Baruch Spinoza (WARBURTON)

Baruch Spinoza (WARBURTON)

Most religions teach that God exists somewhere outside the world, perhaps in heaven. Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677) was unusual in thinking that God is the world. He wrote about ‘God or Nature’, to make this point — meaning that the two words refer to the same thing. God and nature are two ways of describing a single thing. God is nature and nature is God. This is a form of pantheism — the belief that God is everything. It was a radical idea that got him into quite a lot of trouble.


Spinoza was born in Amsterdam, the son of Portuguese Jews. Amsterdam was then popular with people fleeing persecution. But even here there were limits to the views you could express. Although brought up in the Jewish religion, Spinoza was excommunicated and cursed by the rabbis in his synagogue in 1656 when he was 24 years old, probably because his views about God were so unorthodox. He left Amsterdam, later settling in The Hague. From this point he was known as Benedict de Spinoza rather than Baruch, his Jewish name.


Many philosophers have been impressed by geometry. The Ancient Greek Euclid’s famous proofs of various geometrical hypotheses moved from a few simple axioms or starting assumptions to conclusions such as that the sum of the interior angles of a triangle are equal to two right angles. What philosophers usually admire in geometry is the way it moves by careful logical steps from agreed starting points to surprising conclusions. If the axioms are true, then the conclusions must be true. This sort of geometrical reasoning inspired both René Descartes and Thomas Hobbes.


Spinoza did not just admire geometry; he wrote philosophy as if it were geometry. The ‘proofs’ in his book Ethics look like geometrical proofs and include axioms and definitions. They are supposed to have the same relentless logic as geometry. But instead of dealing with topics like the angles of triangles and the circumferences of circles, they are about God, nature, freedom and emotion. He felt that these subjects could be analyzed and reasoned about in just the same way that we can reason about triangles, circles and squares. He even ends sections with ‘QED’ which is short for quod era/ demonstrandum, a Latin phrase meaning ‘which was to be proved’ that appears in geometry textbooks. There is, he believed, an underlying structural logic to the world and our place in it that reason can reveal. Nothing is as it is by chance, there is a purpose and principle to it all. Everything fits together in one huge system and the best way to understand this is by the power of thought. This approach to philosophy, emphasizing reason rather than experiment and observation, is often labeled Rationalism.


Spinoza enjoyed being on his own. It was in solitude that he had the time and peace of mind to follow his studies. It was probably also safer not to be part of a more public institution, given his views about God For this reason to his most famous book, Ethics, was only published after his death. Although his reputation as a highly original thinker spread during his lifetime, he turned down an offer to take up a teaching post at Heidelberg University. He was, though, happy to discuss his ideas with some of the thinkers who came to visit him. The philosopher and mathematician Gottfried Leibniz was one of these.


Spinoza lived very simply, staying in lodgings rather than buying his own house. He didn’t need much money and was able to get by on what he earned as a lens grinder together with some small payments from people who admired his philosophical work. The lenses he made were used in scientific instruments such as telescopes and microscopes. This allowed him to remain independent and work from his lodgings. Unfortunately it also probably contributed to his early death from a chest infection at only 44. He would have breathed in the fine glass dust from grinding the lenses and this almost certainly damaged his lungs.


If God is infinite, Spinoza reasoned, there cannot be anything that is not God. If you discover something in the universe that is not God, then God can’t be infinite, because God could have in principle been that thing as well as everything else. We are all parts of God, but so are stones, ants, blades of grass, and windows. All of it. It all fits together into an incredibly complex whole, but ultimately everything that exists is part of this one thing: God.


Traditional religious believers preached that God loved humanity and responded to personal prayers. This is a form of anthropomorphism — projecting human qualities, such as compassion, on to a non-human being, God. The most extreme form of this is to imagine God as a kindly man with a big beard and a gentle smile. Spinoza’s God was nothing like this. He — or perhaps more accurately ‘it’ — was completely impersonal and did not care about anything or anyone. According to Spinoza, you can and should love God, but don’t expect any love back in return. That would be like a nature lover expecting nature to love him back. In fact, the God he describes is so completely indifferent to human beings and what they do that many thought Spinoza didn’t believe in God at all and that his pantheism was a cover. They took him to be an atheist and against religion altogether. How could someone who believed that God didn’t care about humanity be anything else? From perspective, though, he had an intellectual love of God, a love based on deep understanding achieved by reason. But this was hardly conventional religion. The synagogue had probably been right to excommunicate him.


Spinoza’s views on free will were controversial too. He was a determinist. This meant he believed that every human action was the result of earlier causes. A stone thrown into the air, if it could become conscious like a human being, would imagine that it was moving by its own willpower even though it wasn’t. What was really moving it along was the force of the throw and the effects of gravity. The stone just felt that it rather than gravity, was controlling where it went. Human beings are the same: we imagine that we are choosing freely what we do and have control over our lives. But that’s because we don’t usually understand the ways in which our choices and actions have been brought about. In fact free will is an illusion. There is no spontaneous free action at all.


But although he was a determinist, Spinoza did believe that some kind of very limited human freedom was possible and desirable. The worst way to exist was to be in what he called bondage: at the complete mercy of your emotions. When something bad happens, someone is rude to you, for example, and you lose your temper and are filled with hatred, this is a very passive way to exist. You simply react to events. External happenings cause your anger. You are not in control at all. The way to escape this is to gain a better understanding of the causes that shape behavior — the things that lead you to be angry. For Spinoza, the best that we can achieve is for our emotions to emerge from our own choices rather than external events. Even though these choices can never be fully free, it is better to be active than passive.


A Little History of Philosophy
Nigel Warburton  


Image: Spinoza by Nazario Graziano – Philosophie Magazine | http://www.nazariograziano.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/11/nazario-graziano-philosophie-magazine-spinoza-03.jpg



Follow Me on Instagram