Benedict de Spinoza, A Perspective

by Dr. Parviz Dehghani​

 Benedict de Spinoza, A Perspective

Who was he? He was a Jewish Dutch thinker. He was deeply influenced by Descartes’ philosophy and Euclid. He made the foundation of an ethical system in axiomatic frame work very much like the way Euclid worked his proofs of his theorems of geometry. What is an axiom? It comes from a Greek word called ‘axios’, which means worthy. It is a statement, which is universally accepted as true. It is a truth that is self evident (Webster’s new world dictionary) He published a work called ‘Ethics demonstrated in geometrical order’. He put up the self evident axioms and went on to come to the ethical conclusions. He is focused on establishing knowledge on logical grounds like Descartes. His ethical conclusions ought to be based on a number of ontological, metaphysical and epistemic ideas. All of these are demonstrated in geometric form. A question arises as to whether he was mixing up mathematics and logic. Bertrand Russell and Whitehead struggled to see if they could reduce mathematics to logic. Apparently they were not successful in this act. Perhaps this is not what Spinoza was trying to do. However, we leave this section of his philosophical activities to the logicians and mathematicians.

He was looking to bridge the gap between mind and body solving the problem of Cartesian dualism. What he did resembled the thought of Parmenides, who had believed everything in the universe was One. He argued that there’s only one substance, which could be either Nature or God. This substance has infinite number of attributes among which, being finite beings, we can perceive only two of them, namely, extension and thought. Descartes argued that mind and body were two different substances. Spinoza, however, believed these two are just different aspects of the same Reality. This Reality, Nature or God, is entirely self-contained, self-causing and self-sufficient.  Self-causing, nonetheless, makes me wonder how God can cause itself. The Ultimate Reality being beyond any duality cannot cause itself, because this would create a duality of cause and effect. But he thought everything in the world is a necessary part of God, and whatever occurs is also a necessary part or expression of the divine nature.

But what happens to man’s freedom? What becomes of free will? Being a pantheistic project, it has to fall into some kind of determinism. In other words, free will is out of the window and we’re back with St. Augustine’s struggle with determinism. If human beings are in this ocean of the divine Reality, then there’s no place for the independence of causal actions. He believed just because we’re aware of our actions and unaware of the causes doesn’t mean we’re free. On the contrary, we’re not free and our actions are determined. Then what happens to our moral responsibility? Nevertheless, he leaves room for some kind of freedom for humans. He said every person is a limited center of the attributes of Reality, which is a seeming-individual, because the only real individual is the universe in its entirety. A seemingly-individual is governed through his emotions, that is why he is not free and is tangled up with finite understanding. This reminds us of Leibniz’s monads, which are independent units and are only connected to the one Reality or God. In a philharmonic orchestra, players are following their notes while they’re guided by the director. Buddhism is an exception, which reminds us of Orpheus in which there’s no director.

It is possible Leibniz was influenced by Spinoza’s philosophy.

To be free, the person must, through rational reflection, comprehend the extended causal chain linking everything as one. To become conscious of the entire universe is to become free, not from causal determinism, but from being unaware of one’s true nature. Once we’re out of the cave of Plato, we understand the truth that has been hidden from us. ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do’ (Christ) ‘we’re condemned to be free’ (Sartre) Once you reach your true Self, or Atman in Hinduism, you’re free from the bondage of this world.

What did he think about the problem of evil? What about the problem of sin in general and original sin in particular? What about the problem of wickedness? He argued that because everything is participating in this Reality as a whole, there’s no such a thing as evil from the point of view of the whole—‘sub specie aeternitis’ (from the aspect of eternity) I’m paraphrasing and at the same time trying to understand what he must have been thinking.  St. Augustine argued that evil is absence good or vice versa. But good and evil need each other to be meaningful. Without evil good has no meaning and without good evil has no meaning. God said, in the beginning of the Bible, He created the world and it was good, but compared to what? There must have been a world or worlds which were evil.  A Buddhist monk, teaching little kids, told them they must do good things. But what are good things? Who decides what is good and what is bad or evil? What are the criterions whereby we can judge the goodness of an act or vice versa? From the viewpoint of the Ultimate Reality what is good or bad? If this was what he meant he was right. The One is not the realm of duality.

What is eternity? By dictionary definition, it is “infinite or endless time”. It is “a long period of time that seems endless”. It is “The endless time after death” (Webster) Eternal means “endless, everlasting, perpetual, and interminable”. Endless time seems  contradictory. After all, time could be an illusion or nonexistent reality. Don’t we manipulate time? The opposite of eternity is “transient, temporary, and ephemeral” (The pitman book of synonyms and antonyms) The expression  ‘Sub specie aeternitis’ has no meaning here, because the Ultimate Reality doesn’t accept dualism whatsoever as if it is an agent, which is not. We just showed you that even the word eternity has its opposite. Therefore, using ‘eternity’ for the problem of good and evil, I’m afraid; it is not the right way to go about solving this moral issue.

Good and evil are set to keep us on the right moral track in this world like traffic lights at the intersections.

What seems evil, he argued, it is so, because we’re unable to understand the bigger picture, which is the chain of causes making every event a necessary part of divine Reality.

His philosophy was frightening to the people of his day. However, they forgot that even Christians who persevered by confronting the difficulties of their time believed ‘God moves in mysterious ways’ and ‘ours is not to reason why’. However, the question arises, why did God give us the gift of intelligence in the first place? Spinoza, however, believed we need to reason why, in order to reach freedom. But by what kind of reason we can penetrate the mystery of life?  By Kant’s pure reason, we simply cannot achieve this goal. To give him the benefit of the doubt, it is possible Spinoza was referring to the power of the Intellect within us. Spinoza’s philosophy was mystical, rational and theistic. Being Jewish he knew there was no distinction between soul and body in the Hebrew tradition. Soul was not divine. When God created Adam He blew His Spirit into the earth. Adam was a mixture of God’s breath and the dust of the earth. God’s breath is divine but not what we call soul. Soul is part of the mother earth. Thus, soul and body are one. They were never separated like salt and water to become saltwater. This distinction entered Judaism and Christian tradition later on. Was this on the mind of Spinoza? Mind /body of Descartes were an issue for Spinoza. What we call mind is nothing but what was named as soul. So Spinoza argued that under the umbrella or canopy of God’s Spirit soul and body are not separate substances. There’s only one Substance, sub= under and stance = standing as we can understand. The Ultimate Reality is at the apex and peak of this pyramid. Soul and body are one phenomenon. After all, what is body once divided indefinitely. Once we study quantum physics we realize that finally mass disappears and bodies become nonexistent. In subatomic level there’s nothing but awareness. This is not the conscientious of this or that. This is pure awareness. Apparently this is what Buddha experienced after he was awake.

Spinoza was a misunderstood philosopher. His books were burned and thank God he was not put in fire with them. He was labeled ‘Pantheist’ based on which he was excommunicated from the Jewish community.

What is pantheism any way? It is “the view that the universe as a whole is divine or God. Pantheism is different from Panentheism insofar as for the pantheist the universe is identical with God, whereas for the panentheist the universe is only a part of God” (The path of philosophy by John Marmysz) He was also condemned as atheist and wicked by Christians. Not only were his works baptized by fire but his reputation was marginalized in the history of philosophy. Leibniz being influenced by Spinoza hardly ever acknowledged his debt to him, which reminds us of Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961) and before him Jack London (1876-1916). Here Hemingway acted like Leibniz.

Spinoza, regardless of the significance and importance of his works has not been given the credit he deserved among the Western rationalists.

This humble work was based on the book called ‘philosophy, 100 essential thinkers’.