An Analysis of Benedict de Spinozas Ethics

Benedict de Spinoza was an influential Dutch philosopher of the 17th century who opposed Descartes ideas of dualism and an autocratic God. Spinozas philosophy centered on concepts that were heavily influenced by Rationalism and Greek Stoicism. His greatest work, Ethics, emphasizes the oneness of God and substance, or Nature, and reconciles many other opposing concepts under the banner of monistic metaphysics.

Monism. Spinozas Ethics seeks to find substantial essence in the midst of reality. It seeks to unify all truths and seek the highest of all generalizations. The term substance was ascribed by Spinoza to the inner being or essence of something. It should, however, not to be misconstrued as the constituent material of physical things like sodium and chlorine making up table salt.
According to Spinoza, substance is nature or God. He further states in Ethics that except God no substance can be or be conceived (The Ethics). This belief in the oneness of the substance that permeates the whole universe is called Monism and I personally agree with this proposition of Spinozas.

It is true that this idea of monism may not be shared by many of the worlds religions that presuppose the dualistic existence of good and evil but it certainly reminds us of that almost nonexistent thin gray line that we have always used to judge whether things are good or evil, black or white, and so on. For Spinoza, this thin gray line does not exist and has never existed.

Using the context of good and evil, based on Spinozas Ethics, what we label as good may be nothing but merely things favorable to us or things that conform to the teachings of a particular religion  both of which are arbitrary. In a similar way, what is considered evil may be anything that falls short of our standards of goodness or anything that does not conform to a particular religious doctrine. Thus we have the problem of classifying any act as either good or evil. If someone wants to shoot you for no reason at all and you shoot him first, is your act good or evil. I believe Spinoza would have answered, Neither.

Although some may claim that one thing has two natures, i.e., good and evil or black and white, and so on, I still agree with Spinoza that only one thing and one nature exists because of the mere fact that the distinction between two possible natures cannot be clearly defined, and the difficulty in proving that there can never be more than two natures, plus modern evidence from atomic physics. Thus, if we take for example a book and a piece of rock, we can by virtue of their physical characteristics say that they are both entirely different. However, the substance of a book and a piece of rock are one and the same as proven not necessarily by philosophy but by recent discoveries in subatomic physics which more or less postulate that the smallest of the known particles of matter behave similarly at the subatomic levels. Perhaps if we were to observe everything around us as mere atoms and subatomic particles, we would right away agree with Spinoza, who in the 17th century already possessed such vision.

The Infinite Nature of God. Spinozas God is a being absolutely infinite, that is, a substance consisting of an infinity of attributes, of which each one expresses an eternal and infinite essence (The Ethics). Again, I personally agree with Spinoza in this idea of God. This statement may once more oppose the traditional concept of God in many of the worlds religions and belief systems that suppose God is a loving creator that he is a just deity or that he is an indifferent autocrat.

I believe Spinoza would not disagree with me if I believed that assigning God certain particular labels directly or indirectly limits our idea of him. The problem, I believe, lies in the natural tendency of us humans to project to God our own human qualities and purposes, thinking that God may think and see things just like us and thereby limiting his God-ness in the process. In short, Spinoza, I believe, is telling us that God can be both loving and not loving, just and unjust, and all other attributes as well as their opposites, and I believe that no one has any right whatsoever to say what God only is and only isnt, for that mere act is already trying to limit him. There could be nothing more blasphemous than limiting God to concepts that have merely been institutionalized by humans.

Causal Determinism. The second part of Ethics deals with arguments concerning nature, cause and effect. According to Spinoza, all things have been determined from the necessity of the divine nature to exist and produce an effect in a certain way (The Ethics).

What Spinoza said simply implies that absolutely nothing in this world is contingent, or has existed without a cause. I believe Spinoza would never disagree with me if I reckon he would think that not being able to comprehend the cause of something is simply being ignorant of the underlying cause. Once more, I agree with Spinoza on this.

I personally believe that it is true that everything has a cause in the relative past, which, to illustrate an example, means that a child was born because of a fertilization which took place before birth. However, I do not believe Spinozas Causal Determinism applies to the future, as I personally do not believe in a predestined future. Yes it is true that the child came from the sperm fertilizing the egg, but what the child will become in the future cannot be determined. It is here I believe that man forms his dreams and goals with his free will but I do not believe these dreams necessarily come from God. Spinozas faith in causal determination is sane while the attempts of other philosophers to extend this idea to the relative future are baseless and absurd.

Oneness of Mind and Matter. Spinoza says that thinking substance and extended substance are one and the same thing (The Ethics). This means that mind is not entirely mental and matter is not entirely physical. It also implies that the brain-process and the act produced by such a process are one and the same. Spinoza also further states that the decision of the mind, and the desire and determination of the bodyare one and the same thing (The Ethics).

At this point, I believe, Spinoza lends his philosophy not only to criticisms of religious groups but also to criticisms of the school of Psychoanalysis and all its proponents. Religion as we know it would usually separate the dictates of the spirit from the decisions of the individual, and would often emphasize the constant struggle between mans inner spirit, or the seat of his mind, and his flesh, which is external matter. Spinoza does not make such a distinction and I believe if he were alive today, he would not find any rational basis for the idea of the struggle between flesh and spirit the Freudian theory of Id, Ego and Superego and even the efforts of people in conquering matter through their minds. Nevertheless, I agree with Spinoza on this oneness of mind and matter.

It is true that this idea of oneness may be difficult to comprehend considering the centuries of mental conditioning that has instilled in us the idea of separation of our minds and bodies. Perhaps the highest comprehension some of us can possibly attain is the belief in the Unity, not Oneness, of mind and matter. Nevertheless a belief in unity of mind and matter still implies a belief in their separation and any belief in the separation casts doubt as to whether one will always act in conjunction with the other. Nevertheless I agree with Spinoza that sense perception is just the minds reflection of the bodys physical experiences that the intellect is merely a series of ideas and that the so-called will is nothing but a series of actions (The Ethics).

The Problem of Assigning Terms. The problem, I believe, with human knowledge is that it assigns terms to subtle aspects of the mind and leads people to mistake these as separate entities from the mind. For example, lets say that you have always known your mother as a kind, loving woman who would usually give you praises and compliments. But then one day, she suddenly turned into a cruel, unkind woman whom you did not recognize at all. Would you then think that she is now a different woman from before The truth is, although she may have changed and you may have perhaps for a moment or two forgot who she was, she is still definitely your mother. Similarly, if you believe it is God who has always given you many good things which you consider as blessings, then would you think it is not Him but the devil that is responsible if one day you just suddenly have a road accident
Oneness of Idea and Event. Spinoza states in Ethics that the order and connection of ideas is the same as the order and connection of things (The Ethics). The idea is therefore not distinct from the action but rather it is the first step in a unified process where external action is the final step. I once again agree with Spinoza on this monistic principle.

The notion that an idea is the first part of an event is logical in every sense. One cannot do something without first thinking about it. Conversely, there was nothing that was done that had never been thought of first. The problem is again the assigning of terms. Human convention treats and defines action as something that can be seen on the outside and treats idea separately from it by considering it as a mental, and therefore invisible, concept. However, such a basis of visibility does not serve as logical grounds for considering idea as separate from event.

The so-called New Age culture of the early 21st century somehow adheres to the belief that what you think is something that you will always get and that what is happening to you was what you have exactly thought of previously. In short, you are said to be experiencing the inescapable Law of Attraction. Other groups even go to the extreme by declaring that every idea is already an event, whether or not it has physically manifested. And even some recent psychological approaches make their patients believe that if you think you are a winner, then you are and it goes the same for losers. I then gather from all these that, although Spinozas idea of the oneness of mind and matter is not readily accepted, it is still unconsciously reflected in most human affairs, hence its practicality.

The Nonexistence of Free Will. Spinoza says, Men believe themselves to be free because they are conscious of their own actions and are ignorant of the causes by which they are determined (The Ethics). Spinoza rejects the idea of free will and declares that if an act is independent of external causes, then it must be outside the realm of nature, hence impossible. Free will, is therefore, only a term in the language of the ignorant. Hard as it may seem to a freedom-loving individual like me, I still agree with Spinoza on this.

This aforementioned concept of Ethics is perhaps the most criticized considering that almost everyone in this world fights for human rights, freedom, justice, and human and national independence. Does Spinoza therefore imply the absence of freedom and justice in this world Does he speak of a world where true independence and vindication are but mere human terms for nonexistent concepts Perhaps but not exactly in terms that the average human can immediately comprehend.

Spinoza, I believe, is trying to explain that at the most subtle level, not one of us is really totally free, implying that there are causes to our actions that we do not know of. If, for example, a man falls in love with a woman and he chooses her above the rest, do we then conclude that this act is a visible proof of his free will Spinoza would say otherwise. Anything from the beauty of the woman, the mans desire or need for care and affection, or any other intricately complex series of synaptic reactions that have occurred in the mans brain as soon as he saw the woman may all not be out exactly into words nevertheless, one or two of them may have primarily triggered that thing called love. Free will indeed does not exist.

Love for the Self. In Book Five of Ethics, Spinoza states the rational basis of love for the self
Since reason demands nothing contrary to Nature, it demands that everyone love himself, seek his own advantage, what is really useful to him, want what will really lead a man to greater perfection, and absolutely, that everyone should strive to preserve his own being as far as he can. This, indeed, is as necessarily true as that the whole is greater than its part (The Ethics).

For Spinoza, it is but virtuous to persevere in our being and to do whatever is to our advantage. Spinoza here may be implying that the dictates of reason are egoistic and contrary to altruism yet I believe he has made a good argument for reason and the love for the self, and I agree with him.
The part of Spinozas statement that convinced me to agree with it is the phrase want what will really lead a man to greater perfection. This sets off Spinozas seemingly selfish idea of reason from hedonism. Spinozas idea of rational self-love and self-preservation is clearly grounded on ones duty to seek greater perfection. He also made it clear that the rational mind should exercise power over the passions (The Ethics), therefore emphasizing stoicism rather than hedonism.

What more does this society want than able men who can temper their desires and constantly desire self-improvement I personally believe that it is but rational for society to aim for the survival and self-preservation of rational minds whose aim is greater perfection in order for the society to survive and develop. Spinoza is justified in theorizing this.

Knowledge and Intellectual Love of God. The summum bonum of Spinozas philosophy is summed up in the following words Knowledge of God is the minds greatest good its greatest virtue is to know God (The Ethics). According to Spinoza, the knowledge of God can be equally possessed by everyone who seeks it and it can be sought without any conflict. The mind, he said, strives for understanding, and with God as an infinite substance, it is the greatest thing that the mind can conceive. Therefore, the knowledge of God is the highest form of understanding that can ever be conceived by the human mind. Spinoza also adds that since modes cannot exist external to God, then nothing can ever be conceived apart from God. I agree with this pantheistic summum bonum of Spinoza.

Since nothing exists outside of Spinozas God, it therefore follows that an individuals knowledge of something is either a partial knowledge of God, i.e. a particular knowledge of specific modes, or the complete knowledge of God, for the concept of God is the maximum that can be known. The latter is clearly and logically the highest possible form of understanding  something which I believe is worthy of a spiritual and philosophical quest.

Spinoza may have sounded like a mathematician throughout the entirety of Ethics but in the end he states a practical value of his teaching which somehow sums up the totality of his ethics  the intellectual love of God. According to Spinoza, the knowledge of God causes a feeling of the greatest possible degree of joy in the man who possesses it. Moreover, through this knowledge of God, the individual understands that God is the cause of its own perfection and this very understanding gives rise to the intellectual love of God. Spinoza then gives us one of the very few yet one of the greatest practical statements he has ever written the person who possesses the intellectual love of God is hardly troubled in spirit, but being, by a certain eternal necessity, conscious of himself, and of God, and of things, he never ceases to be, but always possess true peace of mind (The Ethics).

The words above may seem abstract but such is the picture of human blessedness. And as for me, I believe that the whole of Spinozas philosophy teaches the ultimate idea of happiness that this time no religion or any other philosophy can criticize or go against, for Spinozas happiness is the happiness derived from the everlasting existence of being, which is the only basis of true peace of mind.

The great majority of Spinozas Ethics may have been stated in a seemingly rigid, mathematical form. The views and principles of Spinoza such as monism, causal determinism, the oneness of mind and matter and of idea and event, and the nonexistence of free will may have been radical views even during Spinozas time. Yet his concluding statements on the knowledge of God and the intellectual love of God clearly tell us one thing about this brilliant philosopher  that his goal in writing Ethics was to show us the way to this love and happiness through the acceptance and understanding of the most radical of principles. Spinoza allowed himself to be excommunicated so that he may share with us this part of God in him.


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