Spinoza's Ethics

Discussion in 'Book Reviews' started by BayouHuguenot, Aug 13, 2019.

  1. BayouHuguenot

    BayouHuguenot Puritan Board Doctor

    Spinoza, Baruch (Benedict). Ethics.

    What would God and religion look like if geometers ran the place? It’s about as exciting as you would imagine it to be. Spinoza represents one of the early high points of Continental rationalism.

    Thesis: There is only one substance, God. We, however, are not God (and hence, not substances). Rather, we are modes of God. Reality is one substance and an infinity of modes. The reason Spinoza says this is because if there is another substance, however finite, it would limit God as substance.

    Substance: what is in itself, and conceived through itself.

    Mode: anything conceived of within the substance. A mode is an affectation of God’s attributes (I.28)

    God, or Nature

    Spinoza does not equate God with nature. He makes several dictions. God is nature naturans, nature naturing. Everything else is nature natured (29).

    As a practical pantheist, unsurprisingly, Spinoza rejects any freedom for God or man. God can’t be free because that would posit the possibility of something being other than it is. A thing is an idea in God’s mind. That idea is necessary (since God is necessary and that idea is God). Therefore, there can’t be otherwise.

    Man’s essence: man’s essence is formed by certain modes of God’s attributes (II.11). On one hand substance is God and an infinity of modes. On the other hand, it seems we are modes of modes of God.

    Spinoza rejects substance-dualism (obviously, since he is a monist), but he isn’t a materialist. A physicalist reduces everything to the physical. Spinoza reduces everything to the mind of God. I am an idea in God.

    If my body is ultimately an idea in God’s mind, and pace Aristotle (and almost all of the philosophical tradition) we don’t distinguish bodies by substance, then how are they distinguished? They are distinguished by motion and rest (II.13).

    The Few Good Parts

    Spinoza isn’t a materialist, despite his sloppy reasoning on mind and body. For Spinoza, and classical theism, though Spinoza rejects the rest, matter reduces to mind. This is correct.

    Spinoza famously says that the only aspects we have access to are “thought” and “extension.” I don’t think that is entirely true, but let’s not reject it outright. He isn’t saying that all is thought and extension. He says that is all we have access to. In heaven, and this is I speaking, not Spinoza, we will have access to more.


    It seems self-evident that I am more than a mode of something. I have a substance. I have parts. I am not a part. On Spinoza’s view, however, I am a mode of God. I don’t think he goes so far as to say that I am a part of God, but that’s where his reasoning leads.

    Traditional theology made a distinction between God’s natural knowledge and his free knowledge. Natural or necessary knowledge would be concerning God’s essence, mathematical truths, etc. His free knowledge is what he decrees. Spinoza collapses this distinction. Spinoza can’t imagine God as considering alternatives since those alternative ideas, being ideas in God, would also be necessary. Scripture, on the other hand, and common sense, posit that God did at least ask conditional questions.

    Spinoza says that the mind (which he calls an “idea of an idea,” II.29) cannot have an adequate knowledge of itself since its awareness of things is external. This doesn’t seem right. The classical tradition gives us good reasons for thinking that the mind is self-presenting.

    Spinoza’s actual ethics ends with a whimper. We call something good not because there is a universal of goodness, as the Tradition teaches, but simply because that’s how it is in our mind, and that is arbitrary. We aren’t yet at egoism, but we aren’t far away.

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