Essays and Reviews
by Terry Whalen
Ethics of Spinoza*
first reading of the Ethics is apt to be repellant.
To our day, the artificial form of proof that is used
seems not only inartistic and childlike, but quite useless.
And indeed it is so: Spinoza's genius is that of the
thinker, not of the creative writer.
reading his work, however, one must remember that in
his century it was a common thought that the world could
be explained in some one simple way, if only that way
might be found. All the varied discoveries of modern
science in its manifold branches were yet in the future.
Man was even more a child in knowledge then, than now.
Fewer unsolved problems of the physical world pressed
for an answer at his curious hands.
far narrower range of vision fired his imagination,
nor urged him along unknown ways with a vehemence of
despair. There was such a vast collection of physical
facts to which no explanation could be found, and which
yet seemed quite capable of explanation, that when gradually
they came to be arranged and understood and expounded
by the scientists and thinkers of the time, and ultimate
explanation of all facts and all problems was naturally
looked for, and the hope was confidently held that some
single word-formula would one day be discovered. This
is the goal towards which they moved on. Ever[y] investigation
in the world of matter and in the world of mind had
this for an aim, either consciously or unconsciously.
But now it is not so. The Scientist and the philosopher
of today have not the encouragement of so fair a prospect.
We have come nearer the limits of knowledge, and begin
to grope in the borderland of sleep. The realm of created
things that at the same time are unknown and unexplained,
grows less and less. In their construction microscopes
and telescopes have a strict limit at present. They
can be improved only on certain conditions, which we
have been unable to bring about by any processes so
far discovered. Chemical analysis too, has in some sense
completed the circuit of its sphere. We have gone a
little higher up the slope and the horizon seems vaguer
and farther than before. We faithfully and confidently
persist in observation, but we smile at the thought
of finding in our own day the Master Mind,-whose hand
shall hold the keys of all thought,-whose truth shall
make us free.
is with a remembrance of this that the Ethics must be
briefly and roughly, it was Spinoza's idea that the
world is a unit. There is one entity, one existence,
one thing, one substance,-as he calls it-that is God.
The world of Mind and the world of Matter are only manifestations
of him, are only expressions of God's existence in the
two aspects that Man can perceive,-the aspects of thought
this consideration of God and His Nature, the first
part of the ethics is devoted.
God." he means "A being absolutely infinite."
But we must be careful to use the word "Being"
in a primary sense, remembering its verbal-substantive
derivation as well as its present meaning of individual
himself has guarded his statement thus "that is"
he says "a substance consisting in infinite attributes,
of which each expresses eternal and infinite essentiality."
by attribute he has said that he means that which the
intellect perceives as constituting the essence of substances.
Now the intellect can only perceive two attributes,
thought and extension. These then are the only two attributes
which it is possible for us to predicate of God. But
we must not affirm that these are the only attributes
of God, for He is infinite, and we must suppose Him
endowed with an infinite number of infinite attributes.
substance too, he means that which is in itself
"It must, then, necessarily be admitted that the
existence of substances as its essence is an eternal
truth." He then proceeds to show that there is
but one substance.
a true definition of a thing makes no reference to anything
outside of the thing defined. Thus there is no reason
given for number, no reason why a certain number of
any one class of things should exist. And yet each individual
thing has a reason for its existence. So that we much
believe the existence of just such a number of things,
no more, and no less, is dependent on some cause outside
of the things themselves. But existence was included
in the definition of substance, and so to avoid the
absurdity of saying there are two causes of the existence
of substance, and extrinsic and an intrinsic cause,-we
are driven to the conclusion that all substance is one
then proceeds to restate some of his definitions in
the more elaborate form of propositions. He seems no
content with saying that by substance he means that
which is in itself, and that by God he means the ultimate
substance; but he indulges in whole pages of what seem
to be more pueritities, in attempting to reinforce with
geometrical deduction and conclusion, his proof of the
existence of God.
result one would think would be equally revolting to
Atheist and Christian. To the one it would be childishly
weak, to the other painfully ludicrous and superfluous.
Not that we should not argue concerning God and his
existence, but these sophistries are so utterly simple
and so absurdly elaborated that all the proper dignity
of enquiry after truth is lost. Have we not long ago
left such things to the Jesuits and schoolmen whom Spinoza
despised? Today, I think has little use for such a fog-bucket
in the void of darkness. Spinoza has all the simplicity
and arrogance of a child, and though his life was a
scrap of calm sublimity, he often shows a lack of childish
sweetness and wisdom.
to go on; his best proof of the indivisibility of substance
is this: The nature of substance is essentially infinite,
and to divide it would leave it finite in part,-would
be to make a finite substance, which is absurd.
is only one God. For as God is absolutely infinite He
must be endowed with every attribute, and if any other
substance were granted to exist it would have to be
explained as some attribute of God (since God has all
attributes) and then there would be two substances,
with one attribute, which is absurd, for Substances
can only be distinguished by their attributes, and if
these are identical the substances are one. Spinoza
is very severe on all who think that God has, or can
have, a body or mind. In demolishing them he shows more
warmth that he usually allows to appear in his argument.
But why may not an infinite God be allowed to have a
finite personality and a particular individual mind
if it so please Him? It may be very absurd to attribute
such things to God, and Spinoza may be quite right in
resisting the assertion that he has these, or any such
finite qualities, but on the other hand, has Spinoza
any more ground for asserting positively that God has
position was very strong so long as he merely denied
that we can know anything positively and intimately
of Matter, but when he went a step farther and himself
asserted that matter does not exist his position became
as weak as that of his adversaries.
when we shovel away much of Spinoza's verbosity and
come at his ideas, we shall find much sanity in him.
"God is the indwelling, and not the transient Cause
of all things." "God, and all the attributes
of God, are eternal." "The existence of God
and His essence are one of the same."
Spinoza the two attributes of God manifest themselves
in different modes of extension and also of thought.
The mind of any particular man is a mode of thought,
and the body of any particular man is a mode of extension;
the two taken together make the mere man, and these
two attributes of God are merely different aspects of
the same truth, for the ultimate substance manifests
itself in infinite ways indeed, but to Man in only two
ways, thought and extension. So that Man is only one
of the manifestations of God. And God acts with perfect
freedom, but at the same time in accordance with eternal
law, fulfilling his own perfection of being.
is the old story of Jesus, whom the Greeks said was
King of Heaven; but soon they must believe in the Fates,
to whom the Will of Jesus has to bow.
so the Will of God is no more free than the Will of
Man. But let us consider. In the physical world all
laws are fixed and eternal, but the Will of Man is able
to impress itself on them. Stand in front of a steam
trip-hammer and see it fall stroke after stroke. There
some of the power that holds the stars in their courses
is brought into use. I may or may not lay my finger
on the anvil. If I do so, my hand will be maimed, but
not only that,-the condition of the hammer's machinery
is not unaffected. The difference in its swing is inappreciable,
but not the less sure. I have thrust my hand into the
cogs of the world machinery and have altered their course.
I fall in the street the balance of the earth is not
quite what it was before. But these effects are so minute
that they do not impress us as having any difference
on what we call the immutable laws of Nature. My injury,
too, is so small that the world will hardly count it
a loss, and yet however soon my finger may be replaced
by other eager hands, the working world is certainly
poorer at the time by just so much skill as I am master
of. Yet the world would never say that I had injured
it, but only that I had blundered and hurt myself.
the laws of the moral world are no less fast and sure.
I cannot oppose them without being myself much more
severely injured than anyone else. If there were only
one man in the world he would sin. The sin of Adam and
Eve was not against society but against themselves,
individually, rather than mutually.
are linked to the chain of world-change and circumstance.
We are a part of all the universe, subject to its laws
and its life and its death. We are higher forms of a
manifold and varied expression of Material and Mental
Activity at one with all Nature. This we feel, and know
that we are slaves. But why and how? The brute-mind
does not know it,-has no foreknowledge of death. Only
because we are more than a part of, and a development
from, all the rest,-only because the spirit is divine
and knows its descent and its destiny, do we feel how
the fetters bind us.
us be of the earth wholly, and the theory of free-will
will be of no importance to us,-will have no meaning,
let us be of heaven wholly, and it will be all clear.
such is not our fate, and between the two possibilities
Man is living awhile in suspense.
not thy days herein thou child of light!
This is a school whose learning is grown blind
With seeking its own cyphers long-lost key,
Which never its dullard memory can find.
in his bare long room, behold the light
Fall fair across the Master's face and show
More of God's beauty in the life of Man
Than centuries of sophistry like this can know!
Ethics" [Essay for Josiah Royce], Jan 10, 1887.
Published in Harvard Monthly, Feb. 1888 [back]