going on here on earth. Spinoza’s God is impersonal; a deterministic system through which everything happens by necessity.
If God had a reason to create the universe, then God would be subject to cause and effect: God’s decision to create the universe would have been caused somehow. For Spinoza, the universe is the unfolding of God’s nature in accordance with laws that are eternal. God doesn’t act, God just is.
If God is substance, and everything is composed of substance, God must also be nature. This is why Spinoza used the words “God or Nature” (Deus sive Natura).
People often think of nature as “countryside” or “the wild”. The way Spinoza uses the word is all encompassing. Everything we make has natural origins. Cities are as much “nature” as jungles are. Our distinction between “man made” and “natural” actually blinds us to the order of the universe.
The limits of the universe is not the limit of God, however. God has infinitely many other attributes which are not present in our world. Human beings have access to the mental world and the physical world, but these are only two attributes of infinity (remember: God is infinite, so must have infinite attributes).
Everything is Perfect
“God or Nature” is limitless and perfect. If that’s the case then everything is as it should be. Everything is perfect.
Spinoza believed that the law of cause and effect, and the perfection of existence, means that everything — including our lives — is predetermined. This is what philosophers call “determinism” — the idea that even our mental “choices” follow the laws of cause and effect. Spinoza has a great deal in common with the ancient Stoics in this respect.
Free will is a misunderstanding of reality. We believe we have free will because we are conscious of our actions. However, we are not entirely aware of all the causes of our actions. The huge web of causes and effects of which we are a part is too complex to understand.
″the infant believes that it is by free will that it seeks the breast; the angry boy believes that by free will he wishes vengeance; the timid man thinks it is with free will he seeks flight.”
If we truly had free will, we would be the cause of ourselves. Actions, after all, require causes. Only “God or Nature” can be the cause of itself.
What about freedom? Freedom, as the philosopher defined it, is the capacity to know that everything is determined. Since “knowing” this needs no powers of observation (in fact it’s impossible prove things are determined by empirical observation), the key to freedom is reason.
Instead of being anxious about our choices in life — and a God that judges and intervenes in the world — Spinoza thought that people’s awareness of this reality would bring tranquility. The attitude we take to our circumstances determines our happiness. If we see the order of existence as perfection, our mind can be put to ease.
Knowledge and understanding are distinct. Knowledge is something you accumulate. You can accumulate more knowledge by buying books or going to an expensive school.
Understanding is free. It comes from the process of reasoning. What’s beautiful about Spinoza’s philosophy is that it shows that we can find freedom through reason alone, not by buying books or going to a school.
Spinoza’s philosophical system is one of the most influential in history. Even if they found problems with Ethics, countless philosophers have expressed admiration for the philosopher’s ambition. Spinoza is one of the few to theorise an all-encompassing system that seeks to explain the most difficult questions we face.
Spinoza’s ideas have also proved immensely influential in the scientific field. This is in part because he set out to rationalise the world beyond the observable. Spinoza’s spiritual beliefs inspired Albert Einstein’s own.
“My views are near those of Spinoza: admiration for the beauty of and belief in the logical simplicity of the order which we can grasp humbly and only imperfectly. I believe that we have to content ourselves with our imperfect knowledge and understanding and treat values and moral obligations as a purely human problem — the most important of all human problems.”
Courage of Convictions
What captures the popular imagination is the courage of Spinoza’s convictions. Despite an assassination attempt, despite being accursed, ostracised and even offered bribes, the philosopher never renounced his views. He was offered a professorship with a generous salary, but Spinoza chose to study and teach privately, lest his views were compromised.
The philosopher worked as a lens grinder to make a relatively humble living instead. Spinoza was fascinated by optics and his work on lenses was significant. He died in 1687 at the age of just forty-four. A lung condition killed him, perhaps as a result of breathing the glass dust from his work.
Ethics was published by his followers posthumously and in secrecy, just in case the authorities attempted to confiscate the original papers.
Spinoza was one of the first truly modern men. This is not only due to his secular life, but because of the original ideas that brought him to his conclusions. Einstein noted that “Spinoza is the greatest of modern philosophers, because he is the first philosopher who deals with the soul and the body as one, not as two separate things.”
The scientist dedicated a poem to Spinoza. One of the verses goes as follows:
How much do I love that noble man
More than I could tell with words
I fear though he’ll remain alone
With a holy halo of his own.
Thank you for reading. I hope you learned something new.
Spinoza’s philosophy has a lot in common with Stoicism. If you enjoyed this article you might like my article about Marcus Aurelius, the Stoic Philosopher-Emperor: