Edwardian and Georgian Canadian Poets
1900-1930


 

 

Selected Essays and Reviews

by Bliss Carman

Edited by Terry Whalen


 

The Ethics of Spinoza*


 

Part I.

 

A first reading of the Ethics is apt to be repellant. To our day, the artificial form of proof that is used seems not only inartistic and childlike, but quite useless. And indeed it is so: Spinoza's genius is that of the thinker, not of the creative writer.

In reading his work, however, one must remember that in his century it was a common thought that the world could be explained in some one simple way, if only that way might be found. All the varied discoveries of modern science in its manifold branches were yet in the future. Man was even more a child in knowledge then, than now. Fewer unsolved problems of the physical world pressed for an answer at his curious hands.

A far narrower range of vision fired his imagination, nor urged him along unknown ways with a vehemence of despair. There was such a vast collection of physical facts to which no explanation could be found, and which yet seemed quite capable of explanation, that when gradually they came to be arranged and understood and expounded by the scientists and thinkers of the time, and ultimate explanation of all facts and all problems was naturally looked for, and the hope was confidently held that some single word-formula would one day be discovered. This is the goal towards which they moved on. Ever[y] investigation in the world of matter and in the world of mind had this for an aim, either consciously or unconsciously. But now it is not so. The Scientist and the philosopher of today have not the encouragement of so fair a prospect. We have come nearer the limits of knowledge, and begin to grope in the borderland of sleep. The realm of created things that at the same time are unknown and unexplained, grows less and less. In their construction microscopes and telescopes have a strict limit at present. They can be improved only on certain conditions, which we have been unable to bring about by any processes so far discovered. Chemical analysis too, has in some sense completed the circuit of its sphere. We have gone a little higher up the slope and the horizon seems vaguer and farther than before. We faithfully and confidently persist in observation, but we smile at the thought of finding in our own day the Master Mind,-whose hand shall hold the keys of all thought,-whose truth shall make us free.

It is with a remembrance of this that the Ethics must be read.

Speaking briefly and roughly, it was Spinoza's idea that the world is a unit. There is one entity, one existence, one thing, one substance,-as he calls it-that is God. The world of Mind and the world of Matter are only manifestations of him, are only expressions of God's existence in the two aspects that Man can perceive,-the aspects of thought and extension.

To this consideration of God and His Nature, the first part of the ethics is devoted.

"By God." he means "A being absolutely infinite." But we must be careful to use the word "Being" in a primary sense, remembering its verbal-substantive derivation as well as its present meaning of individual or person.

Spinoza himself has guarded his statement thus "that is" he says "a substance consisting in infinite attributes, of which each expresses eternal and infinite essentiality."

But by attribute he has said that he means that which the intellect perceives as constituting the essence of substances. Now the intellect can only perceive two attributes, thought and extension. These then are the only two attributes which it is possible for us to predicate of God. But we must not affirm that these are the only attributes of God, for He is infinite, and we must suppose Him endowed with an infinite number of infinite attributes.

By substance too, he means that which is in itself "It must, then, necessarily be admitted that the existence of substances as its essence is an eternal truth." He then proceeds to show that there is but one substance.

For, a true definition of a thing makes no reference to anything outside of the thing defined. Thus there is no reason given for number, no reason why a certain number of any one class of things should exist. And yet each individual thing has a reason for its existence. So that we much believe the existence of just such a number of things, no more, and no less, is dependent on some cause outside of the things themselves. But existence was included in the definition of substance, and so to avoid the absurdity of saying there are two causes of the existence of substance, and extrinsic and an intrinsic cause,-we are driven to the conclusion that all substance is one and indivisible.

Spinoza then proceeds to restate some of his definitions in the more elaborate form of propositions. He seems no content with saying that by substance he means that which is in itself, and that by God he means the ultimate substance; but he indulges in whole pages of what seem to be more pueritities, in attempting to reinforce with geometrical deduction and conclusion, his proof of the existence of God.

The result one would think would be equally revolting to Atheist and Christian. To the one it would be childishly weak, to the other painfully ludicrous and superfluous. Not that we should not argue concerning God and his existence, but these sophistries are so utterly simple and so absurdly elaborated that all the proper dignity of enquiry after truth is lost. Have we not long ago left such things to the Jesuits and schoolmen whom Spinoza despised? Today, I think has little use for such a fog-bucket in the void of darkness. Spinoza has all the simplicity and arrogance of a child, and though his life was a scrap of calm sublimity, he often shows a lack of childish sweetness and wisdom.

But to go on; his best proof of the indivisibility of substance is this: The nature of substance is essentially infinite, and to divide it would leave it finite in part,-would be to make a finite substance, which is absurd.

There is only one God. For as God is absolutely infinite He must be endowed with every attribute, and if any other substance were granted to exist it would have to be explained as some attribute of God (since God has all attributes) and then there would be two substances, with one attribute, which is absurd, for Substances can only be distinguished by their attributes, and if these are identical the substances are one. Spinoza is very severe on all who think that God has, or can have, a body or mind. In demolishing them he shows more warmth that he usually allows to appear in his argument. But why may not an infinite God be allowed to have a finite personality and a particular individual mind if it so please Him? It may be very absurd to attribute such things to God, and Spinoza may be quite right in resisting the assertion that he has these, or any such finite qualities, but on the other hand, has Spinoza any more ground for asserting positively that God has them not?

Berkeley's position was very strong so long as he merely denied that we can know anything positively and intimately of Matter, but when he went a step farther and himself asserted that matter does not exist his position became as weak as that of his adversaries.

But when we shovel away much of Spinoza's verbosity and come at his ideas, we shall find much sanity in him. "God is the indwelling, and not the transient Cause of all things." "God, and all the attributes of God, are eternal." "The existence of God and His essence are one of the same."

For Spinoza the two attributes of God manifest themselves in different modes of extension and also of thought. The mind of any particular man is a mode of thought, and the body of any particular man is a mode of extension; the two taken together make the mere man, and these two attributes of God are merely different aspects of the same truth, for the ultimate substance manifests itself in infinite ways indeed, but to Man in only two ways, thought and extension. So that Man is only one of the manifestations of God. And God acts with perfect freedom, but at the same time in accordance with eternal law, fulfilling his own perfection of being.

It is the old story of Jesus, whom the Greeks said was King of Heaven; but soon they must believe in the Fates, to whom the Will of Jesus has to bow.

And so the Will of God is no more free than the Will of Man. But let us consider. In the physical world all laws are fixed and eternal, but the Will of Man is able to impress itself on them. Stand in front of a steam trip-hammer and see it fall stroke after stroke. There some of the power that holds the stars in their courses is brought into use. I may or may not lay my finger on the anvil. If I do so, my hand will be maimed, but not only that,-the condition of the hammer's machinery is not unaffected. The difference in its swing is inappreciable, but not the less sure. I have thrust my hand into the cogs of the world machinery and have altered their course.

When I fall in the street the balance of the earth is not quite what it was before. But these effects are so minute that they do not impress us as having any difference on what we call the immutable laws of Nature. My injury, too, is so small that the world will hardly count it a loss, and yet however soon my finger may be replaced by other eager hands, the working world is certainly poorer at the time by just so much skill as I am master of. Yet the world would never say that I had injured it, but only that I had blundered and hurt myself.

And the laws of the moral world are no less fast and sure. I cannot oppose them without being myself much more severely injured than anyone else. If there were only one man in the world he would sin. The sin of Adam and Eve was not against society but against themselves, individually, rather than mutually.

We are linked to the chain of world-change and circumstance. We are a part of all the universe, subject to its laws and its life and its death. We are higher forms of a manifold and varied expression of Material and Mental Activity at one with all Nature. This we feel, and know that we are slaves. But why and how? The brute-mind does not know it,-has no foreknowledge of death. Only because we are more than a part of, and a development from, all the rest,-only because the spirit is divine and knows its descent and its destiny, do we feel how the fetters bind us.

Let us be of the earth wholly, and the theory of free-will will be of no importance to us,-will have no meaning, let us be of heaven wholly, and it will be all clear.

But such is not our fate, and between the two possibilities Man is living awhile in suspense.

IN SPINOZA'S ETHICS

Waste not thy days herein thou child of light!
This is a school whose learning is grown blind
With seeking its own cyphers long-lost key,
Which never its dullard memory can find.

Yet in his bare long room, behold the light
Fall fair across the Master's face and show
More of God's beauty in the life of Man
Than centuries of sophistry like this can know!

6 January 1887


"Spinoza's Ethics" [Essay for Josiah Royce], Jan 10, 1887. Published in Harvard Monthly, Feb. 1888 [back]