SPINOZA: Nature and God

Reference: The Story of Philosophy

This paper presents Chapter IV Section 4.1 from the book THE STORY OF PHILOSOPHY by WILL DURANT. The contents are from the 1933 reprint of this book by TIME INCORPORATED by arrangement with Simon and Schuster, Inc.

The paragraphs of the original material (in black) are accompanied by brief comments (in color) based on the present understanding.  Feedback on these comments is appreciated.

The heading below is linked to the original materials.


IV.1 Nature and God

Page one plunges us at once into the maelstrom of metaphysics. Our modern hard-headed (or is it soft-headed?) abhorrence of metaphysics captures us, and for a moment we wish we were anywhere except in Spinoza. But then metaphysics, as William James said, is nothing but an attempt to think things out clearly to their ultimate significance, to find their substantial essence in the scheme of reality,— or, as Spinoza puts it, their essential substance; and thereby to unify all truth and reach that “highest of all generalizations” which, even to the practical Englishman, constitutes philosophy. Science itself, which so superciliously scorns metaphysics, assumes a metaphysic in its every thought. It happens that the metaphysic which it assumes is the metaphysic of Spinoza. 

Metaphysics is nothing but an attempt to think things out clearly to their ultimate significance, and thereby to unify all truth.

There are three pivotal terms in Spinoza’s system: substance, attribute, and mode. Attribute we put aside temporarily, for simplicity’s sake. A mode is any individual thing or event, any particular form or shape, which reality transiently assumes; you, your body, your thoughts, your groups your species, your planet, are modes; all these are forms, modes, almost literally fashions, of some eternal and invariable reality lying behind and beneath them. 

Spinoza’s substance means “underlying reality,”  and mode means “any particular form or shape, which reality transiently assumes.”

What is this underlying reality? Spinoza calls it substance, as literally that which stands beneath. Eight generations have fought voluminous battles over the meaning of this term; we must not be discouraged if we fail to resolve the matter in a paragraph. One error we should guard against: substance does not mean the constituent material of anything, as when we speak of wood as the substance of a chair. We approach Spinoza’s use of the word when we speak of “the substance of his remarks.” If we go back to the Scholastic philosophers from whom Spinoza took the term, we find that they used it as a translation of the Greek ousia, which is the present participle of einai, to be, and indicates the inner being or essence. Substance then is that which is (Spinoza had not forgotten the impressive “I am who am” of Genesis); that which eternally and unchangeably is, and of which everything else must be a transient form or mode. If now we compare this division of the world into substance and modes with its division, in The Improvement of the Intellect, into the eternal order of laws and invariable relations on the one hand, and the temporal order of time-begotten and death-destined things on the other, we are impelled to the conclusion that Spinoza means by substance here very nearly what he meant by the eternal order there. Let us provisionally take it as one element in the term substance, then, that it betokens the very structure of existence, underlying all events and things, and constituting the essence of the world. 

Substance is that which stands beneath (the beingness). It does not mean the constituent material.

But further Spinoza identifies substance with nature and God. After the manner of the Scholastics, he conceives nature under a double aspect: as active and vital process, which Spinoza calls natura naturans—nature begetting, the élan vītal and creative evolution of Bergson; and as the passive product of this process, natura naturata—nature begotten, the material and contents of nature, its woods and winds and waters, its hills and fields and myriad external forms. It is in the latter sense that he denies, and in the former sense that he affirms, the identity of nature and substance and God. Substance and modes, the eternal order and the temporal order, active nature and passive nature, God and the world,—all these are for Spinoza coincident and synonymous dichotomies; each divides the universe into essence and incident. That substance is insubstantial, that it is form and not matter, that it has nothing to do with that mongrel and neuter composite of matter and thought which some interpreters have supposed it to be, stands out dearly enough from this identification of substance with creative but not with passive or material nature. A passage from Spinoza’s correspondence may help us: 

I take a totally different view of God and Nature from that which the later Christians usually entertain, for I hold that God is the immanent, and not the extraneous, cause of all things. I say, All is in God; all lives and moves in God. And this I maintain with the Apostle Paul, and perhaps with every one of the philosophers of antiquity, although in a way other than theirs. I might even venture to say that my view is the same as that entertained by the Hebrews of old, if so much may be inferred from certain traditions, greatly altered or falsified though they be. lt is however a complete mistake on the part of those who say that my purpose … is to show that God and Nature, under which last term they understand a certain mass of corporeal matter, are one and the same. I had no such intention.

God is the active aspect of nature; the world is the passive aspect of nature.

Again, in the Treatise on Religion and the State, he writes: “By the help of God I mean the fixed and unchangeable order of nature, or the chain of natural events”; the universal laws of nature and the eternal decrees of God are one and the same thing. “From the infinite nature of God all things … follow by the same necessity, and in the same way, as it follows from the nature of a triangle, from eternity to eternity, that its three angles are equal to two right angles.” What the laws of the circle are to all circles, God is to the world. Like substance, God is the causal chain or process, the underlying condition of all things, the law and structure of the world. This concrete universe of modes and things is to God as a bridge is to its design, its structure, and the laws of mathematics and mechanics according to which it is built; these are the sustaining basis, the underlying condition, the substance, of the bridge; without them it would fall. And like the bridge, the world itself is sustained by its structure and its laws; it is upheld in the hand of God. 

God is the Laws of Nature that sustain all the modes of Nature.

The will of God and the laws of nature being one and the same reality diversely phrased, it follows that all events are the mechanical operation of invariable laws, and not the whim of an irresponsible autocrat seated in the stars. The mechanism which Descartes saw in matter and body alone, Spinoza sees in God and mind as well. It is a world of determinism, not of design. Because we act for conscious ends, we suppose that all processes have such ends in view; and because we are human we suppose that all events lead up to man and are designed to subserve his needs. But this is an anthropocentric delusion, like so much of our thinking. The root of the greatest errors in philosophy lies in projecting our human purposes, criteria and preferences into the objective universe. Hence our “problem of evil”: we strive to reconcile the ills of life with the goodness of God, forgetting the lesson taught to Job, that God is beyond our little good and eviL Good and bad are relative to human and often individual tastes and ends, and have no validity for a universe in which individuals are ephemera, and in which the Moving Finger writes even the history of the race in water. 

Whenever, then, anything in nature seems to us ridiculous, absurd or evil, it is because we have but a partial knowledge of things, and are in the main ignorant of the order and coherence of nature as a whole, and because we want everything to be arranged according to the dictates of our own reason; although in fact, what our reason pronounces bad is not bad as regards the order and laws of universal nature, but only as regards the laws of our own nature taken separately. … As for the terms good and bad, they indicate nothing positive considered in themselves. … For one and the same thing can at the same time be good, bad, and indifferent. For example, music is good to the melancholy, bad to mourners, and indifferent to the dead.

We project our ephemeral issues on the eternal laws of nature.

Bad and good are prejudices which the eternal reality cannot recognize; “it is right that the world should illustrate the full nature of the infinite, and not merely the particular ideals of man.” And as with good and bad, so with the ugly and the beautiful; these too are subjective and personal terms, which, flung at the universe, will be returned to the sender unhonored. “I would warn you that I do not attribute to nature either beauty or deformity, order or confusion. Only in relation to our imagination can things be called beautiful or ugly, well-ordered or confused.” “For example, if motion which the nerves receive by means of the eyes from objects before us is conducive of health, those objects are called beautiful; if it is not, those objects are called ugly.” In such passages Spinoza passes beyond Plato, who thought that his esthetic judgments must be the laws of creation and the eternal decrees of God. 

It is not the universe that is evolving from confusion to order, but our understanding of it.

Is God a person? Not in any human sense of this word. Spinoza notices “the popular belief which still pictures God as of the male, not of the female sex”; and he is gallant enough to reject a conception which mirrored the earthly subordination of woman to man. To a correspondent who objected to his impersonal conception of Deity, Spinoza writes in terms reminiscent of the old Greek sceptic Xenophanes: 

When you say that if I allow not in God the operations of seeing, hearing, observing, willing, and the like … you know not what sort of God mine is, I thence conjecture that you believe there is no greater perfection than such as can be explained by the attributes aforesaid. I do not wonder at it; for I believe that a triangle, if it could speak, would in like manner say that God is eminently triangular, and a circle that the divine nature is eminently circular; and thus would everyone ascribe his own attributes to God.

People ascribe their own attributes to God. But God is not a person in the human sense of the word.

Finally, “neither intellect nor will pertains to the nature of God,” in the usual sense in which these human qualities are attributed to the Deity; but rather the will of God is the sum of all causes and all laws, and the intellect of God is the sum of all mind. “The mind of God,” as Spinoza conceives it, “is all the mentality that is scattered over space and time, the diffused consciousness that animates the world.” “All things, in however diverse degree, are animated.” Life or mind is one phase or aspect of everything that we know, as material extension or body is another; these are the two phases or attributes (as Spinoza calls them) through which we perceive the operation of substance or God; in this sense God—the universal process and eternal reality behind the flux of things—may be said to have both a mind and a body. Neither mind nor matter is God; but the mental processes and the molecular processes which constitute the double history of the world—these, and their causes and their laws, are God. 

God is the universal process and eternal reality behind the flux of things. The mind of God is the mental matrix of the universe. The body of God is the whole visible universe.


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  • vinaire  On November 9, 2021 at 10:02 AM

    Spinoza’s God is my God. The payer to Spinoza’s God involves subject clearing. It is making an effort to understand the laws of nature and following them. And that means resolving personal anomalies and then resolving the anomalies in the society and the world. When resolving the anomalies in the society and the world, if any personal anomaly comes into view then getting the personal anomaly out of the way becomes a priority.


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