This literally wonderful introduction to one of the world's great philosophers by one of his major English translators can be a revelation. It concentrates on The Ethics, the work in which Spinoza lays down his thoughts on God and emotions "geometrically." Spinoza took time out from this, his major work, to write the Theological-Political Treatise-a work which, by showing the Bible to be an historical document tied to its time, helped usher in the modern, free state with its separation of church and state, freedom of speech and freedom to worship. Spinoza's ancestors were persecuted in the Spanish Inquisition, moving to Portugal and then to Holland, which showed more toleration; yet Spinoza's own beliefs, based on the universality of reason, the proto-scientific philosophy of Descartes, and the political requirement for freedom to understand the universe without autocratic nincompoops who didn't know what they were talking about, led him to be excommunicated from the Dutch community of Portuguese Jews when he was 24. The Theological-Political Treatise meant at first for a small circle of Dutch Protestant friends, was a key document in the 17th century and that eventually led the civilized world (e.g., the founding fathers of the United States) to realize that, since biblical interpretation depended on a knowledge of history and language, correct understanding of the Bible and God demanded reason. Knowledge of God, as the early, non-institutionalized Protestants realized, was accessible to the individual without clerical interference. It could not be monopolized by a priestly caste but was available to any reader of scripture. Spinoza takes this radical idea one step further, showing that it is not monopolizable by any one sect and, indeed, that it is accessible through inner reflection without even reading the imperfect historical document known as the bible. Spinoza's God is Einstein's God, an awesome, rationally necessary being who does not interfere personally in human affairs. He is far too big for that. Indeed, "He" is impersonal, infinite in comparison to man's finitude. Spinoza argues, not always completely persuasively or without contradiction, that God can be intuited from first principles (he is a "substance" with "infinite attributes") as formally as Euclid could deduce that all triangles add up to two right angles. Ironically-due to the importance the Treatise had as arguably the most important single document in safeguarding the future of freedom to worship and the separation of church and state-Spinoza in the Ethics argues against freedom. Everything we do is necessary, since God, who includes all space ("extension" in Cartesian thought) and thought, is rationally constructed. There is no room for probability, choice, or non-causal factors. (This may be why Einstein to his death doubted that "He...plays dice"-i.e., the intrinsic statistical factor in quantum physics.) In a famous letter (# 58, to Schhuller for Tschirnhaus, included here) Spinoza argues that a thrown stone "while it continue[s] to move....is conscious only of its striving, and not at all indifferent, it will believe itself to be free, and to persevere in motion for no other cause than because it wills to. And this is that famous human freedom which everyone brags of having, and which consists only in this: that men are conscious of their appetite and ignorant of the causes by which they are determined." Although what appears to us as evil is made inevitable by this deep suggestion that free will is an illusion unbefitting of the real God (whose manifestation as thought and extension, the spiritual and the physical, are the two of his infinite attributes most accessible to us) accessible to reason, Spinoza adds (p. 269) "what of it? for evil men are no less to be feared, nor are they any less destructive, when they are necessarily evil."
Spinoza argues that primitive religious ideas and poetic language mask the beatitude of a God almost, but not quite coterminous with nature, who is far too great to be made in man's image. He is based on necessary principles, such as the sort intuited by Einstein in the thought experiments that led 100 years ago to the relativity of space and time and the convertibility of mass and energy-to nuclear weapons and the Nobel Peace Prize. We are part of nature. Although I take issue with Spinoza's (and Descartes', whom he was following) claim that nature never acts "for the sake of some end" (p. 198)-because the second law of thermodynamics clearly leads systems to end-states of equilibrium-it is fascinating to see how this deep prejudice-a tonic against superstitious humanity's earlier over-reliance on the concept of divine will-comes into nature. And I agree that final causes play no role in a truly infinitely existing being, as Spinoza posits of God (p. 198): "That eternal and infinite being we call God, or Nature, acts from the same necessity from which he exists. For we have shown...that the necessity of nature from which he acts is the same as that from which he exists. The reason, thereofore, or cause, why God, or nature, acts, and the reason why he exists, are one and the same. As he exists for the sake of no end, he also acts for the sake of no end. Rather, as he has no principle or end of existing, so he also has none of acting. What is called a final cause is nothing but a human appetite insofar as it is considered as a principle, or primary cause, of some thing." God-manifesting to our limited senses as Nature-is not to be taken personally. He is too great for that. One of the great documents in the west, key to understanding the progress of both religion and science.