Imagine if somebody told you that everything is composed of the same one thing, that all the difference and the change you see in the world is ultimately an illusion. Not only is everything composed of one thing, but that one thing is God. God is in everything you can think of.
This is how Baruch (later Benedict) de Spinoza saw the universe. It’s an idea that’s strange for many, and shocking for some, especially those who think of God as a great patriarch watching over us from Heaven. But it’s an idea that Spinoza thought was the only way to explain God.
Spinoza is one of the three great European “Rationalists” of the seventeenth century along with Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz and René Descartes. Descartes was the first of the three. The older philosopher’s work had a revolutionary impact on European intellectual history. His influence on Spinoza was so profound that many simply saw Spinoza as a disciple of Descartes. Spinoza taught Cartesian philosophy, borrowed much of its terminology, and published a guide to Descartes’ ideas.
But Spinoza built on Descartes’ innovations to create his own all-encompassing philosophical system that constructs a picture of the reality around us and how we should live in it. The system was radically different from Descartes’ idea of reality but propounded in the same rational way.
Rationalism holds that many truths are self-evident and not dependent on the senses to be known to us. In effect, the human being can know many things independently of, or before, experience.
This is known in philosophy as “a priori” knowledge, meaning “from the earlier” (or “before”) in Latin. An example of an a priori truth would be that the angles on a triangle add up to 180 degrees since this truth is self-evident by the very definition of a triangle. You can understand that theoretically before experiencing a triangle as a real object.
But it was not just logic and geometry that the Rationalists were interested in. Spinoza was a deeply religious thinker. It could be said that his great philosophical project, completed late in life — The Ethics — was an attempt to understand the nature of God in order to find tranquillity.
For Spinoza freedom and happiness derived from understanding. He took the idea of rationalism as far as he could take it, arguing that sufficient knowledge of God is possible purely through reasoning. To understand God is to find a blissful state of mind.
The Ethics is composed of five parts. Each part is structured logically in a way that mimics Euclid’s Elements, the ancient handbook of geometry. They begin with definitions of terms, then axioms (self-evident truths) then Spinoza moves on to theorems. It is in The Ethics that we find Spinoza’s comprehensive explanation for God, existence and living a virtuous life.
The deliberate parallel drawn between his own thesis on reality and God and Euclid’s Elements was to show that understanding our world and our place in it was a matter of reason, not knowledge. Spinoza believed that God could be understood through reason in the same self-evident way the angles of a triangle add up to 180 degrees.
The definitions, axioms and theorems are building blocks that demonstrate truths. In keeping with his rationalist ethos, these truths are necessarily true, according to Spinoza, by virtue of reason, not observation.
A Golden Age
It is ironic that Spinoza pitched his philosophy as self-evident and independent of human affairs since his philosophy could be seen by historians as a product of its time. Spinoza’s ideas were incubated and saw the light of day thanks, to a large extent, to his residence in the seventeenth-century Dutch Republic.
Formerly part of the Spanish Empire, the Republic had won liberation in 1581 after a long struggle for self-determination. The Dutch Republic became immensely wealthy, powerful and — bucking the trend of post-Reformation Europe — very liberal. The “Dutch Golden Age” followed in the seventeenth century as the arts and sciences flourished in its rich cosmopolitan cities.
Spinoza was part of a Jewish community that found sanctuary in the Dutch Republic having fled from the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisitions. These Jews were known by the derogatory word “Marranos” in Iberia.
The jewish ancestors of Spinoza had flourished under the tolerant Islamic rule of the Iberian peninsula (Al-Andalus) but were forced to convert to Christianity when the Spanish regained control. As the religious atmosphere in Iberia became more oppressive, many of the Marranos escaped to the Dutch Republic where they could once again practice their ancestral faith in peace.
But peace, especially for Jews, was fragile. The small but significant community of Amsterdam were tolerated but not necessarily welcomed by the more traditionalist protestants that followed the Orangist Party (named after the aristocratic House of Orange) and opposed the more liberal Republicans that held political control over the small commonwealth of states.
Those militant Protestant Royalists sought to impose religious restrictions that would stifle the science and culture that was flourishing in the liberal polity. So controversial were Spinoza’s ideas that The Ethics was published and circulated after his death in secret.
Spinoza’s explorations of the divine stirred a controversy that dogged him his entire adult life, even in the liberal Dutch Republic. As a young man, the philosopher landed himself in trouble with his own religious community for questioning the authorship of the Torah.
The philosopher was excommunicated from his Jewish community, hounded by conservative Christians and it is written in one biography that he survived an assassination attempt at the steps of a synagogue. This is all because Spinoza’s findings recognised a different idea of God to that received in tradition.
The Rabbis, perhaps fearful of their fragile position in a Christian country, publicly cursed Spinoza – a very harsh action to take – for his outspoken unorthodox religious views.
In developing his ideas, Spinoza tackled the paradox of God’s limits. If God were infinite and perfect, how could He stand apart from creation? For Spinoza, the God of the Torah is a God with limits, as far as he was concerned an imperfect God. In his own search for God Spinoza rediscovered the ancient idea that has revolutionised modern philosophy: immanence.
Immanence is the idea that the divine is manifested in the material world. That really does mean everything: clouds, insects, plants, people and the ground beneath our feet. Some ancient European and Asian creeds and philosophies are also based on immanence. The Stoic system, for example, held that a divine logos was in all the world. But the idea of divine immanence faded away as Christendom rose in Europe.
The Judeo-Christian understanding of God is as a transcendent being. By a “transcendent” God it is meant that God is separate, above and outside of the universe and creation. Judeo-Christian texts clearly state that God made the decision to create the universe from nothing, God is the first cause of all causes in the universe.
The word “transcendent” when used in philosophy usually means “beyond our understanding”, and God is often held up as the ultimate example of what is beyond our understanding.
Throughout the middle ages, many philosophers sought to prove the existence of God. One of those proofs is known as the “Ontological Argument” (the word “ontological” derives from the Greek “ontos” (real) and “logia” (study) and pertains to the study of what is real and what is not real).
In a very basic form, the Argument works like this: a perfect being must exist, if it doesn’t then it is not perfect. God is perfect and therefore must exist.
But Spinoza pushed the ontological argument further, beyond proving the existence of God to actually reflect on God’s nature. Spinoza wondered, if God were infinitely wise, why would He make a decision? If God was infinite, how could He not be in everything? Surely, if God is not in the world, then God has limits. Spinoza reasoned that if God is perfect, God must not have limits. If God is limitless, God must be immanent.
It was not a new idea at the time Spinoza was writing, but had been neglected for centuries and was considered blasphemous to Christians and Jews. Spinoza began to assert that God was immanent at great personal risk.
When a child is told that God created the universe the first thing they tend to ask is “but who created God?” The problem of “an uncaused cause” is not solved without eternity. God must be eternal and therefore self-caused.
“God, or a substance consisting of infinite attributes each of which expresses eternal and infinite essence, necessarily exists. If God didn’t exist, then God’s essence wouldnot involve existence; and that is absurd. Therefore God necessarily exists.”
This statement is the junction station of Spinoza’s immanence. According to Spinoza, for God to be self-caused necessarily means that God must be infinite and eternal. To be infinite and eternal, God cannot be transcendent, God must be immanent. Spinoza defined God and substance as the same thing.
Spinoza developed the idea of “substance” from Descartes, who in turn inherited the term from Aristotle. The word “substance” derives from the latin substantia which pertains to that which stands under things.
Substance is that which can endure change. The example that Descartes gave was of wax. Wax held to a fire can change shape, texture, size, colour and smell, it will even disintegrate to liquid when placed beside the fire, but it is ultimately the same thing despite these changes.
The wax did not become something else when it liquified because of the heat, it remained constant in a limited number of ways: extension, movability and changeability.
Many philosophers conjectured on what is beneath the appearance of real things, and none placed as much importance on substance as Spinoza. For Spinoza, substance can endure through every change and therefore cannot be created nor destroyed.
Spinoza defines substance as follows: “what is in itself and is conceived through itself, i.e. that whose concept doesn’t have to be formed out of the concept of something else.”
With a similar definition, Descartes developed the notion of two substances: extension (i.e. tangible things that can be felt) and thought (i.e. the intangible world of mind). For Descartes, (the transcendent) God had created two separate orders of being, but the philosopher struggled to account for how the two domains are related.
Descartes could give no account for what unifies our body and mind. In philosophy, this is known as the “mind-body problem”: two linked but seemingly incompatible views of both reality and personhood.
Spinoza believed that he had solved the problem that Descartes couldn’t. He was more radical in his interpretation of substance, in that substance had to necessarily exist beyond difference entirely. For Spinoza, everything could be abstracted to the point that you could no longer abstract, you would reach a bedrock of being, a fundamental “one” that constitutes all things.
To account for thought and extension or mind and body, Spinoza posited the idea of “attributes”. Attributes are different ways in which the one substance is conceived of (how substance is experienced). Spinoza believed that there is an infinity of attributes of substance, but only two are available to human comprehension: thought and extension.
Firstly, all thoughts have a corresponding extension and vice versa. For Spinoza, our mind and our body are aspects of the same thing.
Consider a piece of music. A physicist could describe the sound waves at different frequencies emanating from the vibrations of musical instruments. A critic could describe the beautiful notes of a melody. The piece of music could be described in physical and mental terms but the music would be the same thing.
Both are descriptions of the same thing but are nevertheless incompatible. If we mixed up these descriptions into one, it would be senseless. This is because there are no causal relations between thought and extension or mind and body. What can be described in thought can be described analogously as a physical phenomenon.
Spinoza believed the mind and the brain to be two separate things that were nevertheless analogous. Do thoughts in the mind cause physical changes in the brain, or do physical changes in the brain cause thoughts in the mind?
Spinoza’s answer to that question is “neither”. These attributes are the same thing yet can only be described separately like the melody and the series of vibrations are the same thing.
The attributes are unified in the one substance, our understanding of thought and things are just aspects of this oneness of being. This defines Spinoza as a “monist”, that is a philosopher who believes there is a unified and independent oneness behind the difference we perceive.
That oneness, according to Spinoza, is what he referred to as “God or Nature”. Since God is in everything, and Nature is everything, Spinoza conflated the two. Spinoza wrote:
“Whether we say […] that all things happen according to the laws of nature, or are ordered by the decree and direction of God, we say the same thing.”
The implications of this conclusion are enormous. For one thing, it would mean that we have no control over our destiny. According to Spinoza’s system, everything is determined because God is perfect.
If God is everything and God is perfect, then nothing could be otherwise, it must necessarily be the way it is. God has no plans or purpose for the world. If He did, he wouldn’t be perfect because reasons are caused and God is not caused at any moment because God is perfect. The natural order is the unfolding of God’s nature in accordance with the eternal laws which constitute God.
Spinoza compared the changing nature of the universe to a face. The face can take on an infinite amount of expressions yet be the same face all the time. Everything that happens in the universe, including our lives, according to Spinoza, are expressions of the one substance: God or Nature.
Spinoza’s determinism undermines the traditional ethics of Christianity which holds that human beings have free will. If we did not have free will, we would not be rewarded or punished in the afterlife as described in the scriptures of Christianity. Spinoza rejects this idea, believing instead that we have no control over our fate.
Our “freedom” lies not in the self-determination of our physical body to seek our own destiny, but our understanding of the way the universe really is. To understand the workings of nature is to find peace with it.
Was Spinoza an Atheist?
The philosopher’s God is so radically different from the Abrahamic God that it’s difficult to recognise anything divine in its being at all. In Spinoza’s view of the universe, there is no transcendence — no other realm occupied by God, no moral certainty, no free will and certainly no afterlife.
Spinoza does not seem to be convinced by his own argument, why use the words “God or Nature” after all? If God is generalised to the point of being everything, what’s the point in “God”? God is evacuated of content if God is everything. Spinoza denied being an atheist, but he was often accused of being so.
Rather than revealing God to us, is Spinoza simply recasting the deity as “Nature”? If we were to subtract “God” from Spinoza’s “God or Nature” and leave only “Nature”, where would perfection come into it? God is perfect by definition, but nature isn’t.
“God or Nature” in effect describes God through the two attributes that human beings can access: extension and thought. Adding the word “Nature” to God was his way of illustrating that God was in absolutely everything physically and mentally. What is certain is that God, according to Spinoza, is not exhaustive.
God is eternal and limitless. Therefore, the universe may be an infinitesimally small part of God, which has an infinite number of attributes, not just the two human beings can comprehend. At best, Spinoza can be described as a pantheist holding the view that the world is in God, but God is not limited to the world.
Whatever we think of Spinoza’s ideas, they are certainly built on a logical clarity and with a scope that few philosophers have achieved. Even if Spinoza was wrong about substance and God, his theories on ethics and freedom are principles that people could live by.
Spinoza’s immanence has had an enormous influence on many scientists and philosophers, from Gottfried Leibniz in the seventeenth century to Albert Einstein in the twentieth. But the philosopher’s ideas fell out of favour soon after his death. Many philosophers after Spinoza, like Immanuel Kant and Georg Hegel, believed that Spinoza was too theoretical in his approach. Transcendence came back in the secular guise of “the ideal” or consciousness.
According to these later “Idealist” philosophers, we comprehend the world through a transcendental synthesis of mind and world (thought and reality) to which we do not have any access to fully understand.
Most recently Spinozan ideas have been reappraised by the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze. For Deleuze, transcendence has always been a tempting compromise for philosophers, an easy way to bypass a total ontological explanation of the universe. Deleuze’s project made immanence secular by supplanting Spinoza’s “God or Nature” with his own idea of “Being”.
The French philosopher believed that all transcendental theories — from a religious transcendent God, to a secular transcendent idealism — were dogmas. Spinoza’s equal and parallel emphasis on extension and thought — the body and the mind — provides an explanation of everything without recourse to anything that is unexplainable or beyond experience.
Spinoza’s theory of being was “univocal”, or singular. The singular substance through which everything is only a modulation and perceived through attributes is all that there is, it is experienced and graspable to us.
For Deleuze, this is revolutionary, since with Spinoza’s way of thinking about the world we no longer need to recourse to anything that is unknowable.
The implications for ethics, society and politics is enormous. Even if we discount or discredit Spinoza’s philosophical system, his way of thinking has opened up a new frontier in philosophical thought.