Spinoza began as a follower of Descartes. He wrote at least one book on Cartesian philosophy.
Thus, his thought makes more sense when viewed through a Cartesian setting. But, it is still the
most original, and to some the most perfect approach to a purely rational description of the
world determined purely through reason. And too, he was post-Galilean to the point that his
ideas depend on and explain the role of natural physical laws in the universe. Consider for a
moment what natural physical laws tell us. They tell us that interactions between things and
events are determined by something natural to the things and the events and nothing else. The
Stoics taught that the best life was that in harmony with nature. But they freely admitted they
did not understand nature. Spinoza taught that all life was determined by nature, that what is
could not be different and still be what is. As a brilliant young Jewish student in seventeenth
century Amsterdam he was expected to be a great rabbi. However, his ideas seemed to the
Jewish fathers of Amsterdam to be stepping sufficiently beyond the bounds of discretion that
they would very likely endanger the Jewish colony. Thus first he was forbidden from speaking
out and, since this had no effect, he was excommunicated from the Church. Considering the
sense of scientific physical laws as applying directly to what is regardless of why it is or where it
is going, he could not understand how it could be possible to think other than he did and still
remain within the bounds of reason.
Spinoza developed a thorough metaphysical description of a dynamic universe that, more than
any one else in his day, took into consideration the full import of
scientifically developed natural physical laws. Consider, for a moment, that though natural laws as knowledge tokens can be
considered to exist in another world. That is they are not created, and they are not sensed. They
are discovered through reasoning on the events that involve physical entities, not on the entities
themselves. They are abstract entities but they do not apply to abstract entities. They only apply
to things that exist, that are. So Spinoza began his discussion of the nature of the universe by
referring to what is. To being as a whole. We know that something is, and that it is what it is,
rather than something else through its attributes. Thus, being, or as he liked to call it, substance,
is the absolute totality of attributes. If we can know that a thing is and that it is what it is only
through its attributes, and if substance is the totality of attributes then there can be only one
substance and that substance must be the cause of all that exists. Therefore that substance must
For a logical proof of what he maintained.
Spinoza turned back to the methods developed by Euclid, by applying
methods developed in Geometry to metaphysical arguments. He
began with a set of definitions
I. Self-caused; That of which the essence involves
By this he meant that anything that includes within its essence
its own cause could not not exist. Since God is the only thing
of which its essence involves existence, only God is self-caused.
II. Finite after its kind; Anything that can be limited by
another thing of the same nature.
For example, body can be limited by body. Body is finite because
we can always conceive of another greater body. Thought too is
finite because it can be limited by thought. However, Body can
not be limited by thought nor thought by body. In Descartes
philosophy body was corporeal and thought incorporeal thus one
could not act directly on another. But with Spinoza the question
of corporeality never arises because thought and body are simply
two different attributes through which we experience the world.
They do not affect each other only because they are simply two
different ways of looking at the same things.
III. Substance; that which is in itself, and is conceived
Aristotle's conception of substance was anything that we could
talk about as an individual thing. Descartes applied the concept
substance to anything on the single basis that they existed.
Corporeal substance indicated the existence of bodies and
incorporeal substance of thoughts. To make the concept more
precise Spinoza used the term to designate only that of which a
conception can be formed independent of any other conception.
This implies that a substance cannot be conceived in relation to
another substance otherwise their would be a connection between
them and the two together would form a third substance. If we
added additional substances the problem would multiply until we
soon each the point of infinite regression. Therefore their can
only be one substance, it must have as part of its essence its
own existence, it must be God.
IV. Attribute; that which the intellect perceives as
constituting the essence of substance.
Since attributes are what determine what a substance is, then
they are in fact what the substance is. Since the one substance,
God, has an infinite number of attributes because being all that
is, all attributes must be attributed to him, God is everything
that is possible to be. However, we as human beings can only
experience God, the universe around us, through two attributes.
The attribute of extension or body, and the attribute of thought.
At this point he has succeeded in absorbing the ideas of
Descartes and the traditional Aristotelian concepts of substance
into a new concept that includes both but extends both to their
V. Mode; those modifications of substance that are conceived
through or exist in something other than themselves.
Since there is but one substance containing every possible
attribute, then whatever else exists must be a modification, or
mode, of that substance and must exist in and through that one
substance. Thus everything that we conceive as existing must do
so as a mode or modification of Gods existence. Since everything
that exists in the universe is a mode of God's existence, we
experience things through the two attributes of God that are
accessible to us, thought and extension. With this definition he
has overcome the basic Platonic problem of the meaning ot
VI. God; a being absolutely infinite.
This definition ties together God and substance. Since anything
absolutely infinite must have existence as part of its essence
and must necessarily contain all attributes.
VII. Free; that which exists solely by the necessity of its
The nature of something is its essence. A thing must be
determined either by its own essence or by means of something
external to it. To the extent that nothing external to a thing
determines its existence that thing is necessarily free. Spinoza
denies free will because that would imply that something could
will that it be something other than it is by its own essence.
However, he does make everything free to the extent that the
essence of a thing, or what it is to be that thing, is determined
entirely by forces internal to it. God and all of his creations
thus are free to the extent that they exist solely by what they
are, their essence.
VIII. Eternity; existence itself, that which is conceived
necessary through being eternal.
These definitions form the starting point of his logical
argument. What a definition does, in the Euclidean sense, is to
put a name to a concept that can be found in intuition. They
tell us what it is the author means when he uses the term. In
themselves they are neither proofs nor proven. Axioms, on the
other hand are logical derivations implied strictly by intuition.
Thus axioms are considered self-evident in a different fashion
than definitions. They are true expressions because we cannot
conceive of them as being untrue. To make his argument Spinoza
proposed the following axioms.
I. Everything which exists, either exists in itself or in
This an excellent example of an axiom because to deny it is to
deny either the way we use the English language, or the basic
concept of rationality itself. Note how each of the following
axioms also are such that their denial results in a
II. That which cannot be conceived through anything else
must be conceived through itself.
III. From a given cause an effect necessarily follows; and,
on the other hand, if no definite cause is granted, it is
impossible that an effect can follow.
While axiom II requires some thought before one can realize that
it's denial is a necessary contradiction, axiom III is really an
assumption. Still, it is an assumption that would never be
denied in the seventeenth century, and it would not be denied
even today by most people. Nevertheless, it is still an
assumption. It wasn't until David Hume a century later that the
assumption was questioned.
IV. The knowledge of an effect depends on and involves the
knowledge of its cause.
This axiom is an implication from axiom III. It is essential for
an understanding of axiom V. these constitute the essence of
V. Things which have nothing in common cannot be understood,
the one by means of the other; the conception of one does
not involve the conception of the other.
This makes sense if you accept the idea that understanding
something implies understanding its cause. therefore if the
conception of one thing requires the conception of another
there must be a relationship between their causes. In fact part
of the cause of one of them must include the cause of the other.
Therefore they are simply different varieties of the same thing.
VI. A true idea must correspond with its ideate or object.
VII. If a thing can be conceived as non-existing, its
essence does not involve existence.
Note that this set of axioms underlies a very specific and
detailed way of looking at the universe. All are developed
entirely from pure thought.
Spinoza's definition of substance leads necessarily to the
conclusion that there can not be more than one, using arguments
similar to Parmenides argument for all being as a one. As a
result this substance and God are one and the same. But his
development of a concept of God differs from all of his
predecessors because his idea of God, and those attributes
through which he exercises his powers, are dynamic in themselves,
and not simply the end-results of some series of logical
exercises. . T. M. Forsyth explained
this dynamism in a way that makes it more understandable.
Putting together the several strands of Spinoza's philosophy one sees that,
whatever may be its deficiencies of logic and method, its essential import
is not in doubt. What it teaches is that it is of the very nature of the
infinite and perfect being to be manifest in finite individuals who can
seek and find their true good in union with their immanent cause and end―a union which is at the same time that of
each with all. This relation of the finite and the infinite
implies that the divine activity creating, sustaining and
controlling all things is not that of a mere external power
and compulsion but rather the inspiring and persuasive power
of infinite love. The response of the finite individual has
as its highest level the character of a rationally grounded
and disinterested "love towards God," as the supreme reality
made manifest in the whole universe of being. Thus the
movement or process of the finite towards the infinite and
the boundless self-giving of the infinite to the finite are
one and the same fact. As the theologian expresses it, "Our
opening and his entering are one moment."
This dynamic view of the universe is particularly important to
our analyses of Spinoza's philosophy because during the period in
which he lived physical laws were expressed in terms of motion.
The notion of kinetic energy, the energy stored in every object
by the law of gravity, was developed by Newton in the next
generation. Thus God is what is, has infinite attributes, and
everything that exists is a modification of God. As human beings
we are aware of God and his modifications through only two of his
infinite attributes, thought and extension. So when we perceive
something through our senses we perceive it through the attribute
of extension and when we perceive it through our mind we do so
through the attribute of thought.
Since God is what is, that is nature, and since all that exists
does so as a modification of God. Everything that exists must do
so through its own nature. This is an important distinction
because for Spinoza to be free means only to exist in ones own
nature. The concept of free will from this point of view is
simply inconceivable. There can be but one possible world
because it is entirely determined through natural laws which are
simply characteristics of God. This idea posed some problems for
Spinoza's followers because it would seem that the denial of free
will would lead to fatalism and deny man the opportunity to
become good. But . Spinoza denied
this making virtue in fact an expression of man's activities
through the use of reason.
A free man is one who lives under the guidance of reason,
who is not led by fear, but who directly desires that which
is good, in other words, who strives to act, to live, and to
preserve his own being on the basis of seeking his own true
advantage; whereupon such a one thinks of nothing less than
of death, but his wisdom is a meditation of life.
If we think back to Aristotle and his idea that happiness is
activities of the soul in accordance with virtue, then we should
be able to note the Aristotelian influence here. Aristotle's
concept of soul was the essence of something that was alive. For
man, his nature was to be rational. Therefore for Aristotle man
reached the zenith of his happiness through rational actions that
resulted in increasing his own virtue, or the value of his soul.
Spinoza simply expressed it differently. .
Spinoza said that Pleasure and pain were
determined by the relationship between a man's actions and his
own nature. Pleasure being derived from acting according to ones
own nature, and pain from acting against ones own nature. Thus
actions according to ones nature both bring pleasure and at the
same time bring him to greater perfection.
As reason makes no demands contrary to nature, it demands
that every man should love himself, should seek that which
is useful to him―I mean, that which is really useful to
him, should desire everything which really brings man to
greater perfection, and should, each for himself, endeavor
as far as he can to preserve his own being. This is as
necessarily true, as that the whole is greater than the
Again, as virtue is nothing else but action in accordance
with the laws of ones own nature, and as no one endeavors to
preserve his own being except in accordance with the laws of
his own nature, it follows, first, that the foundation of
virtue is the endeavor to preserve ones own being, and that
happiness consists in man's power of preserving his own
being; secondly, that virtue is to be desired for its own
sake, and that there is nothing more excellent or more
useful to us, for the sake of which we should desire it;
thirdly, and lastly, that suicides are weak-minded, and are
overcome by external cause repugnant to their nature
No philosopher took reason to its limits like Spinoza. Yet, of
all of the philosophical systems his is most in line with modern
cosmology, to that of our modern physicists like Albert Einstein,
Stephen Hawking, or Roger Penrose. Yet he lived and wrote during
the earliest years of the birth of modern science. His ideas
were objected to strenuously by the religious leaders of the day.
He was labeled an atheist because his concept of God was
different from that of established religion. The man who
attempted to bring rationalism back into the mainstream of
religion was Leibniz.