Understanding Spinoza

If you are ever going to get more than a brief understanding of pantheism then it is vital to get to grips with understanding Spinoza. Spinoza was not the first pantheist, but he is probably the most influential pantheist since the time of the enlightenment. The decline of theism and the rise of alternative beliefs can be traced back directly and indirectly to Spinoza. He was not only a chief architect in the rise and success of science; he was also a fundamental force behind the gradual decline of theological authority. Understanding Spinoza is not easy, but the difficulties involved in grasping his ideas are no less worthy of making the effort.

If you were to take a random page and quote form Spinoza’s main work, the ethics, you will no doubt find a sentence in which you understand all of the individual words. Yet I am reasonably sure that you would also find a sentence which is seemingly incomprehensible too. For example: The first axiom that Spinoza presents is “Everything which exists, exists either in itself or in something else.”

An axiom is something that is assumed to be self evidently true, so Spinoza must have presented this axiom as something which he believed to be one of nature’s ultimate and self evident truths. The whole of Spinoza’s philosophy is set out in this way. He begins with a set of definitions, which he then uses to write his axioms. He then moves to working out how the universe must be given his definitions and on the assumption that his axioms are in fact true. To that extent his work is a work in logic, similar to a Euclidean system. It is probably the case that if you were to agree and accept just one of his axioms then you are logically committed to accepting his other axioms which follow rationally and necessarily from each other. In doing this Spinoza creates a set of principles and consequently a metaphysical system which he considers to be how the universe must be.

To take the first step towards understanding Spinoza it is necessary to put into context the time in which he wrote. He lived in the mid seventeenth century and wrote in response to the work of Descartes. Descartes had proposed that the world consisted of two types of thing, matter and the mind, and his system was designed to show that the world of the material was comprehensible to the mind. Spinoza picked up on the inconsistencies in Descartes writings and determined that he would make them right. In doing so he demoted God form the realm of theistic interpretation and placed God on a par with the universe or nature. Descartes had worked around the theistic belief that society insisted upon, and came up with what was an inconsistent philosophy. Spinoza ignored the requirements of the church and wrote as he saw the truth to be. He stood by the world of rationalism and followed rationality to wherever it took him. He knew that his views would not be acceptable to the church so his work was not published until after his death. Such were the circumstances that thinkers had to live under before men like Spinoza had changed how society viewed rational enquiry.

Prior to Descartes and Spinoza, there was no belief that the world was understandable. Part of the programme that they instigated was the idea that human beings had the capability of investigating and understanding the world around them. The church had always claimed that knowledge was something that could only be found in scripture. That all knowledge was in the bible and thus mankind had no other means of understanding the universe. Descartes and Spinoza amongst others challenged and ultimately changed all of that. Not only did they show that the world was understandable, they demonstrated that a rational enquiry was the best route to knowledge.

When it comes to understanding Spinoza there are two very different but equally important sides to his story. The first is his philosophy. His philosophy has been picked up and held high by many notables in the past 350 years. He has influenced the metaphysical poets; Wordsworth, Coleridge and Shelley for example. He influenced the philosophy of Hegel and Kant. In the twentieth century he was also a source of much inspiration for Godel and probably most notably Einstein who was never short of a reference to the God of Spinoza. Most impressively his philosophy still stands as one of the greatest metaphysical systems that has ever been produced and is still as impressive despite mans great strides in knowledge over the past three centuries. Spinoza’s metaphysics has endured throughout the last three hundred years in which countless other ideas have been and gone.

This longevity is down to the thoroughness that Spinoza put into his philosophy. He grasped fundamental principles and he squeezed them until he had understood the logical consequences of all that followed from those principles. He didn’t shy away from the conclusions that he was forced to make based on rationality. He developed a system which was free from inconsistency and which rationally he felt obliged to accept. For me one of the greatest achievements of Spinoza was his insistence to have faith in the tools that God endowed him with. God gave him his rational faculty and Spinoza chose to use that God given gift to the end. He relied on it over and above the theocratic powers that persecuted those who spoke against them. In understanding Spinoza, one of the most important aspects to remember is that he followed God more closely and dutifully than any of those who would accuse him of being a heretic.