In the series of extracts I’m running from my still-being-written book on the history of moral thought, I have reached Chapter 11, which explores the ethical claims of Thomas Hobbes and Baruch Spinoza. The rise of the market economy and the growth of religious scepticism had, by the seventeenth century, corroded the ability of both God and community to warrant moral behaviour. Who or what could now authorize moral rules? This was the question now facing moral philosophers. One answer was revolutionary: humans could. Human nature, needs, desires, aspirations and possibilities would act as warrant for the moral good.  But how human nature would play this role remained perplexing.   After all, as Thomas Aquinas had pointed out, it was precisely the seeming  ‘uncertainty of human judgement’ and the fact that ‘different people’ formed ‘different judgements on human acts’ and created ‘different and contrary laws’ that seemed to necessitate Man having to ‘be directed in his proper acts by a law given by God’.

Hobbes and Spinoza gave very different answers to this challenge, answers that were both to be highly influential. Hobbes helped launch a British tradition of moral philosophy; in his wake come Shaftesbury, Locke, Hume, Bentham and Mill. Spinoza helped shape what is now often called the ‘Continental’ tradition. Thinkers as diverse as Rousseau, Kant, Hegel, Marx and Nietzsche were all in his debt.  The distinctions between the two traditions are often overplayed. Nevertheless, the ideas of Hobbes and Spinoza were to shape the way that the modern world came to look at the question of moral rules through the distinct answers they gave as to what should warrant moral behaviour. This extract is taken from the section on Spinoza’s Ethics.

Spinoza’s stock is today not very high. In the pantheon of great seventeenth and eighteenth century philosophers – Descartes, Hobbes, Locke, Kant, etc – Spinoza is usually seen as hovering in the back row. He is surprisingly little known, often regarded as a philosopher difficult to understand and possessed of little influence. Yet he is arguably the philosopher who more than most has shaped modern thinking about freedom and equality and the possibility of a secular morality. No one else, the historian Jonathan Israel suggests, ‘during the century 1650-1750 remotely rivalled Spinoza’s notoriety, as the chief challenger of the fundamentals of revealed religion, received ideas, tradition, morality and what was everywhere regarded… as divinely constituted political authority.’ Spinoza, Israel adds, ‘imparted order, cohesion and formal logic to what was in effect a fundamentally new view of man, God and the universe rooted in philosophy, nurtured by scientific thought and capable of producing a revolutionary ideology.’ Philosophically, Bertrand Russell wrote of Spinoza, ‘some others have surpassed him, but ethically he is supreme’. As a ‘natural consequence’, Russell sardonically added, Spinoza ‘was considered, during his lifetime and for a century after his death, a man of appalling wickedness.’

Baruch Spinoza was born in Amsterdam in 1632 into a prosperous merchant family that had migrated from Iberia at the end of the previous century. He grew up in a traditional Jewish family, attended a rabbinic school and learnt the Bible and the Talmud. By his teens, however, Spinoza had become sceptical of Jewish theology and on becoming an adult gave up much of Jewish practice. In 1656 he was excommunicated from the synagogue for his ‘evil opinions’, ‘abominable heresies’ and ‘monstrous deeds’. Devout Jews were forbidden from talking to him.

Cut off from the community that had nurtured him, Spinoza moved from Amsterdam first to the village of Rijnsburg, near Leiden, and then to Voorburg, another small village near the Hague. He lived largely in isolation, training himself to make lenses and manufacture optical instruments. Spinoza, who never occupied an academic post, became the first major philosopher since antiquity to have earned his living working with his hands.

Spinoza’s first major work, Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, published anonymously in 1670, was an uneasy mix of biblical criticism and political theory, an apologia justifying his departure from Judaism. Its significance lay in the ethical claim that was to define Spinoza’s whole philosophy. ‘If a man reads the narratives of Holy Scriptures and has complete faith in them, and yet pays no heed to the lesson that Scripture thereby aims to convey, and leads no better life, he might just as well have read the Koran or a poetic drama’, he wrote. On the other hand, a man who lives a virtuous life may be ignorant of the Scriptures, but is nevertheless ‘absolutely blessed and has within him the spirit of Christ.’

By 1675 Spinoza had finished his masterpiece, Ethics Demonstrated According to the Geometrical Order. Warned by his friends not to publish it as he risked being prosecuted as an atheist, it was not published until after his death in 1667 of phthisis. Spinoza opens the Ethics with a discussion of metaphysics, moves on to explore human psychology, and concludes in the last two sections of the book with an ethics of human freedom derived from the metaphysics and the psychology. Spinoza models his argument on that of Euclid’s geometry. Each of the five parts of the book begins with a set of definitions and axioms and proceeds to offer formal proofs of numbered propositions. The geometrical method bears little scrutiny. But the philosophical arguments, stripped of the Euclidean pretensions, were to be immensely influential.

Spinoza was deeply influenced by Descartes’ ideas of the mechanical universe. In 1663 he published his Principia philosophiae cartesianae (‘Principles of Cartesian Philosophy’), a geometrical exposition of Descartes’ Discourse. Spinoza’s views of the cosmos and of human nature were, however, very different to those of Descartes, largely because, like Hobbes, he took Descartes’ mechanistic philosophy much further than Descartes himself was willing to. For Descartes there were two fundamental kinds of substance, mental and material. Spinoza insisted on but one reality and one set of rules governing the whole of that reality, of which humans were an intimate part. There existed only a single substance, which Spinoza called Deus sive Natura – ‘God or Nature’ – a substance that possessed the attributes both of thought and of space. God and Nature were two names for the same reality. The universe was a single web in which the whole determined every part. Mind and body do not, as in the Cartesian universe, belong to separate realms; they are inseparable from each other and from the rest of reality.

Having established the character of reality, mind and matter, Spinoza then moves in the third book of the Ethics to a discussion of human passions. Like Hobbes, he begins with an egoist’s view of human nature. The aim of human life is self-preservation. Human beings, like all other beings, are driven to stay alive and to repel anything that might injure or destroy them. The consciousness of this drive we call desire. When the drive for self-preservation operates freely we feel pleasure; when it is impeded we feel pain. Our judgements of good and evil, and our moral actions, are determined by our desires and aversions.

Passions can be passive or active. Passive emotions, like fear, jealousy and anger, are generated by external forces. They trap those who have no rational understanding of their emotions and their causes, tossing unenlightened individuals like rudderless ships upon the ocean of their desires. Emotions of which an individual has a rational understanding, Spinoza calls ‘active’. Like Socrates, Spinoza sees good and evil in terms of knowledge and ignorance. Knowledge is liberating because the more we know about ourselves and about the human condition, the more we are able to recognize that we love or hate or find joy or feel pain as the result not of free choice but of chance and history and accidental association and past conditioning. And once we realise that, we can stop blaming others for their actions for these are absolutely determined. We can also stop blaming ourselves, for our actions, too, are equally determined. Hate, envy and guilt vanish. There is in Spinoza’s argument a clear echo of the Stoics. To take a God’s eye view of human life, to see ourselves and others as part of a natural system of necessity is, for Spinoza, to set ourselves free. Self-knowledge liberates, replacing passive emotions with active ones. Knowledge, and in particular self-knowledge, is the foundation both of virtue and of happiness.

Moral liberation and human freedom depend, paradoxically, then, on accepting the necessity of all things, on acknowledging that things cannot be otherwise. But there is another paradox here. Spinoza insists that the world, and the actions of individuals, cannot be otherwise and that freedom comes from accepting the system of necessity. But in accepting that the world cannot be otherwise, we are demonstrating that it can. Spinoza believes that we have a choice: either we accept that the world cannot be otherwise and in so doing achieve freedom and demonstrate virtue, or we continue to rage against necessity, thereby becoming trapped in our impotence, and prey to destructive passions such as anger, hatred and jealousy. The choice we have is to accept that we have no choice. But in accepting that we have no choice, we demonstrate that we do.

This is a paradox at the heart, not just of Spinoza’s work, but of all ethical theories, from Stoicism to many contemporary naturalistic theories, that deny free will but accept the possibility of moral transformation. Such theories are faced with the other side of Descartes’ dilemma. In separating mind and matter, Descartes found himself unable to explain how mind influenced body, or indeed how one could rationally explain the mind and its products. Spinoza insisted on a naturalistic understanding of the human condition, including of mind, thoughts, desires and emotions, but could not explain how humans could choose to transform themselves. And yet in that paradox lies also the significance of Spinoza’s theory. Just as the two irreconcilable sides of Descartes’ argument – a mechanistic view of the universe and an almost mystical view of the human agent – have both come to inform the way we think of the world and our place in it, so too have the two irreconcilable sides of Spinoza’s theory, the naturalistic view of the human condition and the insistence on the importance of freedom and of self-transformation.

The importance of Spinoza lies not in his claim that things cannot be otherwise but in his belief that the human condition can be rationally understood and that out of this understanding emerges the tools with which we can transform ourselves. Spinoza agreed with Hobbes in his acceptance of a mechanical universe, in his dismissal of Cartesian dualism, in his naturalistic understanding of the human condition, in his scepticism of religion – but not in his vision of human nature. More than any other moral philosopher before him, more even than Aristotle and Plato, Spinoza saw human nature as malleable, and emotions and desires not as given but as transformable. And the most significant transformation, for Spinoza, was from being a slave to one’s passions to being an agent of one’s change. The development of human powers becomes the end of moral and political life. This vision of human transformation not only distinguished Spinoza from Hobbes but also made him the patron saint – if anyone so Godless could be described as a patron saint – of the radical wing of the intellectual storm that was to sweep through eighteenth century Europe: the Enlightenment.


  1. Christine

    This was beautiful. Although I had never heard of him, I will be buying your book. I have been feeling a little down the past few days and this was just what I needed to touch my heart. Thank you.

  2. Spinoza has been a light interest of mine for years, probably since I read about him in Bertrand Russell’s book, and I keep meaning to look deeper into him. And your clear, engaging chapter just pushes me on in that goal — thanks!

    Do you know of Antonio Damasio’s book, LOOKING FOR SPINOZA?

    Are parts 1 – 0 of your preview of your book — which I look forward to — available with one link, or do I just search through the blog archives?

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  4. Gabriel Andrade

    Just to play Devil’s advocate: how does Godless morality answer the metaethical question: “why be moral?”. If nobody is looking, why not be immoral to pursue pleasure?

    • Well, here is what I have to say to the Devil’s Advocate. For one, your post seems to rely on an assumption that human interests necessarily clash, either because they desire to harm each other, or because the satisfaction of their desires requires them to attack other. I think that the first reason applies only to a very marginal group of people (eg: a hedonistic type serial killer). These people are not deterred by fear of God, but can be dealt with using a legal system. The second reason applies to humans that have no relations with each other, or whose basic needs are not satisfied. Again, a legal system takes better care of that fear of God alone.

      Now, if your concern is how self-interest can lead us to be social creatures, I think it’s clear simply from how all the most satisfying activities in life are either in our own bubble as we cultivate ourselves, or shared with others. Neither of these steps on any toes.

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