Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Spinoza, gimme a break

I had set aside this summer to read Spinoza’s Ethics. I have seen it referred to in many places. It is usually held up in high esteem. Will Durant, a historian, recommends reading it through once, studying it with a study guide, then reading it again slowly. It is no easy summer read. In mid-summer it gets so buggy, I usually spend a week or two sitting by the air conditioner, reading, so it seemed like a good fit.

Spinoza dared to say some things that no one else would at the time. He did it with precision, using a system of reference in his work so he could make a statement and say it was supported by Chapter X para 4. It made it difficult to argue with his conclusions. Somewhat difficult to read also, but anyway. For his effort, he was ostracized. He was Jewish, and I don’t remember what they call it, but he was “kicked out”.

He is often referred to as an early atheist. He was accused of it by Christians and officially of writing things about God that didn’t fit the official doctrine by Jews. I expected to start reading it and find some primitive psychology, a little existentialism and maybe he would skirt the god issue, saying just enough in the hopes he could later argue that he was still a believer and avoid the ostracism.


He spends the first three chapters basically doing classic arguments FOR God. Everything must have a cause. Our sense of morality must have a basis. Our ability to reflect on the universe must have been instilled into us from some cosmic source. He considers some arguments to those but frequently dismisses them as “absurd”.

Spinoza is pre-Darwin, pre-Faraday, pre-Big Bang Theory, but he was a contemporary of Galileo. He was post-Protestantism. He offers little to today’s discussion of what ethics are and what god is. But I can forgive him for not adding to the 21st century conversation. I can’t be so light on his modern day evangelists.

Most of his admirers will call him a pantheist; a believer in “god is everything”. I think you can glean that from Spinoza, but he doesn’t come out and say it. He doesn’t even disguise it in a way to attempt to avoid excommunication. He says God exists and speaks of knowing God by observing the laws of nature. He defended himself to the Jews, saying he did believe in God. Many writers ignore these facts. This kind of selective exposition is no better than cherry picking the Bible and claiming God is always merciful.

Why Jews and Christians had a problem with him, I can’t tell. I’m sure I could look into it, find the specific things that Spinoza said that went against doctrine. There are probably things about how miracles happen, or something that indirectly diminishes God’s all knowing and all powerful nature. Should I care? No more than I should care if someone who broke a traffic law in Virginia in 1776 was dealt with justly and morally. There were dirt roads and horses back then. I would have to do an awful lot of research to understand the situation.

There is something to be learned from Spinoza. At the moment, my free time is extremely limited so I probably won’t be discovering that. Primarily, we can learn that as recently as the 17th century, if you even hinted that God might not be what the Bible says, you could forget about marriage, a job, or any kind of community support. Spinoza was excommunicated by the Dutch. About that same time, some other Dutch folks were setting up shop in little town that we now call New York. Coincidence? I don’t think so.


  1. Spinoza is indeed a hard reading challenge but I think he can be really enlightening for today's issues. For example, neuroscientist Antonio Damasio uses, in his studies of the human brain, Spinoza's conception of mind and body being a same thing from a different point of view rather than two different kinds of things interacting ; or also the fact that emotions and reason or not necessarily opposed.
    One of the great difficulties is he uses common words in a whole new meaning; For instance, by God he doesn't refer to something close from any monotheist religion : there isn't any creation, there's no will of God or free will of God, there are no Good or Evil absolutely speaking,or no other features representing God as a super powerful human being,...and other details hardly compatible with any institutional religion.
    But this kind of God, or Nature, is surprisingly resourceful in helping me to understand my life and the world from an atheist perspective.
    Moreover, he opens a path where freedom and happiness can be seek without the belief in the free will we experience in our everyday life. Haven't you find anything interesting in the third and the fourth part of the Ethics ?

  2. I only half admit it in the post, but I haven't finished the book. My comments are based mainly on the opening sections, where the word "God" is used extensively. After starting the book, my house went under water for 3 days, so I've been kinda busy since then. (See Disaster Blog from a few weeks ago).

    I hope to continue to develop this theme, and finishing Ethics will be an important part of that. I also picked up a Teilhard de Chardin book recently and had a similar experience. He was a monk who was hassled by the Catholic church all his life, accused of redefining what God is. "Spiritual but non-religious" people have used his works to redefine to God.

    I understand the desire to redefine God, you might even say atheists are trying to recapture the original meaning of God, which is a place-holder term for the unknown, the great mystery. But the word has so much baggage, I'm thinking it would be better to just stop using it all, unless you are referring to those irrational, faith-based, harmful beliefs that religious people hold.

  3. Sorry for your disaster, I've missed that part...

    One of the things I like in Spinoza is his epistemology (second part of Ethics). To him, there is no such thing as an idea absolutely false. What we call false ideas or errors are either several true ideas mixed together or a true idea with parts missing. (Having this in mind can be quite helpful when you're in a conversation with someone you disagree with). I believe the idea of God has often be a pretty much confused one, you're right ; but it's linked to metaphysical questions rather important to anyone who's trying to understand the world.

    That wasn't what brought me to Spinoza first. I had read or heard different interesting people refer to his philosophy to enlighten the mind and body problem, human bondage and human freedom or links between emotions and social/political process. It's only after that I discovered that he talked about God, what he meant and how it's linked to all the rest. And it gave a whole coherent frame that helped me to reorganize and rationally link different ideas I believed to be true.

    I only know Teilhard de Chardin by name and I believe he was a rather mystical person. It's not at all Spinoza's case. He's actually a hyper rationalist : all things are the result of complex chains of causes and effects ; and we can, if we properly use our reason, understand those chains. By understanding more and more the world, we get freer and happier. If there are a lot of things we do not know or worse, false things we believe to be true, there is no thing that cannot be known by reason in his philosophy.

    Honestly, I first tried to read Ethics directly. I read three pages, didn't understand much, so I read a book about his philosophy and listen to online lectures explaining the first three parts step by step (I had some time to spare!). It's easy to misunderstand what he means because, quite often, his thoughts are tricky with our common sense. But his philosophy was really subversive at the time (he never actually could publish Ethics, even in latin, while he was alive) and mainly still is nowadays, in my opinion ; and rewarding too !

  4. Thanks Anthony, I'd take a link to the online lectures if you have them! I know he had trouble publishing, but I think that gets too much mileage today. Publishing is much freer today. We need to be discussing 21st ideas in light of that freedom.

    The theme I'm developing is that people today write about Spinoza and Chardin without acknowledging that they defended themselves as being true to their faith. I'm not sure exactly what that says about us today, but I think we need to examine it.

  5. Well here's the link :

    But it's in French !!!English isn't my first language so I've learned the most I know about Spinoza in French. The only English writing scholar I know is Steven Nadler ; I've read the biography he's written of Spinoza which also explains the main ideas of his philosophy (by the way, here's another link were he discusses about Spinoza's atheism :
    Which reminds me that, following the lecture, I've started to read On the improvement of the understanding first, before dealing with the Ethics. It's an unfinished and early work of Spinoza, but it's much easier to read (no "more geometrico" form !), it starts in an autobiographical style and there's less of the G word too !

    I agree with you that what matters most is to find out what his ideas can bring to our understanding today. Even if the historical context is always important to better understand what a thinker wanted to say, the aim is still to have a rejoicing meal for today's thought !
    I'm afraid I don't really get what you mean by Spinoza defending himself as being true to his faith, though...

  6. I couldn't find any actual words pertaining to his excommunication, but he does defend himself as faithful elsewhere:

    From Spinoza himself (in a letter to Oldenburg), he said, "as to the view of certain people that I identify god with nature, they are quite mistaken."

    The Ethics: Part I, Prop. 14

  7. From what we know, he wasn't present while his excommunication but it was reported that he took it calmly and gladly because it gave him the force to leave his community. There was a report from the inquisition that was found saying he pretended there was no God but a philosophical one.

    I'd be curious to know in which letter he wrote that (he wrote quite a few letters to Oldenburg) and the context in which he wrote it.
    It seems rather in contradiction with what he wrote in the preface of part IV :
    “Now we showed in the Appendix to Part I., that Nature does not work with an end in view. For the eternal and infinite Being, which we call God or Nature, acts by the same necessity as that whereby it exists. For we have shown, that by the same necessity of its nature, whereby it exists, it likewise works (I. xvi.). The reason or cause why God or Nature exists, and the reason why he acts, are one and the same. Therefore, as he does not exist for the sake of an end, so neither does he act for the sake of an end ; of his existence and of his action there is neither origin nor end. Wherefore, a cause which is called final is nothing else but human desire, in so far as it is considered as the origin or cause of anything. “
    (you can check it here : )

    As for Ethics I P14 : “Besides God no substance can be granted or conceived. “, I do not see what you want to point out...

  8. I was looking at the "DEMONSTRATION" in 1,14: "God is an absolutely infinite being, who cannot be denied any attribute which expresses the essence of substance (by Definition 6), and who necessarily exists (by Proposition 11). So, if there were some other substance apart from God, it would have to be explained through some attribute of God, and hence there would exist two substances with the same attribute, which (by Proposition 5) is absurd."

    But you provided a great quote from the Appendix. I will definitely add that one to my bookmarks.

    I didn't track down the exact letter to Oldenburg, there were many and that is just a little too much academia for me right now.

  9. I must be missing your point because I don't see what you are refering to in the demonstration either !

    The Ehtics is indeed often more understandable in its Prefaces, Appendix and notes. Deleuze called it the "underground Ethics". Some even advise to first read only this part first before reading the Ethics entirely.

  10. It says "God" is a "who". It says nothing else can be explained except through God.

    God may be everything, by Spinoza gives that God attributes without any reason to give them. This limits our understanding of "everything".

  11. Translation is often a tricky thing. In French, it's the same word for "who" or "which". Spinoza wrote in Latin :
    "Cum Deus sit ens absolute infinitum de quo nullum attributum quod essentiam substantiae exprimit, negari potest (per definitionem 6) isque necessario existat (per propositionem 11)"

    Here, for what has been translated "who" in English, he uses "quo" which can fit either for masculine or neuter ! But if you read the Appendix of part I, which starts in English by :

    "In the foregoing I have explained the nature and properties of God. I have shown that he necessarily exists, that he is one : that he is, and acts solely by the necessity of his own nature ; that he is the free cause of all things, and how he is so ; that all things are in God, and so depend on him, that without him they could neither exist nor be conceived ; lastly, that all things are predetermined by God, not through his free will or absolute fiat, but from the very nature of God or infinite power."

    In this translation, God is still a "he". But not in the Latin original version :

    "His Dei naturam ejusque proprietates explicui ut quod necessario existit; quod sit unicus; quod ex sola suae naturae necessitate sit et agat; quod sit omnium rerum causa libera et quomodo; quod omnia in Deo sint et ab ipso ita pendeant ut sine ipso nec esse nec concipi possint; et denique quod omnia a Deo fuerint praedeterminata, non quidem ex libertate voluntatis sive absoluto beneplacito sed ex absoluta Dei natura sive infinita potentia."

    Here the word "quod" is used and it can only be neuter.
    But it isn't necessary to analyse Spinoza's grammar to understand that what he means by God has nothing to do with the anthropomorphic Gods of religions. If you just put aside the regular meaning (which probably is the hardest part), and read what he actually says in the notes and appendix of part I, it's rather clear.

    I don't understand what you mean when you say he gives God attributes without any reason and that it limits our understanding of everything. Especially, if we have in mind what he means by attribute :
    “By attribute, I mean that which the intellect perceives as constituting the essence of substance. “Part I def4.

  12. You definitely got me with the Latin. I can't see how I can put aside a traditional view of God when Spinoza uses words like "he necessarily exists", "he is the free cause", "infinite power", and "predetermined".

  13. Well I'm afraid you'll just see what you want to see then, but won't get closer to what Spinoza meant.
    Picking the isolated words that seem to confirm your views will indeed confirm your views. But doubting a little and using a bit of critical thinking to get a clearer picture may open new perspectives.
    For instance, even if he uses words in a particular meaning, he often defines them.
    If you define God in a naturalist way as all there is and the laws defining how things are, then I don't see how it cannot have an infinite power. Since “A thing is called finite after its kind, when it can be limited by another thing of the same nature“ (def2), if it hadn't an infinite power it would mean that something else, external to all there is, limited its power and that would be contradictory.

    Moreover, God can only be a free cause : “That thing is called free, which exists solely by the necessity of its own nature, and of which the action is determined by itself alone. On the other hand, that thing is necessary, or rather constrained, which is determined by something external to itself to a fixed and definite method of existence or action. “ (def7). If God wasn't a free cause it would be determined by something external to “all there is” which would also be contradictory.

    Now concerning the idea that Nature necessarily exists and is predetermined, it opposes a belief strongly shared by both religious and most atheist people : the belief in free will. Spinoza's philosophy is a determinism that develops a path to freedom and joy without the illusion of free will. And that remains a quite subversive quest !

  14. Why take "all there is and the laws defining how things are" and define that as God at all? All that is, just is. It doesn't need another name, it doesn't need attributes. It doesn't have "infinite power", in fact it may be that he positive and negative energy of the universe cancel each other out, but that's physics and has nothing to do with gods.

    True, free will is a philosophical problem that humans have just begun to grapple with, and perhaps Spinoza will be helpful with that. For his writings to be helpful, I would start by throwing out all of the "God is" statements.

  15. Personally, I don't really care about what word is used, what counts is the meaning behind. You seem to be focusing only on the usual meaning these words have (god, attribute,...) and not on the actual meaning he uses to express his ideas ; this even when you are given the explicit definitions. Hence you cannot understand what is being expressed. I can only hope you'll check what he means by attribute or infinite/finite (things I have quoted in my last two previous messages) and realize that it's not about gods but about logic.

    You can perfectly be okay with the fact that “all that is, just is”.In fact, it's a quick summary of Spinoza's idea. The thing is if you're interested in metaphysical or ontological matters (which Part I is about) it's a bit short ! And even if you're into ethical considerations, metaphysics is always involved in one way or another, at least implicitly. Physics can be quite useful to understand the world, often to help us seeing what's false rather than what's true, but it's limited when considering the eventuality of Good or Evil for example. Spinoza's “demonstrations” of non existence of absolute Good or Evil,of the illusion of free will are founded on his metaphysics developed in Part I. But having not read it yet, you can't know it...