Tuesday, 5 March 2013

Week 7. Spinoza, Stoicism, Determinism

(The following post is by Alex Douglas.)

Spinoza rarely discusses Stoicism directly. He occasionally quotes from Seneca, Epictetus, and other Stoics, but only as often as he quotes from Tacitus, Curtius, or Aristotle. That Spinoza read Aristotle in some detail has been fairly well established by Frédéric Manzini in Spinoza une lecture d’Aristote. There is no similar evidence that Spinoza read any Stoic philosophers in much detail. Spinoza did not identify with the Neo-Stoic movement, nor, as far as I know, did he even mention it.

I propose that 1) Spinoza, for the most part, disagrees with characteristic Stoic views concerning fate and determinism, and 2) there are far more likely sources of Spinoza’s determinism than the Stoic literature.

1. Stoic Fate and Providence

The Stoics tended to believe that nature is providential. E.g.:

...ipsius vero mundi, qui omnia conplexu suo coërcet et continet, natura non artificiosa solum sed plane artifex ab eodem Zenone dicitur, consultrix et provida utilitatum opportunitatumque omnium.
[...the nature of the world itself, which encloses and contains all things in its embrace, is said by Zeno not only to be like an artificer but really to be an artificer – a prescient provider for the interests and advantages of all things.]
(De Natura Deorum II.xii.58)

This is the kind of claim Spinoza seems to reject in the Appendix to the Part I of the Ethics. Thus A.A. Long:

The Stoics take their cosmic divinity to be identical not only to causality or fate but also to providence, and they take the world, as caused and instantiated by God, to be supremely good, beautiful, and designedly conducive to the benefit of its human inhabitants. Spinoza, by contrast, regards it as an egregious error to suppose, as he puts it, ‘that God himself directs all things to some certain end’

Indeed, Spinoza writes to Oldenburg that the qualities the Stoics typically identify with nature are not its objective qualities at all. Rather, when we ascribe such qualities to nature we are expressing our own feelings:

…me Naturae non tribuere pulchritudinem, deformitatem, ordinem, neque confusionem. Nam res non, nisi respectivè ad nostram imaginationem, possunt dici pulchrae, aut deformes, ordinatae, aut confusae.
[I attribute to Nature neither beauty nor deformity, neither order nor confusion. For things cannot, except relative to our imagination, be called beautiful, deformed, orderly, or confused.]
(Letter 32, G IV.170)

This is not to say that there is no notion of providence in Spinoza’s thinking. In the Short Treatise Spinoza explains providence (Voorzienigheid) as coming in two forms: general (algemeene) and special (bezondere):

...de algemeene is die, door de welke ieder zaak voortgebragt en onderhouden word voor zoo veel zy zyn deelen van de geheele Natuur. De bezondere Voorzienigheid is die poginge, die ieder ding bezonder tot het bewaaren van syn wezen heeft, voor zoo veel ze niet als een deel van de Natuur, maar als een geheel aangemerkt word. Het welke met dit navolgende exempel verklaart word: Alle de leeden van de mensch worden voorzien ende voorzorgt, voor zoo veel zy deelen van de mensch zyn, het welk de algemeene Voorzienigheid is: en de bezondere is die poginge, die ieder bezonder lit (als een geheel, en geen deel van de mensch) tot het bewaaren en onderhouden van syn eigen welstand heeft.
[General [providence] is that through which all things are produced and sustained insofar as they are parts of the whole of Nature. Special providence is the striving that each thing has to retain its being, considered not as a part of Nature but rather regarded as a whole. This is explained by the following example: all the limbs of a man are provided and cared for insofar as they are parts of the man. This is general providence, while special [providence] is the striving of each individual limb (as a whole and not as a part of the man) to preserve and maintain its own wellbeing.]
(Short Treatise I.v, G I.40)

There is a sense in which Spinoza believes in general providence reigning in nature, but this is still defined in terms of the particular ends of individual things, not in terms of some end pursued by nature as a whole. Still, Spinoza believes there to be an intimate interconnectedness in nature, which may be associated with the Stoic way of thinking, which Frede describes as follows:

The heavenly motions are ruled by the same principles that operate on earth: All of nature is administered by the supreme divine reason, and hence there is a global teleological determinism that the Stoics identified with fate. The omnipotence of the active principle explains the Stoic conception of an overall sumpatheia within nature, an inner connection between seemingly quite disparate events. Divination, the study of divine signs and portents, is therefore treated as a science in Stoicism rather than as superstition.

Spinoza has some notion of sumpatheia:

Per partium igitur cohaerentiam nihil aliud intelligo, quàm quòd leges, sive natura unius partis ità sese accommodat legibus, sive naturae alterius, ut quàm minimè sibi contrarientur. Circa totum, & partes considero res eatenus, ut partes alicujus totius, quatenus carum natura invicem se accommodat, ut, quoad fieri potest, inter se consentiant, quatenus verò inter se discrepant, eatenus unaquaeque ideam ab aliis distinctam in nostrâ Mente format, ac proinde, ut totum, non ut pars, consideratur.
[By the coherence of parts, therefore, I understand simply that the laws or nature of one part accommodate themselves to the laws or nature of another, so as to be minimally conflicting. As for whole and parts, I consider things to be parts of some whole insofar as the nature of each of them accommodates itself to that of the others so that they agree among themselves, as far as this is possible. On the other hand, insofar as they disagree among themselves, each of them forms a distinct idea in our Mind, and to this extent is considered as a whole not as a part.]
(Letter 32, G IV.170)

As for divination, in his letter to Pieter Balling Spinoza argues that:

...dico, omnes imaginationis effectùs, quae à corporeis causis procedunt, nunquam rerum futurarum posse esse omina; quia eorundem causae nullas res futuras involvunt. Sed verò imaginationis effectûs, vel imagines, quae originem suam ab Mentis constitutione ducunt, possunt alicujus rei futurae esse omina; quia Mens aliquid, quod futurum est, confusè potest praesentire.
[I say that all the effects of the imagination, proceeding from corporeal causes, can never be omens of future things, since their causes involve no future things. But indeed the effects of the imagination, or images, which have their origin in the constitution of the mind can be omens of some future thing, since the mind can have a confused premonition of something that is to come.]
(Letter 17, G I.77)

He says similar things in his comments on Prophecy in the first few chapters of the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus. But note that, for Spinoza, part and whole are mere beings of reason:

...deel en geheel geen waare of dadelyke wezens zyn, maar alleen wezens van reeden en dienvolgende en zyn in de Natuur nog geheel nog deelen.
[Part and whole are not true or actual beings, but merely beings of reason, and thus there is in Nature neither whole nor parts.]
(Short Treatise I.ii, G I.24)

This is one reason why Spinoza refuses to ascribe any character to nature as a whole – he does not believe such a whole to exist as a thing distinct from its parts. The one substance, of which all natural things are modes, is certainly not a whole composed of them, as anybody who reads the Ethics must know, for that substance is said repeatedly to have no parts (I.P12, 13, 15, etc.). Thus the ‘whole of nature’, taken as the collection of all the modes, is not substance. Nor is it anything real at all; it is a mere being of reason. By contrast, the Stoics, if I understand them rightly, reify the whole of nature and give it its own characteristic qualities. They also regard it as pursuing its own ends, as distinct from the various and sometimes competing ends of natural things.

2. Spinoza and Reformed Natural Theology

For Spinoza, special providence is the separate striving of each individual thing, while general providence is the way in which each thing is sustained in the system of nature as a whole. But there is another kind of general providence which he is keen to repudiate, whereby each individual thing, in striving for itself, serves a grander purpose. This was a common view in the natural theology tradition pursued by many Reformed theologians in the Dutch Republic, such as Gijsbert Voet (Voetius) and Martin Schoock. Schoock, in discussing the end (finis) of each natural thing comments:

The finis must be considered in two ways: absolutely or relatively. The first way coincides with physical perfection. For a natural body is thought to be physically perfected when it is so disposed as is sufficient for [it to perform] all natural operations appropriate to its species.
...Relatively however, the finis here bears not only on the absolutely ultimate end (finis) or God’s glory, to which all natural things, even the very smallest, are subjected, but also on the mutual end (finis) of natural bodies themselves, which are ordered by a most wise God in a way that they mutually benefit each other both in their being and in their operation. And here, as a centre of Nature, stands man, whom all other natural things are adapted to serve.

Thus there is both special and general providence in Spinoza’s sense and also the ‘ultimate end’ of God’s glory.
Schoock and Voetius were inspired by Late Scholastic philosophers, especially Suarez, and by Protestant natural theologians such as Lambert Danaeu and Hieronymus Zanchius. Both of these groups believed that each thing, in striving for itself, contributed to the overall purpose of nature, which was to render the world orderly and beautiful, and thus to reveal God’s greatness to humanity.
In the course of arguing for substantial forms, for example, Suarez claims that the primary reason for believing in them is their purpose, which is not only their own perfection but also their contribution to the overall perfection of nature:

…ought to be taken from the end of the substantial form, which is to constitute and complete the essence of a natural being. This end or effect is absolutely necessary in the nature of things. Otherwise nothing among physical things would be complete and perfect in its own substantial nature, nor would there be the multitude and variety of substantial species which chiefly constitutes the wonderful order and beauty of the physical world.

Natural things serve man not only by tending to his physical needs, but also, in being themselves admirably provided for, by revealing God’s greatness to humankind. This brings about a worshipful attitude in us that will lead to our salvation. Thus Danaeus’ discussion of the creation is as follows:

…What cause moved God specially to make this worlde, hee himselfe lacking nothing, and dwelling in that everlastinge felicitie, unto which there can bee no encrease of felicitie & immortalitie added, by meanes of al this gret woorke?
…Even his mere goodness, that is to saye, his moste loving good will to communicate the same his felicitie unto certeine thinges, so farre foorth as the nature of those thinges whiche bee created, was able to receive the same. Wherefore, hee created Angels in heaven, and men upon the earth, to the intent hee might make them, after a sort, companions and partakers of his felicitie, being himself most good, moste loving, moste perfect, and also in himselfe and through himselfe most perfectly and wholly blessed.…Wherefore, like as it is written in the 3.chapter to Titus, the 4.verse, that the mere goodness of GOD was the cause of mans salvation: so was it also the cause of mans creation. And if it were the cause of men, doubtlesse it was also the cause of the creation of all other thinges.

The salvation of man was the cause (presumably the final cause) of the creation of all things.
This natural theological tradition existed, to a certain extent, within all Christian confessions. But it was emphasized especially by the Dutch Reformed church. The Belgic Confession, for example, asserts that we know God:

...by the creation, preservation, and government of the universe, since that universe is before our eyes like a beautiful book in which all creatures, great and small, are as letters to make us ponder the invisible things of God: his eternal power and his divinity, as the apostle Paul says in Romans 1:20.

I find it very likely that this is the view Spinoza is particularly directing his arguments against in Ethics I.App. Those among Spinoza’s immediate neighbours who most loudly ‘say that God has made all things for man, and man that he might worship God’ are the Reformed theologians working in the natural theology tradition.

It is very important for understanding Spinoza’s position to understand that Cartesian natural philosophy was regarded by Voetius and his allies as hostile to this natural theological tradition. Teachers of Cartesian physics, such as Johannes De Raey in Leiden, were keen to deny this. Therefore it is extremely important that in Spinoza’s geometrical presentation of Descartes’ Principles, a work that began with tutorials that Spinoza gave to one of De Raey’s students, he shows precisely how Cartesianism does provide the elements to refute Voetian natural theology.

3. The Cartesian Source of Spinoza’s Determinism

In the first place, Spinoza regards as incoherent the idea that God created the world on account of his goodness. First:

Deus verò dicitur summè bonus, quia omnibus conducit; nempe uniuscujusque esse, quo nihil magis amabile, suo concurs conservando. Malum autem absolutum nullum datur, ut per se est manifestum.
[God is said to be supremely good only because by his concurrence he preserves the being of each thing, than which nothing is more desirable.]
(Metaphysical Thoughts I.vi, G I.248)

This view does not seem to have its sources in Cartesian thought. I strongly suspect it comes from the medieval Scholastic tradition with which Spinoza was very familiar. At any rate, I do not think the idea that a thing’s goodness is to be measured by how much it preserves the being of other things is a Stoic idea.
For Spinoza, God cannot be called good prior to creation, since then there were no things for him to preserve, and ‘a thing considered in itself alone cannot be called either good or bad [rem, si in se solâ consideratur, neque bonam, neque malam posse dici].’ Spinoza goes on:

Hoc autem multis absurdum videbitur; sed quâ ratione nescio; multa enim hujus notae attributa Deo tribuimus, quae antequam res crearentur, ipsi non competebant, nisi potentiâ, ut cùm vocatur creator, judex, misericors &c. Quare similia argumenta moram nobis injicere non debent.
[Many will find this absurd, but for what reason I do not know. For we attribute many attributes of this sort to God that belonged to him only potentially before things were created, as when we call him a creator, a judge, merciful, etc. Thus such arguments should not detain us.]

If God did not create the world on account of his goodness, then, why did he create it? Spinoza’s answer is that natural things exist necessarily, following from God’s nature, as can be seen in the Metaphysical Thoughts, I.iii and II.9. In saying this, Spinoza is going against a classic Scholastic view, expressed, for example, by Scotus:

…the divine will, although it cannot have opposite acts (because it is identical with its volition), yet wills in eternity a stone by one single volition and can will in eternity that there is not a stone or can decline to will that there is a stone. [potest in aeternitate velle lapidem non esse vel potest nolle lapidem esse.]

Franco Burgersdijk, who taught natural philosophy at Leiden and whose textbook was still used during Spinoza’s time, insists on the same point:

God forms the world not from the necessity of his nature, nor by natural emanation, but deliberately and freely, … thus it could not be that he produced creatures necessarily.

Yet Spinoza found Scotus’ view absurd:

Nec dicere possumus, illas esse contingentes, quia Deus aliud decrevisse potuit; nam, cùm in aeternitate non detur quando, nec ante, nec post, neque ulla affectio temporis, sequitur, Deum nunquam ante illa decreta extitisse, ut aliud decernere posset.
[Nor can we say that things are contingent because God could have decreed otherwise. For in eternity there is no when, nor before, nor after, nor any affection of time. It follows that God never existed prior to his decrees so as to be able to decree otherwise.]
(Metaphysical Thoughts I.iii, G I.243)

When Spinoza speaks in his own voice, he also argues that it should be regarded as a perfection in God to be unable to omit doing what he does:

...als wy besluyten, dat God niet heeft konnen nalaten te doen, ’t geene hy gedaan heeft, zoo ontleenen wy dat van syne volmaaktheid, dewyle het in God te konnen nalaten ’t geen hy doet, een onvolmaaktheid zoude zyn, zonder nogtans in God te stellen een minvoornaam-beginnende oorzaak, die hem zounde bewogen hebben tot doen, want als dan en waar hy geen God.
[If we conclude that God could not have omitted to do what he has done, we do so from his perfection, for it would be an imperfection in God to be able to omit what he does. We do not, however, suppose there to be some efficient cause in God that moved him to act, for then he would not be God.]
(Short Treatise I.iv, G I.36)

And the view that all things follow necessarily from God’s nature appears in its mature form in I.P16 of the Ethics. Since God’s existence is also necessary, this means that everything is necessary, thus I.P29:

In rerum natura nullum datur contingens, sed omnia ex necessitate divinae naturae determinata sunt ad certo modo existendum et operandum.
[In nature there is nothing contingent, but everything is determined from the necessity of the divine nature to exist and act in a certain way.]
(Ethics I.P29, G II.70)

But, ostensibly at least, Spinoza first makes this point in the context of an exposition of Descartes. This is some evidence that he believes it to be an implication of Descartes’ arguments. I think he is correct to believe this.

For one thing, as Leibniz notes, I.P16 of Spinoza’s Ethics seems like a development of III.47 of Descartes’ Principles, which can be read as implying that ‘matter must successively assume all the forms of which it is capable’. The latter suggests that every possible material object must exist, at some point, and if this is true then it seems to follow that every material object exists necessarily, taking out of consideration the question of when it comes to exist. While Descartes did not directly link this necessary existence of all material objects to God’s necessary existence, such a link is easy to make on his behalf. For he had asserted that matter must take all possible forms ‘by the operation of [the] laws of nature’, and the laws of nature, on his view, follow necessarily from the nature of God.

More importantly, Descartes clearly implies in the replies to the first objections to the Meditations that it is legitimate to infer from the fact that God has the power to give himself every perfection that he actually possesses every perfection. This implies that God’s power can be assumed to be fully exercised, at least in giving himself perfections. But I.P16 simply makes the same assumption with respect to God’s modes: since God has infinite power to exist in an infinity of modes, he must do so, thus the modes (natural things) exist. Indeed, Principles III.47 suggests that the idea that everything must exercise its full power insofar as it is not restrained is a general axiom for Descartes, applying to matter as well as to God. Spinoza simply draws out the implications of this axiom at Ethics I.P16 (he never explicitly states it; the closest statement is I.P36). But, again, there does not seem to be anything particularly Stoic about this Cartesian line of thinking.

Spinoza undermines the natural theological tradition by arguing that the world is not created by God’s exercise of some elective will, for some particular purpose such as to reveal his goodness. Rather, the world proceeds from God’s existence as a matter of necessity. Everything is because it is necessary, not because it serves some grand purpose. Almost every element of this argument seems to come from Descartes, except for the preliminary argument that God cannot be called good prior to creation, which is not a Stoic view. Stoicism seems, in general, an inferior candidate as the source of Spinoza’s deterministic view.

3. Freedom and Determinism

Perhaps, however, Spinoza’s idea of human agency (rejecting a certain kind of free will) is drawn from the Stoics. He may, perhaps, be espousing a Stoic doctrine in claiming that a person’s actions are simply those that follow from the person’s nature rather than from that of external things (III.Def.2).

Genevieve Lloyd, for example, links this view of human agency to that of Chrysippus. Chrysippus (according to Cicero) compares human agency to a cylinder or a top: ‘these cannot begin to move without being pushed, but when this happens, [Chrysippus] thinks that the cylinder continues to roll and the top to spin by their own nature [suapte natura]’ (De Fato, 42). Likewise, a person acts, rather than being merely passive, when his or her actions, though always prompted by external things, follow from his or her nature.

There are some crucial differences, however, between the two views. The cylinder metaphor somewhat implies that the nature of a thing, according to which it acts, is a merely inertial principle. It causes the thing to continue in whatever motion it has been pushed into by something else. But there are many good reasons to suppose that for Spinoza a thing’s actual essence or nature – its conatus (see Ethics III.P7) – is not merely an inertial principle. Rather, it specifies a mode of acting characteristic of that thing. First, as Jonathan Bennett notes, Spinoza often uses the conatus doctrine to demonstrate propositions according to which people actively seek out their advantage, rather than merely continuing in the state they are in. Secondly, part of the demonstration of the conatus doctrine refers to the fact that ‘singular things ... express, in a certain and determinate way, God’s power, by which God is and acts’. Read in context this very much suggests that the essence of a thing, its fundamental striving, is ‘a certain and determinate way’ of being and of acting, fixed by the thing’s specific nature. This is different from a mere tendency to continue acting in whatever way the thing is prompted to act in by external causes. And, finally, as Manzini notes, IV.P21 explicitly identifies a person’s essence with the desire ‘to live blessedly or well, to act blessedly or well, etc.’: ‘Est enim cupiditas ... beate seu bene vivendi, agendi, etc. ipsa hominis essentia’. Thus a person’s essence specifies one’s natural good as a way of acting and living. This is all to say that Spinoza’s view, to this extent, seems far more Aristotelian than it does Stoic.

There is, however, a potentially Stoic element in Spinoza’s discussion of freedom. Lloyd (and, I think, Sue James) supposes that Spinoza is a Stoic in the sense that he believes true freedom to lie in the acceptance of what is necessary. But this concerns Spinoza’s relation to Stoicism with regard to ethical philosophy, which is not my topic.


Bennett, Jonathan. A Study of Spinoza's Ethics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984.
Burgersdijck, Franco. Institutionum Metaphysicarum. Lugduni Batavorum: Apud Hieronymum de Vogel 1640.
Daneau, Lambert. [Physica Christiana] The Wonderfull Woorkmanship of the World: wherein is conteined an excellent discourse of Christian naturall Philosophie, concernyng the fourme, knowledge, and vse of all thinges created: specially gathered out of the Fountaines of holy Scripture. Translated by Thomas Twyne: Andrew Maunsell: London, 1578.
Frede, Dorothea. ‘Stoic Determinism.’ In The Cambridge Companion to the Stoics, edited by Brad Inwood, 179-205. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.
Leibniz, Gottfried Wilhelm. ‘Comments on Spinoza's Philosophy (1707).’ In Philosophical Essays, edited by Roger Ariew and Daniel Garber, 272-281. Indianapolis: Hackett Pub. Co., 1989.
Long, A. A. ‘Stoicism in the Philosophical Tradition.’ In The Cambridge companion to the Stoics, edited by Brad Inwood, ix, 438 p. Cambridge, U.K. ; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003.
Manzini, Frédéric. Spinoza une lecture d'Aristote. Paris: Presses Universitaires France, 2009.
Ross, James F., and Todd Bates. ‘Duns Scotus on Natural Theology.’ In The Cambridge Companion to Duns Scotus, edited by Thomas Williams, 193-237. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.
Schookius, Martinus. Physica Generalis. Grongingae: Typis Johannis Coellini, Bibliopolae & Typographi, 1660.
Scotus, John Duns Contingency and Freedom: Lectura I.39. Translated by Antonie Vos. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1994.
Spinoza, Benedict de. Ethics. Translated by Edwin Curley, The Collected Works of Spinoza. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985.
Spinoza, Benedictus de. Opera. Edited by Carl Gebhardt. Heidelberg: Carl Winters, 1924.
Suarez, Francisco. On the Formal Cause of Substance: Metaphysical Disputation XV. Translated by John Kronen. Vol. 36, Mediaeval Philosophical Texts in Translation. Milwaukee, Wis.: Marquette University Press, 2000.
The Belgic Confession. [cited 2009]. Available from http://www.reformed.org/documents/BelgicConfession.html.
Van Ruler, J. A. The Crisis of Causality: Voetius and Descartes on God, Nature, and Change. Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1995.