A man of substance

Thank you to everyone who came my class on Baruch Spinoza at the London School of Philosophy. We focused almost entirely on Spinoza’s metaphysics, his argument for substance monism, that there is only one substance, God, and that everything that exists is in God. As so often with a great philosopher, it’s almost impossible to provide an adequate introduction in a single session. This is why I chose Spinoza’s conception of God as the one substance, as the topic of the class: it doesn’t do justice to the breadth of his ideas, but his monism is fundamental to them all.

spinozaThe most difficult aspect to our modern, post-Kantian sensibilities is the way that Spinoza purports to prove the existence of God from a definition: the necessary existence of substance. In a letter to his friend Ludovic Meyer, Spinoza wrote:

The first things that I should like to be noted about Substance are the following–First, that existence pertains to its essence, that is, that its existence follows from its mere essence and definition.

We recall that Spinoza defined substance as not depending on anything else for its existence or for it to be conceived. Consequently he argued that it must be causa sui – the cause of itself. And if the cause of itself, then it must exist necessarily. These kind of ontological arguments now seem to us, to say the least, unconvincing. But perhaps Spinoza is not trying to convince any of his contemporary readers, let alone a twenty-first century (new) atheist. Maybe as a Jew, even after his expulsion from his community, he took God’s existence as a given, as obvious as the existence of the universe, of reality or of being itself. One could counter that perhaps nothing exists, but in that case, you’re really not playing the game –  you’re no longer doing metaphysics.

The question I’ve been pondering these last few days whether we need metaphysics at all to philosophize. If what draws us to philosophy is some kind of existential dissatisfaction, a nagging doubt that we are only living, and not living well, then why not cut to the chase,  bypass the seemingly unanswerable ‘What is?’ and go directly to the more pressing question of ‘What is it we should be doing?’

In the structure of the Ethics, Spinoza very approximately follows the conception of philosophy of his great predecessor René Descartes. Using a memorable analogy, Descartes wrote in the Principles:

Thus the whole of philosophy is like a tree. The roots are metaphysics, the trunk is physics, and the branches emerging from the trunk are all the other sciences, which may be reduced to three principal ones, namely medicine, mechanics and morals. By “morals” I understand the highest and most perfect moral system, which presupposes a complete knowledge of the other sciences and is the ultimate level of wisdom. (9B:14).

When Spinoza finally gets to the ethics of the Ethics, we see why the unity of Substance and the fact not only of our own inclusion as a ‘part of Nature’ but also of the essential – and metaphysical – interconnection of all humans, gives firm support to a creed of cooperation and a spirit of brotherly love.

 To man, then, there is nothing more useful than man. Man, I say, can wish for nothing more helpful to the preservation of his being than that the minds and bodies of all would compose, as it were, one mind and one body; that all should strive together, as far as they can, to preserve their being; and that all, together should seek for themselves the common advantage of all (IVP18S).

What is more, Spinoza, somewhat optimistically, describes a virtuous spiral by which the more we seek knowledge and attain it, the  more we wish to share it with others:

The good which everyone who seeks virtue wants for himself, he also desires for other men; and this desire is greater as his knowledge of God is greater (IVP37).

Throughout the Ethics, there appears to be a consistent blurring of the boundaries of the conventional self. For the person seeking freedom, this is not so much something that is achieved but realized through the (self-)knowledge of our metaphysical status as mere modes participating in the Divine substance. Spinoza’s God is not then a distinct and distant being; nature is not an object, not even a unique object to which any countable noun could refer. I rather agree with Arne Næss that if we could really see through an only apparently separateness between individuals, then acts of kindness, generosity and compassion would seem to us not altruistic, but self-interested, an identification with a larger whole that transcends not only ourselves but even family and community.

A more recent Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Lévinas expresses such a view beautifully:

Monotheism is not an arithmetic of the divine. It is the perhaps supernatural gift of seeing each human person as being absolutely similar to the human person in the diversity of the historical traditions which each person continues. It is a school for xenophilia and antiracism.

(‘Monothéisme et langage’ in Difficile liberté)


Physician heal thyself

Philosophers seem to be a high-risk group for severe mental breakdown. Or perhaps it is the experience of coming through a crisis that creates such a strong motivation to search for deeper questions about the nature of reality and the human condition. The Scottish philosopher David Hume, for instance, underwent a psychological crisis in his early twenties after four years of intensive study. But he survived and went on to create a radical empiricist philosophy that Kant claimed woke him from his “dogmatic slumbers”.

Another example is the twelfth-century philosopher and physician Moses ben Maimon, better known as Maimonides. After his younger brother David was drowned at sea on a voyage to India, Maimonides spent an entire year “prostrate in bed with a severe inflammation, fever and numbness of heart, and well-nigh perished.” The Maimonides scholar Joel E. Kraemer has suggested that Maimonides was suffering the kind of severe depression caused by traumatic separation that would make him susceptible to recurrent episodes of the malady throughout his life [1].

Eight years later, Maimonides wrote :

How can I be consoled? For he was my son; he grew up upon my knees; he was my brother, my pupil. It was he who did business in the market place, earning a livelihood, while I dwelled in security…Were it not for the Torah, which is my delight, and for scientific matters, which let me forget his sorrow, I would have perished in my affliction.

Maimonides achieved fame as a court physician in Egypt, possibly to Saladin, among other royal patients. He wrote a large number of treatises covering different aspects of medicine including the treatment of melancholia. His  philosophical work The Guide of the Perplexed had a lasting effect, not only on subsequent Jewish thought, but on the whole of Western philosophy, influencing Aquinas, Spinoza and Leibniz.


[1] “Moses Maimonides: An Intellectual Portrait” in Seeskin, Kenneth. The Cambridge Companion to Maimonides. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.  The quotation is taken from this essay.


I am leading a study session on Spinoza and the Intellectual Love of God for Beit Klal Yisrael on Saturday 24 May, during which we will look at Maimonides’ view on the love and knowledge of God and exploring how this may shine a light on Spinoza’s ideal. Details at www.bky.org.uk

The delicate geometry of Spinoza


Thank you to everyone who came along to the study session at BKY on Saturday 15 February. I’m not exaggerating when I write that for me it’s a real privilege to be able to discuss the ideas of Baruch Spinoza – a philosopher who both fascinates and bewilders me in equal measure ­– with a group of thoughtful and interested people. And I hope you feel you learned as much from the session as I did.

I am part way through writing up a summary of the session which I’ll post here in a day or two, so please check back.

Meanwhile, while you’re waiting, here’s some poetry by the Argentinian poet and writer, Jorge Luis Borges:

Baruch Spinoza

Like golden mist, the west lights up
The window. The diligent manuscript

Awaits, already laden with infinity.

Someone is building God in the twilight.

A man engenders God. He is a Jew

Of sad eyes and citrine skin.

Time carries him as the river carries

A leaf in the downstream water.

No matter. The enchanted one insists

And shapes God with delicate geometry.

Since his illness, since his birth,

He goes on constructing God with the word.

The mightiest love was granted him

Love that does not expect to be loved.

trans. Yirmiyahu Yovel

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


Ways into reading Spinoza

spinbooks-2How do you solve a problem like (reading) the Ethics? Try not to get put off by the appearance of the geometrical method. At a first look, you may open the book to find dry definitions, arcane axioms and a series of propositions, pared-down to provide an economical and rigorously argued logical progression from premises to conclusion. However, don’t skip over the scholia (referred to as “notes” in some translations) or the prefaces and appendices, where Spinoza lets his hair down a bit, allowing himself a more conversational engagement with the reader. I would also argue that the book can be approached in a non-linear fashion, dipping in and out, following meandering trails signposted by the constant cross-references in the text, getting pleasantly lost as one might in a well-written encyclopaedia. Whether Deleuze himself says this or not, I’d suggest that the book can be taken as rhizomatic, allowing for multiple entry points, with each proposition being linked by uncountable paths to all the others. If you’re interested in the ethical-therapeutic angle, you could start with the Appendix to Part Four, where Spinoza summarizes his psychological results, providing simple advice on how to live with ourselves and with others. The other question about the Ethics is whether to read an introductory volume, or to approach the work with a fresh and open mind. The philosopher Stuart Hampshire writes:

I believe that everyone who has ever written about Spinoza, and who has tried to interpret his thought as a whole, either has been, or ought to have been, uneasily aware of some partiality in his interpretation, when he turns once again from his words to the original. Certainly this is my own position. (1)

While it is certainly true that every writer on Spinoza has their own standpoint, and reading “secondary” literature carries the danger of accepting a partial view as Spinoza’s own, historical distance can be hard to traverse unaccompanied. A wise companion can be of great assistance in overcoming the difficulties in understanding Spinoza’s seventeenth-century conceptual scheme. All the same, like Spinoza’s ring, I advise caution: even the clearest and most faithful commentary is no substitute for reading the text itself, given, of course, that even a translation is an interpretation. The following bibliography is anything but exhaustive. If you feel I’ve left out anything that you have personally found useful and relevant, please post a comment. It’s also almost certainly more than most people will ever read, myself included, but ask a librarian for a book and he or she will always return with arms full of ’em. And do check back, as I will be adding those that I think are most useful, as well as others that come to my mind or my notice.

Translations of the Ethics

Assuming that you’re not going to read it in the original Latin, the canonical translation of the Ethics (used by most current writers on Spinoza) is by E.M. Curley and has been included in at least three different titles.

→ Spinoza, B. d., & Curley, E. M. (1996). Ethics. London : Penguin, 1996.

→ Spinoza, B. d., & Curley, E. M. (1994). A Spinoza reader: The Ethics and other works. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

→ Spinoza, B. d., & Curley, E. M.  (1988). The collected works of Spinoza Vol 1. Princeton, N.J. ; Oxford: Princeton University Press.

→ (In Finnish)  Spinoza, B. d. & Oittinen, V. (1994) Etiikka. Helsinki: Gaudeamus

Online translations:

→ The Ethics at Project Gutenburg Older translation by R.H.M Elwes, also still in print, published by Dover Publications.

→ The Ethics as audio file at LIbriVox (R.H.M. Elwes translation)

Spinoza, Ethics Demonstrated in Geometrical Order at Early Modern Texts Jonathan Bennett’s loose, modern language translation, more readable, less faithful to the original.


→ Nadler, S. M. (2001). Spinoza: A life. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Excellent and meticulously researched biography by a prominent Spinoza scholar and philosopher.

→ Kayser, R. (1946) Spinoza, portrait of a spiritual hero. New York, Philosophical Library. Entertainingly written, more like a historical novel than a serious biography, with a short preface by Einstein.

Introductions to Spinoza and the Ethics

→Curley, E. M.  (1988). Behind the geometrical method: A reading of Spinoza’s Ethics. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press. Seminal introduction, based on three lectures delivered at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in 1984, taking a materialist view of Spinoza’s metaphysics.

→ Della Rocca, Michael. (2008) Spinoza. London : Routledge, 2008. Clear and readable introduction, probably aimed at undergraduates. Central thesis is what Della Rocca refers to as the “principle of sufficient reason” (a phrase coined I believe not by Spinoza, but by Leibniz) which the writer holds as fundamental to Spinoza’s thought. Also has a useful index of propositions of the Ethics which means it can be used as a commentary and companion.

→ Lloyd, G. (1996). Routledge philosophy guidebook to Spinoza and the Ethics. London: Routledge. Concise and readable. → Nadler, S. (2006) Spinoza’s Ethics An Introduction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

→ Popkin, R. (2004) Spinoza.  Oxford : Oneworld. Readable introduction to Spinoza’s thought, including on religion and politics, and putting this into historical context.

→ Scruton, R. (2002). Spinoza: A very short introduction ([2nd ed].). Oxford: Oxford University Press. Very short introduction, as the name suggests, and by a very forthright British philosopher. A very much abridged version of this is also available in Finnish, published by Otava, but with so little remaining, it may not be good value for money!

→ Silverman, R.M. (1995) Baruch Spinoza – Outcast Jew, Universal Sage. Northwood: Symposium) 1995 Particularly useful on the Jewish philosophical context, tracing a thread from earlier Jewish thinkers through to recent critics of Spinoza, such as  Emil Fackenheim.

→ Smith, S. B. (2003). Spinoza’s book of life: Freedom and redemption in the ethics. New Haven, CT ; London: Yale University Press. Clearly written and accessible. Recommended. spinbooks-3 Reading further:

→ Bennett, J. F. (1984). A study of Spinoza’s Ethics. [Indianapolis]: Hackett. Quirky and partial, includes a chapter ‘Psychotherapy’, a very critical reading of Spinoza’s recommendations for working with the emotions. See Koistenen (1998) below for a partial rebuttal.

→ Deleuze, Gilles (1988) Spinoza: Practical Philosophy. San Francisco: City Lights. Not sure if this belongs in the “introductory” or “advanced” category, as the best part of it is a  glossary of the often archaic terminology found in Spinoza’s work.

→ Hampshire, S. (2005). Spinoza and Spinozism. Oxford: Clarendon. Written by a notable philosopher in his own right and one of a previous generation of commentators on Spinoza though still relevant. Beautifully written.

→ James, S. (1997). Passion and action: The emotions in seventeenth-century philosophy. Oxford: Clarendon. Contains a chapter on the psychology of Hobbes and Spinoza; by one of the foremost Spinoza scholars, who has recently published…

→ James, S. (2012). Spinoza on philosophy, religion, and politics: The Theologico-Political treatise. Oxford: Oxford University Press. A reading of Spinoza’s other great work, published in his lifetime, before the Ethics.

Koistinen, O. (1998). ‘Bennett on Spinoza’s Philosophical Psychotherapy’ A critique of Bennett’s critique of Spinoza’s prescription for the mind’s power over the emotions.

→ Koistinen, O. (2009). The Cambridge companion to Spinoza’s Ethics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Edited volume including a chapters on the passions by Susan James and Michael LeBuffe.

→ Lloyd, G. (1994). Part of nature: Self-knowledge in Spinoza’s Ethics. Ithaca, N. Y. ; London: Cornell University Press. Examines Spinoza’s ideas of individuality, selfhood, and freedom in Spinoza’s Ethics.

Podcasts and videos

Susan James on Spinoza and the Passions at Philosophy Bites

Susan James arguing that you should vote for Spinoza

Spinoza: BBC Radio 4 “In Our Time”

Steven Nadler talk on Spinoza Part 1

Steven Nadler talk on Spinoza Part 2

Notes: (1) Hampshire, S (2005)  p. 175.

Kiitos käynnistä!


Photo: Ian Bourgeot

Thank you to everyone who gave up an hour or so of precious Finnish summer to take part in a discussion about bibliotherapy and Spinoza. I really didn’t expect so many of you to come, so apologies for there not being enough handouts to go around. And my gratitude to Ian, Liisa and all at Arkadia International Bookshop for inviting me and being such marvellous hosts.

Please check back to this blog in the next couple of days when I’ll be posting an annotated bibliography (reading list) of introductions and secondary literature on Spinoza, as well as some links.

As an appetizer, try this article by the foremost living translater of Spinoza’s works, Edwin Curley.

Or this one by Stephen Nadler.

Meanwhile, for those who didn’t get a copy of their own, here is the handout I circulated, which includes bitesized samples from Spinoza’s master work, the Ethics.

Philosophical Bibliotherapy: reading Spinoza, finding freedom

UntitledI resolved at last to try to find out whether there was anything which would be the true good, of communicating itself, and which alone would affect the mind, all others being rejected – whether there was something which, once found and acquired, would continuously give me the greatest joy, to eternity (From the Treatise on the Emendation of the Intellect).


1. I pass now in explaining those things which must necessarily follow from the essence of God…not, indeed, all of them, but only those that can lead us, by the hand, as it were, to the knowledge of the human mind and its highest blessedness (II introductory remark).

2. Whatever is, is in God, and nothing can be or be conceived without God. (IP15)

3. [T]he mind and the body are one and the same thing, which is conceived now under the attribute of thought, now under the attribute of extension (IIIP2S).

The affects

4. Most of those who have written about the affects, and men’s way of living, seem to treat, not of natural things, which follow the common laws of Nature, but of things which are outside Nature. Indeed they seem to conceive man in Nature as a dominion within a dominion. For they believe that man disturbs, rather than follows, the order of Nature, that he has absolute power over his actions, and that he is determined only by himself.
The affects, therefore, of hate, anger, envy, and the like, considered in themselves, follow with the same necessity and force of Nature as the other singular things. […]I shall consider human actions and appetites just as if it were a question of lines, planes, and bodies
(III Preface).

5. By affect I understand affections of the body by which the body’s power of acting is increased or diminished, aided or restrained, and at the same time, the ideas of these affections […] if we can be the adequate cause of any of these affections, I understand by the affect an action; otherwise, a passion (IIID3).

The primary affects

6. …desire is appetite together with the consciousness of it. And appetite is the very essence of man, insofar as it is determined to do what promotes his preservation. (III Def. Affects I)

7. Joy is a man’s passage from a lesser to a greater perfection. (III Def. Affects II)

8. Sadness is a man’s passage from a greater to a lesser perfection (III Def. Affects III)

Other affects

(In Part III and its appendix, Spinoza discusses numerous other affects, each directly or indirectly originating from desire, joy or sadness.)

9. Love is a joy, accompanied by the idea of an external cause (III Def. Affects VI).

10. Hate is a sadness, accompanied by the idea of an external cause
(III Def. Affects VII).

11. Anger is a desire by which we are spurred, from hate, to do evil to one we hate (III Def. Affects XXXVI).

12. Pity is a sadness, accompanied by the idea of an evil which has happened to another whom we imagine to be like us. (III Def. Affects XVIII).

13. Self-esteem is a joy born of the fact that a man considers himself and his own power of acting. (III Def. Affects XXV).

14. Self-esteem can arise from reason, and only that self-esteem which does arise from reason is the greatest there can be (IVP25).

15. Self-esteem is really the highest thing we can hope for. For no one strives to preserve his being for the sake of any end. And because this self-esteem is more an more encouraged and strengthened by praise, and on the other hand, more and more upset by blame, we are guided most by love of esteem and can hardly bear a life in disgrace (IVP25S).

The dis-ease: “bondage”

16. [I]t is clear that we are driven about in many ways by external causes, and that, like waves on the sea, driven by contrary winds, we oss about, not knowing our outcome and fate (IIP59S).

17. Man’s lack of power to moderate and restrain the affects I call bondage. For the man who is subject to affects is under the control, not of himself, but of fortune, in whose power he so greatly is that often, though he sees the better for himself, he is still forced to follow the worse (IV Preface).

18. [O]ne who is ignorant and is driven only by lust […] is […] troubled in many ways by external causes, and unable ever to possess true peace of mind, but he also lives as if he knew neither himself, nor God, nor things; and as soon as he ceases to be acted on, he ceases to be (VP42S).

The treatment – understanding and love

19. [W]e are a part of Nature, whose order we follow. If we understand this clearly and distinctly, that part of us which is defined by understanding, that is, the better part of us, will be entirely satisfied with this, and will strive to persevere in that satisfaction. For insofar as we understand, we can want nothing except what is true. Hence, insofar as we understand these things rightly, the striving of the better part of us agrees with the order of the whole of Nature (IV App XXXII).

20. It is clear the power of the mind over the affects consists:

I. In the knowledge itself of the affects;
II. In the fact that it separates the affects from the thought of an external cause, which we imagine confusedly;
III. In the time by which the affections related to things we understand surpass those related to things we conceived confusedly, or in a mutilated way;
IV. In the multiplicity of causes by which affections related to common properties or to God are encouraged;
V. Finally, in the order by which the mind can order its affects and connect them to one another.

[Insofar] as we understand the causes of sadness, it ceases to be a passion, that is, to that extent it ceases to be sadness (VP18S).

The cure – “freedom”

In life, therefore, it is especially useful to perfect, as far as we can, our intellect, or reason. In this one thing consists man’s highest happiness, or blessedness. Indeed, blessedness is nothing but that satisfaction of mind which stems from the intuitive knowledge of God (IV App IV).

21. The mind can bring it about that all the body’s affections, or images of things are related to the idea of God [or Nature].

22. He who understands himself and his affects clearly and distinctly loves God [or Nature], and does so the more, the more he understands himself and his affects (VP15).

23. Blessedness is not the reward of virtue, but virtue itself; not do we enjoy it because we restrain our lusts; on the contrary, because we enjoy it, we are able to restrain them(VP42).
24. [T]he wise man…is hardly troubled in spirit, but being, by a certain eternal necessity, conscious of himself, and of God, and of things, he never ceases to be, but always possesses true peace of mind (VP42S).

Spinoza’s last words of encouragement

The Ethics closes with the following passage:

25. If the way I have shown to lead to those things now seems very hard, still, it can be found. And of course, what is found so rarely must be hard. For if salvation were at hand, and could be found without great effort, how could nearly everyone neglect it? But all things excellent are as difficult as they are rare.

The above quotations (with cross-references removed, and some additions [in brackets]) are taken from The collected works of Spinoza edited and translated by Edwin Curley Vol. 1 (Princeton University Press 1985).

The same translation is also available in the Penguin Edition of the Ethics, (Penguin Classics 1996), with an introduction by Stuart Hampshire and in A Spinoza reader : the Ethics and other works, edited and translated by Edwin Curley
(Princeton University Press 1994).


Spinoza’s Ethics: understanding ourselves to find freedom

Saturday 13.7 at 4pm: Philosophical Bibliotherapy: Reading Spinoza, finding freedom, by John Heyderman

You are very welcome to visit us at:www.facebook.com / Arkadia International Bookshop and “like” us if indeed you do!

Dear friend of Arkadia,

You are invited to Philosophical Bibliotherapy: Reading Spinoza, finding freedom, by John Heyderman on Saturday 13.7 at 4pm at Arkadia (Nervanderinkatu 11)

Bertrand Russell described him as “the noblest and most loveable of all the great philosophers.” Nietzsche called him “the purest sage”. Yet despite his growing popularity among social scientists, many people have never heard of the Dutch-Jewish philosopher Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677) and fewer still have read his works.

This session will discuss Spinoza’s “Ethics” not just as a historical text but as living “medicine for the mind”. John Heyderman will present a personal view of how Spinoza can help us understand ourselves, our place in nature and ultimately how to live.

The presentation and discussion will be in English.

You are all most welcome.

Warm regards,


Entrance is free but a donation of €3 (or more!) to fund the event is suggested and would be most welcome.

John Heyderman is a former librarian from London. He studied philosophy at Birkbeck College, University of London, and wrote his dissertation on Spinoza and Davidson on the mind/body problem.