The philosophy of Baruch de Spinoza

THE Ethics was not published during Spinoza's lifetime owing to the rumours as to its nature and aims. When the work appeared, in 1677, it was proscribed by the states of Holland and West Friesland. Spinoza's system, expressed in a series of axioms, and undoubtedly influenced by both Descartes and Bruno, was a rather involved form of pantheism. It is quite untrue, however, to say that Spinoza was an atheist; the two forms of reality that he recognized are both dependent on God--the ultimate substance. His ethical teaching, too, may easily be misunderstood. The doctrine that a thing is good because it is desired, not desired because it is good, becomes definitely subversive when superficially interpreted.


BY God I understand absolutely infinite Being, that is, substance consisting of infinite attributes, each expressing eternal and infinite essence. If this be denied, conceive, if it be possible, that God does not exist. Then it follows that His essence does not involve existence, which is absurd. Therefore God necessarily exists.

God is absolutely the first cause. He acts from the laws of His own nature only and is compelled by no one. For, outside of Himself, there can be nothing by which He may be determined to act. Therefore He acts solely from the laws of His own nature; and therefore, also, God alone is a free cause.

The omnipotence of God has been actual from eternity, and will be actual to eternity. The Divine intellect is the cause of things, both of their essence and of their existence. Thus it is the cause both of the essence and of the existence of the human intellect, but it differs from our intellect both in essence and in existence. The same may be said of the Divine will and the human will.

The will cannot be called a free cause, but can only be termed necessary. The will is only a certain mode of thought, like the intellect. It requires a cause to determine it to action, and, therefore, cannot be called a free cause, but only a necessary cause. Hence it follows that God does not act from freedom of the will. For the will needs a cause to determine it to act in a certain manner.

Things could have been produced by God in no other manner or order than that in which they have been. Things have been created by God in absolute perfection, because they have necessarily followed from His absolutely perfect nature.

Since in eternity there is no when, nor before, nor after, God cannot decree, nor could He ever have decreed anything other than He has decreed in the perfection of His nature. For if He had decreed something else about creation He would necessarily have had an intellect and a will different from those He now has. Could such a supposition be allowed, why cannot He now change His decree about creation yet remain perfect?

All things depend on the Divine power; but God's will, because of His perfection, cannot be other than it is, and, therefore, things cannot be differently constituted. For to suppose otherwise is to subject God to fate, an absurdity which is not worth waste of time to refute.

The sum of the matter is that God necessarily exists; that He is one God; that He acts from the necessity of His nature; that He is the free cause of all things; that all things depend on Him; and that all things have been predestined by Him.


I PASS on to those things which must necessarily follow from the essence of the eternal and infinite God.

Thought is the attribute of God. Individual thoughts are modes of expressing the nature of God in a certain and determinate manner. The order and connexion of ideas coincides with the order and connexion of things; therefore God's power of thinking is equal to His power of acting. The circle existing in nature and the idea of an existing circle which is also in God are one and the same thing, exhibited through different attributes.

The first thing which forms the actual Being of the human mind is nothing else than the idea of an individual actually existing. The essence of man is formed by certain modes of the Divine attributes, that is to say, modes of thought. The idea is the first thing which forms the Being of the human mind. It must be an idea of an individual thing actually existing. Hence the human mind is part of the infinite intellect of God.

The knowledge of everything which happens necessarily exists in God, in so far as He forms the nature of the human mind. Man thinks. Modes of thought, such as love, desire, or affections of the mind under whatever designation, do not exist, unless in the same individual exists an idea of a thing loved, desired, etc. But the idea may exist though no other mode of thinking exists. Therefore the essence of man does not necessarily involve existence.

We perecive that a body is affected in certain ways. No individual things are felt or perceived by us except bodies and modes of thought.

The object of the idea constituting the human mind is a body, or a certain mode of actually existing extension, and nothing else. For if the body were not the object of the human mind, the ideas of the affections of the body would not be in God in so far as He has created our mind, but would be in Him so far as He has formed the mind of another thing.

But we have ideas of the affections of the body; therefore the object of the idea constituting the human mind is the body actually existing. It follows that man consists of mind and body and that the human body exists as we perceive it.

Hence we perceive not only that the human mind is united to the body, but also what is to be understood by the union of mind and body. But no one can adequately comprehend it without previously possessing adequate knowledge of the body. In proportion as one body is better adapted than another to act or suffer, the mind will at the same time be better adapted for perception. And the more independent a body may be of other bodies, the stronger will be the understanding of the mind. Thus we can determine the superiority of one mind over another.

The human mind does not know the human body itself, nor does it know that the human body exists except through the ideas and affections by which the body is affected. Indeed, the human mind is the very idea or knowledge of the human body. These ideas are in God. Thought is an attribute of God, and so the thought of the mind originates of necessity in Him. All the ideas which are in God always agree with those things of which they are ideas, and therefore they are all true.

Falsity consists in privation of knowledge, involved in confusion and mutilation of ideas; for instance, because they think themselves to be free; and the also reason for this opinion is that they are conscious of their own actions, and ignorant of the causes determining those actions. Nobody knows what the will is and how it moves to-day. Those who pretend otherwise, and invent locations of the soul, usually excite derision and disgust.

The more things the body possesses in common with other bodies, the more things will the mind be adapted to perceive. The human mind possesses an adequate knowledge of the eternal and infinite essence of God. But the reason why men have not a knowledge of God as clear as that which they have of common notions is that they cannot imagine God as they can imagine bodies, and because they have attached the name of God to the images of things they are accustomed to see. This they can hardly avoid, because they are constantly affected by external bodies. And, indeed, most errors arise from our application of the wrong names to things.

In the mind there is no absolutely free will. The mind is determined to this or that volition by a cause, which is determined by another cause, and so on ad infinitum. The will and intellect are one and the same. We are partakers of the divine nature in proportion as we more and more understand God and conform our actions to His will. Our highest happiness consists in this conformity, by which alone the soul finds repose. Those greatly err from the true estimate of virtue who expect to be rewarded for it, as though virtue and the service of God were not our felicity itself and the highest liberty.

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