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Nuovo on Spinoza: Examining the powers & limits of God and Nature

Editor’s note: This is the fifth in a series of essays on Dutch philosopher Benedict Spinoza.
During his lifetime, Spinoza was vilified as an atheist. A century and a half later, he was celebrated as someone whose thought is the supreme expression of theism, as a “God intoxicated” thinker. Which is true?
To begin with, we should note that Spinoza equated God and Nature. In doing this, was it his intention to exalt Nature or to diminish God?
Perhaps he intended something of both. He exalted nature by showing that there is nothing beyond it, neither realm nor being, nor heaven, nor spirits; there is no supernatural power.
He exalted God by equating God with the only thing that could truly be said to exist. Hence, Nature or God is “a being absolutely infinite,” encompassing everything, “a substance consisting of an infinity of attributes, each one of which expresses an eternal and infinite essence.”
What does this mean?
Here’s an analogy. Suppose you’re given the task of explaining music, what it is. You might begin by surveying all the variety of things that could be labeled musical, and if your imagination is rich and your mind open, it will gather up a great variety of musical things, or artful variations of sound — according to genre: classical, country, religious, secular, ragtime, rock (punk or new wave), hip-hop, blues; or varieties of performance: instrumental or vocal, solo, combo, orchestral, and more. And you will keep going until you are satisfied that you have exhausted every imaginable kind of music, and every sort of musical event, and every imaginable instance of both. Nothing must be left out, for your task is to explain what music is.
Next consider that there must be something in all this that makes every member of this totality musical. So you sift through the collection searching for recurring qualities or attributes such as rhythm, tempo, harmony, melody, dynamics, tone, color, texture, which on reflection seem to be essential — that is, their presence or absence makes a difference as to whether a thing should be called musical or not, and therefore each in its own way is an expression of what music is. All the varieties of music, every musical event must have some of these qualities, otherwise they would fail to count as instances of music.
However the totality, music itself, must possess these attributes absolutely and without limit or qualification, otherwise it would not be the totality of everything musical, something else could rival it, something musical beyond music.
If this is carefully done, then not only every song or symphony, but every particular musical performance of it and all the rehearsals leading up to it, every variation on a theme, or whistled tune, including “whistling Dixie,” may be said to belong to the totality — music. They inhere in it, and any true explanation of one and all of them involves showing that each is an expression of music through its essential attributes. It requires only one small step to conclude that “music” is the only musical thing, the only musical substance (remember Aristotle’s term for a thing that exists in its own right separate and apart), all other things deemed musical are merely instances of it, musical events or modes, that is modifications or variations of the thing itself (music).
This is the way Spinoza imagined Nature, whose very idea he went in search of. And by Nature, he imagined the totality of all there is.
Nature is the only substance, the only thing that exists separate and apart; it depends on nothing else either for its existence, nor must we rely on something else to understand it — it is conceived through itself, whereas all other things are conceived through it, because they are parts of nature. Thus he diminished God — the God of traditional theism — by denying that there is any realm beyond or above Nature for this God to reside in, or any power beyond Nature’s power, or any universal rule beyond the regularities of Nature. He defined freedom as the capacity of a thing to exist according to the necessity of its nature, and he equated God’s nature with Nature’s laws, which govern everything.
As he diminished God, so he exalted Nature, by representing it as a thing self-sufficient, complete, eternal, and infinite. Thus, he denied the divine creation of the world — for how could God create something that had no beginning, and with what power, for all creative power resides in Nature? He also denied that Nature has any purpose or Good other than achieving its own, self-sufficient, unsurpassable totality. Nature’s only purpose is to produce. On this he echoes Lucretius. And, like Lucretius, he considered it a mere prejudice to suppose that God or Nature “made all things for mankind, and created mankind that he might worship God.”
To summarize: Spinoza denied key articles of the theistic tradition: that God is a separate being, unique, transcendent, exalted, the author of Nature, its provider, governor, and absolute sovereign, free to do whatever he pleases; that whatever exists does solely by God’s pleasure and decree and for no other reason. Does this make him an atheist? If judged according to prevailing orthodoxy, yes.
However, Spinoza accepted without qualification that God is an independent being, self-caused, eternal, and infinite, and these are properties traditionally ascribed to God. He also believed that the knowledge of God “feeds the mind with a joy entirely exempt from sadness,” and he did not make this claim idly, for, as we shall see in subsequent essays, his system of ethics depends upon it.
The effect of knowing God or Nature is that the mind becomes free from anxiety, all dread is dispelled, a quiet joy descends upon it, and the gentle passions of our nature prevail, so that reason is restored and enabled to judge things impartially. But these benefits accrue only when we recognize that God and Nature are the same, and only when, in the light of this, we acknowledge the character and limits of our own existence.
This saving knowledge of God or Nature is not a momentary thought. Spinoza describes it as “intellectual love,” which is not a stormy passion but reason fully engaged with the sum of reality. He also described it as “ecstatic,” an individual mind standing outside of itself (which is what the term means), gaining a vantage place outside of itself. It could also be called “eccentric,” or “off-center,” a place of knowing, where the parochial self is not the center of things, where the mind is drawn out of its particular surroundings and contemplates the universe from “the standpoint of eternity.”

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