A geometric demonstration of ethics is a novelty in the history of thought, but Baruch Spinoza’s Ethics is famous not because of, but in spite of, its novelty of method. The principal advantage of the method is that it reveals Spinoza’s thought as clearly as possible. Although the demonstrations may not satisfy critics who concern themselves only with definitions and logical form, they are strongly persuasive for those who, already committed to the love of the good and of God, need clarity and structure in their thoughts.
Spinoza begins with definitions, proceeds to axioms (unproved but acceptable), and then moves to propositions and demonstrations. If one wishes to find fault with Spinoza’s argument, any place is vulnerable: One can quarrel about the definitions, doubt the truth of the axioms, or question the validity of the demonstrations. To reject the book, however, one would need to question the integrity of Spinoza’s spirit.
It has long been regarded an error in philosophy to attempt to deduce what people ought to do from a study of what people do, but what Spinoza attempts is a deduction of what people ought to do from a study of what must be, according to his definitions and axioms. The primary criticism of his method, then, is not that he errs—although most critics find errors in Spinoza—but that he tries to use logical means to derive ethical truths. The criticism depends on the assumption that ethical truths are either matters of fact, not of logic, or they are not truths at all but, for example, emotive expressions.
Spinoza begins Ethics with definitions of “cause,” “finite,” “substance,” “attribute,” “mode,” “free,” “eternity,” and “God,” the last term being defined to mean “Being absolutely infinite, that is to say, substance consisting of infinite attributes, each one of which expresses eternal and infinite essence.” To understand this definition one must relate it to the definitions of the terms within it—such as “substance,” “finite,” and “attribute”—but one must also resist the temptation to identify the term, so defined, with any conventionally used term. Spinoza’s God is quite different from other conceptions. The point of the definition is that what Spinoza means by “God” is whatever is “conceived through itself” (its substance), has no limit to its essential characteristics (has infinite attributes), and maintains its character eternally. As one might suspect, the definition of “God” is crucial.
The axioms contain such logical and semantical truths as “I. Everything which is, is either in itself or in another”; “II. That which cannot be conceived through another must be conceived through itself”; “VI. A true idea must agree with that of which it is the idea”; and “VII. The essence of that thing which can be conceived as not existing does not involve existence.” At first, the axioms may be puzzling, but they are not as extraordinary as they seem. Axiom number 7, for example, means only that anything that can be thought of as not existing does not, by its nature, have to exist.
The propositions begin as directly implied by the definitions: “I. Substance is by its nature prior to its modifications” follows from the definitions of “substance” and “mode,” and “II. Two substances having different attributes have nothing in common with one another” is another consequence of the definition of “substance.” As the propositions increase, the proofs become longer, making reference not only to definitions but also to previous propositions and their corollaries. For those interested in technical philosophy, the proofs are intriguing, even when they are unconvincing, but for others they are unnecessary; the important thing is to understand Spinoza’s central idea.
Proposition 11 is important in preparing the way for Spinoza’s main contention: “XI. God or substance consisting of infinite attributes, each one of which expresses eternal and infinite essence, necessarily exists.” Although one may be tempted to seize upon this proposition as an instrument to use against atheists, it is necessary to remember that the term “God” is a technical term for Spinoza and has little, if anything, to do with the object of religious worship.
Proposition 14 makes the startling claim that “Besides God no substance can be nor can be conceived.” A corollary of this proposition is the idea that God is one; that is, everything that exists, all of nature, is God. Individual things do not, by their natures, exist, but only through God’s action, and God is not only the cause of their existence but also of their natures (24, 25). Readers might expect, consequently, that a great deal of the universe is contingent; that is, it depends upon something other than itself and need not be as it is. Spinoza argues in proposition 24 that “In Nature, there is nothing contingent, but all things are determined from the necessity of the divine nature to exist and act in a certain manner.” Consequently, the human will is not free but necessary (32). This was...
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