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Mentis... oculi, quibus res videt observatque, sunt ipsae demonstrationes.

Ethica, V., Prop. 23, Scolium.

... the eyes of the mind, by which it sees and observes things, are the demonstrations themselves.

§ I. - In the firmament of philosophy, the star of Spinoza has never ceased to shine with a

singular glow. It is not simply because having seen, in the words of Goethe, God in nature and

nature in God, Spinoza incited - and provided a metaphysical caution to - those romantic

effusions for nature to which he himself remained foreign. Neither is it because Spinoza

embodies pure speculation and so forcefully expresses the two fundamental traits of the western

tradition: the thirst for knowledge and the love of freedom. Above all, it is because, with

Spinoza, mystical desire slakes itself completely through reason’s simple unfolding. Satisfying

by itself alone the demands of both the heart and the mind, reason provides both absolute

knowledge, which in what is essential makes man the equal of God in knowledge, and absolute

religion, which unites man with God in the most lucid of loves. Here, rationality, in

disintegrating the supernatural to the gain of an integral naturalism, paradoxically satisfies

religiosity - beyond the diverse obscure teachings of the positive religions - by a mysticism

without mysteries founded on the double transparency of man to himself and of God to man.

§ II. - Absolute rationalism is what distinguishes Spinoza from the other three greats of classical

rationalism. These others, far from rigorously exorcising the occult quality, remained content to

repress it, such that, a variable margin of obscurity subsisting in God and in things, mysteries

surround reason or remain subordinate to it.

With Descartes, God is certainly the object of the most clear and most distinct idea, but

this idea makes God known to us as incomprehensible. We touch the infinite, we do not

comprehend it. This incomprehensibility radiates from God’s omnipotence, which, elevated

above our reason, strikes our reason with its own precarious position and leaves to it no other

worth than that invested in it by an arbitrary decree. From God, the mysteries spread into the

things. Made to understand the finite, our intellect, unable to decide if things are finite or infinite,

is reduced to a cautious affirmation of the indefinite. Finally, in the foundation of our being, our

psycho-physical nature shows us the incomprehensibility of a substantial union between two

incompatible substances. The incomprehensible omnipotence of God manifests itself here in a

singular effect, and reason is compelled to set limits on itself in order to recognize the primacy of

sentiment in this domain. From above, from below, and even in the centre, therefore, our reason

is everywhere confronted with mysteries.

With Malebranche, reason appears to extend its empire to the infinite. Reason is God

himself, and it determines the order to which his omnipotence is subject. But this omnipotence,

whose precise workings elude us, remains in itself unknowable: “The omnipotent God that does

everything in all things is the hidden, unknown, invisible God”.1Nonetheless, we can construct

an extrinsic representation of God on the basis of his effects. Leaving the heights of divinity, if

we descend to the level of creatures, we see, certainly, that the incomprehensible Cartesian

mystery of the substantial union of soul and body is dissipated, and that it gives way to an

intelligible notion of a regulated correlation between the respective modalities of each. On the

other hand, the incomprehensible can be found here in the depths of the mind, whose clear and

distinct idea forever eludes us, and which sentiment alone allows us to grasp.

If, finally, with Leibniz, rationalism seems taken to its extreme by the principle of

universal intelligibility, the omnipotence of God, despite its modus operandi being accessible to

us, remains in itself incomprehensible2 and we have adequate knowledge of hardly anything at

all, because the infinite is everywhere and our capacity for analysis is finite. It is true that the

analysis need not be completed; that it suffices, by means of well organized algorithms, to arrive

at some generative formulas: symbolic knowledge, always possible, releases us from intuitive

knowledge, almost never possible. However, as can be seen from his epithets - blind thought,

1 Malebranche, Prémotion physique, § 10 (O.C.), XVI, p. 45 ; Méditations chrétiennes, II, §§ 18, 19, ibid.,
X, p. 25.
2 Leibniz, Discours de la Métaphysique, § XIV; Théodicée, §§ 230, 233.

deaf thought,3 etc. - the things are only thereby expressed in us without being seen. Never being

fully invested in thought, being only obliquely refracted for it, the things elude us with respect to

their being itself. In short, if our mind can indeed attain to a strict translation of the real, it can

never succeed at contemplating the original text. Thus, despite the universal principle of

intelligibility, the impossibility of transforming clear and distinct knowledge into adequate

knowledge imposes a severe restriction on the power of human reason. It should therefore not be

surprising to find that intimate contact with the things themselves was subsequently sought

elsewhere, in the depths of obscure perceptions, from which could be established a kind of

underground communication with the whole of nature, and from which, in tandem with the

Verstandsphilosophie, Leibnizianism opened the way in Germany for the Gefühlsphilosophie, for


With Spinoza, on the contrary, our intelligence accedes to absolute knowledge, because

the pure intellect is, with respect to its nature, the same in God as in man. The infinite, along with

the finite beings that flow from it, being, with respect to its nature, totally invested in us, is no

longer reduced to being only symbolically knowable. From this knowledge, immediately given

in each mind, God is intuitively perceptible in an adequate idea, and the words of St. Augustine -

“More is in me” - taking on an absolute sense, it is sufficient for me to enter within myself to

grasp in their essence and cause God, the things, and me. Incomprehensibility and occult

qualities are thus radically expelled from everything: from God, whose essence, which can be

genetically constructed like that of a geometrical figure, is as transparent to us as the figure’s;4

whose power, identical to his essence, is entirely revealed to us as soon as we know his essence;

3 “Surdum est, quod effabile non est”, Hobbes, Examintio et emendatio mathematicae hodiernae, 1660,
dans Op. Lat., London, 1839, IV, p. 13.
4 “Ad quaestionem tuam, an de Deo tam claram, quam de triangulo habeam ideam, respondeo
affirmando “, Epist. LXVI Hugoni Boxel, Geb., IV, p. 261, 1. 7-8. Ap., III, p. 309.

of the essence of the mind, of which we have, just as much as the body, an adequate idea, which

is to say a total and genetic one; of the union of the mind and the body, entirely explicable by its

proximate cause and the object of a clear and distinct idea. It is true that we do not know the

divine attributes other than Extension and Thought; but, although this ignorance is shown to be a

truth of reason demonstrable a priori on the basis of the nature of the mind and of the

incommensurability of the attributes, it does not reintroduce any incomprehensibility into the

nature of God. Indeed, the idea of the absolutely infinite substance, enveloping in itself

absolutely all things, permits a universal deduction of them to be given, on the basis of which all

mysteries are banished a priori from even those things of which we ignorant; for we know a

priori that, in the unknown attributes and the modes that they produce, all things happen in the

same way, according to the same necessity and according to the same laws, as in the known

attributes. We are thus certainly destined for an inadequate knowledge of singular things; but

beyond this being once again a truth of reason demonstrable a priori, we are because of this in

no way prevented from adequately knowing the essence of things, nor, consequently, from

identifying on this basis our science with the Science of God.5

In affirming the total intelligibility for man of the essence of God and of things, Spinoza

is perfectly aware that he opposes himself to Descartes. In the preface to the Principia

philosophiae cartesianae, through the voice of Ludwig Meyer, he refuses to associate himself

with the Cartesian affirmation that “such and such thing is above human comprehension”. He

reckons, on the contrary, that the most difficult questions of metaphysics can be resolved, on the

condition that an expedient method be employed that could not be that of Descartes.6 This

5 De int. emendatione, Ap., I, § 57, pp. 272-273, Geb., II, pp. 36-37.
6 Princ. phil. cart., Préface de L. Meyer, Ap., I, p. 301, Geb., I, p. 132, 1. 25 sqq.

declaration must have been striking to his contemporaries. Two years later, in October 1665,

Oldenburg wrote to Spinoza: “LETTER 31”7

Absolute rationalism, establishing the total intelligibility of God, key to the total

intelligibility of things, is thus for Spinozism the first article of faith. Through it alone can the

mind, purged of the multiple “superstitions” of which the notion of an incomprehensible God is

the supreme “asylum”,8 achieve the perfect union of God and man upon which its salvation

depends. In consequence, any interpretation of the whole or any detail of the Ethics which

reintroduces any incomprehensibility whatsoever into God and into things betrays that doctrine.

§ III. - This total intelligibility encompasses, as its conditions, a series of fundamental theses:

that, by means of the adequate idea, God and man know the nature of things as it is in itself; that

the attributes constitute the very being of substance, which is not above them; that we know as

they are in themselves those among the attributes which are known to us; that God is not a

creative intellect; that the divine intellect and the human intellect, which is a part of the former,

are the same effect of God and are by nature identical; that substance is indivisible; that the

nature of the whole is completely present in the part; that cause and effect, commensurable in

one sense, are not in another; that the part is in every way commensurable with the whole; that

true or adequate knowledge proceeds from the whole to the parts; that it is a genetic, intuitive

deduction; that its workings are immediate seized in genetic geometry; that this geometry is the

model of all true knowledge and, consequently, of all true metaphysics; that, concurrently,

metaphysics demonstrates that only knowledge more geometrico can provide true knowledge;

that from this knowledge it orders and justifies the method required for philosophy (inspired in

7 Lettre XXXI, Ap., III, pp. 235-236, Geb., IV p. 168, 1. 3-8.

8 “Asylum ignorantiae”, Ethique, I, Appendice, Geb., II, p. 81, 1. 11, Ap., p. 111.

this more by Hobbes than Descartes); that, since no true knowledge can be achieved otherwise

than by a deduction of the geometrical type, any attempt to understand the Ethics by peeling it

out of its geometrical form is an attempt to accede to the truth by negating the process that makes

it possible; etc.

Each of these theses, just as much as their strict connection, is the object of rigorous

demonstration. Due to prejudices, or errors in careful readings, many of them have nevertheless

been contested or ignored, and their interdependence poorly understood. And yet, it is enough to

omit only one of them for the doctrine of the total intelligibility of God to collapse. If, for

example, God and man do not know the nature of things as it is in itself; or if the intellect of

man, incommensurable with the intellect of God which does know the nature of things, is

incapable of knowing it; if the attributes are just ways of knowing substance relative to our

intellect9; or forms of the infinitely infinite substance by means of which it cannot be grasped as

it is, etc.; according to any of these hypotheses, then God would necessarily become

incomprehensible. It would thus be impossible for us to unite with him through knowledge. God

would become more than ever the “asylum ignorantiae”, and Spinozism would be reversed.

To avoid from the start the most serious and widespread errors of the critical literature, in

order to remain situated within the labyrinth of the contradictory interpretations, - supposing that

one would want to lose one’s time in risking it, - the primordial Spinozist affirmation of the total

intelligibility of things, and especially of the absolute comprehensibility of God, offers the surest

of Ariadne’s threads.

9 In accordance with the Preface to the Principia, Spinoza, in a Letter to Oldenburg from summer 1661,
reproaches among others Descartes and Bacon for having wandered too far “from knowledge of the first
cause”, but of Bacon especially for having conceived of the human intellect, forging from all things ideas
conforming to its proper nature (ex analogia suae naturae), and not conforming to the universe (ex
analogia universi), thereby distorting things in the same way as a mirror reflects rays of light unequally,
Ap., III, p. 114, Geb., IV, p. 8.

§ IV. - The little that we have read thus far dispenses for the moment with long discussions on

the method of the Ethics, because this method, depending on the metaphysics which in turn is

dependent on it, can only be justified once this metaphysics is demonstrated. The absolute

inalienability of the philosophy and of the deduction more geometrico that realizes it is

established with evidence over the course of Book II, when the nature of adequate knowledge is

demonstrated. But, if this codependence is operative, the structure of knowledge and of the

method being the same, it is clear that the only legitimate way to enter into that doctrine is to

engage with the demonstrative process that alone, and by itself, can produce truth; for, since “the

demonstrations are the eyes of the mind”,10 he who would neglect them and take them for

ancillary would literally gouge out the eyes of his intelligence and forbid himself from ever

perceiving the light of truth.

The author shall therefore be followed in the genetic train of his thoughts, according to

the deductive order imposed upon them by the inner demands of reason. In the same way as

Descartes, with his Meditations, Spinoza, with his Ethics, offers the benefit of enclosing all of

his philosophy within one fundamental work. To analyze this work in its details, according to its

own formulations, Book by Book and Proposition by Proposition, to unravel its structure,

without neglecting, to be sure, either the initial experimentations, nor the preliminary evolutions,

nor the proximities that can be detected with his earlier writings and with those of other

philosophers from whom he could have drawn inspiration, this is the task to which we are

determined to be restrained; an exacting and austere task to be sure, but one which, compelled to

rigour and precision, prevents the cavalier attitudes which, through distance from the text, risk

giving free reign to gratuitous interpretations.

10 “The eyes of the mind, by which it sees and observes things, are the demonstrations themselves”,
Ethics, V, Prop. 23, Scol., Ap., p. 628, Geb., II, p. 296, 1. 6-7.


§ V. - Spinoza took nearly fifteen years (from 1661 to 1675) to write the Ethics. During this long

period, the work, as can be learned from his letters, did not cease to transform, being structured

successively as a Treatise in three, then four, then five parts;11 at the same time, the doctrine

continued to proclaim ever more vigorously its difference with respect to Maimonides and to

Descartes, all while being constructed according to the “prolix order of geometry”.12 This

geometric “prolixity”, being the condition for adequate knowledge, is the same as the

development of the doctrine, for it achieves an integrated generation of the concepts thanks to

which can be established, for each thing considered, a view of all its reasons inside of its idea

alone. Collecting all the reasons for the thing together within its idea, in order to arrive at an

11 In his Letter XXVIII (to Bowmeister), from June 1665, Spinoza declares to his correspondent that he is
sending him a piece of the third part of his philosophy, specifying, “what I will send you runs approximately
to Proposition 80”, Ap., III, pp. 230-231. Since the third part, in the final edition, has only fifty-nice
propositions, we can assume that, after having been enlarged further, it was later divided in two and that
at that period the work contained only four Parts, the third and the fourth Parts constituting only one.
Furthermore, in the Preface to the Fifth Part of the final Ethics, Spinoza stated: “I now pass to the second
part of the Ethics”. This is evidence of an even older organization. From this must be inferred that
originally Books III and IV constituted the first Part of the Ethics properly so called, the ethico-religious
problem having actually appeared only with the third Book, and thus a first stage of the book can be
conjectured which would have comprised:
An Introduction containing the material in Parts I and II : De Deo, de Natura et Origine Mentis, God and
the mind, or Metaphysics; a First Part (III and IV), The Bondage of the Mind, or Psychology: problems of
the affects and their power; and a Second Part (V), The Freedom of the Mind or Ethics: problems of
freedom with respect to the passions. We can observe, nevertheless, that the first Part, then dedicated to
the Psychology, already implies a reference to the ethico-religious problem, insofar as the origin of the
affects, due to the finitude of the mind, entails its original bondage. The later division of this Part in two,
one treating of the origin of the affections according to a method adapted to their natural reality, the other
treating of bondage with respect to the passions, offers the advantage of more clearly distinguishing
between the psychological problem and the ethical problem. Nevertheless, we shall see in its place that
such a distinction can never be perfect. In the end, if so many traces of earlier configurations persist in the
text, - and we shall have the occasion, along the way, to pick up others, - it shows that a premature death
did not allow its author the time for its perfection.
12 “Prolixo nostro Geometrico ordine”, IV, Prop. 18, Scolium, Ap., p. 458, Geb., II, p. 222, 1. 14-15, Cf.
infra, chap. 1, § VIII bis, pp. 35-37.

intuition of what is the basis of the thing from within, this deduction is nothing other than the

reflection by which the mind arrives at an explicit consciousness of the supreme adequate idea

which, as the reason for all ideas, eternally resides within the mind. The aphorism “all is in all”

takes on here the most literal and most precise meaning, the part being perceived in the whole

that explains it insofar as this whole is itself perceived in the part and completely contained

within it as its total reason. One can see how the realization of this gigantic enterprise of a

universal interaction of the concepts from within a single intuition could have absorbed the entire

life of the philosopher.

As it is given to us, the Ethics, which is probably not altogether complete, contains five

parts, which remain of very unequal dimensions : the first, De Deo, contains 36 Propositions; the

second, De Natura et Origine Mentis, 49; the fifth, De Libertate Humana, 42; on the other hand,

the third, De Origine et Natura Affectionis, contains 59; and the fourth, De Servitudine Humana,

69. Since this fourth part joins together two different, albeit connected, subjects - human

bondage, and life under the conduct of reason, or the correct mode of life - it is not rash to

conjecture that, had he lived longer, Spinoza, in order to better balance his work, might yet have

divided it in two; he might very plausibly also have given more weight to the fifth part that, with

sometimes hermetic concision, contains the deduction of the paramount theory of beatitude,

supreme conclusion of the doctrine.

The first two volumes of this work, treating of God and of the Mind, will proceed with a

critical analysis of Books I and II. Including the Metaphysics, the Physics, and the Theory of

Knowledge, they concern only the foundations of the Ethics properly so called, which itself is

contained in the three other Books and which will be the object of a third volume.

That three substantial volumes are only barely sufficient for explication of such a short

book is itself testimony to its density and difficulty. To such a book the remark borrowed by Kant

from Abbot Terrasson can be marvelously applied: “Abbot Terrasson says that if we could

measure the length of a book not by the number of its pages but by the time necessary to

understand it, there would be many of which we could say that they would be much shorter if

they were not so short”.13

13 Kant, Kritik. der reinen Vernunft, 1781 Preface, Ak. B, IV, p. 12.