Spinoza's Ethics, Part 1

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A word from the editor . . .

Copyright © Jonathan Bennett

[Brackets] enclose editorial explanations. Small ·dots· enclose material that has been added, but can be read as though it were part of the original text. Occasional bullets, and also indenting of passages that are not quotations, are meant as aids to grasping the structure of a sentence or a thought. Every four-point ellipsis . . . . indicates the omission of a brief passage that seems to present more difficulty than it is worth.

This version contains some awkward repetitions of the word ‘God’. They could be avoided through the use of pronouns, but they present us with an unattractive choice. Using ‘he’, ‘him’, ‘his’ etc. of God invites the reader, over and over again, to think of God as a person; while using ‘it’, ‘itself’ etc. pokes the reader in the ribs, over and over again, with reminders that God is not a person. The former choice misrepresents Spinoza’s doctrine (his other name for God is ‘Nature’), while the latter misrepresents his style. Writing in Latin, which lacks the distinction between personal and impersonal pronouns, he didn’t have this problem.

First launched: July 2004 Amended: April 2007

The remaining boxes contain questions and comments by Lawhead. Throughout the text are some comments and questions to help you engage with the reading. You do not need to turn these in, but they may be useful in answering questions on the test. However, note that at the end of the document is an essay question that you are to answer and turn in, which will count as a quiz.

Spinoza is formidable reading. However, make an effort to understand the main points he is getting at. (You probably won’t understand every detail.) There are some gaps. I have left out passages that are particularly difficult or not relevant.

Spinoza begins by setting out 8 definitions. He does not think these are arbitrary or stipulative definitions. Instead, he would claim they are “real definitions” that accurately state the essence of the entity or concept. These are followed by 7 axioms. Like Euclid’s axioms, these are considered to be self-evident to reason.

Ethics Demonstrated in Geometrical Order By Benedict Spinoza Part I: God


D1: In calling something ‘cause of itself’ I mean that its essence involves existence, i.e. that its nature can’t be conceived except as existing.

D2: A thing is said to be ‘finite in its own kind’ if it can be limited by something else of the same nature.

For example, every body counts as ‘finite in its own kind’ because we can always conceive another body that is even bigger. And a thought can be limited by - ·i.e. can count as finite because of· - another thought ·that somehow exceeds it·. But a body can’t be limited by a thought or a thought by a body.

D3: By ‘substance’ I understand: what is in itself and is conceived through itself, i.e. that whose concept doesn’t have to be formed out of the concept of something else.

D4: By ‘attribute’ I understand: what the intellect perceives of a substance as constituting its essence.

D5: By ‘mode’ I understand: a state of a substance, i.e. something that exists in and is conceived through something else.

D6: By ‘God’ I understand: a thing that is absolutely infinite, i.e. a substance consisting of an infinity of attributes, each of which expresses an eternal and infinite essence.

I say ‘absolutely infinite’ in contrast to ‘infinite in its own kind’. If something is infinite only in its own kind, there can be attributes that it doesn’t have; but if something is absolutely infinite its essence ·or nature· contains every positive way in which a thing can exist - ·which means that it has all possible attributes·.

D7: A thing is called ‘free’ if its own nature - with no input from anything else - makes it necessary for it to exist and causes it to act as it does. We say that a thing is ‘compelled’ if something other than itself makes it exist and causes it to act in this or that specific way.

D8: By ‘eternity’ I understand: existence itself when conceived to follow necessarily from the definition of the eternal thing.

A thing is eternal only if it is absolutely (logically) necessary that the thing exists; for something to be eternal it isn’t merely a matter of its existing at all times - it must necessarily exist.

Look at Definition 7. Why do you suppose that God will be the only entity that fulfills this definition of being “free”? But notice, something is free if “its own nature . . . causes it to act as it does.” Do you agree with Spinoza that someone can have his or her actions caused (by one’s own nature) and, in that sense, be said to be free? (This will be an important issue at the end of the reading.)
1In Def. 8 Spinoza talks about necessity. Some propositions express necessary truths. For example, “If a figure is a triangle, then its angles will add up to 180 degrees.” This is necessarily true. It could not be otherwise. But can we apply necessity to existence itself? What would it mean to say that something necessarily exists? What do you think Spinoza would claim necessarily exists? Why would this entity have to have necessary existence?

A1: Whatever exists is either in itself or in something else. ·As we have already seen, a substance is in itself, a mode is in something else·.

A2: What can’t be conceived through something else must be conceived through itself.

A3: From a given determinate cause the effect follows necessarily; and, conversely, if there is no determinate cause no effect can follow.

A4: Knowledge of an effect depends on, and involves, knowledge of its cause.

A5: If two things have nothing in common, they can’t be understood through one another - i.e. the concept of one doesn’t involve the concept of the other.

A6: A true idea must agree with its object.

A7: If a thing can be conceived as not existing then its essence doesn’t involve existence.

Look at Axiom 4. If I were writing your biography, what sort of things would I have to understand in order to understand how you became the person you are? (In other words, you are the effect. What are your causes?) Now look back at Definition 3 on substance. According to this definition, why is God a substance, but you are not?
The remainder of this book consists of propositions (or theorems). Each one is followed by its demonstration. The demonstrations are claimed to follow logically from the definitions, axioms, and previously proven propositions. Spinoza believes that if you understand the definitions and axioms, then you will be rationally compelled to believe them and, if so, you will find that his propositions are rationally inescapable.

1: A substance is prior in nature to its states.

This is evident from D3 and D5.

2: Two substances having different attributes have nothing in common with one another.

This also evident from D3. For each ·substance· must be in itself and be conceived through itself, which is to say that the concept of the one doesn’t involve the concept of the other.

3: If things have nothing in common with one another, one of them can’t be the cause of the other.

If they have nothing in common with one another, then (by A5) they can’t be understood through one another, and so (by A4) one can’t be the cause of the other.

4: Two or more things are made distinct from one another either by a difference in their attributes or by a difference in their states.

Whatever exists is either in itself or in something else (by A1), which is to say (by D3 and D5) that outside the intellect there is nothing except substances and their states. So there is nothing outside the intellect through which things can be distinguished from one another except substances (which is to say (by D4) their attributes) and their states.

In the next series of propositions, Spinoza argues that there cannot be two substances (or two gods) having the same nature. What is his argument? See my argument in the text on p. 248 where I formulate it from several passages.

5: In Nature there cannot be two or more substances having the same nature or attribute.

If there were two or more distinct substances, they would have to be distinguished from one another by a difference either in their attributes or in their states (by 4). If they are distinguished only by a difference in their attributes, then any given attribute can be possessed by only one of them. Suppose, then, that they are distinguished by a difference in their states. But a substance is prior in nature to its states (by 1), so we can set the states aside and consider the substance in itself; and then there is nothing left through which one substance can be conceived as distinguished from another, which by 4 amounts to saying that we don’t have two or more substances ·with a single attribute·, but only one.

6: One substance can’t be produced by another substance.

In Nature there can’t be two substances that share an attribute (by 5), that is (by 2), there can’t be two substances that have something in common with each other. Therefore (by 3) one substance can’t be the cause of another, or be caused by it.

Corollary: A substance can’t be produced by anything else.

In Nature there are only substances and their states (as is evident from A1, D3, and D5). But a substance can’t be produced by a·nother· substance (by 6). Therefore, a substance can’t be produced by anything else at all.

This corollary is demonstrated even more easily from the absurdity of its contradictory. If a substance could be produced by something else, the knowledge of it would have to depend on the knowledge of its cause (by 4). And so (by D3) it wouldn’t be a substance.

7: It pertains to the nature of a substance to exist.

A substance can’t be produced by anything else (by the corollary to 6), so it must be its own cause; and that, by D1, is to say that its essence necessarily involves existence, or that it pertains to its nature to exist.

8: Every substance is necessarily infinite.

[The difficult demonstration of 8 has this at its core: if x is finite then it is limited by something of the same kind as itself, i.e. something that shares an attribute with it; but no substance shares an attribute with any other substance, so no substance can be limited in this way, so every substance is infinite.]

  

In the second proof of Proposition 11 Spinoza asserts that not only the existence of something has to have a sufficient reason, but also there has to be a reason for the non-existence of anything. Think of something that doesn’t exist and the explanation for its non-existence. Do you agree that the non-existence of something must have a cause or explanation? Spinoza argues, if there is no reason or explanation for the non-existence of God, then God must necessarily exist.

11: God, or a substance consisting of infinite attributes each of which expresses eternal and

infinite essence, necessarily exists.

If God didn’t exist, then (by A7) God’s essence would not involve existence; and (by 7) that is absurd. Therefore God necessarily exists.

A second proof: For each thing there must be assigned a cause or reason for its existence (if it exists) and for its nonexistence (if it doesn’t). . . . This reason or cause must be either contained in, or lie outside of, the nature of the thing. For example, the very nature of a square circle indicates the reason why it doesn’t exist, namely because it involves a contradiction; and the very nature of a substance explains why it does exist, because that nature involves existence (see 7). But the reason why [changing Spinoza’s example] a coin exists, or why it doesn’t exist, does not follow from its nature but from the order of the whole of the physical world. For from this ·order· it must follow either that the coin necessarily exists now or that it is impossible for it to exist now.

These things are self-evident. From them it follows that a thing necessarily exists if there is no reason or cause that prevents it from existing. So if there is no reason or cause that prevents God from existing or takes God’s existence away, it certainly follows that God necessarily exists.

But if there were such a reason or cause, it would have to be either in God’s very nature or outside it and in another substance of a different nature. It couldn’t be in a substance of the same nature as God’s, for the supposition that there is such a substance is, itself, the supposition that God exists. So it would have to be a substance of a nature different from God’s; but such a substance would have nothing in common with God (by 2) and so could neither give existence to God nor take it away. So a reason or cause that takes away God’s existence couldn’t lie outside the divine nature.

It would, then, have to be in God’s nature itself. That would mean that God’s nature involved a contradiction, ·like the square circle·. But it is absurd to affirm this of a thing that is absolutely infinite and supremely perfect. (·That is because a contradiction must involve something of the form ‘P and not-P - a ‘square circle’ would be something that was ‘square and not square’ because ‘not square is contained in the meaning of ‘circle’ - and a thing that is infinite and perfect is one whose nature involves nothing negative, so nothing of the contradictory form·.) So there is no cause or reason - either in God or outside God - that takes God’s existence away. Therefore God necessarily exists.

  
14: God is the only substance that can exist or be conceived.

Since God is an absolutely infinite thing, of whom no attribute expressing an essence of substance can be denied (by 6), and God necessarily exists (by 11), if there were a substance other than God it would have to be explained through some attribute of God; ·but explanations can flow only within attributes, not from one attribute to another·; and so two substances with an attribute in common would exist, which (by 5) is absurd. So no substance other than God can exist; and none such can be conceived either, for if it could be conceived it would have to be conceived as existing, and the first part of this demonstration shows that to be absurd. Therefore, God is the only substance that can exist or be conceived.

First corollary: God is unique, i.e. (by 6) in Nature there is only one substance, and it is

absolutely infinite.

Second corollary: An extended thing and a thinking thing are either attributes of God or (by A1)

states of God’s attributes.

Spinoza has just argued that there can only be one substance or one God. This idea is not very controversial to many in Western culture. However, he goes on to argue that everything else that exists does so as a mode or aspect of God. His thinking is that if something were completely independent of God, rather than being of mode of God’s being, then it would be non-God and would constitute a limitation of God’s being. Spinoza is forcing a dilemma on us. Either (a) everything is a mode of God’s being or (b) there exist things outside of God’s being, hence God is not infinite or all-inclusive, which would mean God is limited. What do you think of his reasoning?
15: Whatever exists is in God, and nothing can exist or be conceived without God.

14 secures that apart from God there cannot exist (or be conceived) any substance, i.e. (by D3) any thing that is in itself and is conceived through itself. But (by D5) modes can’t exist or be conceived without a substance ·that they are modes of·. So modes can exist only in the divine nature, and can be conceived only through that nature. But (by A1) substances and modes are all there is. Therefore, everything is in God and nothing can be or be conceived without God.

  

In Corollary 2 to Proposition 17, Spinoza argues that “God alone is a free cause.” By this he means that there is nothing external to God that compels God to act. But, since everything has a cause, the cause of God’s acts is the divine nature alone. In this sense, God is free (from external compulsion). However, Spinoza goes on to argue against those who think that God being a free cause entails that God has free will. By “free will” Spinoza means some sort of spontaneous uncaused action, where one could do A just as easily as one could do not-A. But, could God change the laws of mathematics? What on earth would that be like? Could God embrace irrationality? Spinoza will argue that just as the laws of mathematics are what they (logically) must be, so everything in the world is logically necessary.

Here is what I think Spinoza is getting at in the remaining propositions. 1. All of God’s actions flow from the divine nature. 2. God’s nature is that of perfection. 3. Only one course of events is consistent with divine perfection. 4. The world could have been different than it is only if God’s nature had been different than it is. 5. However, the divine nature is unchangeable. 6. Hence, the way things are is rationally necessary. What do you think of Spinoza’s reasoning?

17: God acts from the laws of the divine nature alone, and isn’t compelled by anything.

I have just shown (16) that from the necessity of the divine nature alone, or (what is the same thing) from the laws of God’s nature alone, absolutely infinite things follow; and in 15 I have demonstrated that nothing can be or be conceived without God - that all things are in God. So there can’t be anything outside God by which God could be caused or compelled to act. Therefore, God acts from the laws of the divine nature alone, and isn’t compelled by anything.

First corollary to 17: There is no cause, either extrinsically or intrinsically, which prompts God to action, except the perfection of the divine nature.

Second corollary to 17: God alone is a free cause.

God alone exists only from the necessity of the divine nature (by 11 and first corollary to 14), and acts from the necessity of the divine nature (by 17). Therefore (by D7) God alone is a free cause.

Note on 17: I. Some people think, regarding the things that I have said follow from God’s nature

(i.e. are in God’s power), that God could bring it about that they don’t happen, are not produced by God; from which they infer that God is a free cause. But this is tantamount to saying that God can bring it about that the nature of a triangle doesn’t require that its three angles are equal to two right angles, or that from a given cause the effect would not follow - which is absurd.

Further, I shall show later, without help from 17, that God’s nature doesn’t involve either intellect or will. I know of course that many think they can demonstrate that a supreme intellect and a free will pertain to God’s nature; for, they say, they know nothing they can ascribe to God more perfect than what is the highest perfection in us.

Moreover, while thinking of God as actually understanding things in the highest degree, they don’t believe that God can bring it about that all those understood things exist. For they think that would destroy God’s power. If God had created all the things in the divine intellect (they say), then God couldn’t have created anything more, which they believe to be incompatible with God’s omnipotence. So these thinkers prefer to maintain that God has no leanings in any direction, not creating anything except what God has decreed to create by some fundamental free choice.

But I think I have shown clearly enough (see 16) that from God’s supreme power or infinite nature infinitely many things in infinitely many ways - i.e. all ·possible· things - have necessarily flowed or do always follow, with the same necessity and in the same way as from the nature of a triangle it follows from eternity that its three angles equal two right angles. So God’s omnipotence has been actual from eternity and will remain actual to eternity. I think that this maintains God’s omnipotence much better ·than does the view that there are things God could do but chooses not to·.

Indeed - to be frank about it - my opponents seem to deny God’s omnipotence. For they have to admit that God understands infinitely many creatable things which nevertheless God will never be able to create. For creating everything that God understands to be creatable would (according to them) exhaust God’s omnipotence and render God imperfect. To maintain that God is perfect, therefore, they are driven to maintaining that God cannot bring about everything that lies within the scope of the divine power. I don’t see how anything more absurd than this, or more contrary to God’s omnipotence, could be dreamed up!

  
This next proposition follows through on what has been argued previously. A contingent event is one that is not logically necessary. But, Spinoza argues, nothing in nature is contingent. Things could be different than they are only if God’s nature could have been different.

29: In Nature there is nothing contingent; all things have been caused by the necessity of

the divine nature to exist and produce an effect in a certain way.

Whatever exists is in God (by 15); and (by 11) God exists necessarily, not contingently. Next, the modes of the divine nature - ·the ways in which God exists· -have also followed from that nature necessarily (by 16) - either following from the divine nature just in itself (by 21) or following from it considered as caused to act in a certain way (by 28). Further, God is the cause not only of the existence of these modes (by corollary to 24) but also of their having such-and-such causal powers. For if they hadn’t been caused by God, then (by 26) they could not possibly have caused themselves. And conversely (by 27) if they have been caused by God, it is impossible that they should render themselves uncaused. So all things have been caused from the necessity of the divine nature not only to exist but to exist in a certain way, and to produce effects in a certain way; and all of this is necessary, not contingent. There is nothing contingent.

  

While God is a free cause, we are not. Our acts are the result of causes operating on us. Think about an action you performed today—let’s call it “action A.” Spinoza would say that, because you are ignorant of the causes acting upon you, you believe you could have just as easily done something different—let’s call it “not-A.” But to make a difference there has to be a difference. How would you have had to be different to choose a different action? If there is no difference in the scenario in which you choose A and the one in which you choose not-A, then why did one scenario get actualized and the other not? God is not affected by causes the way we are because God’s actions follow from the divine nature, not from external causes. However, since God’s nature is fixed, God does not have alternatives, options, or choices. God is God and can only actualize a perfect totality, nothing less. Hence, God does not have free will.

32: The will cannot be called a free cause, but only a necessary one.

The will, like the intellect, is only a certain mode ·or way· of thinking. And so (by 28) each volition - ·each act of the will· - can exist and be fit to produce an effect only if it is caused by another cause, and this cause again by another, and so on, to infinity. So the will requires a cause by which it is caused to exist and produce an effect; and so (by D7) it cannot be called a ‘free’ cause but only a necessary or compelled one.

That was based on the will’s being a finite entity to which 28 applies. Suppose it is infinite, making 28 irrelevant to it. Then it falls under 23, which means that it has to be caused to exist and produce an effect by God - this time by God-as-having-the-infinite-and­-eternal-essence-of-thought rather than God-as-having-this-or-that-temporary-and-local­-quality. So on this supposition also the will is not a free cause but a compelled one.

Corollary to 32: God doesn’t produce any effect through freedom of the will.

Second corollary to 32: Will and intellect are related to God’s nature as motion and rest are, and as are absolutely all natural things, which (by 29) must be caused by God to exist and produce an effect in a certain way.

The will, like everything else, requires a cause by which it is caused to exist and produce an effect in a certain way. And although from a given will or intellect infinitely many things may follow, God still can’t be said on that account to act from freedom of the will, any more than God can be said to act from ‘freedom of motion and rest’ on account of the things that follow from motion and rest! So will doesn’t pertain to God’s nature any more than do other natural things; it is related to God in the same way as motion and rest . . . . ·In short: acts of the will, such as human choices and decisions, are natural events with natural causes, just as are (for example) collisions of billiard balls. And to attribute will to God, saying that because the cause of each volition is God (= Nature) therefore God has choices and makes decisions, is as absurd as to suppose that God is rattling around on the billiard table·.

33: Things could not have been produced by God in any way or in any order other than

that in which they have been produced.

All things have necessarily followed from God’s given nature (by 16), and have been caused from the necessity of God’s nature to exist and produce an effect in a certain way (by 29). To think of them as possibly being different in some way is, therefore, to think of God as possibly being different; that is to think that there is some other nature that God could have - some other divine nature - and if such a nature is possible then it is actually instantiated, which means that there are two Gods. But it is absurd to suppose that there could have been two Gods. So things could not have been produced in any other way or in any other order than they have been produced.

Note on 33: Since by these propositions I have made it as clear as day that there is absolutely nothing in things on the basis of which they can be called contingent, I wish now to explain briefly what we should understand by ‘contingent’ - but first, what we should understand by ‘necessary’ and ‘impossible’.

A thing is called ‘necessary’ either by reason of its essence or by reason of its cause. For a thing’s existence follows necessarily either from its essence and definition or from a given efficient cause. And a thing is also called ‘impossible’ for these same reasons - namely, either because its essence or definition involves a contradiction, or because no external cause has been caused to produce such a thing ·in which case the external causes that do exist will have been enough to prevent the thing from existing·.

A thing is called ‘contingent’ only because of a lack of our knowledge. If we don’t know that the thing’s essence involves a contradiction, or if we know quite well that its essence doesn’t involve a contradiction, but we can’t say anything for sure about its existence because the order of causes is hidden from us, it can’t seem to us either necessary or impossible. So we call it ‘contingent’ or ‘·merely· possible’.

Second note on 33: From this it clearly follows that things have been produced by God with the highest perfection, since they have followed necessarily from a most perfect nature. God’s producing everything there is doesn’t mean that God is in any way imperfect. The suggestion that God could have acted differently is, as I have shown, absurd. . . .

I’m sure that many people will reject my view as absurd, without even being willing to examine it. Of course they will! because they have been accustomed to credit God with having an absolute will - ·i.e. with just non-causally deciding what to do· - which attributes to God a ‘freedom’ quite different from what I have taught (D7). But I am also sure that if they would consent to reflect on the matter, and pay proper attention to my chain of our demonstrations, they would end up utterly rejecting the ‘freedom’ they now attribute to God, not only as futile but as a great obstacle to science. I needn’t repeat here what I said in the note on 17.

Still, to please them ·or at least meet them half-way·, I shall argue on the basis that God’s essence does involve will, and shall still prove that it follows from God’s perfection that things could not have been created by God in any other way or any other order. It will be easy to show this if we consider ·two things·. First, as my opponents concede, it depends on God’s decree and will alone that each thing is what it is; for otherwise God wouldn’t be the cause of all things. Secondly, all God’s decrees have been established by God from eternity; for otherwise God would be convicted of imperfection and inconstancy. But since in eternity there is neither when, nor before, nor after, it follows purely from God’s perfection that God could never have decreed anything different. It is a mistake to think of God as having existed for a while without making any decrees and then making some.

The opponents will say that in supposing God to have made another nature of things, or supposing that from eternity God had decreed something else concerning Nature and its order, one isn’t implicitly supposing any imperfection in God.

Still, if they say this, they will ·have to· concede also that God’s decrees can be changed by their maker. Their supposition that God could have decreed Nature and its order to be different from how they actually are involves supposing that God could have had a different intellect and will from those that God actually has; and they - ·the opponents· -hold that this could have been the case without any change of God’s essence or of God’s perfection. But if that is right, why can’t God now change God’s decrees concerning created things while remaining just as perfect? ·It is absurd to suppose that God can do this - e.g. that from now on the laws of physics will be slightly different every second Tuesday - but my opponents have left themselves with no basis for ruling this out as the absurdity that it really is·. . . .

Therefore, since things could not have been produced by God in any other way or any other order, and since the truth of this follows from God’s supreme perfection, we have to accept that God willed to create all the things that are in God’s intellect, with the same perfection with which God understands them.

The opponents will say that there is no perfection or imperfection in things: what is to count in things as making them perfect or imperfect, and thus called ‘good’ or ‘bad’, depends only on God’s will. So God could have brought it about, simply by willing it, that what is now perfection would have been the greatest imperfection, and conversely that what is now an imperfection in things would have been the most perfect. ·Thus the opponents·. But God necessarily understands what God wills; so what the opponents say here is tantamount to saying outright that God could bring it about through an act of will that God understands things in a different way from how God does understand them. And this, as I have just shown, is a great absurdity. . . .

I confess that this opinion that subjects all things to a certain unguided will of God and makes everything depend on God’s whim is nearer the truth than the view of those who maintain that God does all things for the sake of the good. For the latter seem to suppose something outside God, something not depending on God, to which God in acting attends as a model and at which God aims as at a goal. This is simply to subject God to fate [Latin fatum, here = ‘something independently fixed and given’]. Nothing more absurd can be maintained about God -shown by me to be the first and only free cause of the essence of all things and of their existence. I shan’t waste any more time refuting this absurdity.

See assignment on next page.
Quiz 3—Take Home Essay
Turn in one typed page answering the following questions.

Evaluate Spinoza's view that everything flows with logical necessity from God's nature. Do you agree with him that everything is as it must be—that rationally and logically things could not be otherwise? If one starts with God, as Spinoza does, is there any other alternative? How so? What would be the practical implications of accepting this conclusion?

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