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Spinoza In Plain English pt 5: God’s Body (Proposition 15)

Photo by Francesco Paggiaro from Pexels

This is the latest post in my quixotic attempt to write an accessible commentary on all of Spinoza’s Ethics. See here for An Introduction To Spinoza or start the series at the beginning with Spinoza In Plain English pt.1: Substance.

In Proposition 15 Spinoza throws down the gauntlet and says, “Whatever is, is in God, and nothing can be, or be conceived, without God.”

All things- what Spinoza calls “modes”- are transformations of God and are seen by means of God.

If all is God and seen by means of God, who sees them?

That’s right: God.

The universe is nothing but God experiencing itself by means of itself. Why? No reason at all. That’s simply what God does- what God has always done and will always do (Spinoza will have more interesting things to say about this idea of God knowing itself later on).

There is a strong resonance here to the Tantric idea of “lila” which states that God creates not out of any grand, noble idea or messianic plan, but simply to play. Why? That’s what God does. It is God’s nature to God: to create ordered, interconnected and vital life out of itself, in itself, for itself.

In the Scholium Spinoza turns to consider anthropomorphic ideas of God: “There are some who surmise that God consists, like a human being, of body and mind and as subject to passions. But it is evident from what we have proved above how far they are from a true cognition of God.”

Spinoza goes on to say that the idea that God has a body is ludicrous, and to demonstrate why. He also argues, though, that the idea that God is not physical is likewise ludicrous. He will come back to discuss the “mind subject to passions” a little further on.

Spinoza points out that bodies are finite objects which occupy a definite span and location, but God, as he has proven, is unlimited. He then says, though, that those who deny corporeality, or form, to God, are also wrong:

“They completely exclude corporeal or extended substance from the divine nature and insist that it was created by God.” He goes on to point out that they have no way of explaining or conceiving how God could create corporeal nature and “do not understand what they are saying.” How could the formless create form? This is an entirely incoherent assertion which no human can actually form a clear conception of.

As Spinoza has shown previously, corporeal substance (or “the attribute of extension”) cannot be created since it is an inherent attribute of Reality and therefore expresses “unlimited and eternal essence (nature).” In more accessible language, what he is saying is the physical aspect of Realiy cannot be created from nothing and so must always have existed. It is an inherent aspect of God’s nature. God is not before or behind it — extension in space in some form is an attribute of God’s eternal and infinite being. Neither God nor any of God’s attributes, which follow from God’s nature, can be created or destroyed.

Spinoza then addresses the idea that corporeal substance is “unworthy of the divine nature.” He surmises that it is the passivity, vulnerability and corruptibility of matter that makes it profane in the eyes of reverential theologians. Who in their right mind would say that God is excrement, a maggot, plastic waste, the vulnerable flesh of an animal? This hesitancy is mistaken, says Spinoza, because nothing acts on God outside of God itself.

Spinoza’s argument here again has resonance with Eastern thought. A Zen Koan states:

What is Buddha?

A dried shit-stick.

The meaning is that Buddha-nature — which for our purposes we’ll just define crudely and imperfectly as the divine/sacred principle in Buddhism — is in everything. If you balk at saying it’s in a dried shit-stick, you don’t get it.

It is meaningless, argues Spinoza in effect, to argue that God cannot be what humans judge to be shameful, passive and vulnerable. Later he will argue these judgments themselves are mistaken and humans are foolish to judge the perfection or imperfection of things in nature by our own biased standards.

Here, though, Spinoza is simply saying that it is illogical to claim that materiality cannot be God because it is passive, since that which acts on materiality is also God. In other words, all of nature is simply God acting on Itself.

The idea that God has no form but simply creates all the forms of the universe is common in world religions, but Spinoza is arguing that this is incoherent- there is nothing but God. The forms of the universe are simply transformations of God, and God is not formless. As Spinoza will say later, the countless forms of the universe are “the face of God.”

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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