Editor's comment

Woodbridge's lecture captures the essence of Spinoza's philosophy.

Our philosopher would "carry the reader from a consideration of God to the discovery of human freedom, by leading him to a knowledge of what his mind is, what his emotions are and how they enslave him, and what the power is which can free him from that slavery."



SPINOZA By FREDERICK J. E. WOODBRIDGE [A lecture delivered at Columbia University, January 26, 1933 for the Spinoza tercentenary published in Ethics by Benedict de Spinoza, Hafner Library of Classics, Hafner Publishing Co., New York 1949] [5300 words]

On 27 July, 1656, the Jews of Amsterdam expelled Spinoza from the Congregation of Israel. It is reported of them that they passed judgment upon him in words like these:

The heads of the Ecclesiastical Council hereby make known that already well assured of the evil opinions and doings of Baruch de Espinoza, they have endeavored in sundry ways and by various promises to turn him from his evil courses. But as they have been unable to bring him to any better way of thinking; on the contrary, as they are every day better certified of the horrible heresies entertained and avowed by him, and of the insolence with which these heresies are promulgated and spread abroad, and many persons worthy of credit having borne witness to these in the presence of the said Espinoza, he has been held fully convicted of the same. Review having therefore been made of the whole matter before the Chiefs of the Ecclesiastical Council, it has been resolved, the Councillors assenting thereto, to anathematize the said Espinoza and to cut him off from the people of Israel, and from the present hour to place him in Anathema with the following malediction....

Let him be cursed by the mouths of the Seven Angels who preside over the seven days of the week, and by the mouths of the angels who follow them and fight under their banners. Let him be cursed by the Four Angels who preside over the four seasons of the year, and by the mouths of all the angels who follow them and fight under their banners. Let him be cursed by the mouths of the seven principalities. Let him be cursed by the mouth of the prince of the Law, whose name is Crown and Seal. In a word, let him be cursed by the mouth of the strong, powerful, and dreadful God.

Let God never forgive him his sins. Let the wrath and indignation of the Lord surround him and smoke forever on his head. Let all the curses contained in the book of the Law fall upon him. Let God blot him out of his book. Let God separate him to his own destruction from all the tribes of Israel, and give him for his lot all the curses contained in the Book of the Law....

And we warn you, that none may speak with him by word of mouth nor by writing, nor show any favor to him, nor be under one roof with him, nor come within four cubits of him, nor read any paper composed by him.

The man thus driven out from the fellowship of his own people found no welcome from Christian congregations. They feared his influence and called him atheist. Yet this atheist would have the first commandment this: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy mind.” He would have it this for the unusual reason that he was convinced that God loves all his creatures equally and so has a preferential love for none. God’s care is for the whole of what he has created, not for a part of it preferred to some other part. He has no chosen people. He loves man no more and no less than he loves the sands of the desert. The “atheist” wrote a book to show how this is so. He gave it the odd title Ethica in ordine geometrico demonstrata, or Ethics Geometrically Demonstrated. It has given him a place among the great philosophers, and current interest in its philosophy has led to the commemoration of Spinoza in many parts of the world during the three-hundredth anniversary of the year of his birth, 1632.

Condemned by Christian and Jew alike, with few friends, with little recognition in his own day and for years after, living so largely a life of isolation, persecution, and poverty, Spinoza presents personally a tragic figure. It is natural to picture him among humanity’s saints and martyrs. I shall not, however, try to estimate how far his life reflected the philosophy which he expounded. Just now, my interest, and I would have it yours, is in his convictions and his book. It is not his only book, but it is the one by which he is remembered and which has made his others precious and revealed them as indications of those convictions to which he tried to give final and persuasive expression in the greatest of all his books. Nor shall I attempt to place his book in its historical setting, to deal with it in relation to the preceding currents of philosophical thought which flowed together in the making of it. These are matters for the historian and ought not to be omitted from a course in the history of philosophy. But today is exceptional. We want to remember a great book and what it says to those who are interested in the love of wisdom as that love discloses itself through the years in the words of those who have encouraged it.

Historically considered, Spinoza confronted the philosophical attitude which had found an energizing spokesman in Descartes, with a distillation of scholastic theory, transformed into a theory of nature. With him, to consider God was to consider Nature and to consider Nature was to consider God. He would transform the formula, Deus et natura into Deus sive natura. He confronted modern philosophy, at the start, with the union of that which it deliberately separated — not “God and nature,” but “God or Nature.” The names were irrelevant, that which was named was essential. Spinoza chose the name “God” and made “Nature” its equivalent, because he found in nature not only something to explore, but also something to admire and worship. The order of nature is not fully disposed of in associations for the advancement of science: a man must dispose of it in his living, for it is a disposition in his mind which controls his affections. Something like this may be said in sum about Spinoza’s historical position. I turn to his book.

Its subject is Ethics. If we want to know what ethics is in general, we may go to the dictionary for a definition. We shall find there a variety of definitions conformable to the usage of writers. If we want to know what ethics is for Spinoza, we should go to his book and examine it. It has five parts: the first about God; the second about the origin and nature of the mind; the third about the nature and origin of the affections; the fourth about human slavery or the forces of the affections; the fifth about the power of the intellect or human freedom. On the face of it, the book would carry the reader from a consideration of God to the discovery of human freedom, by leading him to a knowledge of what his mind is, what his affections are and how they enslave him to them, and what the power is which can free him from that slavery. Ethics is thus for Spinoza the study of the life of freedom — the exposition of a way of thinking and the recommendation of a way of living, which, together, will free us from our unruly wills and affections which are the causes of our misery. We would be delivered from them. To get deliverance from them we should begin, not with them, but with God.

In the study of philosophers, I have found it good to try to discover their convictions first and their methods of expounding them second. The attempt to convince another is often unconvincing. It involves an argument, and the following of an argument is something quite different from entertaining a conviction. I am convinced that you are men and women, here in this room on 26 January, 1933. I doubt if you or I doubt this at all. But if I should try to convince you of our mutual convictions, I am sure that you would be more interested in my argument than in being what you are. We should soon be on debatable ground and possibly quarreling about the soundness of the argument. The convictions of philosophers are often more interesting and frequently better than the arguments they use in supporting them. Consideration of the argument is largely a consideration of logical consistency and thorough consistency is difficult to attain. Consideration of convictions leads one to reflect on their character and their power, on what they do or may do to us. Sometimes, when the argument fails to support them, they do not lose their power. It is well, therefore, to find out what a philosopher’s convictions are before worrying much about his argument in support of them.

This is important in the case of Spinoza. His argument is developed in a form unusual and involves words, the sound of which is impressive and the sense obscure. Often, simply by repeating the words, “intellectual intuition,” “infinite substance,” “infinite attributes,” “eternity,” “essence,” “existence finite and infinite,” “the intellectual love of the mind for God is part of the infinite love with which God loves himself” — often simply by repeating such words, one experiences an elevation and mistakes the elevation for clear thinking. It is difficult to express the convictions of Spinoza without using some of these words, but using them is an exhibition of their power even when their sense escapes us. “Slavery” and “freedom” are less troublesome words. We usually know what we mean when we use them. We know what we mean when we say that a man is the slave of habit or convention instead of the master of them. There is slavery to ambition, to prejudice, to riches, to pleasure, to circumstances. There is slavery to the affections, to what we love and hate, to what we hope for and fear; slavery to society, to the state, to the church; to family, to husband, wife, and children. From all such slavery, we think it would be good to be free. We have to pay in some way or other for all that we possess and enjoy, to find ourselves more or less slaves to the price.

Spinoza saw mankind as thus enslaved — creatures in bondage to their affections, to what they love and want, yet wanting what they love in freedom from the bondage which it brings. Above all Spinoza sees us enslaved by what he calls Perturbationes mentis or mental anxiety. We must care for what we love and want and that care is anxious care. We may lose, are daily in danger of losing, all that on which our affections are set. Those things which we call the goods of life, health, wealth, esteem, pleasure, friends, all that we hold dear — all these are precarious. They are held at an anxious risk which impels us to fortify ourselves against it by trying to get security, by concessions to others, by propitiations of others, of the fates, of God, by sacrifices of all sorts. In trying to get security, we must secure ourselves against others. There arise, consequently, hatreds and jealousies and enmities. We may shut and lock ourselves in, but anxiety sits outside on the step, waiting for us to come out. A mind without anxiety, undisturbed and at peace, would be free.

By what methods do people usually try to relieve the great burden of human anxiety? Some by indulgence in pleasure. Spinoza sees in this nothing but folly. It leads to satiety, disgust, disease and final wretchedness. Others try stoical indifference. There is the appearance of nobility in this, and there is certainly courage and fortitude. But it is courage and fortitude, and not freedom from anxiety. It commands the troubled waters of the mind to be still, but does not still them. Stoicism and asceticism of all sorts are really bewilderment in despair, marked by fortitude. Some there are who try to relieve anxiety by cultivating a belief in a god who will be well disposed towards man, if he is properly worshipped and propitiated. This is superstition which leads to religious bigotry and persecution. It is even worse, for it makes of God a whimsical person moved by human likes and dislikes, a jealous god who takes revenge, a judicial god who punishes and rewards, a changeable god who is flattered by attention. More thoughtful people try philanthropy. They encourage the instrumentalities and institutions which work for the lessening of human misery and distress. But philanthropy is medicine, not emancipation. It defines the human problem instead of solving it. It is intensified anxiety. It is, dispassionately considered, only organized slavery to the affections.

As Spinoza saw indulgence, stoicism, the belief in providence and philanthropy, he saw human slavery only magnified. He did not see freedom or anything like it. The closer he examined them the clearer he saw in them exaggerated examples of human bondage, examples of anxious care, of being put to trouble with the consciousness of being put to trouble, and with being put to trouble for one’s reward. This is not freedom. This is not happiness. It is slavery. Philanthropy is good. Thoughtful men will promote it to the best of their ability. They will, however, recognize it as bondage to the affections.

The essential character of this bondage, however, suggests the possibility of escape from it. Here I paraphrase the opening sentence of Spinoza’s unfinished tract on the Improvement of the Understanding. “After experience had taught me how futile life usually is, when I became convinced that things are good and evil, not in themselves, but only as our affections are aroused by them, I finally decided to ask whether there is a true good, one that gives its goodness of itself and by which alone our affections might be aroused; nay, rather, whether there were something which when found and possessed, could be kept forever with perfect and unbroken joy.” This sentence converts the slavery into the possibility of emancipation. Perhaps it would be better to say that slavery is here revealed as a possibility of transforming itself by its own method.

We can not, Spinoza is convinced, escape the dominion of our affections. We are slaves of the love of something. The character and scope of our slavery depend on the character and scope of what we love. Is there then something, and can this something be found, which has the power to evoke a love which no other love can hinder or impair? Such a love would be slavery, but it would be so different from all other kinds that it would claim the name of freedom. It would invoke no denial of man’s affectionate nature. It would involve the supreme exercise of that nature freed from envy, hatred, malice and jealousy, freed from the aching anxiety of the mind. The loves that enslave can be overcome only if there is and can be found an object which inspires a love that frees.

Can such an object be found? Spinoza thinks that we ought rather to ask, What is the way to find it? What does trying to find it involve? His answer is: “It involves the discovery of the union of the mind with the whole of Nature.” This is to involve a good deal. Before being staggered by the immensity of it, and exclaiming that a discovery so vast is beyond ordinary human power, one may pause to reflect whether the object could be found without that discovery. Change it to our union with the whole of nature or to our place in the scheme of things, and then it looks inevitable that, could we discover that union or find that place, we should know whether that object can be found. This is what Spinoza means. It reveals two of his deep-seated convictions. One is that we are what we are because of our place in nature and for no other reason, and the other is that we are bound to be miserable and unhappy so long as we are ignorant of what that place is. This second conviction throws a new light on our bondage and our anxiety of mind, and also on the possibility of escape from them. We are dissatisfied with the place we imagine ourselves to occupy. We find in it a competition of loves and not one sustaining love. We are haunted by the suspicion that it is not our proper place, that it is not where we really belong. All this, thinks Spinoza, is clear proof that we are ignorant of what our place is. For if we were not, how could we have all these doubts and perplexities about it? We have the sense of belonging to something and we want to belong to something which will fill us with an overmastering love, but we are ignorant of what that something is. If we knew what it is, Spinoza is convinced that our whole mental attitude would be changed. We should then see life in a different perspective from that of from day to day. He tells us our place is in nature and to nature we belong. And that, he thinks, ought to make us happy and free. It sounds easy. Spinoza tells us it is difficult and rare.

Having a place in nature and belonging to nature is not having a place in New York and belonging to New York. It might be a helpful exercise in understanding Spinoza, to put the two places side by side and observe their contrasted effects upon our attitude of mind. Which is the larger place; which the securer? In which are we the more cabined and confined? In which is the imagination the ampler and the more expansive? In which are we the more lifted out of ourselves to the contemplation of imperishable things? In which do we feel the more intimately the pressure of something “deeply interfused whose dwelling is the light of setting suns, and the round ocean and the blue air and in the mind of man?” Placed over against nature, in contrast and in opposition to it, we may shrink to well-nigh nothing. Placed in nature; as completely belonging to it — is there then shrinkage or something else? Being in and belonging to New York, Chicago, London, Paris, Berlin, Moscow, Amsterdam, and being in and belonging to nature — Spinoza would have us reflect on the difference and discover what difference it makes, what difference in our attitude of mind and in the affections that arise within us.

He would have us carry the contrast into particulars. How do hunger, thirst and nakedness, poverty and riches, love and jealousy, friendship and enmity, health and disease, happiness and misery, life and death — how do they all look when we put ourselves in New York and belong to New York and when we put ourselves in nature and belong to nature? We may try the experiment at our leisure. Spinoza is convinced that if we try it thoroughly, our minds will find something different from that aching anxiety which destroys their peace.

But what is our place in nature? The question is now no longer one of geography. It is not a matter of latitude and longitude. It is not even a. matter of length of days or of personal biographies. It is not ascertained by chart and compass or by reference to the calendar. It is discovered by the mind. It is the same place as that of the sands of the desert, or of the stars, if you will. It is a necessary place, a place, that is, which nature does not and can not get on without and without which neither we nor the sands of the desert can get on. It is the place which embraces all places and is all places embraced. It is a belonging to all that can be belonged to and all that can be belonged to belongs to it. We must keep in mind that this is the mind’s discovery. Geographically it is nonsense. The belongings, the property, of which it speaks, are not like those occasional possessions which pass from hand to hand. Although the mind borrows its words from geography and getting and spending, it has discovered something else. It has discovered order, connection, interdependence, integrity, completeness, perfection. It has discovered essence, existence, idea and power. These do not define something to be found on a map or dated in a calendar. They define something without which nothing can be nor be conceived. Without it there could be no sands of the desert and no man to discover it. Put it into a definition with words which philosophers use, it turns out to be the definition of that which theologians name God. To belong to nature is to belong to what nature is, to belong to that without which neither the sands of the desert nor the people of New York could be at all. Spinoza is convinced of this. In the light of this conviction, he was convinced that that true good he sought could be found, that object which could evoke a changeless love forever, the mind’s love of God which is God’s love itself.

Such were Spinoza’s convictions. They were not the result of his writing his book, but the reason why he wrote it. By that I mean that his book does not represent the way he arrived at his convictions, but the way he expressed them. He was convinced himself and sought to convince others. He tries to convince them, not by persuasion, but by demonstration; not by having the sounds of great words impose upon the heart, but by having a rigorous proof control the mind by its necessity. He seems to have thought that there was but one possible way of doing this and risked it, even if he made it very difficult to follow. It was the way of geometry, that science which, ever since its exaltation by Plato and its demonstration by Euclid, has exerted supremely the force of conviction over the human mind. Spinoza chose it and tried to cast the substance of what he had to say in geometrical form. He begins with definitions which are to identify for himself and the reader the objects of his demonstrations, definitions of what he means by such terms as “substance,” “attribute,” “mode,” “God.” He follows these with axioms or propositions which are not themselves proved, but are to be accepted for the proof of other propositions, as, for example, “Whatever can be conceived as nonexistent, its essence does not involve existence.” Then he proceeds to propositions about substance and God with the demonstrations of them. For example: Prop. I. “Substance is by nature prior to its modes.” Demonstration: “This is evident from definitions 3 and 5.” And so on through his five books, adding here and there explanations in discursive form for the assistance of the reader. In this way, with the force of geometry, he tried to convince others that his convictions were demonstrable.

I have always seen in Spinoza’s use of the geometrical method something more than a technique of demonstration. The pattern which the propositions of geometry weave is like the pattern which Spinoza’s convictions weave. It is a pattern which the eye does not see, but which the mind embraces and comprehends. You can not spread the pattern out and make a map of it, yet you deal with figures, like triangles and circles, which you draw and which the eye does see, but which without the pattern could neither be nor be conceived, as figures of just that kind, as circles and triangles. The pattern is not stretched out in time, yet proposition follows proposition. Among them there is before and after, and they exemplify themselves in the fleeting figures which you draw. But the pattern — the mind discovers that, and once discovered, it discloses that no single proposition can be true unless all the others are true, and they cannot be true unless it is true. They belong to it and it belongs to them. Their place in the pattern is its place also. There is no choice place, nor any chosen figure. There is only perfection, the perfection of the pattern, shared equally by everything that falls under it. Apart from that falling under, the figures are inaccurately drawn triangles and untrue circles. Apart from the pattern, they are imperfect. Acknowledging their places in the pattern, they are perfect. It all sounds like Spinoza’s convictions in geometrical terms — anxious man and desert sands transformed through the recognition of their place.

I turn again to the book. It is about ethics and ethics for Spinoza is the study of the life of freedom. In this study he puts God first, for God is not the last resort of desperation, but the first resort of understanding. It may sound strange to many ears, to hear that of all objects of knowledge, God is the best and readiest known. It sounds strange because the ears have habitually heard that God is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and of the Christian Church. He is, but not as he is said to be. He is the God of creation or of nature, first, and, consequently, might be the God of Christian and of Jew. When the consequence alone is remembered and the fact that it is a consequence forgotten, then God is a last resort and quite impossible to understand. He behaves in an astonishing manner. When, however, it is remembered that he is the God of creation or of nature, then there lies nature before us like an open book to be read.

We may be puzzled about details and let them confuse our understanding, but when we consider the matter carefully, we are not confused at all because then we see that nature is the order and connection of things and that the mind is engaged with and is in that order and connection. We need not be ignorant, because we really are not, that this order and connection is the way that things and the mind are held together and that without it, things and the mind would not be at all. This knowledge, simple as it is, is profound. Philosophers have turned it into a doctrine of substance. They explain to us how we are forced to say that substance is in all ways self-sufficient. It needs nothing outside itself and is nothing outside itself. It is perfect, complete, infinite, with infinite attributes, its essence, existence, idea, and power are all identical each with each. Because of it whatever is, follows. Whatever is, is in it and without it nothing can be or be conceived. This is what philosophers say substance is. It is also what they say nature is. When they forget Christians and Jews or ask what God is before he is the God of people, they say that God is substance. Integrated order and connection, substance, nature, ultimate essence, existence, idea, and power, God — these are all only different expressions for that in which everything that is, is and without which nothing can be nor be conceived. Of nothing else, thinks Spinoza, have we more immediate or more certain knowledge. On it knowledge of everything else depends. Into it our knowledge of everything else must be fitted, our knowledge of the nature and origin of the mind, of the origin and nature of the affections, of human slavery and the forces of the affections, of human freedom and intellectual power. Then Ethics has rounded out its study of the life of freedom.

The first part of the Ethics is a demonstration complete in itself, and, technically considered, is the most perfect of all the parts. It controls the others. By that I mean that the others are fitted into it, and that is what Spinoza would have. We may study the mind independently if we want to, as the psychologist does. We may study our emotional and affectionate life in a similar way. So also we may study human morals and institutions, as instrumentalities of better living. We may consider independently how we are let and hindered and how free we are to do what we would. Such studies, pursued in this independent way, fall short. They leave us without foundations. They bewilder and disorganize the mind. They leave us in ultimate ignorance and perplexity. There is war, not peace, in the camps of the learned. Perturbationes mentis, mental disturbances, find their home in schools.

The reason is the attempt at independence of approach. This will not do for Ethics. It will not do for those who want a life of freedom or a life of love. For such and for Ethics, all knowledge must be seen in its relation to knowledge of substance, of nature, of God. It must be seen geometrically as one sees circles and triangles, not as individuals in their isolation and imperfection, but in their order and connection, having their place in the perfect. If we begin with God, thinks Spinoza, we shall not cease to be men, we shall not cease to work hard or to have troubles and pains, but our attitude of mind will be changed. We shall not go through life crying, complaining, and afraid. We shall not be docile, submissive, dissolute, or resolute.’ We shall be something quite different. We shall be like one who has found an object which creates an irresistible love which can not be lost, or taken away, or impaired should others love it too.

Did Spinoza really prove all this? I wonder if that is an important or even a decent question to ask. If we must answer it, the answer seems to be “No” because serious students have repeatedly found that his argument in its own terms is not convincing. But how much has an argument to do with a man’s convictions? It may clarify them to himself and others whether it is sound or not. The convictions and their power are far more important than the argument. It is very important to discover what living in this world does do and can do to a man. It generates convictions. What are they? What are they worth? What is their power? These are better questions than, Is the argument sound? I have tried to exhibit what the convictions of Spinoza were and to indicate how he supported them argumentatively. The question of their power, I leave him to answer in his own concluding words if you will let me imagine him to be speaking in English instead of Latin

“I have now finished what I wished to show about the power of the mind over the affections and about the freedom of the mind. From it all, it is clear how much stronger and more powerful the wise man is than a fool who is moved by impulse alone. For the fool is not only agitated in many ways by external causes and has no real peace of mind, but he lives ignorant of himself and of God, and of things; as soon as he ceases to suffer, he ceases to be. But the wise man, in so far as he is considered wise, has a mind hard to disturb; conscious by an eternal necessity of himself and of God and of things, he never ceases to be and is always possessed of a mind truly at peace.

If the way which I have shown leads to this, seems to be very difficult, yet it can be found. And surely it must be difficult, because it is so rarely found. For if deliverance were impromptu and could be had without great labor, how could it happen that almost everybody misses it? But all excellent things are as difficult as they are rare.”