Spinoza: Every Event a Necessary Part of the Whole (Cahn)

Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677) viewed the world as possessing an intelligible structure according to which every event was in principle comprehensible as a necessary part of the whole. The logical order of that whole was to be understood only ‘through itself’ and was variously termed ‘substance’, ‘Nature’, or ‘God’. The geometric format of [his masterpiece] the Ethics illustrates this central thesis, since the propositions, corollaries and notes are all intended as deductions from the initial definitions and axioms, which are presented as self-explanatory. Part I contains Spinoza’s detailed demonstration of the essence of God. In Part II he offers his solution to the traditional philosophical problem of the relation between mind and body, regarding these not, as Descartes had, as two separate substances, but rather as two aspects of the one Substance. The remainder of the Ethics contains Spinoza’s moral theory and his view of the ideal life. The term ‘good’ and ‘bad’ are, according to Spinoza, merely words we use to express our own desires. In order to achieve salvation, we need to free ourselves from the bondage of these emotions and strive through reason to achieve knowledge of and identification with the order of the universe, thus coming to possess ‘the intellectual love of God’ which is ‘blessedness’. By thus reinterpreting the concept of God and imparting spirituality to the study of Nature, Spinoza fused his commitment to the scientific model of knowledge with the monotheistic vision of his religious heritage. (from Baruch Spinoza, in Classics of Western Philosophy, edited by Steven M. Cahn, Indianapolis 1977)

Bayle on the rights of erroneous conscience (Curley)

Pierre Bayle (1647-1706) on the rights of erroneous conscience (from Bayle vs. Spinoza on Toleration, by Edwin M. Curley, Mededelingen vanwege het Spinoza Huis #95, Voorschoten 2009)

[P]erhaps his most distinctive and interesting argument occurs quite late in the Commentaire [philosophique sur ces paroles de Jésus-Christ, constrains-les d’entrer], where he contends, in replying to an objection, that an erroneous conscience has the same rights as an enlightened conscience. Here’s a summary of this argument:

I. To say that your conscience judges an action to be good or evil is the same as saying that your conscience judges it to be pleasing or displeasing to God. (Volume II of Pierre Bayle, Ouvres diverses, ed. Elisabeth Labrousse [OD II], p.422b; Pierre Bayle, Ouvres diverses, ed. John Kilcullen and Chandran Kukathas [KK], p.220)

II. If a man’s conscience tells him that an action is evil and displeasing to God, and he nevertheless does it anyway, he acts with the intent of offending and disobeying God. (OD II, 422b-423a; KK, 220)

III.Whoever acts with the intent of offending and disobeying God necessarily sins.

IV. So, if a man’s conscience tells him that an action is evil and displeasing to God, and he nevertheless does it anyway, he necessarily sins. Or more succinctly: whatever is done against the dictates of conscience is a sin. (OD II, 422b; KK, 220)

Bayle recognizes that this argument will not be persuasive to an atheist, but that may not be a problem for his purposes. His primary opponents are Christians, who may not be troubled by the theistic aspects of his assumptions. I presume most Christians – and most theists in general – would readily grant that if you act with the intent of offending and disobeying God, you sin. The first premise of Bayle’s argument will be more controversial. As he formulates it, it requires a commitment to what we might call ‘analytic theological voluntarism’, the theory that the meaning of ethical terms is to be analyzed by using the concepts of what is or is not pleasing to God. Many Christian philosophers would grant that Plato’s Euthyphro showed that analysis of ethical language to be faulty. But perhaps there is a way of reformulating I [the first premise] which would avoid the commitment to voluntarism.

[Note: According to Advayavada Buddhism, what human beings experience and identify as good, right or beneficial, indeed as progress, is, in fact, that which takes place in the otherwise indifferent direction that wondrous overall existence flows in of its own accord.]

Spinoza and the Idea of the Secular (Lloyd)

Genevieve Lloyd, in Spinoza and the Idea of the Secular, Mededelingen vanwege het Spinozahuis, Voorschoten 2013:

Spinoza saw the belief in immortality not as merely irrelevant to morals but as an obstancle to true virtue. For him, the dread of punishment after death was not just an inadequate basis for virtue; it was inimical to it. Virtue not only does not depend on the belief in an after-life; it depends on the rejection of that belief. In this respect, his approach to virtue echoes the ancient Epicurean/Lucretian philosophy. His rich but mystifying articulation of the eternity of the mind, in Part Five of the Ethics – whatever we make of it – is clearly not an orthodox doctrine of continued existence after bodily death, in any form which would allow for susceptibility to punishment or reward. For the basis of human well-being and virtue, Spinoza looked, not to an after-life, but to the joy associated in the present life with the love of a God who does not transcend Nature.

Spinoza was strongly committed to the rejection of the after-life; but he also passionately believed that the common perception of him as an ‘atheist’ was deeply, dangerously, misconstrued. It is in the striking conjunction of those two concerns – to reject prevailing beliefs in the after-life and to repudiate the perception of his philosophy as involving atheism – that we see most clearly how he prepared the way for the modern idea of the secular.

There is on the face of it something puzzling here. From our own temporal perspective – in the light of the connotations ‘atheism’ now has – Spinoza seems clearly to qualify as an atheist: he rejects the belief in a transcendent God, the belief in the supernatural. Yet I think it is also clear that he is genuine in his vehement rejection of the ‘atheist’ label. To see what is at stake here, I want now to look at some significant portions of his correspondence [not included here], which indicate, not only that he did not regard himself as an atheist, but that he thought that misconception threatened what he saw as the very core of his philosophy. He was deeply concerned about the imputation of atheism – not only fot he sake of his reputation, but fot the sake of the right understanding of what he describes as the ‘true philosophy’ for which he lived.

The Identity of Man with the World and its Soul in Hinduism (Melamed)

The Identity of Man with the World and its Soul in Hinduism (adapted from a reprint of Spinoza and Buddha, Visions of a Dead God, by S.M. Melamed, Chicago 1933)

What Spinoza called substance the ancient Hindu thinkers called Atman. While Spinoza’s substance never underwent any changes, Atman shows many stages of development. Originally it meant the cosmic ego, which later vanished, leaving only indeterminate, infinite, and inarticulate substance. From this cosmic principle the Hindu sought to deduce the world. This deduction seemed to be the more necessary since this is an articulate world, full of words, expressions, and thoughts, while Atman is indeterminate and inarticulate. This chasm between Atman and the world the Hindu bridged with Brahman, the holy word, accompanying the sacrificial rites. Brahman, or the logos, became the second cosmic force, and then united with Atman to form one cosmic principle. Both, as a oneness, represent the physical and the logical principle of the world.

Just as Spinoza called thinking the son of God, so did the ancient Hindus regard Brahman, the logical principle, as the first-born in this world. In this Atman-Brahman idea, ancient Hindu thought found its kindling-point and anchor ground. It, too, is no more a Deity in the theological meaning of the term than is Spinoza’s Deus. It is a mystical cosmic principle, a dead God. It does not demand that man pray to, adore, or venerate it. It does not pretend to be man’s teacher and guide. Atman-Brahman means ‘I am the all’, ‘I am the cosmos’, and is expressed in the formula ‘Tat tvam asi’, ‘Thou art that’. In this recognition man loses the feeling of limitation and finiteness, and feels himself to be part of the infinite whole, a link in the infinite chain. He is at one with the world and with God, and hence need not face them in opposition. There is no inside or outside, no subject or object. The world is a oneness which manifests itself in variety. None of the parts is isolated from the whole. God’s relationship to the world is identical with [its] inner ground and outer manifestation.

Atman-Brahman is in the final analysis the identity of man with the world and its soul. It is often referred to in the Upanishads as Karya Brahman, the nature of Brahman, or what Spinoza would call natura naturans, as distinguished from Karana Brahman, or natura naturata. This Brahman has all the properties of Spinoza’s substance and is the true hen kai pan [One and All]. It is the infinite in all things finite, and the eternal in all things fugitive. It is the ultimate and highest reality.

This conception presupposes a type of knowledge which cannot possibly be empirical in nature. The senses cannot possibly furnish us with the truth of the absolute. Empiric knowledge is only fragmentary in character. Only knowledge of the whole, which is created intuitively, can furnish us with truth. Only intuitive knowledge makes the unheard become heard, the unperceived perceived, and the unknown known. This form of knowledge also enables man to grasp the highest reality, frees him from passion and suffering, and unites his soul with eternity. It is man’s greatest spiritual treasure. This theory of knowledge is common to all mysticism, including Spinozism.

Introduction to Spinoza’s Ethics (Hampshire)

Introduction to Spinoza’s Ethics (from Prof. Stuart Hampshire’s Introduction to Prof. Edwin Curley’s translation of Benedict de Spinoza’s Ethics, 1994, London 1996)

Spinoza begins his Ethics with arguments to prove that there must be a single self-subsistent substance, to be identified as ‘Deus sive Natura’, ‘God or Nature’, which is the cause, directly or indirectly, of all things, and which is self-created. This statement is a denial of the possibility of a transcendent creator, distinct from his creation, and a denial of the first principles of Judaism and of Christianity. God must be immanent in the natural order, the creator in its creation, if we are to avoid the incoherence of thinking of two substances in reality: a creator distinct from his creation. There could not have been an act of creation, as Jews and Christians claim that there has been; this would imply that God had reason to choose to create the actual world rather than other possible worlds. But what reason could there be other than the creator’s nature which made the actual world the only possible world? We must think of the natural order as the unfolding of God’s nature in accordance with eternal laws which consitute his essential nature. The origin of things is not to be found in an act of will, but rather in the rational order which constitutes God or Nature. These arguments for God’s immanence undermine the orthodox tradition of Western morality and metaphysics, and they remove the need for any intermediary between God and man in the form of a Church and of a priesthood. We do not need any privileged revelation of God’s intentions and we must not apply to God any part of the vocabulary that is applicable to finite human minds. […]

Spinoza was always denounced during his life, and for a century afterwards, as not only an atheist, but also as a materialist and a determinist: that is, he claimed that all things, including persons, are determined in their actions by the laws of physics. The phrase ‘Deus sive Natura’, ‘God or Nature’, gives a sense in which he was an atheist, but he was a materialist with a difference and also a determinist with a difference. Human beings do not have supernatural souls and their processes of thought are inseparably linked to bodily processes. This entails that, for every change in a human mind, which can be explained in psychological terms, there must be a replica in the body which is a change to be explained in the terms of physical laws. This seems a form of materialism. Our mental powers and our physical powers are indissolubly linked – but we can learn to understand the natural order, at least in part, sub specie aeternitatis, under its aspect as an eternal framework and system of natural laws. Our knowledge of the intellectual order of things will always be fragmentary, because our powers of mind are limited and the intellectual order is unlimited and infinite. This is materialism with a difference, because God or Nature is as much an intelligible system of thought as a system of material objects. Spinoza’s so-called determinism is the belief that all behaviour, whether of human beings or of other natural creatures, is to be explained by causes, but by causes of two contrasting kinds: causes that are eternally valid as explanations of their effects, and causes that are valid as explanations at a particular time and in particular circumstances. Any living thing’s desire to avoid pain and death is an example of a cause of the first kind: my desire to avoid my particular neighbour provides a cause of my behaviour which explains it within the common order of causes in nature and sub specie durationis. The first kind of explanation is a complete explanation and the statement of it is a necessary truth. The second kind of explanation is incomplete, because the chains of causes stretch back in time without limit and stopping-point in the common order of nature. Our knowledge of this second kind of cause must always be comparatively unreliable because imperfect. There is an absolute distinction in Spinoza’s philosophy between understanding some part of the intellectual order of things, which is knowledge of eternal truths, and the contrasting knowledge of things as they exist at a particular time in the common order of nature. Mathematics and the fundamental laws of physics (laws of motion) and laws of psychology (laws of thoughts) belong to the first category; the useful truths of medicine and of statecraft belong to the second category.

More Questions and Answers

question Your contention that “the absolute and phenomena” are “exactly the same thing” but “observed subjectively from a different perspective” is reminiscent of Japanese Tendai’s hongaku thought, the chief characteristic of which is world-affirmation (genjitsu kotei). The major problematic of this doctrine, as you are aware, is that identity (advaya) amounts to the equivocation of phenomena with enlightenment – a quasi-pantheism. On the other hand, some Buddhists argue that identity takes place at the level of final enlightenment, sub specie aeternitatis. After a careful reading of your letters, I must assume that the so-called advayic identity of “absolute and phenomena” takes place at a phenomenal level for you, which I take is your position. By analogy, you are postulating that grasses and trees realize Buddhahood because of the identity (advaya) of subject and its environment. Yet it is easy to see that “grasses and trees” remain such as the environment remains such, neither losing its separate identity. How therefore is this identity, seems puzzling? In what way are even the grasses and trees identical? How is the sky identical with the trees and so on? I apologize if I am not making myself very clear. I enjoy our correspondence. We are like two old fools playing chess in the park!

answer Your closing remark, which made us laugh very much over here, is very zenny and almost like a haiku. Two old fools playing chess in the park, indeed! We are very grateful for your pleasant and forthcoming attitude. We are also enjoying this correspondence very much.

Tendai Buddhism, you might agree, risks becoming in the end, as a result of the exaggerated syncretistic zeal of its followers, no more than a well-meant ontological fantasy. The non-dual and life-affirming philosophy and way of life that we call Advayavada Buddhism is, on the other hand, purely an epistemological standpoint. In accordance with the doctrine of shunyata all distinctions are understood to be fundamentally illusory and artificial – dualisms as Nirvana and Samsara, or absolute and phenomena, are revealed as figments of our imagination. The term advaya in Advayavada means not-two in the sense of knowing that objectively there are not two realities nor two conditions or aspects of reality. When we say that Samsara and Nirvana are the same thing, we do not mean that they are identical in the sense of being two-but-the-same, as is meant by the Hindu term advaita, but that they are simply not two, that they are very literally one-and-the-same thing: rather simply put, Samsara is the name we give to reality as experienced conventionally and Nirvana is the name we give to the same one reality but as experienced by the fully enlightened mind – this identity is, indeed, also the third truth of basic Tendai philosophy.

The tendency to view reality as two is a result of our fundamental ignorance of the true nature of reality, as professor Murti writes in The Central Philosophy of Buddhism. The Spinozean expression sub specie aeternitatis is frequently used by Buddhists to indicate that we would see for ourselves that there are not two realities if we were able to view existence from the completely non-conceptual standpoint of eternity. We can however ascertain rightnow, as indeed Madhyamaka proves, that there is no basis whatsoever to suppose that besides phenomena there is a second, transcendent and, moreover, superior reality. The specific purpose of Advayavada Buddhism, which literally means not-two-ism, is to actively propound the conclusions of Madhyamaka philosophy in this respect. Your grasses and trees are indeed two of the many different manifestations of vegetable life. Advayavada Buddhism does not maintain that they are identical phenomena; what Advayavada Buddhism maintains is that there is no reason at all to believe that there is a further second reality, invisible to the eye, parallel to these life forms or any other phenomena. In Advayavada Buddhism there are no other two than part and whole, numerator and denominator.

There are not two realities, but there are, Madhyamaka teaches, two ways of seeing, of experiencing, of understanding the one reality: there are two truths, conventional everyday truth (samvriti-satya) and ultimate truth (paramartha-satya). In our everyday application of conventional truth, though we are aware of the intrinsic emptiness of all dharmas or phenomena since we know that all things are interdependently arisen and exist conceptually only by virtue of our idea of them or of their alleged opposite, we nevertheless do take into account and make use of the relative, conceptual aspects of phenomena in our commonplace interaction with other sentient beings and with our environment. As a matter of fact, the Noble Eightfold Path operates throughout exclusively at the level of conventional truth. As we advance along the Buddha’s Middle Way responding to his promise of Nirvana by ridding ourselves of the so-called ten fetters (dasha-, dasasamyojana) that restrict us to Samsara, the fallacies in our perception of Samsara are progressively transformed, purified first into conventional truth, and it is through conventional truth that we shall eventually come to understand the non-conceptual import of ultimate truth. The dialectic of Madhyamaka, with its exhaustive analysis of the nature of reality, indeed takes place at the level of conventional truth. By ultimate truth is meant our awareness of the underlying field of experience where all phenomena stripped of their relative aspects are known to happen: it is our insight into the void beyond all concepts. This field of experience where the real events are known to take place is that of non-dual emptiness, advayata, shunyata, the realm of prajña, non-dual, contentless intuition. To experience existence at this level, which we can truly say lies between the notions of being and non-being, is nothing less than Nirvana.

question What are those ten fetters you just mentioned?

answer In Advayavada Buddhism, the ten samyojana or fetters that restrict us to samsaric life are: 1) belief in the self, 2) scepticism regarding the Path, 3) attachment to rituals, 4) partiality for certain things, 5) prejudice against certain things, 6) clinging to physical life, 7) hope of a hereafter, eight) conceit and pride, 9) intolerance and irritability, and 10) the last remnants of our ignorance.

question Do I count three realms of experience in your description of the dvaya-satya doctrine: Samsara, conventional truth, and ultimate truth or Nirvana (more or less along the lines of the three kinds of knowledge in Spinoza: opinion, reason and intuition)?

answer Though Nagarjuna’s dvaya-satya teaching is very much a two-truths doctrine, as its Sanskrit name indicates, some aspects are comparable to Spinoza’s teaching. Our application in Advayavada Buddhism of this essential Madhyamika doctrine is as follows: Samsara is to experience the phenomenal world at the level of conventional everyday truth (samvriti-satya). However, our initial perception of the phenomenal world normally contains many fallacies (mithyasamvriti) and the conversion of these fallacies into true conventional truth (tathyasamvriti), by following the Noble Eightfold Path, occurs entirely within the realm of Samsara. At the same time the fetters that restrict us to Samsara are broken one by one. Ideally, our perception of Samsara becomes in the end wholly pure conventional truth, whilst all ten of the restraining fetters have also been shattered along the way. Now, it is as a result of this thorough purification of our perception of the phenomenal world, at the level of conventional truth, that we shall come to understand the significance of ultimate truth. Ultimate truth (paramartha-satya) is truth divested of all our preconceptions, including eventually those expressed here. Nirvana is to understand and experience the one phenomenal world at this level of ultimate truth – to experience the phenomenal world thus, brings about the complete extinction (nirodha) of all suffering (duhkha, dukkha) as a direct result of our full reconciliation with reality as it truly is. The fully liberated person has continually at his or her disposal, then, two truths: the everyday conventional truth of the phenomenal world and the ultimate truth of its pure, unblemished becoming, its Emptiness.

The Whole of Things (De Dijn)

The Whole of Things (from Metaphysics as Ethics, by Herman De Dijn, in God and Nature: Spinoza’s Metaphysics, edited by Yirmiyahu Yovel, Leiden 1991) In Spinoza’s physics, the fundamental categories are the “common notions” and the general laws they imply concerning the nature and interrelations of parts. At most, one gets insight into the space-time continuum of all the parts and the law of the conservation of energy. In his metaphysics, however, the whole is identified as an infinite, sempiternal Whole, which is but an infinite mode of the divine substance. The whole, studied in physics by examining its parts, is interpreted in metaphysics as having not only a “surface” dimension (the whole constituted by the parts), but also a dimension of “depth”, the infinite substance which underlies each of the individual parts as well as the whole. As Natura naturata, the whole can thus be seen to depend radically on substance or Natura naturans, God or substance being at the same time immanent and transcendent.

What is affirmed of God in Spinoza’s rationalistic metaphysics is basically that only God or Nature deserves to be called substance, causa sui, free and eternal – all names which we undeservedly give to ourselves in our anthropocentric conceit. In applying these names to Nature as a substantive whole, Spinoza somehow “individualizes” the whole of things in which we live; this proves to be very important in the relationship between metaphysics and intuitive knowledge. In his metaphysical treatises, Spinoza shows – in the light of the objectifying insights of metaphysics and physics – how to reinterpret the old ethico-religious and metaphysical notions and problems such as God, Providence, mind and body, intellect and will, rationality, freedom, immortality. There interpretation should ensure that all traces of anthropocentrism disappear. Yet, Spinoza was well aware that metaphysics, though for him a strictly cognitive project using the one scientific method, mos geometricus, had to be relevant to the search for salvation. As the continuation and the explication of the anti-anthropocentrism already present in the scientific attitude, this cognitive project was of direct relevance to the problem of salvation. Spinoza was aware that a kind of pedagogical steering of the cognitive project was necessary to arrive at the ultimate aim – salvation through contemplation – as quickly as possible: “I pass now to explaining those things which must necessarily follow from the essence of God, or [sive] the infinite and eternal Being – not, indeed, all of them …, but only those that can lead us, by the hand, as it were, to the knowledge of the human Mind and its highest blessedness” (EIIpref). This guidance of the project leads to the development of a human science in which man objectively understands himself as truly a mode of substance, and to the elaboration of a scientific ethics.