Philosophy of Spinoza: An introduction

An overview of Spinoza's basic concepts for students



This is an introduction to the philosophy of Benedict Spinoza, the 17th century Dutch rationalist. While Spinoza wrote using a rather intimidating geometrical style, using axioms and proofs, this essay introduces basic concepts underlying Spinoza’s philosophy in ways hopefully easy to grasp. Spinoza was a system builder who addressed major questions in metaphysics: what is good? is there a God? Studying Spinoza’s philosophy can make a person happier, wiser, more powerful, more fulfilled, and is an excellent exercise in thinking, in my view. Topics include: substance; cause-and-effect; Nature and God; emotions; selected propositions; freedom; virtue; politics; criticism.

Note: this is public domain. Feel free to copy it without attribution. It will be improved when time permits. If you feel it’s worthy, add links to websites elsewhere so others can find it too. — tom sulcer August 2010


Spinoza grew up in Amsterdam, Netherlands. (pd)

Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677) (or sometimes Benedict de Spinoza) was a Dutch philosopher descended from Portuguese Jews who had fled the Spanish Inquisition generations earlier. He grew up in a prosperous merchant family in Amsterdam and showed considerable scientific facility at an early age, but his persistent questioning alienated him from the Jewish religious community. Its leaders may have worried that Spinoza’s perceived atheism may have conflicted with religious views in the wider Dutch community, possibly causing a repeat version of the Spanish Inquisition in Holland. Accordingly, Spinoza was outcast from the Jewish community when he was 23 by an act called a cherem, similar to ex-communication in the Catholic religion. But he had long since gravitated away from the Jewish faith and his ostracism didn’t seem to have bothered him much. He lived modestly, read, crafted a brilliant and then-radical rationalist philosophy, meeting occasionally with a tight circle of friends known as the Collegiants, and corresponded regularly with leading scientific thinkers in Europe by letters (many survive today which give further explanations about his thinking.) He never married. His watchword was caute or caution, and he navigated a turbulent intellectual period marked by considerable religious intolerance by keeping a low profile. His life ended prematurely at age 44; most likely, he died from tuberculosis or silicosis caused by inhaling glass dust from grinding lenses (a skill he used to support himself.) His masterwork, Ethics, was published posthumously, and is widely considered to be an important work in western philosophy. His Theological-Political Tractacus was one of the earliest and most influential works of biblical criticism.

Spinoza’s philosophy is systematic, logical, rigorous. It’s a system of ideas built from basic building blocks with an internal logical consistency with which Spinoza tried to answer life’s major questions and in which he proposed that “God exists only philosophically.” He was heavily influenced by thinkers such as Descartes and Euclid and Thomas Hobbes as well as theologians in the Jewish philosophical tradition such as Maimonides, but his work was in many respects a departure from the Judeo-Christian tradition. Many of Spinoza’s ideas continue to vex thinkers today and his principles, particularly regarding the emotions, have implications for modern approaches to psychology. Even top thinkers have found Spinoza’s “geometrical method” difficult to comprehend. Part of the problem was that Spinoza used language in an exacting, scientific way, approaching key terms like the distinction between action and passion in a way most people don’t understand. Goethe admitted that he “could not really understand what Spinoza was on about most of the time.” A key, then, to understanding Spinoza is to grasp the underlying concepts (which this essay tries to help readers with.) Still, the Ethics, with its forbidding mathematical structure, contains unresolved obscurities which continue to beguile philosophers to this day. But it has had a huge and continuing impact on Western philosophy and has influenced countless thinkers, including physicist Albert Einstein. Spinoza’s philosophy continues to intrigue scholars as well as affect new developments in science, particularly in areas such as psychology.

Imagine writing a dictionary from scratch, starting with definitions of the word the and perhaps and, and using rules to build an entire vocabulary from basic principles so that all the words in the dictionary were generated by a common logic. But instead of merely writing a dictionary of meanings of words, the effort is to figure out the underlying rules of the universe by using logic from basic premises to figure out its basic structure. Such is Spinoza’s philosophy. It builds on itself like a metaphysical version of math. Descartes and Euclid built geometry from basic starting points or axioms, and used them to deduce more complex theorems. The idea was to use rules logically and reliably, so that (as Descartes advised) “if one follows them exactly, one will never take what is false to be true or fruitlessly expend one’s mental efforts, but will gradually and constantly increase one’s knowledge until one arrives at a true understanding of everything within one’s capacity.” The end result, hopefully, is an explanation of the world which is hopefully internally logical, consistent, and systematic. It allows answers to life’s seemingly unanswerable questions.

Note: This essay introduces core concepts in Spinoza’s thinking in an easy-to-understand overview of his philosophy. Readers interested in exploring further are urged to alternate between (1) explanations of his philosophy by thinkers such as Henry Allison who wrote Benedict de Spinoza: An Introduction (2002) or Edwin M. Curley’s The Collected Works of Spinoza (1985) and (2) Spinoza himself (refer to excellent translations by Samuel Shirley or Edwin M. Curley — the Elwes version is somewhat out of date). It’s difficult, but worth it. The effort will make you into a lover of philosophy for life.

Basic Concepts

Substance and cause-and-effect

A major building block of Spinoza’s philosophy is the concept of substance. The term comes from that which stands underneath. Spinoza wrote:

By substance I mean that which is in itself, and is conceived through itself.

Substance, for Spinoza, is something which exists in itself. It doesn’t depend on anything else. It exists. It doesn’t need anything else to exist. It’s just there.

A second basic building block is the idea of cause-and-effect. This is the idea that causes cause effects. He wrote:

From a given definite cause an effect necessarily follows; and, on the other hand, if no definite cause be granted, it is impossible that an effect can follow.

No cause? Then no effect happens. No effect? Then there was no cause. For Spinoza, the world is a giant cause-and-effect relationship like a giant billiards table. A ball in motion hits a second ball, and the second ball moves as a result. The first ball causes the movement of the second. And the second one moving is the effect of being struck by the first. If the second didn’t move, then it didn’t get bumped by the first. The cause-and-effect relation is fundamental to Spinoza’s philosophy.[1]

Is the giant rock in Colorado substance? It is large and hard and
 precariously perched. Photo: EvanS ccsa3.0.

Spinoza, then, took these two basic ideas: substance and causation, and put them together to build bigger conclusions. If substance is what exists in itself and if the world is characterized by cause-and-effect relations, then is the rock substance? It exists. It’s hard. It’s huge. It’s there. But suppose the two people in the picture got a lever and pushed it over, then the rock might tumble and break into bits.

Spinoza argued that since the people in the picture could push the rock, possibly smashing it, the rock wouldn’t exist in itself. Rather, the rock’s existence depended on what the two people did or didn’t do. So, the rock, by itself, wasn’t enough to fully explain things. The two people were part of the explanation. One couldn’t explain the idea of the rock without explaining other things that might influence the rock, such as the people.

Hurricane Rita on a NEXRAD radar. Courtesy: NOAA.

Spinoza thought the two people and the rock could be moved by other forces, such as a hurricane which might blow people away from the rock or a meteor which might tumble from the sky and squish them. These things could happen. For Spinoza, it didn’t make sense to try to explain the rock-as-substance without trying to explain things which might affect the rock, such as people, hurricanes, or meteors. That is, the rock, by itself, wasn’t all there was to the concept of ”substance”, but substance was bigger.

It’s possible to work outwards, past the earth, past the solar system, past the universe, to the edge of the everything, and reason that since everything in the universe could possibly affect the rock, that it was all one substance.

Spinoza argued that there was only one substance. He wrote: “There cannot exist in the universe two or more substances having the same nature or attribute.” The rock wasn’t one substance; and the persons weren’t a second separate substance. Rather, the rock and the people could affect each other. The people could smash the rock. And rock could tumble on the people. Therefore, the rock and people were part of the same substance. Spinoza reasoned everything in the universe was essentially one substance.

Suppose, then, there is only one substance called the universe. Is it possible for a supernatural being called God to exist outside this universe, but still be able to manipulate things inside the universe? By Spinoza’s own reckoning, this wasn’t possible. If there were two separate substances, one substance called the universe and a second substance called God, then, because they were separate, the substance called God would be unable to reach in and change things in the substance called the universe. If God could reach inside the universe and make changes, then they weren’t separate, and this was a contradiction which wasn’t logically consistent with his earlier hypotheses. Rather, God and the universe would be the same substance. God causing things like a hurricane meant that God was part of the universe, in Spinoza’s view. Accordingly, Spinoza concluded that God and the universe were not separate substances, but that ”God and the universe were the same substance”.

Building from this logic, Spinoza concluded that substance necessarily exists. It can’t be made by anything else. Substance can’t be born, live, and die. Rather, substance must exist always. If substance behaved like a human or a finite thing then there would be logical problems with the understanding of substance as well as cause-and-effect.

One can think this way. Suppose it’s true that you can’t create something out of nothing. Suppose this is a natural law. If there’s nothing, you can’t wave a magic wand and whoosh — there’s something. That’s impossible. Think of the universe. Was there a time when there was nothing? And then whoosh — something? This doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t make sense that there’s some entity called God who can pull off this kind of magic. It would be as if God was breaking His own law.

This thinking is expressed scientifically in concepts such as the conservation of matter or the conservation of energy. The rock can be broken into bits, toppled by gravity, hammered into sand, melted, and converted into energy, but it’s impossible to make anything totally disappear in a closed system. It will always be there in some form or shape. In Spinoza’s world, there are no magicians who can make a rabbit spontaneously appear out of a hat, or disappear totally in a poof of smoke.

The distant cluster of galaxies. Spinoza thought the universe
extended outwards, infinitely. Photo: ESO ccsa3.0.

Substance, then, is described as self-caused. It causes itself. It isn’t caused by anything else, otherwise it wouldn’t be a true substance. Following through with this logic, since substance can’t have been born, and can’t die, then as a result, the universe has always been here. There was no moment when the universe was created, according to Spinoza’s logic. And there won’t ever come a time when it disappears. Spinoza would wonder what happened before the Big Bang and argue that it wasn’t merely nothingness, but somethingness. Time extends forever, infinitely, backwards and forwards, in the Spinozistic conception so there never was a beginning moment, and there never will be a final moment. Further, the universe extends infinitely outwards into space; there is no boundary, ever. It keeps going and going and going forever. Spinoza wrote: “Every substance is necessarily infinite.”

According to Spinoza, as humans, we’re born, we live, we die. We live in houses with walls. We think in terms of finite existence, and it’s difficult for us to imagine the universe extending forever in space and time, or to imagine a house without walls. We think like humans: we imagine our finite human born-live-die framework applies to the universe as if it too, is a human, but it’s different.

Things and ideas

There’s the universe. And there’s the idea of the universe. The physical universe is a solid thing with mass and form and shape and energy which exists in what philosophers sometimes call extension; in addition, there’s the idea of extension of what philosophers sometimes call Thought. Spinoza considered that both extension and thought were two attributes of everything, of the universe, of God, which humans were able to perceive, since we can sense things physically and we can think about thinking. But Spinoza thought there were not just two attributes of extension and thought, but infinitely many attributes, although humans can’t conceive what the third, fourth, or any other attributes are. Were the attributes of extension and thought separate substances? No, wrote Spinoza; rather, extension and thought were both attributes of one single solitary infinite indivisible substance.

Hopetoun Falls, Victoria, Australia.
Photo: Diliff / Zanaq ccsa3.0

From his reasoning, Spinoza establishes that God is the ”only” substance in the universe, or in Nature, or in the world. Spinoza wrote: “Whatsoever is, is in God, and without God nothing can be, or be conceived.” But philosophers today debate the meaning of this phrase; some think that Spinoza meant that God was a supernatural element within Nature, existing possibly like water inside a sponge, while others think Spinoza thought that God and Nature were exactly the same thing, like a wet sponge.

Necessity and determinism

Now, building further, Spinoza argued that if God is all there is, and causes-cause-effects, then God causes everything. If a cause happens, the effect must follow, and by this logic Spinoza comes to the conclusion that everything is determined. It is of the nature of reason to “regard things as necessary, not as contingent,” he wrote. [2] Imagine the universe or nature like a giant billiards table with balls bumping other balls. Imagine, further, that there is no God separate from the table with a cue stick causing things to happen, but rather that God is within the billiards table itself and causes everything to happen. When things happen, they have to happen in a particular way and couldn’t have happened otherwise. This includes not only things happening, but the ideas-of-things happening. According to Spinoza, it was fated to happen that you would be sitting where you are right now, at this time, reading this article on Google Knol, and thinking what you’re thinking right now. It couldn’t have happened otherwise. It was destiny. Surprisingly, Spinoza did believe in free will but in a different sense which will be explained later.

Spinoza thought of specific things such as humans and rocks and billiard balls as finite things or what he called modes. Particular things exist with a limited extension and duration; finite modes “come into being at a certain point in time and cease to exist at a certain point in time.” Finite things can be born, live and die. In extension, they’re bodies or things. In thought, they’re minds or ideas. Particular things are part of nature or the universe or God. And there are infinitely many bodies and ideas as well as possible bodies and ideas. Particular things and ideas are in God, but they’re not the same thing as God. But particular things exist in long chains of cause-and-effect. Spinoza wrote:

Every singular thing, or any thing which is finite and has a determinate existence, can neither exist nor be determined to produce an effect unless it is determined to exist and produce an effect by another cause, which is also finite and has a determinate existence; and again, this cause also can neither exist nor be determined to produce an effect unless it is determined to exist and produce an effect by another, which is also finite and has a determined existence, and so on, to infinity.

Billiards table.
 Photo: SMcCandlish. ccsa3.0

Each billiard ball in the infinitely large billiards table called the universe bounces as a result of infinitely many causes-and-effects ricochets. The universe has particular things in it such as creatures and rocks and planets and meteors and dust storms and waterfalls and humans, and has ideas of these things, but they exist temporarily with a finite duration in time and place. All this stuff, nevertheless, is part of the eternal and infinite universe.

God is in charge in the sense that there isn’t another being or substance interfering; but God is a free cause, in his view. Nothing pushes God around. Nothing forces God to do this or that. There is no supernatural drill sergeant other than God. Spinoza sees true freedom and being the first cause as essentially the same thing. Spinoza didn’t think supernatural events were possible which violated natural law. So-called miracles such as Moses parting the waters of the Red Sea or Jesus raising dead people back to life were impossible, in Spinoza’s view. Instead, he saw miracles as events which humans didn’t fully understand but which could have been explained with rational causes. For Spinoza, the ability of the Israelites to cross the Red Sea had another explanation which was rational and which agreed with natural laws, but humans don’t know what it is.

There has been philosophical debate about whether Spinoza was a pantheist or atheist. But clearly Spinoza’s God is different from a Judeo-Christian conception of a transcendent Being distinct from the world who is an all-knowing, sometimes benevolent and sometimes wrathful judge. Spinoza argues that God doesn’t have some purpose for mankind which is rewarded if people work towards this goal, or punished if they don’t. There is no teleology.

The doctrine of parallelism

How do things and thoughts interrelate? Spinoza thought there was a one-to-one correspondence between things and the ideas of these things. So, there is a relation between a rock and the idea of that rock. But Spinoza goes further. He wrote:

The order and connection of ideas is the same as the order and connection of things.

Let me illustrate.

A hurled rock can break this stained glass window.
Artisans: Heinrich Helmle (1829-1909) Albert Merzweiler
(1844-1906) with Eugen Börner and the painter Hugo Huber.
Photo: James Steakley ccsa3.0

Suppose there is a rock. Suppose, further, there is a window. The relation between these things is: a hurled rock can break a window. But Spinoza says this relation can correspond to an order of thought: that the idea of a hurled rock can lead logically to the idea of a broken window. It’s called the doctrine of parallelism. Ordered stuff in the world of substance can be expressed as extension or as thought, and the two orders parallel each other. It’s like both extension and thought are one and the same thing, but expressed in two different ways.

One important caveat is that thoughts don’t cause physical events, in and of themselves. For example, the thought “I’m going to throw that rock through that window,” in itself, doesn’t break the window. It’s just a thought. But what can break the window? In a person’s mind, there may be a physical alignment of electrons and nerve memories which forms the impulse to motivate a person to pick up a rock and hurl it at a window, that is, these electrons are physical real-world entities. This physical alignment of electrons can cause the physical event of a broken window. The doctrine of parallelism says that there is a correspondence between the thought of hurling a rock at a window and the extension principle of a physical alignment of electrons in the brain about such an activity. Thoughts, essentially, can cause other thoughts; physical events, as well, can cause other physical events. But thoughts can’t cause physical events, and physical events can’t cause thoughts.

This leads to Spinoza’s answer to the famous mind-body problem. How can an ethereal nebulous fog-like can’t-be-touched thought cause something physical and tangible and can-be-touched thing like a human arm to lift? How can a thought cause a thing to move? This puzzle has bothered philosophers throughout history. Descartes suspected that there was an area in the brain called the pineal gland in which thoughts and actions affected each other, but Descartes never specified how this happened. Spinoza disagreed. Spinoza said the “thought of lifting an arm” and “lifting an arm” were two different ways of expressing the same thing. The physical alignment of electrons guides the human to raise an arm; the electrons move, signals are sent from the brain to the arm, the arm lifts. It’s the physical alignment of electrons which causes the physical arm to move. And, by the parallel doctrine, it’s possible have the thought of “let’s lift the arm” causing the thought of “the arm is lifted” to happen. It’s two different ways of expressing the same thing: lifting the arm.

Spinoza wrote: “The body cannot determine the mind to thinking, and the mind cannot determine the body to motion, to rest, or to anything else (if there is anything else).”[3]

Human brain. ccsa3.0

So, what is a human mind? Spinoza says it’s the “idea of a particular body.” A human mind is one of infinitely many ideas that make up the “infinite intellect of God.” When a human body exists, the human mind exists too. And in the same way that billiard balls are connected to other billiard balls, which are in turn connected to the walls of the billiards table, to the room that the billiards table is in, connected to the outdoors, to the planet Earth, to the solar system and universe, and to all physical things everywhere — in the same way — the ideas in the human mind are connected to other ideas, which are in turn connected to other ideas, connected to infinitely other ideas that form the “infinite intellect of God.”

Why are humans smarter than rocks? Or animals? Or beavers? Spinoza explained:

“The human mind is capable of perceiving a great number of things, and is so in proportion as its body is capable of receiving a great number of impressions. The idea, which constitutes the actual being of the human mind, is not simple, but compounded of a great number of ideas.”

But, according to Spinoza, all minds are not alike. Minds vary; so do things. Some minds have more complexity and excellence and power. Others don’t. Bodies can have different shapes, sizes, divisibility and motion and rest. Things don’t move unless they’re determined to move by something else; once moving, they keep moving until stopped by something else. This is an essential proposition of physics which Spinoza agreed with. So, what distinguishes one body from another is the varying proportions of motion and rest, speed and slowness. Spinoza thought there was a “certain fixed manner” in which bodies communicate their motions to each other; Spinoza called it the ratio of motion and rest. A body gets its integrity and individuality by having its parts relate to each other in the same general way. Human bodies are extraordinarily complex. They can act on other bodies, and be acted on by other bodies, in countless ways.

Is there life after death? Spinoza thought there wasn’t. Descartes thought that a soul, being a mental state separate from the physical body, could survive bodily death; but Spinoza, who thought that the mind and the body were different ways of conceiving the same thing, would disagree. When the body dies, the mind dies too.

When the body feels good, the mind feels pleasure; when the body is injured, the mind feels pain. A single idea can be complex, composed of a great many smaller ideas, in the same way that the human body is made of a great number of smaller bodily parts. We may not necessarily be aware of all bodily events, but conscious of only a few things. It’s possible to perceive external things too.

Swiss singer Francine Jordi in Vienna.
Photo: Manfred Werner – ccsa3.0

Further, a body can perceive not only itself, but external things like Swiss singer Francine Jordi. The mind immediately focuses on the body, and things that affect the body can help the mind perceive external bodies. The mind only perceives external objects when they affect the body. So, the human eye sees the singer holding a microphone, and this image enters the eyes and causes a change in the human body, and, as a result, there’s some sense of the external object as well as an idea about this external body.

But this information is limited. Spinoza thought that our ideas of external bodies indicated the condition of our own bodies more than the nature of the external bodies. So our information about the Swiss singer is imperfect, limited, a guess which is partial and relative information.

Spinoza thought that ideas involve mental activity; they weren’t static pictures in the mind or image-objects. Every thought required some activity of the mind. To have an idea of a red ball ”requires thinking” that the ball is red.

Inadequate idea of circle. The
triangle is irrelevant to the
definition of a circle.

Ideas are ”true” if there’s an extrinsic relation between the idea and its object, that is, if the idea represents it as being. Spinoza calls this “the agreement of the idea with its object”. A false idea doesn’t have this relation. So the difference between a ”true idea” and a ”false idea” doesn’t depend on the content of the idea itself, but only whether it faithfully represents this correspondence. Spinoza wrote:

Falsity consists in the privation of knowledge which inadequate, or mutilated and confused, ideas involve.[4]

So, in a sense, all ideas in the infinite intellect of God are true, because all ideas relate to ”something”; but all ideas in the human mind, however, are not necessarily true. Humans can be confused or have mutilated ideas.

Spinoza felt that when we have an idea in our head which “encompasses perfect and complete knowledge of its object,” that is, the idea has all of the same properties that the real thing has, then the idea was ”adequate” and was a reliable marker of truth. For example, the adequate idea of a circle is one in which we have all of the properties that characterize a circle, that is, all the radii are the same distance from a center point.

Adequate idea. The efficient cause
of a circle includes a center point
with same-length radii extending
 outwards in a flat plane.

Adequacy of ideas is bound up with causal understanding. Spinoza wrote to Tschirnhaus: “…the idea or definition of the thing should express its efficient cause.” So, the adequate truthful definition of a circle is all radii equally distant from a center point and not extra irrelevant junk like the triangle inside the circle (see diagram), or the circle’s thickness which constitute “inadequate ideas” which are “mutilated” and “confused.” Inadequacy is ignorance or missing knowledge like “conclusions without premises.” When we don’t fully understand the causes behind an idea, we make mistakes about whether the ideas are necessary or contingent.

True ideas agree with their object; adequate ones agree with the “nature of the idea in itself.” So there’s some overlap between a true idea and an adequate idea. But since God is “infinite intellect,” all of God’s ideas are adequate. But the human mind, in contrast with God’s mind, can not hold infinite ideas and causes. The best humans can hope for is partial knowledge. We can’t know the infinite series of chains of cause-and-effect ideas leading up to why something happened; only God can know this. However, we can get an adequate idea of a few of the proximate causes of a specific event, and in that way, build on those adequate ideas to create other adequate ideas, and in this way, we can understand some things to a limited extent. Adequate ideas follow from other adequate ideas; knowledge of a triangle can follow from knowledge from geometry. But generally, according to Spinoza, we don’t know most things adequately. When things affect us, we’re aware of how we’re affected, but we’re generally ignorant of the causes of these impressions. We focus on drinking a cool glass of water but don’t usually understand details about how the water sustains our body’s existence. Our minds are sensory reflections of what our bodies feel.

Spinoza felt that the best form of knowledge is to know things by the logical principles of Thought. This knowledge mirrors the cause-and-effect principles which apply to the physical world. While most things that affect people are random and haphazard, there are some things which it’s possible for people to understand adequately to begin with, such as common notions such as shape, size, divisibility, and mobility. These things are the first chances for the mind to have certain ideas that are determined internally from its own resources rather than from random experience. And, it’s possible to build other adequate ideas from these initial adequate ones.

What Spinoza thought was best for people was to have longer and longer chains in their minds of adequate ideas, that is, ideas which corresponded accurately with reality, and as much as possible, to have these logically connected correct ideas direct human action. Such a person is ”active” and not ”passive”, and has a measure of power over his or her life to get things needed, to make good decisions, to survive and prosper. When the mind grasps an idea entirely, adequately, then the mind is active; but if the idea is partially caused by some external source, then the idea is polluted and the mind is passive. An individual actively passively is really re-acting not acting.

Still, even though a human uses his or her mind actively, not passively, from the point of view of Nature or God, this person doesn’t have free will, since everything that happens to him or her had to happen of necessity; but, from the point of view of the individual human, he or she can strive to get a greater power to manipulate things for his or her own advantage.

The Emotions

Spinoza thinks of human emotions as natural phenomena like windstorms or sunspots. He’s going to study them geometrically, logically, like everything else. He wrote:

“I shall treat the nature and powers of the Affects, and the power of the Mind over them, by the same Method by which, in the preceding parts, I treated God and the Mind, and I shall consider human actions and appetites just as if it were a Question of lines, planes, and bodies.”[5]

What are emotions? They happen when external events affect us, and when we have confused ideas about these events. In his view, emotions reflect a “passivity of the soul.” The body’s power is increased or diminished. Emotions are bodily changes plus ideas about these changes which can help or hurt a human. When the bodily changes are caused primarily by external forces or by a mix of external and internal forces, the person is passive.

The key is understanding Spinoza’s senses of the word action and passion as opposites, in the same way that active is the opposite of passive. Spinoza describes what he meant by active and passive:

“We act … when something happens, in us or outside us, of which we are the adequate cause … On the other hand … we are acted on when something happens in us, or something follows from our own nature of which we are only a partial cause.”[6]

When we are an adequate cause, Spinoza means that, from the cause alone, we can clearly and distinctly  perceive its effect. We do something. By doing that something, we know exactly what the effect will be. Nothing else influences the effect. There are no extraneous variables influencing things. We are the sole mover and shaker. What we did meant that the “effect can be clearly and distinctly perceived through (the cause)”,[6] This is good. We’re being active. But when we’re influenced by outside things or random events or erratic stimuli such that other factors are a partial cause of something, then we’re being passive, emotional, affected by external things, and this may or not may be good. For example, a baby, seeing an unfamiliar face, may begin crying; the baby is not the adequate cause of the crying but is responding to external events; the baby is being passive, emotional.

It’s much better for a person, himself or herself, to cause the bodily changes, and when this happens the person is active, and Spinoza describes the ideas as adequate. Spinoza defines each emotion in simple terms, based on the cause-and-effect ideas in his logical system. The emotions can be grouped generally into ones which causing either pleasure or pain, and all spring from what he calls desire.

Definitions of emotions

At a point in the Ethics, Spinoza describes different emotions and tries to order them into a logical system. The underpinning emotion, he believes, is desire which is the actual essence of man. It’s the granddaddy emotion of them all. Next, emotions fall under one of two basic themes:

  • Pleasure is “that passion by which the Mind passes to a greater perfection.”[7]
Week-end pleasures. Photo: Lilie Melo ccsa2.0

  • Pain (or sorrow) is “that passion by which the Mind passes to a lesser perfection.”.[7]

Pleasure and pain result from an individual’s interaction with the environment, and the source of the pleasure or pain lies in the transition itself, not the end state at which one arrives.[7] And like later utilitarian philosophers such as Jeremy Bentham, Spinoza groups emotions as either pleasurable or painful. Spinoza presents a taxonomy of emotions which are combinations or derivatives of pleasure and pain and desire, but directed to differing objects or persons which exist at different times (past, present, future.)[8] There isn’t space here to cover all of Spinoza’s cataloging of the emotions or delve into particular explanations of each, but here are some of his definitions will give a sense of how he approaches them:

  • Love is pleasure, accompanied by the idea of an external cause. Note (comment by tws): Suppose we love chocolate. It’s pleasure linked to the idea that the chocolate is the cause of our pleasure. It’s a passion. We strive to possess and keep things we love.

  • Hatred is pain, accompanied by the idea of an external cause.

  • Devotion is love towards one whom we admire.

  • Hope is “an inconstant pleasure which has arisen from the image of a future or past thing whose outcome we doubt.”[8]

  • Fear is “an inconstant pain which has also arisen from the image of a doubtful thing.”[8]

  • Confidence is pleasure arising from the idea of something past or future, wherefrom all cause of doubt has been removed.

  • Despair is pain arising from the idea of something past or future, wherefrom all cause of doubt has been removed.

  • Partiality is thinking too highly of anyone because of the love we bear him.

  • Disparagement is thinking too meanly of anyone, because we hate him.

  • Envy is hatred, in so far as it induces a man to be pained by another’s good fortune, and to rejoice in another’s evil fortune.

  • Sympathy (misericordia) is love, in so far as it induces a man to feel pleasure at another’s good fortune, and pain at another’s evil fortune.

  • Self-approval is pleasure arising from a man’s contemplation of himself and his own power of action.

  • Humility is pain arising from a man’s contemplation of his own weakness of body or mind.

  • Pride is thinking too highly of one’s self from self-love.

  • Honour (gloria) is pleasure accompanied by the idea of some action of our own, which we believe to be praised by others.

  • Shame is pain accompanied by the idea of some action of our own, which we believe to be blamed by others.

  • Benevolence is the desire of benefiting one whom we pity.

  • Revenge is the desire whereby we are induced, through mutual hatred, to injure one who, with similar feelings, has injured us.

  • Julius Caesar had excessive
    ambition; he was assassinated.
    Sculpture: Nicolas Coustou.
    Photo: Jastrow/Ssolbergj (pd)

    Timidity is the desire to avoid a greater evil, which we dread, by undergoing a lesser evil.

  • Daring is the desire, whereby a man is set on to do something dangerous which his equals fear to attempt.

  • Consternation is attributed to one, whose desire of avoiding evil is checked by amazement at the evil which he fears.

  • Ambition is the immoderate desire of power.

  • Luxury is excessive desire, or even love of living sumptuously.

  • Intemperance is the excessive desire and love of drinking.

  • Avarice is the excessive desire and love of riches.

  • Lust is desire and love in the matter of sexual intercourse.

Note: this is only a selected list of emotions. For the complete list, see the Ethics.

Spinoza suggests that the interaction of people with emotions, and objects which affect people, must follow universal and necessary laws. One of these is the “law of the association of the emotions” which says that a neutral object which has never been a cause of pleasure or pain or desire can become such a cause by an association based on “similarity, contrast, or contiguity.”[9] So if a person loves chocolate, he or she is likely to love chocolate ice cream too. Another law is the “law of the imitation of the emotions” which asserts that a neutral object can become a cause of pleasure or pain or desire in a particular person if other people have a charged reaction to the object. This is the basis of emotions such as sympathy and pity.[9]

Spinoza didn’t think highly of the Christian virtue of humility. And love could happen between a man and a woman such as romance or between a person and a bar of chocolate.

Propositions about emotions

Spinoza then linked his study of emotions into a series of propositions about how they related to human problems and play out in the human mind and in interactions between people and between persons and nature. Some ideas have been expressed in modern sciences such as psychology with its use of notions such as the principle of association and form the basis for theories such as cognitive dissonance. These propositions have a wide array of uses; for example, it can explain why powerful emotions such as extreme love can switch over to extreme hate. There isn’t space to cover these propositions in depth, but a few will be discussed.

  • I. Our mind is in certain cases active, and in certain cases passive. In so far as it has adequate ideas it is necessarily active, and in so far as it has inadequate ideas, it is necessarily passive. Note (ie tws comment): Spinoza says that human mental activity varies from activity which is good, to passivity which is bad.

  • IV. Nothing can be destroyed, except by a cause external to itself. Note: Spinoza is talking about finite things or modes. For example, the rock can’t destroy itself, but it can be smashed by a hurricane.

  • VII. The endeavour, wherewith everything endeavours to persist in its own being, is nothing else but the actual essence of the thing in question. Note: Spinoza sees this as a basic principle of living things including humans; what characterizes us is our drive to stay alive.

We can love many things, including people as well
as ice cream. Photo: Lotus Head ccsa3.0
  • XIV. If the mind has once been affected by two emotions at the same time, it will, whenever it is afterwards affected by one of the two, be also affected by the other. Note: This principle has been established in modern psychology experiments when an animal is fed at the same time as another stimulus is given (such as ringing a bell); after a while, merely ringing the bell (without the food) will cause a dog, perhaps, to salivate.

  • XV. Anything can, accidentally, be the cause of pleasure, pain, or desire. Note: For example, if we associate in our minds smelling a certain flower with our first kiss, perhaps, then, the floral odor by itself can become an accidental cause of our pleasure.

  • XXVII. By the very fact that we conceive a thing, which is like ourselves, and which we have not regarded with any emotion, to be affected with any emotion, we are ourselves affected with a like emotion (affectus). Note: Accordingly, we tend to respond positively to things which we think are like ourselves.

  • XXXV. If anyone conceives, that an object of his love joins itself to another with closer bonds of friendship than he himself has attained to, he will be affected with hatred towards the loved object and with envy towards his rival.

Love is a powerful emotion. Artwork: Kait Jarbeau ccsa2.0
  • XXXVIII. If a man has begun to hate an object of his love, so that love is thoroughly destroyed, he will, causes being equal, regard it with more hatred than if he had never loved it, and his hatred will be in proportion to the strength of his former love. Note: Examples of this tendency abound in tales of spurned lovers which reveal how warm love, when it sours, can revert to even hotter hate.

  • XLI. If anyone conceives that he is loved by another, and believes that he has given no cause for such love, he will love that other in return. Note: This is one of the bases of Christian religion; by loving others unconditionally, it’s possible to cause them to love you back.

  • XLIII. Hatred is increased by being reciprocated, and can on the other hand be destroyed by love.

Thinking isn’t necessarily active when it is caused by external events in random fashion with no correspondence to reality. But when a person links adequate ideas in orderly fashion, then it can lead to greater freedom, virtue, and blessedness, according to Spinoza.

For a complete list of these propositions, see a translation of the Ethics by Samuel Shirley.

The Thinker, by Rodin. Photo: Karora. (pd)

Hierarchy of knowledge

Spinoza has a three-stage hierarachy of knowledge:

  1. Confused sense impressions without ordering by the intellect. It’s knowledge from random experience. We don’t understand what’s happening, like walking on a city street and hearing a horn blast somewhere; we don’t know what it means.
  2. Knowledge from common notions and adequate ideas of the properties of things; knowing that a thing happens by necessity, but not how it happens. We know when we’re thirsty, we should drink; but we can’t specify how the water is used in our body’s metabolism, for example.
  3. Best knowledge; logically true, adequate ideas; ideas of things in their proper causal contexts. This is scientific knowledge. It’s clear understanding. It’s like knowing that the two other angles in a right triangle add up to 90 degrees, and knowing why this happens. Overall, however, since Spinoza did not elaborate much about the three categories of knowledge, there is debate among scholars about what Spinoza meant precisely by these three categories.

Freedom of the will

Can a person freely choose chocolate mousse or vanilla cream pie? People are aware of ideas in their heads as well as their drives and hungers, and with this awareness, people think that they freely choose to do things.

Chocolate mousse.
Photo: Rexipe Rexipe. ccsa2.0

A person can feel hungry for chocolate mousse and not be aware of how exposure to an advertisement in a magazine the other day helped incite this craving; and there are many other factors which have caused this craving.

But this sense of freedom is false, according to Spinoza, since in a world in which everything is determined, in which billiard balls are bouncing against other billiard balls, and in which ideas of billiard balls are bouncing against the ideas of other billiard balls, then particular choices such as chocolate mousse are fated in advance. There are many factors steering our choices which we’re usually not aware of. It’s impossible to choose vanilla cream pie. We choose chocolate mousse by an act of independent uncaused will. It’s the ”only” possibility, since everything we do is determined by Nature, by other finite modes, according to Spinoza. Spinoza thought that we confuse our volition for free will and that we fail to understand the myriads of forces which caused us to want to choose the mousse. For example, a baby thinks that it freely desires to drink milk. Spinoza doesn’t think there is some part of humans called the ”free will”. Desires, wants, volitions — these are all ideas in our heads which are themselves determined logically by other ideas.

The Passions

Humans are emotional beings, in Spinoza’s view, and the emotions are bonds of enslavement. Spinoza wrote:

Human infirmity in moderating and checking the emotions I name bondage: for, when a man is a prey to his emotions, he is not his own master, but lies at the mercy of fortune: so much so, that he is often compelled, while seeing that which is better for him, to follow that which is worse.

A person may know intellectually that smoking
is harmful but be unable to stop; they’re over-
powered by emotions.
Painting: Girl smoking. Muhammad Qasim,
17th century. (pd)

For example, a person may know intellectually that smoking causes cancer, yet be unable to quit smoking. An overweight person may know intellectually their body doesn’t need a second chocolate mousse, but he or she eats it anyway. Emotions are powerful forces. Merely knowing what’s right isn’t enough to overpower them.

Spinoza wrote:

“Experience … teaches all too plainly that men have nothing less in their power than their tongue, and can do nothing less than moderate their appetites.”[10]

So, how can a person triumph over powerful emotions? To answer this, Spinoza first explored issues such as goodness and perfection.

People judge whether something is perfect based on guesses about their supposed purpose; how well does it fit a specific purpose? A house is perfect if it keeps out rain. But Spinoza insists nature does not act with any end in view and therefore there are no purposes. So, it’s hard for humans to judge a thunderstorm as perfect or imperfect because people have no sense about the purpose of this rainstorm.

Accordingly, words like good and bad don’t describe a quality inside a thing. There’s no such thing as a good chair, for example, but a chair is good only to the extent that it fits our purpose for sitting. Spinoza wrote: “music is good for him that is melancholy, bad for him that mourns; for him that is deaf, it is neither good nor bad.” Good is what’s useful to us; evil is what hinders us. Good things allow us to affect other things, or be affected by other things, in ways which help us. Should we move to a smaller city like Scranton, Pennsylvania or a larger city like New York? Spinoza would choose New York, if all other aspects of the choice were equal, because a larger city permits more chances for us to affect things and be affected by things, such as career possibilities, job choices, people, music, magazines, and so forth.

Spinoza saw emotions as being powerful; reason, in contrast, has limited power. A false idea is not removed merely by the presence of a true one. For example, Spinoza wrote that the sun appears as if it’s about two hundred feet away, and even though we know that its millions of miles away, it still appears to us to be two hundred feet away. But we can still overcome mistaken ideas but it requires higher order thinking processes.

Bondage and freedom and blessedness

We can have conflicting emotions in which we’re drawn in different directions. Spinoza offered further propositions dealing with emotions and bondage and freedom and blessedness. Again, there isn’t space to cover these in depth and only selected ones will be mentioned briefly, but it is recommended that readers investigate them further by reading the Ethics.

  • III. The force whereby a man persists in existing is limited, and is infinitely surpassed by the power of external causes. Note (comment by tws): as finite modes, individual humans can live only a short time; sooner or later, humans die in the sense of being overpowered by external causes.
  • VI. The force of any passion or emotion can overcome the rest of a man’s activities or power, so that the emotion becomes obstinately fixed to him. Note: This explains how some people can be overcome by a raging emotion and be unable to get themselves under control until a certain period of time has elapsed.
  • VII. An emotion can only be controlled or destroyed by another emotion contrary thereto, and with more power for controlling emotion. Note: This is a key for how humans can achieve a measure of control over the emotions (as will be explained later.)

  • People can fall prey to their emotions and be
    burdensome to each other.
    Painting: Paolo Veronese; title: Martyrdom of
    Saint George. (pd)

    XXXII. In so far as men are a prey to passion, they cannot, in that respect, be said to be naturally in harmony.

  • XXXVIII. Whatsoever disposes the human body, so as to render it capable of being affected in an increased number of ways, or of affecting external bodies in an increased number of ways, is useful to man; and is so, in proportion as the body is thereby rendered more capable of being affected or affecting other bodies in an increased number of ways; contrariwise, whatsoever renders the body less capable in this respect is hurtful to man. Note: Accordingly, a glass of milk is good for a human (usually) if it helps a person be affected in an increased number of ways (since it gives the human more energy.)

  • XLIV. Love and desire may be excessive.

  • XLV. Hatred can never be good.

  •  XLVI. He, who lives under the guidance of reason, endeavours, as far as possible, to render back love, or kindness, for other men’s hatred, anger, contempt, &c., towards him.

  • XLVII. Emotions of hope and fear cannot be in themselves good.

  • LIII. Humility is not a virtue, or does not arise from reason.

  • LIV. Repentance is not a virtue, or does not arise from reason; but he who repents of an action is doubly wretched or infirm.

  • We may, under the guidance of reason, seek a greater good in the future in preference to a lesser good in the present, and we may seek- a lesser evil in the present in preference to a greater evil in the future. — Note: This is in strong agreement with the Aristotelian version of virtue, that is, virtue is doing the right thing over time. For example, a virtuous man knows not to eat too much since he can balance the future cost tomorrow of being overweight against the present benefit of eating food today. His mind conceives the activity of eating under the dictates of reason. In less virtuous persons, another man might not be able to weigh the future downside of obesity against the present upside of food pleasure; the calculus is distorted to the present, and he overeats. He’s not conceiving the activity of eating under the dictates of reason.

  • LXVII. A free man thinks of death least of all things; and his wisdom is a meditation not of death but of life. Note: Spinoza feels that mentally healthy people don’t spend excessive amounts of their lives worrying about death, but rather, they focus on enjoying living. (If interested, see my other article: Mentally healthy mind.)

  • LXX. The free man, who lives among the ignorant, strives, as far as he can, to avoid receiving favours from them. Note: on this last point, Spinoza followed his own advice. He was a free man living among the ignorant and his whole life was spent avoiding favors from the ignorant (lest he become bidden to their follies). Spinoza declined lucrative university appointments and chose instead to pursue his learning and writing.

  • LXXIII. The man, who is guided by reason, is more free in a State, where he lives under a general system of law, than in solitude, where he is independent. Note: Spinoza felt that a free man living in a good society is much better off than a hermit, living alone on an island, for example.

So, how do these propositions help people live better, freer, healthier?

Painting: After a Thunderstorm, 1868 by Wassiljew. (pd)

Some good things happen to humans by accident, passively, in good ways. For example, we could be walking about our city and stumble upon a parade which we find exciting. We didn’t actively plan to find this parade. It happened. But we still got a benefit. But negative things can happen too, such as a sudden thunderstorm.

Spinoza figured that it was better for humans to be, as much as possible, in charge of their own destiny and not subject to random forces. Spinoza thought most of mankind, in most situations, dealt with the world passively, not actively. In particular, the emotions of hope and fear make us slaves to things outside us, that is, they link our happiness to things we can’t control. We hope tomorrow will be sunny and we fear a possible thunderstorm, but our happiness, as a result, depends on weather conditions and not on our own mental activity. Spinoza sees humans as thoroughly egoistic agents trying as best we can to pursue things we think will help us, which we hope will bring us joy or further our self-preservation.

Virtue and freedom

Spinoza’s philosophy was in sharp contrast to traditional ideas about morality and virtue. The Judeo-Christian ethic is to think of moral goodness as absolute values that people should strive for, and thinks that humans have free will, granted by a deity who wants people to obey commandments defining what’s morally good; therefore, it behooves people to follow these commandments. A humanistic take on this ethic removes some of the theological basis but still sees humans as having free will, and sees virtue as a choice to do what’s right; failure to do what’s commanded (theological sense) or what’s good (humanistic sense) is morally blameworthy.[11]

Spinoza disagreed with both theological and humanistic senses of virtue. Humans are parts of nature like trees and plants and meteors and act according to their nature. Humans try to preserve their being. Everything people do is determined like billiard balls on a table.

Spinoza wrote:

“But human power is very limited and infinitely surpassed by the power of external causes. So we do not have an absolute power to adapt things outside us to our use. Nevertheless, we shall bear calmly those things which happen to us contrary to what the principle of our advantage demands.”[12]

If emotions keep humans in a form of slavery or bondage, then a key to unshackling these bonds is to understand our emotions. He wrote:

“If we separate emotions, or affects, from the thought of an external cause, and join them to other thoughts, then the love, or hate, towards the external cause is destroyed, as are the vacillations of mind arising from these affects.”[13]

For example, suppose a person loves chocolate. It’s possible that a person, thinking this way, can eat too much chocolate, possibly becoming a chocoholic. What does the statement a person loves chocolate mean? In Spinoza’s sense, a person has an idea of pleasure, and links this idea of pleasure with the idea of chocolate being the cause of this pleasure. Spinoza argues this linkage is illusory, since the chocolate is merely a thing in nature, a type of food which provides nourishment, which is good when consumed in reasonable amounts, but the chocolate itself doesn’t cause pleasure. To get control over this emotion, Spinoza suggests de-linking these ideas; it’s okay to still keep eating chocolate from time to time, but a person should understand that the chocolate, in itself, doesn’t cause pleasure. Chocolate is merely a thing in nature. He wrote:

“An affect which is a passion ceases to be a passion as soon as we form a clear and distinct idea of it.”[13]

Understanding an emotion is important. Getting a clear and distinct idea about a particular emotion helps us to overcome it. If we love chocolate, for example, it helps us get a better handle on what’s happening to us, how we perceive it, and how it influences us.

And it helps people overcome emotions (Spinoza uses the term affects) if we see everything as determined, as necessary. This is the right way to see things, he thought. When things happen to us, we shouldn’t get so worked up in an emotional way about it, since it had to happen anyway. Spinoza wrote:

“Insofar as the mind understands all things as necessary, it has a greater power over the affects, or it is less acted upon by them.” He explained further: “For we see that sadness over some good which has perished is lessened as soon as the man who has lost it realizes that this good could not, in any way, have been kept.”[14]
Spinoza felt that there was no good and evil in an absolute sense, but things can be good for us if, by actively understanding them in an adequate sense, we know that they can take us to a higher level. For example, Spinoza would see chocolate as good — it provides bodily nourishment, energy, and tastes good. As humans, we’re in the world of nature and will always be affected by things in nature. As I wrote earlier, we’re like billiard balls in the billiard table of the universe, and we can’t climb out of it.

Spinoza thought that truth, by itself, doesn’t trump a powerful emotion. This explains why people can know very well “what’s best” but not do it; a smoker hooked on nicotine may know intellectually that the smoking is harmful, but keep smoking, because the emotion is stronger than the logic. Reason is poorly suited to take on powerful forces like emotions; Sigmund Freud would have agreed; he thought that the human rational faculty or ego was weak compared to powerful urges by the id.)

The key to betterment is virtue which in the sense of acting in accordance with nature. It’s successfully staying alive. It’s striving, thriving, prospering. And the key to having virtue, according to Spinoza, is “living according to the guidance of reason.” He or she acts. Reason has universal imperatives that transcend personal differences akin to Kant’s categorical imperatives. We need things in the world; reason shows us how to get them and live well in the world. Spinoza’s model is not a Judeo-Christian one of asceticism with a monk living a solitary existence in a monastery; rather, it’s seeking one’s own advantage and enjoying life. The virtuous person judges what’s good and what’s evil and because these judgments are reason-guided, they’re right. It’s choosing things that don’t just help a part of one’s body but which helps the whole body. One isn’t led astray by immediate gratification or the pursuit of transitory or partial goods.

What the virtuous person requires most of all is knowledge and understanding of cause and effect relationships regarding adequate ideas in the correct sequences. And the highest and best knowledge, according to Spinoza, is the knowledge of God or Nature. Spinoza wrote:

“Knowledge of God is the mind’s greatest good; its greatest virtue is to know God.”

Know science. Study nature. Learn as much as possible. The virtuous person is therefore a ”free” being. He or she is in control of oneself, as much as possible. It’s the life of reason. Passions are held in check. People don’t become obsessive about other people or things. We’re relatively free from absurd emotions such as ambition or lust or greed or hate. We don’t get over-elated in good news or overly sad with bad news. We have a more even-keep temperament.

A free person with knowledge of the duration of things would be able to make better decisions about future choices compared to present choices. Such a person is better poised to weigh the trade-off between a lesser present good versus a greater future one. A free student would choose the present sacrifice of homework for the much greater future benefit of success and understanding. The free person doesn’t worry excessively about death but focuses on the joy of living. But this freedom isn’t the ”freedom of the will” since a person is still dependent on all of the myriad events happening in nature, but rather, the human can get a ”greater share of the determining” within the fully determined universe of God or Nature. Spinoza argued that the totally free person is an impossibility for real humans, but it can be thought of as a model which we should try to emulate.


How can we improve ourselves? Spinoza argues that it’s important to understand what motivates us. People should try to see how too much attachment to an object that varies will mean that our own happiness varies when the object varies. There have been academics, looking at Spinoza’s philosophy, who have commented that Spinoza’s philosophy had elements similar to modern Buddhism. Spinoza might advise: Don’t focus obsessively on a lover or a bar of chocolate; rather, try to see the lover or chocolate as finite things. Try to separate the particular object from the way it affects us. Spinoza wrote:

If we separate emotions, or affects, from the thought of an external cause, and join them to other thoughts, then the love, or hate, toward the external cause is destroyed, as are the vacillations of mind arising from these affects.

Spinoza urges people to see the bigger picture of many causes and relationships, and don’t focus obsessively on any single external cause. As a result, the intense love of one particular thing is spread out in a weaker intensity over many things. If we can get a clear and distinct idea of any particular passion, then its hold over us lessens. While we can’t fight a strong emotion with reason or logic, we can fight a strong emotion with other strong emotions. Take the initiative and strive for a fuller knowledge of ourselves, Spinoza advised. Then, ideas in one’s head become connected in a causal manner instead of random ideas haphazardly flung together.

Knowing that things happen by necessity helps us become emotionally more detached from their pull. Knowing something couldn’t have happened otherwise means there’s less cause for tears, for joy, for unhelpful emotional responses. It’s nobody’s fault. We don’t get riled up. There’s less of an urge to wag fingers or assign blame when there’s spilt milk. Seeing passed events as necessary helps people deal with change positively with equanimity and calmness. People can focus on what’s within, on stuff we can control, and realize we’ll always be affected by emotions and passions, but people should try as best we can to moderate them.

And the highest expression and best way to restrain the passions, in Spinoza’s view, is to love God. This means accepting that there’s no ultimate good and evil, understanding the world, exploring causes and effects, and accepting fate and necessity. It is the highest love of all, argues Spinoza.


A virtuous free person, in Spinoza’s view, won’t adopt an ethos of total self-interest but will be guided by reason to act kindly towards others. People who have things in common with us can help us, and we can help them, and it’s possible for people to work together in harmony. Of course, what prevents harmonious action is the passions, but by living in accord with reason, people value the same things and pursue the same goals. Virtuous persons pursue goals that are good for everyone because they’re willing to share knowledge. And a virtuous person will strive to make other persons virtuous and free and good. This thinking mirrored Spinoza’s own life; he had a circle of friends called the Collegiants. He lived what he wrote.

Society and the State

Spinoza agreed with Hobbes about the need for a sovereign power and that it was reasonable for persons motivated by self-interest to give up some rights for greater security as long as others made a similar agreement, in Spinoza’s view. There wouldn’t be a need for a state if people were all virtuous; but this isn’t the case, unfortunately. But it’s still a good idea for people to band together in associations to form a state. But it’s necessary for government to use threats to maintain order and to prevent instances of broken contracts and violence as a result of the passions. The ideal state was a democracy which, in his view, was better able to help people pursue virtue and the life of reason. Spinoza’s political thinking was published anonymously during his lifetime in a book called the ”Tractatus Theologico-Politicus.”

Criticism of Spinoza’s philosophy

Baruch de Spinoza (1632-1677) (pd)

Some critics charge that Spinoza’s idea that “every living being strives to keep itself alive” doesn’t explain the possibility of suicide or the decay from aging. There is disagreement about whether Spinoza was a pantheist or panentheist or an atheism|atheist. There are questions about what Spinoza thought about the idea of consciousness and whether the human mind could survive the death of the human body; philosophers debate these issues today. There is speculation about what exactly is the difference between God and Nature or are they exactly the same thing? One writer pondered: Natura Naturans is the most God-like side of God, eternal, unchanging, and invisible, while Natura Naturata is the most Nature-like side of God, transient, changing, and visible.”

But a general difficulty is that the entire system is built from a few specific premises, and if these premises happen to be flawed, or, as Spinoza might say, inadequate, then the whole system can fall apart. Physicists question the idea of cause-and-effect by pointing to the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle as proof that the cause and effect principle doesn’t apply at the subatomic level. According to this principle, it is impossible to predict where an electron will be at a given future time, since any attempt at measurement will distort the trajectory of an electron. However, some scientists agree that even if cause-and-effect may not apply at the subatomic level, they assert that causation does apply at the atomic level, and therefore Spinoza’s logic still holds. Still another view is that cause-and-effect does apply at the subatomic level regardless of problems with prediction. These debates continue today.

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