Baruch Spinoza


“The multitude always strains after rarities and exceptions, and thinks little of the gifts of nature; so that, when prophecy is talked of, ordinary knowledge is not supposed to be included. Nevertheless it has as much right as any other to be called Divine.” — Baruch Spinoza

Spinoza is a legend among philosophers.

Hegel said,

“You are either a Spinozist or not a philosopher at all.”

Lessing stated,

“There is no other philosophy than the philosophy of Spinoza.”

Emerson even considered him a “saint”. And Nietzsche, on first discovering Spinoza was,

“Utterly amazed, utterly enchanted,” declaring, “my lonesomeness, which, as on very high mountains, often made it hard for me to breathe and make my blood rush out, is now at least a twosomeness.”

The phrase, “God of Spinoza” or “Spinoza’s God” are often used by scientists. Carl Sagan’s son, Dorian, said his father believed in, “the God of Spinoza.” Albert Einstein said, “I believe in Spinoza’s God.”

In fact, Spinoza may have had no greater fan than Einstein himself:

“How much do I love that noble man, more than I could say with words.”

“We followers of Spinoza see our God in the wonderful order and lawfulness of all that exists and in its soul as it reveals itself in man and animal.”

“I have not found a better expression than religious … to describe [my] emotional and psychological attitude which shows itself most clearly in Spinoza.”

“Spinoza was the first to apply with strict consistency the idea of an all-pervasive determinism to human thought, feeling, and action. In my opinion, his point of view has not gained general acceptance by all those striving for clarity and logical rigor only because it requires not only consistency of thought, but also unusual integrity, magnamity, and — modesty.”

Philosophers have called Spinoza the “prophet” and “prince” of pantheism. Indeed, the word pantheism itself was invented to categorize his philosophy.

He has been embraced by those who call their expression “religious”, such as Einstein, as well as those like philosopher George Santayana who consider themselves atheist:

“My atheism, like that of Spinoza, is true piety towards the universe and denies only gods fashioned by men in their own image.”

The debate about Spinoza’s alleged atheism is not new. On a cold New Year’s Eve in 1783, philosopher Moses Mendelssohn braved chilly weather and hand delivered his manuscript for the defense of a friend, who was being accused of following the “atheist” Baruch Spinoza. He explained that his friend was not following an atheist, but a “pantheist”.  Mendelssohn died four days later as the result of a cold thought to have been contracted while carrying this manuscript to his publisher. The book sparked what was known as the “pantheist controversy”, which popularized Baruch Spinoza’s work.

Over a hundred years earlier in 1677, Spinoza had just died at the age of 44 after living a modest life as a lens grinder. His strong convictions had caused him to be banned from the Jewish community in his twenties. He lived a frugal quiet life and gave away his money. When he died, his friends helped publish what would become his most important work, The Ethics, a difficult and cryptic mathematically structured philosophy masterwork.

In The Ethics, written in Latin, Spinoza defines God as everything,

“By God, I mean an absolutely infinite being, that is, substance, consisting of infinite attributes, each of which expresses eternal and infinite essence.”

“God is the indwelling and not the transient cause of all things.”

He says that “Deus sive Natura” (God or Nature) has infinitely many attributes of which we have limited access, and that everything is intertwined, causal, and from the same substance. He says that knowledge is the path to the Divine:

“The more we know of particular things, the more we know of God”

He says that knowledge, in addition, is the path to freedom:

“The highest activity a human being can attain is learning for understanding, because to understand is to be free.”

Spinoza distinguishes between a man-made personal God and the God of Nature:

“Man can, indeed, act contrarily to the decrees of God, as far as they have been written like laws in the minds of ourselves or the prophets, but against that eternal decree of God, which is written in universal nature, and has regard to the course of nature as a whole, he can do nothing.”

“He who loves God cannot strive that God should love him in return.”

He further comments:

“As regards miracles, I am of opinion that the revelation of God can only be established by the wisdom of the doctrine, not by miracles, or in other words by ignorance.”

“For I believe that, if a triangle could speak, it would say, in like manner, that God is eminently triangular, while a circle would say that the divine nature is eminently circular. Thus each would ascribe to God its own attributes, would assume itself to be like God, and look on everything else as ill-shaped.”

“If a circle be defined as a figure, such that all straight lines drawn from the center to the circumference are equal, everyone can see that such a definition does not in the least explain the essence of a circle, but solely one of its properties.”

He says that nature is determined:

“Everything in nature is a cause from which there flows some effect.”

“Nothing in Nature is random… A thing appears random only through the incompleteness of our Knowledge.”

“Nature offers nothing that can be called this man’s rather than another’s; but under nature everything belongs to all.”

“All things are conditioned to exist and operate in a particular manner by the necessity of divine nature.”

He believes there are no distinctions beyond what we create in our mind:

“If men were born free, they would form no concept of good and evil so long as they remained free. I call him free who is led by reason alone. Therefore, he who is born free, and remains free, has only adequate ideas, and so has no concept of evil. And since good and evil are correlates, he also has no concept of good.”

“In the state of nature, wrong-doing is impossible; or, if anyone does wrong, it is to himself, not to another. For no one by the law of nature is bound to please another, unless he chooses, nor to hold anything to be good or evil, but what he himself, according to his own temperament, pronounces to be so; and, to speak generally, nothing is forbidden by the law of nature, except what is beyond everyone’s power.”

“I would warn you that I do not attribute to nature either beauty or deformity, order or confusion. Only in relation to our imagination can things be called beautiful or ugly, well-ordered or confused.”

He promotes free thought:

“As men’s habits of mind differ, so that some more readily embrace one form of faith, some another, for what moves one to pray may move another to scoff, I conclude … that everyone should be free to choose for himself the foundations of his creed, and that faith should be judged only by its fruits; each would then obey God freely with his whole heart, while nothing would be publicly honoured save justice and charity.”

“I have laboured carefully, not to mock, lament, or execrate, but to understand human actions; and to this end I have looked upon passions, such as love, hatred, anger, envy, ambition, pity, and the other perturbations of the mind, not in the light of vices of human nature, but as properties, just as pertinent to it, as are heat, cold, storm, thunder, and the like to the nature of the atmosphere, which phenomena, though inconvenient, are yet necessary, and have fixed causes, by means of which we endeavor to understand their nature…”

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