Benedictus de Spinoza: the deification of Nature


This philosopher conclusively “diluted” God in Nature. Thereby, he summarized the philosophical and scientific thought, which could be traced back to Nicholas of Cusa, taken up by N. Kopernicus and J. Kepler, continued by G. Bruno and G. Galilei, and also by T. Hobbes, F. Bacon, and R. Descartes. He may be called a classic of the philosophy of New Times, which replaced Medieval philosophy.

Baruch de Spinoza was born on the 24th of November, 1632, in Amsterdam, then the largest city of the Dutch Republic, into a sephardic family of Portuguese immigrants. Accordingly, Baruch’s mother tongue was Ladino. His father was a successful trader. His mother died of tuberculosis, when he was 6. At that same age, he started attending an Orthodox Jewish school. There he studied Hebrew and learned to interpret the Torah, the Talmud, and other holy books of the Jews. Among the required subjects in the curriculum, there was also philosophy proper. Certainly, it was, again, Jewish philosophy. Yet, it did not always come to substantiating the tenets of Judaism, but would often urge one to an unbiased search for Truth. Many of the authors studied there had been imbibers of the ideas of antique philosophers, in particular, Plato and Aristotle, and had been noted for their educatedness, breadth of views, and versatility of interests. Besides, among the school’s teachers there were those touched by the spirit of freethinking, which was blowing in Europe’s most advanced country of its time.

After his elder brother’s death in 1649, the 17 year-old Baruch interrupted his education for a while to concentrate on the family business. In 1653, when he was 20, he resumed his studies, but not at a Jewish school, but at a secular private college. There, he perfected himself in Latin and changed his first mane into Benedictus. Also, he studied Ancient Greek, Antique and Medieval philosophy. He studied works of contemporary philosophers as well, including T. Hobbes, P. Gassendi, N. Machiavelli, G. Bruno, and R. Descartes. Besides, he studied there natural sciences and got trained in drawing. Finally, he mastered a handicraft, that is, optical lens grinding. While studying, Benedict chummed up to the college’s owner, Franciscus van den Enden, an ardent republican, who would be subsequently executed in France for preparing a plot against Louis 14th. Simultaneously, Spinoza taught Hebrew at the college.

In 1654, his father died. Benedict inherited the family business, but kept on studying and teaching at the college.

During that period of time, a circle was formed among the students, where philosophical and religious issues were discussed. Many of the participants in the circle were representatives of a Protestant Christian sect, the Collegians. Those discussions prompted Spinoza to develop his own philosophical and religious teaching.

In 1660, Spinoza was excommunicated from Amsterdam’s Jewish community for freethinking and even expelled from the city as a person “threating piety and morality”. Thus, history had a second go. In 399 B. C. Socrates was accused of “blasphemy and corrupting the youth”.  Human the Cognizing, ripening in the bosom of Human the Primeval, is always born in pain. Rejecting the anthropomorphism of What Truly Exists, the transition from conventional religion to the deification of Nature is always painful.

Although one of Spinoza’s nearest predecessor, Giordano Bruno, had been burned at the stake, Spinoza himself got off with nothing but comparatively minor troubles (except for an event when one of his former brothers in faith rushed at him with a knife, screaming “you apostate”. Spinoza relinquished his family business in favour of his younger brother and retreated to the suburbs of the city of Leiden, where he was given shelter by his Collegian friends. There, he made a living by grinding lenses and wrote his early works, which were strongly influenced by Descartes.

Spinoza could not but admire Descartes, who was his older contemporary. Thanks to the efforts of this clear Gallic intellect, philosophy returned to itself the privilege of cognizing Truth after being treated for many centuries as a handmaiden of theology. Certainly, it was, first of all, the famous Cartesian “doubt” as the starting point for philosophizing, which implied putting everything to doubt. Is there anything trustworthy that is going to be left after such a doubt?  Yes, it is Doubt itself! “I am doubting”. that is, “I am thinking”, and there can be no doubt about it. This is where a return to Socrates’ elementary “I know” occurs. This is how philosophy returns to the position of the most natural Weltanschauung for Human, subjective idealism, to the recognition of the only foolproof Reality, the Cognizing Subject.

Spinoza would take part in gatherings arranged by the Collegians, where Leiden University students and professors would also turn up. At about that time, Spinoza was introduced to the secretary of the Royal Society of London, Henry Oldenburg, and they became lasting friends. Simultaneously, Spinoza began writing his fundamental work, “The Ethics”, in which he became free from Descartes’ influence and set forth his own doctrine. He wrote in Latin, the way it was accepted in scientific circles, and also to avoid excessive attention to his works from the censors.       

Initially, Human would be so amazed by Nature opening up before Him that He literally forgets Himself. He would omit Human’s primary unconscious activity of self-objectification, of self-externalization, of projecting Himself outwards, and leave for Himself only the “cognition” of His Own Product. Spinoza, too, falls into this historical error of “being charmed” and estranges his subjectivity in favour of Nature. As a result, the Latter finds Itself posited as existing “by Itself”, while the true, human Subject turns out to be imbedded in It as the Natura Naturans (the Generating Nature). That is why, Spinoza posits as What Truly Exists not the Cognizing Subject, not the “I,” but the Object of His cognition, the “Not-I,” i. e. Nature. It was precisely Nature, Which he believed to be God and Which he called “Substance”. Here, history, again, is repeating itself: taking the place of generally accepted religious beliefs there comes the religion of Nature, which philosophy proper essentially is.

Thus, Spinoza determines his Substance as the “Cause of Itself”. It is infinite and indivisible. Certain fundamental properties are inherent in It. At least, two of these, “extension” and “thought”, are known to us. And each object of Nature represents an inseparable unity of those properties. While recognizing the presence of Mind and Body in Nature, Spinoza fails to single out Soul as Its fundamental property (this deficiency would be made up in due time by Schelling). Still, he admits the animateness of all objects of Nature “to various degrees”.

Spinoza’s main work is titled “The Ethics”, not “Metaphysics”. It means that the purpose of his research was not to answer the question of “How the Universe is arranged?” but, rather, “How to live?” How then should the one who has grasped What Truly Exists as “Substance” live? What should you do, if you have perceived Substance being part of you, and yourself being part of Substance? According to Spinoza, all our feelings and passions are not at all the manifestation of our freedom, but, in reality, they are caused by “natural necessity”. The only thing that is truly free is Substance Itself. Therefore, one should not give way to one’s feelings and indulge one’s passions. Instead, one should try to be like Substance and perceive whatever happens “from the viewpoint of eternity”. Thus, Man’s supreme virtue is supposed to be the “cognitive love for God”. 

So, Man is left alone with Nature, and cognition is His lot. This implies discovering in the infinite Substance of ever new properties and new facets. In Spinoza’s teaching, the precept given by the initiator of the philosophy of New Times, Nicholas of Cusa, was executed: “A sound and free intellect, striving insatiably, by virtue of the quest inherent in it, to comprehend Truth, is bound to cognize It, embracing It tightly and affectionately”. Now we know that Truth is Substance, It is the deified Nature, and It is the deified Object of Human cognition.

In 1663, Spinoza moved to Hague’s suburb, and in 1670, settled in the city itself. During that time, he managed to publish some of his works, including “The Theological-Political Treatise”. In it, he criticizes the “God-inspiredness” of the Old Testament, as well as Jewish “chosenness”; he repudiates God’s interference the natural course of events. He criticized the Old Testament’s ideas of Truth and emphasized philosophy’s privilege of Its cognition. In this connection, he upheld the freedom of philosophizing and the freedom of thought in general as a condition of the spiritual development of personality and a sign of the well-being of the state. In doing so, Spinoza strongly opposed any interference of church with the affairs of the state. At the same time, Spinoza sees the supreme expression of the state in the person of the Ruler. According to Spinoza, citizens have to obey the laws, although they may not consider them to be correct. It is only the Ruler, who is entitled to change the laws, or else the state will be wrecked. In essence, Spinoza advocates enlightened monarchy, provided there are reliable mechanisms preventing it from degenerating into tyranny.

In 1672, Spinoza’s patron, head of the Dutch Republic, Johan de Witt was killed by an angry mob. The philosopher deeply deplored the death of a man, from whom he had painted the image of the ideal ruler. Besides, the allowance awarded to him was cancelled, the official press mounted attacks against him, and his “Theological-Political Treatise” was included in the list of banned books.

As for the rest, Spinoza’s unhurried daily routines virtually did not change. He continued working on his “Ethics” and wrote a number of miner pieces. His friends and like-minded people rendered him financial support. Besides, he kept on grinding optical lenses for eyeglasses, microscopes and telescopes, which were much in demand and noted for high quality. The latter, in particular, was estimated at its true worth by an eminent mechanician and astronomer, C. Huygens.

In 1673, Spinoza received an invitation to teach philosophy at the University of Heidelberg in Germany. However, he politely declined the invitation out of fear of losing the above-mentioned “freedom of philosophizing”.

In 1676, Spinoza met another eminent philosopher, G. W. Leibniz. Although they failed to make friends with each other, Leibniz took up Spinoza’s idea of Substance. In doing so, he decided to emphasize the moment of distinction in this Arche and put forward the idea of the multiplicity of Substances. For all that, he did not add to Spinoza’s teaching anything crucially new: he did not yet know that “quantity is a determinateness which is indifferent to being”.    

Spinoza passed away on February 21st, 1677, at the age of 44, from ancestral tuberculosis, aggravated by inhaling glass dust while grinding lenses and insufficient diet (he would spend the bulk of his money on books). He was buried in a church cemetery in the centre of Hague.

Spinoza’s teaching had a great impact on subsequent philosophical thought, as well as on the entire European culture. The young Goethe would find consolation in Spinoza’s reflections. Albert Einstein openly declared his faith in “Spinoza’s God”. Verily, Nature for a scientist is the only God.

Yet, Spinoza’s philosophy had larger-scale consequences. Freethinking, preached by Spinoza, strictly speaking, referred only to conventional religious beliefs, but not to “Substance”. The faceless Substance proved to be a no less redoubtable God than the anthropomorphous God of Christianity.

Spinoza posits Nature as some oneness Which is only determined as the Cause of Itself and in Which only discernible are the “Generating Nature” and the “Generated Nature”, respectively. As to Nature’s Mind and Nature’s Body, They are only outlined in Spinoza’s teaching, while Nature’s Soul, as Such, is not yet isolated into an individual “Attribute”.

God, having become aware of Himself as “Nature”, will, nevertheless, be yearning for incarnation. On the other end, deification of Nature shows in the deification of secular power: Its kingdom is exactly “of this world”. At that historical stage, these processes resulted in turning of the state, as Hobbes put it, into a “single person”. All this showed as a parade of absolute monarchies, which put an end to Roman Catholic popes’ claims to secular power in Europe. Further development meant further differentiation of the triune divine Nature, entailing more clear-cut isolation and elaboration of Its Parts.

By then, Christianity had almost completely degenerated into primitive heathenism, directed by dexterous and grasping priests. At attempt of Protestantism to revive Christianity as a religion of the true God enjoyed but temporary success. The Renaissance epoch heralded that the history of mankind was having its second go, and Spinoza’s teaching of Substance afforded the needed philosophical evidence thereto. It resolutely finalized the history of “Christian civilization” and simultaneously became the starting point of a new cycle in the European (World) history.

Human truly is a stage in the development of the Divine Person, Nature being only Human’s Projection. Spinoza separates Human from His Projection and posits It as existing by Itself. Consequently, he believes the Cause of Nature to lie not in Human, but in Nature Itself (Natura Naturans), thereby provoking the question of Its Arche. On the other hand, Human immediately encounters nothing, except Nature. Therefore, Spinozism, i. e. deification of Nature will always accompany Human; It is going to be His eternal Truth and eternal temptation.

The above ambiguity of Nature was once rather successfully expressed by the poet Fyodor Tyutchev:

  • Nature’s a Sphinx. And her ordeal
    Is all the more destructive to mankind
    Because, perhaps, she has no riddle.
    Nor did she ever have one.

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