Classical Modern Philosophy
Spinoza, Ethics, Part I: Themes After Prop. 14

Spinoza Part I: Freedom Etc.

Some chief doctrines from the Ethics after p14.

1. God is free, and is the only free thing

p17: acts from the laws of his own nature. Nothing outside him can compel him to act. So (corr. 2) “God alone is a free cause,” according to S’s definition of freedom.

He’s not free in the sense that he could act differently. Everything that follows from his nature follows necessarily; for God to act differently is as absurd as for a triangle’s angles not to sum to 180.

2. Determinism

p29: “In Nature there is nothing contingent.” So everything that happens happens of necessity: it’s all just like the angles of the triangle summing to 180.

The only reason we think things are contingent is our ignorance of the causes of some things. p33 note 1: “a thing cannot be called contingent unless with reference to a deficiency in our knowledge.”
(There are two kinds of necessity: things can be necessitated from within or from without. “A thing is called necessary either in reference to its essence or its cause.” To be necessary in reference to one’s essence is to be free; to be necessitated by an external cause is to be unfree. So freedom is just a certain kind of necessity.)

So although there is such a thing as freedom, there is no such thing as free will. p32: “The will cannot be called a free cause.” p32 cor. 1: “God does not act from freedom of the will.” If the only free being doesn’t have free will, nothing does!

3. Against final causes (= purposes) in nature (Appendix to Part I)

(i) Why do people believe that there are final causes in nature?

(a) they think that they are free because they have wishes and appetites (i.e. they have purposes) and they don’t know what the causes of these wishes and appetites are (the causes of human behavior are shrouded in mystery). [Note that this view is pretty much the same as B. F. Skinner’s view that the belief in autonomy is due to ignorance of the real causes of behavior.]

(b) so we see ourselves acting for purposes, and this is the only sort of understanding of our behavior we have. If we want to understand something else, then, and don’t know its causes, we appeal to the sort of explanation we’re familiar with and extend it to the new realm.

(c) since things sometimes help or hinder us in getting what we want (in attaining our purposes), we come to think of all of nature as having as its purpose the satisfaction (or thwarting?) or our desires or purposes.

But this “seems to end in showing that Nature, the gods, and man are alike mad.” (p. 165)

“Do but see, I pray, to what all this has led.” Moving passage; S. seems to lose a little of his equanimity here.

Our only clue to the right sort of explanation is mathematics.

(ii) But in fact there are no final causes in nature.

(iii) Dangers in the view that there are (p. 167f):

We evaluate things in terms of how good or bad they are for us. This is inevitable and OK, as long as we don’t project these qualities of good and bad onto nature itself. But when we do that, we (a) can’t understand nature, and (b) are faced with bogus worries like the problem of evil. Things need to be evaluated in themselves, not with reference to our puny purposes.

Last update: February 9, 2009
Curtis Brown  |  Classical Modern Philosophy   |  Philosophy Department  |   Trinity University