Benedict Spinoza

The highest good is.. .the knowledge of the union that the mind has with the whole of Nature.1

Spinoza was born in Amsterdam in 1632, the son of Jewish emigrants from Portugal; his father was a merchant and a respected member of the Jewish community's board of elders. Spinoza was brought up in the orthodox fashion, studying Hebrew, Holy Scripture and the Talmud. It is possible to trace the various cultural influences in his life through his choice of first name, from Bento (Portuguese) to Baruch (Hebrew) to Benedict (Latin), each of which means 'blessed'. Sometime about 1656,

Spinoza was excommunicated from the Jewish church, on the grounds of heretical beliefs. The bookseller and freethinker Franz van den Enden played a pivotal role in his life and thought; he brought Descartes' works to Spinoza's attention, taught him Greek and Latin, and his mystical views about God or Nature as an infinite substance probably had a decisive influence on the young philosopher's unusual perspective, substance monism, as early as the treatise On the Emendation of the Intellect. Spinoza moved to Rijnsburg near Leiden in 1660, where his close friends persuaded him to set down his careful, though uncompleted, exegesis of Descartes' metaphysics, Descartes' Principles of Philosophy, published in 1663. Spinoza lived a solitary, almost reclusive life, grinding lens and working slowly on the text of the Theological-Political Treatise, published anonymously in 1670. The Council of the Reformed Dutch Church condemned the book as 'a treatise of idolatry and superstition', while one professor at Utrecht wrote that it was 'the most pestilential book'.2 In 1672, the glorious Dutch Republic came to a disastrous close with an invasion of the French and German armies. The Republic's leader, Jan de Witt, was murdered by an angry mob, and the Dutch Estate Holders brought back into power the young Prince William III. Spinoza was much distressed at the death of de Witt and the unfinished Political Treatise demonstrates his unyielding advocacy for the rational foundations of a legitimate state; today it shows his readers the immediate and direct manner in which a philosopher can be engaged in important social and political issues. But it is his final work, the Ethics, left incomplete at his premature death in 1677, which has had the most decisive influence in the history of modern philosophy.

In many respects, Spinoza's systematic philosophy in the Ethics is the most beautiful, perfectly ordered picture of the universe and humans' place in it. Every aspect of every dimension of human experience is consistently explained in terms of the greater whole. For Spinoza, to explain something is to know its cause, that which not only brings that being into existence but also makes that being just what it is and not something else. A cause also necessarily produces the effect that it does. Understanding, therefore, consists in showing how some feature of the universe necessarily has the role it has as some kind of essential property of substance which is the cause of all things and the cause of itself. In contrast with Descartes' dualism, Spinoza propounds substance monism: there is only one substance which has two principal attributes, thought and extension. In this fashion he rejects the dualisms of God and created world, and of mind and body. There are an infinite number of particulars in the world, each of which can be considered a dependent part of that one substance. There is one substance, God or Nature, with two infinite attributes.

These attributes should be thought of as different ways of 'seeing' one and the same reality. We think of extended substance as divided into separate bodies which occupy a limited area in space and time, but extension itself cannot be thought of as other than limitless in time and space. The way in which we think of thought will depend upon the level of knowledge which our particular finite mind has reached. The infinite and eternal mode of extension is motion-and-rest; the finite mode, which constitutes individual bodies, or the medium-scale things in our environment, are configurations of simplest particles. The configurations which compose individual physical objects are elements in a hierarchy of such organized systems in which there is an ascent from the simplest particles to the whole world; there is one complete cosmic substance in which all other entities are components. All individual things then are configurations of particles in a charged energy state which possess a drive (conatus) to maintain themselves in being. The hierarchy of beings then is a plenary order of power: the higher an individual is on the scale, the less it is acted on by external forces and the more its changes come from within itself. Moreover, there is an equation between being more or less active as a causal agent upon others and being more or less real. In ascending order of power, these are: the inorganic, the organic, the animal, and the human. The human body is more real than merely animal bodies because it maintains itself in being more effectively than others, does so more under its own control, and interacts with its environment with greater foresight.

The ordered arrangement of beings corresponds with the hierarchy of levels of knowledge. The highest level is intuitive knowledge which approaches the 'infinite idea of God'. 'The more each of us is able to achieve in this kind of knowledge, the more he is conscious of himself and god, that is, the more perfect and blessed he is.' Since God is the same as Nature as a whole, and since Nature is defined as perfect, every being is oriented towards its own perfection or completeness of essence. From this vantage point arises the individual's striving to unite with the source of that which causes the experience of joy or bliss. 'The mind has had eternally the same perfections which now come to it and that is accompanied by the idea of god as an eternal cause. If joy then consists in the passage to greater perfection, blessedness must surely consist in the fact that the mind is endowed with perfection itself.'3 One can readily appreciate how the German Romantic poet Novalis later referred to

Spinoza as 'the god-intoxicated man' and Goethe dubbed him 'the most Christian one'.

The key to Spinoza's moral theory and thus to his attitude towards environmental concerns can be found in his theory of ideas. Corresponding to each level of knowledge or class of idea, there is an ideatum or 'object' of that same idea; degrees of rationality and degrees of reality must be linked at every stage. Thus, insofar as we purify our understanding in order to consider ideas of the highest order of rationality, we come close to the condition of godhood; in this way we cease to be merely parts of nature. Our status as 'natural' beings under the aspect of extension wholly depends on the class of idea (confused, adequate or intuitive) which constitutes our minds, and vice versa. Spinoza has an unusual and seemingly paradoxical claim about the union of mind and body in the human being: the complex idea which the human body has of itself is its mind. This union under two aspects which constitutes a person is only a special case of a general, uniform principle.

There is thus an equal novelty in his notion of psycho-physical causation: changes in one do not produce or generate changes in the other, rather every bodily change is a mental change and vice versa, since there is only one Nature conceived under two different attributes. Spinoza was well aware of consequent paradox in identifying mental with physical changes. The particular finite mode of extension which is my body exchanges energy with its own proximate environment; and every such 'interaction' is reflected in an idea.4 Since Spinoza construed the moral dimension as coterminous with the perfectibility of things as parts, exchanges which diminish living beings' energy states are poisons, and thus evil, and exchanges which augment their energy states are healthy, and thus good.

Human beings maintain their identity by preserving a constant adjustment of their parts. This self-maintenance is not the result of some decision by the person, but occurs as a natural process. Other things are susceptible to fewer changes because their structure is less complex and have less 'reality' than human beings. They can manage only a lesser field in their environment and hence the cohesion of their parts is liable to disruption by a more narrow range of external causes. Human beings have a high degree of complexity which, under the attribute of thought, is captured by saying that they have mind and that they are self-conscious. Thus, a human mind consists of ideas which reflect the effects of external causes insofar as they modify the balance of motion-and-rest which constitutes the human body. Such an alteration arises out of the body's interaction with other things and may be either an increase or a decrease in energy, its 'life-force'. There is thus a wide range of internal energy states within which a human cohesion of parts may remain united, without the individual being destroyed. These changes in state can be described both in physical terms as an increase or decrease in the organism's life-force; and they can be described in mental terms as pleasure and pain.5 Thus, every increase in the 'lifeforce' is experienced as pleasure and every decrease is experienced as pain; by 'pleasure' Spinoza means 'the passion by which the mind passes to a higher state of perfection, and by pain the passion by which it passes to a lower state of perfection'.6 Any increase in the power or perfection of the human body must be an increase in the power or perfection of the mind and vice versa. The moral principle here is that all things which contribute to one's perfection are good and all things which detract from it are evil.

The degree of power or perfection of any finite thing depends on the degree to which it is causally active in relation to things other than itself. The one infinitely powerful and perfect being is God or Nature, who is in every respect active and not passive. A human being has greater power and perfection insofar as the succession of ideas which constitutes its mind are linked together as cause and effect; a human is active insofar as the succession of ideas in its mind is a logical one. A human being has less power or perfection as a thinking being insofar as its present ideas are not explicable as the logical consequences of previous ideas in its mind. In God, there would be an infinite sequence of ideas each one of which would be logically entailed by its predecessors. But human minds, for the most part, consist of more or less random sequences of ideas, in the sense that the causes are external to the sequence. The sequence of ideas is not self-contained and hence cannot be completely intelligible—there are always gaps. The power and perfection of an individual mind is increased in proportion as it becomes less passive and more active in the production of its ideas. The equivalent for the individual human body of this increased cognitive activity is the internal stability of the organism, which enables it to carry on living without any violent perturbations produced by external causes. Thus, the mind is relatively free and active in its thinking when the body is in a relatively constant state vis-à-vis its own proximate environment.7

Human beings, unlike animals, can be aware of the tendency towards self-maintenance which constitutes their real 'nature'. The reflection in a conscious idea of this conatus, the drive to maintain oneself in being, is called desire. Spinoza defines desire as appetite together with conscious awareness of its occurrence and the 'object' towards which it is directed. Now pleasure and pain are not to be found in the 'objects' which desire and aversion afford, nor can they be discovered by any form of abstract reasoning. They represent a change in the psycho-physical state of the whole person; they are the mental reflection of a rise or fall in the power or activity of the organism. Which specific things will promote or depress the life-force of any organism depends on the constantly changing 'nature' of the individual organism. It may be difficult to understand how conatus pertains to inanimate things—how could a stone, for example, be said to have a drive to maintain itself in being? The problem for the common-sense view is that we think of a stone as an individual thing or substance— but of course, for Spinoza, this is incorrect. A stone, a plant, or an animal are each no more than temporary configurations of finite modifications of the infinite attributes of one thing, God or Nature; they are all parts of the cosmos which work together towards the maintenance of the whole. So, plants consume soil and water, animals consume plants and animals, and so forth, each thereby participating through exchange of energy in the greater whole, from whence all ultimately derive their life-force. This grand conception of the world-whole is perhaps more familiar to contemporary readers from Lovelock's Gaia Hypothesis.

The Norwegian 'eco-philosopher' Arne Naess proposed that Spinoza was the most important philosophical source for inspiration regarding concern for environmental issues. He claims that nature conceived by ecologists is not the passive, inert, value-neutral nature of mechanistic science, but more like Spinoza's Nature—all-inclusive, creative, infinitely diverse, and alive in the broad sense of panpsychism. Further, Spinoza's reflections on morality are 'important for striking a balance between a submissive, amoral attitude towards all kinds of life struggle, and a shallow moralistic and antagonistic attitude'. Future societies will achieve an equilibrium with their environment by following a 'third way' between the two extremes. In Spinoza's world-picture, every thing is connected with every other thing. Nothing is really causally inactive, there is nothing wholly without an essence which it expresses through a cause. And finally, every thing strives to preserve and develop its specific essence or nature, and since every thing is a part of God's perfection, this striving is an active shaping of its environment.8 'The highest good is...knowledge of the union which the mind has with the whole of nature.'


1 On the Emendation of the Intellect, p. 5.

2 Wim Klever, in D.Garrett (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Spinoza, p. 40.

4 Stuart Hampshire, Spinoza, pp. 72-3.

6 Ethics, III P11Schol.

8 Arne Naess, Freedom, Emotion and Self-Subsistence, pp. 19-20.

See also in this book

Goethe, Lovelock, Naess

Spinoza's major writings

The Ethics and Selected Letters, ed. and trans. Samuel Shirley, Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1982.

On the Emendation of the Intellect, Short Treatise, Letters, Principles of Philosophy and The Ethics are contained in: The Collected Works, vol. I, ed. and trans. Edwin Curley, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1985. The Theological-Political Treatise and The Political Treatise are planned for vol. II.

Further reading

Delahunty, R.J., Spinoza, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1985.

Donagan, A., Spinoza, Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1988.

Garrett, D. (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Spinoza, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Hampshire, Stuart, 1951, Spinoza, rev. edn., Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1988.

Nadler, Steven, Spinoza: A Life, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Naess, Arne, Freedom, Emotion and Self-Subsistence, Oslo: Universitets Vorlaget, 1975.

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