Spinoza - The First Jedi Knight?

Essay by Jay Wolin

            I was initially attracted to Spinoza for no other reason than as a young adult he questioned the orthodox beliefs of his birth religion and was excommunicated from the Jewish Faith. Although I was not excommunicated from the Jewish faith, and indeed, I hold many of its teachings close to my heart, its rigidity forced me to pursue other paths for spiritual and religious insight.  Spinoza’s writings guide readers to question the purpose and focus of religion as it pertains to religious literature, ethics, and beliefs.

 There is much in Spinoza’s conclusions that I find fascinating and mind bending.  I think to some degree he felt limited to what he could say due to the constraints on the political environment around him.  I also think the method in which he came to his conclusions are quite faulty.  In his work “The Ethics,” Spinoza uses the Geometric Order to come to his conclusion.  The one critical problem with this method of analysis is that if one of his definitions or axioms is proven false, then regardless of his conclusions’ truth it has no validity.  In general, I find this style of writing in an attempt to explain the existence of God truly meaningless.  It is an exercise of pure intellectual elitism.  Spinoza’s writing style and thought process makes the topic so convoluted, that most people will close their mind to it, and the writer and his circle of friends can feel superior that they understand something that is not comprehensive to most people.  In addition, his habit of saying that disagreement with his propositions would be absurd is delusional as well as arrogant. Perhaps there was a purpose to this elitism.  Having knowledge and maintaining it for oneself, is an act of selfishness, but possibly in this case the motive was self preservation, because society in Spinoza’s time generally would not have been receptive to his views.  Yet it is only with conflict that change normally occurs.  Hopefully we can initiate change through intellectual conflict, versus physical conflict, but in the day of Spinoza the reality of losing one’s life for these ideas was a real possibility.  Spinoza’s idea of God and Universe were truly radical. Although I do not agree with all his conclusions, I do believe he was heading in the right direction, whether his axioms were correct or not.

I will take the same approach with Spinoza’s criticism of the Bible.  Spinoza insists that we must read it literally which allows him to prove multiple flaws within its writings. Thus in his mind, he can prove that it was not written by God.  Spinoza in his work, “A Theologico-Political Treatise”, presents one of the first documented contextual secular criticisms of the Bible.  At the time Spinoza wrote this treatise, most people did believe that God had written the Bible, or at least that Moses had written the Bible as told by God.  Currently, I think many people accept the fact that the Bible was not literally written by God.  Yet whether it was written by God, inspired by God, or inspired by man, the key question is if the Bible inspires humanity individually or as a whole to become a more moral, ethical world.  So again, although I may agree with Spinoza’s conclusion, I do not necessarily agree that we must read the Bible literally.

At the end of the day, I believe Baruch Spinoza, like many people was looking for peace of mind.  He did not find that peace of mind in the social circles of his life growing up since he was forced to leave them.  In all my research, I found only one reference to a remote possibility of a romantic relationship, and another article refuted that relationship’s existence. His father had married three times and all of his father’s wives had passed away.  From this I surmise that Spinoza experienced tremendous pain from all his relationships and alienation due to the lack of a loving relationship in his life.   So I believe that Baruch Spinoza looked for his peace of mind within himself, with his intellect.  As Spinoza wrote:

After experience had taught me that all the usual surrounding 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 some real good having power to communicate itself, which would affect the mind singly, to the exclusion of all else: Whether in fact, there might be anything of which the discovery and attainment would enable me to enjoy continuous, supreme, and unending happiness. [1]

He further stated:

(1)All these evils seem to have arisen from the fact that happiness or unhappiness is made wholly dependent on the quality of the object which we love. (2) When a thing is not loved, no quarrels will arise concerning it.  No sadness be felt if it hatred, in short no disturbances of the mind. (3) All these arise from the love of what is perishable...But love towards a thing eternal and infinite feeds the mind wholly with joy, an is itself unmingled with any sadness, wherefore it is greatly to be desired and sought for with all our strength [2]

Was Spinoza speaking of an unrequited love? I think the phrase “When a thing is not loved” indicates that he feet unloved in this world, and wanted to create a safe place for himself in his intellectual philosophy.  I think he also created a metaphysical philosophy to somehow show that this is the way the world was meant to be.  This all happened to him out of necessity.  He felt some inner need to prove that the state of his life was a causal effect of the universe, and not of his own doing.  He also created a concept of God we could love, although could not love us back.  For if something could love us, something could also withhold that love.  I do not think that Spinoza wanted to think of God potentially choosing not to love him.  Whatever caused him to pursue this path of thinking, it did provoke some radical thinking as his life became dedicated to study and resulted in giving his life purpose and meaning.  As he further states:

One thing was evident, namely that while my mind was employed with these thoughts it turned away from its former objects of desire, and seriously considered the search for a new principle. [3]

Hence, instead of focusing on the negatives in his life, Spinoza focused on something that let him forget about the things his life was lacking, or in his view, were detrimental to his life. In essence we obtain what we focus on.  Clearly, relationships, fame, and wealth, were not objects that Spinoza focused on.  The unanswered question is, was his quest for the divine, a search for that one true thing in life, or was it the only place Spinoza was able to find acceptance, with a God who could not reject him.

            Spinoza’s Metaphysics focused on a theory of monism.  This inferred that we are all part of God and that God is a part of all things.  Everything in the world as we know it is an extension of God, and God’s Essence. Everything that exists is an integral part of each other.  This conclusion intuitively makes sense to me.  So much of our lives are interconnected with everyone and everything else in the universe.  So how did we get to this conclusion, and what implications do these conclusions lead us to?    In Spinoza’s Ontological arguments, he believed we must start with God.  He stated

“Everyone of course must concede that nothing can either be or be conceived without God. For all confess that God is the only cause of all things, both of their essence and of their existence. [4]       

Now one must realize that this statement comes after an agonizingly long list of definitions, axioms, and propositions.  The problem as I stated earlier is that if one of those are incorrect, then the conclusions he has although correct, cannot prove them.  Spinoza is trying to prove something mathematically that can never truly be proved.  In looking at his definitions, axioms and proposals, I find numerous objections.  The first objection is Axiom 3:

From a given determinate cause the effect follows necessarily; and conversely, if there is no determinate cause, it is impossible for an effect to follow [5]

I think this does not explain the concept of mutations and randomness.  Mutations are a change from the expected determinate cause.  Spinoza’s hypothesis seems to indicate a static God or Universe, and thus extensions of that would be static.  I think this defies common logic. We are aware of mutations. Not only is our understanding of the universe evolving, but the universe itself is evolving and changing in ways that can not be anticipated.  Spinoza would have us believe that it is due to our lack of adequate knowledge.  Of course much of life is causal, but that doesn’t mean all of life is.  Experience shows us that both randomness and mutations occur.  Although experience can be shown to be illusory, that does not mean that it always is.  I also think that this defies the concept that we have free will.  Although one could say that the decisions we make are based on causal events in our life, I do believe through enlightenment, we can evolve spiritually and transcend our causal instincts.

            The very next axiom (A4) was “The knowledge of an effect depends on, and involves, the knowledge of its cause [6]   I do not understand the logic behind this statement.  We can experience something and not know its cause.  If A + B = C, we can know what C is without ever knowing what A and B are.  We may or may not understand that there must be an A and B to arrive at C, but we can have knowledge of C without having knowledge of A and B.

In Axiom 5 Spinoza stated:

Things that have nothing in common with one another also cannot be understood through one another, or the concept of the one does not involve the concept of the other. [7]

I find it hard to believe that Spinoza did not grasp the concept that opposites attract.  Today we look at the laws of magnetism; positive and negative charges being attracted to each other.  Often the concept of an item can be understood as the antithesis of the concept of something with which it has nothing in common.  One might say a circle and square have nothing in common.  Clearly there are differences, but there are things in common, such as space inside and outside the objects, and the objects are part of geometrical mathematics.  Perhaps the point that Spinoza is trying to get at is that all things have something in common.  We are all part of the same universe.

In Axiom 6 Spinoza states “A true idea must agree with its object” [8]   Why?  What if it didn’t?  In a changing, evolving, creative universe, I would argue that true ideas come before there is even an object.  We may not know which idea is true, so we may end up with many false ideas. Also, it is true that there are many objects that we may perceive incorrectly, but also in the creation of something, the perception of something precedes the object.  So conceptually, you could have a true idea before there is an object.  The question this raises is does the idea not become true until there is an object associated with it?   I think not.  The realization that it is a true idea does not happen until there is an object associated with it; however this does not change the fact in retrospect that it was a true idea even without the object.  For example, the idea behind the creation of the light bulb preceded the actual object of the light bulb.

In proposition 2 Spinoza stated “Two substances having different attributes have nothing in common with one another” [9]   This is a key proposition upon which much of Spinoza’s metaphysics was based.  He seemed to be working with his conclusion in mind, while coming up with the axioms to prove the conclusion.  If you assume that there is first a cause of all things, and God is the first cause and is the only substance, then of course you cannot argue with proposition 2.  However, this also assumes a linear universe, meaning everything starts at one place and moves forward on a linear plane.  However, if one assumes that the universe is parallel and not linear, (which many physicists believe), conceptually there could be more than one substance in the universe.  Hence, Spinoza’s entire theory falls apart.  If there were more than one substance, why would we assume that they could have nothing in common?  They may have their own uniqueness, but they theoretically could have certain parts of their attributes that are similar.

From this and other propositions Spinoza came to many inferences about the source of human nature and its existence.  Spinoza concludes that the cause of humanity and human nature had to come from outside of human nature, or the first cause or substance which is God.  Yet this seems to be in contradiction to the concept that we are part of the universe.  If humanity is an extension of substance, then humanity has the same attributes of the substance.  This in turn means that we are all part of the creation process.  I do not believe that this diminishes the concept of God.  I do agree that we are all part of God and that God is a part of all things.  However, the concept of God as a first cause does means just that.  God or the universe or substance, or whatever phrase we want to use may have only been the first cause. I do not see any logic that follow which indicates that creation stops.  I see no proof that the universe is static.  If anything, I think the universe is ever changing, ever evolving and creative.  I think if people embrace this creative nature of the universe, as well as the fact that God is a part of nature of all things, we would treat the world more gently and with more care, and would be more conscious of our actions towards the world and each other.  Alan Donagan discussed this aspect of Spinoza’s theology writes “anybody who identifies God with Nature confounds the highest good with a being who is nothing like the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob”. [10]   This assertion is true.  We are not Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  Although it is not a different God, as we evolve and our understanding of God evolves, we must let go of our past ideas that we find to no longer be true. 

 Spinoza in discussing ethics followed the same line of reasoning that all things are causal, and that we really have no free will.  He thought we do not have “adequate knowledge” of these causalities. Only through reason as opposed to emotions can we realize this. As he stated, “Insofar as the mind understands all things as necessary, it has a greater power over the affects (emotions), or is less acted (affected) on by them”. [11] This statement reflects a self defeating attitude, and I think a dangerous concept if left by itself.  I think people use this type of thinking to accept their situation in life, instead of changing it.  This type of thinking is encouraged by despots of all kind, no matter what form of government they label themselves.  Yet I think many people misread Spinoza.  In his very next proposition he stated “Affects (Emotions) arising from or aroused by reason are, if we take account of time, more powerful than those related to singular things we regard as absent.” [12]   What this says to me is that it is not a bad thing to have emotions.  We should get angry when see injustice.  We should be joyous when we fall in love.  However, we should make sure we understand what injustice is. We should make sure that we understand what love truly is.  We should understand our own true nature so that we can act in accordance with it and let those actions guide our emotions.  I do not agree with Lawhead’s discussion of this topic when he states in regard to the emotion anger, that

When we observe our emotional reaction from the standpoint of a detached spectator and begin analyzing what caused us to become so upset, we regain control and the power of the anger is dissipated.  [13]

I do think through reason we can regain control over our emotions; however, I don’t think the emotion is dissipated.  The advantage reason can give us is how we respond to the situation that caused the emotion.  When we see injustice, we may experience the same level of anger, however our response could be quite different if we are in control of our emotions.  Do we act rashly, or do we think about what needs to be done to correct the injustice?  It might be that a rash action is the reasonable response, but it should only be undertaken if we reasonably think it should.  This seems like an oxymoron, to reasonably act rashly.  When the use of reason becomes a habit, it can allow a person to act quickly.  I would argue that it is necessary to utilize our emotions to enhance reaction.  One might call this having faith or vision.  I think many people are moved to change by emotions.   If we only used reason without emotion in society, I think there would be little change or discovery.   For example if we as a society were not moved emotionally by the degradation of racism I do not think the civil rights movement would have been successful. I do not think that people merely thinking intellectually about problems solves them. Only the actions spurned on by an emotional response of people who loathed and stood up to racism, did the process of change begin.  Only when people saw peaceful protestors being hosed with water cannons and attacked by dogs did this country truly get behind the civil rights movement.  Intellectually, many people who may not have been personally affected understood the inequity of racism, but they were not moved to action without the emotional stimuli.  Of course I would argue, (as I think would Spinoza), that we are all personally affected by this whether we are aware of it or not. What is it though that causes us to become self aware.  I think that making breakthroughs to different levels of consciousness, thinking, or evolution, requires utilizing our emotions, driven by reason. I think Spinoza would say that we lack the proper knowledge.  Yet how can one understand the concept of God, or Love, using only reason?  There are things in this world that reason alone cannot account for.  I think within us we have and can utilize our emotion and imagination to come up with answers. How do we find cures for diseases?  It is not just a mathematical formula.  It is an idea that has yet to come to fruition.   Sometimes we must utilize our emotions to make that leap of faith until the realization of the truth can unfold. 

Spinoza is very similar to some of Hobbes theories when he said that “Each thing, in so far as it is in itself, endeavors to persevere in its being”.[14]I think an interesting interpretation of this is that if God is part of nature then natural disasters are nature’s way of persevering against human intervention with nature.  I think Spinoza differs from Hobbes in that instead of seeing humans as solitary people joining together for mere security, Spinoza seemed to think humans joined together to “enable them to develop their minds and bodies in security, and to employ their reason unshackled”[15]If reason is unshackled, humans will see the benefit of being together, and work towards the same goals.  This certainly ties in with the concept of God being a part of all things in nature including humanity.  As he further states:

Man, I say, can wish for nothing more helpful to the preservation of his being than that all should so agree in all things that the minds and bodies of all would compose, as it were, one mind and one body; that all should strive together, as far as they can, to preserve their being; and that all, together, should seek for themselves the common advantage of all.  From this follows that men who, from the guidance of reason, seek their own advantage want nothing for themselves which they do not desire for other men. [16]

In one respect in our culture of individualism, the thought of one universal mind is a scary thought. It evokes Orwellian visions of mind and thought control.   However, if we look at it as our next stage in evolution to use our minds to understand our God nature within us and work towards the common good of all people, to create a world of peace and harmony, then I think this makes sense.  If we understand our true nature, what our purpose in this universe is, and we realize we are connected to the universe, of course we would want to benefit others. 

I think this concept of benefiting others somewhat contradicts Spinoza’s theory of an impersonal God.  Spinoza states:

God is without passions, and is not affected with any affect of joy or sadness.  All ideas insofar as they are related to God, are true, and so God is without passions.  God is not affected with any affect of joy or sadness.  Consequently he also loves no one and hates no one. (V P17) [17]

He who loves God cannot strive that God should love him in return.  If a man were to strive for this he would desire that God, whom he loves, not be God (V P19) [18]

This love towards God is the highest good which we can want from the dictate of reason, and is common to all men; we desire that all should enjoy it. (V P20) [19]

The mind’s intellectual love of God is the very love of God by which God loves himself, not insofar as he is infinite, but insofar as he can be explained by the human mind’s essence, considered under a species of eternity; that is, the mind’s intellectual love of God is part of the infinite love by which God loves himself. (V P36) [20]

The above statements assume that perfection means having no emotions, or passions.  I would say the mere act of creation of the universe is an act of passion, to share the God essence with others.  Why else have causality create the universe?   Was it because God was lonely?   I think it is because it is the essence of God to give and share gifts with others.  Even Spinoza in P36 above indicated that our love towards God is the same way that God loves itself. So therefore if the highest love we can have is to love another (God) (V P20 above) and that is how God loves itself, reasoning would follow that for God, the highest love would have to be to love others as well.  It does not necessarily follow that God acts upon this love, other than as we act with our God nature.  If we act with our God nature isn’t that the same as an act of love from God?  Also the concept of God loving only itself is somewhat narcissistic, and that would indicate imperfection.  I do believe that we experience God when we act in a way that shows our true love for the universe, working in harmony with it.  I think we experience the collective thread of love in the universe when we act in ways that express a loving nature.  In that way I think Spinoza was right.  We have the ability to tap into the energy of the nature of God when we take actions (or non actions) with such a loving nature.  It is in this vein that I call Spinoza the first Jedi Knight in Western Civilization as he has the concept of a universal God that is part of everything (The Force). The Jedi Knights believed in controlling emotions just as Spinoza did.   I do not think Spinoza trusted God enough, that God would imbue within humanity the ability to continue and be a partner in the creation that God started. Possibly it was because of the times he lived where people with differing ideas met with death.  Or maybe it was because Spinoza did not have a life filled with love for and from others.  I believe Spinoza went where no one intellectually had gone before, but it was only the beginning.

So the next question is how does Spinoza’s view of religion help us reach this type of enlightenment?  Spinoza was consistently critical of Judaism and espoused the superiority of Christianity.  In comparing and contrasting Moses and Jesus

If Moses spoke with God face to face as a man speaks with his friend, Christ communed with God mind to mind.  Thus we may conclude that no one except Christ received the revelations of God without the aid of imagination, whether in words or in visions. [21]

I find it hard to understand this logic, as most of the teachings of Jesus are based on Jewish ethical teachings. It is hard to understand how Spinoza comes to his conclusion. In addition this statement presumes that no one else has received revelations from God.  Why was there such an assumption?  Maybe no one has had four books written about their revelations, but that does not mean others do not receive them.  If we agree with Spinoza’s metaphysics, that we are all apart of God, it would seem logical that as we gain more understanding and become more self aware, we will become more in tune with God’s essences.  How does someone develop into a Jesus, or an Einstein?  It is a combination of Nature and Nurture.  As we continue to evolve, I would imagine more people will gain this understanding, and that will pave the way for a heaven on earth as we all work to fulfill our God filled nature. 

Most scholars agree that Jesus was preaching only to Jewish people, and Paul spread the teachings to non Jews. Yet Spinoza seemed intent on focusing on the issue that the law revealed to Moses was only for the Jewish people and that the truths revealed by Christ were universal. 

Moreover, Christ was sent to teach not only the Jews but the whole human race, and therefore it was not enough that his mind should be accommodated to the opinions of the Jews alone, but also to the opinion and fundamental teaching common to the whole human race – in other words, to ideas universal and true.  In as much as God revealed Himself to Christ, or the Christ’s mind, immediately, and not as to the prophets through words and symbols, we must needs suppose that Christ perceived truly what was revealed. [22]

Spinoza’s perspective ignored the fact that in the Jewish writings it clearly states that these laws are universal.  As it states in Isaiah Ch 49 “I will also make you a light of nations that my salvation may reach the ends of the earth.”   Additionally there is a consistent focus in the Hebrew Scriptures on justice and righteousness.  Without question the Hebrew Scriptures were the stories of the Jewish people, however that does not make the truths taught non universal. 

            In a Theologico-Political Treatise, Spinoza spent a significant amount of discourse “proving” that the Bible was written by man and not divinely inspired.  He insisted on interpreting the Bible literally, with reason, and not metaphorically.  I will without question, grant to Spinoza that the Bible was written by man.  If taken literally, I agree there are so many inconsistencies and contradictions that it clearly shows these are edited stories put together with inaccuracies.  I grant all that. He was intent on denying that it could be divinely inspired.  In arguing against those who believe in the Bible as divine, he states that they believe:

The light of reason has no power to interpret Scriptures, but that a supernatural faculty is required of the task.  What is meant by this supernatural faculty I will leave to its propounders to explain. Personally, I can only suppose that they have adopted a very obscure way of stating their complete uncertainty about the true meaning of Scriptures.  If we look at their interpretation, they contain nothing supernatural, at least nothing but the merest conjectures. [23]

I will grant that during the time he was writing this, this viewpoint was extremely radical thought.  We have to analyze his ideas based on information available to us today.  Even if all of what he said is true, if we are an extension of God and God is apart of us, then at the core of our being we have this intrinsic knowledge of the divine.  Possibly the prophets are more attuned to this or at a more enlightened stage of evolution. Perhaps

heightened reason is divine light.  Why does Spinoza assume that conjecture or metaphorical analysis is not an example of utilizing reason?  What is remarkable to me are the changing interpretations of the Bible to fit the context of life throughout the ages.  Possibly the specific act of dwelling on the thought of God is the purpose of the Bible.   I believe that what we focus on we will moves towards, and what we do not focus on we will move away from.  Thus, if we focus on the thought of God in any form, we will be moving towards a greater understanding of our God nature. 

My feeling is that no matter what our narrative is, the Bible, the teachings of the Buddha, the Koran, or even Star Wars and the Matrix, whatever brings us in touch with our true nature, and allows us to be one with the Universe, such a narrative can be considered holy.  For me, to have the means to become one with the Universe is the point of religion.   Although I don’t agree with many of Spinoza’s propositions and some of his conclusions, to this end I agree with Spinoza and think he laid out a roadmap for the journey towards enlightenment.

[1] Baruch Spinoza, On the Improvements of the Understanding (Treatise on the Emendation of the Intellect), trans. R. H. M. Elwes (New York: Dover Publications, 1955), Pg 1.

[2] Ibid, Pgs. 2-3.

[3] Ibid Pg. 3

[4] Benedict de Spinoza, A Spinoza Reader - The Ethics and Other Work, trans. Edwin Curley (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1994), 121-122.

[5] Ibid, Pg. 86

[6] Ibid,  Pg. 86

[7] Ibid, Pg 86

[8] Ibid, Pg. 86.

[9] Ibid Pg. 86

[10] Alan Donagan, The Cambridge Companion to Spinoza - Spinoza's Theology, ed. Don Garrett (Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 356.

[11] Benedict de Spinoza, A Spinoza Reader - The Ethics and Other Work, trans. Edwin Curley (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1994),  249,  

[12] Ibid Pg. 249,  

[13] William F. Lawhead, The Voyage of Discovery - A Historical Introduction to Philosophy (Belmont, CA: Eve Howard, 2002), 252.


[14] Benedict de Spinoza, A Spinoza Reader - The Ethics and Other Works, trans. Edwin Curry (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994), 159.

[15] Benedict De Spinoza, A Theologico-Political Treatise and A Political Treatise, trans. R.H.M Elwes (New York: Dover Publications, 1951), 259.

[16] Benedict de Spinoza, A Spinoza Reader - The Ethics and Other Works, trans. Edwin Curley (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994), 210.

[17] Ibid Pg 253  

[18] Ibid Pg. 253  

[19] Ibid Pg. 254

[20] Ibid Pg 260

[21] Benedict de Spinoza, A Theologico-Political Treatise, trans. R.H.M Elwes (New York: Dover Publications, 1951), 19.

[22] Ibid Pg. 64  

[23] Ibid Pg. 114

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