Modern European Philosophy 3 – Spinoza

For this lecture, read the Ethics of Spinoza, Definitions, Axioms & Propositions I to XV.


Baruch Spinoza (1632 – 1677 CE) was born in the Portuguese Sephardic Jewish community of Amsterdam, and was thus Jewish, Portuguese and Dutch.  Jews had fled from Spain and Portugal to nearby lands during the Spanish Inquisition of 1492 and the Portuguese Inquisition of 1536, forty years later.  If 1492 is a familiar date, that is because it is the year that Christians retook Spain from Muslims, and also the year Columbus chose to leave Spain and sail as far across the world as he could.  While Jews thrived in Spain and Portugal under Islamic rule, often occupying high places in the government, education, science and medicine, the Catholic Portuguese Inquisition that caused Spinoza’s own Jewish community to flee to Amsterdam happened only a hundred years before his birth.  Some scholars argue that the Portuguese Spinoza family was originally of the Spanish Espinosa family, some of whom fled to Portugal to avoid the Spanish Inquisition while others remained in Spain and converted to Catholicism.  If this is true, Spinoza’s branch of the family successfully fled both inquisitions.


Spinoza was not only a philosopher, but also a scientist, mathematician, and biblical scholar, studying the bible critically to understand and interpret its authorship, meaning, and historical context.  Spinoza’s views of the bible and its authorship, radical for the time, got him kicked out of the Jewish community of Amsterdam at the age of 23, as well as ostracized by the surrounding Christian community.  Like Descartes, his work was put on the Catholic Index of Forbidden Books.  He was once attacked as he left the synagogue by a man with a knife who yelled out, “Heretic!”, and Spinoza wore his cloak, torn by the knife, for years afterwards as a badge of honor.   Spinoza was one of the first European biblical scholars to question the traditional understanding that the first five books of the Old Testament (for Jews the Torah, the only testament) were not written by Moses.  At the time, they were still known as the five Books of Moses, until Spinoza and others pointed out that not only did the book of Exodus speak about Moses in the third person, but Moses dies near the end, making his authorship of the book quite questionable.  Islamic scholars had noted this problem of authorship centuries earlier.

lens grinding

After being banished from Amsterdam for a brief period and then returning, Spinoza lived as a lens grinder, making lenses for telescopes and microscopes, turning down several teaching positions for a quiet and private life.  Because Spinoza died at the relatively young age of forty four from an unknown lung condition, it is suspected that his death was in part caused by glass dust inhaled while grinding.  He was known as an outstanding producer of lenses, and these were used by scientists in the fields of optics, astronomy and medicine during the European enlightenment as they had been used in earlier forms by Muslims.

Spinoza Ethica

After writing several short works on science, theology, and philosophy, particularly criticism of Descartes, Spinoza wrote his masterpiece, the Ethics, which was only published after his death and written in Latin, as was most European scholarship for centuries.  Leibniz, who we will examine next, visited Spinoza and discussed his as yet unpublished Ethics with him.  Then, after returning to Germany, Leibniz plagiarized parts of the work and published them interspersed with his own without giving Spinoza credit.  There are many instances in philosophy, both ancient and modern, of duplicated work that dances on the boundary between illegitimate plagiarism and legitimate influence.  Philosophers often fail to mention names when using ideas in the sequence of an argument.


Although Spinoza was interested in investigation and observation of the sciences, he was drawn to Rationalism via philosophy and mathematics.  His Ethics is an attempt to do philosophy as a formal Euclidean geometric proof.  Euclid, the ancient Greek mathematician, proceeded from axioms, basic principles assumed to be true, to deduce conclusions that necessarily follow.  The definitions can be confusing before reading the Axioms, the points Spinoza hopes to prove by deduction as a Rationalist.  Experts pour over the particular twists and turns Spinoza’s thinking takes, and it is often hard to follow, but there are particular conclusions he reaches that are certainly worth examining.  While Euclid did not use equations, he worked systematically much in the way that mathematical and logical proofs work, and Spinoza attempted to follow Euclid’s method to make his thinking rigorous and sound.  This is why he is known as a Rationalist, falling under the same heading as Descartes.  Unlike Descartes, in trying to work out a mathematical proof of everything Spinoza argues that our reality and world is indivisibly one and the same as God.

ocean waves

Central to the work, Spinoza attacked Cartesian dualism and argued that mind and body are inclusively one, not exclusively two, an anti-dualist position known as monism.  In ancient Indian, Greek and Chinese philosophy, the idea that all things are one beneath and beyond human judgement is known as philosophical monism.  For Spinoza, there is only one unified reality, which he identified with God as Being, and any complete difference or exclusive separation is human ignorance and misunderstanding.  Each individual thing, including minds, are like a wave on the sea, a part of the whole and not entirely removed or exclusive.


According to Spinoza, nature, the world and all of Being is God, a pantheist position that infuriated the traditionally religious and got Spinoza barred as a heretic by both Jews and Christians who believed God to be separate from and superior to the physical world.  Just as the Gnostic notion of a world ruled by Satan, removing God from the world entirely, was deemed heretical to the orthodox, the opposite pantheist view, that the world is identical to God, was deemed likewise heretical.  According to the Jewish and Christian orthodox position, God rules the world as its separate superior.  In the same vein, right wing evangelical Christians in America today have taken to attacking the environmental movement as satanically inspired pantheism, a heretical worship of nature rather than of a god that created nature but is separate and distinct from it.

Bart sells his soul

Spinoza argued against the immortality of the soul, which helped to label him a heretic.  Like Jains and Buddhists of India, Spinoza believed that the self ceases to be a separate individual thing at death, but, insofar as one has come to identify with and know the whole as oneself in life, one lives on as the whole itself.  Unlike Jains and Buddhists, Spinoza did not argue for stages of reincarnation.  In an episode of the Simpsons, Bart sells his soul but then regrets the decision and spends a day and night tracking it down.  His sister Lisa tells him that some philosophers believe one is not born with a soul, but earns one, as he did.  The writers are likely thinking of Spinoza.  Because all things are God, all things are also eternal, but not as individual things that remain unchanging.  Spinoza seems to say that insofar as our minds contemplate the true ways of things, our minds become the ways of things, and are thus as eternal as the ways we contemplate.  This is much like saying that by studying the gravitational constant, you become the gravitational constant, and thus are as enduring as the constancy of gravity, enduring as long as it endures.  Perhaps if someone wants an eternal afterlife, reminding them that energy can’t be created or destroyed would not make them very happy.

spider web

Spinoza believed that reality is one substance with all particular beings linked together by chains of causation.  Spinoza was a determinist, and believed that there was no real freedom or chance in the universe.  The will and mind of God was not the personal care of an emotional being with a personality, but the causal workings and design of nature.  Reason reveals the necessary causal connections between things.  Spinoza argued that human beings, like Descartes, believe in free will because they are aware of desires but do not understand the reasons behind these desires, and so they perceive the gap as freedom when in fact there is none.  Spinoza noted that people who are driven by passions, such as the baby seeking the breast, the cruel boy who lashes out at others, and the drunk who seeks more to drink, all feel that they are free because they do not understand the forces that determine their actions.


Just because there is no free will does not mean that human beings have no degree of control over their actions.  Understanding the causes of one’s behavior and situation with reason gives one greater ability to act in various ways.  If one has a greater exercise of reason, one will naturally be determined to take a better path that one may not have been aware of before.  An individual who knows they are hungry is free to eat a sandwich rather than punch random people or burst into tears, but the past entirely determines whether the individual will choose to make a sandwich or not.  In this sense, one gains freedom by reasoning, but much as immortality is not immortality for the individual but the individual conforming to nature, so too is freedom not freedom for the individual but the individual conforming to nature, becoming more capable.


Scholars have noted that this is similar to Daoism of ancient China and Stoicism of ancient Greece and Rome.  As we become more active, we become the universe, the sum of all activity.  Like the Mutazilites of Islam, who believed that God is reason and the necessary logic of all being, Spinoza was committed to the position that God is not free to be illogical or be contradictory, but as the sum of all activity this absolutely determined being is the sum of all freedom.  Einstein said that Spinoza had more influence on his views than any other philosopher.  When asked if he believed in God, Einstein said, “I believe in Spinoza’s God”.  A determinist like Spinoza, Einstein argued against the chaos theorists who would surpass his work on relativity saying, “God doesn’t play dice with the universe”.  According to chaos theory, Einstein was right that time and space are relative, but he did not see that necessity and chance are also relative, and thus the absolute determinism of Spinoza and Einstein is impossible.

tsunami hokusai

Spinoza’s first axiom is: Things exist either in themselves or through something else.  These are much like the two skeptical modes of Sextus the ancient Greek skeptic that Descartes hoped to solve by grounding his thinking in the self-evident existence of consciousness and the dependence of consciousness on God.  He then presents this causally: Effects cannot be known in themselves, as they are the effects of causes.  The question arises: Are there causes that are not themselves effects in a chain, caused by earlier causes?  Spinoza has already set up God in his definitions as infinite in essence, who will be the singular cause of all causes, the only truly independent self-evident thing, Being itself, the cause of all particular beings, which themselves can cause other particular beings, but are not the cause of themselves.

Parmenides No Change Political Poster

Spinoza argues that all things have to be similar to each other in some way, and thus things cannot be completely distinct or many, and thus there is, in fact, only one substance, which is God, infinite and indivisible.  Parmenides argued that all differences between things must be illusion, as difference is non-being, and non-being can’t be.  Spinoza says that for things to be completely distinct is impossible, and so they must be one and the same substance.  Being itself is infinite and without limits because anything that limited it would have to be part of it to exist.  Thus, Spinoza states with full confidence, “Besides God no substance can be granted or conceived.”  Because substances are created only by similar substances, there must be a super-substance that is the substance of all substances.  Because like begets like, there must be a super-like that includes all difference within itself.  From Being, there necessarily “must follow an infinite number of things in infinite ways”.


Hegel wrote in his History of Philosophy that one could not be a legitimate philosopher without being a Spinozist.  Hegel geared his system to overcome and synthesize all dueling points of view, and thought that Spinoza’s monism had overcome Descartes’ dualism.  One of the final stages in Hegel’s conception of the history of philosophy is the recognition that freedom and necessity are one and the same thing.  Deleuze, a French postmodernist we will study at the very end of the course, called Spinoza the prince of philosophers.  Indeed, for many thinkers skeptical of exclusive dualist distinctions, Spinoza’s opposition to the dualism of Descartes became one of the first glorious moments of European thought.  I was myself quite inspired by Spinoza as an undergraduate philosophy major.


Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646 – 1716 CE) was a German philosopher and mathematician who invented calculus at the same time as Newton and we still use his system of notation.  His first job was as an alchemist’s assistant, then he became a lawyer’s assistant.  As also mentioned, he met Spinoza, and though the two disagreed on much, Leibniz is known to have borrowed, possibly plagiarized, parts of Spinoza’s Ethics.  Leibniz published little during his lifetime, and to this day no definitive collection exists of his various and disparate writings.  His most famous writings are his Monadology and his Discourse on Metaphysics.

Leibniz calculator

Leibniz invented the binary system still used by computers today, which may or may not give way to something else like quantum computers in the near future.  Leibniz was a sinophile (one who loves Chinese culture), studied Chinese thought, at least that which was available to him, and invented his binary system inspired in part by the Yi Jing divination system, the ancient Chinese binary divination system that represents all possible situations with solid and broken lines just as Leibniz’s binary system represents all numbers with ones and zeros.  Leibniz was communicating with Christian missionaries in China, and he, like some of the missionaries, believed that Europeans could learn much from Confucianism that was in line with Christianity.  Also an admirer of the Chinese abacus, Leibniz was one of the most important innovators of the mechanical calculator, an early computer which employed his binary system.

william blake great architect demiurge gnostic

Like Descartes and Spinoza, Leibniz believed that God created the world as a rational, mechanical apparatus.  Because of this, Leibniz famously argued that this is the best of all possible worlds.  As God is omniscient, God was aware of all possible worlds before creation, and chose this to be the created world, so it must therefore be the best.  Of course, many who ponder the problem of evil, the theological problem debated for centuries about how suffering in a rational world is possible, would question this assertion.  Like Spinoza, Leibniz tried to come up with pure deductive understanding of the world.  Unfortunately this meant the world was very unlike how we experience it.

kanada atomist

The infinite, the eternal, is for the mathematician Leibniz an infinite series of distinct points, not a unity beyond all division as it is for Spinoza.  These are the elementary particles of the universe, eternal and indivisible, like the atoms (“without cut”) of the ancient Indian and Greek atomists.  Unlike the ancient Indian and Greek atoms, however, Leibniz’s points are individual minds he calls monads.  This infinite plurality is entirely made of mind, yet they are many exclusively as opposed to Spinoza’s anti-dualist monistic God-mind.  It seems as if the minds perceive each other imperfectly, but in actuality they do not interact.  Each is its entire universe.  In what Leibniz calls a pre-established harmony, each monad was set apart from the central monad, God, and when the monads split and became individuals, they were set in motion such that they could all run independently but seem to share a universe and interact.  Space, matter and motion are subjective phenomena, not objectively real.  Notice how this follows Descartes insofar as all can be doubted other than mind, and that mathematics is given as true by virtue of the essentially quantitative nature of being.

George Berkeley

While there are similarities to Descartes, it is also similar to Berkeley the idealist, who thinks reality is God’s dream, and we are dreams within the dream, except in this case, we are each having God’s dream, but separate from God and each other, each privately having the same dream but not contained within a single dream.  Rather, each dreamer is derived from the original dream, each an individual dubbed copy.  Notice that for Spinoza and Berkeley, there is an underlying identity with God which allows the individual be eternal, while in Leibniz, it is the underlying complete separation that allows the individual to be eternal, unlike any substance, which is an illusion, but like the original mama Monad, and like the infinite nature of the endless series of numerals (1, 2, 3…).  It is also similar to Indra’s net of the Indian tradition, a net of mirrors that all reflect each other, a metaphor that Leibniz uses without referring to India or Indra.

Bertrand Russell pipe

There are several principles Leibniz draws upon again and again.  One is the Principle of Identity, also known as the Principle of Non-Contradiction (PNC): If a statement is true, then its negation is false, and if a statement is false, then its negation is true.  For example, if the statement, “Leibniz is a logician” is true, then the statement, “Leibniz is not a logician” is false, and vice versa.  Kant and Russell, advocates of logic and the principle of noncontradiction, studied the work of Leibniz intensely, advocating this principle.  In contrast, Hegel argued in his Logic that all things work by way of contradiction, of tension between opposites.  Another central principle of Leibniz’s is the Identity of Indiscernibles: If two things are without any discernable difference, then they must be not two things, but identical, the same single thing.  Of course, if two things are in different locations or exist at different times, this is a discernable difference.  A third principle of Leibniz’s is the Principle of Sufficient Reason: If something exists, there must be a reason why it exists the way it does.  Leibniz, a Rationalist, believes that the world was rationally created by God, who controls all in this best and most rational of all possible worlds, and so he assumes that each thing can be rationally explained because each thing was rationally created.

carlsbad caverns

This is a teleological view, what many call today intelligent design.  In the ancient world, as well as the early modern world of the Rationalist philosophers, the world and things in it were created with specific purposes, and so to understand the design of a thing is to understand it.  A Roman stoic author once wrote that he was terrified of a beautiful cavern because there was no one around to appreciate its beauty.  This was incomprehensible to him because beauty exists to be seen and appreciated, and so if a thing is hidden underground and goes unseen, there is no reason for it to be beautiful.  Today, many who do not believe in intelligent design still adhere to the Principle of Sufficient Reason, in spite of the fact that the universe does not need human reasons to exist.

diogenes with pot and dogs

In the Principles of Nature and of Grace Based on Reason, Leibniz argues, against the Cartesians by name, that they were mistaken to believe that animals do not possess minds or have sensations.  However, only human beings with reason can become not merely souls, but genuine, “sublime” spirits.  The Empiricists (who we will study in the next few weeks) are like beasts according to Leibniz, because they learn only from experience, like dogs afraid of a stick with which they have been beaten, rather than become sublime through the use of pure reason, like the Rationalists such as Leibniz himself.