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Baruch Spinoza

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Baruch Spinoza
Thinking hardly
or hardly thinking?

Icon philosophy.svg
Major trains of thought
The good, the bad,
and the brain fart
Come to think of it

Baruch or Benedict de Spinoza (1632-77) was a Dutch philosopher of Portuguese Jewish origin who was kicked out of his synagogue due to his views on the Hebrew scriptures and his philosophy. Revealing considerable scientific aptitude, the breadth and importance of Spinoza's work was not fully realized until years after his death. Today, he is considered one of the great rationalists of 17th-century philosophy, laying the groundwork for the 18th century Enlightenment and modern biblical criticism. By virtue of his magnum opus, the posthumous Ethics,Wikipedia Spinoza is also considered one of Western philosophy's definitive ethicists. His work was thoroughly ambitious in the sense that he was one of the "God's-eye-view metaphysicists who thought they could explain everything by logic and mathematics."[1] According to this philosophy, he thought the best state of mind of a human being was to use reason and not emotion; therefore, in many ways, his philosophy was antecedent to, and definitely a part of the Enlightenment era in Europe, at least in the estimation of modern philosophers.

Spinoza's moral character and philosophical accomplishments prompted 20th century philosopher Gilles Deleuze to name him "the absolute philosopher."[2]


Spinoza contended that everything that exists in Nature/the Universe is one Reality (substance) and there is only one set of rules governing the whole of the reality which surrounds us and of which we are part.[3] According to this view, substance is "that which exists by itself and which is conceived by itself" and which "embraces all reality" and is eternal (outside the limits of time) and infinite (extending in all directions in space forever.)[4] Spinoza viewed God and Nature as two names for the same reality, namely the single substance (meaning "that which stands beneath" rather than "matter") that is the basis of the Universe and of which all lesser "entities" are actually modes or modifications, that all things are determined by Nature to exist and cause effects, and that the complex chain of cause and effect is only understood in part. That humans presume themselves to have free will, he argues, is a result of their awareness of appetites while being unable to understand the reasons why they want and act as they do.

Spinoza was a thoroughgoing determinist who held that absolutely everything that happens occurs through the operation of necessity, sometimes seen as "ironbound laws which bind God to His attributes."[5] For him, even human behaviour is fully determined, with freedom being our capacity to know we are determined and to understand why we act as we do. So freedom is not the possibility to say "no" to what happens to us, but the possibility to say "yes" and fully understand why things should necessarily happen that way. By forming more "adequate" ideas about what we do and about our emotions or affections, we become the adequate cause of our effects (internal or external), which entails an increase in activity (versus passivity). This means that we become both more free and more like God, as Spinoza argues in the Scholium to Prop. 49, Part II. However, Spinoza also held that everything must necessarily happen the way that it does. Therefore, humans have no free will.[6] They believe, however, that their will is free. In his letter to G. H. Schaller (Letter 62), he wrote: "men are conscious of their own desire, but are ignorant of the causes whereby that desire has been determined.[7]

Spinoza's philosophy has much in common with Stoicism in as much as both philosophies sought to fulfill a therapeutic role by instructing people how to attain happiness.[8][9] However, Spinoza differed sharply from the Stoics in one important respect: he utterly rejected their contention that reason could defeat emotion. On the contrary, he contended, an emotion can only be displaced or overcome by a stronger emotion. For him, the crucial distinction was between active and passive emotions, the former being those that are rationally understood and the latter those that are not. He also held that knowledge of true causes of passive emotion can transform it to an active emotion, thus anticipating one of the key ideas of Sigmund Freud's psychoanalysis.

Some of Spinoza's philosophical positions are:

  • The natural world is unlimited.
  • Good and bad are related to "joy" and "sorrow". Joy is defined as something which increases one's own power, and sorrow the opposite.
  • The devaluation of "good and evil" as well as all other values.[10][11]
  • Everything done by humans and other animals is excellent and divine.
  • All rights are derived from the State.
  • Animals can be used in any way by people for the benefit of the human race, according to a rational consideration of the benefit as well as the animal's status in nature.[12]

Ethical philosophy[edit]

A statue dedicated to Spinoza

Encapsulated at the start in his Treatise on the Improvement of the Understanding (Tractatus de intellectus emendatione) is the core of Spinoza's ethical philosophy, what he held to be the true and final good. Spinoza held an amoral position, that nothing is intrinsically good or bad, except to the extent that it is subjectively perceived to agree in essence with the individual.[13] Things are only good or evil in respect that humanity sees it desirable to apply these conceptions to matters. Instead, Spinoza believes in his deterministic universe that, "All things in nature proceed from certain necessity and with the utmost perfection." Therefore, nothing happens by chance in Spinoza's world, and reason does not work in terms of contingency.

In the Universe anything that happens comes from the essential nature of objects, or of God/Nature. According to Spinoza, reality is perfection. If circumstances are seen as unfortunate it is only because of our inadequate conception of reality. While elements of the chain of cause and effect are not beyond the understanding of human reason, our grasp of the infinitely complex whole is limited because of the limits of science to empirically take account of the whole sequence. Spinoza also asserted that sense perception, though practical and useful for rhetoric, is inadequate for discovering universal truth; Spinoza's mathematical and logical approach to metaphysics, and therefore ethics, concluded that emotion is formed from inadequate understanding. His concept of conatus states that human beings' natural inclination is to strive toward preserving an essential being and an assertion that virtue/human power is defined by success in this preservation of being by the guidance of reason as one's central ethical doctrine. According to Spinoza, the highest virtue is the intellectual love or knowledge of God/Nature/Universe.

In the final part of the Ethics his concern with the meaning of "true blessedness" and his unique approach to and explanation of how emotions must be detached from external cause in order to master them presages 20th-century psychological techniques. His concept of three types of knowledge — opinion, reason, intuition — and assertion that intuitive knowledge provides the greatest satisfaction of mind, leads to his proposition that the more we are conscious of ourselves and Nature/Universe, the more perfect and blessed we are (in reality) and that only intuitive knowledge is eternal. His unique contribution to understanding the workings of mind is extraordinary, even during this time of radical philosophical developments, in that his views provide a bridge between religions' mystical past and psychology of the present day.

Given Spinoza's insistence on a completely ordered world where "necessity" reigns, Good and Evil have no absolute meaning. Human catastrophes, social injustices, etc. are merely apparent. The world as it exists looks imperfect only because of our limited perception.

Political philosophy[edit]

Spinoza derived much of his political thinking from intense study of Thomas Hobbes as well as thinkers such as Machiavelli, but departed in major ways because of his thoroughgoing naturalism. Spinoza didn't see a supernatural or transcendent deity who could intervene to settle disputes by hurling lightning spears at evildoers or punish non-believers for blasphemy. Rather, there was only nature, and everything was determined, including human behavior.

Spinoza believed governments should be designed by human beings for specific goals, but to be effective, the designs should be based on human nature as it is and not how it should be. Since humans are inherently emotional — driven by passions, egotistical, angry and envious and pulled by numerous desires — it's vital that there should be an impartial referee to settle disputes. He thought that political authority was an unfortunate reality, and saw security of persons and property as a fundamental mission and benefit of the state. Spinoza didn't think that governments could do much more than provide basic security and, in this, he's in fairly solid agreement with political philosophers such as Thomas Hobbes, the author of Leviathan. Like Hobbes, Spinoza thought that individuals should be the primary persons to decide what's in their best interests. Given a choice, individuals will probably decide to live under the authority of a single State rather than to live in the wild or in a supposed state of Nature where there might be numerous but weaker enemies. Since people naturally desire security and comfort, it is therefore a good thing if government can help provide a framework for this to happen. However, government power was a necessary evil in the Spinozistic model.

But Spinoza didn't think that governments in his time or before that had been designed by human reason; rather, governments are to be understood by looking at the "common nature or constitution of men."[14] So the state is an unintended (but usually benign) outcome of natural human tendencies, and states grew perhaps in an evolutionary way. Hopefully the state works towards the goal of approximating an ideal society of men who are free, rational (that is, led by reason more than emotion), and there are some similarities between Spinoza's thinking and Adam Smith, who saw the state as a tool to make irrational selfish humans behave as nicely as possible. States, in this view, seek to bring about a state of peace or harmony.

Spinoza identified the term right with capability to do something or with a person's power. In Spinoza's view, then, citizens have only the right to do things which they can reasonably do, and the government is similarly bound by this constraint. According to his view, government is not limited by laws or by constitutions but is only limited by its powers to do things. What, then, limits government power? Spinoza thought that a government would be motivated not to make unjust laws or arbitrary decisions because it wouldn't want to undermine its own long-term authority. Spinoza assumed that states would do things to maximize the welfare of its citizens since, by doing so, it would preserve its own power and authority.[15] Spinoza didn't recognize the authority of a separate spiritual body such as the Catholic church; rather, he saw clerics as essentially spiritual advisors who had no business being endowed with political power.[16]

Spinoza broke with Hobbes when it came to a duty to keep to a contract. What if keeping a contract was against one's own best interests? Hobbes suggested that people have a moral duty to live up to a bad contract. In contrast, Spinoza thought that people could break a contract if it wasn't in their long-term interests. "We are bound by nature to act on our strongest interest and cannot be obligated by previous agreements to break this inviolable psychological law of nature," writes Justin Steinberg, summarizing Spinoza's thinking.[17] Still, it was the duty of the government to enforce contracts as best it could. He advocated for the defense of civil liberties.

Scholars debate to what extent Spinoza thought that the form of government known as democracy was the best for mankind. Jari Niemi suggests that while Spinoza didn't flat-out state that one form of government was best, there were numerous indications that Spinoza thought believed democracy was "most consonant with individual liberty" although it was a less stable form of government than monarchy.[18] Another suggests that Spinoza thought that living under a despot or tyrant was not good for everybody (including being not good for the actual despot.) Scholars suggest that Spinoza's thinking about forms of government was interrupted by his untimely death in 1677.


See the main article on this topic: Pantheism

In 1785, Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi published a condemnation of Spinoza's pantheism, after Gotthold Ephraim Lessing was thought to have confessed on his deathbed to being a "Spinozist", which was the equivalent in his time of being called an atheist. Jacobi claimed that Spinoza's doctrine was pure materialism, because all Nature and God are said to be nothing but extended substance. This, for Jacobi, was the result of Enlightenment rationalism and it would finally end in absolute atheism. Moses Mendelssohn disagreed with Jacobi, saying that there is no actual difference between theism and pantheism. The entire issue became a major intellectual and religious concern for European civilization at the time, which Immanuel Kant rejected, as he thought that attempts to conceive of transcendent reality would lead to antinomies (statements that could be proven both right and wrong) in thought.

The attraction of Spinoza's philosophy to late 18th-century Europeans was that it provided an alternative to materialism, atheism and deism. Three of Spinoza's ideas strongly appealed to them:

  • the unity of all that exists;
  • the regularity of all that happens; and
  • the identity of spirit and nature.

Spinoza's "God or Nature" provided a living, natural God, in contrast to the Newtonian mechanical "First Cause" or the dead mechanism of the French "Man Machine."


Spinoza became known in the Jewish community for positions contrary to normative Jewish belief, with critical positions towards the Talmud and other religious texts. In the summer of 1656, he was issued the writ of cherem (Hebrew: חרם, a kind of excommunication) from the Jewish community, perhaps for the apostasy of how he conceived God, although the reason is not stated in the cherem.[19][20] Righteous indignation on the part of the synagogue elders at Spinoza's heresies was probably not the sole cause for the excommunication; there was also the practical concern that his ideas, which disagree equally well with the orthodoxies of other religions as with Judaism, would not sit well with the Christian leaders of Amsterdam and would reflect badly on the whole Jewish community, endangering the limited freedoms that the Jews had already achieved in that city. The terms of his cherem were severe.[21] He was, in Bertrand Russell's words, "cursed with all the curses in Deuteronomy and with the curse that Elisha pronounced on the children who, in consequence, were torn to pieces by the she-bears."[22]

Contemporary relevance[edit]

Late 20th-century Europe demonstrated a greater philosophical interest in Spinoza, often from a left wing or Marxist perspective. Notable philosophers Gilles Deleuze, Antonio Negri, Étienne Balibar and the Brazilian philosopher Marilena Chauí have each written books on Spinoza. Deleuze's doctoral thesis, published in 1968, refers to him as "the prince of philosophers".[23] Unlike most philosophers, Spinoza and his work were highly regarded by Friedrich Nietzsche.[24]

Spinoza has had influence beyond the confines of philosophy. The 19th-century novelist, George Eliot, produced her own translation of the Ethics, the first known English translation thereof. The 20th-century novelist, W. Somerset Maugham, alluded to one of Spinoza's central concepts with the title of his novel, Of Human Bondage. Albert Einstein named Spinoza as the philosopher who exerted the most influence on his worldview. Spinoza equated God (infinite substance) with Nature, consistent with Einstein's belief in an impersonal deity. In 1929, Einstein was asked in a telegram by Rabbi Herbert S. Goldstein whether he believed in God. Einstein responded by telegram: "I believe in Spinoza's God who reveals himself in the orderly harmony of what exists, not in a God who concerns himself with the fates and actions of human beings."[25] Spinoza's pantheism has also influenced environmental theory. Arne Næss, the father of the deep ecology movement, acknowledged Spinoza as an important inspiration. Will Durant wrote in his book Story of Philosophy that "When you have finished it (ie Spinoza's Ethics) a second time you will remain forever a lover of philosophy."[26]

External links[edit]


  1. The Mysterious Spinoza,FRED BAUMANN,May 31, 2006,New York Sun, [1]
  2. Jon Roffe, Gilles Deleuze (1925–1995) Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy …Spinoza is without a doubt the philosopher most praised and referred to by Deleuze [2]
  3. Classical Philosophers, The Philosophy of Benedict Spinoza,( see "Metaphysics",Radical Academy, accessed 2010-09-06
  4. Classical Philosophers,The Philosophy of Benedict Spinoza,(see "Metaphysics",Radical Academy, accessed 2010-09-06
  5. Classical Philosophers, The Philosophy of Benedict Spinoza, (see "Metaphysics",Radical Academy, accessed 2010-09-06
  6. Einstein & Faith,,"Einstein — Is this a Jewish concept of God? "I am a determinist. I do not believe in free will. Jews believe in free will. They believe that man shapes his own life. I reject that doctrine. In that respect I am not a Jew.", Apr. 05, 2007, [3]
  7. Ethics, Pt. I, Prop. XXXVI, Appendix: "[M]en think themselves free inasmuch as they are conscious of their volitions and desires, and never even dream, in their ignorance, of the causes which have disposed them so to wish and desire."
  8. Classical Philosophers,The Philosophy of Benedict Spinoza,(see "Metaphysics", Radical Academy, accessed 2010-09-06
  9. Baruch Spinoza,Steven Nadler, "His thought combines a commitment to Cartesian metaphysical and epistemological principles with elements from ancient Stoicism and medieval Jewish rationalism into a nonetheless highly original system. ", Dec 1, 2008, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
  10. Deleuze, Gilles. Spinoza : practical philosophy. p. 22
  11. Edward Curley, “Spinoza’s Moral Philosophy” in "Spinoza, a collection of critical essays", 1973
  12. Ethics, Pt. IV, Prop. XXXVII, Note I.: "Still I do not deny that beasts feel: what I deny is, that we may not consult our own advantage and use them as we please, treating them in a way which best suits us; for their nature is not like ours…" (Emphasis added to quotation.)
  13. Short Treatise, I, 10. 'What Good and Evil are'
  14. Spinoza's Political Philosophy, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy,… It is in this light that we can appreciate Spinoza's claim that “the causes and natural foundations of the state are not to be sought in the precepts of reason, but must be deduced from the common nature or constitution of men", Apr 21, 2008 [4]
  15. Spinoza's Political Philosophy, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, …Spinoza takes it as axiomatic that the state ought to do those things that maximize the welfare of the people as a whole, Apr 21, 2008 [5]
  16. Spinoza's Political Philosophy, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy,… The obvious, yet important, implication of the single authority thesis is that clerics are at best spiritual advisors with no real claim to political power. The problem of dual allegiances (divine and civil) is overcome, since the two authorities converge in the form of the sovereign..,Apr 21, 2008 [6]
  17. Spinoza's Political Philosophy,Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Apr 21, 2008 [7]
  18. Jari Niemi, Spinoza’s Political Philosophy, Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2009-02-01,[8]
  19. Michael Dirda, The Washington Post, book review of "BETRAYING SPINOZA:The Renegade Jew Who Gave Us Modernity", May 21, 2006 ,"He refused to keep quiet and was finally, dramatically excommunicated from the Jewish community with the rite of cherem, cutting him off from his friends, family and community", [9]
  20. Einstein & Faith, "Some religious Jews reacted by pointing out that Spinoza had been excommunicated from Amsterdam's Jewish community for holding these beliefs",Apr. 05, 2007, [10]
  21. Tel Aviv University: "Why Was Baruch De Spinoza Excommunicated?", by Asa Kasher and Shlomo Biderman
  22. Bertrand Russell, A History of Western Philosophy Allen & Unwin (1946) New Ed.1961 p.552
  23. Deleuze, 1968.
  24. Spinoza and Nietzshe: The Meeting, Daniel Spiro, page 1,[11]
  25. Einstein's Third Paradise, by Gerald Holton
  26. Michael Dirda, The Washington Post, book review of "BETRAYING SPINOZA:The Renegade Jew Who Gave Us Modernity", May 21, 2006, "Long ago, Will Durant wrote of the Ethics in his Story of Philosophy , "When you have finished it a second time you will remain forever a lover of philosophy", [12]