Montreal, May 7, 2006 No 178




Dr. Edward W. Younkins is a Professor of Accountancy and Business Administration at Wheeling Jesuit University in West Virginia.




by Edward W. Younkins


          If one mentions the name Spinoza, he is likely to get as a response something like "Oh, wasn't he the pantheist philosopher who lived around the time of Hobbes and Locke?" Of course, he was but he was also much more than that. Baruch (Benedict de) Spinoza (1632-1677) promulgated a deductive, rational and monist philosophy that exhibited a mathematical appreciation of the universe and that held that things can only be understood when viewed in relation to a total structure. Spinoza's thought is still extremely relevant to 21st Century thinkers in areas such as methodological individualism, value theory, ethical naturalism, self-perfectionism, and political philosophy. For example, many of Spinoza's ideas are reflected in the works of contemporary philosophers such as Douglas Den Uyl, Douglas Rasmussen, and Tibor Machan.



          There is no ontological hierarchy for Spinoza. For him, the transcendent world does not exist. He proclaims there is no world except the existing one. In Spinoza's pantheistic notion there is only one substance (God), an absolutely infinite being made up of infinite attributes of which only two, thought and physical extension, are known by man. He states that God's existence is necessary and that, because there is nothing other than the divine substance and its modifications, there is nothing that is contingent. All entities, including man, are determined by universal natural laws to exist and to act in a given definite and fixed manner. Spinoza maintains that all things in the universe are modifications of the same single substance and, therefore, not totally free in the sense in being able to do anything whatsoever.

          Man is a modification (or mode) of the unique, infinite substance that is God or Nature. Nature is an indivisible, uncaused, and substantial whole and is the only substantial whole. God is simply nature under another attribute. Every single mode is caused by God's infinite power that necessarily creates the whole of nature. Spinoza thus conceives of God as the immanent cause of Nature. Spinoza's God is the cause of all things because all things follow necessarily and causally from his divine nature. This is in contrast to the Judeo-Christian idea of God as a transcendent being who causes a world separate from himself to exist by creating it out of nothing.

          Man is a composite mode of the attributes of thought and extension and therefore man only knows two attributes of God or Nature mind and body. Mind and body are different aspects of a single substance that Spinoza calls alternately God and Nature. For Spinoza, man is non-durational and rooted in the timeless essence of God, expressly as one of the innumerable specific ways of God being externalized. The mind and the body are different expressions under thought and under extension of the same existent the human person.

Human Nature

          Human beings are bound by the same natural laws as are all other segments of the universe. Man is an integral part of nature and therefore subject to its laws. In Spinoza's system, men are undisputably part of nature, a domain governed by cause and effect. However, the human body, including its corresponding mind, is significantly more complex than other entities with respect to its composition and in its dispositions to act and to be acted upon. For Spinoza, action refers to the human power to influence causal chains. He explains that all thinking is action and that all action has its concomitant in thought.

          According to Spinoza, primacy of self-interest is a basic law of human nature. He says that human beings share a common drive for self-preservation and seek to maintain the power of their being. Conatus is the power to preserve in being. Spinoza's conatus principle states that human individuals aim to persist in being in order to assert themselves in the world in their distinct individuality. Like all things in nature, man through his body and through his mind strives to persevere in his being and his mind is conscious of this striving. It is in man's capacity to think that he differs from all other natural entities.

          Spinoza explains that all things in nature proceed from an eternal necessity. Viewing cause and reason as equivalent terms, Spinoza says that there is no freedom if we understand freedom to be to the power of performing an action without cause or reason. Everything, including man, is bound by laws of nature and other natural constraints. Human beings have a caused nature and are not outside nature. Nature's bounds are set by laws which have attachment to the eternal order of the whole of Nature, of which man is but a part. Man functions as an individual relative to other entities, and, at the same time, he is part of the universe.

Freedom and Ethics

          How can freedom exist in Spinoza's "deterministic" universe? According to Spinoza's definition of freedom, a thing is said to be free which exists by the mere necessity of its own nature and is determined in its actions by itself alone. Like Aristotle, Spinoza values something as terms to the extent to which it realizes its nature. Real freedom, for Spinoza, means acting according to the necessary nature of man. Freedom means to follow the determined conatus which is man striving to persist in his own being. When applied to human beings, the general law of self-preservation has distinctive importance to Spinoza's concept of freedom.

          Spinoza's ethics is based on an ontology of man whose moral condition can only be accounted for by his own existential condition. Spinoza's moral philosophy has a definite naturalistic character. He sees the foundation of virtue as the endeavor a person makes to preserve his own being. It follows that the basic unit of Spinozist ethics is the individual human person. The attainment of virtuous beliefs is a legitimate end the acquisition of which is something for each individual to achieve if he can. It is in a person's interest to be moral and virtuous. For Spinoza, virtue involves the fuller development of one's individuality.

          If ethics is possible, there must be a mode in which determinism is combined with freedom. Spinoza notes that people experience and distinguish between good affects that favor the originating conatus of life and bad ones that do not. He explains that in a totally determined system there would be no reason for such qualitative distinctions. He concludes that people live in a universe determined by a type of relative necessity in the circumstances and not in one of absolute necessity. According to Spinoza, man's necessary nature (i.e., to persist in his own being) is not absolutely necessary. Instead, it is possible, contingent, and voluntarily acquired depending upon an effective person's chosen activities. For Spinoza, freedom means the existence of options and the ability to make value judgments and decisions. He says that a human being has the power to act and is the origin of the impulse to act.

          Spinoza teaches that to behave virtuously is to act, live, and preserve one's being in accordance with reason and on the basis of what is in our own interest and is useful to us. He views freedom as the positive intellectual capacity to act in order to attain our own ends with the knowledge that our actions are always limited by natural law. For Spinoza, power is the knowledge of necessity. He explains that powerful (i.e., virtuous) persons act because they understand why they must act. To be free is to be guided by the law of one's own nature which, according to Spinoza, is never inconsistent with the law of another's nature. He explains that a person's interactions with the rest of nature can either increase his ability or power to preserve in his existence or decrease his ability to do so. It follows that we should pursue what we believe will benefit us by increasing our power to act.

          The conatus is a potency which requires human effort. According to Spinoza, ideas are active and prompt people to act. He explains that the failure to act may indicate an absence of insight. He says that insight into a man's relation to God is the initial step toward virtue. Virtue consists in the pursuit of knowledge and the understanding of adequate ideas. Spinoza sees rationality as an essential means of attaining the good life. Man reaches happiness through understanding. Happiness and well-being lie in the life of reason.

          Spinoza describes perfection of the human mind in terms of its power of thinking and freedom in terms of not being controlled completely by external forces. We are free when the causes of our action are internal to us and we are unfree when those causes are external to us. Bondage means acting because of forces external to the actor or being moved by causes of which the person is unaware. We are not free to the extent that we act because something beyond our control causes us to act. When the cause of something lies in our own nature, it is a matter of the mind acting. When the cause is external to our nature then we are passive and being acted upon. Things that happen to us tend to produce joy or sadness. It follows that people should attempt to understand the reasons they are affected by the outside world in the ways that they are affected. Reason helps individuals to understand the causes in the form of external forces that limit their power to act. Once understanding is achieved people are able to overcome their sadness. In addition, the act of understanding the cause or nature of anything naturally leads to joy.

          Spinoza maintains that emotions may be the most serious threat to a person's freedom and that it takes a man of wisdom to break the chains that enslave him to his passions. An individual is capable of controlling his passions by attaining insight into the nature and causes of his emotions. A man should endeavor to free himself from his passions, or at the minimum try to restrain or moderate them, thus becoming an active autonomous person. If this freedom can be achieved, a person will be free in the sense that whatever happens to him results from his own nature rather than from things external to himself. Spinoza teaches that a man can moderate and restrain the affects via virtue. A person should free himself from reliance on the senses and imagination and rely as much as he can on his rational faculty. Liberation lies in acquiring knowledge which empowers the mind thus making it less susceptible to external circumstances. Knowledge, virtue, power, and freedom are one.

"Ethics, for Spinoza, is a matter of liberation from the bondage to passive affects through the cultivation of reason."

          Ethics, for Spinoza, is a matter of liberation from the bondage to passive affects through the cultivation of reason. He says that the mind is able to weaken the hold passions have over an individual. This is accomplished by acquiring adequate ideas of the affects. To reach higher intelligent expressions of human power, reason must regulate passion. As we gain more adequate understanding of the causes acting on us, our power (or freedom) increases. Such freedom is realizable through the exercise of reason and reflection. A person's goal is to attain a relative adequacy that will increase his powers of intellectual and physical self-determination in place of passive, self-enslaving passions. This involves acting to escape the constraints and to embrace the possibilities and necessitates an enactive enhancement of individual power and autonomy. The mind is active only in so far as it understands adequate ideas. This understanding is the basis of virtue. In fact, the effort to understand is the primary and sole foundation of virtue.

          According to Spinoza, adequate ideas are formed in an orderly and rational manner in three stages including sense experience (and imagination), reason, and intuition. If a mind reaches the level of scientia intuitiva it realizes its actual nature and sees individual things for what they truly are. Understanding through this type of knowledge is under the aspect of eternity and in relation to God. Spinoza was optimistic with respect to the cognitive powers of human beings for understanding the nature of the individual human person and other organisms and their place in the natural order of the world. Spinoza explains that a person whose mind is made up mainly by adequate ideas participates more fully in eternity than a man whose mind is constituted largely by inadequate ideas. He says that a man's intellect is eternal as part of God's infinite intellect. Genuine understanding of the universe is the form of a person's participation in the absolute and eternal God-substance. The human mind is part of the infinite intellect of God, and, when the mind knows, it is God who knows and who is known to the extent that he can be explained through the nature of the human mind. A person of higher understanding is aware of a certain eternal necessity of himself, of objects, and of God. As a result, he enjoys peace of mind and self-control.

          Spinoza's free person experiences calmness of mind and experiences good and bad events with equanimity. By living under the guidance of reason, a person will enjoy the pleasure of self-contentment. He will concentrate on doing those things that are most important to him and he will take care of others. For Spinoza, virtue involves the seeking of one's own advantage. The virtue of courage is the desire of an individual to endeavor to preserve his own being according to the dictates of reason alone. In addition, nobility is the virtue of a person to attempt to help others and to be friends with them. Man is aware of his kinship with, and similarity to, others. Recognizing man's natural sociality, Spinoza states that it is natural to pursue the happiness of our fellow men.

          According to Spinoza, the free individual does not fear eternal punishment nor does he expect eternal rewards in some after-life. He is not concerned with notions such as apocalypse, redemption, and so on. Such a man realizes that the mind (or soul) is not immortal in any personal sense but that it does have a particular type of eternity. The human mind, being part of the intellect of God, cannot be destroyed absolutely with the body. There is something of it that remains which is eternal. Although Spinoza holds a doctrine of personal identity, he does not hold a doctrine of personal immortality.

          Spinoza provides the moral world with an immanent basis. His metaphysics and ethics are inextricably connected. He says that to act in accordance with our nature is to act virtuously. The purpose of his ethics is free people to live in the world as it is without distracting themselves by appealing to a transcendent divine providence. In his ethical naturalism, ethical propositions are explainable in terms of natural propositions. Spinoza's goal was to bridge gaps and reconcile schisms such as God versus Nature, determinism versus freedom, fact versus value, mental versus physical, eternity versus temporality, reason versus passion, objective versus subjective, etc.

          Spinoza explains mental phenomena as grounded in the objective natural world and moral values as rooted in the objective characteristics of the universe. He views the study of the mind and the study of ethics to be deeply intertwined ethics is a function of the understanding mind. By nature, the domain of the mind is ethical in character.

          Spinoza's ethics is organized around the search for the highest good, the achievement of the highest human perfection, which once attained will guarantee happiness. The good is whatever makes a person more perfect and it is up to each individual to evaluate or judge what is good and what is bad. For Spinoza, something is useful and, therefore valuable, if it increases a person's power of action. It is obvious that Spinoza's value theory is connected to his metaphysics. He says that if something agrees with our nature then it cannot be bad and that a useful thing is valuable in relation to a particular agent. Although value is relative to a man's essence as a rational being, it is also objectively valuable because it is grounded on a standard independent of subjective attitudes.

          Although maintaining that goods are only valuable relative to particular individuals, Spinoza argues that some goods have value which does not change with the person or the circumstances. He distinguishes between circumstantially valuable goods and non-circumstantially valuable goods. According to Spinoza, goods for the body can be truly valuable and good, but what leads to understanding is certainly valuable and good. He says that knowledge of God is the mind's greatest good. Knowledge of God is always useful and is thus non-circumstantially valuable. Whereas some knowledge is useful in some circumstances and for some persons but not for other persons, knowledge of God is always beneficial to every individual. Knowledge of God is knowledge of nature including the principles, laws, and rules by which nature operates.


          According to Spinoza, the state of nature is characterized by the primacy of the individual. Civil society arises when men recognize the advantages of society with respect to the enhancement of their power as individuals. Spinoza emphasizes that the individual retains his natural right when he enters civil society. These free individuals will comprise a harmonious society as long as men live according to the guidance of reason rather than according to their passion. In a society in which all persons live by the direction of reason there will be no need for a political authority to restrict people's actions. Unfortunately, human beings do not always live under the guidance of reason. It follows that a sovereign or state is necessary in order to ensure through the threat of force that individuals are protected from the unrestrained forceful pursuit of self-interest on the part of other individuals.

          Spinoza teaches that the state must be deduced from the common nature of man. He sees the real purpose of the state as freedom. He conceives of the state as an expression of the rational order of the universe. As an institution, the state is the rational embodiment of checks upon the irrational power of the populace. Spinoza explains that sovereign authority is required to maintain stability for the sake of its citizens' potential flourishing. Holding that the origin and purpose of the state is security, he emphasizes that morality is not the concern of the state. The state has no moral foundation. It is devoid of normative principles. Spinoza understood that the scope of morality was deeper and wider than the scope of politics. The state comes into being because social order (i.e., peace) is a necessary condition for the exercise of individuals' power of self-preservation. A person is free to the degree that he rationally decides what ends are in his interest.

          Spinoza explains that a person is free in society whenever the state is ruled by reason. In such a state, political freedom involves the least possible encroachment on personal freedom including the exercise of one's judgment. Spinoza's prescriptive political philosophy suggests that state force be limited to providing peace and social order. Such a minimalist state would leave people free to pursue their own projects. The sovereign's power does not extend to all aspects of an individual's life.

          For Spinoza, the proper objects of desire are: (1) to know things by their primary or first causes; (2) to control one's passions (or to acquire virtuous habits); and (3) to live one's life in safety, security, and physical well-being. The means of attaining the first two reside in the nature of man himself and depend solely upon the laws of human nature. Politics applies to only the third classification because the means to insure security of life and conservation of the body lie mainly in external circumstances. This implies the need for a society with definite and uniform laws.

          Morality is excluded from Spinoza's political theory. He understood that politics is not appropriate for the production of virtue. Morality surpasses the political. Politics is pertinent to providing security and physical well-being and not to ethical matters. Politics is concurred with peace and commodious living which are necessary, but not sufficient, conditions for attaining the good. However, their achievement is far removed from, and has little to do with, character development and substantive morality. According to Spinoza, political theory should not be concerned with morality and morality cannot be reduced to a matter of rights nor to the operation of the state which comes about through social cooperation and agreement as a means of attaining social order.

          Social contract, for Spinoza, is based on the desire for individual freedom. People desire a stable political community to provide a substantial degree of personal freedom particularly regarding freedom to philosophize and on freedom of religious expression. Spinoza argues that the security and stability of society is enhanced by freedom of thought. He explains that individuals exercise their judgment by natural right and that no one, including the state, has the power to command the thoughts of another person.

          Spinoza states the expression should be limited only when it directly obstructs the main purpose of the state. It is only in the most extreme cases that the state has the right to restrict expression. It is permissible to express different and conflicting opinions up to the point of defiance of all law and order (i.e., sedition). It is acceptable to speak against particular state actions but not against the state's right to make and enforce laws. Spinoza explains that broad toleration of expression is a basic component of any social contract. According to his perfectionist concept of toleration, the more the state is tolerant, the more likely and more readily it will be for individuals to be tolerant in their lives. Spinoza's argument for tolerance is integral to his more comprehensive idea of human flourishing.

          Spinoza maintains that the main threat to freedom comes from church ministers who depend upon fear and superstitions to gain and to keep power. He explains that some clergy want to use politics as a means for resolving theological disputes or for seeking dominance. He wanted to free the public square of clerical politician-preachers overwhelmed with their own holiness. Some clergy advance claims as a means to divide government and pave the way to their own ascendancy to power. Spinoza, like Epicurus, saw religion as a major source of the world's problems as religious claims and doctrinal differences often intensify into religious wars. He observes that legislation of beliefs was a major source of religious schisms. Schisms emerge from efforts of authorities to decide through law the intricacies of theological controversies. He also emphasizes the danger to public stability from the existence of a diversity of religious sects and ceremonial rites of worship. Spinoza wanted that state to have sufficient power to effectively battle the clergy and their various brands of intolerance. Desiring to remove religion as a disturbing factor in politics, Spinoza advocated the subordination of religion to politics. This, he said, would prevent sectarianism and the multiplication of religious battles.

          Spinoza's goal was to divest the clergy of all political power by placing authority over the practice of religion in the hands of the state. He did not want to abolish religion but he did want to protect the state from the diverse judgments of the many. Spinoza suggests that the sovereign should have total dominance in all secular and spiritual public matters. The state is thus charged with keeping all members of society to the agreement of the social contract through its absolute powers with respect to public affairs. Spinoza emphasizes the need for the preservation of unity within the state. He thus calls for rights of the sovereign free of restriction so that the sovereign may be strong enough to protect individuals from both social and clerical intolerances.

          Spinoza's position is that the state has the same absolute right to command regarding spiritual rights as it does with respect to temporal rights. By spiritual rights, Spinoza refers to outward observances of piety and external religious rites and not to the inward worship of God nor to piety itself. His goal is to secure freedom from speculative doctrines and ceremonial practices. He therefore places all questions regarding external ceremonies and rites in the hands of the state. Spinoza subordinates religious authority and activities to political authority. Outward religious practices encroach upon the beliefs and relationships of citizens and thus fall under state interests. Freedom of religious diversity is to be permitted among the citizens but this liberty is limited to private worship and belief. Spinoza's goal is to divorce politics from the traditional types of religious authority.

          Spinoza argues for a minimal rational religion determined by the state. There is to be no church separate from the religion instituted by, and regulated by, the state. He had studied scripture in a similar way as he studied nature and concluded that the Bible and other religious texts were filled with speculative and inadequate views. He saw no legitimate purpose in arguing from authority, opinion, or superstition. Desiring a minimal number of theoretical propositions for religion, he looked for a form of rational religion that was in accord with the requirements of universal human morality. Spinoza concludes that the sovereign should require adherence to no more than a minimal creed that was neutral regarding competing sects. He therefore interprets and boils down all religions to the ideas of justice and charity. He maintained that just and kind behaviors were to be the pillars of religious belief. Spinoza says that the only moral lesson that we should take from the Bible is to obey God which he interprets to mean to love one's neighbor as oneself. The universal message of scripture is that the law of God commands only that we know and love God and take the actions necessary for achieving that condition.

          According to Spinoza, to love one's neighbor is to respect his rights. By restricting the authority of organized religion to precise rules defined by the sovereign, Spinoza believes he has liberated reason from the perils of superstition without eradicating the valuable effects of faith. The universal covenant he suggests would take the place of various special covenants and would have been deduced from the principles of morality.

          On the other hand, Spinoza says that inward worship of God would be exempt from the authority of the state. Inward piety belongs exclusively to the individual. He observes that a person's inward opinions and feelings are not directly available to the sovereign. It follows that the best approach for the sovereign is to establish the rule that religion is comprised only of justice and charity and that the rights of the sovereign in religious matters (as well as in secular ones) will simply pertain to actions.

          Spinoza states that freedom of thought and speech must be sustained. No one can control or limit another person's thoughts. He adds that it is risky for the state to attempt to exercise rights over speech. It is also impossible to achieve. In addition, as an advocate of democracy, Spinoza contends that freedom of speech must be allowed in order to express the natural differences among men. Spinoza suggests a self-limitation of the sovereign regarding religious speech. The state's toleration of nonestablished religions would be viewed as a discretionary matter instead of as toleration of religious speech.

          Spinoza preferred democracy over monarchy as the best form of government. He understood that democratic power was the best political foundation for the realization of individual freedom. It distributed power with respect to public affairs as widely as possible. Democracy is congruent with Spinoza's horizontal metaphysics. Democracy reflects the state of nature by restricting the right of elected officials to the amount of their individual power. In addition, the natural heterogeneity of human beings underpins the heterogeneity of their individual amounts of power. Democracy mirrors the state of nature as it recognizes in its structure the differences among individuals. Spinoza also says that it is proper to treat all citizens as equals because the power of each, in regard to the entire state, is negligible. His defense of democracy is a defense of the conditions that make philosophy possible. By philosophy he means the then-new materialist science and secular study. Spinoza wanted to preserve philosophy from the superstitious corruptions of competing organized religions. He did not want to confound philosophy and theology.