Summary of Spinoza’s Ethics

Spinoza EthicsToday, we live a world deeply divided, where people derive life’s meaning from two incompatible sources, religion and science. To Benedict De Spinoza, this would have been a false dichotomy (like much else), as Spinoza, in his 1677 masterpiece titled Ethics, paved a brilliant path that reconciles both our spiritual tendencies and our rational capacities.

Spinoza’s ethics is, principally, about how to live the good life and achieve true freedom through a deeper understanding of reality. But, before can grapple with his moral philosophy and reconcile spirituality with reason, we we must first consider the true nature of reality as described by Spinoza.

This first step is not easy; in fact, Spinoza identified two common mental biases that prevent people from conceiving reality’s true nature and thereafter living a virtuous life. It is therefore necessary to clear the mind of these biases before fully understanding the nature of reality and virtue.

Clearing the mind for Spinoza’s ethics

Spinoza’s ethics flow from his metaphysics, and his conception of reality is wholly consistent with his thoughts regarding living the good life. But his conception of reality is not the common view; in fact, two psychological tendencies present sources of delusion that prevent us from fully embracing Spinoza’s ethical vision: 1) false dichotomy, and 2) psychological projection.

1. False dichotomy

One idea that seems to run through all the great philosophers is the idea of unity in diversity. Spinoza perhaps takes this furthest, as he claims that mind and matter, God and nature, are not different things but rather manifestations of the same unitary substance. The metaphysics gets complex, and we won’t address it fully, but we can lay out his thought in outline.

First, the mind is wired to categorize—our senses deliver information about the world in delimited ways so that our brains are not overwhelmed by a flood of undifferentiated sensory data. We group things according to similarities and differences, to aid survival, but the manner in which we group objects and ideas says more about our psychology than it does about the external world.

To Spinoza, all material objects—bodies, planets, rivers, mountains, objects—are modes or changing manifestations of a single substance that does not change. For example, you can think of material objects and bodies as manifestations of the laws of physics, while the laws of physics themselves are the unchanging substance by which everything comes into being.

The mind wants to categorize the physical manifestations, or modes of being, and the laws of physics as two separate things, but to Spinoza it is all one thing differently expressed.

The same goes for mind and matter: mind doesn’t cause matter to move, and matter does not cause mind to think; rather, matter and mind are part of the same substance differently expressed.

So, Spinoza thinks that one substance (“God” or “Nature”) has an infinite number of attributes, but that humans know of only two: extension (matter) and thought (mind). But again, extension and thought are manifestations of one and the same substance, and are therefore metaphysically identical.

This may help to clarify Spinoza’s views on God. Spinoza doesn’t, as is commonly asserted, equate God with nature exactly, if, by nature, you mean the physical manifestations (rocks, trees, rivers, etc.). God is, rather, the underlying substance from which all physical manifestations arise. And so, the concept of God as taking a corporeal form, or as having the characteristics of humans, with senses and emotions and the like, is incoherent to Spinoza. In fact, to Spinoza God is indifferent to and above any human concerns and forms the framework by which all physical manifestations arise.

As such, there can be no use for prayer, as there is no possibility for “divine intervention” beyond the natural order that can be discovered via our reason. Additionally, the Bible, while containing some truth and wisdom, is to be read metaphorically or allegorically, not literally.

As you reflect on this line of thinking, you discover that it neatly resolves several problems (how convincingly it does so is of course a matter of debate):

  • The mind-body problem is resolved as mind and matter do not cause each other but are simply manifestations of the same substance.
  • The “problem of evil” in the world is resolved when one recognizes that the universe was not created for the sole benefit of human beings.
  • The ultimate nature of the universe, as described by the laws of physics, is the ultimate purpose of the universe, by which all is manifested and nothing is external.

Now, if you don’t buy into this idea of unity and false dichotomy, claims Spinoza, then you are particularly liable to the next bias, psychological projection.

2. Psychological projection

Psychological projection is the projection of your own personal desires, interests, or preferences onto others or onto the universe itself. It is blatantly manifested in all the world’s religions and the common conceptions of God. As Spinoza wrote:

“When you say that if I deny, that the operations of seeing, hearing, attending, wishing, and the like, can be ascribed to God, or that they exist in him in any eminent fashion, you do not know what sort of God mine is; I suspect that you believe there is no greater perfection than such as can be explained by the aforesaid attributes. I am not astonished; for I believe that, if a triangle could speak, it would say, in like manner, that God is eminently triangular, while a circle would say that the divine nature is eminently circular. Thus each would ascribe to God its own attributes, would assume itself to be like God, and look on everything else as ill-shaped.

This is of course reminiscent of the quote by the ancient Greek philosopher Xenophanes:

“But if cattle and horses and lions had hands or could paint with their hands and create works such as men do, horses like horses and cattle like cattle also would depict the gods’ shapes and make their bodies of such a sort as the form they themselves have…Ethiopians say that their gods are snub-nosed and black, Thracians that they are pale and red-haired…There is one god, greatest among gods and men, similar to mortals neither in shape nor in thought.

For Xenophanes and Spinoza, it is obvious that whatever being is able to contemplate God will assign to God their own inherent qualities. But there is no reason to suppose, based on our psychological tendency to engage in this behavior, that God should be expected to contain our own imperfect characteristics. God, in the common use of the term, is merely a product of our psychology and vanity.

Likewise, the universe does not have to conform to the perceptual filters of our minds, nor does it need to group itself according to the way our minds group sensory data. In fact, it doesn’t, and with enough reflection the philosopher can see through the superficial diversity of physical manifestation and recognize the unity of all substance.

Indeed, the constant division and categorization by humanity is the cause of most of our problems. If we could see through the superficiality and constant anthropomorphizing we could discover the true foundation of morality.

All of this, unsurprisingly, got Spinoza excommunicated from the Jewish community, to which Spinoza replied:

“Those who wish to seek out the cause of miracles and to understand the things of nature as philosophers, and not to stare at them in astonishment like fools, are soon considered heretical and impious, and proclaimed as such by those whom the mob adores as the interpreters of nature and the gods. For these men know that, once ignorance is put aside, that wonderment would be taken away, which is the only means by which their authority is preserved.”

Spinoza wasn’t impressed with many Christians either, as he wrote, elsewhere:

“I have often wondered, that persons who make a boast of professing the Christian religion, namely, love, joy, peace, temperance, and charity to all men, should quarrel with such rancorous animosity, and display daily towards one another such bitter hatred, that this, rather than the virtues they claim, is the readiest criterion of their faith.”

It is rather obvious, considering just these two quotes, why Spinoza was excommunicated and seen as a radical. But he may have also be on to something: namely, that the belief in God or our spiritual inclinations do not require either 1) the surrender of our critical faculties, or 2) the division of humanity into mutually exclusive sects battling against each other. The truth is more inclusive, and unitary.

The reconciliation of spirituality and reason

If we strip away the false dichotomies and psychological projections, organized religion disappears but “God” or “nature” does not, in the sense that all physical manifestations are derived from a single substance, differentially expressed.

This idea rather brilliantly synthesizes both the religious impulse to believe in a higher order and the scientific wonder at the size, scope, and nature of the universe. While most religions have historically been hostile to science and reason, for Spinoza, science and reason present the primary path to achieve “the intellectual love of God.”

Further, since nature and reason can never be contrary to each other, only knowledge can represent the real source of power and freedom, and the only permanent happiness is the pursuit of knowledge and the joy derived from understanding.

Spinoza, in On the Improvement of the Understanding, tells us why he gave up everything for philosophy:

“After experience had taught me that all the usual surroundings of social life are vain and futile; seeing that none of the objects of my fears contained in themselves anything either good or bad, except in so far as the mind is affected by them, I finally resolved to inquire whether…there might be anything of which the discovery and attainment would enable me to enjoy continuous, supreme, and unending happiness…All happiness or unhappiness solely depends upon the quality of the object to which we are attached by love…But love for an object eternal and infinite feeds the mind with joy alone, and a joy which is free from all sorrow. This is something greatly to be desired and to be sought with all our strength…The greatest good is the knowledge of the union which the mind has with the whole of nature…the more things the mind knows, the better does it understand its own strength and the order of nature; by increased self-knowledge, it can direct itself more easily, and lay down rules for its own guidance; and, by increased knowledge of nature, it can more easily avoid what is useless.”

The greatest good cannot lie in objects that are scarce or subject to competition, such as wealth or fame, or in things that are fleeting, such as sensory pleasure, but rather in things that are equally available to all without limit, i.e., knowledge and its unobstructed pursuit.

So we can see that the conflict should not be between religion and science, but rather between dogma and philosophy, between superficial versus deep contemplation of the world. This is why Spinoza wrote, “The endeavor to understand is the first and only basis of virtue,” and, “The desire to do good generated in us by our living according to the guidance of reason, I call morality.”

We are all led by our passions, but we can counter our more destructive passions with an intellectual passion guided by reason. We necessarily act of our own self-interest, but if we fully comprehend Spinoza’s message, we will realize that:

“Men who are good by reason—i.e., men who, under the guidance of reason, seek what is useful to them—desire nothing for themselves which they do not also desire for the rest of mankind.”



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