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Will Durant

The Story of Philosophy

New York:  Time, 1962

Chapter IV. Spinoza


1. Historical and Biographical
I. The Odyssey of the Jews
II. The education of Spinoza
III. Excommunication
IV. Retirement and death

2. The Treatise on Religion and the State
3. The Improvement of the Intellect

4. The Ethics
I.  Nature and God
II. Matter and Mind
III. Intelligence and Morals
IV. Religion and immortality

5. The Political Treatise
6. The Influence of Spinoza

1. Historical and Biographical

I. The Odyssey of the Jews

The story of the Jews since the Dispersion is one or the epics of European history. Driven from their natural home by the Roman capture of Jerusalem (70 A.D.), and scattered by Bight and trade among all the nations and to all the continents, persecuted and decimated by the adherents of the great religions—Christianity and Mohammedanism—which had been born of their scriptures and their memories, barred by the feudal system from Owning land, and by the guilds from taking part in industry, shut up within congested ghettoes and narrowing pursuits, mobbed by the people and robbed by the kings, building with their finance and trade the towns and cities indispensable to civilization, outcast and excommunicated, insulted and injured,—yet, without any political structure, without any legal compulsion to social unity, without even a common language, this wonderful people has maintained itself in body and soul, has preserved its racial and cultural integrity, has guarded with jealous love its oldest rituals and traditions, has patiently and resolutely awaited the day of its deliverance, and has emerged greater in number than ever before, renowned in every field for the contributions of its geniuses, and triumphantly re stored, after two thousand years of wandering, to its ancient and unforgotten home. What drama could rival the grandeur of these sufferings, the variety of these scenes, and the glory and justice of this fulfillment? What fiction could match the romance of this reality?

The dispersion had begun many centuries before the fall of the Holy City, through Tyre and Sidon and other ports the Jews had spread abroad into every nook of the Mediterranean—to Athens and Antioch, to Alexandria and Carthage, to Rome and Marseilles, [139] and even to distant Spain. After the destruction of the Temple the dispersion became almost a mass migration. Ultimately the movement followed two streams: one along the Danube and die Rhine, and thence later into Poland and Russia; the other into Spain and Portugal with the conquering Moors (711 A.D.). In Central Europe the Jews distinguished themselves as merchants and financiers; in the Peninsula they absorbed gladly the mathematical, medical and philosophical lore of the Arabs, and developed their own culture in the great schools of Cordova, Barcelona and Seville. Here in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries the Jews played a prominent part in transmitting ancient and Oriental culture to western Europe. It was at Cordova that Moses Maimonides (1135-1204), the greatest physician of his age, wrote his famous Biblical commentary, the Guide to the Perplexed; it was at Barcelona that Hasdai Crescas (1370-1430) propounded heresies that shook all Judaism.

The Jews of Spain prospered and flourished until the conquest of Granada by Ferdinand in 1492 and the final expulsion of the Moors. The Peninsular Jews now lost the liberty which they had enjoyed under the lenient ascendancy of Islam; the Inquisition swept down upon them with the choice of baptism and the practice of Christianity, or exile and the confiscation of their goods. It was not that the Church was violently hostile to the Jews—the popes repeatedly protested against the barbarities of the Inquisition; but the King of Spain thought he might fatten his purse with the patiently-garnered wealth of this alien race. Almost in the year that Columbus discovered America, Ferdinand discovered the Jews.

The great majority of the Jews accepted the harder alternative, and looked about them for a place of refuge. Some took ship and sought entry into Genoa and other Italian ports; they were refused, and sailed on in growing misery and disease till they reached the coast of Africa, where many of them were murdered for the jewels they were believed to have swallowed. A few were received into Venice, which knew how much of its maritime ascendancy it owed to its Jews. Others financed the voyage of Columbus, a man perhaps of their own race, hoping that the great navigator would find them a new home. A large number of them embarked in the frail vessels of that day and sailed up die Atlantic, between hostile England and hostile France, to find at last some measure of welcome in little big-souled Holland. Among these was a family of Portuguese Jews named Espinoza. [140]

Thereafter Spain decayed, and Holland prospered. The Jews built their first synagogue in Amsterdam in 1598; and when, seventy-five years later, they built another, the most magnificent in Europe, their Christian neighbors helped them to finance the enterprise. The Jews were happy now, if we may judge from the stout content of the merchants and rabbis to whom Rembrandt has given immortality. But towards the middle of the seventeenth century the even tenor of events was interrupted by a bitter controversy within the synagogue. Uriel d’Acosta, a passionate youth who had left, like some other Jews, the sceptical influence of the Renaissance, wrote a treatise vigorously attacking the belief in another life. This negative attitude was not necessarily contrary to older Jewish doctrine; but the synagogue compelled him to retract publicly, lest it should incur the disfavour of a community that had welcomed them generously, but would be unappeasably hostile to any heresy striking so sharply at what was considered the very essence of Christianity. The formula of retraction and penance required the proud author to lie down athwart the threshold of the synagogue while the members of the congregation walked over his body. Humiliated beyond sufferance, Uriel went home, wrote a fierce denunciation of his persecutors, and shot himself. 1

This was 1640. At that time Baruch Spinoza, “the greatest Jew of modern times,” 2 and the greatest of modern philosophers, was a child of eight, the favorite student of the synagogue.

II. The education of Spinoza

It was this Odyssey of the Jews that filled the background of Spinoza’s mind, and made him irrevocably, however excommunicate, a Jew. Though his father was a successful merchant, the youth had no leaning to such a career, and preferred to spend his time in and around the synagogue, absorbing the religion and the history of his people. He was a brilliant scholar, and the elders looked upon him as a future light of their community and their faith. Very soon he passed from the Bible itself to the exactingly subtle commentaries of the Talmud; and from these to the writings of Maimonides, Levi Ben Gerson, Ibn [141] Ezra, and Hasdai Crescas; and his promiscuous voracity extended even to the mystical philosophy of Ihn Gebirol and the Cabbalistic intricacies of Moses of Cordova.

He was struck by the latter’s identification of God and the universe; he followed up the idea in Ben Gerson, who taught the eternity of the world; and in Hasdai Crescas, who believed the universe of matter to be the body of God. He read in Maimonides a half-favourable discussion of die doctrine of Averroës, that immortality is impersonal; but he found in the Guide to the Perplexed more perplexities than guidance. For the great Rabbi propounded more questions than he answered; and Spinoza found the contradictions and improbabilities of the Old Testament lingering in his thought long after the solutions of Maimonides had dissolved into forgetfulness. The cleverest defenders of a faith are its greatest enemies; for their subtleties engender doubt and stimulate the mind. And if this was so with the writings of Maimonides, so much the more was it the case with the commentaries of Ibn Ezra, where the problems of the old faith were more directly expressed, and sometimes abandoned as unanswerable. The more Spinoza read and pondered, the more his simple certainties melted away into wondering and doubt.

His curiosity was aroused to inquire what the thinkers of the Christian world had written on those great questions of God and human destiny. He took up the study of Latin with a Dutch scholar, Van den Ende, and moved into a wider sphere of experience and knowledge. His new teacher was something of a heretic himself, a critic of creeds and governments, an adventurous fellow who stepped out of his library to join a conspiracy against the king of France, and adorned a scaffold in 1674. He had a pretty daughter who became the successful rival of Latin for the affections of Spinoza; even a modern collegian might be persuaded to study Latin by such inducements. But the young lady was not so much of an intellectual as to be blind to the main chance; and when another suitor came, bearing costly presents, she lost interest in Spinoza. No doubt it was at that moment that our hero became a philosopher.

At any rate he had conquered Latin; and through Latin he entered into the heritage of ancient and medieval European thought. He seems to have studied Socrates and Plato and Aristotle; but he preferred to them the great atomists, Democritus, Epicurus and Lucretius; and the Stoics left their mark upon him ineffaceably. He read the [142] Scholastic philosophers, and took from them not only their terminology, but their geometrical method of exposition by axiom, definition, proposition, proof, scholium and corollary. He studied Bruno (1548-1600), that magnificent rebel whose fires “not all the snows of die Caucasus could quench,” who wandered from country to country and from creed to creed, and evermore “came out by the same door wherein he went,”—searching and wondering; and who at last was sentenced by the Inquisition to be killed “as mercifully as possible, and without the shedding of blood”—i.e., to be burned alive. What a wealth of ideas there was in this romantic Italian! First of all the master idea of unity: all reality is one in substance, one in cause, one in origin; and God and this reality are one. Again, to Bruno, mind and matter are one; every particle of reality is composed inseparably of the physical and the psychical. The object of philosophy, therefore, is to perceive unity in diversity, mind in matter, and matter in mind; to find the synthesis in which opposites and contradictions meet and merge; to rise to that highest knowledge of universal unity which is the intellectual equivalent of the love of God. Every one of these ideas became part of the intimate structure of Spinoza’s thought.

Finally and above all, he was influenced by Descartes (1596-1650), father of the subjective and idealistic (as was Bacon of the objective and realistic) tradition in modern philosophy. To his French followers and English enemies the central notion in Descartes was the primacy of consciousness—his apparently obvious proposition that the mind knows itself more immediately and directly than it can ever know anything else; that it knows the “external world” only through that world’s impress upon the mind in sensation and perception; that all philosophy must in consequence (though it should doubt everything else) begin with the individual mind and self, and make its first argument in three words: “I think, therefore I am” (Cogito, ergo sum). Perhaps there was something of Renaissance individualism in this starting-point; certainly there was in it a whole magician’s hatful of consequences for later speculation. Now began the great game of epistemology, 3 which in Leibniz, Locke, Berkeley, Hume and Kant waxed into a Three Hundred Years’ War that at once stimulated and devastated modern philosophy. [143]

But this side of Descartes’ thought did not interest Spinoza; he would not lose himself in the labyrinths of epistemology. What attracted him was Descartes conception of a homogeneous “substance” underlying all forms of matter, and another homogeneous substance underlying all forms of mind; this separation of reality into two ultimate substances was a challenge to the unifying passion of Spinoza, and acted like a fertilizing sperm upon the accumulations of his thought. What attracted him again was Descartes’ desire lo explain all of the world except God and the soul by mechanical and mathematical laws,—an idea going back to Leonardo and Galileo, and perhaps reflecting the development of machinery and industry in the cities of Italy. Given an initial push by God, said Descartes (very much as Anaxagoras had said two thousand years before), and the rest of astronomic, geologic and all non-mental processes and developments can be explained from a homogeneous substance existing at first in a disintegrated form (the “nebular hypothesis” of Laplace and Kant); and every movement of every animal, and even of the human body, is a mechanical movement,—the circulation of the blood, for example, and reflex action. All the world, and every body, is a machine; but outside the world is God, and within the body is the spiritual soul.

Here Descartes slopped; but Spinoza eagerly passed on.

III. Excommunication

These were the mental antecedents of the externally quiet but internally disturbed youth who in 1656 (he had been born in 1632) was summoned before the elders of the synagogue on the charge of heresy. Was it true, they asked him, that he had said to his friends that God might have a body—the world of matter; that angels might be hallucinations; that the soul might be merely life; and that the Old Testament said nothing of immortality?

We do not know what he answered. We only know that he was offered an annuity of $500 if he would consent to maintain at least an external loyalty to his synagogue and his faith; 4 that he refused the offer; and that on July 27, 1656, he was excommunicated with all the [144] sombre formalities of Hebrew ritual. “During the reading of the curse the wailing and protracted note of a great horn was heard to fall- in from time to time; the lights, seen brightly burning at the beginning of the ceremony, were extinguished one by one as it proceeded, till at the end the last went out—typical of the extinction of the spiritual life of the excommunicated man—and the congregation was left in total darkness.” 5

Van Vloten has given us the formula used for excommunication: 6

“The heads of the Ecclesiastical Council hereby make known, that, already well assured of the evil opinions and doings of Baruch de Espinoza, they have endeavored in sundry ways and by various promises to turn him from his evil courses. But as they have been unable to bring him to any better way of thinking; on the contrary, as they are every day better certified of the horrible heresies entertained and avowed by him, and of the insolence with which these heresies are promulgated and spread abroad, and many persons worthy of credit having borne witness to these in the presence of the said Espinoza, he has been held fully convicted of the same. Review having therefore been made of the whole matter before the chiefs of the Ecclesiastical Council, it has been resolved, the Councillors assenting thereto, to anathematize the said Espinoza, and to cut him off from the people of Israel, and from the present hour to place him in Anathema with the following malediction:

With the judgment of the angels and the sentence of the saints, we anathematize, execrate, curse and cast out Baruch de Espinoza, the whole of the sacred community assenting, in presence of the sacred books with the six-hundred-and-thirteen precepts written therein, pronouncing against him the malediction wherewith Elisha cursed the children, and all the maledictions written in the Book of the Law. Let him be accursed by day, and accursed by night; let him be accursed in his lying clown, and accursed in his rising up; accursed in going out and accursed in coming in. May the Lord never more pardon or acknowledge him; may the wrath and displeasure of the Lord burn henceforth against this man. load him with all the curses written in the Book of the Law, and blot out his name from under the sky; may the Lord sever him from evil from all the tribes of Israel, weight him with all the maledictions of the firmament contained in the Book of Law; and may all ye who are obedient to the Lord your God be saved this day.

Hereby then are all admonished that none hold converse with him by [145] word of mouth, none hold communication with him by writing; that no one do him any service, no one abide under the same roof with him, no one approach within four cubits length of him, and no one read any document dictated by him, or written by his hand.”

Let us not be too quick to judge the leaders of the synagogue; for they faced a delicate situation. No doubt they hesitated to subject themselves to the charge that they were as intolerant of heterodoxy as the Inquisition “which had exiled them from Spain. But they felt that gratitude to their hosts in Holland demanded the excommunication of a man whose doubts struck at Christian doctrine quite as vitally as at Judaism. Protestantism was not then the liberal and fluent philosophy which it now becomes; the wars of religion had left each group entrenched immovably in its own creed, cherished now all the more because of the blood just shed in its defense. What would the Dutch authorities say to a Jewish community which repaid Christian toleration and protection by turning out in one generation an d’Acosta, and in the next a Spinoza? Furthermore, religious unanimity seemed to the elders their sole means of preserving the little Jewish group in Amsterdam from disintegration, and almost the last means of preserving the unity, and so ensuring the survival, of the scattered Jews of the world. If they had had their own state, their own civil law, their own establishments of secular force and power, to compel internal cohesion and external respect, they might have been more tolerant; but their religion was to them their patriotism as well as their faith, the synagogue was their center of social and political life as well as of ritual and worship; and the Bible whose veracity Spinoza had impugned was the “portable Fatherland” of their people; under these circumstances, they thought, heresy was treason, and toleration suicide. One feels that they should have bravely run these risks; but it is as hard to judge another justly as it is to get out of one’s skin. Perhaps 7 Menasseh ben Israel, spiritual head of the whole Amsterdam community of Jews, could have found some conciliatory formula within which both the synagogue and the philosopher might have found room to live in mutual peace; but the great rabbi was then in London, persuading Cromwell to open England to the Jews. Fate had written that Spinoza should belong to the world. [146]

IV. Retirement and death

He took the excommunication with quiet courage, saying: “It compels me to nothing which I should not have done in any case.” But this was whistling in the dark; in truth the young student now found himself bitterly and pitilessly alone. Nothing is so terrible as solitude; and few forms of it so difficult as the isolation of a Jew from all his people. Spinoza had already suffered in the loss of his old faith; to so uproot the contents of one’s mind is a major operation, and leaves many wounds. Had Spinoza entered another fold, embraced another of the orthodoxies in which men were grouped like kine huddling together for warmth, he might have found in the role of distinguished convert some of the life which he had lost by being utterly outcast from his family and his race. But he joined no other sect, and lived his life alone. His father, who had looked forward to his son’s preeminence in Hebrew learning, sent him away; his sister tried to cheat him of a small inheritance; 8 his former friends shunned him. No wonder there is little humor in Spinoza! And no wonder he breaks out with some bitterness occasionally when he thinks of the Keepers of the Law.

“Those who wish to seek out the causes of miracles, and to understand the things of nature as philosophers, and not to stare at them in astonishment like fools, are soon considered heretical and impious, and proclaimed as such by those whom the mob adore as the interpreters of nature and the gods. For these men know that once ignorance is put aside, that wonderment would be taken away which is the only means by which their authority is preserved.” 9

The culminating experience came shortly after the excommunication. One night as Spinoza was walking through the streets, a pious ruffian bent on demonstrating his theology by murder, attacked the young student with drawn dagger. Spinoza, turning quickly, escaped with a slight wound on the neck. Concluding that there are few places in this world where it is safe to be a philosopher, he went to live in a [147] quiet attic room on the Outerdek road outside of Amsterdam. It was now, probably, that he changed his name from Baruch to Benedict. His host and hostess were Christians of the Mennonite sect, and could in some measure understand a heretic. They liked his sadly kind face (those who have suffered much become very bitter or very gentle), and were delighted when, occasionally, he would come down of an evening, smoke his pipe with them, and tune his talk to their simple strain. He made his living at first by teaching children in Van den Ende’s school, and then by polishing lenses, as if he had an inclination for dealing with refractory material. He had learned the optical trade while living in the Jewish community; it was in accord with Hebrew canon that every student should acquire some manual art; not only because study and honest teaching can seldom make a livelihood, but, as Gamaliel had said, work keeps one virtuous, whereas “every learned man who fails to acquire a trade will at last turn out a rogue.”

Five years later (1660) his host moved to Rhynsburg, near Leyden; and Spinoza moved with him. The house still stands, and the road bears the philosopher’s name. These were years of plain living and high thinking. Many times he stayed in his room for two or three days together, seeing nobody, and having his modest meals brought up to him. The lenses were well done, but not so continuously as to earn for Spinoza more than merely enough; he loved wisdom too much to be a “successful” man. Colerus, who followed Spinoza in these lodgings, and wrote a short life of the philosopher from the reports of those who had known him, says, “He was very careful to cast up his accounts every quarter; which he did that he might spend neither more nor less than what he had to spend for each year. And he would say sometimes, to the people of the house, that he was like the serpent who forms a circle with his tail in his mouth; to denote that he had nothing left at the year’s end.” 10 But in his modest way he was happy. To one who advised him to trust in revelation rather than in reason, he answered: “Though I were at times to find the fruit unreal which I gather by my natural understanding, yet this would not make me otherwise than content; because in the gathering I am happy, and pass my days not in sighing and sorrow, but in peace, serenity and [148] joy.” 11 “If Napoleon had been as intelligent as Spinoza,” says a great sage, “he would have lived in a garret and written four books.” 12

To the portraits of Spinoza which have come down to us we may add a word of description from Colerus. “He was of a middle size. He had good features in his face, the skin somewhat black, the hair dark and curly, the eyebrows long and black, so that one might easily know by his looks that he was descended from Portuguese Jews. As for his clothes, he was very careless of them, and they were not bolter than those of the meanest citizen. One of the most eminent councilors of state went to see him, and found him in a very untidy morning gown; whereupon the councillor reproached him for it, and offered him another. Spinoza answered that a man was never the better for having a fine gown, and added, ‘It is unreasonable to wrap up things of little or no value in a precious cover.’” 13 Spinoza’s sartorial philosophy was not always so ascetic. “It is not a disorderly or slovenly carriage that makes us sages,” he writes; “for affected indifference to personal appearance, is rather evidence of a poor spirit in which true wisdom could find no worthy dwelling-place, and science could only meet with disorder and disarray.” 14

It was during this five years’ stay at Rhynsburg that Spinoza wrote the little fragment On the Improvement of the Intellect (De Intellectus Emendatione), and the Ethics Geometrically Demonstrated (Ethica More Geometrico Demonstrata). The latter was finished in 1665; but for ten years Spinoza made no effort to publish it. In 1668 Adrian Koerbagh, for printing opinions similar to Spinoza’s, was sent to jail for ten years; and died there after serving eighteen months of his sentence. When, in 1675, Spinoza went to Amsterdam trusting that he might now safely publish his chef-dœuvre, “a rumor was spread about,” as he writes to his friend Oldenburg, “that a book of mine was soon to appear, in which I endeavored to prove that there is no God. This report, I regret to add, was by many received as true. Certain theologians (who probably were themselves the author of the rumor) took occasion upon this to lodge a complaint against me with the prince and the magistrates ... Having received a hint of this state of things from some trustworthy friends, who assured me, further, that [149] the theologians were everywhere lying in wait for me, I determined to put off my attempted publication until such time as I should see what turn affairs would take.” 15

Only after Spinoza’s death did the Ethics appear (1677), along with an unfinished treatise on politics (Tractatus Polilictis) and a Treatise on the Rainbow. All these works were in Latin, as the universal language of European philosophy and science in the seventeenth century. A Short Treatise on God and Man, written in Dutch, was discovered by Van Vloten in 1852; it was apparently a preparatory sketch for the Ethics. The only books published by Spinoza in his lifetime were The Principles of the Cartesian Philosophy (1663), and A Treatise on Religion and the State (Tractatus Theologico-Politicus), which appeared anonymously in 1670. It was at once honored with a place in the Index Expurgatorius, and its sale was prohibited by the civil authorities; with this assistance it attained to a considerable circulation under cover of title-pages which disguised it as a medical treatise or an historical narrative. Countless volumes were written to refute it; one called Spinoza “the most impious atheist that ever lived upon the face of the earth”; Colerus speaks of another refutation as “a treasure of infinite value, which shall never perish”; 16 —only this notice remains of it. In addition to such public chastisement Spinoza received a number of letters intended to reform him; that of a former pupil, Albert Burgh, who had been converted to Catholicism, may be taken as a sample:

“You assume that you have at last found the true philosophy. How do you know that your philosophy is the best of all those which have ever been taught in the world, are now taught, or shall be taught hereafter? To say nothing of what may be devised in the future, have you examined all those philosophies, both ancient and modern, which are taught here, in India, and all the world over? And even supposing that you have duly examined them, how do you know that you have chosen the best? ... How dare you set yourself up above all the patriarchs, prophets, apostles, martyrs, doctors, and confessors of the Church? Miserable man and worm upon the earth that you are, yea, ashes and food for worms, how can you confront the eternal wisdom with your unspeakable blasphemy? What foundation have you for this rash, insane, deplorable, accursed doctrine? What devilish [150] pride puffs you up to pass judgment on mysteries which Catholics themselves declare to be incomprehensible? Etc., etc.” 17

To which Spinoza replied:

“You who assume that you have at last found the best religion, or rather the best teachers, and fixed your credulity upon them, how do you know that they are the best among those who have taught religions, or now teach, or shall hereafter teach them? Have you examined all those religions, ancient and modern, which are taught here, and in India, and all the world over? And even supposing that you have duly examined them, how do you know that you have chosen the best?” 18

Apparently the gentle philosopher could be firm enough when occasion called for it.

Not all the letters were of this uncomfortable kind. Many of them were from men of mature culture and high position. Most prominent of these correspondents were Henry Oldenburg, secretary of the recently established Royal Society of England; Von Tschirnhaus, a young German inventor and nobleman; Huygens, the Dutch scientist; Leibniz, the philosopher, who visited Spinoza in 1676; Louis Meyer, a physician of the Hague; and Simon De Vries, a rich merchant of Amsterdam. The latter so admired Spinoza that he begged him to accept a gift of $1000. Spinoza refused; and later, when De Vries, making his will, proposed to leave his entire fortune to him, Spinoza persuaded De Vries instead to bequeath his wealth to his brother. When the merchant died it was found that his will required that an annuity of $250 should be paid to Spinoza out of the income of the property. Spinoza wished again to refuse saying, “Nature is satisfied with little; and if she is, I am also”; but he was at last prevailed upon to accept $150 a year. Another friend, Jan de Witt, chief magistrate of the Dutch republic, gave him a state annuity of $50. Finally, the Grand Monarch himself, Louis XIV, offered him a substantial pension, with the implied condition that Spinoza should dedicate his next book to the King. Spinoza courteously declined.

To please his friends and. correspondents, Spinoza moved to Voorburg, a suburb of the Hague, in 1665; and in 1670 to the Hague itself. During these later years he developed an affectionate intimacy with [151] Jan de Witt; and when De Witt and his brother were murdered in the streets by a mob which believed them responsible for the defeat of the Dutch troops by the French in 1672, Spinoza, on being apprised of the infamy, burst into tears, and but for the force which was used to restrain him, would have sallied forth, a second Anthony, to denounce the crime on the spot where it had been committed. Not long afterward, the Prince de Condé; head of the invading French army, invited Spinoza to his headquarters, to convey to him the offer of a royal pension from France and to introduce certain admirers of Spinoza who were with the Prince. Spinoza, who seems to have been rather a “good European” than a nationalist, thought it nothing strange for him to cross the lines and go to Condé’s camp. When he returned to the Hague the news of his visit spread about, and there were angry murmurs among the people. Spinoza’s host, Van den Spyck, was in fear of an attack upon his house; but Spinoza calmed him, saying: “I can easily clear myself of all suspicion of treason; ... but should the people show the slightest disposition to molest you, should they even assemble and make a noise before your house, I will go down to them, though they should serve me as they did poor De Witt.” 19 But when the crowd learned that Spinoza was merely a philosopher they concluded that he must be harmless; and the commotion quieted down. Spinoza’s life, as we see it in these little incidents, was not as impoverished and secluded as it has been traditionally pictured. He had some degree of economic security, he had influential and congenial friends, he took an interest in the political issues of his time, and he was not without adventures that came close to being matters of life and death. That he had made his way, despite excommunication and interdict, into the respect of his contemporaries, appears from the offer which came to him, in 1673, of the chair of philosophy at the University of Heidelberg; an offer couched in the most complimentary terms, and promising “the most perfect freedom in philosophizing, which His Highness feels assured you would not abuse by calling in question the established religion of the state.” Spinoza replied characteristically:

Honored sir: Had it ever been my wish to undertake the duties of a professor in any faculty, my desires would have been amply gratified in accepting the position which his Serene Highness the Prince Palatine does me the honor to offer me through you. The offer, too, is much enhanced in [152] value in my eyes by the freedom of philosophizing attached to it. ... But I do not know within what precise limits that the same liberty of philosophizing would have to be restrained, so that I would not seem to interfere with the established religion of the principality ... You see, therefore, honored sir, that 1 do not look for any higher worldly position than that which I now enjoy; and that for love of the quiet which I think I cannot otherwise secure, I must abstain from entering upon the career of a public teacher ...” 20

The closing chapter came in 1677. Spinoza was now only forty-four, but his friends knew that he had not many years left to him. He had come of consumptive parentage; and the comparative confinement in which he had lived, as well as the dust-laden atmosphere in which he had labored, were not calculated to correct this initial disadvantage. More and more he suffered from difficulty in breathing; year by year his sensitive lungs decayed. He reconciled himself to an early end, and feared only that the book which he had not dared to publish during his lifetime would be lost or destroyed after his death. He placed the MS. in a small writing desk, locked it, and gave the key to his host, asking him to transmit desk and key to Jan Rieuwertz, the Amsterdam publisher, when the inevitable should come.

On Sunday, February 20, the family with whom Spinoza lived went to church after receiving his assurance that he was not unusually ill. Dr. Meyer alone remained with him. When they returned they found the philosopher lying dead in the arms of his friend. Many mourned him; for the simple folk had loved him as much for his gentleness as the learned had honored him for his wisdom. Philosophers and magistrates joined the people in following him to his final rest; and men of varied faiths met at his grave.

Nietzsche says somewhere that the last Christian died upon the cross. He had forgotten Spinoza.

2. The Treatise on Religion and the State

Let us study his four books in the order in which he wrote them. The Tractatus Theologico-Politicus is perhaps the least interesting of them to us today, because the movement of higher criticism which Spinoza [153] initiated has made into platitudes the propositions for which Spinoza risked his life. It is unwise of an author to prove his point too thoroughly; his conclusions pass into the currency of all educated minds, and his works no longer have that mystery about them which draws us ever on. So it has been with Voltaire; and so with Spinoza’s treatise on religion and the state.

The essential principle of the book is that the language of the Bible is deliberately metaphorical or allegorical; not only because it partakes of the Oriental tendency to high literary color and ornament, and exaggerated descriptive expressions; but because, too, the prophets and the apostles, to convey their doctrine by arousing the imagination, were compelled to adapt themselves to the capacities and predispositions of the popular mind. “All Scripture was written primarily for an entire people, and secondarily for the whole human race; consequently its contents must necessarily be adapted, as far as possible, to the understanding of the masses.” 21 “Scripture does not explain things by their secondary causes, but only narrates them in the order and style which has most power to move men, and especially uneducated men, to devotion. ... Its object is not to convince the reason, but to attract and lay hold of the imagination.” 22 Hence the abundant miracles and the repeated appearances of God. “The masses think that the power and providence of God are most clearly displayed by events that are extraordinary, and contrary to the conception which they have formed of nature ... They suppose, indeed, that God is inactive so long as nature works in her accustomed order; and vice versa, that the power of nature, and natural causes, are idle so long as God is acting; thus they imagine two powers distinct from one another, the power of God and the power of nature.” 23 (Here enters the basic idea of Spinoza’s philosophy—that God and the processes of nature are one.) Men love to believe that God breaks the natural order of events for them; so the Jews gave a miraculous interpretation of the lengthening of the day in order to impress others (and perhaps themselves) with the conviction that the Jews were the favorites of God: and similar incidents abound in the early history of every people. 24 Sober and literal statements do not move the soul; if Moses had said that it was merely the East wind (as we gather from a later passage) that cleared [154] a path for them through the Red Sea, it would have made little impression on the minds of the masses he was leading. Again, the apostles resorted to miracle stories for the same reason that they resorted to parables; it was a necessary adaptation to the public mind. The greater influence of such men as compared with philosophers and scientists is largely attributable to the vivid and metaphorical forms of speech which the founders of religion, by the nature of their mission and their own emotional intensity, are driven to adopt.

Interpreted on this principle, the Bible, says Spinoza, contains nothing contrary to reason. 25 But interpreted literally, it is full of errors, contradictions, and obvious impossibilities—as that the Pentateuch was written by Moses. The more philosophical interpretation reveals, through the mist of allegory and poetry, the profound thought of great thinkers and leaders, and makes intelligible the persistence of the Bible and its immeasurable influence upon men. Both interpretations have a proper place and function: the people will always demand a religion phrased in imagery and haloed with the supernatural; if one such form of faith is destroyed they will create another. But the philosopher knows that God and nature are one being, acting by necessity and according to invariable law; it is this majestic Law which he will reverence and obey. 26 He knows that in the Scriptures “God is described as a law-giver or prince, and styled just, merciful, etc., merely in concession to the understanding of the people and their imperfect knowledge; that in reality God acts ... by the necessity of his nature, and his decree ... are eternal truths.” 27

Spinoza makes no separation between Old and New Testament, and looks upon the Jewish and the Christian religion as one, when popular hatred and misunderstandings are laid aside, and philosophical interpretation finds the hidden core and essence of the rival faiths. “I have often wondered that persons who make boast of professing the Christian religion—namely, love, joy, peace, temperance, and charity to all men—should quarrel with such rancorous animosity, and display daily toward one another such bitter hatred, that this, rather than the virtues which they profess, is the readiest criterion of their faith.” 28 The Jews have survived chiefly because of Christian [155] hatred of them; persecution gave them the unity and solidarity necessary for continued racial existence; without persecution they might have mingled and married with the peoples of Europe, and been engulfed in the majorities with which they were everywhere surrounded. But there is no reason why the philosophic Jew and the philosophic Christian, when all nonsense is discarded, should not agree sufficiently in creed to live in peace and cooperation.

The first step toward this consummation, Spinoza thinks, would be a mutual understanding about Jesus. Let improbable dogmas be withdrawn, and the Jews would soon recognize in Jesus the greatest and noblest of the prophets. Spinoza does not accept the divinity of Christ, but he puts him first among men. “The eternal wisdom of God ... has shown itself forth in all things, but chiefly in the mind of man, and most of all in Jesus Christ.” 29 “Christ was sent to teach not only the Jews, but the whole human race”; hence “he accommodated himself to the comprehension of the people ... and most often taught by parables.” 30 He considers that the ethics of Jesus are almost synonymous with wisdom; in reverencing him one rises to “the intellectual love of God.” So noble a figure, freed from the impediment of dogmas that lead only to divisions and disputes, would draw all men to him; and perhaps in his name a world torn with suicidal wars of tongue and sword might find a unity of faith and a possibility of brotherhood at last.

3. The Improvement of the Intellect

Opening Spinoza’s next book, we come at the outset upon one of the gems of philosophic literature. Spinoza tells why he gave up everything for philosophy:

“After experience had taught me that all things which frequently take place in ordinary life are vain and futile, and when I saw that all the things I feared, and which feared me, had nothing good or bad in them save in so far as the mind was affected by them; I determined at last to inquire whether there was anything which might be truly good, and able to communicate its goodness, and by which the mind might be affected to the [156] exclusion of all other things; I determined, I say, to inquire whether I might discover and attain the faculty of enjoying throughout eternity continual supreme happiness. ... I could see the many advantages acquired from honor and riches, and that I should be debarred from acquiring these things if I wished seriously to investigate a new matter. ... But the more one possesses of either of them, the more the pleasure is increased, and the more one is in consequence encouraged to increase them; whereas if at any time our hope is frustrated, there arises in us the deepest pain. Fame has also this great drawback, that if we pursue it we must direct our lives in such a way as to please the fancy of men, avoiding what they dislike and seeking what pleases them. ... But the love towards a thing eternal and infinite alone feeds the mind with a pleasure secure from all pain. ... The greatest good is the knowledge of the union which the mind has with the whole of nature. ... The more the mind knows, the better it understands its forces and the order of nature; the more it understands its forces or strength, the better it will be able to direct itself and lay down the rules for itself; and the more it understands the order of nature, the more easily it will be able to liberate itself from useless things; this is the whole method.”

Only knowledge, then, is power and freedom; and the only permanent happiness is the pursuit of knowledge and the joy of understanding. Meanwhile, however, the philosopher must remain a man and a citizen; what shall be his mode of life during his pursuit of truth? Spinoza lays down a simple rule of conduct to which, so far as we know, his actual behavior thoroughly conformed:

“1. To speak in a manner comprehensible to the people, and to do for them all things that do not prevent us from attaining our ends. ... 2. To enjoy only such pleasures as are necessary for the preservation of health. 3. Finally, to seek only enough money ... as is necessary for the maintenance of our life and health, and to comply with such customs as are not opposed to what we seek.” 31

But in setting out upon such a quest, the honest and clearheaded philosopher comes at once upon the problem: How do I know that my knowledge is knowledge, that my senses can be trusted in the material which they bring to my reason, and that my reason can be trusted with the conclusions which it derives from the material of sensation? Should we not examine the vehicle before abandoning ourselves to its directions? Should we not do all that we can to perfect it? “Before all things,” says Spinoza, Baconianly, “a means must be devised for [157] improving and clarifying the intellect.” 32 We must distinguish carefully the various forms of knowledge, and trust only the best.

First, then, there is hearsay knowledge, by which, for example, know the day of my birth. Second, vague experience, “empirical” knowledge in the derogatory sense, as when a physician knows a cure not by any scientific formulation of experimental tests, but by a “general impression” that it has “usually” worked. Third, immediate deduction, or knowledge reached by reasoning, as when I conclude to the immensity of the sun from seeing that in the case of other objects distance decreases the apparent size. This kind of knowledge is superior to the other two, but is yet precariously subject to sudden refutation by direct experience; so science for a hundred years reasoned its way to an “ether” which is now in high disfavor with the physicist elite. Hence the highest kind of knowledge is the fourth form, which comes by immediate deduction and direct perception, as when we see at once that 6 is the missing number in the proportion, 2:4/3:x ; or as when we perceive that the whole is greater than the part. Spinoza believes that men versed in mathematics know most of Euclid in this intuitive way; but he admits ruefully that “the things which I have been able to know by this knowledge so far have been very few.” 33

In the Ethics Spinoza reduces the first two forms of knowledge to one; and calls intuitive knowledge a perception of things sub specie aeternitatis—in their eternal aspects and relations,—which gives in a phrase a definition of philosophy. Scientia intuitiva, therefore, tries to find behind things and events their laws and eternal relations. Hence Spinoza’s very fundamental distinction (the basis of his entire system) between the “temporal order”—the “world” of things and incidents—and the “eternal order”—the world of laws and structure. Let us study this distinction carefully:

“It must be noted that I do not understand here by the series of causes and real entities a series of individual mutable things, but rather the series of fixed and eternal things. For it would be impossible for human weakness to follow up the series of individual mutable things, not only because their number surpasses all count, but because of the many circumstances, in one and the same thing, each of which may be the cause of the thing’s existence. For indeed, the existence of particular things has no connection with their essence, and is not an eternal truth. However, there is no need [158] that we should understand the series of individual mutable things, for their essence ... is only to be found in fixed and eternal things, and from the laws inscribed in those things as their true codes, according to which all individual things are made and arranged; nay, these individual and mutable things depend so intimately and essentially on these fixed ones that without them they can neither exist nor be conceived.” 34

If we will keep this passage in mind as we study Spinoza’s masterpiece, it will itself be clarified, and much in the Ethics that is discouragingly complex will unravel itself into simplicity and understanding.

4. The Ethics

The most precious production in modern philosophy is cast into geometrical form, to make the thought Euclideanly clear; but the result is a laconic obscurity in which every line requires a Talmud of commentary. The Scholastics had formulated their thought so, but never so pithily; and they had been helped to clarity by their fore-ordained conclusions. Descartes had suggested that philosophy could not be exact until it expressed itself in the forms of mathematics; but he had never grappled with his own ideal. Spinoza came to the suggestion with a mind trained in mathematics as the very basis of all rigorous scientific procedure, and impressed with the achievements of Copernicus, Kepler and Galileo. To our more loosely textured minds the result is an exhausting concentration of both matter and form; and we are tempted to console ourselves by denouncing this philosophic geometry as an artificial chess game of thought in which axioms, definitions, theorems and proofs are manipulated like kings and bishops, knights and pawns; a logical solitaire invented to solace Spinoza’s loneliness. Order is against the grain of our minds; we prefer to follow the straggling lines of fantasy, and to weave our philosophy precariously [159] out of our dreams. But Spinoza had but one compelling desire—to reduce the intolerable chaos of the world to unity and order. He had the northern hunger for truth rather than the southern lust for beauty; the artist in him was purely an architect, building a system of thought to perfect symmetry and form.

Again, the modern student will stumble and grumble over the terminology of Spinoza. Writing in Latin, he was compelled to express his essentially modern thought in medieval and scholastic terms; there was no other language of philosophy which would then have been understood. So he uses the term substance where we should write reality or essence; perfect where we should write complete; ideal for our object; objectively for subjectively, and formally for objectively. These are hurdles in the race, which will deter the weakling but will stimulate the strong.

In short, Spinoza is not to be read, he is to be studied; you must approach him as you would approach Euclid, recognizing that in these brief two hundred pages a man has written down his lifetime’s thought with stoic sculptury of everything superfluous. Do not think to find its core by running over it rapidly; never in a work of philosophy was there so little that could be skipped without loss. Every part depends upon preceding parts; some obvious and apparently needless proposition turns out lo be the cornerstone of an imposing development of logic. You will not understand any important section thoroughly till you have read and pondered the whole; though one need not say, with Jacobi’s enthusiastic exaggeration, that “no one has understood Spinoza to whom a single line of the Ethics remains obscure.” “Here, doubtless,” says Spinoza, in the second part of his book, “the reader will become confused, and will recollect many things which will bring him to a standstill; and therefore I pray him to proceed gently with me and form no judgment concerning these things until he shall have read all.” 35 Read the book not all at once, but in small portions at many sittings. And having finished it, consider that you have but begun to understand it. Read then some commentary, like Pollock’s Spinoza, or Martineau’s Study of Spinoza; or, better, both. Finally, read the Ethics again; it will be a new book to you. When you have finished it a second time you will remain forever a lover of philosophy. [160]

I. Nature and God

Page one plunges us at once into the maelstrom of metaphysics. Our modern hard-headed (or is it soft-headed?) abhorrence of metaphysics captures us, and for a moment we wish we were anywhere except in Spinoza. But then metaphysics, as William James said, is nothing but an attempt to think things out clearly to their ultimate significance, to find their substantial essence in the scheme of reality,—or, as Spinoza puts it, their essential substance; and thereby to unify all truth and reach that “highest of all generalizations” which, even to the practical Englishman, 36 constitutes philosophy. Science itself, which so superciliously scorns metaphysics, assumes a metaphysic in its every thought. It happens that the metaphysic, which it assumes, is the metaphysic of Spinoza.

There are three pivotal terms in Spinoza’s system: substance, attribute, and mode. Attribute we put aside temporarily, for simplicity’s sake. A mode is any individual thing or event, any particular form or shape, which reality transiently assumes; you, your body, your thoughts, your group, your species, your planet, are modes; all these are forms, modes, almost literally fashions, of some eternal and invariable reality lying behind and beneath them.

What is this underlying reality? Spinoza calls it substance, as literally that which stands beneath. Eight generations have fought voluminous battles over the meaning of this term; we must not be discouraged if we fail to resolve the matter in a paragraph. One error we should guard against: substance does not mean the constituent material of anything, as when we speak of wood as the substance of a chair. We approach Spinoza’s use of the word when we speak of “the substance of his remarks.” If we go back to the Scholastic philosophers from whom Spinoza took the term, we find that they used it as a translation of the Greek ousia, which is the present participle of einai, to be, and indicates the inner being or essence. Substance then is that which is (Spinoza had not forgotten the impressive “I am who am” of Genesis); that which eternally and unchangeably is, and of which [161] everything else must be a transient form or mode. If now we compare this division of the world into substance and modes with its division, in The Improvement of the Intellect, into the eternal order of laws and invariable relations on the one hand, and the temporal order of time-begotten and death-destined things on the other, we are impelled to the conclusion that Spinoza means by substance here very nearly what he meant by the eternal order there. Let us provisionally take it as one element in the term substance, then, that it betokens the very structure of existence, underlying all events and things, and constituting the essence of the world.

But further Spinoza identifies substance with nature and God. After the manner of the Scholastics, he conceives nature under a double aspect: as active and vital process, which Spinoza calls natura naturans—nature begetting, the élan vital and creative evolution of Bergson; and as the passive product of this process, natura naturata—nature begotten, the material and contents of nature, its woods and winds and waters, its hills and fields and myriad external forms. It is in the latter sense that he denies, and in the former sense that he affirms, the identity of nature and substance and God. Substance and modes, the eternal order and the temporal order, active nature and passive nature, God and the world,—all these are for Spinoza coincident and synonymous dichotomies; each divides the universe into essence and incident. That substance is insubstantial, that it is form and not matter, that it has nothing to do with that mongrel and neuter composite of matter and thought which some interpreters have supposed it to be, stands out clearly enough from this identification of substance with creative but not with passive or material nature. A passage from Spinoza’s correspondence may help-us:

“I take a totally different view of God and Nature from that which the later Christians usually entertain, for I hold that God is the immanent, and not the extraneous, cause of all things. I say, All is in God; all lives and moves in God. And this I maintain with the Apostle Paul, and perhaps with every one of the philosophers of antiquity, although in a way other than theirs. I might even venture to say that my view is the same as that entertained by the Hebrews of old, if so much may be inferred from certain traditions, greatly altered or falsified though they be. It is however a complete mistake on the part of those who say that my purpose ... is to show that God and Nature, under which last term they understand a [162] certain mass of corporeal matter, are one and the same. I had no such intention.” 37

Again, in the Treatise on Religion and the State, he writes: “By the help of God I mean the fixed and unchangeable order of nature, or the chain of natural events”; 38 the universal laws of nature and the eternal decrees of God are one and the same thing. “From the infinite nature of God all things ... follow by the same necessity, and in the same way, as it follows from the nature of a triangle, from eternity to eternity, that its three angles are equal to two right angles.” 39 What the laws of the circle are to all circles, God is to the world. Like substance, God is the causal chain or process, 40 the underlying condition of all things, 41 the law and structure of the world. 42 This concrete universe of modes and things is to God as a bridge is to its design, its structure, and the laws of mathematics and mechanics according to which it is built; these are the sustaining basis, the underlying condition, the substance, of the bridge; without them it would fall. And like the bridge, the world itself is sustained by its structure and its laws; it is upheld in the hand of God.

The will of God and the laws of nature being one and the same reality diversely phrased, 43 it follows that all events are the mechanical operation of invariable laws, and not the whim of an irresponsible autocrat seated in the stars. The mechanism which Descartes saw in matter and body alone, Spinoza sees in God and mind as well. It is a world of determinism, not of design. Because we act for conscious ends, we suppose that all processes have such ends in view; and because we are human we suppose that all events lead up to man and are designed to subserve his needs. But this is an anthropocentric delusion, like so much of our thinking. 44 The root of the greatest errors in philosophy lies in projecting our human purposes, criteria and preferences into the objective universe. Hence our “problem of evil”: we strive to reconcile the ills of life with the goodness of God, [163] forgetting the lesson taught to Job, that God is beyond our little good and evil. Good and bad are relative to human and often individual tastes and ends, and have no validity for a universe in which individuals are ephemera, and in which the Moving Finger writes even the history of the race in water.

“Whenever, then, anything in nature seems to us ridiculous, absurd or evil, it is because we have but a partial knowledge of things, and are in the main ignorant of the order and coherence of nature as a whole, and because we want everything to be arranged according to the dictates of our own reason; although in fact, what our reason pronounces bad is not bad as regards the order and laws of universal nature, but only as regards the laws of our own nature taken separately. 45... As for the terms good and bad, they indicate nothing positive considered in themselves. ... For one and the same thing can at the same time be good, bad, and indifferent. For example, music is good to the melancholy, bad to mourners, and indifferent to the dead.” 46

Bad and good are prejudices which the eternal reality cannot recognize; “it is right that the world should illustrate the full nature of the infinite, and not merely the particular ideals of man.” 47 And as with good and bad, so with the ugly and the beautiful; these too are subjective and personal terms, which, flung at the universe, will be returned to the sender unhonored. “I would warn you that I do not attribute to nature either beauty or deformity, order or confusion. Only in relation to our imagination can things be called beautiful or ugly, well-ordered or confused.” 48 “For example, if motion which the nerves receive by means of the eyes from objects before us is conducive of health, those objects are called beautiful; if it is not, those objects are called ugly.” 49 In such passages Spinoza passes beyond Plato, who thought that his esthetic judgments must be the laws of creation and the eternal decrees of God.

Is God a person? Not in any human sense of this word. Spinoza notices “the popular belief which still pictures God as of the male, not of the female sex”; 50 and he is gallant enough to reject a conception [164] which mirrored the earthly subordination of woman to man. To a correspondent who objected to his impersonal conception of Deity, Spinoza writes in terms reminiscent of the old Greek skeptic Xenophanes:

“When you say that if I allow not in God the operations of seeing, hearing, observing, willing, and the like ... you know not what sort of God mine is, I thence conjecture that you believe there is no greater perfection than such as can be explained by the attributes aforesaid. I do not wonder at it; for I believe that a triangle, if it could speak, would in like manner say that God is eminently triangular, and a circle that the divine nature is eminently circular; and thus would every one ascribe his own attributes to God.” 51

Finally, “neither intellect nor will pertains to the nature of God”, 52 in the usual sense in which these human qualities are attributed to the Deity; but rather the will of God is the sum of all causes and all laws, and the intellect of God is the sum of all mind. “The mind of God,” as Spinoza conceives it, “is all the mentality that is scattered over space and time, the diffused consciousness that animates the world.” 53 “All things, in however diverse degree, are animated.” 54 Life or mind is one phase or aspect of everything that we know, as material extension or body is another; these are the two phases or attributes (as Spinoza calls, them) through which we perceive the operation of substance or God; in this sense God—the universal process and eternal reality behind the flux of things—may be said to have both a mind and a body. Neither mind nor matter is God; but the mental processes and the molecular processes which constitute the double history of the world—these, and their causes and their laws, are God.

II. Matter and Mind

But what is mind, and what is matter? Is the mind material, as some unimaginative people suppose; or is the body merely an idea, as some imaginative people suppose? Is the mental process the cause, or the effect, of the cerebral process?—or are they, as Malebranche taught, [165] unrelated and independent, and only providentially parallel?

Neither is mind material, answers Spinoza, nor is matter mental; neither is the brain-process the cause, nor is it the effect, of thought; nor are the two processes independent and parallel. For there are not two processes, and there are not two entities; there is but one process, seen now inwardly as thought, and now outwardly as motion; there is but one entity, seen now inwardly as mind, now outwardly as matter, but in reality an inextricable mixture and unity of both. Mind and body do not act upon each other, because they are not other, they are one. “The body cannot determine the mind to think; nor the mind determine the body to remain in motion or at rest, or in any other state,” for the simple reason that “the decision of the mind, and the desire and determination of the body ... are one and the same thing.” 55 And all the world is unifiedly double in this way; wherever there is an external “material” process, it is but one side or aspect of the real process, which to a fuller view would be seen to include as well an internal process correlative, in however different a degree, with the mental process which we see within ourselves. The inward and “mental” process corresponds at every stage with the external and “material” process; “the order and connection of ideas is the same as the order and connection of things.” 56 “Thinking substance and extended substance are one and the same thing, comprehended now through this, now through that, attribute” or aspect. “Certain of the Jews seem to have perceived this, though confusedly, for they said that God and his intellect, and the things conceived by his intellect, were one and the same thing.” 57

If “mind” be taken in a large sense to correspond with the nervous system in all its ramifications, then every change in the “body” will be accompanied by—or, better, form a whole with—a correlative change in the “mind.” “Just as thoughts and mental processes are connected and arranged in the mind, so in the body its modifications, and the modifications of things” affecting the body through sensations, “are arranged according to their order”; 58 and “nothing can happen to the body which is not perceived by the mind,” and consciously or [166] unconsciously felt. 59 Just as the emotion as felt is part of a whole, of which changes in the circulatory and respiratory and digestive systems are the basis; so an idea is a part, along with “bodily” changes, of one complex organic process; even the infinitesimal subtleties of mathematical reflection have their correlate in the body. (Have not the “behaviorists” proposed to detect a man’s thoughts by recording those involuntary vibrations of the vocal cords that seem to accompany all thinking?)

After so trying to melt away the distinction between body and mind, Spinoza goes on to reduce to a question of degree the difference between intellect and will. There are no “faculties” in the mind, no separate entities called intellect or will, much less imagination or memory; the mind is not an agency that deals with ideas, but it is the ideas themselves in their process and concatenation. 60 Intellect is merely an abstract and short-hand term for a series of ideas; and will an abstract term for a series of actions or volitions: “the intellect and the will are related to this or that idea or volition as rockiness to this or that rock.” 61 Finally, “will and intellect are one and the same thing”; 62 for a volition is merely an idea which, by richness of associations (or perhaps through the absence of competitive ideas), has remained long enough in consciousness to pass over into action. Every idea becomes an action unless stopped in the transition by a different idea; the idea is itself the first stage of a unified organic process of which external action is the completion.

What is often called will, as the impulsive force which determines the duration of an idea in consciousness, should be called desire,—which “is the very essence of man.” 63 Desire is an appetite or instinct of which we are conscious; but instincts need not always operate through conscious desire. 64 Behind the instincts is the vague and varied effort for self-preservation (conatus esse preservandi); Spinoza sees this in all human and even infra-human activity, just as Schopenhauer and Nietzsche were to see the will to live or the will to power everywhere. Philosophers seldom disagree. [167]

“Everything, in so far as it is in itself, endeavors to persist in its own being; and the endeavor wherewith a thing seeks to persist in its own being is nothing else than the actual essence of that thing”; 65 the power whereby a thing persists is the core and essence of its being. Every instinct is a device developed by nature to preserve the individual (or, as our solitary bachelor fails to add, the species or the group). Pleasure and pain are the satisfaction or the hindrance of an instinct; they are not the causes of our desires, but their results; we do not desire things because they give us pleasure; but they give us pleasure because we desire them; 66 and we desire them because we must.

There is, consequently, no free will; the necessities of survival determine instinct, instinct determines desire, and desire determines thought and action. “The decisions of the mind are nothing save desires, which vary according to various dispositions.” 67 “There is in. the mind no absolute or free will; but the mind is determined in willing this or that by a cause which is determined in its turn by another cause, and this by another, and so on to infinity.” 68 “Men think themselves free because they are conscious of their volitions and desires, but are ignorant of the causes by which they are led to wish and desire.” 69 Spinoza compares the feeling of free will to a stone’s thinking, as it travels through space, that it determines its own trajectory and selects the place and time of its fall. 70

Since human actions obey laws as fixed as those of geometry, psychology should be studied in geometrical form, and with mathematical objectivity. “I will write about human beings as though I were concerned with lines and planes and solids.” 71 “I have labored carefully not to mock, lament, or execrate, but to understand, human actions; and to this end I have looked upon passions ... not as vices of human nature, but as properties just as pertinent to it as are heat, cold, storm, thunder and the like to the nature of the atmosphere.” 72 It is this impartiality of approach that gives to Spinoza’s study of human nature such superiority that Froude called it “the most complete by far which has ever been made by any moral philosopher.” 73 Taine knew no [168] better way of praising Bayle’s analysis than to compare it with Spinoza’s; while Johannes Muller, coming to the subject of the instincts and emotions, wrote: “With regard to the relations of the passions to one another apart from their physiological conditions, it is impossible to give any better account than that which Spinoza has laid down with unsurpassed mastery,”—and the famous physiologist, with the modesty which usually accompanies real greatness, went on to quote in extenso the third book of the Ethics. It is through that analysis of human conduct that Spinoza approaches at last the problems which give the title to his masterpiece.

III. Intelligence and Morals

Ultimately there are but three systems of ethics, three conceptions of the ideal character and the moral life. One is that of Buddha and Jesus, which stresses the feminine virtues, considers all men to be equally precious, resists evil only by returning good, identifies virtue with love, and inclines in politics to unlimited democracy. Another is the ethic of Machiavelli and Nietzsche, which stresses the masculine virtues, accepts the inequality of men, relishes the risks of combat and conquest and rule, identifies virtue with power, and exalts an hereditary aristocracy. A third, the ethic of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, denies the universal applicability of either the feminine or the masculine virtues; considers that only the informed and mature mind can judge, according to diverse circumstance, when love should rule, and when power; identifies virtue, therefore, with intelligence; and advocates a varying mixture of aristocracy and democracy in government. It is the distinction of Spinoza that his ethic unconsciously reconciles these apparently hostile philosophies, weaves them into a harmonious unity, and gives us in consequence a system of morals which is the supreme achievement of modern thought.

He begins by making happiness the goal of conduct; and he defines happiness very simply as the presence of pleasure and the absence of pain. But pleasure and pain are relative, not absolute; and they are not states but transitions. “Pleasure is man’s transition from a lesser state of perfection” (i.e., completeness, or fulfillment) “to a greater.” “Joy consists in this, that one’s power is increased.” 74 “Pain [169] is man’s transition from a greater state of perfection to a lesser. I say transition; for pleasure is not perfection itself: if a man were born with the perfection to which he passes he would be without ... the emotion of pleasure. And the contrary of this makes it still more apparent.” 75 All passions are passages, all emotions are motions, towards or from completeness and power.

“By emotion (affectus) I understand the modifications of the body by which the power of action in the body is increased or diminished, aided or restrained, and at the same time the ideas of these modifications.” 76 (This theory of emotion is usually credited to James and Lange; it is here formulated more precisely than by either of these psychologists, and accords remarkably with the findings of Professor Cannon.) A passion or an emotion is bad or good not in itself, but only as it decreases or enhances our power. “By virtue and power I mean the same thing”; 77 a virtue is a power of acting, a form of ability; 78 “the more a man can preserve his being and seek what is useful to him, the greater is his virtue.” 79 Spinoza does not ask a man to sacrifice himself to another’s good; he is more lenient than nature. He thinks that egoism is a necessary corollary of the supreme instinct of self-preservation; “no one ever neglects anything which he judges to be good, except with the hope of gaining a greater good.” 80 This seems to Spinoza perfectly reasonable. “Since reason demands nothing against nature, it concedes that each man must love himself, and seek what is useful to him, and desire whatever leads him truly to a greater state of perfection; and that each man should endeavor to preserve his being so far as in him lies.” 81 So he builds his ethic not on altruism and the natural goodness of man, like Utopian reformers; nor on selfishness and the natural wickedness of man, like cynical conservatives, but on what he considers to be an inevitable and justifiable egoism. A system of morals that teaches a man to be weak is worthless; “the foundation of virtue is no other than the effort to maintain one’s being; and man’s happiness consists in the power of so doing.” 82

Like Nietzsche, Spinoza has not much use for humility; 83 it is [170] either the hypocrisy of a schemer or the timidity of a slave; it implies the absence of power—whereas to Spinoza all virtues are forms of ability and power. So .is remorse a defect rather than a virtue: “he who repents is twice unhappy and doubly weak.” 84 But he does not spend so much time as Nietzsche in inveighing against humility; for “humility is very rare”; 85 and as Cicero said, even the philosophers who write books in its praise take care to put their names on the title-page. “One who despises himself is the nearest to a proud man,” says Spinoza (putting in a sentence a pet theory of the psychoanalysts, that every conscious virtue is an effort to conceal or correct a secret vice). And whereas Spinoza dislikes humility he admires modesty, and objects to a pride that is not “tenoned and mortised” in deeds. Conceit makes men a nuisance to one another: “the conceited man relates only his own great deeds, and only the evil ones of others”; 86 he delights in the presence of his inferiors, who will gape at his perfections and exploits; and becomes at last the victim of those who praise him most; for “none are more taken in by flattery than the proud.” 87

So far our gentle philosopher offers us a rather Spartan ethic; but he strikes in other passages a softer tone. He marvels at the amount of envy, recrimination, mutual belittlement, and even hatred, which agitates and separates men; and sees no remedy for our social ills except in the elimination of these and similar emotions. He believes it is a simple matter to show that hatred, perhaps because it trembles on the verge of love, can be more easily overcome by love than by reciprocated hate. For hatred is fed on the feeling that it is returned; whereas he who believes himself to be loved by one whom he hates is a prey to the conflicting emotions of hatred and love, since (as Spinoza perhaps too optimistically believes) love tends to beget love; so that his hatred disintegrates and loses force. To hate is to acknowledge our inferiority and our fear; we do not hate a foe whom we are confident we can overcome. “He who wishes to revenge injuries by reciprocal hatred will live in misery. But he, who endeavors to drive away hatred by means of love, fights with pleasure and confidence; he resists equally one or many men, and scarcely needs at all the help of fortune. Those whom he conquers yield joyfully.” 88 “Minds are conquered not by [171] arms but by greatness of soul.” 89 In such passages Spinoza sees something of the light which shone on the hills of Galilee.

But the essence of his ethic is rather Greek than Christian. “The endeavor to understand is the first and only basis of virtue” 90 —nothing could be more simply and thoroughly Socratic. For “we are tossed about by external causes in many ways, and like waves driven by contrary winds, we waver and are unconscious of the issue and our fate.” 91 We think we are most ourselves when we are most passionate, whereas it is then .we are most passive, caught in some ancestral torrent of impulse or feeling, and swept on to a precipitate reaction which meets only part of the situation because without thought only part of a situation can be perceived. A passion is an “inadequate idea”; thought is response delayed till every vital angle of a problem has aroused a correlative reaction, inherited or acquired; only so is the idea adequate, the response all that it can be. 92 The instincts are magnificent as a driving force, but dangerous as guides; for by what we may call the individualism of the instincts, each of them seeks its own fulfillment, regardless of the good of the whole personality. What havoc has come to men, for example, from uncontrolled greed, pugnacity, or lust, till such men have become but the appendages of the instinct that has mastered them. “The emotions by which we are daily assailed have reference rather to some part of the body which is affected beyond the others, and so the emotions as a rule are in excess, and detain the mind in the contemplation of one object so that it cannot think of others.” 93 But “desire that arises from pleasure or pain which has reference to one or certain parts of the body has no advantage to man as a whole.” 94 To be ourselves we must complete ourselves.

All this is, of course, the old philosophic distinction between reason and passion; but Spinoza adds vitally to Socrates and the Stoics. He knows that as passion without reason is blind, reason without passion is dead. “An emotion can neither be hindered nor removed except by a [172] contrary and stronger emotion.” 95 Instead of uselessly opposing reason to passion—a contest in which the more deeply rooted and ancestral element usually wins—he opposes reasonless passions to passions coordinated by reason, put into place by the total perspective of the situation. Thought should not lack the heat of desire, nor desire the light of thought. “A passion ceases to be a passion as soon as we form a clear and distinct idea of it, and the mind is subject to passions in proportion to the number of adequate ideas which it has.” 96 “All appetites are passions only so far as they arise from inadequate ideas; they are virtues ... when generated by adequate ideas”; 97 all intelligent behavior—i.e., all reaction which meets the total situation—is virtuous action; and in the end there is no virtue but intelligence.

Spinoza’s ethics flows from his metaphysics: just as reason there lay in the perception of law in the chaotic flux of things, so here it lies in the establishment of law in the chaotic flux of desires; there it lay in seeing, here it lies in acting, sub specie aeternitatis—under the form of eternity; in making perception and action fit the eternal perspective of the whole. Thought helps us to this larger view because it is aided by imagination, which presents to consciousness those distant effects of present actions which could have no play upon reaction if reaction were thoughtlessly immediate. The great obstacle to intelligent behavior is the superior vividness of present sensations as compared with those projected memories which we call imagination. “In so far as the mind conceives a thing according to the dictates of reason, it will be equally affected whether the idea be of anything present, past, or future.” 98 By imagination and reason we turn experience into foresight; we become the creators of our future, and cease to be the slaves of our past.

So we achieve the only freedom possible to man. The passivity of passion is “human bondage,” the action of reason is human liberty. Freedom is not from causal law or process, but from partial passion or impulse; and freedom not from passion, but from uncoordinated and [173] uncompleted passion. We are free only where we know. 99 To be a superman is to be free not from the restraints of social justice and amenity, but from the individualism of the instincts. With this completeness and integrity comes the equanimity of the wise man; not the aristocratic self-complacency of Aristotle’s hero, much less the supercilious superiority of Nietzsche’s ideal, but a more comradely poise and peace of mind. “Men who are good by reason—i.e., men who, under the guidance of reason, seek what is useful to them—desire nothing for themselves which they do not also desire for the rest of mankind.” 100 To be great is not to be placed above humanity, ruling others; but to stand above the partialities and futilities of uninformed desire, and to rule one’s self.

This is a nobler freedom than that which men call free will; for the will is not free, and perhaps there is no “will”. And let no one suppose that because he is no longer “free,” he is no longer morally responsible for his behavior and the structure of his life. Precisely because men’s actions are determined by their memories, society must for its protection form its citizens through their hopes and fears into some measure of social order and cooperation. All education presupposes determinism, and pours into the open mind of youth a store of prohibitions which are expected to participate in determining conduct. “The evil which ensues from evil deeds is not therefore less to be feared because it comes of necessity; whether our actions are free or not, our motives still are hope and fear. Therefore the assertion is false that I would leave no room for precepts and commands.” 101 On the contrary, determinism makes for a better moral life: it teaches us not to despise or ridicule any one, or be angry with any one; 102 men are “not guilty”; and though we punish miscreants, it will be without hate; we forgive them because they know not what they do.

Above all, determinism fortifies us to expect and to bear both faces of fortune with an equal mind; we remember that all things follow by [174] the eternal decrees of God. Perhaps even it will teach us the “intellectual love of God,” whereby we shall accept the laws of nature gladly, and find our fulfillment within her limitations. He who sees all things as determined cannot complain, though he may resist; for he “perceives things under a certain species of eternity, “ 103 and he understands that his mischances are not chances in the total scheme; that they find some justification in the eternal sequence and structure of the world. So minded, he rises from the fitful pleasures of passion to the high serenity of contemplation which sees all things as parts of an eternal order and development; he learns to smile in the face of the inevitable, and “whether he comes into his own now, or in a thousand years, he sits content.” 104 He learns the old lesson that God is no capricious personality absorbed in the private affairs of his devotees, but the invariable sustaining order of the universe. Plato words the same conception beautifully in the Republic: “He whose mind is fixed upon true being has no time to look down upon the little affairs of men, or to be filled with jealousy and enmity in the struggle against them; his eye is ever directed towards fixed and immutable principles, which he sees neither injuring nor injured by one another, but all in order moving according to reason; these he imitates, and to these he would, as far as he can, conform himself.” 105 “That which is necessary,” says Nietzsche, “does not offend me. Amor fati”—love of fate—“is the core of my nature.” 106 Or Keats:

To bear all naked truths,
And to envisage circumstance, all calm:
That is the top of sovereignty.

Such a philosophy teaches us to say Yea to life, and even to death—“a free man thinks of nothing less than of death; and his wisdom is a meditation not on death but on life.” 108 It calms our fretted egos with its large perspective; it reconciles us to the limitations within which our purposes must be circumscribed. It may lead to resignation and an Orientally supine passivity; but it is also the indispensable basis of all wisdom and all strength. [175]

IV. Religion and immortality

After all, as we perceive, Spinoza’s philosophy was an attempt to love even a world in which he was outcast and alone; again like Job, he typified his people, and asked how it could be that even the just man, like the chosen people, should suffer persecution and exile and every desolation. For a time the conception of the world as a process of impersonal and invariable law soothed and sufficed him; but in the end his essentially religious spirit turned this mute process into something almost lovable. He tried to merge his own desires with the universal order of things, to become an almost indistinguishable part of nature. “The greatest good is the knowledge of the union which the mind has with the whole nature.” 109 Indeed, our individual separateness is in a sense illusory; we are parts of the great stream of law and cause, parts of God; we are the flitting forms of a being greater than ourselves, and endless while we die. Our bodies are cells in the body of the race, our race is an incident in the drama of life; our minds are the fitful flashes of an eternal light. “Our mind, in so far as it understands, is an eternal mode of thinking, which is determined by another mode of thinking, and this one again by another, and so on to infinity; so that they all constitute at the same time the eternal and infinite intellect of God.” 110 In this pantheistic merging of the individual with the All, the Orient speaks again: we hear the echo of Omar, who “never called the One two,” and of the old Hindu poem: “Know in thyself and All one self-same soul; banish the dream that sunders part from whole.” 111 “Sometimes,” said Thoreau, “as I drift idly on Walden Pond, I cease to live and begin to be.”

As such parts of such a whole we are immortal. “The human mind cannot be absolutely destroyed with the human body, but there is some part of it which remains eternal.” 112 This is the part that conceives things sub specie aeternitatis; the more we so conceive things, the more eternal our thought is. Spinoza is even more than usually obscure here; and after endless controversy among interpreters his language yet speaks differently to different minds. Sometimes one imagines him to mean George Eliot’s immortality by repute, whereby that which is most rational and beautiful in our thought and our lives [176] survives us to have an almost timeless efficacy down the years. Sometimes again Spinoza seems to have in mind a personal and individual immortality; and it may be that as death loomed up so prematurely in his path he yearned to console himself with this hope that springs eternally in the human breast. Yet he insistently differentiates eternity from everlastingness: “If we pay attention to the common opinion or men, we shall see that they are conscious of the eternity of their minds; but they confuse eternity with duration, and attribute it to imagination or memory, which they believe will remain after death.” 113 But like Aristotle, Spinoza, though talking of immortality, denies the survival of personal memory. “The mind can neither imagine nor recollect anything save while in the body.” 114 Nor does he believe in heavenly rewards: “Those are far astray from a true estimate of virtue who expect for their virtue, as if it were the greatest slavery, that God will adorn them with the greatest rewards; as if virtue and the serving of God were not happiness itself and the greatest liberty.” 115 “Blessedness,” reads the last proposition of Spinoza’s book, “is not the reward of virtue, but virtue itself.” And perhaps in the like manner, immortality is not the reward of clear thinking, it is clear thought itself, as it carries up the past into the present and readies out into the future, so overcoming the limits and narrowness of time, and catching the perspective that remains eternally behind the kaleidoscope of change; such thought is immortal because every truth is a permanent creation, part of the eternal acquisition of man, influencing him endlessly.

With this solemn and hopeful note the Ethics ends. Seldom has one book enclosed so much thought, and fathered so much commentary, while yet remaining so bloody a battleground for hostile interpretations. Its metaphysic may be faulty, its psychology imperfect, its theology unsatisfactory and obscure; but of the soul of the book, its spirit and essence, no man who has read it will speak otherwise than reverently. In the concluding paragraph that essential spirit shines forth in simple eloquence:

“Thus I have completed all I wished to show concerning the power of the mind over emotions, or the freedom of the mind. From which it is clear how much a wise man is in front of and how stronger he is than an ignorant one, who is guided by lust alone. For an ignorant man, besides [177] being agitated in many ways by external causes, never enjoys one true satisfaction of the mind: he lives, moreover, almost unconscious of himself, God, and things, and as soon as he ceases to be passive, ceases to be. On the contrary the wise man, in so far as he is considered as such, is scarcely moved in spirit; he is conscious of himself, of God, and things by a certain eternal necessity; he never ceases to be, and always enjoys satisfaction of mind. If the road I have shown to lead to this is very difficult, it can yet be discovered. And clearly it must be very hard when it is so seldom found. For how could it be that it is neglected practically by all, if salvation were close at hand and could be found without difficulty? But all excellent things are as difficult as they are rare.”

5. The Political Treatise

There remains for our analysis that tragic torso, the Tractatus Politicus, the work of Spinoza’s maturest years, stopped suddenly short by his early death. It is a brief thing, and yet full of thought; so that one feels again how much was lost when this gentle life was closed at the very moment that it was ripening to its fullest powers. In the same generation which saw Hobbes exalting absolute monarchy and denouncing the uprising of the English people against their king almost as vigorously as Milton was defending it, Spinoza, friend of the republican De Witts, formulated a political philosophy which expressed the liberal and democratic hopes of his day in Holland, and became one of the main sources of that stream of thought which culminated in Rousseau and the Revolution.

All political philosophy, Spinoza thinks, must grow out of a distinction between the natural and the moral order—that is, between existence before, and existence after, the formation of organized societies. Spinoza supposes that men once lived in comparative isolation, without law or social organization; there were then, he says, no conceptions of right and wrong, justice or injustice; might and right were one.

“Nothing can exist in a natural state which can be called good or bad by common assent, since every man who is in a natural state consults only his own advantage, and determines what is good or bad according to his own fancy and in so far as he has regard for his own advantage alone, and [178] holds himself responsible to no one save himself by any law; and therefore sin cannot be conceived in a natural state, but only in a civil state, where it is decreed by common consent what is good or bad, and each one holds himself responsible to the state. 116... The law and ordinance of nature under which all men are born, and for the most part live, forbids nothing but what no one wishes or is able to do, and is not opposed to strife, hatred, anger, treachery, or, in general, anything that appetite suggests.” 117

We get an inkling of this law of nature, or this lawlessness of nature, by observing the behavior of states; “there is no altruism among nations,” 118 for there can be law and morality only where there is an accepted organization, a common and recognized authority. The “rights” of states are now what the “rights” of individuals used to be (and still often are), that is, they are mights, and the leading states, by some forgetful honesty of diplomats, are very properly called the “Great Powers.” So it is too among species: there being no common organization, there is not among them any morality or law; each species does to the other what it wishes and can. 119

But among men, as mutual need begets mutual aid, this natural order of powers passes into a moral order of rights. “Since fear of solitude exists in all men, because no one in solitude is strong enough to defend himself and procure the necessaries of life, it follows that men by nature tend towards social organization.” 120 To guard against danger “the force or strength of one man would hardly suffice if men did not arrange mutual aid and exchange.” 121 Men are not by nature, however, equipped for the mutual forbearance of social order; but danger begets association, which gradually nourishes and strengthens the social instincts: “men are not born for citizenship, but must be made fit for it.” 122

Most men are at heart individualistic rebels against law or custom: the social instincts are later and weaker than the individualistic, and need reinforcement; man is not “good by nature,” as Rousseau was so disastrously to suppose. But through association, if even merely in the family sympathy comes, a feeling of kind, and at last of kindness. We like what is like us; “we pity not only a thing we have loved, but also [179] one which we judge similar to ourselves”; 123 out of this comes an “imitation of emotions, “ 124 and finally some degree of conscience. Conscience, however, is not innate, but acquired; and varies with geography. 125 It is the deposit, in the mind of the growing individual, of the moral traditions of the group; through it society creates for itself an ally in the heart of its enemy—the naturally individualistic soul.

Gradually, in this development, it comes about that the law of individual power which obtains in a state of nature, yields in organized society to the legal and moral power of the whole. Might still remains right; but the might of the whole limits the might of the individual-limits it theoretically to his rights, to such exercise of his powers as agrees with the equal freedom of others. Part of the individual’s natural might, or sovereignty, is handed over to the organized community, in return for the enlargement of the sphere of his remaining powers. We abandon, for example, the right to fly from anger to violence, and are freed from the danger of such violence from others. Law is necessary because men are subject to passions; if all men were reasonable, law would be superfluous. The perfect law would bear to individuals the same relation which perfect reason bears to passions: it would be the coordination of conflicting forces to avoid the ruin and increase the power of the whole. Just as, in metaphysics, reason is the perception of order in things, and in ethics the establishment of order among desires, so in politics it is the establishment of order among men. The perfect state would limit the powers of its citizens only as far as these powers were mutually destructive; it would withdraw no liberty except to add a greater one.

“The last end of the state is not to dominate men, nor to restrain them by fear; rather it is so to free each man from fear that he may live and act with full security and without injury to himself or his neighbor. The end of the state, I repeat, is not to make rational beings into brute beasts and machines. It is to enable their bodies and their minds to function safely. It is to lead men to live by, and to exercise, a free reason; that they may not waste their strength in hatred, anger and guile, nor act unfairly toward one another. Thus the end of the state is really liberty.” 126

Freedom is the goal of the state because the function of the state is to promote growth, and growth depends on capacity finding freedom. [180] But what if laws stifle growth and freedom? What shall a man do if the state, seeking, like every organism or organization, to preserve its own existence (which ordinarily means that office-holders seek to keep themselves in office), becomes a mechanism of domineering and exploitation? Obey even the unjust law, answers Spinoza, if reasonable protest and discussion are allowed and speech is left free to secure a peaceful change. “I confess that from such freedom inconveniences may sometimes arise; but what question was ever settled so wisely that no abuses could spring therefrom?” 127 Laws against free speech are subversive of all law; for men will not long respect laws which they may not criticize.

“The more a government strives to curtail freedom of speech, the more obstinately is it resisted; not indeed by the avaricious, ... but by those whom good education, sound morality, and virtue have rendered more free. Men in general are so constituted that there is nothing they will endure with so little patience as that views which they believe to be true should be counted crimes against the laws. ... Under such circumstances they do not think it disgraceful, but most honorable, to hold the laws in abhorrence, and to refrain from no action against the government. 128... Laws which can be broken without any wrong to one’s neighbor are counted but a laughing-stock; and so far from such laws restraining the appetites and lusts of mankind, they rather heighten them. Nitimur in vetitum semper, cupimusque negata.” 129

And Spinoza concludes like a good American constitutionalist: “If actions only could be made the ground of criminal prosecutions, and words were always allowed to pass free, sedition would be divested of every semblance of justification.” 130

The less control the state has over the mind, the better for both the citizen and the state. Spinoza, while recognizing the necessity of the state, distrusts it, knowing that power corrupts even the incorruptible (was this not the name of Robespierre?); and he does not look with equanimity upon the extension of its authority from the bodies and actions to the souls and thoughts of men; that would be the end of growth and the death of the group. So he disapproves of state control [181] of education, especially in the universities: “Academies that are founded at the public expense are instituted not so much to cultivate men’s natural abilities as to restrain them. But in a free commonwealth arts and sciences will be better cultivated to the full if every one that asks leave is allowed to teach publicly, at his own cost and risk.” 131 How to find a middle way between universities controlled by the state and universities controlled by private wealth, is a problem which Spinoza does not solve; private wealth had not in his day grown to such proportions as to suggest the difficulty. His ideal, apparently, was higher education such as once flourished in Greece, coming not from institutions but from free individuals—“Sophists”—who traveled from city to city and taught independently of either public or private control.

These things premised, it makes no great difference what is the form of government; and Spinoza expresses only a mild preference for democracy. Any of the traditional political forms can be framed “so that every man ... may prefer public right to private advantage; this is the task” of the law-giver. 132 Monarchy is efficient, but oppressive and militaristic.

“Experience is thought to teach that it makes for peace and concord to confer the whole authority on one man. For no dominion has stood so long without any notable change as that of the Turks; and on the other hand there were none so little lasting as those which were popular or democratic, nor any in which so many seditions arose. Yet if slavery, barbarism and desolation are to be called peace, men can have no worse misfortune. No doubt there are usually more and sharper quarrels between parents and children, than between masters and slaves; yet it advances not the art of household management to change a father’s right into a right of property, and count children but as slaves. Slavery, then, and not peace, is furthered by handing, over the whole authority to one man.” 133

To which he adds a word on secret diplomacy:

“It has been the one song of those who thirst after absolute power that the interest of the state requires that its affairs should be conducted in secret. ... But the more such arguments disguise themselves under the mask of public welfare, the more oppressive is the slavery to which they [182] will lead. ... Better that right counsels be known to enemies than that the evil secrets of tyrants should be concealed from the citizens. They who can treat secretly of the affairs of a nation have it absolutely under their authority; and as they plot against the enemy in time of war, so do they against the citizens in time of peace.” 134

Democracy is the most reasonable form of government; for in it “every one submits to the control of authority over his actions, but not over his judgment and reason; i.e., seeing that all cannot think alike, the voice of the majority has the force of law.” 135 The military basis of this democracy should be universal military service, the citizens retaining their arms during peace; 136 its fiscal basis should be the single tax. 137 The defect of democracy is its tendency to put mediocrity into power; and there is no way of avoiding this except by limiting office to men of “trained skill.” 138 Numbers by themselves cannot produce wisdom, and may give the best favors of office to the grossest flatterers. “The fickle disposition of the multitude almost reduces those who have experience of it to despair; for it is governed solely by emotions, and not by reason.” 139 Thus democratic government becomes a procession of brief-lived demagogues, and men of worth are loath to enter lists where they must be judged and rated by their inferiors. 140 Sooner or later the more capable men rebel against such a system, though they be in a minority. “Hence I think it is that democracies change into aristocracies, and these at length into monarchies”; 141 people at last prefer tyranny to chaos. Equality of power is an unstable condition; men are by nature unequal; and “he who seeks equality between unequals seeks an absurdity.” Democracy has still to solve the problem of enlisting the best energies of men while giving to all alike the choice of those, among the trained and fit, by whom they wish to be ruled.

Who knows what light the genius of Spinoza might have cast [183] upon this pivotal problem of modern politics had he been spared to complete his work? But even that which we have of this treatise was but the first and imperfect draft of his thought. While writing the chapter on democracy he died.

6. The Influence of Spinoza

“Spinoza did not seek to found a sect, and he founded none”; 142 yet all philosophy after him is permeated with his thought. During the generation that followed his death, his name was held in abhorrence; even Hume spoke of his “hideous hypothesis”; “people talked of Spinoza,” said Lessing, “as if he were a dead dog.”

It was Lessing who restored him to repute. The great critic surprised Jacobi, in their famous conversation in 1780, 143 by saying that he had been a Spinozist throughout his mature life, and affirming that “there is no other philosophy than that of Spinoza.” His love of Spinoza had strengthened his friendship with Moses Mendelssohn; and in his great play, Nathan der Weise, he poured into one mould that conception of the ideal Jew which had come to him from the living merchant and the dead philosopher. A few years later Herder’s Einige Gespräche über Spinozas System turned the attention of liberal theologians to the Ethics; Schleiermacher, leader of this school, wrote of “the holy and excommunicated Spinoza,” while the Catholic poet, Novalis, called him “the god-intoxicated man,”

Meanwhile Jacobi had brought Spinoza to the attention of Goethe; the great poet was converted, he tells us, at the first reading of the Ethics; 144 it was precisely the philosophy for which his deepening soul had yearned; henceforth it pervaded his poetry and his prose. It was here that he found the lesson dass wir entsagen sollen—that we must accept the limitations which nature puts upon us; and it was partly by breathing the calm air of Spinoza that he rose out of the wild [184] romanticism of Götz and Werther to the classic poise of his later life.

It was by combining Spinoza with Kant’s epistemology that Fichte, Schelling and Hegel reached their varied pantheisms; it was from conatus esse preservandi, the effort to preserve one’s self, that Fichte’s Ich was born, and Schopenhauer’s “will to live,” and Nietzsche’s “will to power,” and Bergson’s élan vital. Hegel objected that Spinoza’s system was too lifeless and rigid; he was forgetting this dynamic element of it and remembering only that majestic conception of God as law which he appropriated for his “Absolute Reason.” But he was honest enough when he said, “To be a philosopher one must first be a Spinozist.”

In England the influence of Spinoza rose on the tide of the Revolutionary movement; and young rebels like Coleridge and Wordsworth talked about “Spy-nosa” (which the spy sent by the government to watch them took as a reference to his own nasal facilities) with the same ardor that animated the conversation of Russian intellectuals in the halcyon days of V Narod. Coleridge filled his guests with Spinozist table-talk; and Wordsworth caught something of the philosopher’s thought in his famous lines about

Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns.
And the round ocean, and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man;—
A motion and a spirit,—which impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things

Shelley quoted the Treatise on Religion and the State in the original notes to Queen Mob, and began a translation of it for which Byron promised a preface. A fragment of this MS. came into the hands of C.S. Middleton, who took it for a work of Shelley’s own, and called it “schoolboy speculation ... too crude for publication entire.” In a later and tamer age George Eliot translated the Ethics, though she never published the translation; and one may suspect that Spencer’s conception of the Unknowable owes something to Spinoza through his intimacy with the novelist. “There are not wanting men of eminence of the present day,” says Belfort Bax, “who declare that in Spinoza is contained the fullness of modern science.”

Perhaps so many were influenced by Spinoza because he lends himself to so many interpretations, and yields new riches at every [185] reading. All profound utterances have varied facets for diverse minds. One may say of Spinoza what Ecclesiastes said of Wisdom: “The first man knew him not perfectly, no more shall the last find him out. For his thoughts are more than the sea, and his counsels profounder than the great deep.”

On the second centenary of Spinoza’s death subscriptions were collected for the erection of a statue to him at the Hague. Contributions came from every corner of the educated world; never did a monument rise upon so wide a pedestal of love. At the unveiling in 1882 Ernest Renan concluded his address with words which may fitly conclude also our chapter: “Woe to him who in passing should hurl an insult at this gentle and pensive head. He would be punished, as all vulgar souls are punished, by his very vulgarity, and by his incapacity to conceive what is divine. This man, from his granite pedestal, will point out to all men the way of blessedness which he found; and ages hence, the cultivated traveler, passing by this spot, will say in his heart, ‘The truest vision ever had of God came, perhaps, here.’” 145 [186]

1 Gutzkow has turned this story into a drama which still finds place in European repertoires.
2 Renan, Marc Aurèle. Paris: Calmann-Levy, p. 65.
3 Epistemology means, etymologically, the logic (logos) of understanding (episteme), – i.e., the origin, nature and validity of knowledge.
4 Graetz, History of the Jews. New York, 1919, vol. V, p. 140.
5 Willis, Benedict de Spinoza. London, 1870, p. 35.
6 Translation by Willis, p.  34.
7 As suggested by Israel Abrahams, art. Jews, Encyclopaedia Britannica.
8 He contested the case in court; won it; and then turned over the bequest to the sister.
9 Ethics, Part I, Appendix.
10 In Pollock, Life and Philosophy of Spinoza. London, 1899, p. 393.
11 Epistle 34, ed. Willis.
12 Anatole France, M. Bergeret in Paris. New York, 1921, p. 180. In Pollock, p. 394.
13 In Pollock, p. 394.
14 In Willis, p. 72.
15 Epistle 19.
16 Pollock, 406.
17 Epistle 73.
18 Epistle 74.
19 Willis, 67.
20 Epistle 54.
21 Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, ch. 5.
22 Ch. 6.
23 Ibid.
24 Ibid.
25 Introd.
26 Ch. 5.
27 Ch. 4.
28 Ch. 6.
29 Epistle 2I.
30 Ch. 4.
31 De Emendatione, Everyman edition, p. 231.
32 Ibid.
33 Ibid., p. 233.
34 P. 259. Cf. Bacon, Novum Organum, II, 2: “For although nothing exists in nature except individual bodies, exhibiting clear individual effects according to particular laws; yet, in each branch of learning, those very laws—their investigation, discovery and development—are the foundation both of theory and of practice.” Fundamentally, all philosophers agree.
35 Part II, proposition 11, note.
36 Spencer, First Principles, Part II, ch. 1.
37 Epistle 21.
38 Ch. 3.
39 Ethics, I, 17, note.
40 Höffding, History of Modern Philosophy, vol. I.
41 Martineau, Study of Spinoza. London, 1822, p. 171.
42 Prof. Woodbridge.
43 T.T-P., ch. 3.
44 Ethics, Part I, Appendix.
45 Tractatus Politicus, ch. 2.
46 Ethics, IV, Pref.
47 Santayana, Introduction to the Ethics, Everyman ed., p. XX.
48 Epistle 15, ed. Pollock.
49 Ethics, I, App.
50 Epistle 58, ed. Willis.
51 Epistle 60, ed. Willis.
52 Ethics, I, 17, note.
53 Santayana, loc. cit., p. x.
54 Ethics, II, 13, note.
55 Ethics, III, 2.
56 II, 17.
57 Ibid., note.
58 V, 1.
59 II, 12, 13.
60 For Spinoza’s anticipation of the association theory cf. II, 18, note.
61 II, 48, note.
62 II, 49, corollary.
63 IV, 18.
64 Spinoza is alive to the power of the “unconscious,” as seen in somnambulism (II, 2, note); and notes the phenomena of double personality (IV, 39, note).
65 III, 6, 7.
66 III, 57.
67 III, 2, note.
68 II, 48.
69 I, App.
70 Epistle 58, ed. Pollock.
71 T.T-P., Introd.
72 Ibid., ch. 1.
73 Short Studies, I, 308.
74 Cf. Nietzsche: “What is happiness? The feeling that power increases, that resistance is overcome.”—Antichrist, sect. 2.
75 III, App.
76 III, def. 3.
77 IV, def. 8.
78 III, 55, cor. 2.
79 IV, 20.
80 T. T-P., ch. 16.
81 IV, 18, note.
82 Ibid.
83 III, 55.
84 IV, 54.
85 III, App., def. 29.
86 Ibid.; and III, 55, note.
87 IV, App., def. 21.
88 IV, 45.
89 IV, App. 11.
90 IV, 26.
91 III, 59, note.
92 To phrase it in later terms: reflex action is a local response to a local stimulus; instinctive action is a partial response to part of a situation; reason is total response to the whole situation.
93 IV, 44, note.
94 IV, 60.
95 IV, 7, 14.
96 V, 3.
97 Notice the resemblance between the last two quotations and the psychoanalytic doctrine that desires are “complexes” only so long as we are not aware of the precise causes of these desires, and that the first element in treatment is therefore an attempt to bring the desire and its causes to consciousness—to form “adequate ideas” of it and them.
98 IV, 62.
99 Cf. Professor Dewey: “A physician or engineer is free in his thought and his action in the degree in which he knows what he deals with. Possibly we find here the key to any freedom”—Human Nature and Conduct. New York, 1922, p. 303.
100 IV, 18, note; cf. Whitman: “By God, I will not have anything that all cannot have their counterpart of on the same terms.”
101 Epistle 43.
102 II, end.
103 II, 44, cor. 2.
104 Whitman.
105 § 500.
106 Ecce Homo, p. 130. It was rather Nietzsche’s hope than his attainment.
107 Hyperion, II, 203.
108 Ethics, IV, 67.
109 De Emendatione, p. 230.
110 Ethics, V, 40, note.
111 In Pollock, 169, 145.
112 Ethics, V, 23.
113 V, 34, note.
114 II, 49, note.
115 V, 21.
116 Ethics, IV, 37, note 2.
117 Tractatus Politicus, ch. 2.
118 Bismarck.
119 Ethics, IV, 37, note 1; and App. 27.
120 T. T-P., ch. 6.
121 Ethics, IV, App., 28.
122 T.P., ch. 5.
123 Ethics, III, 22, note.
124 Ibid.,27, note 1.
125 III, App. 27.
126 T. T-P., ch. 20.
127 Ibid.
128 Ibid.
129 T.P., ch. 10. (“We always resist prohibitions, and yearn for what is denied us.”)
130 T. T-P., pref.
131 T.P., ch. 8.
132 T. T-P. ch. 17.
133 T.P., ch. 6.
134 T.P., ch.7.
135 T. T-P., ch. 20.
136 T.P., ch. 7.
137 “The fields and the whole soil, and (if it can be managed) the houses, should be public property, ... let at a yearly rental to the citizen; ... and with this exception let them all be free from every kind of taxation in time of peace.”—T. P., ch. 6.
138 T. T-P., ch. 13.
139 Ibid., ch. 17.
140 Ethics, IV, 58, note.
141 T.P., ch. 8.
142 Pollock, 79.
143 Printed in full in Willis.
144 Brandes, Main Currents in Nineteenth Century Literature. New York, 1905; vol. VI, p. 10. Cf. Brandes, Wolfgang Goethe. New York, 1924; vol. I, pp. 432-7.
145 Ethics, Everyman ed., Introd., XXII, note.