Love Naturally


Thank you everyone who came to my Coffeehouse discussion on Spinoza last Monday at Rosslyn Hill Chapel. I was really challenged by the questions, and impressed by the engagement with the ideas of a sometimes difficult philosopher who lived over three hundred years ago.

Something I always try to do is to persuade people that, despite appearances to the contrary, Spinoza was not a simple pantheist, someone who reduces God with the totality of Natural entities, or the universe conceived materially. I quoted this passage from Spinoza’s letter to Oldenburg:

All things I say are in God and move in God, and this I affirm together with Paul and perhaps together with all ancient philosophers, though expressed in a different way, and I would even venture to say, together with all the ancient Hebrews, as far as may be conjectured from certain traditions, though these may have suffered much corruption. As to the view of certain people that the Theological-Political Treatise rests on the identification of God with Nature (by the latter of which they understand a kind of mass of corporeal matter), they are quite mistaken (Letter 73 to Henry Oldenburg, 1675?).

Spinoza’s reference to Paul is to Acts 17:28: “…though indeed he is not far from each one of us. For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’ as even some of your own poets have said.”

This close relation is echoed in a passage from the First Letter of John (4:13) which Spinoza quotes on the title page of his Theological-Political Treatise:

By this we know that we remain in God and that God remains in us, because he has given us of his Spirit.

Someone asked whether Spinoza’s conception God was really just the same thing as Nature, at least Nature more broadly conceived. This could be encapsulated in the expression deus sive natura, “God or Nature” used in the Ethics, Preface to Part Four.

The problem I think  is that unpacking Spinoza’s concept of Nature is just as hard as understanding his definition of God. He draws a distinction, based on medieval scholastic terminology between the active, creative power of Natura naturans (“Nature naturing”) and Natura Naturata (“Nature natured”), the passive, created aspect. The first he identifies with God and His attributes, the second with the finite modes – the individual beings that make up the world. This second aspect seems to correspond with our contemporary use of the word Nature, but while the modes (finite objects and ideas) depend on God for their existence, they do not completely constitute God. But how should we understand the relation between the two?

A clue to the resolution of this might be found in the medieval Jewish compilation, the Yalkut Shimoni (Gathering of Simon):

Why do we use a pseudonym and call the Holy One ‘place’ (makom)? Because He is the place of the world and the world is not His place. (Remez 117).

Spinoza’s God contains the world but is not a being in the world – or merely the world itself. Nature is entirely in God, caused by God and can only be understood through the concept of God. However as God acts from the “necessity of His own being” in causing the world, then God cannot exist without Nature also existing, any more than Nature can exist without God. This intimate connection, a kind of sameness perhaps, between two seemingly distinct concepts is a key motif in Spinoza. Perhaps just as he asserts the identity of, as well as the explanatory disconnection between, mind and body, he also understands that there is both identity and difference between God and Nature.

Perhaps what really matters is that we, as finite beings, reflect on and recognise how we participate in God, particularly in God’s infinite love, and live our lives accordingly. Spinoza’s notion of the “infinite love of God” encapsulates not just God’s love of Himself and of human beings, but our love of God.

 As the previous verses in John’s letter urge:

Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us (I John 4:11-12).

About nothing

f3ef1dae7ebfcca387f0272e1dd138d0_numbers20clipart200-number-zero-clip-art_187-227For reasons that will become apparent, I’m contemplating the idea of emptiness at the moment. And perhaps something more empty than emptiness, more absolute than mere negation, more devoid of anything and everything than just void.

What I’m talking about is perhaps what the Jewish theologian Richard Rubenstein refers to as Holy Nothingness, the infinite God, which can be in no sense a thing such that it might resemble the finite things of this universe. This conception of God would reject even such understandings, found in say, Tillich and Aquinas, of the Divine as ‘being itself’. Rather, it makes Him out to be, if anything, infinite potential, ultimate non-being. So, as Rubenstein explains, the very absence of anything, makes for ‘an indivisible plenum so rich that all existence derives from his very essence. God as the nothing is not absence of being but superfluity of being.’(1)

For the next four weeks I’m going to explore some ideas around nothingness, absence, lacunae, silence. So, watch this (empty) space.


Thirty spokes

Share one hub.

Adapt the nothing therein to the purpose in hand, and you will have the use of the cart. Knead clay in order to make a vessel. Adapt the nothing therein to the purpose in hand, and you will have the use of the vessel. Cut out doors and windows in order to make a room. Adapt the nothing therein to the purpose in hand, and you will have the use of the room.

Thus what we gain is Something, yet it is by virtue of Nothing that this can be put to use.

Lao Tzu (551-479 BCE) Tao Te Ching, trans. D.C. Lau (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1963).

Spinoza’s God, Self and Ecology


I’m giving a talk at 7.30pm tonight at Kant’s Cave, a series of lectures organsied by Philsosophy for All.


What I am going to do as best I can is to sketch out how we might understand Spinoza’s God or Nature”. Then I will try and explore what Spin’s metaphysics ­– how he understands reality at the fundamental level – means for how we understand ourselves. What makes an individual for Spinoza and how does it relate to Spinoza’s God?


 In part 2 I am going to switch to the subject of environmental philosophy and see how some of Spinoza’s statements suggest that he may give little comfort to those seeking an ethic of concern for nature. I’ll then show how a recent Spinozist philosopher, has based an environmental philosophy – Deep Ecology – not on ethics but on Spinoza’s metaphysics: his conception of the self and its place in Nature. Finally I’ll conclude that Deep Ecology places too much emphasis on self-actualization, and would do better to stress a more fruitful element in Spinoza’s thought: the Intellectual Love of God.


7.30pm Wednesday 4 December 2013: Upstairs at the Exmouth Arms at 1 Starcross Street, London NW1 2HR. The Exmouth Arms is in a quiet residential street about five minutes walk from Warren Street, Euston and Euston Square stations.

Philosophy for All

Details on Meet up