“By God I mean a being absolutely infinite — that is, a substance consisting in infinite attributes.” This statement is from Spinoza’s Ethics, one of the most influential treatises ever written. Since it appeared in 1677, it has had a profound effect on modern philosophy, psychology, literature, poetry, and a good many scientists and scholars. It has also created some of the most negative reactions among those who felt threatened in their religious beliefs. In his time Spinoza was anathematized, cursed, and cast out of the Jewish community. He was condemned all over Europe as the worst kind of atheist, an apostate with monstrous teachings that made a mockery of all religions. A hundred years after his death scholars called him a “pure materialist” whose philosophy was only suitable for godless scientists.
Ironically, the current consensus is that Spinoza had a deeply mystical faith in God. He is often referred to as “a god-intoxicated man.” How could such a mystic be mistaken for an atheist? Why were his writings misunderstood by so many for so long? One reason is the exceedingly complex nature of his philosophy. The five parts of his Ethics are prefaced by 43 definitions, axioms, and postulates. These are followed by 259 propositions, each of which has its own proof, often with corollaries and notes. And he presents all of these in “geometric style” — it resembles the proofs in Euclidean geometry.
Perhaps the biggest problem is the unusual way he defines his terms. Familiar words like God, nature, substance, happiness, freedom, and love have meanings that are radically different from common usage. We can address this problem by exploring some of these definitions — with our focus on a single concept: Spinoza’s Love of God.
Substance, God, Nature: In Spinoza’s view matter and mind are not two separate substances, but one. Substance is used in its original meaning: that which “stands beneath.” In this sense, one substance underlies all of existence. That substance is God. And since all of existence emanates from this one substance, God is the whole of nature.
Extension, Mode, Body: Of the one substance we can know two properties, called “attributes”: extension and thought. Extension is the property of taking up space. Since matter takes up space, the entire physical world is an extension of God. Extension takes place through a hierarchical series of modifications, and every modification is a mode of extension. Our physical mode is the human body. It is determined by the modal level above it, which is determined by another mode above that, and so on in an infinite “order of concatenation.” In other words, all physical bodies are part of a great chain of emanation that culminates in the divine. We are, on every level, expressions of God.
Thought, Knowledge, Intuition: For Spinoza thought means “consciousness,” which gives us knowledge of ourselves and the world around us. What we know comes to us through three kinds of knowledge: our physical senses, the speculating mind, and the intuitive mind. This third kind of knowledge lets us truly understand things because intuition is inspired by the intelligence of the universe. It functions when the mind is fully active, and its knowledge comes from a hierarchy of inspiration. The fully active mind is determined by an “eternal mode” of thought, which in turn is determined by a higher eternal mode of thought, and this by one that is still higher, and so on through another infinite order of concatenation — and all of these modes together are “the eternal and infinite intellect of God.”
Happiness, Freedom, Love: Our strongest desire is to preserve our sense of self. But if the knowledge of who we are comes mainly through our physical senses and our speculative mind, we end up trying to preserve a very limited identity at odds with our true self, which will often stir up “conflicts in the soul.” The emotions generated by this conflict narrow our awareness, cut us off from the higher mind, and keep us in the bondage of our lower self. The only genuine happiness comes when we free ourselves from this bondage — by recognizing our only source of true knowledge. We recognize it in the highest faculty of mind — the power which truly knows and understands, which is inspired by “the infinite intellect of God.” Once we know where our real self-interest lies, we are moved to love this inspiration more than anything else, to love it with a fully active mind. Here we have the motivation that frees us from our exclusive desires and allows us to be totally absorbed in life, to be intimate with all that we encounter. And this is Spinoza’s “love of God.”
(From Sunrise magazine, Summer 2007; copyright © 2007 Theosophical University Press)
World Spiritual Traditions Menu
One night recently, when I was wakeful, suddenly in the midnight stillness I heard a mockingbird sing. Coming at that hour the cheerful little song lifted my heart and perspective.
It reminded me that the world is great and full of lives other than human that also have a bearing on our own. Some — like flowers and trees and birds — we enjoy observing, but there are myriads of atomic and cosmic proportions that we cannot see. Yet all go about their mysterious business of living around us while we are unaware. Like the mockingbird, who gave me pleasure but sang for reasons of his own, their simple living touches and affects us in wonderful ways. They do not know us as we think ourselves to be, and how often do we consider them as evolving beings similar in principle to ourselves? All we seem to know is that we live and breathe!
But the “breath of life” is more than air to breathe. It comes to us, and to every creature, by our attachment to divine planes of being. Everything from atom to man to a universe is manifest through the energy of a superior will. So in the real sense we enter into life not just out of personal causes but more as some degree of expression of a greater than human nature that is itself one in an infinite chain of evolving units, each useful and dependent upon the degrees below and above its own. Man cannot possibly live to himself alone.
So the mockingbird, just by being himself, showed me once again that I alone do not have to solve all the world’s ills. We humans, with everything that lives, are co-workers in the glorious, sacred panorama of life itself. — Gertrude W. Hockinson