A history of philosophy in its most famous quotes. Today: Baruch Spinoza: “The eternal and infinite being we call ‘God’ or ‘Nature’ necessarily acts as it does.” But what does this even mean?
Baruch Spinoza on How We Are All God
“The eternal and infinite being we call ‘God’ or ‘Nature’ necessarily acts as it does. (Ethics, Part IV, preface, only in the Latin version) ”
Spinoza’s life is one of those that modern philosophers should have a long, hard look at when they feel like complaining about their tenure arrangements. Like Diogenes in his barrel, Socrates in his cell and Mother Teresa in her hospice, Spinoza was one of those almost mythical martyrs of philosophy – someone who was ready to defend what he thought to be true with his life, and who would not compromise just to please others.
Spinoza was born in 1632 in a Jewish family that had moved to the Netherlands from Spain or Portugal. When his thoughts about the nature of God came to be known in his tightly-knit Jewish community, the elders tried first to threaten and then to bribe Spinoza in order to silence him. When none of that worked, they excommunicated him. Spinoza, now 23 years old, had to leave Amsterdam and find work as a lens grinder, while writing his books. He died, probably of a lung disease related to breathing in glass dust, at the age of 44.
But it would be misleading to think of him as a lowly, exploited worker. Lens grinding was, at that time, more like aligning the magnets on one of CERN’s particle accelerators today: a work for the very elite of natural scientists. Other lens grinders at that time included “Descartes, Fermat, Galileo, Hooke, Huygens, Kepler, Newton, Spinoza, Torricelli, and, curiously enough, the British architect Christopher Wren,” 1 although these did not do it full-time.
Spinoza, the Jew who was too ungodly even for the Jews (as his countrymen at that time would have seen him), was universally derided, his works forbidden and destroyed by both Jews and Christians, both by clerics and by the state authorities of Holland. His best-known work, the Ethics, was published only after his death in 1677.
The full title of the book is “Ethics, Demonstrated in Geometrical Order,” and it is about as much fun to read as this sounds. Here is a little bit of it:
Proof.—Everything which exists, exists either in itself or in something else (Ax. i.),—that is (by Deff. iii. and v.), nothing is granted in addition to the understanding, except substance and its modifications. Nothing is, therefore, given besides the understanding, by which several things may be distinguished one from the other, except the substances, or, in other words (see Ax. iv.), their attributes and modifications. Q.E.D.
All the rest is just like that, which is one reason why Spinoza is little talked about today. He does not offer convenient soundbites (“can they suffer?”) but a strict derivation of what he thought of as the truths of ethics from the principles of rational thought: Euclid for the passions.
But in Spinoza’s eyes, this was not a drawback. It’s the whole point of his philosophy. Because Spinoza believed that the world is rational and that our mental capacities allow us to see and understand the universe as it truly is. We’d just need to think clearly, to avoid being confused by emotions, appearances and false beliefs, and then we would be able to understand the world and our place in it.
Descartes, famous for his statement “I think therefore I am,” had established what was the only certain thing that we could know about the world. But he always had trouble getting anywhere else from that one point of certainty.
Particularly, Descartes had thought that the world was made up of three kinds of substances: mind, physical matter, and God. The main problem with this concept was this: If the mind is not a physical substance, how can it interact with the physical world? If my thoughts are not made of matter, how can my decision to raise my arm lead to a movement of my (physical) arm? We generally believe that every material effect must have a material cause. So how can the immaterial mind cause a material effect?
One can answer this question in various ways: perhaps there is no mind, and all our thoughts are just material, physical events, as neurophysiology today would have us think. Or perhaps God helps us move our arm as the thought to do so comes into our minds. Or maybe it’s all just mind: if the whole universe was just made up of my thoughts, if my arm was as much a thought as my will to move it is, then again the problem would disappear.
Spinoza thought about the problem and arrived at what he thought was the only logical conclusion: everything must be made up of one substance. Humans, minds, animals, plants, stones and nature, and, yes, God too: they must all be not only of one kind, but one single substance, one big, all-encompassing thing, the totality of the world that appears to us in different ways but is, deep inside, a unified whole.
“The eternal and infinite being we call ‘God’ or ‘Nature’ necessarily acts as it does.”
This is what “God or nature” means: it’s not a logical “or,” a disjunction. It is an equality, the marker of a synonym. When I look out of my window at a tree, I see “God=nature.” When I pray, I pray to “God=nature.” When I look at my hands, my feet, my face in a mirror, what I see is “God=nature.”
Back then, the thought was terrifying: God was to be identical to human beings? To a pig? To an insect? To a plant? If we are made in the image of God, then what about a bird, a tree or a rock? Are these also images of God? Does God look like a kangaroo? Or like a spoonbill?
No wonder the rabbis of Spinoza’s synagogue wanted him gone from their midst. No wonder also that the philosopher himself was not willing to give up his grand, wondrous idea of the unity of the cosmos. Because if this was true, it would not only explain God’s omnipotence and omniscience in the most natural way: God knows everything and God does everything simply because God is everything. It would explain what the divine in us is. It would explain why it’s irrational to not love our neighbour. It would explain what Jesus meant when he said: “As you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.” Jesus, like Spinoza, like you and me, are not all different; we are all just the same person, the one, universal being, like leaves on a tree, or… like mushrooms.
When we look at mushrooms on a forest floor, what we see are not separate individuals. Although they seem to us to be one mushroom here and one there, deep underground they are connected, forming a single, giant, invisible organism. One cubic inch of soil can harbour eight miles of mycelium (PDF source). What we see as mushrooms are just the visible fruiting bodies of the invisible mycelium underneath.
In the same way, Spinoza says, what we see as our individual selves are just temporary forms that branch out, for a short while, from that all-encompassing substance the universe is made of. We are not really distinct, just as the mushrooms are not. Seen in the right way, the rational way, we cannot but love our neighbours as ourselves – simply because our neighbours are ourselves and everything else is a misconception, an error in thinking.
The way Spinoza chose to present his philosophy has made it inaccessible to us today, has made it seem remote and irrelevant. But when we look under the hood of his weird geometric method, there is an insight at the core of it that we will need to embrace if we want to survive on this planet with its wars, its governments, its ecological disasters: that we are all just one single thing that can only survive and thrive together as one – or not at all.
“The eternal and infinite being we call ‘God’ or ‘Nature’ necessarily acts as it does,” says Spinoza. We are that eternal and infinite being.