Baruch Spinoza was an early-modern Dutch philosopher who challenged Judeo-Christian values like never before. He was born in Amsterdam in 1632 to middle-class parents and showed academic promise but had to cut his studies short to help with his father’s import business. Nevertheless, Spinoza underwent a rigorous self-study of philosophy and developed his own intellectual ideas independent of formal institutions.
By the time Spinoza was 24, and before he had even published any of his writings, he was excommunicated from the church for “abominable heresies.” These heresies were not made fully clear to the world until decades later with the posthumous publication of Spinoza’s Ethics in 1677. In the Ethics, Spinoza rejects many cherished religious notions such as the personal immortality of the soul, a God separate from nature, and the validity of scripture and its laws.
Spinoza describes God as the single substance that constitutes nature and its laws and from which all else follows in a manner fully determined by cause and effect. In this system, there is no room for a personal God that fulfills prayers and enacts miracles of His own free will; such actions would violate the inviolable laws of nature, which alone necessitate all outcomes.
Paradoxically, Spinoza argues that the only way to be “free” is to understand and accept the principle of determinism. Most humans, Spinoza observes, are slaves to the passions, and consequently experience “troublesome emotional ups and downs” based on whether or not their hopes, fears, and desires are fulfilled. Put differently, our happiness is precarious when grounded in the outcomes of external events beyond our control.
The way out is to gain knowledge of the law of cause and effect, which dictates that the outcomes we experience — good and bad — are inevitable. One can thus dispense with troublesome apprehensions about what is to come. In Spinoza’s words:
“For we see that Sadness over some good which has perished is lessened as soon as the man who has lost it realizes that this good could not, in any way, have been kept.”
According to Spinoza, fostering this understanding affords an attitude of calm toward past, present, and future events and allows us to trade in our love of ephemeral goods for an intellectual love of the rational structure of God or Nature.
This approach shores up one’s happiness, which becomes rooted in something eternal (God) rather than transient (e.g. riches, fame, or sensual pleasure). It also fosters greater social harmony by eliminating the source of social conflict: competing passions that generate negative emotions such as anger, hate, envy, pride, and jealousy. These passions are replaced by “the guidance of reason,” which leads members of a society to “do only those things that are good for human nature, and hence, for each man.”
In the Ethics, Spinoza endeavors to explain the true nature of God, which he views as the single, self-caused, infinite substance comprising the whole of the universe and causing all subsequent things.
Spinoza endeavors to prove this “substance monism” with logical principles, which he lays out in the writing style of Euclid’s mathematical treatise Elements. Each chapter of the Ethics contains five sections:
1) Definitions: key terms.
2) Axioms: self-evident truths.
3) Propositions: arguments formed from the preceding premises.
4) Scholium: an explanation and defense of a proposition.
5) Appendix: additional information.
Spinoza’s very first move is to define a “cause in itself” as a thing whose essence implies existence, i.e. cannot be conceived except as existing (D1).
Next, Spinoza defines substance as “what is in itself and is conceived through itself,” positing a thing that requires nothing but itself to exist and be understood (D3).
Spinoza then contrasts a substance with a mode, or “something that exists in and is conceived through something else” (D5).
By pairing these definitions with the axiom that everything in existence must be either “in itself” or “in something else” (A1), Spinoza sets the stage to assert an ultimate cause for all of the caused modes: Deus sive Natura, or “God or Nature.”
How does Spinoza arrive at his monism — the conclusion that there is only one, rather than multiple causes?
To answer this question, we must establish Spinoza’s definition of “attribute”: the essence of a substance as understood by the intellect (D4).
Because a substance is self-caused, it possesses “existence” as one of its attributes, or part of its essence. An essence is what makes something itself and not something else, i.e. what distinguishes it from all other things. Two substances therefore cannot have the same essence, for then they would cease to be different. As a result, the argument concludes, there can only be one substance (P5).
Finally, and perhaps most difficulty, Spinoza demonstrates why this substance must be infinite.
To understand his reasoning, we must note Spinoza’s definition of “finite in its own kind”: a thing that can be limited by another, greater thing of its nature — such as a body limiting a body or a thought limiting a thought — but never by a thing of a different nature (D2).
Now, the term “infinite” can be thought of as “unlimited” in the sense of “nothing greater” and “nothing limiting.” Recall that existence is part of a substance’s essence. At this point, we are presented with the following options for a substance’s existence: either it is finite (limited) or infinite (unlimited).
By D2, we know that a thing can be limited only by something in its own kind. But we know by P5 that there is only one substance. Therefore there is nothing capable of limiting a substance, which implies substance must be unlimited/infinite.
Spinoza ends Part I of the Ethics by disparaging organized religion, which he regards as the product of human ignorance and vanity.
Because humans were aware of their earthly provisions both within (e.g. “eyes for seeing”) and without (e.g. “plants and animals for food”) they assumed that there must be a provider of them: God. But since they had no knowledge about this provider’s nature, they invented it using human traits such as anger, jealousy, generosity, etc.
Humans then developed self-serving religious myths, vainly attempting to have “God…love him above all the rest, and direct the whole of Nature according to the needs of his blind desire and insatiable greed.” Myths, along with superstitions and dogmas, are also said to serve as a means for religious leaders to justify their authority.
To Spinoza, this is utter folly, rooted in a lack of understanding of God or Nature’s laws. Spinoza argues that God is not some human-like entity who chooses to act or not act, but rather a system of cause and effect that determines reality.
Part II of the Ethics is an investigation of the mind. In it, Spinoza defines key terms such as idea: a concept the mind forms because it is a thinking thing, and image: a mental rendering of a body. To add nuance, Spinoza acknowledges that one can retain the image of a body even after it is no longer present. He calls this imagining.
Spinoza also defines memory: the process of forming ideas about various images and connecting them to one another in an attempt to understand their nature. The particular connections one makes vary based on one’s experiences. Spinoza gives the following example:
“A soldier who sees hoof-prints in the sand will immediately think of a horse, then a horseman, then a war, and so on; while a farmer will think of a horse, then a plough, then a field, and so on.”
At this point, Spinoza reminds us that having adequate knowledge of something requires a full understanding of its causes. Without this, our knowledge is “incomplete and mutilated,” the result of mere “chance encounters.”
Spinoza ends Part II with a radical statement: “In the mind, there is no absolute (that is free) will.”
He asserts that it is only possible for an individual to will because God or Nature has caused them to be able to; a relationship he compares to “stone-ness — a particular pebble.”
Importantly, Spinoza defines will as “a capacity for affirming and denying, and not for desiring.” He argues that individual affirmations and denials occur only because the idea associated with the act of will entails them.
To demonstrate this, Spinoza cites his beloved proof that “the three angles of a triangle are equal to two right angles.” Upon understanding the nature of a triangle, there is no choice but to affirm that its angles equal 180 degrees. Put differently, the affirmation is contained within the idea itself.
As for Part III, Spinoza develops a compelling theory of human psychology using the “affects.” He defines an affect as “[a] state of a body by which its power of acting is increased or lessened, helped or hindered.”
To Spinoza, “to act” means to be the adequate cause of an effect. In Spinoza’s words, it is “when something happens that follows from our nature, and can be clearly and distinctly understood through it alone.”
Spinoza identifies three primary affects: pleasure, unpleasure, and desire. Pleasure is a state that increases one’s power to act and preserve-in-being (i.e. remain in existence unchanged) while unpleasure decreases this power. Desire is “the faculty by which the mind wants a thing or avoids it.”
Spinoza views all the other affects as derivations of these three primary states. For example, love is just pleasure accompanied by an idea of that pleasure’s source, while hate is unpleasure accompanied by an idea of that unpleasure’s source. Similarly, hope is an anticipated source of pleasure while fear is an anticipated source of unpleasure.
More complex emotions such as vindictiveness and resentment are also traceable to the primary affects: the former being pleasure felt from the unpleasure of what we hate, the latter being unpleasure felt from the pleasure of what we hate.
Spinoza identifies how the affects may cause problems. Take, for example, the concept of emulation: “desiring a thing” because we “imagine others have the same desire.” Spinoza astutely notes that the desire to emulate often clashes with our desire to do what pleases us in instances where others hate what we love. In this situation, we try to persuade others to hate or love what we do. In this importunance, we become “an obstacle to one another; and when [we] all want to be praised or loved by all, [we all] hate one another.”
Part IV discusses why humans typically lack the power to restrain their affects, and consequently lead lives “at the mercy of fortune”; ones wherein “though they see what would be better for them, they are compelled to go after something worse.”
Why this is, according to Spinoza, is multifaceted, but here are his salient points:
• An affect cannot be restrained or removed except by another affect opposite to it and stronger than it. Reason alone is not sufficient; we require a countervailing emotional state.
• Desire is our very essence; it is what motivates us to stay in existence. This is the “conatus” principle that each body strives to preserve itself.
• Active desires (ones arising from purely internal causes, i.e. our nature alone) can be “extinguished” by passive desires (ones arising from both internal and external causes). Passive desires, being supplied internally and externally, are stronger than active desires, which are supplied only internally.
• A future desire (e.g. to remain healthy) can be overtaken by a present desire (e.g. to overeat). We feel desires related to the present more intensely than desires related to the future.
• A desire arising from pleasure (e.g. to eat tasty food) is stronger than a desire arising from unpleasure (e.g. to eat nutritious food). Feeling pleasure from fulfilling a desire reinforces the desire while feeling unpleasure from fulfilling a desire lessens the desire.
These are some of the forces that bind us to the emotions and keep us confused and unstable, “tossing [us] about like waves on the sea driven by contrary winds.”
The path to freedom lies in virtue, which Spinoza defines as “acting, living, and staying in existence by the guidance of reason, on the basis of seeking one’s own real advantage.”
To Spinoza, “we act only to the extent we understand.” In other words, the more we cultivate a knowledge of God or Nature, the more we can be our own cause rather than being emotionally determined by external causes.
In Part V, Spinoza explains that understanding God or Nature leads to freedom in at least three important ways:
1) When one appreciates the multiplicity of causes and effects that beget a given moment, one no longer forms the mistaken idea that a single person or thing is the sole cause of some effect (e.g. how someone is treating you). In seeing this, one feels less passionately about any one cause, and therefore is less subject to passive affects (i.e. less emotionally stirred by external causes).
2) Because God or Nature is eternal, God or Nature is not subject to the same pitfalls of other so-called “goods,” which are impermanent and finite. God or Nature, on the contrary, can be enjoyed by all without fear of being lost, and is therefore the highest and most choiceworthy of all goods.
3) By understanding God or Nature, one comes to know the aspect of oneself that is eternal. Our existence and intellect are caused by God’s eternal existence and intellect. Therefore, while our individual body — along with its imagination and memory — may perish, our intellect remains eternally intact in God or Nature.
Spinoza ends the Ethics with the following words of solemn encouragement:
“The road to these things that I have pointed out now seems very hard, but it can be found. And of course something that is found so rarely is bound to be hard. For if salvation were ready to hand and could be found without great effort, how could it come about that almost everyone neglects it? But excellence is as difficult as it is rare.”