Posted on 14 August 2019
Baruch Spinoza (1632 – 1677) was a Dutch philosopher who believed human life follows the universal laws of nature.
At the age of 17, Spinoza’s father died and as a result the family fortune was decimated. He was forced to cut short his formal studies to help run the family’s importing business. He later returned to his studies to focus on philosophy and made a living grinding optical lenses.
As a young man, Spinoza had subscribed to Decartes’ belief in Dualism, that body and mind are two separate substances. However, he later changed his view, as shown in his book Ethics, published posthumously in the year of his death. In Ethics, Spinoza asserted that the body and mind were not separate, but a single identity. Body and mind were just two names for the same reality.
Rejecting the dualist view of the Mind-Body Problem, Spinoza argued that there is this a single substance that he sometimes called ‘God’ or ‘Nature’. By reducing nature and the condition of all things to one single substance he can be described as a Monist.
Extending his reasoning, Spinoza saw God and Nature as just two names for the same reality of the universe, essentially a kind of Pantheism. This is the view that God is equivalent to Nature or the physical universe – that they are essentially the same thing – or that everything is of an all encompassing abstract God. Thus, each individual human, being part of the universe or nature, is a part of God.
But what role did God play?
God is Not a Puppeteer
Nothing happens by chance in Spinoza’s world.
For Spinoza, God as Nature, was not a puppeteer who pulls all the strings, controlling everything that happens. A puppeteer operates outside of the puppet and is therefore an ‘outer cause’ of its movements. But, according to Spinoza, this was not how God/Nature controls the world. He believed that God/Nature was the ‘inner cause’.
In this way Spinoza echoed the Stoics who believed that everything happens out of necessity. If the puppet wishes to walk, it is necessary to first lift a leg and move forward. When the other leg lifts and moves forward the puppet is walking. Another way of describing this is to say that the ‘effect’ is walking and the ’cause’ is lifting legs and moving forwards.
The puppet moves because God/Nature is inside it and the movements occur due to necessity. It is necessary for life that movement occurs, according to its own laws, but their is no guiding principle taking place.
This chain of cause and effect is called Determinism – the philosophical proposition that every event, decision and action is causally determined by an unbroken chain of prior occurrences.
This does not necessarily mean that humans have no influence on the future and its events (a position more correctly known as Fatalism), but that the level to which humans have influence over their future is itself dependent on present and past events.
Taken to its logical extreme, Determinism would argue that the initial Big Bang triggered every single action, and possibly mental thought, through a system of cause and effect.
To apply Determinism to the image of the puppet, imagine you are the puppet. Determinism would argue that when you think, it is you that is doing the thinking. God/Nature plays no part in what you think – God/Nature just facilitates the process of your thinking. For example, when you throw a ball, it is you throwing the ball – God/Nature just allows you to do it.
Sub Specie Aeternitatis
Sub specie aeternitatis translates from Latin as, ‘under the aspect of eternity.’ It was the term Spinoza created to describe mankind’s role with Nature/God.
For Spinoza you are full of freewill and you have inherent abilities that allow you to flourish. However, you are hindered in your personal growth by circumstances outside your control – such as maybe which school you go to or whether your parents stay alive during your childhood.
In this way there is an eternity of cause and effect taking place. Go back to the stone-age and imagine you are born as a hunter-gatherer. You are free to hunt whatever animal you want or find whatever berries you can. But what if you were born in a time and place in the stone-age where there were no animals or berries. How would you survive being trapped in this way?
We are eternally free and at the same time not free.
For Spinoza the goal is to comprehend everything that exists in all embracing perception. When we do this it will lead to true happiness and contentment – sub specie aeternitatis.
In 1677, Spinoza died at the young age of 44 in The Hague, due to a lung illness. This was perhaps tuberculosis possibly due to breathing in fine glass dust from the lenses he ground.
By challenging the influential Dualist philosophy of Descartes, Spinoza was viewed with great controversy during his life time. Even after death, he remained controversial and the Dutch government subsequently banned his works in 1678.
Image from www.smithsonianmag.com/