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Was Spinoza Actually An Atheist?

Kenneth Novis says the case hinges on how you define ‘God’.

Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677), lens-grinder and part-time philosophical genius, lived a deeply tumultuous life. He was afflicted not only by grinding poverty (sorry) but also by spiritual alienation. In 1656 he was expelled by his synagogue and the Sephardic community of Amsterdam shunned him for his heretical views, including his denial of the immortality of the soul and of the divine provenance of Scripture. Despite this, Spinoza is best remembered today as a tolerant pantheist, deeply devoted to his God. However, in his celebrated 1930 book Spinoza’s Critique of Religion, the Chicago political philosopher Leo Strauss (1899-1973) – himself Jewish – posed a question to interpreters of Spinoza which continues to incite vigorous debate today. Despite his veneer of reverence for God, could Spinoza have actually been an atheist?

At a first glance, the case to be made for Spinoza’s atheism is a patently weak one. In his posthumously published magnum opus, the Ethics (1677), a substantial portion of the first part is devoted to demonstrating God’s existence. Furthermore, the work’s conclusion is that the good life is nothing other than the intellectual love of God (amor dei intellectualis). This seems pretty compelling evidence that Spinoza believed in God.

The case becomes significantly complicated, however, once we expand our analysis of Spinoza to encompass his other works and the conceptual machinations that undergird his arguments in the Ethics. This is the approach taken by the German Ludwig Feuerbach (1804-1872), who preceded Strauss in arguing for the existence of a hidden, secret doctrine in Spinoza’s works.

Perhaps Spinoza’s most memorable catchphrase which readers seize upon when reading the Ethics is ‘God, or Nature’ (Deus sive Natura). Its purpose is to establish that by ‘nature’ what we’ve really meant all along was ‘God’. However, Feuerbach keenly recognised the unsettling implications at play here. In his yet untranslated History of Modern Philosophy from Bacon to Spinoza (1833), he writes of Spinoza that “Not ‘God, or Nature’, but ‘either God, or Nature’ is the watchword of truth” (“ Nicht ‘Deus sive Natura’, sondern ‘Aut Deus, aut Natura’ ist die Parole der Wahrheit”).

Why does Feuerbach think that Spinoza equating God with nature leads to the destruction of God? God, as a supernatural entity, is usually understood in terms of his defiance of the natural order. But if God is just another name for the natural order, then there is nothing transmundane in existence.

However, something recognisably theistic might still be retrieved from Spinoza’s account, if he were willing to ascribe to the universe personal qualities such as intentionality or will. In this way, even if God just is nature, at least something of what we typically mean when we say ‘God’ could still be said of nature.

Nature or God?

In equating God and nature, there can be no doubt that nature takes the dominant role for Spinoza, since he eliminates from reality everything which could not be said of nature but which might otherwise be said of God. For instance, he is very careful in insisting that nature itself lacks any purposive attitudes, and that these are introduced by human superstition:

“All the prejudices I here undertake to expose depend on this one: that men commonly suppose that all natural things act, as men do, on account of an end; indeed, they maintain as certain that God himself directs all things to some certain end, for they say that God has made all things for man, and man that he might worship God.”
(The Ethics, Part 1, Appendix)

There is little to recognise in Spinoza’s God of such popular theistic characteristics as purpose or intention. Even so, lack of purpose alone is still insufficient to remove God from Spinoza’s ontology. For instance, it may be the case for Spinoza, as for some religions, that God is amoral, lacks purposes, and that human beings play no special role in its grand designs (if indeed any such designs there be).

Furthermore, the ‘esoteric’ reader of Spinoza must contend with the fact that Spinoza divides nature between two levels – those of natura naturans (‘nature naturing’) and natura naturata (‘nature natured’) – only one of which is the divine Substance in its own element. Simply put, if by ‘nature’ we mean only the material world of subatomic particles, quantum fields, and natural laws, clearly Spinoza is no atheist, if only because this material world makes up only half of nature on Spinoza’s account, and there remains the reality of natura naturans, or of divine Substance expressing itself through infinitely many attributes.

The main problems with the atheistic reading of Spinoza, in short, are first, that it is not inconceivable that a theist could well assent to God being as indifferent and inhuman as Spinoza’s nature is, and second, that Spinoza seemingly testifies to a higher reality with which atheists must be uneasy.

Background image © Forestwander 2012 Creative Commons

No More Sad Passions

Fortunately for the atheist camp there are compelling ways of dissolving both worries. In the first case, consider the response of Gilles Deleuze (1925-1995), another prominent ‘esoteric’ reader of Spinoza. Pronouncing Spinoza an atheist, Deleuze qualifies this label as the “denunciation of all ‘sad passions’ (in favour of joy)”. This denunciation is not about countering the mere ability of humans to call whatever they want ‘God’. In that trivial sense, ‘God’ is ineradicable, just because of the arbitrary relation between words and the things they denote. Deleuze also doesn’t mean that a belief in God is itself a sad passion – in Spinoza’s philosophy a sad passion is something that reduces our powers of acting; it perhaps includes debilitating emotions such as despair. Rather, a “denunciation of all ‘sad passions’” means denouncing the conditions of life in which people must believe in God – in something more – in order to find assurance in their existence. Hence here we must take the word ‘God’ in a slightly more maximal sense, to mean a supernatural Creator.

In associating Spinoza’s supposed ‘atheism’ with a “denunciation of all ‘sad passions’”, Deleuze is implicitly taking cues from Karl Marx. As Marx once aptly put it, “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people” (‘A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right’, 1844) – by which Marx meant that religion dupes people into accepting their own opression, often against their own best interests. Similarly, in his Tractatus Theologico-Politicus (1670), Spinoza diagnoses the invention of superstition in the following terms:

“Superstition’s chief victims are those persons who greedily covet temporal advantages; they it is, who (especially when they are in danger, and cannot help themselves) are wont with Prayers and womanish [sic] tears to implore help from God: upbraiding Reason as blind, because she cannot show a sure path to the shadows they pursue, and rejecting human wisdom as vain; but believing the phantoms of imagination, dreams, and other childish absurdities, to be the very oracles of Heaven.”

It is remarkable that, unlike so many of atheism’s proponents today, Spinoza’s purpose is not to rebuke the theist and thereby inflate his own ego. Instead, Spinoza declares his motive to be “not to laugh at human actions, not to weep at them, nor to hate them, but to understand them”. Evidently, Spinoza’s opposition to ‘sad passions’ is indicative of a philosophy whose purpose is not to mock earnest believers but to find the utmost sympathy with the oppressed, and to strive with them to rebuild a reality without these passions and their sources.

This declaration of Spinoza’s humanistic anti-superstitious scepticism faces one last point of contention before it can be called evidence for his atheism. He might believe that people turn towards superstition mainly to cope with their own material immiseration, while maintaining at the same time that this belief points towards something true. Put another way, his proto-Marxist critique of religion only serves to explain why people believe in God, not to deduce whether or not there is a God in the first place. To answer this latter question, more details must be sought in Spinoza’s writings.

A Natural Split

The practice of separating nature between natura naturans and natura naturata first appears in Spinoza’s intellectual career between 1660-1662, with his composition of the Short Treatise, itself a first draft of the Ethics. In the Ethics, Spinoza explains that natura naturans (nature naturing) is the reality of divine Substance and the infinitely many attributes which constitute its essence, whereas natura naturata (nature natured) is the reality of concrete things, from the bricks in your house (which are'finite modes') all the way down to the fundamental laws of nature (which are 'immediate infinite modes'), which come into existence as determinate expressions of the attributes of the one Substance of reality. However, whether Spinoza maintains the separation between natura naturans and natura naturata across his career matters for an atheistic reading of his work. A naturalistic picture of reality, such as an atheist is likely to endorse, will not ordinarily include another, essentially different, level of reality above that of natural science and the laws of nature. However, natura naturans is just such an extra level. But nothing of the distinction is present in his 1670 Tractatus Theologico-Politicus. In fact, quite the opposite, since here he affirms that “the statement ‘All things happen according to the laws of nature’ and the statement ‘All happenings are ordered according to the decree and guidance of God’ are two ways of expressing a single truth.”

Spinoza manuscript
A manuscript page showing Spinoza’s beautiful handwriting

That the distinction between these two levels of natural creation disappears for a period in Spinoza’s career is therefore of critical importance to whether the esoteric reading is true. This seemingly minor change in thinking is both surprising and highly elucidatory of Spinoza’s intellectual development. Among those who study him, Spinoza is well known for the incredible precision with which he uses language. This pithiness has led to entire interpretations of Spinoza being rejected on account of their proponents failing to account for things as apparently minor as his use of a certain adjective. Were this doctrinal biographical oddity present in the works of any other philosopher, it would be broadly negligible, hardly the grounds on which to base any claims of an esoteric doctrine. But because it is Spinoza of whom we are speaking, an explanation is desirable.

In his lifetime Spinoza published only two books: the Principles of Cartesian Philosophy and the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus. The Ethics and several other shorter works, such as the Treatise on the Emendation of the Intellect, were all discovered and published after his death by his followers. Of the two works published during his own life, only the first was printed in Spinoza’s own name. Despite this, authorship of the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus was quickly traced to him, and he thereafter acquired the reputation of being a dangerous atheist, especially among those who had deigned to read the work. Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716), a contemporary of Spinoza, described the book with the Latin ‘ male’, meaning ‘evil’.

Spinoza was very wary of religious persecution. He opted to publish the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus anonymously largely because of his previous experiences of it, not only at the hands of the Sephardic community that expelled him, but also as it was wreaked upon his friend Adriaan Koerbagh in 1668 for espousing similar views. In light of this knowledge, sense can be made of what philosopher André Tosel refers to as “the operation of ‘ sive’”. The Latin ‘ sive’, at use in Spinoza’s epigram ‘ Deus sive Natura’, plays the rhetorical function, Tosel argues, of forming an esoteric register whose purpose was to deceive censors and religious detractors. The disappearance of the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus’ naturalism in the later Ethics, and the reappearance there of the distinction between natura naturans and natura naturata, would on this reading, be to hoodwink theist readers, under the cipher of the ‘ sive’. But in Spinoza’s ‘God, or Nature’, nature plays the determining role. Why then was it necessary to introduce the name of ‘God’ at all? Perhaps it was just to speak his message in words which would be listened to by his contemporaries. This message – deduced by Leibniz – was only ever that “there is no happiness other than the tranquillity of a life here below content with its own lot” (Two Sects of Naturalists, 1680).

For Spinoza, speaking the language of theism was overall the only available route towards obtaining an audience; and what the most vigilant among this audience heard, piercing as they did through Spinoza’s merely nominal references to God, was the deepest of all atheisms. It was an atheism which sought to argue not only for the non-existence of a personal God, but for the fault of statesmen in having made a world where belief in God was necessary for human happiness.

© Kenneth Novis 2022

Kenneth Novis is a postgraduate student at the University of Edinburgh who specialises in Spinoza and the history of French philosophy.

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