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Human beings, for example, are finite substances, while God is a special substance which is infinite and eternal.

In fact, Descartes thought that each human being was composed of two substances: a mind, which has the principal attribute of thought; and a body, which has the principal attribute of extension, or physicality. This view famously leads to the difficult question of how these different substances could interact, known as the "mind-body problem".

The philosophical terminology of substance, attribute and mode makes all this sound rather technical and abstract. But Cartesian metaphysics represents a way of thinking about the world, and also about ourselves, shared by most ordinary people. We see our world as populated by discrete objects, individual things — this person over here, that person over there; this computer on the table; that tree outside, and the squirrel climbing its trunk; and so on. These individual beings have their own characteristics, or properties: size, shape, colour, etc.

They might be hot or cold, quiet or noisy, still or in motion, and such qualities can be more or less changeable.

Spinoza, Benedict de: Metaphysics | Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

This way of conceptualising reality is reflected in the structure of language: nouns say what things are, adjectives describe how they are, and verbs indicate their actions, movements and changing states. The familiar distinction between nouns, adjectives and verbs provides an approximate guide to the philosophical concepts of substance, mode and attribute. If, as Spinoza argues, there is only one substance — God — which is infinite, then there can be nothing outside or separate from this God.

Precisely because God is a limitless, boundless totality, he must be an outsideless whole, and therefore everything else that exists must be within God.


Of course, these finite beings can be distinguished from God, and also from one another — just as we can distinguish between a tree and its green colour, and between the colour green and the colour blue. But we are not dealing here with the distinction between separate substances that can be conceived to exist independently from one another. Again, this is rather abstract. As Aristotle suggested, we cannot think without images, and I find it helpful to use the image of the sea to grasp Spinoza's metaphysics.

The ocean stands for God, the sole substance, and individual beings are like waves — which are modes of the sea. Each wave has its own shape that it holds for a certain time, but the wave is not separate from the sea and cannot be conceived to exist independently of it. Of course, this is only a metaphor; unlike an infinite God, an ocean has boundaries, and moreover the image of the sea represents God only in the attribute of extension.

But maybe we can also imagine the mind of God — that is to say, the infinite totality of thinking — as like the sea, and the thoughts of finite beings as like waves that arise and then pass away. Spinoza's world view brings to the fore two features of life: dependence and connectedness.

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Each wave is dependent on the sea, and because it is part of the sea it is connected to every other wave. The movements of one wave will influence all the rest. To German romantics like the poet Novalis, he was "a God intoxicated man", while Goethe called him simply theissimus, 'most theistic'. So what was Spinoza's attitude to God? Certainly no one who read his work thoroughly could argue that he held a traditional theistic conception of a divine being, the providential God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. In the Ethics, his philosophical masterpiece, Spinoza says that God is 'immanent' in nature, not some supernatural entity beyond the world.

But does this mean that we can describe him as a pantheist, as someone who believes that God is revealed in every aspect of the natural world that lies around us?

Why Spinoza still matters

This was certainly a popular interpretation. More recently, this interpretation also appears in both the scholarly literature and popular representations of Spinoza's thought. In the recently published Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy we read that "Spinoza is the most distinguished pantheist in Western philosophy". But the problem with calling Spinoza a 'pantheist' is that pantheism is still a kind of theism.

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For while atheists and pantheists might agree that ontologically there is nothing else to the world but nature, they would part company when the pantheist goes on to insist that the identification of God with nature makes it appropriate to hold the religious psychological attitudes demanded by theism. In effect, the pantheist who asserts that 'God is nature' is divinising nature and claiming that the world is in some sense holy or sacred, and that therefore one's attitude towards nature must be akin to a religious experience. Nature is properly regarded with worshipful awe, perhaps even fear and dread.

Spinoza's God - Right Under Your Nose

Atheists disagree. While they too may at least in terminology if not in substance identify God with the natural world, in so doing they are not divinising nature but naturalising God. They see no justification for regarding nature or the world with anything like worshipful awe. They may, of course, still fear nature and its destructive forces, or admire its awesome beauty. But this is very different from religious fear and awe in the face of the inscrutable and ineffable divine, and very different from the spirit of Spinoza's philosophy.

Spinoza does not believe that worshipful awe is an appropriate attitude to take before God or nature. There is nothing holy or sacred about nature, and it is certainly not the object of a religious experience. Instead, one should strive to understand God or nature, with the kind of adequate or clear and distinct intellectual knowledge that reveals nature's most important truths and shows how everything depends essentially and existentially on higher natural causes. The latter give rise only to superstitious behaviour and subservience to ecclesiastic authorities; the former leads to enlightenment, freedom and true blessedness i.

Spinoza’s God

To be sure, Spinoza is at times capable of language that seems deeply religious. In the Ethics, he says that "we feel and know by experience that we are eternal", and that virtue and perfection are accompanied by a "love of God amor Dei ". But such phrases are not to be given their traditional religious meaning.