In the great chain of ideas that binds the history of philosophy into one noble groping of baffled human thought, we can see Spinoza’s system forming in twenty centuries behind him, and sharing in shaping the modern world. First, of course, he was a Jew. Excommunicated though he was, he could not shed that intensive heritage, nor forget his years of poring over the Old Testament and the Talmud and the Jewish philosophers. Recall again the heresies that must have startled his attention in Ibn Ezra, Maimonides, Hasdai Crescas, Levi ben Gerson, and Uriel Acosta. His training in the Talmud must have helped to sharpen that logical sense which made the Ethics a classic temple of reason. “Some begin” their philosophy “from created things,” he said, “and some from the human mind. I begin from God.” 179 That was the Jewish way.
From the philosophers traditionally most admired he took little—though in his distinction between the world of passing things and the divine world of eternal laws we may find another form of Plato’s division between individual entities and their archetypes in the mind of God. Spinoza’s analysis of the virtues has been traced to Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. 180 But “the authority of Plato, Aristotle, and Socrates,” he told a friend, “has not much weight with me.” 181 Like Bacon and Hobbes, he preferred Democritus, Epicurus, and Lucretius. His ethical ideal may echo the Stoics; we hear in it some tones of Marcus Aurelius; but it was fully consistent with Epicurus.
He owed more to the Scholastic philosophers than he realized, for they came to him through the medium of Descartes. They too, like Thomas Aquinas in the great Summa, had attempted a geometrical exposition of philosophy. They gave him such terms assubstantia, natura naturans, attributum, essentia, summum bonum, and many more. Their identification of existence and essence in God became his identification of existence and essence in substance. He extended to man their merger of intellect and will in God.
Perhaps (as Bayle thought) Spinoza read Bruno. He accepted Giordano’s distinction between natura naturans and naturanatur ata; he may have taken term and idea from Bruno’s conato de conservarsi;182 he may have found in the Italian the unity of body and mind, of matter and spirit, of world and God, and the conception of the highest knowledge as that which sees all things in God—though the German mystics must have spread that view even into commercial Amsterdam.
More immediately, Descartes inspired him with philosophical ideals, and repelled him with theological platitudes. He was inspired by Descartes’ ambition to make philosophy march with Euclid in form and clarity. He probably followed Descartes in drawing up rules to guide his life and work. He adopted too readily Descartes’ notion that an idea must be true if it is “clear and distinct.” He accepted and universalized the Cartesian view of the world as a mechanism of cause and effect reaching from some primeval vortex right up to the pineal gland. He acknowledged his indebtedness to Descartes’ analysis of the passions. 183
The Leviathan of Hobbes, in Latin translation, obviously evoked much welcome in Spinoza’s thought. Here the conception of mechanism was worked out without mercy or fear. The mind, which in Descartes was distinct from the body and was endowed with freedom and immortality, became, in Hobbes and Spinoza, subject to universal law, and capable of only an impersonal immortality or none at all. Spinoza found in The Leviathan an acceptable analysis of sensation, perception, memory, and idea, and an unsentimental analysis of human nature. From the common starting point of a “state of nature” and a “social compact” the two thinkers came to contrary conclusions: Hobbes, from his royalist circles, to monarchy; Spinoza, from his Dutch patriotism, to democracy. Perhaps it was through Hobbes that the gentle Jew was led to Machiavelli; he refers to him as “that most acute Florentine,” and again as “that most ingenious . . . , foreseeing man.” 184 But he escaped the confusion of right with might, recognizing that this is forgivable only among individuals in the “state of nature,” and among states before the establishment of effective international law.
All these influences were tempered and molded by Spinoza into a structure of thought awe-inspiring in its apparent logic, harmony, and unity. There were cracks in the temple, as friends and enemies pointed out: Oldenburg ably criticized the opening axioms and propositions of the Ethics, 185 and Uberweg subjected them to a Germanically meticulous analysis. 186 The logic was brilliant, but perilously deductive; though based upon personal experience, it was an artistry of thought resting upon internal consistency rather than objective fact. Spinoza’s trust in his reasoning (though what other guide could he have?) was his sole immodesty. He expressed his confidence that man can understand God, or essential reality and universal law; he repeatedly avowed his conviction that he had proved his doctrines beyond all question or obscurity; and sometimes he spoke with an assurance unbecoming in a spray of foam analyzing the sea. What if all logic is an intellectual convenience, a heuristic tool of the seeking mind, rather than the structure of the world? So the inescapable logic of determinism reduces consciousness (as Huxley confessed) to an epiphenomenon—an apparently superfluous appendage of psychophysical processes which, by the mechanics of cause and effect, would go on just as well without it; and yet nothing seems more real, nothing more impressive, than consciousness. After logic has had its say, the mystery, tam grande secretum, remains.
These difficulties may have shared in the unpopularity of Spinoza’s philosophy in the first century after his death; but resentment was more violently directed against his critique of the Bible, prophecies, and miracles, and his conception of God as lovable but impersonal and deaf. The Jews thought of their son as a traitor to his people; the Christians cursed him as a very Satan among philosophers, an Antichrist who sought to rob the world of all meaning, mercy, and hope. Even the heretics condemned him. Bayle was repelled by Spinoza’s view that all things and all men are modes of the one and only substance, cause, or God; then, said Bayle, God is the real agent of all actions, the real cause of all evil, all crimes and wars; and when a Turk slays a Hungarian it is God slaying Himself; this, Bayle protested (forgetting the subjectivity of evil) was a “most absurd and monstrous hypothesis.” 187 Leibniz was for a decade (1676–86) strongly influenced by Spinoza. The doctrine of monads as centers of psychic force may owe something toomnia quodammodo animata. At one time Leibniz declared that only one feature of Spinoza’s philosophy offended him—the rejection of final causes, or providential design, in the cosmic process. 188 When the outcry against Spinoza’s “atheism” became universal, Leibniz joined in it as part of his own conatus sese preservandi.
Spinoza had a modest, almost a concealed, share in generating the French Enlightenment. The leaders of that combustion used Spinoza’s Biblical criticism as a weapon in their war against the Church, and they admired his determinism, his naturalistic ethic, his rejection of design in nature. But they were baffled by the religious terminology and apparent mysticism of the Ethics. We can imagine the reaction of Voltaire or Diderot, of Helvétius or d’Holbach, to such statements as “The mental intellectual love towards God is the very love of God with which God loves himself.” 189
The German spirit was more responsive to this side of Spinoza’s thought. According to a conversation (1780) reported by Friedrich Jacobi, Lessing not only confessed that he had been a Spinozist through all his mature life, but affirmed that “there is no other philosophy than Spinoza’s.” 190 It was precisely the pantheistic identification of nature and God that thrilled the Germany of the romantic movement after the Aufklärung under Frederick the Great had run its course. Jacobi, champion of the newGefühlsphilosophie, was among the first defenders of Spinoza (1785); it was another German romantic, Novalis, who called Spinoza “der Gottbetrunkene Mensch”; Herder thought that he had found in the Ethics the reconciliation of religion and philosophy; and Schleiermacher, the liberal theologian, wrote of “the holy and excommunicated Spinoza.” 191 The young Goethe was “converted” (he tells us) at his first reading of the Ethics; henceforth Spinozism pervaded his (nonsexual) poetry and prose; it was partly by breathing the calm air of theEthics that he grew out of the wild romanticism of Götz von Berlichingen and Die Leiden des jungen Werthers to the Olympian poise of his later life. Kant interrupted this stream of influence for a while; but Hegel professed that “to be a philosopher one must first be a Spinozist”; and he rephrased Spinoza’s God as “Absolute Reason.” Probably something of Spinoza’s conatus sese preservandi entered into Schopenhauer’s “will to live” and Nietzsche’s “will to power.”
England for a century knew Spinoza chiefly through hearsay, and denounced him as a distant and terrible ogre. Stillingfleet (1677) referred to him vaguely as “a late author [who] I hear is mightily in vogue among many who cry up anything on the atheistical side.” A Scottish professor, George Sinclair (1685), wrote of “a monstrous rabble of men who, following the Hobbesian and Spinosian principle, slight religion and undervalue the Scripture.” Sir John Evelyn (1690?) spoke of the Tractatus theologico-politicus as “that infamous book,” a “wretched obstacle to the searchers of holy truth.” Berkeley (1732), while ranking Spinoza among “weak and wicked writers,” thought him “the great leader of our modern infidels.” 192 As late as 1739 the agnostic Hume shuddered cautiously at the “hideous hypothesis” of “that famous atheist,” the “universally infamous Spinoza.” 193 Not till the romantic movement at the turn of the eighteenth into the nineteenth century did Spinoza really reach the English mind. Then he, more than any other philosopher, inspired the youthful metaphysics of Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley and Byron. Shelley quoted the Tractatus theologico-politicus in the original notes to Queen Mab, and began a translation of it, for which Byron pledged a preface; a fragment of this version came into the hands of an English critic, who, taking it for a work by Shelley himself, called it a “schoolboy speculation . . . too crude for publication entire.” George Eliot translated the Ethics with virile resolution, and James Froude 194and Matthew Arnold195 acknowledged the influence of Spinoza on their mental development. Of all the intellectual products of man, religion and philosophy seem to endure the longest. Pericles is famous because he lived in the days of Socrates.
We love Spinoza especially among the philosophers because he was also a saint, because he lived, as well as wrote, philosophy. The virtues praised by the great religions were honored and embodied in the outcast who could find a home in none of the religions, since none would let him conceive God in terms that science could accept. Looking back upon that dedicated life and concentrated thought, we feel in them an element of nobility that encourages us to think well of mankind. Let us admit half of the terrible picture that Swift drew of humanity; let us agree that in every generation of man’s history, and almost everywhere, we find superstition, hypocrisy, corruption, cruelty, crime, and war: in the balance against them we place the long roster of poets, composers, artists, scientists, philosophers, and saints. That same species upon which poor Swift revenged the frustrations of his flesh wrote the plays of Shakespeare, the music of Bach and Handel, the odes of Keats, the Republic of Plato, the Principia of Newton, and theEthics of Spinoza; it built the Parthenon and painted the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel; it conceived and cherished, even if it crucified, Christ. Man did all this; let him never despair.