Category Archives: Philosophy

Durant 1926: Matter and Mind (Spinoza)

Reference: The Story of Philosophy

This paper presents Chapter IV Section 4.2 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.

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IV.2 Matter and Mind

But what is mind, and what is matter? Is the mind material, as some unimaginative people suppose; or is the body merely an idea, as some imaginative people suppose? Is the mental process the cause, or the effect, of the cerebral process?—or are they, as Malebranche taught, unrelated and independent, and only providentially parallel? 

Is the mind material, or is the body merely an idea?

Neither is mind material, answers Spinoza, nor is matter mental; neither is the brain-process the cause, nor is it the effect of thought; nor are the two processes independent and parallel. For there are not two processes, and there are not two entities; there is but one process, seen now inwardly as thought, and now outwardly as motion; there is but one entity, seen now inwardly as mind, now outwardly as matter, but in reality an inextricable mixture and unity of both. Mind and body do not act upon each other, because they are not other, they are one. “The body cannot determine the mind to think; nor the mind determine the body to remain in motion or at rest, or in any other state,” for the simple reason that “the decision of the mind, and the desire and determination of the body … ,are one and. the same thing.” And all the world is unifiedly double in this way; wherever there is an external “material” process, it is but one side or aspect of the real process, which to a fuller view would be seen to include as well an internal process correlative, in however different a degree, with the mental process which we see within ourselves. The inward and “mental” process corresponds at every stage with the external and “material” process; “the order and connection of ideas is the same as the order and connection of things.” “Thinking substance and extended substance are one and the same thing, comprehended now through this, now through that, attribute” or aspect. “Certain of the Jews seem to have perceived this, though confusedly; for they said that God and his intellect, and the things conceived by his intellect, were one and the same thing.”

Mind (thought) and matter (motion) are but one process. Mind and body do not act upon each other because they are not other, they are one.

If “mind” be taken in a large sense to correspond with the nervous system in all its ramifications, then every change in the “body” will be accompanied by—or, better, form a whole with—a correlative change in the “mind.” “Just as thoughts and mental processes are connected and arranged in the mind, so in the body its modifications, and the modifications of things” affecting the body through sensations, “are arranged according to their order”; and “nothing can happen to the body which is not perceived by the mind,” and consciously or unconsciously felt. Just as the emotion as felt is part of a whole, of which changes in the circulatory and respiratory and digestive systems are the basis; so an idea is a part, along with “bodily” changes, of one complex organic process; even the infinitesimal subtleties of mathematical reflection have their correlate in the body. (Have not the “behaviorists” proposed to detect a man’s thoughts by recording those involuntary vibrations of the vocal cords that seem to accompany all thinking?) 

Every change in the “body” is accompanied by a correlative change in the “mind” and vice versa.

After so trying to melt away the distinction between body and mind, Spinoza goes on to reduce to a question of degree the difference between intellect and will. There are no “faculties” in the mind, no separate entities called intellect or will, much less imagination or memory; the mind is not an agency that deals with ideas, but it is the ideas themselves in their process and concatenation. Intellect is merely an abstract and short-hand term for a series of ideas; and will an abstract term for a series of actions or volitions: “the intellect and the will are related to this or that idea or volition as rockiness to this or that rock.” Finally, “will and intellect are one and the same thing; for a volition is merely an idea which, by richness of associations (or perhaps through the absence of competitive ideas), has remained long enough in consciousness to pass over into action. Every idea becomes an action unless stopped in the transition by a different idea; the idea is itself the first stage of a unified organic process of which external action is the completion. 

The difference between intellect and will is a question of degree. Intellect is merely an abstract and short-hand term for a series of ideas; and will an abstract term for a series of actions or volitions.

What is often called will, as the impulsive force which determines the duration of an idea in consciousness, should be called desire,—which “is the very essence of man.” Desire is an appetite or instinct of which we are conscious; but instincts need not always operate through conscious desire.* Behind the instincts is the vague and varied effort for self-preservation (conatus sese preservandi); Spinoza sees this in all human and even infra-human activity, just as Schopenhauer and Nietzsche were to see the will to live or the will to power everywhere. Philosophers seldom disagree. 

*Spinoza is alive to the power of the “unconscious,” as seen in somnambulism; and notes the phenomena of double personality. 

The very essence of man is desire—an appetite or instinct—underlying which is the vague effort for self-preservation. It expresses itself as an impulsive force, often called will.

“Everything, in so far as it is in itself, endeavors to persist in its own being; and the endeavor wherewith a thing seeks to persist in its own being is nothing else than the actual essence of that thing”; the power whereby a thing persists is the core and essence of its being. Every instinct is a device developed by nature to preserve the individual (or, as our solitary bachelor fails to add, the species or the group.) Pleasure and pain are the satisfaction or the hindrance of an instinct; they are not the causes of our desires, but their results; we do not desire things because they give us pleasure; but they give us pleasure because we desire them; and we desire them because we must.

Every instinct is a device developed by nature to preserve the individual, the group or the species. Pleasure and pain are the satisfaction or the hindrance of an instinct.

There is, consequently, no free will; the necessities of survival determine instinct, instinct determines desire, and desire determines thought and action. “The decisions of the mind are nothing save desires, which vary according to various dispositions.” “There is in the mind no absolute or free will; but the mind is determined in willing this or that by a cause which is determined in its turn by another cause, and this by another, and so on to infinity.” “Men think themselves free because they are conscious of their volitions and desires; but are ignorant of the causes by which they are led to wish and desire.” Spinoza compares the feeling of free will to a stone’s thinking, as it travels through space, that it determines its own trajectory and selects the place and time of its fall. 

The necessities of survival determine instinct, instinct determines desire, and desire determines thought and action. There is, consequently, no free will.

Since human actions obey laws as fixed as those of geometry, psychology should be studied in geometrical form, and with mathematical objectivity. “I will write about human beings as though I were concerned with lines and planes and solids.” “I have labored carefully not to mock, lament, or execrate, but to understand, human actions; and to this end I have looked upon passions … not as vices of human nature, but as properties just as pertinent to it as are heat, cold, storm, thunder and the like to the nature of the atmosphere.” It is this impartiality of approach that gives to Spinoza’s study of human nature such superiority that Froude called it “the most complete by far which has ever been made by any moral philosopher.” Taine knew no better way of praising Beyle’s analysis than to compare it with Spinoza’s; while Johannes Müller, coming to the subject of the instincts and emotions, wrote: “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,”—and the famous physiologist, with the modesty which usually accompanies real greatness, went on to quote in extenso the third book of the Ethics. It is through that analysis of human conduct that Spinoza approaches at last the problems which give the title to his masterpiece. 

Spinoza’s approach to the understanding of human nature is completely objective and his description is unsurpassed.

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Durant 1926: Nature and God (Spinoza)

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.

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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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Durant 1926: The Ethics (Spinoza)

Reference: The Story of Philosophy

This paper presents Chapter IV Section 4 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.

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IV. The Ethics

The most precious production in modern philosophy is cast into geometrical form, to make the thought Euclideanly clear; but the result is a laconic obscurity in which every line requires a Talmud of commentary. The Scholastics had formulated their thought so, but never so pithily; and they had been helped to clarity by their fore-ordained conclusions. Descartes had suggested that philosophy could not be exact until it expressed itself in the, forms of mathematics; but he had never grappled with his own ideal. Spinoza came to the suggestion with a mind trained in mathematics as the very basis of all rigorous scientific procedure, and impressed with the achievements of Copernicus, Kepler and Galileo. To our more loosely textured minds the result is an exhausting concentration of both matter and form; and we are tempted to console ourselves by denouncing this philosophic geometry as an artificial chess-game of thought in which axioms, definitions, theorems and proofs are manipulated like kings and bishops, knights and pawns; a logical solitaire invented to solace Spinoza’s loneliness. Order is against the grain of our minds; we prefer to follow the straggling lines of fantasy, and to weave our philosophy precariously out of our dreams. But Spinoza had but one compelling desire—to reduce the intolerable chaos of the world to unity and order. He had the northern hunger for truth rather than the southern lust for beauty; the artist, in him was purely an architect, building a system of thought to perfect symmetry and form. 

Spinoza’s effort was to reduce the intolerable chaos of the world to unity and order using precise mathematical form.

Again, the modem student will stumble and grumble over the terminology of Spinoza. Writing in Latin, he was compelled to express his essentially modern thought in medieval and scholastic terms; there was no other language of philosophy which would then have been understood. So he uses the term substance where we should write reality or essence; perfect where we should write complete; ideal for our object; objectively for subjectively, and formally for objectively. These are hurdles in the race, which will deter the weakling but will stimulate the strong. 

Spinoza was compelled to express his essentially modern thought in medieval and scholastic terms.

In short, Spinoza is not to be read, he is to be studied; you must approach him as you would approach Euclid, recognizing that in these brief two hundred pages a man has written down his lifetime’s thought with stoic sculptury of everything superfluous. Do not think to find its core by running over it rapidly; never in a work of philosophy was there so little that could be skipped without loss. Every part depends upon preceding parts; some obvious and apparently needless proposition turns out to be the cornerstone of an imposing development of logic. You will not understand any important section thoroughly till you have read and pondered the whole; though one need not say, with Jacobi’s enthusiastic exaggeration, that “no one has understood Spinoza to whom a single line of the Ethics remains obscure.” “Here, doubtless,” says Spinoza, in the second part of his book, “the reader will become confused, and will recollect many things which will bring him to a standstill; and therefore I pray him to proceed gently with me and form no judgment concerning these things until he shall have read all.” Read the book not all at once, but in small portions at many sittings. And having finished it, consider that you have but begun to understand it. Read then some commentary, like Pollock’s Spinoza, or Martineau’s Study of Spinoza; or, better, both. Finally, read the Ethic, again; it will be a new book to you. When you have finished it a second time you will remain forever a lover of philosophy. 

Spinoza is not to be read, he is to be studied. You will not understand any important section thoroughly till you have read and pondered the whole.

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Durant 1926: The Improvement of the Intellect (Spinoza)

Reference: The Story of Philosophy

This paper presents Chapter IV Section 3 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.

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III. The Improvement of the Intellect

Opening Spinoza’s next book, we come at the outset upon mile of the gems of philosophic literature. Spinoza tells why he gave up everything for philosophy:

After experience had taught me that all things which frequently take place in ordinary life are vain and futile, and when I saw.that all the things I feared, and which feared me, had nothing good or bad in them save in so far as the mind was affected by them; I determined at last to inquire whether there was anything which might be truly good, and able to communicate its goodness, and by which the mind might be affected, to the exclusion of all other things; I determined, I say, to inquire whether I might discover and attain the faculty of enjoying throughout eternity continual supreme happiness. … I could see the many advantages acquired from honor and riches, and that I should be debarred from acquiring these things if I wished seriously to investigate a new matter. But the more one possesses of either of them, the more the pleasure is increased, and the more one is in consequence, encouraged to increase them; whereas if at any time our hope is frustrated, there arises in us the deepest pain. Fame has also this great drawback, that if we pursue it we must direct our lives in such a way as to please the fancy of men, avoiding what they dislike and seeking what pleases them. … But the love towards a thing eternal and infinite alone feeds the mind with a pleasure secure from all pain. … The greatest good is the knowledge of the union which the mind has with the whole of nature. … The more the mind knows, the better it understands its forces and the order of nature; the more it understands its forces or strength, the better it will be able to direct itself and lay down the rules for itself; and the more it understands the order of nature, the more easily it will be able to liberate itself from useless things; this is the whole method. 

The greatest good is the knowledge of the union which the mind has with the whole of nature. This sounds like the goal of Indian Yoga.

Only knowledge, then, is power and freedom; and the only permanent happiness is the pursuit of knowledge and the joy of understanding. Meanwhile, however, the philosopher must remain a man and a citizen; what shall be his mode of life during his pursuit of truth? Spinoza lays down a simple rule of conduct to which, so far as we know, his actual behavior thoroughly conformed: 

  1. To speak in a manner comprehensible to the people, and to do for them all things that do not prevent us from attaining our ends…. 
  2. To enjoy only such pleasures as are necessary for the preservation of health.
  3. Finally, to seek only enough money … as is necessary for the maintenance of our life and health, and to comply with such customs as are not opposed to what we seek.

Spinoza opts for very simple living in his pursuit of knowledge.

But in setting out upon such a quest, the honest and clear-headed philosopher comes at once upon the problem: How do I know that my knowledge is knowledge, that my senses can be trusted in the material which they bring to my reason, and that my reason can be trusted with the conclusions which it derives from the material of sensation? Should we not examine the vehicle before abandoning ourselves to its directions? Should we not do all that we can to perfect it? “Before all things,” says Spinoza, Baconianly, “a means must be devised for improving and clarifying the intellect.” We must distinguish carefully the various forms of knowledge, and trust only the best. 

Spinoza first concern is to find the criterion that could be applied to test the trustworthiness of knowledge.

First, then, there is hearsay knowledge, by which, for example, I know the day of my birth. Second, vague experience, “empirical” knowledge in the derogatory sense, as when a physician knows a cure not by any scientific formulation of experimental tests, but by a “general impression” that it has “usually” worked. Third, immediate deduction, or knowledge reached by reasoning, as when I conclude to the immensity of the sun from seeing that in the case of other objects distance decreases the apparent size. This kind of knowledge is superior to the other two, but is yet precariously subject to sudden refutation by direct experience; so science for a hundred years reasoned its way to an “ether” which is now in high disfavor with the physicist élite. Hence the highest kind of knowledge is the fourth form, which comes by immediate deduction and direct perception, as when we see at once that 6 is the missing number in the proportion, 2:4::3:x; or as when we perceive that the whole is greater than the part. Spinoza believes that men versed in mathematics know most of Euclid in this intuitive way; but he admits ruefully that “the things which I have been able to know by this knowledge so far have been very few.”

Spinoza concludes that the highest kind of knowledge comes by immediate deduction and direct perception. Compare this to Buddha’s insistence on seeing things as they are.

In the Ethics Spinoza reduces the first two forms of knowledge to one; and calls intuitive knowledge a perception of things sub specie eternitatis—in their eternal aspects and relations,—which gives in a phrase a definition of philosophy. Scientia intuitiva, therefore, tries to find behind things and events their laws and eternal relations. Hence Spinoza’s very fundamental distinction (the basis of his entire system) between the “temporal order”—the “world” of things and incidents—and the “eternal order”—the world of laws and structure. Let us study this distinction carefully: 

It must be noted that I do not understand here by the series of causes and real entities a series of individual mutable things, but rather the series of fixed and eternal things. For it would be impossible for human weakness to follow up the series of individual mutable things, not only because their number surpasses all count, but because of the many circumstances, in one and the same thing, each of which may be the cause of the thing’s existence. For indeed, the existence of particular things has no connection with their essence, and is not an eternal truth. However, there is no need that we should understand the series of individual mutable things, for their essence … is only to be found in fixed and eternal things, and from the laws inscribed in those things as their true codes, according to which all individual things are made and arranged; nay, these individual and mutable things depend so intimately and essentially on these fixed ones that without them they can neither exist nor be conceived.*

*”For although nothing exists In nature except Individual bodies, exhibiting clear individual effects according to particular laws; yet, in each branch of learning, those very laws—their investigation, discovery and development—are the foundation both of theory and of practice.” Fundamentally, all philosophers agree.

Underlying the infinite variables of the universe there are fixed relations in the form of natural laws.

If we will keep this passage in mind as we study Spinoza’s masterpiece, it will itself be clarified, and much in the Ethics that is discouragingly complex will unravel itself into simplicity and understanding. 

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Durant 1926: The Treatise on Religion and the State (Spinoza)

Reference: The Story of Philosophy

This paper presents Chapter IV Section 2 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.

.

II. The Treatise on Religion and the State

Let us study his four books in the order in which he wrote them. The Tractatus Theologico-Politicus is perhaps the least interesting of them to us today, because the movement of higher criticism which Spinoza initiated has made into platitudes the propositions for which Spinoza risked his life. It is unwise of an author to prove his point too thoroughly; his conclusions pass into the currency of all educated minds, and his works no longer have that mystery about them which draws us ever on. So it has been with Voltaire; and so with Spinoza’s treatise on religion and the state. 

The conclusions reached by Spinoza in his first book has now become quite common place.

The essential principle of the book is that the language of the Bible is deliberately metaphorical or allegorical; not only because it partakes of the Oriental tendency to high literary color and ornament, and exaggerated descriptive expressions; but because, too, the prophets and the apostles, to convey their doctrine by arousing the imagination, were compelled to adapt themselves to the capacities and predispositions of the popular mind. “All Scripture was written primarily foran entire people, and secondarily for the whole human race; consequently its contents must necessarily be adapted, as far as possible, to the understanding of the masses.” “Scripture does not explain things by their secondary causes, but only narrates them in the order and style which has most power to move men, and especially uneducated men, to devotion. … Its object is not to convince the reason, but to attract and lay hold of the imagination.” Hence the abundant miracles and the repeated appearances of God. “The masses think that the power and providence of God are most clearly displayed by events that are extraordinary, and contrary to the conception which they have formed of nature. … They suppose, indeed, that God is inactive so long as nature works in her accustomed order; and vice versa, that the power of nature, and natural causes, are idle so long as God is acting; thus they imagine two powers distinct from one another, the power of God and the power of nature.”

(Here enters the basic idea of Spinoza’s philosophy—that God and the processes of nature are one.) Men love to believe that God breaks the natural order of events for them; so the Jews gave a miraculous interpretation of the lengthening of the day in order to impress others (and perhaps themselves) with the conviction that the Jews were the favorites of God; and similar incidents abound in the early history of every people. Sober and literal statements do not move the soul; if Moses had said that it was merely the East wind (as we gather from a later passage) that cleared a path for them through the Red Sea, it would have made little impression on the minds of the masses he was leading. Again, the apostles resorted to miracle stories for the same reason that they resorted to parables; it was anecessary adaptation to the public mind. The greater influence of such men as compared with philosophers and scientists is largely attributable to the vivid and metaphorical forms of speech which the founders of religion by the nature of their mission and their own emotional intensity, are driven to adopt. 

The basic idea of Spinoza’s philosophy is that God and the processes of nature are one. Prophets used miraculous interpretations of events because that move the soul of man, sober and literal statements do not.

Interpreted on this principle, the Bible, says Spinoza, contains nothing contrary to reason. But interpreted literally, it is full of errors, contradictions, and obvious impossibilities—as that the Pentateuch was written by Moses. The more Philosophical interpretation reveals, through the mist of allegory and poetry; the profound thought of great thinkers and leaders, and makes intelligible the persistence of the Bible and its immeasurable influence upon men. Both interpretations have a proper place and function: the people will always demand a religion phrased in imagery and haloed with the supernatural; if one such form of faith is destroyed they will create another. But the philosopher knows that God and nature are one being, acting by necessity and according to invariable law; it is this majestic Law which he will reverence and obey. He knows that in the Scriptures “God is described as a law-giver or prince, and styled just, merciful, etc., merely in concession to the understanding of the people and their imperfect knowledge; that in reality God acts … by the necessity of his nature, and his decrees … are eternal truths.”

The more Philosophical interpretation reveals, through the mist of allegory and poetry, the profound thought of great thinkers and leaders, and makes intelligible the persistence of the Bible and its immeasurable influence upon men.

Spinoza makes no separation between Old and New Testament, and looks upon the Jewish and the Christian religion as one, when popular hatred and misunderstandings are laid aside, and philosophical interpretation finds the hidden core and essence of the rival faiths. “I have often wondered that persons who make boast of professing the Christian religion—namely, love, joy, peace, temperance, and charity to all men—should quarrel with such rancorous animosity, and display daily toward one another such bitter hatred, that this, rather than the virtues which they profess, is the readiest criterion of their faith.” The Jews have survived chiefly because of Christian hatred of them; persecution gave them the unity and solidarity necessary for continued racial existence; without persecution they might have mingled and married with the peoples of Europe, and been engulfed in the majorities with which they were everywhere surrounded. But there is no reason why the philosophic Jew and the philosophic Christian, when all nonsense is discarded, should not agree sufficiently in creed to live in peace and cooperation. 

Spinoza looks upon the Jewish and the Christian religion as one. He sees no reason why the philosophic Jew and the philosophic Christian, when all nonsense is discarded, should not agree sufficiently in creed to live in peace and cooperation. 

The first step toward this consummation, Spinoza thinks, would be a mutual understanding about Jesus. Let improbable dogmas be withdrawn, and the Jews would soon recognize in Jesus the greatest and noblest of the prophets. Spinoza does not accept the divinity of Christ, but he puts him first among men. “The eternal wisdom of God … has shown itself forth in all things, but chiefly in the mind of man, and most of all in Jesus Christ.” “Christ was sent to teach not only the Jews, but the whole human race” ; hence “he accommodated himself to the comprehension of the people … and most often taught by parables.” He considers that the ethics of Jesus are almost synonymous with wisdom; in reverencing him one rises to “the intellectual love of God.” So noble a figure, freed from the impediment of dogmas that lead only to divisions and disputes, would draw an men to him; and perhaps in his name a world torn with suicidal wars of tongue and sword might find a unity of faith and a possibility of brotherhood at last. 

The first step toward this consummation, Spinoza thinks, would be a mutual understanding about Jesus.

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