(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

In part 1, “Concerning God,” Spinoza reasons that God and the cosmos are the same; they are two different names for the one essential substance that makes up the whole universe. This substance is infinite but is revealed to us through the two attributes of thought and matter.

The forms in which the one substance comes into being in the world--such as in oak trees and spaniels--are called its modes. Every mode is what it is because that is what it had to be in God’s creation. No end or purpose governs life; all things are simply interconnected manifestations of Nature, or God. Everything is determined by necessity.

Part 2, “Of the Nature and Origin of the Mind,” tries to establish the parallelism between ideas and objects. The mind has no free will, Spinoza says, but is determined by a series of causes that regress to infinity. Knowing this, we should find peace in our understanding that we think what we think, do what we do, out of divine necessity. Furthermore, we should meet all that happens to us with tranquility.

In parts 3 and 4 Spinoza analyzes and defines the emotions. He argues that our human inability to control our emotions is a form of bondage, and that good and bad are but relative terms: To be good is to wish to align our desires with God’s necessity; to be bad is to resist that necessity.

Finally, part 5, “Of Human Freedom,” teaches that whatever power we can exert over our emotions is due to our understanding of divine necessity.

Additional Reading

Bennett, Jonathan. A Study of Spinoza’s “Ethics.” Indianapolis: Hackett, 1984. In outline form, expounds Ethics in considerable detail. Raises hard questions of the text; judges the second half of part five to be worthless.

Browne, Lewis. Blessed Spinoza: A Biography of the Philosopher. New York: Macmillan, 1932. A lively, well-written account of Baruch Spinoza’s life by a professional biographer. A good introduction to Spinoza the man. Should be augmented by more current research.

Chappell, Vere, ed. Baruch de Spinoza. New York: Garland, 1992. A very short biography of Spinoza accompanied by a series of essays explaining and discussing his...

(The entire section is 923 words.)


(Critical Survey of Ethics and Literature)

The Geometric Method

In Baruch Spinoza’s chief work, the Ethics, he attempted to deduce his results from certain fundamental conceptions by using the geometric method. He even adopted the external form of Euclidean geometry, beginning each of the five parts into which the work is divided with definitions, axioms, and postulates, and advancing by formally demonstrating a series of definite propositions. Spinoza, like René Descartes before him, believed that mathematics furnished the universal type of true science, and he assumed that absolute certainty, which was then generally regarded as essential to science, could be attained only by following the same method. It has been pointed out that what is most valuable in Spinoza’s system is not the result of his formal deductions, however, but the genius evident in his speculative intuition and keen psychological analysis.


In the Ethics, Spinoza is most directly concerned with the problem of humanity’s place in nature—its relation to God or the total system of things—and the possibility of freedom. He demonstrates the possibility that human freedom depends upon first recognizing that one is part of nature and that one’s mind, like everything else, is subject to uniform natural laws. It is not contingency or some peculiar power of free will that governs mental experiences; here as well as elsewhere, all takes place according to law and necessity. Nature’s laws, he argues, are always and everywhere the same. Thus, there should be one method of understanding the nature of all things: through nature’s universal laws and rules.

The Emotions

Spinoza goes on to consider human actions and desires in the same way that he considers lines, planes, and solids. From this standpoint, he gives a scientific account of the origin and nature of the emotions, showing how they necessarily arise from certain assignable causes and how their intensity depends on definite natural conditions. The emotions are all found to be variations of the primary states: desire, pleasure, or joy, which is the passage of the organism to a higher state of perfection; and pain, or sorrow, which is the passage to a lower state. To pass to a higher or lower state is not to become better or worse in the moral sense, but to become more or less active. The man of inadequate ideas is passive in that what he does depends on what happens to him rather than what he does or who he is.

This reduction of the emotions to law, however, is only a preliminary step in Spinoza’s treatment. To attain freedom, it is first necessary to recognize the bondage of humanity, the fixed determination of the emotions through natural laws. Just as knowledge is power with regard to external nature, however, so one can free oneself from the emotions by understanding their laws. In Spinoza’s view, the mind is something more than a series of passive states. Its essence consists in an effort to preserve its own being to promote its own good. In carrying out this purpose, it finds that nothing is so helpful as knowledge.

Knowledge and Intuition

Through knowledge, it is possible to free humanity from the bondage of emotions. An emotion, when understood, becomes transformed and ceases to be a mere state of passivity. Moreover, when the conditions of an emotion are understood, it is possible to arrange and associate the various emotions in such a way as to strengthen and promote the occurrence of those that are desirable and to weaken and repress those that are harmful. The highest kind of knowledge for Spinoza is not scientific reason, but intuition, the direct insight that all things follow necessarily from the nature of God and hence form one system. To see all things not...

(The entire section is 1555 words.)


(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

The figure of Baruch Spinoza has often attracted as much attention as his work, and he stands, along with the Greek philospher Socrates, as one of the few genuine heroes in a field not much given to hero worship. A Jew, ostracized by his own people and excluded from his homeland, he insisted on following his own ideas despite their heretical tendencies. Spinoza’s Ethics remained unpublished in his lifetime but would become the work upon which his great reputation and reservoir of influence was based. Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel and many of the later Romantics acknowledge Spinoza as the modern thinker whose thought suggests the direction for their later developments.

Although Spinoza is sometimes called a philosophers’ philosopher because of the abstract and technical nature of Ethics, few philosophers’ general views are more widely known among the nonphilosophical public. Although his views are often oversimplified, they are circulated extensively. Despite his central theological orientation, Spinoza’s appeal is, moreover, wide-ranging. Many people who find traditional religious beliefs unacceptable discover in Spinoza a rational and a naturalistic form of religion. His views on God, humanity, and the emotions also have popular influence.

A Geometrical Approach

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

A great deal of argument has been generated by the style or form in which Spinoza chose to write Ethics. The continental rationalists (René Descartes, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, and Spinoza) were all much impressed by the exciting developments in mathematics, and all of them reflect something of the geometric temper in their writings. Spinoza elected to write Ethics as a geometrical system—with definitions, axioms, and propositions. Some argue that this form is essential to Spinoza’s doctrines; others feel that Ethics can just as easily be read in essay style. All seem agreed that the work does not really have the full deductive rigor of geometry; yet the form indicates Spinoza’s desire to be clear and simple in his expression, to be straightforward in his assertions, and to connect the various parts of his thought systematically. All this he achieves with the barest minimum of explanation and with little external reference.

Fortunately, a full understanding of Spinoza’s attitude toward this geometrical method of philosophizing is not necessary to appraise its success or to grasp the central features of his thought. The geometrical method represents an attempted revolution in philosophical thought. Spinoza agreed with other modern revolutionaries of his era in stressing methodology and the need for a thorough reexamination of traditional philosophical and theological methods. His break with the Scholastic method is complete. Spinoza firmly believed that the human intellect can be carefully examined and improved and thereby made able to produce a more rigorous and more complete understanding of things—all this through its own strengthened power.

Properly corrected, reason is self-sufficient, its own guide and its own judge. This is, for Spinoza, as true in ethical affairs as in speculative matters. He does not belong in the class of dogmaticians; there is no indication that he believed his own views to be either complete or final. What is evident is his trust in the human intellect to work out an acceptable and a comprehensive schema. Spinoza depended heavily on previous theological views, but his modern temperament transformed them by placing them in a new humanistic perspective.

The five parts of Ethics take up in order God, the nature and origin of the mind, then the emotions, and finally the twin questions of human bondage and human freedom.

God, or Substance

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

In beginning with a consideration of the divine nature, then developing all other theories in this light, Spinoza was influenced by medieval theology. Theory of knowledge and attention to human powers of knowing received a more prominent place with Spinoza, but systematically speaking, a theory of the divine nature was still first. Spinoza called his first principle sometimes God, sometimes substance. Aristotle had defined “substance” as that capable of independent existence. Spinoza interpreted this with absolute rigor and asserted that only God, a substance of infinite attributes, could fulfill this definition exactly.

Ethics opens with the traditional distinction between that which requires no external...

(The entire section is 635 words.)

Divine Nature

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

Because everything must be conceived through, and has its existence in, God, the knowledge of any natural event requires a reference to the divine nature. Spinoza begins Ethics with a discussion of God’s nature because the understanding of everything else, including ethical life, depends on this. Nothing can be understood in isolation, and all adequate understanding involves locating the particular events and their immediate causes within the larger scheme of a substance absolutely infinite. God in traditional theology was used to explain the natural world as a whole; now every phenomenon is to be seen as a part of him and is to be explained on a part-whole analogy. What it is true to say about the divine nature, then, is also in some sense true of every part of the natural world.

Nothing remains unrealized in such a divine nature. Infinite numbers of things in infinite ways will all become real in the course of time, and time is without beginning or end. Rejecting medieval theories of creation, Spinoza returned to a more classical view of the world as eternal. The natural order is equal in duration with God. One side of his nature is timeless, but the side that includes the natural order is temporal. Time applies to God, but only to one aspect. There are no alternatives to any natural fact because infinite possibilities will all be realized eventually. God’s existence is necessary and so is his production of the natural order as a part of his nature.

Although this production of the natural order is necessary and its pattern without alternative, nothing outside God’s own nature compels him to act, and in that sense, God’s activity is free. Yet God is absolutely the only genuinely free agent; in nature there is nothing contingent, but everything is determined necessarily in whole or in part by factors and causes outside its own nature. “Will” had been stressed as a causal agent by philosopher John Duns Scotus; again Spinoza reverts to a more classical doctrine and denies that will can be a free cause. Will, he says, is nothing other than reason’s tendency to recognize and to accept a true idea. Things could have been produced, by God or by humanity, in no other manner and in no other order than they are and were.

God and the Natural World

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

In the appendix to book 1, which contains the discussion of God’s nature as it includes the world as a part, Spinoza goes on to elaborate his refutation of teleology. Christian doctrine necessarily depicts God as acting to achieve certain ends, or otherwise the drama of sin, atonement, and salvation would be difficult to present. God acts to accomplish his purpose, according to the orthodox conception. All of this Spinoza denied. According to Ethics, thought is only one of God’s infinite attributes, so that although he is a personal being in some sense, he is so only in part. Will has been denied and thought is not dominant; such a being cannot be said to act purposefully to attain an end unachievable without his...

(The entire section is 445 words.)


(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

Additional Reading

Bennett, Jonathan. A Study of Spinoza’s “Ethics.” Indianapolis: Hackett, 1984. In outline form, expounds Ethics in considerable detail. Raises hard questions of the text; judges the second half of part five to be worthless.

Browne, Lewis. Blessed Spinoza: A Biography of the Philosopher. New York: Macmillan, 1932. A lively, well-written account of Baruch Spinoza’s life by a professional biographer. A good introduction to Spinoza the man. Should be augmented by more current research.

Chappell, Vere, ed. Baruch de Spinoza. New York: Garland,...

(The entire section is 663 words.)

Thought and Extension

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

Every material thing has an idea paralleling it, although ideas affect only other ideas and physical things affect only things physical. The attribute of extension is reflected fully in the attribute of thought, although the two are only parallel and do not intersect each other. Substance thinking and substance extended are one and the same substance, now comprehended under this attribute, now under that. Nothing can happen in the body that is not perceived by the mind, and the essence of humanity consists of certain modifications of the attributes of God. People perceive all things through God, although some perceptions may be confused.

How is such confusion as does arise to be corrected? All ideas, insofar as they are...

(The entire section is 340 words.)

Emotions and Ethics

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

When Spinoza begins to discuss the emotions in book 3, he begins to enter the ethical part of the work proper. However, Spinoza’s approach is not standard; he claims that no one before has determined both the nature and the strength of the emotions or has treated the vices and follies in a geometrical method. The emotions (hatred, anger, envy) follow from the same necessity as do all other things in nature. The Greek philosopher Aristotle and others thought that conduct was not amenable to scientific knowledge, but Spinoza’s natural necessity, plus the connection of every event with the divine nature, subjects the emotions to the same laws as those that govern all natural phenomena.

Spinoza says that we act when we...

(The entire section is 739 words.)


(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

In book 5, Spinoza turns finally to an appraisal of the powers of the intellect that make it free, because freedom comes only through the possibility of increased understanding. The primary fact on which he bases his hope for human freedom is that an emotion that is a passion and thus destructive of our power ceases to be a passion as soon as we form a clear idea of it. Thus, we cannot prevent the constant challenge to our power to continue our existence, but we can come to understand all the causes that play upon us. To the extent to which we understand the causes impinging on us, just to that extent, we can successfully oppose any threat to our freedom or our power.

There is nothing of which we cannot, theoretically...

(The entire section is 227 words.)