Absurd Being

A place to take a moment to reflect on what it all means

Benedict Spinoza 1632-1677

Philosophy Categories


Ancient Greece





Recommended Reading



->  Ethics

The Man

Benedict (born, Baruch) Spinoza was born on November 24, 1632 in Amsterdam. His Jewish parents had emigrated there from Portugal to escape the Inquisition and take advantage of the relatively tolerant atmosphere in Holland. His father was a successful merchant and his mother (the second of his father’s three wives) died in 1638.

Spinoza was an intellectually gifted young man and he excelled at his congregation’s Talmud Torah school where he received an education that would have been heavily focused on Jewish religious study including the Torah, prophetic writings, rabbinical commentaries, etc. At the age of seventeen, Spinoza abandoned his study to work in his father’s business.

Through his commercial activities, Spinoza would have been exposed to the diverse opinions circulating in the relatively free intellectual climate Amsterdam provided, in particular, those of Descartes, who had already earned a degree of fame. At this time, he began to receive tuition in Latin, natural science and philosophy from a free-thinking ex-Jesuit, Franciscus Van den Enden, who had recently set up a Latin school in the area.

As Spinoza’s opinions became more widely known, he asserted himself as an independent thinker, rejecting traditional interpretations of Scripture and arguing against established doctrines such as the anthropomorphising of God as depicted in the Judaeo-Christian faith and the immortality of the soul. This all led to the Jewish community in Amsterdam issuing the writ of cherum – its harshest form of excommunication – against him on July 27, 1656, for his “horrible heresies” and “monstrous actions”, ordering that “nobody should communicate with him orally or in writing, or show him any favour, or stay with hum under the same roof, or within four ells of him, or read anything composed or written by him.” This prompted Baruch to Latinise his name, Benedict.

It was probably just after this that Spinoza, unable to continue in his father’s business, took up lens grinding as an occupation. Despite the severity of his excommunication, he continued to be a prominent figure in the intellectual community and was even offered a position at the University of Heidelberg, which he refused in order to remain independent and free from political complications.

In 1661, Spinoza left Amsterdam for the quiet of a cottage in Rijnsburg where he remained for three years to consolidate some of his ideas in writing. While in Rijnsburg, he wrote A Short Treatise on God, Man and his Well-Being, On the Improvement of the Understanding, both of which were privately circulated among intellectual circles.

In 1663, Spinoza moved to Voorburg, near The Hague, where he wrote a geometric version of Descartes’ Principles of Philosophy. It was published that year, the only published work to appear under his name in his lifetime, although Spinoza made it clear that he didn’t agree with all of Descartes’ conclusions.

He began working on a book that would completely describe his philosophy, Ethics, and before it was completed, significant portions of it were circulating among his friends in Amsterdam. Fearing the political and religious waves the Ethics would create, he suspended his work on it and completed and anonymously published the Theological-Political Treatise in 1670. The book primarily argued that freedom of thought and expression didn’t undermine the fabric of society; rather they helped to enhance stability and security. In the Treatise it is clear that Spinoza considered the clergy the greatest threat to these freedoms, and sure enough, after its publication it was condemned as a work of evil and the author branded an atheist; something which was completely untrue.

Later that same year, Spinoza moved to The Hague where he continued to work on the Ethics although it must have been clear to him after the reception his Treatise received that he would be unable to publish it. Despite this, he completed the book in 1675. Spinoza’s final book, a work of political philosophy, was unfinished at his death on February 21, 1677. He died from a lung disease probably caused by the inhalation of fine glass dust while grinding lenses. The unpublished works found in his rented room in The Hague were promptly sent to Amsterdam where they were published… and just as promptly banned the following year.

The Timeline

1632: Born on November 24 in Amsterdam

1638: His mother died

1649: Began to work in his father’s merchant business

1650: Began to study Latin, natural science and philosophy with Franciscus Van den Enden

1656: Excommunicated from the Amsterdam synagogue

1661: Moved to Rijnsburg

1662: Wrote A Short Treatise on God, Man and his Well-Being and On the Improvement of the Understanding

1663: Moved to Voorburg

Wrote his geometrical version of Descartes’ Principles of Philosophy

1670: Wrote and anonymously published his Theological-Political Treatise

Moved to The Hague

1675: Completed the Ethics

1677: Died on February 21 in The Hague from a lung disease

1678: The remainder of Spinoza’s works are published posthumously

The Philosophy

Like his immediate predecessor, Descartes, Spinoza was interested in absolute certainty of knowledge and held mathematics in the highest esteem as a discipline that afforded precisely that degree of certitude. Through a rigorous system of definitions, axioms, and propositions which are thereby derived, he composed the Ethics as a complete account of his philosophical system.

Finite, Eternal, Essence, Substance, Attribute, Mode, and Affects

Spinoza’s whole philosophy is built on these terms so it is well worth acquainting ourselves with them:

- Finite usually means ‘bounded’ in some way but Spinoza redefines it as something “which can be limited by another thing of the same nature. For example, a body is called finite, because we always conceive another which is greater.”

- Eternal usually means ‘existing forever in time’ but Spinoza redefines it to mean “existence itself, so far as it is conceived necessarily to follow from the definition alone of the eternal thing.” This means that a thing is ‘eternal’ if the very definition of it includes existence, i.e. we can’t even conceive of the thing not existing.

- The essence of something is what makes that thing what it is, that which can’t be taken away or changed without eliminating the thing or changing it into something different.

- Attribute is some quality of a substance that identifies it in some essential way “as if constituting its essence”. There are two attributes in Spinoza’s system; extension and mind.

- Mode refers to the “affections of substance” by which Spinoza means anything which affects substance. Individual extended things and emotions (Spinoza calls these affects) are examples of modes of the body; and ideas, images, individual thoughts, etc. are examples of modes of the mind.

- Substance is a kind of metaphysical substructure, the foundation on top of which everything in the universe is built. Spinoza defines it as “that which is in itself and is conceived through itself; in other words, that, the conception of which does not need the conception of another thing from which it must be formed”. Substance is the one thing that cannot be created because its “essence involves existence”. Hence, substance necessarily exists; which is the same as saying that it is ‘eternal’.

Spinoza also claims that each substance is completely unique. This follows because attributes (features of a substance) ‘essentially’ define a substance, meaning that two substances can’t share the same attribute. From this it follows that there cannot be any other substance of the same nature (with the same attribute) as this one, therefore (following Spinoza’s definition of finite) substance is infinite.

Next, since substance necessarily exists and is infinite and eternal, and since this is the way he has defined God, Spinoza concludes that God is substance. What’s more, since ‘God as substance’ is infinite (which he defined as possessing infinite attributes (although we can only know two of them)) then no other substance can exist because there are no other attributes left for it to have; God/substance possesses all possible attributes.

- Affects are the “affections of the body, by which the power of acting of the body itself is increased, diminished, helped, or hindered, together with the idea of these affections.” Affects are, in short, emotions or passions.

God (I)

The most striking thing about Spinoza’s God is that whereas his predecessors were concerned with providing ‘proofs’ for His existence, Spinoza simply defines God into existence. As we have already seen, God for Spinoza means (the one and only) substance. The biggest problem with Spinoza’s conception of God as substance is that this God could never fulfil any of the roles we typically want a God to fill. Spinoza’s God is really something completely impersonal that in identifying it as ‘substance’ could just as well be equated with the ‘universe’ or ‘nature’. Despite this, Spinoza muddies the waters significantly by throwing in male 3rd person pronouns (He, Himself, etc.) when talking about this God, as if He has some kind of personality or character.

This tension between God as universe/substance and God as personal actor lurks underneath the whole of the Ethics. Spinoza seems to walk a fine line between the two, subtly talking about God as if He was something more personal than just Nature or the Universe, but at the same time refusing to concede anything that might overtly support this view.

Cartesian dualism divided the world into two substances, extended matter and mind. Spinoza built on this by demoting extension and mind to two attributes of substance (God). In fact, God has infinite attributes but we can only have knowledge of these two. This was an improvement on Descartes because by making them facets of a ‘deeper’ substance, he overcame the problem that plagued Descartes, namely, how an immaterial mind and material body could ever affect each other. This is not a problem for Spinoza because he can say there is no causal relationship between the two; “substance thinking and substance extended are one and the same substance, which is now comprehended under this attribute and now under that”. The relationship between the two has also been eloquently described as; ‘body is mind extended and mind is body thinking’ and both describe God in different ways.

Necessity / Freewill

For Spinoza, there is no such thing as freewill. His conception of the universe is one of fully determined and perfect precision. In this, Spinoza is the embodiment of his age, an age where the exactness and certitude of scientific and mathematical truths were sweeping through the intellectual community, for what could be more perfect than a clockwork universe rigorously and faithfully marking time by absolutely certain events?

The only thing that is infinite and eternal is God. Things that are finite and determinate (everything else, i.e. individual modes of God) cannot therefore have been produced by God as an infinite and eternal substance, i.e. modified in an infinite way; rather, they must have arisen from God modified in some finite and determinate way, i.e. God as a finite mode.

This means that the finite and determinate cause of some effect also had a prior finite and determinate cause, and in turn this cause had a prior cause, and so on ad infinitum. It is a little odd, to say the least, that Spinoza seems happy to leave this ad infinitum sticking out without any real explanation but what the whole thing means for us is that finite and determinate things are all inevitable links in a causal chain extending back into infinity. Since human will is a finite mode of mind, every act of will must also have been preceded by a finite cause, which itself had a prior cause, and so on ad infinitum.

Spinoza expresses this nicely when he says that man “thinks himself free because he is conscious of his wishes and appetites, whilst at the same time he is ignorant of the causes by which he is led to wish and desire”.


When Spinoza talks about knowledge, he is largely talking about universal conceptions, that is to say, truths which all of the individual instances of a thing have in common. Individual truths, such as cause X make this person happy, are uninteresting to Spinoza because they are changeable and finite. Rather, he is concerned with what causes happiness in all people. In other words, he is less concerned with truths about this woman than about truths concerning women. This preference for universal truths, which are constant and unchanging, over individual truths, which are fleeting and limited, is the continuation of a trend started in Ancient Greece and a lynchpin of modern science.

As we have seen, certainty of knowledge is very important for Spinoza. Reflecting this concern, he divides knowledge into three categories each related to how we form our ideas of universals:

- The first category is made up of confused and mutilated ideas. There are two ways we can have knowledge of this kind. The first is by inferring universal categories from individual instances of things. The problem with this is that it relies on the senses which are notoriously unreliable sources of information. Spinoza calls this opinion.

The second is by using ‘signs’, by which Spinoza means ‘words’ that represent things. From these, we use the faculty of ‘imagination’ to create images from which we can build understanding. The problem is that the capacity of the human mind to imagine things is limited. If this number is exceeded then the images become confused and “all run one into another”. So imagination leads to confused ideas. Knowledge of the first kind is suspect.

- The second category is made up of adequate ideas. These ideas are derived from reason, i.e. not the senses or imagination, and Spinoza claims they are always true, being thoughts of God in so far as God is the essence of the human mind. Now, all thoughts are thoughts of God (since everything is contained in substance) but adequate ideas come from thoughts that reflect the infinite nature of God, i.e. thoughts of God modified in an infinite manner. Inadequate ideas, i.e. knowledge of the first kind, are thoughts of God that are modified in a finite way.

- The third category is less clear than the other two. Spinoza defines it as knowledge derived “from an adequate idea of the formal essence of certain attributes of God to the adequate knowledge of the essence of things” and calls it intuitive science. It appears to be something like working backwards to the way humans usually do things. We usually take physical, finite things and extrapolate from there to universal truths but this third kind of knowledge (somehow) begins from the “formal essence” of attributes of God (which is presumably infinite, eternal truth) and perceives from there universal truths of finite objects.

The Power of the Affects

We have seen that affects are basically emotions. There are a couple of interesting things about affects in so far as Spinoza conceives them though. First, they are always confused ideas, and as such can never lead us with any certainty to truth. Second, they are (like everything else) absolutely and necessarily determined. An affect of happiness for instance, arises from a particular event with all of the necessity of a dropped ball falling to the ground. The particular events that cause happiness may differ for different people and the same event may yield different effects for the same person at different times, but Spinoza’s philosophy can accommodate this. Causes have effects (in this case ‘affects’) which follow necessarily.

Spinoza traces all affects back to what he calls the three primary affects from which all others arise; desire, joy, and sorrow.

- Desire reflects the essence of the human being and is the effort by which each person endeavours to preserve him or herself. Desire is therefore the same as appetite (‘appetite’ being our natural urges designed to maintain and preserve life; eating, sleeping, etc.) although Spinoza does qualify this by saying desires are appetites we are conscious of.

- Joy is the passion by which the human mind and body pass to a greater ‘perfection’, by which Spinoza means enhancing the body’s power of action and the mind’s power of thought; basically an emotion which allows us to function better as humans.

- Sorrow is the opposite of joy.

As an example of how other emotions follow from these, Spinoza defines love as a feeling of joy accompanied by an external cause and hatred as sorrow accompanied by an external cause.

Another key part of Spinoza’s philosophy is that any affect can only be restrained by another affect. Even though Spinoza’s philosophy emphasises reason and knowledge, he willingly bows to experience and accepts the fact that affects are stronger than knowledge. Anyone who has ever been overcome by a negative emotion (which is to say, everyone) and tried to ameliorate it by appeal to logic or reason knows just how ineffective that is. This doesn’t mean we are completely at the mercy of the affects though; there are steps we can take ahead of time so that the affects don’t take control of us. We will look at these a little later on.


The usual approach to morality is to assume that it transcends humans in some way so that we aren’t just making up arbitrary rules and labelling them good or evil. Traditionally, God has been the source of such transcendental values. Spinoza’s God however, is nothing like the anthropomorphic law-giver that we all know and love so he cannot help himself to that option.

Spinoza has an unconventional view of morality, saying that good and evil are nothing more than modes of thought and do not refer to anything outside of the mind. This, he thinks is obvious because the very same thing may be good, evil, or indifferent for different people, or even for the same person at different times.

Being modes of thought, good and evil are therefore closely intertwined with our desire and essence. Spinoza expresses his view of morality in a couple of different ways which essentially mean the same thing. First, ‘good’ is anything which is useful for us. Second, ‘good’ is anything which brings us nearer to a fuller and more complete expression of our nature (essence). Evil is the opposite in both of the above cases. This second formulation, you will notice, is the same as the definition we gave to joy and sorrow, which is further support that our notions of good and evil don’t come from some transcendental source, but are merely derived from self-interest.

So, why don’t we all run around stealing, lying, and using the Lord’s name in vain, willy-nilly? Well, reason tells us that there is nothing more beneficial to us, nothing that enables us to better preserve our selves, than if “two individuals of exactly the same nature are joined together”, hence a rational individual, in seeking his own profit will naturally desire the good of the whole. This leads to the formation of the State, in which individuals willingly give up their natural rights in order to abide by a common set of laws; again because it is better that we live in harmony with one another than live alone.

An extension of this view of morality reveals that there is no such thing as universal good or evil outside of a State. It is only by consent to an established code of morals that we create the conditions in which an act can be judged ‘right’ or ‘wrong’.

The Power of Reason

The affects are all more powerful than reason. However, we can still use reason to our advantage because all actions which the affects determine can also be determined solely by reason. In fact, this is how Spinoza defines ‘act’. An act is something which follows from our very nature and can be explained with reference to that nature alone. Opposed to this, Spinoza says we ‘suffer’, anytime some external cause determines our actions. Hence, we ‘suffer’ affects, but ‘act’ with reason.

There are five ways we can engage reason to determine our actions, effectively bypassing the affects. First, through having clear and distinct ideas of them. Affects are always confused ideas and so understanding them through reason makes them adequate ideas, giving us control, i.e. allowing us to ‘act’ rather than ‘suffer’. Second, changing the associations we make in our mind between affects and external causes will render the external causes impotent or change their effects on us. Third, understanding objects and events as being “under the specific form of eternity”, i.e. accepting that nothing is contingent, allows us to be less affected by them. Fourth, being aware of the many causes which lead to any event helps to prevent our mind from fixating on only one and therefore being overcome by an affect. Fifth, the use of “maxims of life” can retrain our minds to automatically respond with reason, rather than the passions.

As Spinoza said, reason or knowledge can never overpower the affects one on one, so to speak, so what he is advocating here are not methods one can use to deal with negative emotions as they arise, rather, he is saying we must dedicate time and thought to understanding the affects and training the mind when we are not in the throws of the passions. In this way, we can ensure that things which used to cause us to suffer sorrow or which cause others to suffer sorrow, don’t bother us.

God (II)

Having looked through Spinoza’s entire philosophy, we are now in a position to revisit his understanding of God and fill in some important details.

First, Spinoza maintains that since necessity is part of God’s nature, from this nature an infinite number of things in infinite ways must necessarily follow. This might sound harmless enough but it clashes violently with what religious authorities mandated in his time, because it means that God has no free choice in the matter over what or what not to create. Whatever can be conceived by God’s infinite intellect necessarily follows. Spinoza rejected those who argued against him by claiming that this limits God in some way, with a tricky redefinition of the word ‘free’. Because God alone exists from the necessity of His own nature (God’s essence is existence), Spinoza says He is the only truly free cause. That what He produces necessarily follows from His nature is irrelevant because the intellect and will of God cannot be understood in the sense we use them to talk about ourselves.

Secondly, God is free from passions. We have seen that the affects are confused ideas and, since any ideas associated with God must be true, it follows that God cannot suffer any affects. That also might sound harmless enough, but what this says is that God does not experience joy or sorrow and by extension, therefore doesn’t feel love, hatred, or any other emotion. Naturally, this idea could create quite a problem for both the church and the synagogue, and we begin to understand why Spinoza was denounced and excommunicated so virulently.

Finally, we come to Spinoza’s conception of the intellectual love of God. The third kind of knowledge (intuitive science) proceeds from the “formal essence” of attributes of God and understands Him through reason, in so far as He is eternal substance, not through opinion or imagination (the first kind of knowledge) which can only give a confused idea of Him. This understanding of God, like all adequate (and therefore true) ideas, is accompanied with a sense of joy and if you recall from the section on the affects, joy associated with an external cause is the definition of love. But since this love follows from the third kind of knowledge, it is not love as a confused idea (the normal human emotion) but an intellectual love. Spinoza equates this intellectual love of God with salvation or blessedness and as such it is the ultimate goal of every human and the highest virtue possible.

Another interesting thing about this is that Spinoza says God also loves Himself with an intellectual love and that the intellectual love we experience of God is actually a part of this. This seems to follow because at bottom, there is only one substance (God) and we are all a part (modes, albeit finite modes) of that substance.

Life after Death

Spinoza does not believe in heaven or hell or even life after death as it is traditionally conceived. The mind depends on the body for existence; without the body, there can be no mind. That much is clear but then Spinoza, in typical ‘Spinozan’ form, hedges his bets a little. He claims that even when the individual is dead, there still exists within God, an idea which “expresses the essence” of him or her and this idea, since God is eternal, is also eternal. So, in the end, he does concede some kind of immortality, but it is certainly nothing that would console anyone afraid of death, and is little more than a glorified version of having your name on a building which will remain standing long after you die.