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Summary of Lecture on the Philosophy of Benedict Spinoza

Michael Jhon M. Tamayao

After Rene Descartes, there were other attempts to explain reality and everything within it in the famous geometric method, a method which starts from self-evident principles or axioms and then deduces all truths from the established principles. The discovery of the self-evident principles, from which the method starts, presumes the thinker’s excellent intuitive ability and his deep appreciation of truth. The gargantuan effort of deducing the explanation of everything from these principles is again another thing. This philosophical task is rarely accomplished precisely because of these reasons; it requires natural intellectual endowment and diligent commitment to truth.

In his greatest work Ethics (1675), Benedict Spinoza (1632-1677), a post-Cartesian philosopher, attempted and was for the most part successful in crystallizing, using the geometric method, his philosophical system. He succeeded because he possessed the requirements for the job. The major themes in his Ethics include, first, the demonstration of the existence of God and his properties; second, the explanation of the nature of the (human) mind; third, an account of human psychology; and lastly, an explanation of why man needs to shove himself from self-destructive passions, and how he will control his passions and achieve blessedness, which is the ideal of human nature.

The central tenet that defines Spinoza’s philosophy and from which all his discussions unfold is his monistic assertion that God and Nature are one. This “pantheistic” assertion (God is everything) was radically new in his time. It deviates from the traditional religious teaching that states God is a transcendent being who created the universe and constantly takes care of it. Because of this unorthodox assertion, Spinoza was excommunicated from his Jewish community. Although for him happiness is still man’s union with God, this God is no longer the God in the scriptures, but God as Nature itself. Moreover, for him, man finds happiness by knowing the truth that God is Nature and that he is part of Nature. Using reason, therefore, man must find his definite place in the world.

What are substance, attribute and mode for Spinoza?

Even before Ethics, Spinoza had already laid down some of his fundamental tenets in his work The Short Treatise on God, Man, and His Well-being. In both works, his discussions center on the declaration of the oneness of everything. This oneness is expressed in his doctrine of the identity of God and Nature – God is everything. Precluding this declaration is a series of definitions which later support his claim that God is the one and only substance. He expounded on the ideas of God, Nature, and Man using his three key terms: substance, attribute, and mode.


The concept of “substance” is a key term in the major works of Spinoza, as it is in the works of other philosophers. Spinoza defines substance as something that exists in itself and is conceived through itself. It does not rely on something for its existence, inasmuch as it is not a feature of anything else. It is also conceived, not through any other concept, but through its own self.


Moreover, the intellect perceives the substance through its “attributes.” The attributes are not really the property of a substance but they are the very essence of a substance itself. Spinoza then identifies “substance” with the “attribute (of the substance)” saying that there is no real distinction between the two as implied in their intimate connection. The attributes of “rationality” and “animality” for example are what we apprehend whenever we think of the substance “man.” These attributes are not just properties of man but they are the “essence of man.”


Aside from the terms “substance” and “attribute,” Spinoza also used the term “mode” as another fundamental term in his treatise. Unlike the substance, a mode depends on another for its existence and is understood only through another concept. More specifically, modes depend on the substance for their existence and conceptualization. For example, the property of having long fingers is a mode of the substance man. Long fingers cannot exist on their own and they can only be understood through the idea of man. However, in the end, Spinoza rejects the idea of man being a substance. He says God is the one and only substance.

Who is God for Spinoza?

God is a being that necessarily exists…

Like Descartes, Spinoza holds that God must necessarily exists. His argument basically follows the traditional ontological argument used by his predecessors that runs as follows: God is a perfect being; the idea of a perfect being includes its actual existence; Therefore, God, by virtue of its essence as a perfect being, must exists in reality.

God is a substance with infinite attributes…

But unlike his predecessors, Spinoza explicitly stated that “God is a being with infinite attributes, with each attribute perfect in its kind,” a definition equivalent to the original definition of God as a perfect being. If God is a substance with infinite attributes, with each of the attributes perfect, then there is no attribute that God does not possess.

God is the one and only substance…

Spinoza demonstrates that “there are no two substances of the same kind,” and “that God is the one and only substance.” No two substances are the same because if two substances are the same (i.e., they have the same essences), then they are not two but one. Since modes are just dependent on the substances, we cannot differentiate substances using the differences in their modifications. Substances must be differentiated through their set of attributes or essences. Thus, if two substances are different, then they must have totally different sets of attributes, so that not even a single attribute is the same. With this, Spinoza then states that God is the only substance. His argument could be summarized as follows: If there exist another substance, then its attribute must also be found in the substance possessing all the attributes who is God; This is unacceptable because no two substances can share the same attribute; Hence, God must be the one and only substance.

God is Nature…

Nature is all that is. It is the underlying reality that nurtures (naturans) and sustains (naturata) everything. If Nature is all that is, then it must also contain all attributes. Spinoza then equates God, a substance with infinite attributes, with Nature. However, Spinoza uses the term in two senses: first, Nature as God; and second, Nature as the system of modes, which is a derivative or produced by Nature in the first sense.

For Spinoza, the God in the scriptures does not exist. What exists is the “philosophical” God. God is not the creator of the world as the Scripture puts it, but he is the world itself. What nurtures (naturans) and sustains (naturata) the world with all its modes is the divine substance. The world is the aggregate of all the modifications (modes) of the one and only substance (God).

What is the World for Spinoza?

The world and its determinism…

As Spinoza puts it, the world (the second sense of Nature) is a “system of modes” of the divine substance. Accordingly, determinism comes into play in this system. Determinism is a belief that everything is determined and necessary. Nothing in the world is contingent for Spinoza. If things in nature are contingent, then these things, which are modifications of God, do not picture the essence of God. The nature of God is necessary, and since there is nothing other than the divine substance and its modes, then nothing is contingent. To think that something is contingent presumes the inadequacy of man’s knowledge.

Two types of modes in the world…

There are two types of modes in the world according to Spinoza. In his Ethics, he categorized these modes as to “infinite and eternal” and “finite and changing.” However in his Treatise on the Emendation of the Intellect, he categorized the things in the world as to “created” and “uncreated.” The difference is immaterial because they are just the same.

By “uncreated things” Spinoza meant things that exist in themselves or things whose causes are their own selves. Spinoza also called them “first elements.” “Created beings,” on the other, depend on these “uncreated things” for their existence. Everything in nature depends on the uncreated things. For Spinoza, the uncreated things are “fixed and eternal.” And for him these are no other else than the general features of physical nature (or simply “laws of physics”). The created things, on the other, are “singular and changeable” whose operations are explained through the laws of physics. While the uncreated things are present in all, the created things are the particular things we encounter in everyday experience. Following now the logic of Spinoza, the uncreated things, which manifest themselves as those laws governing nature, orders and causes the being of created things, which, on the other, manifest themselves as the particular changing things that populate the world.

What are the attributes of God?

The human mind can only know two attributes of God: extension and thought. All the discovered first elements (uncreated things) fall under these two attributes. Motion, inertia, and rest are under the attribute of extension, and intellect under the attribute of thought. All the individual things and events transpire as ordered by the first elements, and all individual ideas are ordered by the intellect. Infinite and unchanging things or the “first elements” cause the order of the numerous singular and changing things in the world. The latter is determined by the former, and the former terminate in one of the attributes of God.


Who is man for Spinoza?

Man is a modification of the divine substance…

Man is just a part of the system of modes and, as such, he is also a modification of the divine substance. Like any other thing in nature, his actions and everything that transpires in his life are determined by the first elements or the laws of nature.

Man is a composite of mind and body. But Spinoza gave a twist to this statement. First, he stated that man is not a substance, but he is just a modification of God. Second, his body is a mode falling under extension, and, thus, it is governed by the laws of nature. And third, his mind is just an idea of the body. This point needs more clarification.

Mind as an idea of the body…

The human mind is not unique. Spinoza uses the term mind as a general term expressing the idea that corresponds to a body. All bodies have minds because they are represented by a corresponding idea. Just as the mind “treeness” is the idea corresponding to the actual tree, the “human mind” is the idea corresponding to the body. For Spinoza there is a direct proportion between the idea and the body: the more complex the body is, the more complex the idea will be. The complexity of the human body explains the excellence of the human mind.

Man is not free…

Moreover, Spinoza also rejects human freedom. This is an offshoot of his metaphysical determinism. He says everything in man is finite so that he is determined by the infinite or eternal things. His body, on the one hand, is a particular mode of extension that is governed by the unchanging laws of nature. His mind, on the other hand, is also a particular mode of thought that is governed by the infinite laws of thought. It is impossible to posit that man is a free being who lives outside the network of causality in nature. Something that goes beyond this network must exist outside this network. Thus, because man is fully part of nature, he must be understood according to the principles that govern all things. This belief that states everything in man is determined is called “fatalism.”

Man and the Conatus Principle…

The universal principle that governs all modes is the conatus principle. It is the law of inertia applied to modal existence. All modes strive, to the extent of their power, to stay in existence and resist destruction. This innate striving (conatus) to persevere in existence is the essence of modes.

The conatus principle also explains human behavior, i.e., how the human mind responds to external causes. Man’s striving to persevere in being is characterized by their drive to perfection or power of action. When one succeeds in doing this, he experiences joy; when he fails and diminishes his power of action, he experiences sadness. The drive itself to persevere in existence is desire. Joy, sadness, and desire are the three fundamental passions of man. All the other passions, such as love, hate, longing, and the like, are just combinations of the three aforementioned passions. Among the three, sadness is destructive, while joy and desire are primary because they underscore the conatus principle itself.

How could we be happy according to Spinoza?

Spinoza’s goal in Ethics is to give us a possible guide to happiness. His ethical themes,which are akin to that of the Greek’s, include: first, liberation of man from self-destructive passions; second, using reason as a means for liberation; and third, knowledge and love of God as the ideal good and source of human blessed.

Liberation from passions…

As experience had taught him, Spinoza held that what men commonly pursue, such as wealth, honor, and sensual pleasures, are meaningless and futile. We have insatiable desire for these common pleasures, which only leads us to sadness, and thus the destruction of our power of action. They impede us in achieving perfection. In his Treatise on the Rectification of the Intellect (1950), Spinoza explained this point. He says when we achieve some of these pleasures, we crave for more, and when unsuccessful, we experience great displeasure. So, instead of satisfying ourselves with these limited desires, Spinoza thought that we must remove all passions that lead to these empty goals. Man must heal and purify his intellect. He must desire for something rational and noble. Reason must guide his passions towards what is truly good. Thus, turning his back on the ephemeral goods and clinging on reason, Spinoza sought for the knowledge of the eternal and infinite good which he thought will perfect man’s nature and will give true happiness.

The dictate of reason…

To live virtuously is to live under the guidance of reason. Man’s essence as implied in the conatus principle is to persevere in being. Through reason, man achieves perfection of his nature and thus perseverance in being. Reason guides the passions in knowing their true and eternal objects. If one knows that death is inevitable, and that finitude is part of human nature, then his passions that diminish his desire to live (such as sadness and anger) will be lessened. Reason sustains our conatus to live. this also goes to say that the happiness of man or the perfection of his nature is achieved through the correct exercise of his reason.

Social order…

The immediate implication of the conatus principle is that man must live egoistically. To act virtuously, that is, under the dictate of reason, is to act for the preservation of one’s own existence. However, reason also dictates that to persevere in being requires living well with other men. Moreover, political authority is there only because men are often swayed by their passion. If only men perfect their nature by using their reason, then there is no more need of political authorities.

Knowledge of God is true happiness…

The greatest object of the human mind is the highest knowledge. As the infinite substance, God must be the greatest object that the mind can ever conceive. Everything is just a mode of the divine substance. Because modes depend on their substance for their comprehension, nothing can be conceived unless one conceives of God first. Moreover, it was previously stated that reason perfects man’s being, thus, the knowledge of God is the fulfillment of man’s being. It is his ultimate happiness. Consequently, the greatest virtue is the knowledge of God. Perfection is therefore equivalent to the understanding of God.


Happiness is achieved by knowing God. But God is Nature itself. Since we are part of nature, then our knowledge of God also includes the truth that we are all part of nature. Thus, to live happily, we must follow the laws of nature. In uniting ourselves with nature, we will unite ourselves with God, release ourselves from the bondage of finiteness, and embrace the eternal and immutable constancy in God.

Final Words…

Spinoza rejected the idea of a supernatural God who exists beyond space and time and is different from the extended world. If God is the infinity of attributes, and if Nature is all that is, then God is Nature itself. The idea is radical but, basing from the way he expounded it, it is also possible.

If there is one thing that we must remember about Spinoza, then it is his emphasis on the importance of life lived under the guidance of reason. It is arduous, painstaking, and oftentimes unsuccessful. But as he said, everything follows from it. If man can only crystallize the true objects of his desires using his reason, then true inner peace or, using his own term, “human blessedness” will be achieved.

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This entry was posted on February 24, 2009 by in Modern Philosophy.




Tuguegarao City, Cagayan Atty. MICHAEL JHON M. TAMAYAO manages this blog. He is currently starting his private law practice. Contact:; Tel. No. 09353343739. PROFILE: Atty. Tamayao is currently teaching law, philosophy and social sciences at the Cagayan State University. He finished his Bachelor of Arts in Philosophy degree at the Faculty of Philosophy, University of Santo Tomas and graduated in 2005, garnering the highest academic honors in that Academic Year. He pursued Licentiate in Philosophy and Master of Arts in Philosophy degrees at the same university, completing them both in 2007. In 2009, he took up Bachelor of Laws and Letter at the Cagayan State University, where he also teaches. He passed the 2013 bar exams, and now currently taking up Master of Laws and Letters at the San Beda Graduate School of Law.

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