The idea of God in the philosophy of Spinoza

Pearson, Clive Walter Ingram. (1953). The idea of God in the philosophy of Spinoza M.A. Thesis, School of History, Philosophy, Religion, and Classics, The University of Queensland.

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Author Pearson, Clive Walter Ingram.
Thesis Title The idea of God in the philosophy of Spinoza
School, Centre or Institute School of History, Philosophy, Religion, and Classics
Institution The University of Queensland
Publication date 1953
Thesis type M.A. Thesis
Total pages 66
Language eng
Subjects 220315 Philosophy of Religion
Formatted abstract

At the dedication of the statue cf Spinoza at the Hague, Renan said, "The cultivated traveller passing by this spot will say the truest vision ever had of God cane perhaps here. Time has proved that Renan was wrong. There have been few of the world's cultivated travellers to stand in awe before the God of Spinoza, Either the vision seemed to pass beyond the bounds of what men could believe to be the truth about God, or it fell short of the ideals of established religion. In the first case the cultivated traveller came to regard Spinoza as the "God Intoxicated", in the second as "that famous atheist". Within his own lifetime he was regarded as the destroyer of all established religion and morality, and the Ethics itself could not safely be published while he was alive. In the eighteenth century the grand a priori method of argument repelled the sceptical as the apparent subversion of Christian Theology repelled the devout; and even after Goethe awaked the first genuine admiration for him Spinoza remained the victim of his own originality and depth of vision.           

The cardinal fact which almost all comprehensive treatises on Spinoza have failed to acknowledge is that the double aspect within the vision of God is due solely to the prior notions of interpreters. The very fault that Spinoza sought to overcome in the construction of his philosophy has been brought to the fore in its interpretation That is that there has been the tendency first to propound an interpretation of Spinoza's general conceptions and in the light of that to read the several parts of the philosophy; in this way the difficulties and contradictions of various incomplete conceptions of God have become embedded in the broader visions of Spinoza's. He himself has been the victim of what he called the 'superstitious theology' — a theology compounded solely by man's habits of interpreting all things by his likes and dislikes.           

Criticism of the superstitious theology was not new to philosophy. Xenophonas had raised an objection to it at a much more elementary level than Spinoza when, he drew attention to the fact, as he put it, that "Homer and Hesoid have ascribed to the gods all things that are a shame and a disgrace among mortals. Yes, and if oxen or horses or lions had hands and could paint with their hands and produce works of art as men do, horses would paint the faces of gods like horses, and oxen like oxen, and make their bodies in the images of their several kinds. The Ethiopians make their gods black and snub-nosed, the Thracians say theirs have blue eyes and red hair" ------ (Burnet : Early Greek Philosophy pp. 116-121)         

 It is the double aspect of this superstitious theology that has been the greatest stumbling block to the true appreciation of a philosophy whose vision is framed within the one supposition that God is finally intelligible to human minds. For on the one hand men have felt that in the deepest sense the nature of God is unknowable by finite creatures such as themselves. They have felt that here we 'see through a glass darkly', and have turned aside from any expectation that they might 'think God's thought after him'. The warning of Goethe has sounded in their ears that here they might be transcending the condition under which alone knowledge is possible thereby becoming as wise as little children who, having looked into the mirror, turn round to see what is behind.           

Yet on the other hand the exigencies of our thinking have repeatedly obliged us to symbolise that nature under some image that has real meaning for us. Even Goethe in his story of Doctor Faustus put into the heart of Margaret the yearning for a concrete symbol that she could recognise as her God.           

Interpreters have applied deeply ingrained and perhaps unconscious notions in this regard to Spinoza's conception of God, and in doing so have sacrificed clearly defined conceptions for illegitimate symbols which in no way depend on any clear idea of divinity.         

The inevitable result of thronging discussion in which everything is called into question is that ancient symbols, valuable as they may be in a particular situation, are shorn of their value as significant ideas: as substituting a more easily comprehensible formula, they have indeed been frittering away the Idea of God.              

Difficulty of conception increases with complexity of detail within the object of thought (e.g. idea of orange, idea of town), and it is at this point that the tendency arises to seek refuge in the symbolic. Here there is the double danger both that the symbol might encourage carelessness of the significance of the original idea (e.g. when a globe with a few terrestrial attributes does duty as a symbol for the world itself), and that illegitimate symbols might be framed answering to nothing in heaven or earth. As Hocking says atheism may be truer than many a florid religiosity whose God is but a 'surfeited agglomeration of lauditory epithets'. But atheism discards the one hopeful element i.e. that God may furnish the solution to the dilemma, and that the Idea of God may bring all things to their real meaning.           

For although one may be said to have an idea of an object when he can recognise it, it is also true that ideas do not always accomplish such an infallible identification of their object. Indeed it is true that most ideas of actual things have doubtful boundaries (i.e. as idea of river, idea of creek). Now as in these individual cases it must be that the power of perfect definition, where it is present, is conferred on the object by the idea and not on the idea by the object, so it is that the significance of any idea must lie within the idea itself i.e. its truth and adequacy will depend upon the inner coherence of meaning that the idea is at any time able to direct towards any other idea or any object.           

This is also true of the Idea of God. In other words to be significant it is not necessary that the Idea should derive its meaning from any particular image that may happen from time to time to be associated with it. But the Idea must contain within itself a perfect coherence of meaning, and impart to any other Idea or any object to which it is directed the fullness of meaning that the object may have. In this sense alone is God the goal of philosophy so that as Seth says 'to see all things in God would be to understand all things perfectly; to see anything in that light would be to see all things as they truly are', (Seth: Ethical Principles p. 405).            

I can be said to have a clear Idea of God in this sense only in so far as the Idea of God is not connected in ray mind with any particular image or images but stands for a concept or notion which is logically connected with other ideas exactly as the concept of a three-angled figure is logically connected with the idea of a three-sided figure.             

Most of the remarks charging Spinoza either with "Atheism" or "God Intoxication" have failed to appreciate the exclusive logical significance of Spinoza's concepts. Those that penned them have lapsed when thinking into the figurative use of language and have come to accept as true attributes of God which do not depend on any clearly defined conception of divinity.           

It was Spinoza's contention that if certainty is ever to be achieved in philosophy the vocabulary must be formed of words which are logical counters of purely intellectual significance, words which stand in this sense for clear and distinct ideas.           

He made this distinction between pure logical thinking and confused association of ideas the foundation of his system. At every stage in the Ethics, particularly in the section on God, he insists that his words must never be understood in their figurative sense, but only in the special sense given to them by the definitions. God is to be conceived, since he is essentially outside experience, by an effort of pure thought. In the capacity so to think lies the only hope for consistency in philosophy and only in so far as we exercise such thought is it possible to frame a true and adequate idea.           

But Spinoza could also see that the difficulty proved to be that having once established their superstitious idea of God based on imagination, men were too conceited to abandon it when it failed to agree with other facts; and they finally erected their own ignorance into a God. Rather than destroy the whole fabric of their reason in face of palpable contradictions it was easier for them to affirm as an axiom that God's judgments far transcend human understanding. As Spinoza says in the Ethics, "It is easier for them to affirm the insoluble character of this and other problems than to pull down the whole construction and think out a new one". (Roth: Spinoza and Descartes, Chapter 2).           

Spinoza set himself to build the new thought construction which, unlike the superstitious theology could adequately conceive the idea of God. He claimed that such a conception may have been concealed from the human race for all eternity, if mathematics had not furnished another standard of verity in considering solely the essence and property of figures without regard to final causes which in the end are human figments attributing imagination to God himself and thus detracting from his perfection.             

The original title of Spinoza's principal work was 'Ethics Demonstrated in the Geometrical Order'. What he noted was that in geometry everything was based on the fundamental conceptions of space and quantity and the whole context of the science seemed to flow by rigid logical necessity from the definitions and axioms relating to that conception. By applying the method to the philosophical problem he hoped to obtain for the truths of philosophy the same necessity of sequence so that the outcome of the method in the Idea of God would be to say that all things flow from the nature of God with the same timeless necessity as that which the properties of a triangle eternally flow from its nature.            

Now to the whole method Caird, for one, has raised a basal objection. In his 'Spinoza' he claims that there is no reason simply in the Idea of space why triangle, circle, or any other shape should ever arise in it. Neither their objects nor their relations are the necessary product of the fundamental conception; and for this reason there is no valid logical explanation for the application of the method by which they are conceived to a philosophical system in which Idea of Being is substituted for Idea of Space.          

But here as elsewhere Caird has missed Spinoza's point in the adoption of the method. The fact is that whatever the fundamental conception may be it must be such that the idea of circle and triangle could arise in it. Once the idea of triangle is established the one thing known is that the nature of space is such that the idea of triangle could arise in it. To say that there is no reason in the conception of bare space why any particular shape should be formed in it, is to say nothing. On the other hand to say that bare space is such that a particular shape can and does arise in it is to give expression to the nature of space. For only thus can the geometer hope to make the idea of space in any way intelligible to human reason.           

And it was from the nature of Being as revealed that Spinoza set out to establish by application of the geometrical method, the nature of Being as such. Thus rendered intelligible that nature will reveal every particular thing as its necessary expression under one or several aspects.           

There have been further objections that. Spinoza departs from the method in beginning with God. Now it is true that in order of discovery the final definitions could come first. But although good fortune may discover the final definition so early in the inquiry it is only after all the propositions have been formulated that it can be determined whether the idea is indeed an integral part of the system. At any rate all that the geometrical order requires is that the axioms and definitions should come first in order of presentation. Spinoza could no more have educed all the propositions of the Ethics from the axioms without the prior conception of God than Pythagoras could have educed his theorem from the definitions of line and angle without the prior conceptions of a right-angled triangle. Yet the line and angle are the necessary means for the analytical demonstration of triangle as the axioms of the Ethics are the necessary means for the demonstration of Spinoza's whole system of metaphysics; and therefore for his Idea of God. From the point of view of method God is the subject of the final definition. Thus only when sufficient attention is given to the first axioms and the rigid unfolding of the geometrical method in the construction of the propositions and definitions is the true significance of the Idea of God made evident.            

This essay contends that adoption of the geometer's method of conceiving space has proved in the Philosophy of Spinoza to be the most adequate way of rendering intelligible the Idea of God; and that the Idea thus set forth bids fair to stand as the model of truth. 

Keyword God

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