Online Library of Liberty

A collection of scholarly works about individual liberty and free markets. A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.

Advanced Search

Spinoza’s Political Theory

Related Links:

Source: Translator's introduction to The Chief Works of Benedict de Spinoza, translated from the Latin, with an Introduction by R.H.M. Elwes, vol. 1 Introduction, Tractatus-Theologico-Politicus, Tractatus Politicus. Revised edition (London: George Bell and Sons, 1891).

INTRODUCTION.

“Konstatiert ist es, das der Lebenswandel des Spinoza frei von allem Tadel war, und rein und makellos wie das Leben seines göttlichen Vetters, Jesu Christi. Auch wie Dieser litt er für seine Lehre wie Dieser trug er die Dornenkrone. Ueberall, wo ein grosser Geist seine Gedenken ausspricht, ist Golgotha.”

Heine.

A VERY few years ago the writings of Spinoza were almost unknown in this country. The only authorities to which the English reader could be referred were the brilliant essays of Mr. Froude1 and Mr. Matthew Arnold,2 the graphic but somewhat misleading sketch in Lewes’s “History of Philosophy,” and the unsatisfactory volume of Dr. R. Willis.3 But in 1880 Mr. Pollock brought out his most valuable “Spinoza, his Life and Philosophy,”4 likely long to remain the standard work on the subject; Dr. Martineau has followed with a sympathetic and gracefully written “Study of Spinoza;” Professor Knight has edited a volume of Spinozistic Essays by Continental Philosophers; Auerbach’s biographical novel1 has been translated, and many writers have made contributions to the subject in magazines and reviews.

At first sight this stir of tardy recognition may seem less surprising than the preceding apathy, for history can show few figures more remarkable than the solitary thinker of Amsterdam. But the causes which kept Spinoza in comparative obscurity are not very far to seek. Personally he shrank with almost womanly sensitiveness from anything like notoriety: his chief work was withheld till after his death, and then published anonymously; his treatise on Religion was also put forth in secret, and he disclaims with evident sincerity all desire to found a school, or give his name to a sect.

Again, the form in which his principal work is cast is such as to repel those dilettante readers, whose suffrage is necessary for a widely-extended reputation; none but genuine students would care to grapple with the serried array of definitions, axioms, and propositions, of which the Ethics is composed, while the display of geometric accuracy flatters the careless into supposing, that the whole structure is interdependent, and that, when a single breach has been effected, the entire fabric has been demolished.

The matter, no less than the manner, of Spinoza’s writings was such as to preclude popularity. He genuinely shocked his contemporaries. Advances in thought are tolerated in proportion as they respond to and, as it were, kindle into flame ideas which are already smouldering obscurely in many minds. A teacher may deepen, modify, transfigure what he finds, but he must not attempt radical reconstruction. In the seventeenth century all men’s deepest convictions were inseparably bound up with anthropomorphic notions of the Deity; Spinoza, in attacking these latter and endeavouring to substitute the conception of eternal and necessary law, seemed to be striking at the very roots of moral order: hence with curious irony his works, which few read and still fewer understood, became associated with notions of monstrous impiety, and their author, who loved virtue with single-hearted and saintly devotion, was branded as a railer against God and a subverter of morality, whom it was a shame even to speak of. Those from whom juster views might have been expected swelled the popular cry. The Cartesians sought to confirm their own precarious reputation for orthodoxy by emphatic disavowals of their more daring associate. Leibnitz, who had known Spinoza personally, speaks of him, whether from jealousy or some more avowable motive, in tones of consistent depreciation.

The torrent of abuse, which poured forth from the theologians and their allies, served to overwhelm the ethical and metaphysical aspect of Spinoza’s teaching. The philosopher was hidden behind the arch-heretic. Throughout almost the whole of the century following his death, he is spoken of in terms displaying complete misapprehension of his importance and scope. The grossly inaccurate account given by Bayle in the “Dictionnaire Philosophique” was accepted as sufficient. The only symptom of a following is found in the religious sect of Hattemists, which based some of its doctrines on an imperfect understanding of the so-called mystic passages in the Ethics. The first real recognition came from Lessing, who found in Spinoza a strength and solace he sought in vain elsewhere, though he never accepted the system as a whole. His conversation with Jacobi (1780), a diligent though hostile student of the Ethics, may be said to mark the beginning of a new epoch in the history of Spinozism. Attention once attracted was never again withdrawn, and received a powerful impulse from Goethe, who more than once confessed his indebtedness to the Ethics, which indeed is abundantly evident throughout his writings. Schleiermacher paid an eloquent tribute to “the holy, the rejected Spinoza.” Novalis celebrated him as “the man intoxicated with Deity” (der Gottvertrunkene Mann), and Heine for once forgot to sneer, as he recounted his life. The brilliant novelist, Auerbach, has not only translated his complete works, but has also made his history the subject of a biographical romance. Among German philosophers Kant is, perhaps, the last, who shows no traces of Spinozism. Hegel has declared, that “to be a philosopher one must first be a Spinozist.” In recent years a new impulse has been given to the study of the Ethics by their curious harmony with the last results of physiological research.

In France Spinoza has till lately been viewed as a disciple and perverter of Descartes. M. Emile Saisset prefixed to his translation of the philosopher’s chief works a critical introduction written from this standpoint. Since the scientific study of philosophic systems has begun among the French, M. Paul Janet has written on Spinoza as a link in the chain of the history of thought; a new translation of his complete works has been started, and M. Renan has delivered a discourse on him at the bicentenary of his death celebrated at the Hague.

In Holland there has also been a revival of interest in the illustrious Dutch thinker. Professors Van Vloten and Land were mainly instrumental in procuring the erection of a statue to his memory, and are now engaged in a fine edition of his works, of which the first volume has appeared.1 In England, as before said, the interest in Spinoza has till recently been slight. The controversialists of the eighteenth century, with the exception of Toland, passed him by as unworthy of serious study. The first recognition of his true character came probably from Germany through Coleridge, who in his desultory way expressed enthusiastic admiration, and recorded his opinion (in a pencil note to a passage in Schelling), that the Ethics, the Novum Organum, and the Critique of Pure Reason were the three greatest works written since the introduction of Christianity. The influence of Spinoza has been traced by Mr. Pollock in Wordsworth, and it is on record that Shelley not only contemplated but began a translation of the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, to be published with a preface by Lord Byron, but the project was cut short by his death. It is said that George Eliot left behind her at her decease a MS. translation of the Ethics.

It may strike those who are strangers to Spinoza as curious, that, notwithstanding the severely abstract nature of his method, so many poets and imaginative writers should be found among his adherents. Lessing, Goethe, Heine, Auerbach, Coleridge, Shelley, George Eliot; most of these not only admired him, but studied him deeply. On closer approach the apparent anomaly vanishes. There is about Spinoza a power and a charm, which appeals strongly to the poetic sense. He seems to dwell among heights, which most men see only in far off, momentary glimpses. The world of men is spread out before him, the workings of the human heart lie bared to his gaze, but he does not fall to weeping, or to laughter, or to reviling: his thoughts are ever with the eternal, and something of the beauty and calm of eternal things has passed into his teaching. If we may, as he himself was wont to do, interpret spiritually a Bible legend, we may say of him that, like Moses returning from Sinai, he bears in his presence the witness that he has held communion with the Most High.

The main authority for the facts of Spinoza’s life is a short biography by Johannes Colerus1 (Köhler), Lutheran pastor at the Hague, who occupied the lodgings formerly tenanted by the philosopher. The orthodox Christian felt a genuine abhorrence for the doctrines, which he regarded as atheistic, but was honest enough to recognize the stainless purity of their author’s character. He sets forth what he has to say with a quaint directness in admirable keeping with the outward simplicity of the life he depicts.

Further authentic information is obtainable from passing notices in the works of Leibnitz, and from Spinoza’s published correspondence, though the editors of the latter have suppressed all that appeared to them of merely personal interest. There is also a biography attributed to Lucas, physician at the Hague (1712), but this is merely a confused panegyric, and is often at variance with more trustworthy records. Additional details may be gleaned from Bayle’s hostile and inaccurate article in the “Dictionnaire Philosophique;” from S. Kortholt’s preface to the second edition (1700) of his father’s book “De tribus impostoribus magnis:” and, lastly, from the recollections of Colonel Stoupe (1673), an officer in the Swiss service, who had met the philosopher at Utrecht, but does not contribute much to our knowledge.

Baruch de Spinoza was born in Amsterdam Nov. 24, 1634. His parents were Portuguese, or possibly Spanish Jews, who had sought a refuge in the Netherlands from the rigours of the Inquisition in the Peninsula. Though nothing positive is known of them, they appear to have been in easy circumstances, and certainly bestowed on their only son—their other two children being girls—a thorough education according to the notions of their time and sect. At the Jewish High School, under the guidance of Morteira, a learned Talmudist, and possibly of the brilliant Manasseh Ben Israel, who afterwards (1655) was employed to petition from Cromwell the re-admission of the Jews to England, the young Spinoza was instructed in the learning of the Hebrews, the mysteries of the Talmud and the Cabbala, the text of the Old Testament, and the commentaries of Ibn Ezra and Maimonides. Readers of the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus will be able to appreciate the use made of this early training. Besides such severer studies, Spinoza was, in obedience to Rabbinical tradition, made acquainted with a manual trade, that of lens polishing, and gained a knowledge of French, Italian, and German; Spanish, Portuguese, and Hebrew were almost his native tongues, but curiously enough, as we learn from one of his lately discovered letters,1 he wrote Dutch with difficulty. Latin was not included in the Jewish curriculum, being tainted with the suspicion of heterodoxy, but Spinoza, feeling probably that it was the key to much of the world’s best knowledge, set himself to learn it;2 first, with the aid of a German master, afterwards at the house of Francis Van den Ende, a physician. It is probably from the latter that he gained the sound knowledge of physical science, which so largely leavened his philosophy; and, no doubt, he at this time began the study of Descartes, whose reputation towered above the learned world of the period.

Colerus relates that Van den Ende had a daughter, Clara Maria, who instructed her father’s pupils in Latin and music during his absence. “She was none of the most beautiful, but she had a great deal of wit,” and as the story runs displayed her sagacity by rejecting the proffered love of Spinoza for the sake of his fellow-pupil Kerkering, who was able to enhance his attractions by the gift of a costly pearl necklace. It is certain that Van den Ende’s daughter and Kerkering were married in 1671, but the tradition of the previous love affair accords ill with ascertained dates. Clara Maria was only seven years old when Spinoza left her father’s house, and sixteen when he left the neighbourhood.

Meanwhile the brilliant Jewish student was overtaken by that mental crisis, which has come over so many lesser men before and since. The creed of his fathers was found unequal to the strain of his own wider knowledge and changed spiritual needs. The Hebrew faith with its immemorial antiquity, its unbroken traditions, its myriads of martyrs, could appeal to an authority which no other religion has equalled, and Spinoza, as we know from a passage in one of his letters,1 felt the claim to the full. We may be sure that the gentle and reserved youth was in no haste to obtrude his altered views, but the time arrived when they could no longer be with honesty concealed. The Jewish doctors were exasperated at the defection of their most promising pupil, and endeavoured to retain him in their communion by the offer of a yearly pension of 1,000 florins. Such overtures were of course rejected. Sterner measures were then resorted to. It is even related, on excellent authority, that Spinoza’s life was attempted as he was coming out of the Portuguese synagogue. Be this as it may, he fled from Amsterdam, and was (1656) formally excommunicated and anathematized according to the rites of the Jewish church.

Thus isolated from his kindred, he sought more congenial society among the dissenting community of Collegiants, a body of men who without priests or set forms of worship carried out the precepts of simple piety. He passed some time in the house of one of that body, not far from Amsterdam, on the Ouwerkerk road, and in 1660 or the following year removed with his friend to the headquarters of the sect at Rhijnsburg, near Leyden, where the memory of his sojourn is still preserved in the name “Spinoza Lane.” His separation from Judaism was marked by his substituting for his name Baruch the Latin equivalent Benedict, but he never received baptism or formally joined any Christian sect. Only once again does his family come into the record of his life. On the death of his father, his sisters endeavoured to deprive him of his share of the inheritance on the ground that he was an outcast and heretic. Spinoza resisted their claim by law, but on gaining his suit yielded up to them all they had demanded except one bed.

Skill in polishing lenses gave him sufficient money for his scanty needs, and he acquired a reputation as an optician before he became known as a philosopher. It was in this capacity that he was consulted by Leibnitz.1 His only contribution to the science was a short treatise on the rainbow, printed posthumously in 1687. This was long regarded as lost, but has, in our own time, been recovered and reprinted by Dr. Van Vloten.

Spinoza also drew, for amusement, portraits of his friends with ink or charcoal. Colerus possessed “a whole book of such draughts, amongst which there were some heads of several considerable persons, who were known to him, or had occasion to visit him,” and also a portrait of the philosopher himself in the costume of Masaniello.

So remarkable a man could hardly remain obscure, and we have no reason to suppose that Spinoza shrank from social intercourse. Though in the last years of his life his habits were somewhat solitary, this may be set down to failing health, poverty, and the pressure of uncompleted work. He was never a professed ascetic, and probably, in the earlier years of his separation from Judaism, was the centre of an admiring and affectionate circle of friends. In his letters he frequently states that visitors leave him no time for correspondence, and the tone, in which he was addressed by comparative strangers, shows that he enjoyed considerable reputation and respect. Before the appearance of the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, he had published nothing which could shock the susceptibilities of Christians, and he was known to be a complete master of Cartesianism, then regarded as the consummation and crown of learning. It is recorded that a society of young men used to hold meetings in Amsterdam for the discussion of philosophical problems, and that Spinoza contributed papers as material for their debates.1 Possibly the MS. treatise “On God, Man, and his Blessedness,” which has been re-discovered in two Dutch copies during our own time, may be referred to this period. It is of no philosophic value compared with the Ethics, but is interesting historically as throwing light on the growth of Spinoza’s mind and his early relations to Cartesianism.

Oblivion has long since settled down over this little band of questioners, but a touching record has been preserved of one of their number, Simon de Vries, who figures in Spinoza’s correspondence. He had often, we are told, wished to bestow gifts of money on his friend and master, but these had always been declined. During the illness which preceded his early death, he expressed a desire to make the philosopher his heir. This again was declined, and he was prevailed on by Spinoza to reduce the bequest to a small annuity, and to leave the bulk of his property to his family. When he had passed away his brother fixed the pension at 500 florins, but Spinoza declared the sum excessive, and refused to accept more than 300 florins, which were punctually paid him till his death.

Besides this instruction by correspondence, for which he seems to have demanded no payment (“mischief,” as one of his biographers puts it, “could be had from him for nothing”), Spinoza at least in one instance received into his house a private pupil,1 generally identified with one Albert Burgh, who became a convert to Rome in 1675, and took that occasion to admonish his ex-tutor in a strain of contemptuous pity.2 Probably to this youth were dictated “The principles of Cartesianism geometrically demonstrated,” which Spinoza was induced by his friends to publish, with the addition of some metaphysical reflections, in 1663.3 Lewis Meyer, a physician of Amsterdam, and one of Spinoza’s intimates, saw the book through the press, and supplied a preface. Its author does not appear to have attached any importance to the treatise, which he regarded merely as likely to pave the way for the reception of more original work. It is interesting as an example of the method afterwards employed in the Ethics, used to support propositions not accepted by their expounder. It also shows that Spinoza thoroughly understood the system he rejected.

In the same year the philosopher removed from Rhijnsburg to Voorburg, a suburb of the Hague, and in 1670 to the Hague itself, where he lived till his death in 1677, lodging first in the house (afterwards tenanted by Colerus) of the widow Van Velden, and subsequently with Van der Spijk, a painter. He was very likely led to leave Rhijnsburg by his increasing reputation and a desire for educated society. By this time he was well known in Holland, and counted among his friends, John de Witt, who is said to have consulted him on affairs of state. Nor was his fame confined to his native country. Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the newly-established Royal Society of England, had visited him at Rhijnsburg, introduced possibly by Huyghens, and had invited him to carry on a correspondence,1 in terms of affectionate intimacy. Oldenburg was rather active-minded than able, never really understood or sympathized with Spinoza’s standpoint, and was thoroughly shocked2 at the appearance of the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, but he was the intimate friend of Robert Boyle, and kept his correspondent acquainted with the progress of science in England. Later on (1671), Leibnitz consulted Spinoza on a question of practical optics,3 and in 1676, Ludwig von Tschirnhausen, a Bohemian nobleman, known in the history of mathematical science, contributed some pertinent criticisms on the Ethics, then circulated in MS.4

Amusing testimonies to Spinoza’s reputation are afforded by the volunteered effusions of Blyenbergh,5 and the artless questionings of the believer in ghosts.6

In 1670, the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus was published anonymously, with the name of a fictitious printer at Hamburg. It naturally produced a storm of angry controversy. It was, in 1674, formally prohibited by the States-General, and, as a matter of course, was placed on the Index by the Romish Church. Perhaps few books have been more often “refuted,” or less seriously damaged by the ordeal. Its author displayed his disinclination to disturb the faith of the unlearned by preventing during his lifetime the appearance of the book in the vernacular.

In 1672, men’s thoughts were for a time diverted from theological controversy by the French invasion of the Netherlands, and the consequent outbreak of domestic faction. The shameful massacre of the brothers De Witt by an infatuated mob brought Spinoza into close and painful contact with the passions seething round him. For once his philosophic calm was broken: he was only by force prevented from rushing forth into the streets at the peril of his life, and proclaiming his abhorrence of the crime.

Shortly afterwards, when the head-quarters of the French army were at Utrecht, Spinoza was sent for by the Prince de Condé, who wished to make his acquaintance. On his arrival at the camp, however, he found that the Prince was absent; and, after waiting a few days, returned home without having seen him. The philosopher’s French entertainers held out hopes of a pension from Louis XIV., if a book were dedicated to that monarch; but these overtures were declined.

On his arrival at the Hague, Spinoza was exposed to considerable danger from the excited populace, who suspected him of being a spy. The calm, which had failed him on the murder of his friend, remained unruffled by the peril threatening himself. He told his landlord, who was in dread of the house being sacked, that, if the mob showed any signs of violence, he would go out and speak to them in person, though they should serve him as they had served the unhappy De Witts. “I am a good republican,” he added, “and have never had any aim but the welfare and good of the State.”

In 1673, Spinoza was offered by the Elector Palatine, Charles Lewis,1 a professorship of philosophy at Heidelberg, but declined it,2 on the plea that teaching would interfere with his original work, and that doctrinal restrictions, however slight, would prove irksome.

In the following year, the Ethics were finished and circulated in MS. among their author’s friends. Spinoza made a journey to Amsterdam for the purpose of publishing them, but changed his intention on learning that they would probably meet with a stormy reception. Perhaps failing health strengthened his natural desire for peace, and considerations of personal renown never had any weight with him.

To this closing period belong the details as to Spinoza’s manner of life collected by Colerus. They are best given in the biographer’s simple words, as rendered in the contemporary English version: “It is scarce credible how sober and frugal he was. Not that he was reduced to so great a poverty, as not to be able to spend more, if he had been willing. He had friends enough, who offered him their purses, and all manner of assistance; but he was naturally very sober, and would be satisfied with little.” His food apparently cost him but a few pence a day, and he drank hardly any wine. “He was often invited to eat with his friends, but chose rather to live upon what he had at home, though it were never so little, than to sit down to a good table at the expense of another man. . . . He was very careful to cast up his accounts every quarter; which he did, that he might spend neither more nor less than what he could spend every year. And he would say sometimes to the people of the house, that he was like the serpent, who forms a circle with his tail in his mouth, to denote that he had nothing left at the year’s end. He added, that he designed to lay up no more money than what would be necessary for him to have a decent burying. . . . He was of a middle size; he had good features in his face, the skin somewhat black; black curled hair; long eyebrows, and of the same colour, so that one might easily know by his looks that he was descended from Portuguese Jews. . . . If he was very frugal in his way of living, his conversation was also very sweet and easy. He knew admirably well how to be master of his passions: he was never seen very melancholy, nor very merry. . . . He was besides very courteous and obliging. He would very often discourse with his landlady, especially when she lay in, and with the people of the house, when they happened to be sick or afflicted: he never failed, then, to comfort them, and exhort them to bear with patience those evils which God assigned to them as a lot. He put the children in mind of going often to church, and taught them to be obedient and dutiful to their parents. When the people of the house came from church, he would often ask them what they had learned, and what they remembered of the sermon. He had a great esteem for Dr. Cordes, my predecessor, who was a learned and good-natured man, and of an exemplary life, which gave occasion to Spinoza to praise him very often: nay, he went sometimes to hear him preach. . . . It happened one day that his landlady asked him whether he believed she could be saved in the religion she professed. He answered: Your religion is a very good one; you need not look for another, nor doubt that you may be saved in it, provided, whilst you apply yourself to piety, you live at the same time a peaceable and quiet life.

His amusements were very simple: talking on ordinary matters with the people of the house; smoking now and again a pipe of tobacco; watching the habits and quarrels of insects; making observations with a microscope—such were his pastimes in the hours which he could spare from his philosophy. But the greater part of his day was taken up with severe mental work in his own room. Sometimes he would become so absorbed, that he would remain alone for two or three days together, his meals being carried up to him.

Spinoza had never been robust, and had for more than twenty years been suffering from phthisis, a malady which, at any rate in those days, never allowed its victims to escape. The end came quite suddenly and quietly, in February, 1677. On Saturday, the 20th, after the landlord and his wife had returned from church, Spinoza spent some time with them in conversation, and smoked a pipe of tobacco, but went to bed early. Apparently, he had previously sent for his friend and physician, Lewis Meyer, who arrived on Sunday morning. On the 21st, Spinoza came down as usual, and partook of some food at the midday meal. In the afternoon, the physician stayed alone with his patient, the rest going to church. But when the landlord and his wife returned, they were startled with the news that the philosopher had expired about three o’clock. Lewis Meyer returned to Amsterdam that same evening.

Thus passed away all that was mortal of Spinoza. If we have read his character aright, his last hours were comforted with the thought, not so much that he had raised for himself an imperishable monument, as that he had pointed out to mankind a sure path to happiness and peace. Perhaps, with this glorious vision, there mingled the more tender feeling, that, among the simple folk with whom he lived, his memory would for a few brief years be cherished with reverence and love.

The funeral took place on the 25th February, “being attended by many illustrious persons, and followed by six coaches.” The estate left behind him by the philosopher was very scanty. Rebekah de Spinoza, sister of the deceased, put in a claim as his heir; but abandoned it on finding that, after the payment of expenses, little or nothing would remain.

The MSS., which were found in Spinoza’s desk, were, in accordance with his wishes, forwarded to John Rieuwertz, a publisher of Amsterdam, and were that same year brought out by Lewis Meyer, and another of the philosopher’s friends, under the title, “B. D. S. Opera Posthuma.” They consisted of the Ethics, a selection of letters, a compendium of Hebrew grammar, and two uncompleted treatises, one on politics, the other (styled “An Essay on the Improvement of the Understanding”) on logical method. The last-named had been begun several years previously, but had apparently been added to from time to time. It develops some of the doctrines indicated in the Ethics, and serves in some sort as an introduction to the larger work.

In considering Spinoza’s system of philosophy, it must not be forgotten that the problem of the universe seemed much simpler in his day, than it does in our own. Men had not then recognized, that knowledge is “a world whose margin fades for ever and for ever as we move.” They believed that truth was something definite, which might be grasped by the aid of a clear head, diligence, and a sound method. Hence a tone of confidence breathed through their inquiries, which has since died away, and a completeness was aimed at, which is now seen to be unattainable. But the products of human thought are often valuable in ways undreamt of by those who fashioned them, and long after their original use has become obsolete. A system, obviously inadequate and defective as a whole, may yet enshrine ideas which the world is the richer for possessing.

This distinction between the framework and the central thoughts is especially necessary in the study of Spinoza; for the form in which his work is cast would seem to lay stress on their interdependence. It has often been said, that the geometrical method was adopted, because it was believed to insure absolute freedom from error. But examination shows this to be a misconception. Spinoza, who had purged his mind of so many illusions, can hardly have succumbed to the notion, that his Ethics was a flawless mass of irrefragable truth. He adopted his method because he believed, that he thus reduced argument to its simplest terms, and laid himself least open to the seductions of rhetoric or passion. “It is the part of a wise man,” he says, “not to bewail nor to deride, but to understand.” Human nature obeys fixed laws no less than do the figures of geometry. “I will, therefore, write about human beings, as though I were concerned with lines, and planes, and solids.”

As no system is entirely true, so also no system is entirely original. Each must in great measure be the recombination of elements supplied by its predecessors. Spinozism forms no exception to this rule; many of its leading conceptions may be traced in the writings of Jewish Rabbis and of Descartes.

The biography of the philosopher supplies us in some sort with the genesis of his system. His youth had been passed in the study of Hebrew learning, of metaphysical speculations on the nature of the Deity. He was then confronted with the scientific aspect of the world as revealed by Descartes. At first the two visions seemed antagonistic, but, as he gazed, their outlines blended and commingled, he found himself in the presence not of two, but of one; the universe unfolded itself to him as the necessary result of the Perfect and Eternal God.

Other influences, no doubt, played a part in shaping his convictions; we know, for instance, that he was a student of Bacon and of Hobbes, and almost certainly of Giordano Bruno, but these two elements, the Jewish and the Cartesian, are the main sources of his system, though it cannot properly be called the mere development of either. From Descartes, as Mr. Pollock points out, he derived his notions of physical science and his doctrine of the conservation of motion.

In the fragment on the Improvement of the Understanding, Spinoza sets forth the causes which prompted him to turn to philosophy.1 It is worthy of note that they are not speculative but practical. He did not seek, like Descartes, “to walk with certainty,” but to find a happiness beyond the reach of change for himself and his fellow-men. With a fervour that reminds one of Christian fleeing from the City of Destruction, he dilates on the vanity of men’s ordinary ambitions, riches, fame, and the pleasures of sense, and on the necessity of looking for some more worthy object for their desires. Such an object he finds in the knowledge of truth, as obtainable through clear and distinct ideas, bearing in themselves the evidence of their own veracity.

Spinoza conceived as a vast unity all existence actual and possible; indeed, between actual and possible he recognizes no distinction, for, if a thing does not exist, there must be some cause which prevents its existing, or in other words renders it impossible. This unity he terms indifferently Substance or God, and the first part of the Ethics is devoted to expounding its nature.

Being the sum of existence, it is necessarily infinite (for there is nothing external to itself to make it finite), and it can be the cause of an infinite number of results. It must necessarily operate in absolute freedom, for there is nothing by which it can be controlled; but none the less necessarily it must operate in accordance with eternal and immutable laws, fulfilling the perfection of its own nature.

Substance consists in, or rather displays itself through an infinite number of Attributes, but of these only two, Extension and Thought, are knowable by us; therefore, the rest may be left out of account in our inquiries. These Attributes are not different things, but different aspects of the same thing (Spinoza does not make it clear, whether the difference is intrinsic or due to the percipient); thus Extension and Thought are not parallel and interacting, but identical, and both acting in one order and connection. Hence all questions of the dependence of mind on body, or body on mind, are done away with at a stroke. Every manifestation of either is but a manifestation of the other, seen under a different aspect.

Attributes are again subdivided, or rather display themselves through an infinite number of Modes; some eternal and universal in respect of each Attribute (such as motion and the sum of all psychical facts); others having no eternal and necessary existence, but acting and reacting on one another in ceaseless flux, according to fixed and definite laws. These latter have been compared in relation to their Attributes to waves in relation to the sea; or again they may be likened to the myriad hues which play over the iridescent surface of a bubble; each is the necessary result of that which went before, and is the necessary precursor of that which will come after; all are modifications of the underlying film. The phenomenal world is made up of an infinite number of these Modes. It is manifest that the Modes of one Attribute cannot be acted upon by the Modes of another Attribute, for each may be expressed in terms of the other; within the limits of each Attribute the variation in the Modes follows an absolutely necessary order. When the first is given, the rest follow as inevitably, as from the nature of a triangle it follows, that its three angles are equal to two right angles. Nature is uniform, and no infringement of her laws is conceivable without a reduction to chaos.

Hence it follows, that a thing can only be called contingent in relation to our knowledge. To an infinite intelligence such a term would be unmeaning.

Hence also it follows, that the world cannot have been created for any purpose other than that which it fulfils by being what it is. To say that it has been created for the good of man, or for any similar end, is to indulge in grotesque anthropomorphism.

Among the Modes of thought may be reckoned the human mind, among the Modes of extension may be reckoned the human body; taken together they constitute the Mode man.

The nature of mind forms the subject of the second part of the Ethics. Man’s mind is the idea of man’s body, the consciousness of bodily states. Now bodily states are the result, not only of the body itself, but also of all things affecting the body; hence the human mind takes cognizance, not only of the human body, but also of the external world, in so far as it affects the human body. Its capacity for varied perceptions is in proportion to the body’s capacity for receiving impressions.

The succession of ideas of bodily states cannot be arbitrarily controlled by the mind taken as a power apart, though the mind, as the aggregate of past states, may be a more or less important factor in the direction of its course. We can, in popular phrase, direct our thoughts at will, but the will, which we speak of as spontaneous, is really determined by laws as fixed and necessary, as those which regulate the properties of a triangle or a circle. The illusion of freedom, in the sense of uncaused volition, results from the fact, that men are conscious of their actions, but unconscious of the causes whereby those actions have been determined. The chain of causes becomes, so to speak, incandescent at a particular point, and men assume that only at that point does it start into existence. They ignore the links which still remain in obscurity.

If mind be simply the mirror of bodily states, how can we account for memory? When the mind has been affected by two things in close conjunction, the recurrence of one re-awakens into life the idea of the other. To take an illustration, mind is like a traveller revisiting his former home, for whom each feature of the landscape recalls associations of the past. From the interplay of associations are woven memory and imagination.

Ideas may be either adequate or inadequate, in other words either distinct or confused; both kinds are subject to the law of causation. Falsity is merely a negative conception. All adequate ideas are necessarily true, and bear in themselves the evidence of their own veracity. The mind accurately reflects existence, and if an idea be due to the mental association of two different factors, the joining, so to speak, may, with due care, be discerned. General notions and abstract terms arise from the incapacity of the mind to retain in completeness more than a certain number of mental images; it therefore groups together points of resemblance, and considers the abstractions thus formed as units.

There are three kinds of knowledge: opinion, rational knowledge, and intuitive knowledge. The first alone is the cause of error; the second consists in adequate ideas of particular properties of things, and in general notions; the third proceeds from an adequate idea of some attribute of God to the adequate knowledge of particular things.

The reason does not regard things as contingent, but as necessary, considering them under the form of eternity, as part of the nature of God. The will has no existence apart from particular acts of volition, and since acts of volition are ideas, the will is identical with the understanding.

The third part of the Ethics is devoted to the consideration of the emotions.

In so far as it has adequate ideas, i.e., is purely rational, the mind may be said to be active; in so far as it has inadequate ideas, it is passive, and therefore subject to emotions.

Nothing can be destroyed from within, for all change must come from without. In other words, everything endeavours to persist in its own being. This endeavour must not be associated with the “struggle for existence” familiar to students of evolutionary theories, though the suggestion is tempting; it is simply the result of a thing being what it is. When it is spoken of in reference to the human mind only, it is equivalent to the will; in reference to the whole man, it may be called appetite. Appetite is thus identified with life; desire is defined as appetite, with consciousness thereof. All objects of our desire owe their choiceworthiness simply to the fact that we desire them: we do not desire a thing, because it is intrinsically good, but we deem a thing good, because we desire it. Everything which adds to the bodily or mental powers of activity is pleasure; everything which detracts from them is pain.

From these three fundamentals—desire, pleasure, pain—Spinoza deduces the entire list of human emotions. Love is pleasure, accompanied by the idea of an external cause; hatred is pain, accompanied by the idea of an external cause. Pleasure or pain may be excited by anything, incidentally, if not directly. There is no need to proceed further with the working out of the theory, but we may remark, in passing, the extraordinary fineness of perception and sureness of touch, with which it is accomplished; here, if nowhere else, Spinoza remains unsurpassed.1 Almost all the emotions arise from the passive condition of the mind, but there is also a pleasure arising from the mind’s contemplation of its own power. This is the source of virtue, and is purely active.

In the fourth part of the Ethics, Spinoza treats of man, in so far as he is subject to the emotions, prefixing a few remarks on the meaning of the terms perfect and imperfect, good and evil. A thing can only be called perfect in reference to the known intention of its author. We style “good” that which we know with certainty to be useful to us: we style “evil” that which we know will hinder us in the attainment of good. By “useful,” we mean that which will aid us to approach gradually the ideal we have set before ourselves. Man, being a part only of nature, must be subject to emotions, because he must encounter circumstances of which he is not the sole and sufficient cause. Emotion can only be conquered by another emotion stronger than itself, hence knowledge will only lift us above the sway of passions, in so far as it is itself “touched with emotion.” Every man necessarily, and therefore rightly, seeks his own interest, which is thus identical with virtue; but his own interest does not lie in selfishness, for man is always in need of external help, and nothing is more useful to him than his fellow-men; hence individual well-being is best promoted by harmonious social effort. The reasonable man will desire nothing for himself, which he does not desire for other men; therefore he will be just, faithful, and honourable.

The code of morals worked out on these lines bears many resemblances to Stoicism, though it is improbable that Spinoza was consciously imitating. The doctrine that rational emotion, rather than pure reason, is necessary for subduing the evil passions, is entirely his own.

The means whereby man may gain mastery over his passions, are set forth in the first portion of the fifth part of the Ethics. They depend on the definition of passion as a confused idea. As soon as we form a clear and distinct idea of a passion, it changes its character, and ceases to be a passion. Now it is possible, with due care, to form a distinct idea of every bodily state; hence a true knowledge of the passions is the best remedy against them. While we contemplate the world as a necessary result of the perfect nature of God, a feeling of joy will arise in our hearts, accompanied by the idea of God as its cause. This is the intellectual love of God, which is the highest happiness man can know. It seeks for no special love from God in return, for such would imply a change in the nature of the Deity. It rises above all fear of change through envy or jealousy, and increases in proportion as it is seen to be participated in by our fellow-men.

The concluding propositions of the Ethics have given rise to more controversy than any other part of the system. Some critics have maintained that Spinoza is indulging in vague generalities without any definite meaning, others have supposed that the language is intentionally obscure. Others, again, see in them a doctrine of personal immortality, and, taking them in conjunction with the somewhat transcendental form of the expressions concerning the love of God, have claimed the author of the Ethics as a Mystic. All these suggestions are reductions to the absurd, the last not least so. Spinoza may have been not unwilling to show that his creed could be expressed in exalted language as well as the current theology, but his “intellectual love” has no more in common with the ecstatic enthusiasm of cloistered saints, than his “God” has in common with the Divinity of Romanist peasants, or his “eternity” with the paradise of Mahomet. But to return to the doctrine in dispute.1 “The human mind,” says Spinoza, “cannot be wholly destroyed with the body, but somewhat of it remains, which is eternal.” The eternity thus predicated cannot mean indefinite persistence in time, for eternity is not commensurable with time. It must mean some special kind of existence; it is, in fact, defined as a mode of thinking. Now, the mind consists of adequate and inadequate ideas; in so far as it is composed of the former, it is part of the infinite mind of God, which broods, as it were, over the extended universe as its expression in terms of thought. As such, it is necessarily eternal, and, since knowledge implies self-consciousness, it knows that it is so. Inadequate ideas will pass away with the body, because they are the result of conditions, which are merely temporary, and inseparably connected with the body, but adequate ideas will not pass away, inasmuch as they are part of the mind of the Eternal. Knowledge of the third or intuitive kind is the source of our highest perfection and blessedness; even as it forms part of the infinite mind of God, so also does the joy with which it is accompanied—the intellectual love of God—form part of the infinite intellectual love, wherewith God regards Himself.

Spinoza concludes with the admonition, that morality rests on a basis quite independent of the acceptance of the mind’s Eternity. Virtue is its own reward, and needs no other. This doctrine, which appears, as it were, perfunctorily in so many systems of morals, is by Spinoza insisted on with almost passionate earnestness; few things seem to have moved him to more scornful denial than the popular creed, that supernatural rewards and punishments are necessary as incentives to virtue. “I see in what mud this man sticks,” he exclaims in answer to some such statement. “He is one of those who would follow after his own lusts, if he were not restrained by the fear of hell. He abstains from evil actions and fulfils God’s commands like a slave against his will, and for his bondage he expects to be rewarded by God with gifts far more to his taste than Divine love, and great in proportion to his original dislike of virtue.”1 Again, at the close of the Ethics, he draws an ironical picture of the pious coming before God at the Judgment, and looking to be endowed with incalculable blessings in recompense for the grievous burden of their piety. For him, who is truly wise, Blessedness is not the reward of virtue, but virtue itself. “And though the way thereto be steep, yet it may be found—all things excellent are as difficult, as they are rare.”

Such, in rough outline, is the philosophy of Spinoza; few systems have been more variously interpreted. Its author has been reviled or exalted as Atheist, Pantheist, Monotheist, Materialist, Mystic, in fact, under almost every name in the philosophic vocabulary. But such off-hand classification is based on hasty reading of isolated passages, rather than on sound knowledge of the whole. We shall act more wisely, and more in the spirit of the master, if, as Professor Land advises, “we call him simply Spinoza, and endeavour to learn from himself what he sought and what he found.”

The two remaining works, translated in these volumes, may be yet more briefly considered. They present no special difficulties, and are easily read in their entirety.

The Tractatus Theologico-Politicus is an eloquent plea for religious liberty. True religion is shown to consist in the practice of simple piety, and to be quite independent of philosophical speculations. The elaborate systems of dogmas framed by theologians are based on superstition, resulting from fear.

The Bible is examined by a method, which anticipates in great measure the procedure of modern rationalists, and the theory of its verbal inspiration is shown to be untenable. The Hebrew prophets were distinguished not by superior wisdom, but by superior virtue, and they set forth their higher moral ideals in language, which they thought would best commend it to the multitude whom they addressed. For anthropomorphic notions of the Deity as a heavenly King and Judge, who displays His power by miraculous interventions, is substituted the conception set forth in the Ethics of an Infinite Being, fulfilling in the uniformity of natural law the perfection of His own Nature. Men’s thoughts cannot really be constrained by commands; therefore, it is wisest, so long as their actions conform to morality, to allow them absolute liberty to think what they like, and say what they think.

The Political Treatise was the latest work of Spinoza’s life, and remains unfinished. Though it bears abundant evidence of the influence of Hobbes, it differs from him in several important points. The theory of sovereignty is the same in both writers, but Spinoza introduces considerable qualifications. Supreme power is ideally absolute, but its rights must, in practice, be limited by the endurance of its subjects. Thus governments are founded on the common consent, and for the convenience of the governed, who are, in the last resort, the arbiters of their continuance.

Spinoza, like Hobbes, peremptorily sets aside all claims of religious organizations to act independently of, or as superior to the civil power. Both reject as outside the sphere of practical politics the case of a special revelation to an individual. In all matters affecting conduct the State must be supreme.

It remains to say a few words about the present version. I alone am responsible for the contents of these volumes, with the exception of the Political Treatise, which has been translated for me by my friend Mr. A. H. Gosset, Fellow of New College, Oxford, who has also, in my absence from England, kindly seen the work through the press. I have throughout followed Bruder’s text,1 correcting a few obvious misprints. The additional letters given in Professor Van Vloten’s Supplement,2 have been inserted in their due order.

This may claim to be the first version3 of Spinoza’s works offered to the English reader; for, though Dr. R. Willis has gone over most of the ground before, he laboured under the disadvantages of a very imperfect acquaintance with Latin, and very loose notions of accuracy. The Tractatus Theologico-Politicus had been previously translated in 1689. Mr. Pollock describes this early version as “pretty accurate, but of no great literary merit.”

Whatever my own shortcomings, I have never consciously eluded a difficulty by a paraphrase. Clearness has throughout been aimed at in preference to elegance. Though the precise meaning of some of the philosophical terms (e.g. idea) varies in different passages, I have, as far as possible, given a uniform rendering, not venturing to attempt greater subtlety than I found. I have abstained from notes; for, if given on an adequate scale, they would have unduly swelled the bulk of the work. Moreover, excellent commentaries are readily accessible.

R. H. M. Elwes.

[1 ] “Short Studies in Great Subjects,” first series, art. “Spinoza.”

[2 ] “Essays in Criticism,” art. “Spinoza and the Bible.”

[3 ] “Benedict de Spinoza; his Life, Correspondence, and Ethics.” 1870.

[4 ] I take this early opportunity of recording my deep obligations to Mr. Pollock’s book. I have made free use of it, together with Dr. Martineau’s, in compiling this introduction. In the passages which Mr. Pollock has incidentally translated, I have been glad to be able to refer to the versions of so distinguished a scholar.

[1 ] “Spinoza: ein Denkerleben.” 1855.

[1 ] “B. de Spinoza, Opera. I.” The Hague, 1882.

[1 ] Originally written in Dutch (1706). Translated the same year into French and English, and afterwards (1723) into German. The English version is reprinted in Mr. Pollock’s book as an appendix.

[1 ] Letter XXXII. See vol. ii.

[2 ] A translator has special opportunities for observing the extent of Spinoza’s knowledge of Latin. His sentences are grammatical and his meaning almost always clear. But his vocabulary is restricted; his style is wanting in flexibility, and seldom idiomatic; in fact, the niceties of scholarship are wanting. He reminds one of a clever workman who accomplishes much with simple tools.

[1 ] Letter LXXIV.

[1 ] Letters LI., LII.

[1 ] Letters XXVI., XXVII., according to the corrected text of Dr. Van Vloten, herein adopted.

[1 ] Letters XXVI., XXVII.

[2 ] Letter LXXIII.

[3 ] The full title is, “Renati des Cartes Principiorum partes I. et II. more geometrico demonstratæ per Benedictum de Spinoza Amstelodamensem. Accesserunt ejusdem cogitata metaphysica. Amsterdam, 1663.”

[1 ] Letter I., sqq.

[2 ] But Tschirnhausen seems to have brought Oldenburg and Boyle to a better mind. Letter LXV.

[3 ] Letter LI.

[4 ] Letter LXI. sqq.

[5 ] Letter XXXI. sqq.

[6 ] Letter LV. sqq.

[1 ] Letter LIII.

[2 ] Letter LIV.

[1 ] These observations are not offered as a complete exposition of Spinozism, but merely as an indication of its general drift.

[1 ] It may be worth while to cite the often-quoted testimony of the distinguished physiologist, Johannes Muller:—“With regard to the relations of the passions to one another apart from their physiological conditions, it is impossible to give any better account than that which Spinoza has laid down with unsurpassed mastery.”—Physiologie des Menschen, ii. 543. He follows up this praise by quoting the propositions in question in extenso.

[1 ] The explanation here indicated is based on that given by Mr. Pollock, “Spinoza,” &c., ch. ix., to which the reader is referred for a masterly exposition of the question.

[1 ] Letter XLIX.

[1 ] “B. de Spinosa Opera quæ Supersunt Omnia,” ed. C. H. Bruder. Leipzig (Tauchnitz), 1843.

[2 ] “Ad B. D. S. Opera quæ Supersunt Omnia Supplementum.” Amsterdam, 1862.

[3 ] While these volumes were passing through the press, a translation of the Ethics appeared by Mr. Hale White (Trübner and Co.). The Tractatus Politicus was translated in 1854 by W. Maccall, but the book has become so rare as to be practically inaccessible.

Last modified April 10, 2014