Baruch Spinoza, Part I – or, Don’t Blame God for Religion

Devising this post set my blogging back a considerable amount timewise.

It is in response to Caprice, and also in response to Self Control.  It is also a continuation of The Calculus of Decisions.

Spinoza is an amazing thinker.  I began reading his Ethics – an abridged version that certainly overlooks many points – about a year and a half ago…only recently finished it along with a bit of the Theologico-Politico Treatise.  It took me a small epoch to clearly and distinctly – as Descartes would say – wrap my head around his ideas.  But like many others (Wittgenstein – another personal favorite – even named his Magnum Opus after him) Spinoza’s brilliance revealed itself to me  and I hope to capture a few of his points, especially the most salient for our continued dialog…

A short introduction per Wikipedia:

Spinoza was a Portuguese Jew who at an early age received a writ of cherem (A form of excommunication in Judaism) for his radical notions contradicting orthodoxy. Mainly he insisted that no book or temple could contain God and would always be imperfect because it necessarily couldn’t express infinity.  He also rejected the notion of a God that actively participated in reality and closely observed good and evil.  In fact Spinoza says that good and evil are merely human perceptions, as we perceive pleasure and pain.  This mimics Buddha’s insistence that knowledge of suffering creates suffering.

His name means blessed…somewhere I read that he assigned himself some form of this name because he considered himself blessed by God as he understood him.  I want to get back to this.

He lived his entire life in the Netherlands, in the interim corresponding with other scholars throughout Europe.  Amsterdam was at its apogee, an Alexandria of the Old World, beacon of wealth and liberal thought.  Spinonza was a craftsman, and only wrote only a few works during his life.  He obeyed a humble, pious existence, rejecting material wealth (which seems more impressive the older I get).

Anyways…he completed Ethics a year before his death in 1677.  Inside he puts forth, and I got this from Wikipedia: a “fully cohesive philosophical system that strives to provide a coherent picture of reality and to comprehend the meaning of an ethical life. Following a logical step-by-step format, it defines in turn the nature of God, the mind, human bondage to the emotions, and the power of understanding — moving from a consideration of the eternal, to speculate upon humanity’s place in the natural order, freedom, and the path to attainable happiness.” (adducing Penguin Classics)

Soooo it’s pretty complicated.  But it’s actually very simple.  Thus my frustration…

He is greatly inspired by Euclidean geometry, to the point that the attempts to create a logical proof that is airtight by virtue of it’s own definitions and postulates.  The definitions encompass much of his system…


I. By that which is self-caused, I mean that of which the essence involves existence, or that of which the nature is only conceivable as existent.

II. A thing is called finite after its kind, when it can be limited by another thing of the same nature; for instance, a body is called finite because we always conceive another greater body. So, also, a thought is limited by another thought, but a body is not limited by thought, nor a thought by body.

III. By substance, I mean that which is in itself, and is conceived through itself; in other words, that of which a conception can be formed independently of any other conception.

IV. By attribute, I mean that which the intellect perceives as constituting the essence of substance.

V. By mode, I mean the modifications [“Affectiones”] of substance, or that which exists in, and is conceived through, something other than itself.

VI. By God, I mean a being absolutely infinite–that is, a substance consisting in infinite attributes, of which each expresses eternal and infinite essentiality.
Explanation.–I say absolutely infinite, not infinite after its kind: for, of a thing infinite only after its kind, infinite attributes may be denied; but that which is absolutely infinite, contains in its essence whatever expresses reality, and involves no negation.

VII. 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.

VIII. By eternity, I mean existence itself, in so far as it is conceived necessarily to follow solely from the definition of that which is eternal.
Explanation.–Existence of this kind is conceived as an eternal truth, like the essence of a thing, and, therefore, cannot be explained by means of continuance or time, though continuance may be conceived without a beginning or end.


I. Everything which exists, exists either in itself or in something else.

II. That which cannot be conceived through anything else must be conceived through itself.

III. From a given definite cause an effect necessarily follows; and, on the other hand, if no definite cause be granted, it is impossible that an effect can follow.

IV. The knowledge of an effect depends on and involves the knowledge of a cause.

V. Things which have nothing in common cannot be understood, the one by means of the other; the conception of one does not involve the conception of the other.

VI. A true idea must correspond with its ideate or object.

VII. If a thing can be conceived as non-existing, its essence does not involve existence.


PROP. I. Substance is by nature prior to its modifications.

Proof.–This is clear from Def. iii. and v.

PROP. II. Two substances whose attributes are different have nothing in common.

Proof.–Also evident from Def. iii. For each must exist in itself, and be conceived through itself; in other words, the conception of one does not imply the conception of the other.

Anyway…it gets quite burdensome.  But X Marks the Spot and if you follow the steps you arrive at buried treasures.  His philosophy is not only reinforced but marvelous.

So he has just said that there is only a single substance, since no substance can create another substance.  This really threw me off.  He is saying that there are no differences because everything is really a single substance.  We only see differences due to our necessarily imperfect perception of things.  This includes our own lives, races, nations, etc.

This has powerful implications and really has only been implemented on a tangible level during recent times, throughout all civil rights movements.  Although this idea must have been building for a long while.  I believe that if we want to change the world we need to address the contradiction inherent in labels that we willingly empower, to which we inevitably passively acquiesce through usage.

America has absolutely no corporeal structure, it only exists as a concept in the minds of men, and yet the active and passive actions of individual people sustain this concept.  Although there is not one single particle that could be isolated and defined as America…we still give it priority over things that really do exist such as trees or people in Mesopotamia.

Spinoza goes on to call this single substance God.  It is the essence of existence, that which makes existence exist.  God and existence/truth/the universe is interchangeable.  This is called Pantheism but I think it simply common sense.

SO why call it God?  Of course there are forces and limitations that give rise to perceived phenomena.  However…the better question is why not call it God?  To deny God as defined by existence seems a bit blithe, unless you take Kant’s assertion that existence is not necessarily real except as relayed through an experience from our travels through space/time.  I find this to be correct as well and not at all incompatible with the idea of God.  It all returns to zen which embraces being and nonbeing, 0 = infinity, but also de-emphasizes the transcendent in favor of the practical.  In many ways the Western God de-emphasizes the practical in favor of the transcendent, but again these don’t contradict one another and many a Zen scholar wisely understood the contradictions.  As do many wise monotheist theologians.

Milton’s Paradise Lost, through conversations between Lucifer or God and their generals, made me realize the true nature of God and the Devil – supported by Spinoza’s assertions.  The Devil is simply mortal, melancholy against an existential crisis, always fighting the undefeatable, never submitting, can’t accept that he can’t win against God – by definition.  The fact that really pisses Satan off is that his eternity comes from an eternal self-inflicted denial (although since he has been banished from heaven don’t know if it’s up to him anymore)…consequently the Devil is contingent on God and thus inferior.  It’s actually rationally sound!

God is not undefeatable because he is a jerk, or he willed himself to be that way, but because it (He…lol)is THE undefeatable in origin and essence.  We humans are confronted with the undefeatable every day with our mortal, physical and mental constraints, and to deny this is to be in hell in a sense, and to suffer.  Like Satan, going to war with God and always losing but still insisting you could win somehow someday.

Existence exists, and so do its consequences.  It sounds like cheating – like the concept of undefeatability, God exists by definition.  But in actuality this is empowering, and leads back to faith…in a sense any certainty (that our fingers will push the keyboard and this will trigger multifarious reactions which result in words registering onscreen; all derived from belief in existence – God).  And we’ve come full circle back to Wittgenstein.

The simultaneous realization that existence also does not exist, or that nonexistence is simply an unseen force working beyond our senses, was at first an escape for humans.  This is a whole different topic relating to postmodernism and modernism and their progressions.  Suffice it to say nihilism completely feeds into capitalism.

Embracing the notion of God would be a powerful tool for so-called progressives (ditching labels is another).  It represents major compromise, although merely an altered approach to a word.  However I think that the Active Philosophy, in order to reform government, business, education etc., has to at first challenge knowledge; once accomplished, challenging again to reevaluate its implementation.   This means living the good life, the devout life, the curious life, and determined life…really all that we do already, but to incorporate this into our institution and conceptualization of our society and world.

Gandhi said that the West believed in God but merely called it Truth.  Spirituality and logic must reunite! Spinoza believed himself to be blessed, and all those that lead a good life and understand the universe and their place in it are also blessed, whether they profess to believe in God or not.  Although having said all that absolute denial of God (the essence of existence and infinite possibility) seems to miss the target a bit.

On the other hand religion needs to compromise here and get over the notion that people who don’t believe in their particular God are incorrect or going to hell…let their own voice decide.  Organized religion largely takes away the ability to determine a perfectly logical God for oneself by intimidating/discouraging ratiocination.

Spinoza explains how to overcome these sometimes overpowering concepts in a sort of 17th century dose of self-help, which I will elaborate in a later post…

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5 Responses to Baruch Spinoza, Part I – or, Don’t Blame God for Religion

  1. activephilosophy says:

    “God is not undefeatable because he is a jerk, or he willed himself to be that way, but because it (He…lol)is THE undefeatable in origin and essence. We humans are confronted with the undefeatable every day with our mortal, physical and mental constraints, and to deny this is to be in hell in a sense, and to suffer. Like Satan, going to war with God and always losing but still insisting you could win somehow someday.”

    What ultra religious perceive as a need for faith?

  2. jroeder90007 says:

    I really like the part how you said that God is undefeatable. And it ties that back to the part where God is everything. It would be like trying to fight gravity thinking you might win. But how many people do we know that fight the impossible?

    I personally prefer the Law of Conservation of Energy: “Energy can be neither created nor destroyed, it can only change forms.”

    Instead of trying to destroy energy, (which is impossible) I like to change it. And usually, it changes me in a way too. I think that’s how Life is supposed to be.

  3. deadondres says:

    “What ultra religious perceive as a need for faith?”

    Exactly…I think Spinoza is a very inspirational person…one who not only used theology to define his philosophy but also used it to challenge others culturally.

    As a liberal enlightened figure he took back God.

    I keep coming back to the notion of our generation as reformists sort of in the Greek tradition….spiritual/political/philosophical/artistic and combine these…instead of fighting society I think we are lucky enough to work within and change things for the better using a superior notion of religion and politics to make our case.

    Love the conservation of energy idea too…how it is a two way street.

    Reminds me of Bruce Lee:

    Be like water making its way through cracks. Do not be assertive, but adjust to the object, and you shall find a way round or through it. If nothing within you stays rigid, outward things will disclose themselves.

    Empty your mind, be formless. Shapeless, like water. If you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle and it becomes the bottle. You put it in a teapot it becomes the teapot. Now, water can flow or it can crash. Be water my friend.

  4. Pingback: Correlation - First Truths « Active Philosophy

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