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LETTER XXV. (LXXVIII.) - Benedict de Spinoza, The Chief Works of Benedict de Spinoza, vol. 2 
The Chief Works of Benedict de Spinoza, translated from the Latin, with an Introduction by R.H.M. Elwes, vol. 2 De Intellectus Emendatione - Ethica. (Select Letters). Revised edition (London: George Bell and Sons, 1901).
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LETTER XXV. (LXXVIII.)
Written 7 Feb., 1676.
Spinoza to Oldenburg.
[Spinoza again treats of fatalism. He repeats that he accepts Christ’s passion, death, and burial literally, but His resurrection spiritually.]
When I said in my former letter that we are inexcusable, because we are in the power of God, like clay in the hands of the potter, I meant to be understood in the sense, that no one can bring a complaint against God for having given him a weak nature, or infirm spirit. A circle might as well complain to God of not being endowed with the properties of a sphere, or a child who is tortured, say, with stone, for not being given a healthy body, as a man of feeble spirit, because God has denied to him fortitude, and the true knowledge and love of the Deity, or because he is endowed with so weak a nature, that he cannot check or moderate his desires. For the nature of each thing is only competent to do that which follows necessarily from its given cause. That every man cannot be brave, and that we can no more command for ourselves a healthy body than a healthy mind, nobody can deny, without giving the lie to experience, as well as to reason. “But,” you urge, “if men sin by nature, they are excusable;” but you do not state the conclusion you draw, whether that God cannot be angry with them, or that they are worthy of blessedness—that is, of the knowledge and love of God. If you say the former, I fully admit that God cannot be angry, and that all things are done in accordance with His will; but I deny that all men ought, therefore, to be blessed—men may be excusable, and, nevertheless, be without blessedness and afflicted in many ways. A horse is excusable, for being a horse and not a man; but, nevertheless, he must needs be a horse and not a man. He who goes mad from the bite of a dog is excusable, yet he is rightly suffocated. Lastly, he who cannot govern his desires, and keep them in check with the fear of the laws, though his weakness may be excusable, yet he cannot enjoy with contentment the knowledge and love of God, but necessarily perishes. I do not think it necessary here to remind you, that Scripture, when it says that God is angry with sinners, and that He is a Judge who takes cognizance of human actions, passes sentence on them, and judges them, is speaking humanly, and in a way adapted to the received opinion of the masses, inasmuch as its purpose is not to teach philosophy, nor to render men wise, but to make them obedient.
How, by taking miracles and ignorance as equivalent terms, I reduce God’s power and man’s knowledge within the same limits, I am unable to discern.
For the rest, I accept Christ’s passion, death, and burial literally, as you do, but His resurrection I understand allegorically. I admit, that it is related by the Evangelists in such detail, that we cannot deny that they themselves believed Christ’s body to have risen from the dead and ascended to heaven, in order to sit at the right hand of God, or that they believed that Christ might have been seen by unbelievers, if they had happened to be at hand, in the places where He appeared to His disciples; but in these matters they might, without injury to Gospel teaching, have been deceived, as was the case with other prophets mentioned in my last letter. But Paul, to whom Christ afterwards appeared, rejoices, that he knew Christ not after the flesh, but after the spirit.1 Farewell, honourable Sir, and believe me yours in all affection and zeal.
Oldenburg to Spinoza.
[Oldenburg adduces certain further objections against Spinoza’s doctrine of necessity and miracles, and exposes the inconsistency of a partial allegorization of Scripture.]
To the most illustrious Master Benedict de Spinoza Henry Oldenburg sends greetings.
In your last letter,2 written to me on the 7th of February, there are some points which seem to deserve criticism. You say that a man cannot complain, because God has denied him the true knowledge of Himself, and strength sufficient to avoid sins; forasmuch as to the nature of everything nothing is competent, except that which follows necessarily from its cause. But I say, that inasmuch as God, the Creator of men, formed them after His own image, which seems to imply in its concept wisdom, goodness, and power, it appears quite to follow, that it is more within the sphere of man’s power3 to have a sound mind than to have a sound body. For physical soundness of body follows from mechanical causes, but soundness of mind depends on purpose and design. You add, that men may be inexcusable,1 and yet suffer pain in many ways. This seems hard at first sight, and what you add by way of proof, namely, that a dog2 mad from having been bitten is indeed to be excused, but yet is rightly killed, does not seem to settle the question. For the killing of such a dog would argue cruelty, were it not necessary in order to preserve other dogs and animals, and indeed men, from a maddening bite of the same kind.
But if God implanted in man a sound mind, as He is able to do, there would be no contagion of vices to be feared. And, surely, it seems very cruel, that God should devote men to eternal, or at least terrible temporary, torments, for sins which by them could be no wise avoided. Moreover, the tenour of all Holy Scripture seems to suppose and imply, that men can abstain from sins. For it abounds in denunciations and promises, in declarations of rewards and punishments, all of which seem to militate against the necessity of sinning, and infer the possibility of avoiding punishment. And if this were denied, it would have to be said, that the human mind acts no less mechanically than the human body.
Next, when you proceed to take miracles and ignorance to be equivalent, you seem to rely on this foundation, that the creature can and should have perfect insight into the power and wisdom of the Creator: and that the fact is quite otherwise, I have hitherto been firmly persuaded.
Lastly, where you affirm that Christ’s passion, death, and burial are to be taken literally, but His resurrection allegorically, you rely, as far as I can see, on no proof at all. Christ’s resurrection seems to be delivered in the Gospel as literally as the rest. And on this article of the resurrection the whole Christian religion and its truth rest, and with its removal Christ’s mission and heavenly doctrine collapse. It cannot escape you, how Christ, after He was raised from the dead, laboured to convince His disciples of the truth of the Resurrection properly so called. To want to turn all these things into allegories is the same thing, as if one were to busy one’s self in plucking up the whole truth of the Gospel history.
These few points I wished again to submit in the interest of my liberty of philosophizing, which I earnestly beg you not to take amiss.
Written in London, 11 Feb., 1676.
I will communicate with you shortly on the present studies and experiments of the Royal Society, if God grant me life and health.
[1 ] 2 Cor. v. 16.
[2 ] Letter XXV.
[3 ]Potestas, as distinguished from potentia—the word just above translated power—means power delegated by a rightful superior, as here by God. So it is rendered here “sphere of power,” and in Tract. Pol. generally “authority.” It would not be proper to say that the “image of God” implied potestas.
[1 ] Surely this is a mistake for “excusable”—[Tr.]
[2 ] See Letter XXV. Oldenburg misunderstands Spinoza’s illustration, because he takes “canis” in the phrase, “qui ex morsu canis furit,” to be nominative instead of genitive; “a dog which goes mad from a bite,” instead of “he who goes mad from the bite of a dog.”