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Strange Wonder

All is God, But What Does That Mean? (Spinoza In Plain English pt. 4; Propositions 12–15)

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This is the fourth part of my quixotic attempt to explain “Spinoza In Plain English.” For my general introduction to Spinoza see here.

Propositions 12–15

In propositions 12 and 13 Spinoza asserts that Substance can not be divided into parts. Why should we care? Because what is at stake is Spinoza’s assertion that all things are manifestations of one reality and that though it appears to us that there are barriers and separations between things, this is not so. Substance, remember, is “Reality” for Spinoza. It is what is. In other words, what Spinoza is saying is that Reality cannot be divided up into parts. This abstract assertion is more important than it might at first appear.

Spinoza argues that Substance (something that exists in an of itself, exists by definition, and is understood through itself, which in these essays I have been calling “Reality”) can not be divided. If it was divided, it would mean one of the following:

  1. there is Reality plus something that is not Reality (which is impossible, since there cannot be anything outside of Reality, as he has already shown); or

2. There are two Realities, which is also impossible. They would both have to possess all the qualities of Reality- i.e. both be logically necessary, unlimited, exist and be understood through themselves. In this latter case, the two Realities could have no relation to each other and therefore could not be divisions of one thing. If they were divisions of one thing, they would at once lose their status as Reality. This is logically impossible, since divisions of one thing can not themselves exist necessarily, be unlimited, or have no relation to each other.

As a side note, this should not be misunderstood as a denial of the possibility of multiple universes. No matter how many universes there are, according to Spinoza they would simply all be expressions of the one Reality.

All of this no doubt seems very abstract. The usefulness of these arguments however, lay in convincing us of the two following things:

1)There is no real division between the being of things. This amounts to the insight which has been directly experienced by mystics and ecstatics throughout human history- “all is one.” Spinoza is trying to help us reach this realization through logic, not the more common road of an altered state of consciousness. His way is certainly not for everyone, but if one chews over the white bones of Spinoza’s arguments enough until one sees the truth of them, the benefit is that the conviction one reaches is stable and intellectually robust.

Spinoza’s assertion that all things are expressions of one reality with no stark divisions between things is in harmony with modern physics, which understands all particular objects as existing within one unified field.

Spinoza’s conclusion here could be summed up as follows: there is one substance, one reality, or one being, and one only. All that exists is an expression of that one reality. There is no real division between one person and another, or between humans and nature, or between my elbow and the table it rests on. The human intellect thinks of these entities as separate individuals (and with good logical reasons, as Spinoza will argue when he later sets out his clever definition of what an individual is).

We become confused, however, because we misunderstand what an individual is, and the relation between the individual and the whole that it is an expression of.

More on that later.

2) God

As we wrote earlier, for Spinoza Reality is God. God, who is unlimited (or infinite), exists necessarily, and unfolds according to the logic of its own being. It is the Reality of all that exists. One could say that for Spinoza the unified field of all energy is God, but one would have to understand consciousness as an inherent part of this field. Materialist physicists would reject Spinoza's view that the field is conscious and some might also reject his view that there is an inherent and intelligible logical structure to the field.

Coming back to the arguments of Proposition 11 and 12, we see that Spinoza’s meaning is that God cannot be divided. There is nothing outside God, and- more shockingly for Spinoza’s 17th century readers- there is nothing other than God. There is no division between God and beings. God is not more present in a saint than in an amoeba, although the knowledge of God may be. Spinoza conceives of God as radically immanent- both a human being and a mosquito are simply transformations of God: both a philanthropist and a murderer.

This is what Spinoza asserts in Proposition 14 and 15: No substance can be or be conceived besides God and Whatever is, is in God, and nothing can be, or be conceived, without God.

Many theists would agree to the idea that all things are expressions of God’s will, but Spinoza is going further and saying that all things are made of God and express God’s being. As Spinoza will write later, all things are modes, or transformations, of God.

Let’s pause for a moment. What are you, most deeply, reader?

You are a mode or transformation of God.

For theists, this leaves a lot of open questions- questions which The Ethics will indeed offer answers to as we go. Some of these questions might be, does God then desire and choose everything that happens to happen? Is it all part of God’s plan? Is God then also physical, and not pure spirit as many have said? Does God will everything for the good? Does God’s care permeate everything?

As you may suspect, Spinoza’s answers to these questions will not be the traditional ones, and will in fact subvert the traditional answers in a way that preserves the grain of truth within them while radically transforming them. I will leave the examination of his first forays into answering these questions, which come as Proof and Scholium to Proposition 15, for the next essay.

For the next in this series, please click here.




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Matthew Gindin

Matthew Gindin

Trying to be both civic and civil. Freelancer available for hire.

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