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Spinoza; a handbook to the Ethics online

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Edinburgh : T. and A. Constable, Printers to His Majesty






The aim of this work is practical ; that is to say, I
have endeavoured to avoid discussing the philosophy
of Spinoza more than is absolutely necessary to an
understanding of his moral code. For ever since I
became a humble student of his works I have had a
growing impression that a rich vein of common -sense
and sound morality runs through all his speculations,
though it has often to be digged for as hidden treasure.
But the fashion of his writing was determined in large
measure by the customs of seventeenth-century philo-
sophy, and he addressed himself only to those who were
familiar with them. The result is that in our time,
when the decay of old traditions makes a clearer view
of the foundation of morals a matter of supreme im-
portance, we lose the immense benefit of his moral and
religious teaching because we are perplexed both by his
use of familiar words, such as ' God ' and ' eternity ' and
'mind' and 'body,' in senses to which we are not
accustomed; and we are also repelled by his artificial
method of so-called 'mathematical proof.' I have en-
deavoured to relieve these difficulties by a plain
b vii


exposition which always keeps in view the moral and
religious, rather than the intellectual value of the great
Master's teaching. And to make the exposition clearer
I have not hesitated to introduce ' modern instances 5
to show the concrete significance of apparently abstract

My indebtedness to the great and exhaustive treatise
of Sir Frederick Pollock on Spinoza, His Life and
Philosophy, can hardly be sufficiently acknowledged. But
I trust it is evident in the following pages. Still my
own experience suggests that, for those who are specially
interested in the religious evolution of our own day,
there is needed a ' Handbook to the Ethics ' which shall
keep that evolution specially in view. This I have
endeavoured to supply, measuring the wants of others
by my own needs.

As will be evident, I have continually compared my
own translations of Spinoza's Latin — (edition of Van
Vloten et Land) — with the admirable work of W. Hale
White and Amelia H. Stirling. I have ventured often
to differ from their rendering, and sometimes I have
preferred to paraphrase the original. But my debt of
obligation is the same.



Part I. Concerning God 1

„ Appendix 39

Part II. The Nature and Origin of the Mind . . 50

Part III. The Origin and Nature of Mental Affections 83

„ Appendix— Definitions of the Mental Affec-

tions — Introductory Remarks . . .10

Part IV. The Bondage of Man 127

Part V. The Power of the Intellect ; or, The Freedom

of Man I 81

Conclusion 2 ^1



Readers of Spinoza often experience much greater diffi- Difficulties

in reading

culty than they ought to find in making out his meaning, Spinoza
because they bring with them to the study of his writings by bringing
habits of thought entirely incongruous with his system. s t u dy in-
And this is especially the case with his ' Ethics.' For in habftTof S
his various tractates on somewhat more popular subjects, thou s ut -
particularly in his Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, one of
the very few of his writings printed during his lifetime,
he so far condescended to the mental condition of his
contemporaries as to use no small amount of conventional
language. Thus readers who find him discussing pro- Not so
phecy and its confirmation by signs, or revelation and ?n the*
inspiration, feel at first quite at home, and only gradually a l\ n a, e
discover that these terms must to him have had a very * 1CS '
different meaning from that familiar in ecclesiastical
circles. But with his opus magnum, the Ethics, the case
is entirely different. That he wrote for posterity is clear Reasons
from the fact that he withheld the work from publication
during his lifetime, though probably even he had no idea
of the remoteness of the posterity for whom he was The Ethics
writing. Perhaps it can hardly be said to have arrived posterity,
yet, notwithstanding the increasing interest shown during
the past half-century both in the man and his ideas. At



any rate in this work he quite abjured any such conces-
sions to contemporary conventions of thought as are
found in his other writings, and gave uncompromising
utterance to the results of his solitary contemplations of
man and the universe,
influence of Not that even here he was wholly uninfluenced by his
Ldtradi- times or their traditions. For no such miracle as an
Ethics 1 1 e entirely new man in this sense has ever appeared — no,
mainly' to no ^ even ^ n ^he a 8 es °f transition from anthropoids to
matters of an thropopithecus and anthropos. But the traces of
tradition and convention in Spinoza's greatest work are
seen mainly in matters of form. Thus the idea of com-
pressing the whole philosophy of the universe into five
E.g. the books of definitions, postulates, axioms, propositions and
of the 10 " demonstrations, arranged after the manner of Euclid,
form of" 1 seems utterly incongruous both with the physics and the
and P demon- metaphysics of the twentieth century. In the seven-
stration. teenth century, however, though the plan was a little
startling to less daring minds, it did not seem impossible.
Reasons And the reason for this was two-fold. Firstly, the vast-
adoption, ness of the universe was not adequately felt ; and next,
the difference in precision between doctrines of ideal
space, on the one hand, and expressions of concrete ex-
perience on the other, was not sufficiently apprehended.
Now if the universe, or at least a definite portion of the
universe, including man, is completely commensurable
with the human intellect, and if every impression re-
ceived by that intellect from the accessible universe is
capable of as precise statement as our ideal notions of
space — such as point, line, superficies, square, circle, and
so on — there would seem to be no reason why a man of


very exceptional philosophic genius might not reduce all
our relations with the world of being to a set of Euclidean
propositions. But such a notion of existence has become
impossible to us. And we are compelled to recognise, in
the form into which the Ethics was cast, the influence of
an age in which the general outlook on the world was, in
some important respects, entirely incongruous with that
of our own time.

There are other seventeenth-century conventions of other in-
form which add to the difficulties of an average twentieth- seventeenth-
century reader. But the instance now given will suffi- convention
ciently illustrate my meaning for the present ; and other deferred -
cases will be better considered in their proper places.
All the more so, because we shall sometimes have to con-
sider whether the difficulty of form does not also involve
a difficulty of substance. And here it may be well to
anticipate so far as to say that, while I regard Spinoza's
doctrine of God, Nature, and Man as in its essence per- Spinoza's
manent and inexpugnable, I must admit that some e temSJ
details incidental to his treatment of that doctrine would ^ta§s of
have been felt by him to be not only intolerable but im- ^{ h ^
possible, had he lived in the present a<*e. These details l iave been

r ' . ? temporary.

however, now generally recognised as impossible, do not
occur in his moral system, which is singularly noble and
complete, but rather in the attempt to work out an
intellectual system of the universe from two .alleged
1 attributes ' of the Infinite, said to be the only ones known
to us out of an absolutely unlimited number.

■^ t i -i • i • M1 i The present

Erom the above preliminary remarks it will be seen essay an
that I regard the average reader's difficulty in under- to meet
standing Spinoza's Ethics as arising partly from our in- cu iJies, by


veterate habit of assuming that such terms as God,
Eternity, Good, Evil, and many others are used by him in
the sense which we have learned in Church or Sunday-
school to attach to them. But partly also the difficulty
is caused by the admittedly unfortunate form in which
the great work is cast, and also by the comparative
dispensing remoteness of seventeenth-centurv mental habits from

with the J

Euclidean our own. I propose, so far as I can, to meet these


omitting difficulties by giving a precis of the Ethics dissociated
of proof, from the Euclidean form and set forth in language which,
ing to the if not metaphysically exact, may at least enable readers

common- c -, . . , ». , ,,

sense of ordinary intelligence to grasp the common-sense con-

,s ance - victions forming the basis and main structure of Spinoza's

Title-page, religion. Here then is the title-page rendered from the
edition of Van Vloten and Land : ' Ethics, Proved on the
Geometrical Method, and divided into Five Parts ;
wherein is treated — I. Of God; II. Of Nature and the
Origin of Mind ; III. Of the Origin and Nature of the
Passions ; IV. Of Human Bondage, or of the Power of
the Passions ; V. Of the Might of the Intellect, or of
Human Freedom.'

Meaning of And first it may be observed that by ' Ethics ' Spinoza
meant much more than is usually understood by that
word. For whereas we generally mean by it the principles
of social duty as between man and man, individual or
collective, Spinoza included in it the whole relations of
the individual to the universe of which he forms part.
It was therefore necessary for him to set forth, not only
his ideas of right and wrong as between members of the
human family, but also the eternal nature and constitu-
tion of the universe as conceived by him. Therefore he


begins with a book or section ' concerning God.' And here
occurs the first and one of the chief difficulties of the
Ethics. For no one brought up on Paley, Clarke, or their Assump-
successors and imitators, can make out what Spinoza is being of 1
driving at in his Eleventh Proposition of Book I., which
reads as follows : ' God, or substance (involving) x infinite
attributes of which every one expresses an eternal and
infinite essence, of necessity exists.' And the main demon-
stration does not help us, referring as it does to a previous
axiom and proposition belonging entirely to the realms of
abstract thought, and not of experience. But one of the Apparent
alternative demonstrations does help us a little, because of the
it rests in part at least on experience of our own exist- arriving
ence. Thus, ' either nothing exists, or a Being absolutely impression"
infinite exists of necessity. But ' (as a matter of fact) JesTres to 6
1 we exist, either in and by 2 ourselves, or in and by prove -
something else, which exists of necessity.' Here the
meaning flashes upon us. For Spinoza is not trying to
prove the existence of a personal Creator who called the
worlds out of nothing, and is now only the greatest Being
among innumerable others. What the Master means is
that the fact of our present existence necessarily involves
previous Being 3 in and by which we are what we are. By ' God ■
The inference that this previous Being must be absolutely the ' Uni-
infinite and of necessary existence may appear subtle. But

1 Constant in the original. But the literal rendering 'consisting
of,' or 'consisting in,' scarcely expresses the real meaning.

2 The two prepositions seern needed to express the full sense of
Spinoza's in nobis, in alio.

3 The use of the words previous, past, future, etc., is practically
necessaiy in speaking of human experience. But such use must
always be understood subject to Spinoza's doctrine of eternity, as will
afterwards appear.


A modern-
ised para-
phrase of
the argu-

tflft inde-
and eternal

of anything
finite is un-
til ink able.

it has common-sense at the back of it. ' The capacity
for non-existence is weakness, and, on the other hand,
the capacity for existence is power. If therefore what
now of necessity exists is nothing but finite beings, the
finite beings must be mightier than absolutely infinite
Being. But this is absurd.' Let us try to translate it
into contemporary modes of thought. The Infinite of
which Spinoza is thinking is not a divine Person, en-
throned somewhere in space or in thought, apart from
the Universe, but the Universe_ itself. It is of this that
He alleges absolute infinity and necessary existence —
that is, existence uncaused, and without beginning or

Surely we may now feel some force in the argument,
at least if we drop the subtleties about 'capacity for
existence or non-existence.' For it is mere common-
sense to assume that a limited number of finite creatures
— men, beasts, birds, trees, planets, suns, and galaxies —
could not independently exist isled in infinite space from
eternity to eternity. For if once the notion of finite
independent existence be allowed, no limit can be
drawn beneath which such existence becomes unthink-
able. Thus if the independent and eternal existence of
a group of galaxies, measuring say a billion or a trillion
cubic miles in extent, be conceivable, then no reason can
be given why the independent and eternal existence of a
group of galaxies measuring only a million cubic miles
should be unthinkable. Nor, so far as conceivability is
concerned, can we stop there. But there would be no
reason why a universe measuring only a hundred cubic
miles should not be conceivable as having independent


and external existence. And so we might come down to For if it

• \V6T6 fl

a single stone, and reasonably maintain that, if a finite S i ng i' e s tone
universe on any scale be thinkable as having uncaused, ^^ ex ist- 6
independent existence from eternity to eternity, then a ence "
single stone might be capable of it.

According to ordinary, or, using the word in no
offensive sense, vulgar modes of thought, the difficulty
is removed by making the finite universe to depend on
an Infinite Cause. But this of course admits Spinoza's The


argument, that finite existence implies Infinite Being, practically

t • t • i t admitted in

It is only the application that is different; and as I am ordinary
merely trying to expound Spinoza, I do not see that I thought.
have, in this place at any rate, anything to do with that
application. It is enough just now to recognise that by
common consent our philosopher's argument is endorsed,
that 'either nothing exists or else absolutely infinite/ -
Being exists of necessity.' This last phrase ' of necessity i Meaning of

' necessity '

(necessario) must of course not be taken to mean any here,
compelling cause, in the usual sense of the word.
Spinoza quite agrees with the humblest Christian that
God is uncaused, or, as he sometimes puts it, His own
cause. In other words, God is because He is, and
there, so far as we are concerned, is an end of the

JSTow having noted the common consent of humanity Spinoza's


to Spinoza's argument, when rightly understood, and of the

, , . . . . . , , common

having disowned any obligation to criticise here the conviction,
application usually made by theologians, I go on to deal
with Spinoza's own application of it. How should we
think of this ' absolutely infinite Being ' who is because
He is ? The late Herbert Spencer was content to regard


Him as unknowable, and in this I have elsewhere * main-
tained he was quite right, if we confine ourselves to
Spencer's phrase 'in the strict sense of knowing.' But
Difference Spinoza thought otherwise; and undoubtedly he was a

of his Aire

and transcendently greater man than Spencer. Let us learn

then what that mighty seer of the seventeenth century
thought we could know; and hereafter let us note in
what respects his thought must be inevitably modified
by the age of enormously developed telescopes, micro-
scopes, and transcendental mathematics in which Spencer

infinite Spinoza, then, was sure that as our own finite existence

attributes . . . -i-ip

and modes, implies Infinite and Eternal Being, we must think ot
this latter as substance involving infinite attributes, of
which each several attribute expresses His infinite and

Spinoza's essential nature. ' Substance ' he has already defined as

iflpSi of*

'substance.'* that which is in (and by) itself, and is conceived through
itself alone ; otherwise, that of which the conception does
not need any other conception from which it has to be
shaped.' Now at first sight there might appear to be a
difficulty here. For, at least to common-sense, a simple

Apparent colour such as blue or red does not need the help of any-

difficulties. . i J

thing else to clear up or define our sense of it. In fact,
it cannot be defined except by methods of optical science
which have no bearing whatever on our conscious im-
pression. There is no relation realisable in consciousness
between the alleged scientific fact that blue light means
some seven hundred billion etherial vibrations in a
second, and our perception of blue. No ; but at the same
time we all recognise blue as a quality of something,

1 lieliijion of the Universe, Macmillan and Co.


though that something may, as in the case of the blue
sky or Mediterranean water, remain unknown to the
majority of those on whom the impression of colour is
made. Still, though the observer may not know to what
the quality belongs, he is sure that it is a quality, and
not a substance. Whether the colour be in the observer
himself (subjective) or in the external world (objective),
in any case it is a quality and not a substance.

Returning to Spinoza's definition of substance, I find Really

. equivalent

it much more akm to Spencers idea of the Unknowable to Spencer's
than orthodox Spinozists would be prepared to allow, able.
For after all, the definition is and must be reached, in
the case of ordinary people, by a process of larger and
larger generalisations, such as Spencer gives us in his
First Principles. 1 These generalisations are thus summed
up in the concluding words of the chapter on the
relativity of all knowledge (p. 83): 'On watching our
thoughts we have seen how impossible it is to get rid
of the consciousness of an Actuality lying behind Ap-
pearances ; and how from this impossibility results our
indestructible belief in that Actuality.' Happily, Spinoza
does not speak of God as lying behind appearances.
Otherwise Spencer's ' Actuality ' and Spinoza's ' Sub-
stance' are obviously the same thing under different
names. Nor is this identity in the least disproved by
the different methods of the two philosophers in ap-
proaching the ultimate reality. For though Spinoza, in The differ-
his abstract way, thinks it enough to say curtly that formal and
Substance — or ultimate Actuality — is that which is in nc
(and by) itself, and is conceived through itself, or does

1 P. 81, sixth edition.

tions the
method of


not need the conception of any other tlnng from which
it has to be shaped ; yet, as I have said, by ordinary
mortals who have not the brains of a Spinoza, such a
conception — so far as it is a conception at all — can only
be reached by increasing circles of generalisation that
Spinoza's widen out to infinity. Thus all things that make sensible
U the 10 impressions on us are summed up as ' matter.' But this
o7g?nius; matter is not thought or conceived without the help of
geueraiisl- something else not classed as matter, as for instance con-
sciousness, or thought of weight and mass. Similarly,
consciousness or thought as a general expression is the
last expanding circle of a series of generalisations from
But neither individual acts of thought. But the finally generalised

generalised . . .

matter nor conception of thought or consciousness does not and
mind* * ' cannot answer to Spinoza's definition of Substance as
Spinoza's that the conception of which does not need to be helped
Substance?* ^ ^ ie conception of anything else. For it could not be
conceived at all except by the help of the innumerable
impressions from without, which have evolved the in-
dividual mind and suggested the generalisation supposed
to include the experience of all other minds. Neither
matter then, nor mind — however we may interpret the
words — is Substance, according to the definition of

But what relation have the two series of material and
mental generalisations to each other? Are they utterly
distinct, alien, and foreign to each other ? There have
Spinoaa's been philosophers who have thought so. But Spinoza
is that of was not of them, neither was Spencer; and each suc-
matterand cessive generation of thinkers seems on the whole to
i"ressions\ ' become more intolerant of so grotesque a doctrine. We


need not therefore dwell upon it. But if these two
series of generalised conceptions are not alien to one
another, the only conclusion possible is that they merge
in some unity of which each is a various expression.
Now that final unity is Spencer's ultimate Actuality,
and it is also Spinoza's Substance.

But there is a very marked difference between the
greater philosopher and the less as to the intelligibility
of this ultimate ' Actuality.' For while Spinoza, in the
serene confidence of his cloudless contemplations, is
perfectly certain that he has an adequate idea of Sub- Apparent


stance, Spencer's ultimate Actuality is, for the later tion
philosopher, identical with that Unknowable, which ' no
man hath seen nor can see.' Surely here is an absolute
contradiction entailing the cou sequence that either these
great thinkers must both be wrong, or one of them right
and the other mistaken.

Yet the contradiction is not so absolute, nor is the not so real

. -r, . . , , as it looks.

consequence so inevitable as it looks, lor in the ideal
world, with which Spinoza mostly deals until he comes Spinoza
to treat of human nature, his definition of Substance is rea i in the
quite as clear as Euclid's definition of a point, a line, or a
circle. Modern innovators are needlessly officious in
assuring us that neither point nor line, according to
Euclid's definition, has any existence in the external or
finite world, and that to the circle only a rough approxi-
mation can be obtained. But for all that Euclid's con-
ceptions of ideal space remain certain and impregnable.
Moreover, they remain the spiritual principles which as Euclid.
are ' clothed upon ' by more materialistic geometry and



The de-
finition of
is true in
the sense
are true.


No real

Somewhat in the same way, Spinoza, contemplating
Eternal Being, of which space or extension seemed to
him only one attribute out of innumerable others, gives
a definition of Substance which in the world of ideas is
obviously true, though when we grope after it in the
world of sense we never find it. Yet though we never
find it so as to grasp it with the hands or behold it with
the eyes or realise it with the practical understanding,
still amongst the spiritual principles which evolve an
intelligible universe, Spinoza's definition of substance
must ever remain impregnable. (For substance is surely
that beyond which we cannot go in thought, which can
be referred to no wider genus, which requires the help of
no other conception to frame our thought of it, because
it is in and by itself, and includes everything by which
we would explain it. , Intellectually, ideally, it is per-
fectly plain. Only when we ask where it is in the work-
a-day world do we get no answer except this, that it is
everywhere and nowhere. Not that by the last word we
need admit any unreality. But obviously that which is
all in all cannot be in a particular spot. It is the whole

We need not therefore admit any real contradiction
between Spencer's ultimate Actuality and Spinoza's
Substance. At the same time we are bound to acknow-

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Online LibraryJ. Allanson (James Allanson) PictonSpinoza; a handbook to the Ethics → online text (page 1 of 21)