Spinoza: knowing God and loving Nature

This post is a summary of a study session that I led on 15th February 2014 for Beit Klal Yisrael.

We can approach a great philosopher like Spinoza, as a figure in the history of ideas, focusing purely on trying to establish what he himself meant in his writings, as well as his influences and his legacy. Or, we can treat him as if he were a living philosopher and through interpreting, criticising and developing his system, apply his ideas to contemporary problems. And arguably there is no greater problem facing humankind than the problem of environmental destruction and how we should conceive our relationship with nature.

Tree imageThis blog started from the premise that philosophical literature and the ideas contained in it, can be therapeutic, having the capacity to cure disease or dis-ease in the widest sense of unsatisfactory conditions, including the human condition. There is a Hebrew expression, tikkun olam, “to heal the world”, a duty which appears in early rabbinic literature and has more recently been taken up by those seeking inspiration for social responsibility in Judaism. Perhaps we can make a fruitful connection between this sacred duty to heal, a seventeenth-century Jewish philosopher who saw divinity in nature, and contemporary environmental movements such as the Deep Ecology of Arne Næss.

I took as a starting point what I take to be the central question of environmental ethics: Why (or how) should we be concerned for nature and natural objects? Earlier approaches have in some way considered Nature through its instrumental value (or use-value) either as a source of such resources as food and fuel or even less tangible goods such as aesthetic pleasure or spiritual sustenance. More recently though, there has been a move towards approaches holding that natural entities have intrinsic value (or value in themselves), what is sometimes described as a move from anthropocentrism to biocentrism or ecocentrism.

Accordingly, the environmental philosopher J. Baird Callicott has written:

[T]he primary goal of environmental ethics is to rethink moral philosophy and reformulate ethical theory so that nonhuman natural entities and nature as a whole may be directly enfranchised[1]

If we look to teachings in the Torah and Talmud, these seem to fall within a “stewardship” tradition that can be traced back to Genesis 1:26-28. There are two ethical strands to this. The first concerns the “pain of living creatures” (tza’ar ba’alei chayim) demands that animals are not made to suffer needlessly. So for example, cattle must be allowed to rest on the Sabbath (Exodus 20:10), two animals of unequal strength should not be yolked together, which would cause pain to the weaker animal (Deuteronomy 22:10), and if eggs are taken from the nest of a wild bird, the mother should be allowed to live (Deuteronomy 22:6-7). Significantly, only the last is a mitzvah or commandment that concerns a nondomestic animal. As Eric Katz has pointed out, the scope of moral considerability is generally limited to animals that are at least on the fringes of the human community.[2]

A second strand of teachings concern wanton destruction, bal tashchit (“do not destroy”) which is contained in the verse (Deuteronomy: 19-20) which prohibits the felling of fruit trees belonging to a city when placing it under siege. Again, this prohibition seems to have the function of preserving a source of food for humans rather than protecting trees for their own sake. Likewise, even as Maimonides extends the prohibition, he applies applies to things which have clear use-value.

Rather anyone who breaks utensils, tears garments, destroys buildings, stops up a stream or ruins food with destructive intent transgresses the command “Do not destroy”.[3]

This all seems to imply that within Judaism, the ethical viewpoint is anthoropocentric or perhaps as Katz suggests, theocentric: we are required to take care of things in creation because they belong to God.

In our discussion, someone raised the view that what was lacking in most political decision-making was a sense of intimate engagement with nature and a longer-term understanding of economics. It was pointed out that both the words economics and the word ecology come from the Greek root oikos meaning house or household, suggesting an origin of both disciplines that encompasses the management and preservation of the biosphere as our home. Modern economics ignores this, and with its emphasis on measurable indicators such as growth and employment, it neglects the importance of satisfaction, including satisfaction as it relates to a broader or even “spiritual” consciousness.

A dualist view of man as separate from nature fails to reflect our embedness in and complete dependence on the natural world as well as ignoring the extent to which our species has constantly managed and shaped its environment in positive as well as destructive terms. It seems that to consider an environmental ethics, we must first reconsider the reality of our relationship with nature, raising metaphysical as much as moral questions.

It is for this reason that some environmentalists have looked to the Dutch-Jewish philosopher Baruch Spinoza (1632-77), and reconsidered the implications of his nondualist conception of Deus sive Natura (God or Nature). Arne Næss (1912-2009), the Norwegian environmental activist, philosopher and Spinoza scholar claimed:

No philosopher has so much to offer in the way of clarification and articulation of basic ecological attitudes as Baruch Spinoza.

To find out why he might still be relevant to such questions today, we have to look at the basic tenets of his philosophy, most clearly laid out in Part One of his magnum opus, the Ethics.

Spinoza is reported to have remarked, “The popular philosophy starts from creatures: Descartes starts from mind: I start from God.” [4] And for Spinoza, God is substance, the most elemental level of being, which depends on nothing and upon which all things depend. There is only one substance – God – and there is nothing besides that can exist, or even be conceived as existing, without God.

This inclusive view of God has led many to assume that Spinoza’s “God” is simply synonymous with “Nature”, the totality of material things, making Spinoza a kind of pantheist. In one of his letters to Henry Oldenburg, Secretary of the Royal Society in England, Spinoza specifically denies that God is nature is this is taken to mean “a kind of mass or corporeal matter” and in the ethics he identifies God with the active aspect of Nature, natura naturans. Some modern commentators have suggested that we might take this active aspect to be the laws of nature themselves.

Others argue that individual things “inhere” in God, a relation traditionally reserved for properties such as the height or colour of a tree. But another way this could be understood, is through the metaphor of waves on the ocean. The waves are transitory and local and do not constitute the ocean in its entirety, but they are in and depend on the ocean for their existence. This version of Spinoza’s God might be understood as panentheist: holding that all things are in God while paradoxically God is at the same time in the world or permeates it.

This type of view at least resembles that expressed by Spinoza’s predecessor, the sixteenth-century exponent of the Zohar Rabbi Moses Cordovero:

He is found in all things, and all things are found in Him, and there is nothing devoid of His divinity, heaven forfend. Everything is in Him, and He is in everything and beyond everything, and there is nothing beside Him.[5]

What both these interpretations omit is the fact that for Spinoza, God is mental as well as physical, thinking as well as extended. Spinoza acknowledges his debt to earlier Jewish thinkers who pointed towards this double-aspect conception of God’s reality, “having seen this, as if through a cloud, when they maintained that God, God’s intellect, and the things understood by him are one and the same” (IIIP7S). Spinoza does not indicate which of the Hebrews he is referring to, but something very similar to this identification is found in the writings of both Maimonides and  Cordovero.[6]

Where Spinoza discusses God under the attribute of thought, he claims that God’s understanding, unlike our own, must come before the things which He understands, “since God is prior in causality to all things” (E P17S). Rather, as strange as it may seem to our mindset steeped as it is in empiricism, God’s knowledge of things is what causes them to be: He knows them into existence. The claim that God’s knowledge is the cause of things would not have seemed unusual to medieval scholars, appearing in the Summa Theologiae of the thirteenth century Christian philosopher Thomas Aquinas.

Yet however difficult it may be to determine precisely what Spinoza’s God is, he is quite clear about what God is not. The Appendix to Part I of the Ethics, which we looked at in the session, rules out a God who is providential. He does not have purposes – as this would contradict the fact of his perfection – and less still does God or Nature act to reward or punish particular persons or make the things as they are for the benefit of humankind in general. Furthermore, being perfect he cannot be affected with human passions such as joy or sadness (E VP17). Spinoza writes, “Strictly speaking, God loves no one and hates no one” (E VP17C). The use of “strictly” here, licenses the exception that “God loves himself with an infinite intellectual love” (E VP35) and in doing so, he also loves man (E VP35C). Perhaps this kind of love is of a completely different category to the common, human love, either by virtue of its nature or by its object.

So where does that leave us as humans? We are a kind of composite of a mind and a body, a complex individual that can be perceived in two ways. As a mind we contain ideas, some partial or mutilated, and others complete, that are themselves ideas in the mind of God. As a body, we are both made up of simple bodies, while ourselves going to make up the individual that is the whole of nature.

So, the boundary between the human self and the rest of nature is both porous and fluid, and it is impossible for man to be anything other than a part of nature (E IVP4, E IVapp.32).

However there is a salient difference between humans and other animals. While both have minds and can suffer, it is only with humans – since they share with us the possession of reason – that we can cooperate. Such cooperation is rational in seeking our own advantage. Animals “do not agree in nature with us” and have affects of a different nature to ours. This, according to Spinoza, allows us to “consider our own advantage, use them at our pleasure, and treat them as is most convenient for us” (E IVP37S). So, while disavowing man has a God-given purpose in having dominion over nature, Spinoza places human beings alongside other animals that, owing to their drive for self-preservation, make use of other species. In the Theological Political Treatise, he gives as an example that large fish eat smaller fish “by the supreme right of nature” (TTP 16:2). Similarly, because of our being more powerful than animals we have a similar natural right over them.

This element of Spinoza’s thought, making man a part of nature but with no special moral responsibility for other living creatures, might seem to make him a problematic philosopher for contemporary environmentalist theorists. Yet Næss has argued that Spinoza’s system, taken as a whole, provides a firm basis for an ecocentric environmentalism he called “Deep Ecology”.

The “Deep” in Deep Ecology sets it apart from the “shallow” conservation movement focused on preserving natural entities – forests, rivers, oceans – as a resource for the use of humans. Building on Spinoza’s metaphysics of interconnection, Næss sets out an  a “gestalt ontology” which sees the parts of reality as no more than an abstraction, which is defined by its place in the structure of the whole. Næss argues that just as every organism is intimately connected with every other, we ourselves are symbiotically bound up with animals, plants and ecosystems.

The implication of this is that our interests coincide with the interests of nature or perhaps of the ecosystem of which we are a part. Therefore, rationally and out of self-interest alone we can and should identify ourselves with all life forms, ecosystems and the planet – a vital step which Næss refers to as “Self-realization!”. (The capital ‘S’ differentiates “Self” from a narrow, egoistical conception of self; the exclamation mark makes adopting this greater conception an imperative.)

Experiencing reality in this way changes the way we act without the need for tortuous, altruistic moralizing. Næss writes:

If reality is experienced by the ecological self, our behaviours naturally and beautifully follows norms of strict environmental ethics.[7]

This idea of an expanded, ecological self has not been without its critics even within the environmental movement. The ecofeminist Val Plumwood has argued that to truly care for something, we much be able to distinguish it from ourselves. She is sceptical of statements by Deep Ecologists such as, “I am part of the rain forest protecting myself” which might just as well conceal our promoting our own narrow interests as if they were those of the rain forest.[8]

If there is a problem with “Self-realisation,” it may be that it is a term which seems tainted with the twentieth-century obsession with  individual self-expression, self-fulfilment and self-actualization, a trend which many see as a the disease  at the root of the problem of environmental degradation.

However there is a quite different notion, central to Spinoza’s philosophy, that implies a form of identification, but with something much greater than ourselves. This is what Spinoza sees as constituting “blessedness”or the highest state which we can attain, namely the “intellectual love of God”. This idea of intellectual love, a joy which we experience the more we understand and know God, can be found in earlier Jewish writers such as Maimonides who, interpreting the commandment in Deuteronomy 11:13,  “To love the Lord your God, and to serve Him with all your heart and with all your soul”, states that “as we have shown several times, man’s love of God is identical with His knowledge of Him.” [9]

According to Spinoza, In loving and knowing God, not only do we experience an increase in our power but we participate in God’s love for Himself and for humanity – the love for the Divine is at the same time Divine Love.

[I]t follows that insofar as God loves himself, he loves men, and consequently that God’s love of men and the mind’s intellectual love of God are one and the same (E VP36C).

How can we engender this love? Spinoza instructs us that we understand God through understanding individual things: ourselves, ourselves in nature and additionally, other natural entities (VP25). As Næss writes, this intellectual love is more than a merely passive emotional state. Rather it implies “acts of understanding performed with the maximum perspective possible, or loving  immersion and interaction in Nature.”[10]

The difficult and dazzling idea, that we can at least aspire to an understanding love of God through Nature, an intuitive and joyful act of loving that reunites us with the process of Nature knowing or nurturing herself, is a topic to which I hope we can return in a future study session.

In the mean time, please help keep the conversation going by posting a comment, criticism, objection or question in the “Leave a Reply” box below.

Further reading

My handout for the BKY session, including additional readings and quotations, can be downloaded here.

I closed the session with a beautiful poem, Broad Daylight by James Kirkup which I’ve posted here.

I’ve previously posted a more detailed, annotated bibliography on Spinoza here.

—   Bernstein, Ellen (Ed.), Ecology & the Jewish Spirit: Where nature and the sacred meet (Woodstock: Jewish Lights) 1997.

—   Curley, E. M.  Behind the Geometrical Method: A Reading of Spinoza’s Ethics. (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press) 1988.

—   Della Rocca, Spinoza (Abingdon: Routledge) 2008

—   Drengson, A. & Devall, B. (Eds.), Ecology of Wisdom: Writings by Arne Næss (Berkely, Counterpoint) 2008.

—   Katz, Eric, ‘Faith, God and Nature: Judaism and Deep Ecology’ in David Landis Barnhill and Roger S. Gottlieb (Eds.) Deep ecology and world religions: new essays on sacred grounds (Albany : State University of New York Press) 2001

—   Sessions, George Deep Ecology for the 21st Centrury (Boston, Shambala) 1995.

—   Silverman, R.M. Baruch Spinoza – Outcast Jew, Universal Sage (Northwood: Symposium) 1995

—   Spinoza, Benedict de (Trans Edwin Curley) Ethics (Harmondsworth: Penguin) 1996.

Online Resources:

Brennan, A and Lo, Y, ‘Envionmental Ethics’, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Taylor, Bron and Zimmerman, Michael ‘Deep Ecology’ article for The Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature

Foundation for Deep Ecology


[1] Baird, J.L. ‘Environmental Ethics’ in Lawrence C. Becker and Charlotte B. Becker (Eds.) Encyclopedia of Ethics (New York: Routledge) 2001.

[2] Katz, Eric, ‘Faith, God and Nature: Judaism and Deep Ecology’ in David Landis Barnhill and Roger S. Gottlieb (Eds.) Deep ecology and world religions: new essays on sacred grounds (Albany : State University of New York Press) 2001.

[3] Quoted in Fruendel, B., “Judaism’s Environmental Laws” in, Bernstein, Ellen (Ed.), Ecology & the Jewish Spirituality: Where nature and the sacred meet (Woodstock: Jewish Lights) 1997.

[4] Quoted in Gregory, T.S., Introduction to Spinoza’s Ethics and de intellectus emendation (London, J.M. Dent).1910.

[5] Eilima Rabati, fol.25a Quoted in Elior, Rachel The paradoxical ascent to God : the kabbalistic theosophy of Habad Hasidism (Albany: State of University of New York Press) 1993, p. 50.

[6] “The Creator is himself the perception, the perceiving and the perceived.” Moses Cordevero Pardes Rimonim, fol.55a quoted in Brann, H.W. ‘Spinoza and the Kabbalah, in Hessing, S (Ed.) Speculum Spinozanum (London: Routledge) 1978, p.111. “You are acquainted with the well-known principle of the philosophers that God is the intellectus, the ens intelligens, and the ens intelligibile.” Maimonides, Guide for the Perplexed I:68, (trans. Friedlander).

[7] “Self-Realization: An Ecologocial Approach to Being in the World” in Drengson, A. & Devall, B. (Eds.) Ecology of Wisdom: Writings by Arne Næss (Berkely, Counterpoint, 2008).

[8] Plumwood, Val, ‘Nature, Self, and Gender: Feminism, Environmental Philosophy, and the Critique of Rationalism’ in Elliot, R (Ed.) Environmental Ethics (Oxford: Oxford University Press) 1995.

[9] Maimonides Guide for the Perplexed, III 51 (trans. Friedlander).

[10] Næess, Arne, ‘Spinoza and Deep Ecology’ in Hessing, S (Ed.) Speculum Spinozanum (London: Routledge) 1978, p.422.


5 thoughts on “Spinoza: knowing God and loving Nature

  1. Hi John,
    I wanted to thank you for the talk on Spinoza. I haven’t got anything to add at moment but it certainly opened my eyes to Spinoza in a both lucid and somehow profound way.
    I also felt I had fallen from an urban London street ( although I had planned my journey!) into a group who enjoyed discussing words and ideas in a generous way.

  2. “However there is a quite different notion, central to Spinoza’s philosophy, that implies a form of identification, but with something greater much than ourselves”. This notion is sometmes missed in estimations of Spinoza who is often celebrated as an atheist thinker. His sense of “blessedness” which you also refer to seems similar to a notion of active participation in the divine and implies a greater involvement than the purely intellectual.

    • Thanks for pointing this out ajamais. I think the cerebral/logical connotations of “intellectual” in contemporary English are some way off what Spinoza means by amor intellectuallis. Rather it is an understanding reached via the intuition and involving the passions, which can be perceived as of mind or of body. And clearly Spinoza believes that this intellectual love is an action or activity by which we participate in God’s love for Himself and also in God’s love for humanity.

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