Spinoza is another of the great philosophers of the 17th century. Russell lavishes praise on him, calling Spinoza “the most lovable of the great philosophers” and ethically supreme. He was much disliked by theologians in his time for his beliefs, but loved by those who knew him according to Russell.

Aspects of God

Spinoza accepted the philosophical framework of Descartes, but unlike Descartes he was mainly interested in religion and virtue, and is most famous for his work ‘Ethics’. Reminiscent of Parmenides, Spinoza said there is only one substance which is God (Descartes believed there were three substances: God, mind and matter). Things should not be considered as wholly separate entities, but rather as aspects of God. Spinoza shares Descartes’ determinism – everything that happens is a logical necessity and is a result of God’s nature. It is impossible for things to be other than they are. This creates the problem of sin and evil, because if evil is inevitable and part of God’s nature does that mean God is evil? Spinoza replies that things only appear evil when considered in isolation. When everything is seen together it can be seen to be good. If we could see everything as part of a whole as God does (including the future), we would see that any act which appears evil in isolation will ultimately lead to good outcomes.

If all outcomes are determined by logic then they can be deduced. Spinoza’s Ethics is based on the deductive method in the style of Mathematics, where ‘proofs’ are reached from universally accepted principles. He believed that the human mind is capable of fully understanding the nature of God, but that we are distracted from wisdom by our passions (meaning emotions which we don’t have intellectual control over, and for which we don’t understand their place as part of the whole which is God). The desire for self-preservation ultimately governs all human behaviour, but the goal of a wise person will be knowledge of God. Passions such as love and hate arise from intellectually inadequate ideas which lead to conflict. Those who live according to reason will agree together and avoid conflict, and can be happy despite experiencing misfortunes, because they understand that those misfortunes will overall cause good outcomes. Emotions such as hope and fear are based on what happens in the future and are therefore pointless. The future is as set in stone as the past, and there is nothing we can do to alter it. Once we understand ourselves (including our emotions) and how we fit into the whole, we are closer to understanding the nature of God, and therefore understanding everything. Reality is perhaps like a big puzzle. We should not try to understand the pieces of the puzzle individually; we should try to understand how they fit together to make the overall picture, which is God.

It is worth considering at this point the two different conceptions of God which existed within philosophy in the 17th century. The determinists (such as Spinoza and Descartes) said the world is generally good because it is predetermined to be so by God, who is good. Those who favoured free will over determinism believed that although we are free to sin, God ensures the world is generally good by intervening (such as to put his son on earth to teach us how to live) and by providing us with the stick and carrot incentives of heaven and hell. The latter was the orthodox view of God, so much so that Spinoza was accused of atheism, despite putting God at the centre of his philosophy.

The Bigger Picture

Spinoza’s ethics rests on the metaphysics described above – the world is made of a single substance, consisting of parts which cannot exist alone, and the nature of reality is predetermined by logical necessity. This is difficult for a modern reader to accept because we don’t accept that life is completely deterministic, which is why we believe knowledge comes from observation as well as reasoning. Russell discusses whether rejecting Spinoza’s metaphysics means we have to also reject his ethics. Spinoza suggests that we are powerless to alter events due to predetermination, but this shouldn’t stop us living happy and virtuous lives. Even if you don’t accept predetermination, it is obvious that our power to control events is limited. We can’t for example prevent our own death. If Spinoza’s way of thinking helps us overcome the general fear of death then it is useful. How should we feel when others hurt our friends? Most people would say that the Stoic principle to be indifferent to your friends is bad, and impossible. The Christian principle of forgiving your enemies is good, but difficult. Spinoza would agree with the Christian principle, but would also urge you to avoid feelings of sorrow becoming your whole world, and try to see what has happened in the context of a much bigger picture, in which the good outweighs the bad. The belief that good outweighs bad in life can, I think, survive without a belief in determinism, but not without a belief in God. 

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