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Spinozism and Christianity

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A Practical Comparison

                                            Wayne Ferguson
                                            Phil. 227, Dr. Rice
                                            Marquette University
                                            3-30-92 

Spinoza is my first love in philosophy. He--like Nietzsche--takes his stand beyond good and evil. This paper provides a partial introduction to his thought. For more on Spinoza, check out "Beyond the Problem of Evil."

While orthodox Christianity and Spinozism are, per se, incompatible, it is nevertheless the case that the practical, as it were, cash value of each is due, in large part, to several elements that are common to both perspectives. These elements are not ordinarily considered essential aspects of Christianity--for that matter, they may rarely be attributed to Christianity at all by the popular mind. But it is the thesis of this essay that the sense of salvation experienced by the Christian believer arises, at least in part, from the following presuppositions which Christianity shares with Spinozism--presuppositions which the individual believer may rarely reflect upon, or even be unconscious of, but which are, nevertheless, implicit in the Christian gospel, and essential to the practical, functional aspects of the Christian faith. They are as follows:

1. All things are caused by God and exist according to his eternal order.

2. Blessedness is attained when our minds and hearts are turned, in love, toward that eternal order.

3. Evil is the result of our inordinate pursuit of finite, temporal "goods" as ends in themselves.

4. The attainment of human perfection involves the knowledge of our union with God and, consequently, includes a fundamental affirmation of our finite existence.

In Part I of this essay, I will show how Spinoza, in both his Treatise on the Emendation of the Intellect and in his Ethics, prescribes a practical philosophy of life which is based, at least in part, on the presuppositions enumerated above. Then, so as to be able to show with greater ease that these presuppositions may be legitimately associated with Christianity and, indeed, are essential to the Christian experience, I will, in Part II, do an exposition of several texts from the writings of the Apostle Paul together with some references to Augustine and Leibniz. My analysis of these texts is necessary as a corrective to many aspects of the popular conception of Christianity which, as so conceived, is opposed (in both spirit and letter) to the philosophy of Spinoza. Finally, in conclusion, I will indicate in what senses Christianity and Spinozism are and are not compatible. This will involve utilizing a distinction, drawn by Hegel, between the "picture thinking" (Vorstellung) of religious consciousness and the "conceptual thinking" (Begriffe) proper to philosophy.

Part I: A Practical Introduction to Spinoza

Spinoza's position in regard to the propositions enumerated above, in the introduction, is clearly and concisely set forth in the first 17 paragraphs of his Treatise on the Emendation of the Intellect.[1] Spinoza begins this work with discussion of the "true good":

"After experience had taught me that all the things which regularly occur in ordinary life are empty and futile, and I saw that all the things which were the cause or object of my fear had nothing of good or bad in themselves, except insofar as [my] mind was moved by them, I resolved at last to try to find out whether there was anything which would be the true good, capable 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 (1)."

This opening paragraph prepares the reader for three important points which Spinoza will make in the paragraphs which follow: 1) The inadequacy of ordinary "goods" if taken as ends in themselves; 2) the subjective nature of "good" and "bad"; and 3) the necessity of pursuing the "true good." These three points are very closely connected and the explication of each one depends on the explication of the others.

Judging from their actions, Spinoza lists three things that are commonly perceived as "good" by the mass of human beings: wealth, honor, and sensual pleasure (3). And while his intuition was that the "good" he sought could not be derived from such objects, he nevertheless experienced a reluctance about abandoning them in order to pursue a merely hypothetical "true good":

"I say that I resolved at last--for at first glance it seemed ill-advised to be willing to lose something certain for something then uncertain. I saw, of course, the advantages that honor and wealth bring, and that I would be forced to abstain from seeking them, if I wished to devote myself seriously to something new and different; and if by chance the greatest happiness lay in them, I saw that I should have to do without it. But if it did not lie in them, and I devoted my energies only to acquiring them, then I would equally go without it (2)."

Finally, however, after contemplating the problems pertaining to the devoted pursuit of those ordinary "goods", Spinoza resolves, in manner analogous to Pascal's wager, that he would be losing nothing if the "true good" was actually unattainable. Observing that indulgence in sensual pleasure leads to a sort of natural repentance insofar as it confuses and dulls the mind (5,4), and, further, that the pursuit of wealth and honor constitute addictions that are impossible to satisfy completely and easily frustrated (5,8), Spinoza arrives at the following conclusion:

"if only I could resolve, whole heartedly, [to change my plan of life], I would be giving up certain evils for a certain good. For I saw that I was in the greatest danger, and that I was forced to seek a remedy with all my strength, however uncertain it might be--like a man suffering from a fatal illness, who, foreseeing certain death unless he employs a remedy, is force to seek it, however uncertain, with all his strength. For all his hope lies there. But all those things men ordinarily strive for, not only provide no remedy to preserve our being, but in fact hinder that preservation, often cause the destruction of those who possess them, and always cause the destruction of those who are possessed by them (7)."

Now we must remember that from the beginning, Spinoza has denied the existence of "good" and "bad" as qualities intrinsic to objects of desire. In the Ethics, as well, he argues that

"we do not endeavor, will, seek after or desire because we judge a thing to be good. On the contrary, we judge a thing to be good because we endeavor, will, seek after and desire it (III, 9, Schol.)."

It is very clear, then, that "good" and "bad" are subjective for Spinoza. But while he is a relativist (in the sense that the value of anything is relative to the perspective from which it is viewed) he is far from a nihilist. On the contrary, he informs us that he was seeking a good

"uncertain not by its nature (for I was seeking a permanent good) but only in respect to its attainment (6)."

And compared to the "good" which he imagined, the ordinary "goods"--as perceived by the unreflective masses--come to light as "certain evils" (7). It occurs to him, then, that the evils which he associates with the pursuit of those ordinary "goods" are a result of loving that which is finite and perishable:

"these evils seemed to have arisen from the fact that all happiness or unhappiness was placed in[2] the quality of the object to which we cling with love. For strife will never arise on account of what is not loved, nor will there be sadness if it perishes, nor envy if it is possessed by another, nor fear, nor hatred--in a word, no disturbance of the mind. Indeed, all these happen only in the love of those things that can perish, as all the things we have just spoken of can do (9)."

It might seem, at this point, that Spinoza has reversed himself and is equating "evil" with perishability which might seem in some sense intrinsic to the object. However, the subjective aspect in fact remains insofar as the evil is the result of a particular relationship between the subject and the object--a relationship that finally comes to light as the pursuit of something ephemeral as an end in itself. Because he is aware of the evils that result from the pursuit of such things (perceived as the highest good), Spinoza begins, quite naturally, to conceive of the "permanent good" which he sought as involving the love of the eternal and infinite. In contrast to the evil that arises from the love of that which is perishable, he remarks that

"love toward the eternal and infinite thing feeds the mind with a joy entirely exempt form sadness. This is greatly to be desired, and to be sought with all our strength (10)."

Thus, just as "evil" is the result of our orientation towards temporal, finite objects of desire, "good", as well, arises out of the relationship between the subject and object of love. Once this is understood, our desire for temporal things need not be an obstacle in our pursuit of that "permanent good" as long as they are sought as means and not as ends in themselves (11).

In paragraph 12, Spinoza reiterates the subjective nature of "good" and "bad" and says that the same applies to "perfect" and "imperfect":

"For nothing, considered in its own nature, will be called perfect or imperfect, especially after we have recognized that everything that happens happens according to the eternal order, and according to certain laws of Nature (12)."

It is in the following paragraph, then, that Spinoza makes good on the promise in 12 to "say briefly what [he understands] by the true good, and at the same time what the highest good is." He relates both of these to the "eternal order" and "laws of Nature" spoken of above:

"since human weakness does not grasp that order by its own thought, and meanwhile man conceives a human nature much stronger and more enduring than his own, and at the same time sees that nothing prevents his acquiring such a nature, he is spurred to seek means that will lead him to such a perfection. Whatever can be a means to his attaining it is called a true good; but the highest good is to arrive--together with other individuals if possible--at the enjoyment of such a nature. What that nature is we shall show in its proper place: that it is the knowledge of the union that the mind has with the whole of Nature (13)."

Now the implication here--though, less than crystal clear, perhaps--is that although human nature is in its weakness unable to grasp that which is infinite and eternal, the highest good and perfection for human beings--human strength, as it were--is to apprehend that "eternal order" and to cling to it with love. The resulting joy constitutes the highest good and is the actualization of that "stronger and more enduring" nature which we conceive even in our weakness. And that nature, Spinoza says, is constituted by the "knowledge of the union that the mind has with the whole of Nature."

The view here presented is not a great deal different then that we find in the Ethics. In Part IV of the Ethics, Spinoza once again reiterates the subjective nature of "good" and "bad" and declares such terms useful, nevertheless, in evaluating those things which help and hinder us in our effort to attain to "the model of human nature which we set before ourselves" (E4,pref.). And, just as, in the Emendation, he characterizes as a "perfection" the "stronger and more enduring nature" which we in our weakness imagine, so in the Ethics, with regard to the "model we set before ourselves", he says

"we shall say that men are more perfect or less perfect in so far as they are nearer to or further from this model (E4,Pref.)."

And once again, it would seem that the realizing of the model involves the love of that which is eternal:

"From this we clearly understand in what our salvation or blessedness or freedom consists, namely, in the constant and eternal love towards God . . .(E5,P36,Schol.)."

Thus we find that while "good" and "evil" are, for Spinoza, relative to the perspective of the subject, he nevertheless posits the highest good which, though still subjective, is the same for every one who achieves it--every wise man:

"the wise man, in so far as he is considered as such, suffers scarcely any disturbance of spirit, but being conscious, by virtue of a certain eternal necessity, of himself, of God and of things, never ceases to be, but always possesses true spiritual contentment."

This then is "salvation" for Spinoza. We turn now to our analysis of some Christian texts that will allow us, in conclusion, to compare the salvation experienced by the Christian believer to that described by Spinoza.

Part II: An Analysis of some Christian texts

The Hebrew and Christian scriptures by no means present an isomorphic concept of the Divine or of what the exact relationship between the human and the Divine is or ought to be. Nevertheless, an emphasis on the sovereignty of God is common to both the Old and New Testament. In the Old Testament, we sometimes find God apparently reacting to circumstances, but more often he is portrayed as creating the circumstances. In the New Testament, however, history is presented almost unequivocally (especially by the Apostle Paul) as unfolding exactly according to God's plan-- unfolding in such a way that no turn of events is unexpected or unaccounted for. World history is salvation history. All the acts and promises of God contained in the Old Testament, from the creation of human beings in God's image to God's promise to Abraham, are said to be actually and eternally achieved in Christ. Paul states that

"God has given us the wisdom to understand fully the mystery, the plan he was pleased to decree in Christ, to be carried out in the fullness of time: namely, to bring all things in the heavens and on earth into one under Christ's headship (Ephesians 1:9-11).[3]"

And, he argues, even this present, corruptible world, is no accident, but is part of God's eternal plan:

"Creation was made subject to futility, not of its own accord but by him who one subjected it; yet not without hope, because the world itself will be freed from its slavery to corruption and share in the glorious freedom of the children of God (Romans 8:20-21)."

In light of these presuppositions, Paul's sums up the Christian attitude as follows:

"We do not lose heart, because our inner being is renewed each day even though our body is being destroyed at the same time. The present burden of our trial is light enough, and earns for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison. We do not fix our gaze on what is seen but on what is unseen. What is seen is transitory; what is unseen lasts forever. (II Corinthians 4:16-18)."

Further, Paul expresses his confidence--the confidence of every true believer:

"We know that God makes all things work together for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his decree. Those whom he foreknew he predestined to share the image of his Son, that the Son might be the first-born of many brothers. Those he predestined he likewise called; those he called he also justified; and those he justified he in turn glorified. What shall we say after that? If God is for us, who can be against us? (Romans 8:28)"

Now such confidence is possible only possible within a framework of complete determinism. And, as Paul makes clear in the ninth chapter of Romans and in the first two chapters of Ephesians, one's salvation/creation in Christ is not a matter of free will in any ordinary sense of the word. Rather,

"We are truly [God's] handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to lead the life of good deeds which God prepared for us in advance (Ephesians 2:10)."

And while Paul admonishes: "offer your bodies as a living sacrifice" (Romans 12:1), and "work with anxious concern to achieve your salvation" (Philippians 2:12), he reminds us, nevertheless, that, in the final analysis,

"It is God who, in his good will toward you, begets in you any measure of desire or achievement (Philippians 2:13)."

This would seem to make free will an illusion of sorts.[4] It would seem that from the perspective of the Christian--at least from one who takes Paul seriously, the notions of suffering and evil become somewhat relativized. Disregarding the problem of those "vessels fit for wrath, ready to be destroyed" (Romans 9:22), and other problems that have plagued traditional attempts at a Christian theodicy, as long as the Christian maintains a steadfast gaze upon the glorious body of Christ, of which he or she is a member, the burden of the present is "light enough" and "works together for good." It is only when the Christian take his or her eyes off of Christ--off eternity, as it were--that the present "evils" are invested with an apparent positive reality. Augustine is thinking along similar lines in his Confessions,[5] where he observes that

"to you [God], nothing whatsoever is evil, and not only to you but also to your whole creation, for outside of it there is nothing that can break in and disrupt the order that you have imposed upon it. Among its parts, certain things are thought to be evil because they do not agree with certain others. Yet these same beings agree with others still, and thus they are good, and they are also good in themselves (7.13.19)."

The clear indication here is that evil "exists" only from a finite perspective, that considered from God's perspective, the entire creation is in perfect harmony. Indeed, in the previous chapter, Augustine described evil in terms of privation and declared all substance good. His conclusion is very much in the Spirit of Paul (and, as we shall soon see, Leibniz, as well):

"No more did I long for better things, because I thought of all things, and with a sounder judgment I held that the higher things are indeed better than the lower, but that all things together are better that the higher things alone."

Finally, as indicated above, we find this same faith underlying Leibniz' conclusion that this is "the best of all possible worlds." In his Discourse on Metaphysics,[6] he indicates that our perception of evil and of imperfection in general is due to ignorance:

"we can say that the more enlightened and informed we are about God's works, the more we will be disposed to find them excellent and in complete conformity with what we might have desired (35)."

Further, he disparages those who "judge audaciously that many things could have been rendered better" which he says

"is based only on the inadequate knowledge we have of the general harmony of the universe and of the hidden reasons for God's conduct (37)."

The fact of the matter, he argues, is that the "knowledge" (=ascent?) that God always acts in the most perfect and desirable way constitutes the sine qua non of a proper relationship to God:

"he who loves seeks his satisfaction in the happiness or perfection of the object loved and in his actions. To will the same and dislike the same is true friendship. And I believe that it is difficult to love God well when we are not disposed to will what God wills . . . (37)."

Thus, with respect to the past, Leibniz argues that

"in order to act in accordance with the love of God, it is not sufficient to force ourselves to be patient; rather, we must truly be satisfied with everything that has come to us according to his will (38).[7]"
"In these texts--the writings of Paul, as well as the writings of Augustine and Leibniz--we can see many of the Spinozian presuppositions operating beneath the surface--even when in some cases such presuppositions are elsewhere strongly qualified or explicitly denied.

In conclusion, I will indicate in what senses Christianity and Spinozism are and are not compatible. As before indicated, this will involve utilizing a distinction, drawn by Hegel, between the "picture thinking" (Vorstellung) of religious consciousness and the "conceptual thinking" (Begriffe) proper to philosophy.

Conclusion

For Spinoza, salvation is not something to be attained at some future time, but something that is experienced now. And as Spinoza makes clear in the Emendation, it is by its very nature something the possession of which does not exclude its possession by others. On the contrary, he says

"it is part of my happiness to take pains that many others may understand as I understand, so that their intellect and desire agree entirely with my intellect and desire. To do this it is necessary to understand as much of Nature as suffices for acquiring such a nature; next, to form a society of the kind that is desirable, so that as many as possible may attain it as easily and surely as possible (14)."

but for all the good will and even optimism that Spinoza shows in the Emendation, the ending of the Ethics paints a much less inclusive picture with respect to who will actually attain this salvation:

"If the road I have pointed out as leading to this goal seems very difficult, yet it can be found., Indeed, what is so rarely discovered is bound to be hard. For if salvation were ready to hand and could be discovered without great toil, how could it be that it is almost universally neglected? All things excellent are as difficult as they are rare (E5,P42,Schol.)."

Now the point of this paper has been to show that the experience of salvation that Spinoza apprehends by means of abstract philosophical concepts, the Christian also shares (insofar as he or she shares in the vision of Christ elaborated by Paul), albeit, by way of the "picture thinking" of religious consciousness. Granted Spinoza denies miracles; denies the reality of a God who--existing apart from nature--from time to time interrupts the natural order; and he denies the teleological expectation of a coming kingdom. And granted, also, that many "Christians" merely pay lip service to the name of Christ out of a superstitious fear which would certainly preclude the experience of the salvation which Spinoza describes. Nevertheless, it seems that the Christian faith shares several points in common with Spinoza. We have seen that just as, for Spinoza, all that happens happens necessarily according to the eternal order and laws of Nature, so, for the Christian, creation is unfolding according to the eternal order that God ordains; just as salvation, for Spinoza, involves the love and contemplation of that eternal order, so for the Christian, salvation involves the love and contemplation of the mystical body of Christ which is the eternal creation of God; and just as, for Spinoza, the perfection of human nature involves the knowledge of the union of the mind with the whole of nature, so for the Christian, perfection is attained through knowledge of the union of the human and Divine in Christ with whom the Christian identifies completely. Now it may be that mythic, teleological language of Christian faith is less than precise and subject to more pernicious misinterpretations than Spinoza's philosophical conception of reality, but, nevertheless, the vision of Christ presented above makes accessible to the common understanding many of the truths expressed by Spinoza--viz. the four items listed in the introductions to this discussion. As a result the practical value of the Christian faith is in many respects the same as the philosophy of Spinoza. The ephemeral goods of money, pleasure, and honor are not sought as ends in themselves. Indeed, Spinoza himself might have written

"If we have food and clothing we have all that we need. Those who want to be rich are falling into temptation and a trap. They are letting themselves be captured by foolish and harmful desires which drag men down to ruin and destruction. The love of money is the root of all evil. Some men in their passion for it have strayed from the faith, and have come to grief amid great pain (I Timothy 6:8-10).[8]"

Further, the Christian, as before indicated, is admonished to focus on that which is eternal and to keep a loose hold on worldly goods. Thus, those who possess real Christian faith, as herein described, can be characterized in a manner similar to Spinoza's "wise man." The Christian, we might say

"in so far as he is considered as such, suffers scarcely any disturbance of spirit, but being conscious, by virtue of a certain eternal necessity, of himself, of God and of things, never ceases to be, but always possesses true spiritual contentment."

In the Emendation, Spinoza seemed to feel that the achievement of the highest good for human beings in general would require a major revolution of human society. Such a revolution would be necessary, Spinoza indicates, in order to bring it about that understanding of many others could be made to agree with his own (cf. 14-17). But in the meantime, he lays down three provisional rules for dealing with the conditions that prevail. The first of these is

"To speak according to the power of understanding of ordinary people, and do whatever does not interfere with our attaining our purpose. For we can gain a considerable advantage, if we yield as much to their understanding as we can. In this way, they will give a favorable hearing to the truth."

This rule would seem to allow for the promulgation of a Christian faith as herein set forth, insofar as it accords with the spirit of his philosophy. Now granted, there are many elements of Christianity, past and present, that are fundamentally opposed to the spirit of Spinozism. They include, but are probably not limited to

1. Social, political, or ecclesiastical control over freedom of speech and thought.

2. The disparagement the body or of the temporal order as intrinsically evil or flawed.

3. The acceptance of mythic and religious imagery as scientific/historical explanations of phenomena.

4. The acceptance of various prevailing cultural norms as absolute moral imperatives, not subject to rational criticism.

5. The idolatrous acceptance of particular texts as the essential foundation rather than an essential expression of religious faith.

But while one or more of these elements may be regarded by both Christians and the opponents of Christianity as essential to the Christian faith, it is becoming clearer as time goes on that these aspects of Christianity are merely accidental--that at heart, the appeal of Christianity is its pictorial representation of our unity with the Absolute--a representation that involves an affirmation of the fundamental significance of our finite existence as a necessary moment in the dynamic of creation. As such, Christianity comes to light as essentially life affirming, despite the fact that greater emphasis may have traditionally been placed on those accidental, life negating elements. And while it is possible that the appeal of the Christian myth may be superseded by new expressions of faith in times to come, it remains--for a majority of westerners, at least--a powerful myth. It need not be, for the modern intellectual, an object of resentment, per se. Rather, as we have seen, it makes accessible to the ordinary intellect, many of the truths of the most abstruse philosophy; and it continues to resonate with the emotions of many extraordinary intellects, as well. [9] [10]

End Notes

[1] Although the Emendation is an early work, written several years before the Ethics, I consider the first 17 paragraphs with which I am here dealing to have been written in a similar spirit as the latter work and to be basically compatible with it. There are certainly problems in comparing the two works if each take in its entirety (for example, Curley points out in his editorial preface that Spinoza may have distinguished between "intellect" and "will" in the earlier work, and may have confused "mind" and "intellect"), but these problems are not a factor in the present discussion.
Unless otherwise indicated, all quotations from this treatise are from the Curley translation (downloaded from the Marquette "VAX"). References are to paragraph(?) numbers in that translation.

[2] The italicized phrase is translated by Elwes as "is made wholly to depend on."

[3] Unless otherwise indicated, all scripture quotations are from The New American Bible. New York: Catholic Book Publishing Co., 1970.

[4] In other words, we can do what we will (or at least we can sometimes!), but we cannot will what we will.
It may be that if Christians think of Christ both as a sort of final cause with whom they identify, and as the intrinsic, formal cause or essence of their authentic self, then they could, in the final analysis, be described as having "chosen themselves"--as having affected their own salvation--despite the fact that it appears at first as if God (perceived as an alien, external force) had affected their salvation from without. If such were the case, determinism rather than freedom would come to light as the illusion.

[5] The Confessions of St. Augustine. Trans. John K. Ryan. New York: Image Books, 1960.

[6] Philosophical Essays. Translated and edited by Roger Ariew and Daniel Garber. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Co., 1989.

[7] Cf. Nietzsche in Ecce Homo: "My formula for greatness in a human being is amor fati: that one wants nothing to be different, not forward, not backward, not in all eternity. Not merely bear what is necessary, still less conceal it--all idealism is mendaciousness in the face of what is necessary--but love it" (The last paragraph of "Why I am so clever").

[8] Cf. the following, listed among the provisional rules of living which Spinoza takes to be "good"--i.e. as helpful in our pursuit of the highest good: "To enjoy pleasures just so far as suffices for safeguarding our health" and "to seek money, or anything else, just so far as suffices for sustaining life and health, and conforming to those customs of the community that do not conflict with our aim" [17].

[9] There are four points enumerated toward the end of the Scholium to part two of the Ethics that should have been referred to in Part I or in the conclusion. They concern the practical advantages of Spinoza's doctrine and, as such, are very relevant to the present discussion.

[10] One point which I have failed to address fully--and which deserves to be more fully addressed--is the notion of salvation as salvation from sin. My approach to such a notion, from the perspective of a neo-Spinozian, would be to characterize the "sin" of Adam--the eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil-- as representative of our preoccupation with temporal, finite objects of desire, taken as ends in themselves. Furthermore, it might be argued that when one becomes fully convinced that all that happens happens from necessity, according to the eternal order; and when one "clings with love" to that order, then one will experience a liberation from personal guilt. Finally, our nature is imperfect, for Spinoza, in a relative sense, insofar as we fail to realize that "stronger more enduring nature"--that "model which we set before ourselves."


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