Spinoza Study Keys

The Hentheism[*] of Spinoza
- by Frederick Kettner

[* Hentheism, Not henotheism, see text]

    In studying the different interpretations of Spinoza's teaching we observe that each interpreter has approached his philosophy from a different angle. Some have seen his doctrine as pantheism; others, as rationalism; and still others, as atheism. From this it is evident that most explanations have failed to properly appreciate the central thought in Spinoza's Ethics.

    The center about which Spinoza's teaching revolves is the idea of God (Idea Dei). Spinoza says, "The mind can bring it to pass that all the modifications of the body or images of things have reference to the idea of God." (V 14). Yet to understand this biosophical [*] point truly and not abstractly, we must acquire an intuitive understanding of Spinoza's definitions of the terms, "God" and "Idea." "By God," says Spinoza, "I understand the Being absolutely infinite, that is to say, substance consisting of infinite attributes, each one of which expresses eternal and infinite essence." (I Def. 6). "By idea," he explains, "I understand a conception of the mind which the mind forms because it is a thinking thing." (II Def. 3).

[* Biosophy: [bio + sophy] A doctrine of spiritual self-education and character improvement through intuitive interpretation, developed by Dr. Frederick Kettner.]

    Spinoza's conception of God presupposes that man has the capacity to think or to understand the reality of the attributes. The idea of God becomes, then, the idea of the attributes, and as God is substance consisting of infinite attributes, it follows that the understanding of the doctrine of the infinite attributes is of primary significance to an adequate understanding of Spinoza's Ethics. Pure ethics has the idea of God, or the doctrine of the attributes, as its foundation. "Whatever is," says Spinoza, "is in God, and nothing can either be or be conceived without God." (I 15). Also, if we are to understand the idea of God as the key to all the other problems presented in Spinoza's works, we must know that "God and all his attributes are eternal." (I 19).

    Many students have endeavored to understand Spinoza's doctrine of the attributes but without success. The true secret of the attributes will remain hidden as long as Spinozaism continues to be confused with pantheism and rationalism, or with other such conceptions which are not concerned with essentialities, but are limited to imaginations and generalities.

    According to Spinoza, we may form ideas of individual objects merely by using our senses. This kind of perception, of course, does not present things to us in their logical order. Spinoza calls this kind of knowledge "imagination." Yet, it is possible for man to form adequate ideas of the properties of things by understanding what these things have in common. This is the scientific kind of knowledge, or as Spinoza calls it, "reason." Spinoza, however, speaks of yet a third kind of knowledge which he calls "intuition," and which, according to him, helps us to advance from an adequate idea of the nature of God's attributes to the true understanding and realization of the essence of things.

    Most students of Spinoza fail to perceive the significance of the central idea of his Ethics because they limit themselves to the first and second kinds of knowledge (imagination and reason), and do not make use of intuition. This last kind of knowledge alone enables us to understand the essence of Nature in the light of eternity (sub specie aeternitatis). Imaginative and abstract interpretations fail to do so, because they explain only the modifications and not the true nature of Substance or God, or that which is the same, the idea of the infinite attributes.

    Modifications are not the same as attributes. We cannot understand man essentially if we understand him only as a finite mode. In order to comprehend ourselves in the light of eternity, we must also understand the doctrine of the infinite attributes. It does not suffice merely to know that man partakes in two attributes; it is also necessary to know consciously that man can make use of the third kind of knowledge, and to understand intuitively that the nature of substance consists of infinite attributes. But again, in order to comprehend the doctrine of the attributes truly or Spinozaistically, we must learn to differentiate carefully between the relative (modal) and the absolute (attributive) points of view. This capacity to discriminate between the modes and the attributes is most essential to the understanding of Spinoza's Ethics. Without this insight we cannot comprehend the biosophical (living) significance of the statement, "the idea of God which is in us is adequate and perfect." (V 18 Proof).

    As long as we do not understand Spinoza's definition of the attributes according to the third kind of knowledge, that is, essentially, we cannot understand with sufficient clarity how the attributes represent the nature of God or Substance absolutely. To understand the attributes merely from the relative point of view means to take Spinoza's definition abstractly, and to consider nature only by means of fictitious and general conceptions. It can therefore be seen how we limit the horizon of our individual understanding. Spinoza entreats us again and again to improve our intellect in order to come to the understanding of the attributes of God. "It is most profitable to us in life," he advises, "to make perfect the intelligence or reason as far as possible . . . and to perfect the intelligence is nothing but to understand God together with the attributes and actions of God, which follow from the necessity of his nature." (IV App. 4).

    Spinoza expressly states: "The actual intellect, whether finite or infinite, must comprehend the attributes of God." (I 30). In speaking of the actual intellect, Spinoza refers to nothing else than the faculty by which we perceive things clearly.

    In order to understand Spinoza's doctrine of the attributes adequately, it is first of all necessary to know that each attribute is absolute in its own nature, and must be conceived through itself. All things, according to Spinoza, "[which] follow from the absolute nature of any attribute of God [must exist forever and infinitely, or must exist eternally and infinitely through the same attribute]." (I 21). Thus there is a marked distinction between the relative or finite conception of the attributes, and the infinite or absolute understanding of them. In the note to proposition 29 in the first book of the Ethics, Spinoza stresses the absolute conception by stating: "I think it is plain that by creative nature (nature naturans) we are to understand that which is in itself and is conceived through itself, or those attributes of substance which express eternal and infinite essence." Attributes are neither modifications of substance, nor creations of our subjective understanding. The relative conception of the attributes cannot be the foundation of Spinoza's Ethics. Only the absolute understanding of the doctrine of the attributes helps us to realize that there is an adequate and perfect idea of God in us. And because this idea is adequate and perfect, we are able to understand the true nature of the two attributes, Thought and Extension in an absolute manner.

    In answer to the question as to how we are to know that there are more than two attributes, Spinoza's reply would be that the idea of God which is in us tells us that there must be an infinite number of attributes, although we are in contact with the modifications of only two of them. Despite the fact that the existential character of the other attributes is unknown to us, it follows nevertheless, since we are able to have a true idea of God, that we can infer their existence inasmuch as the existence of God and his essence are one and the same thing.

    At this point it is most important to understand that the known and the unknown attributes constitute one and the same substance. Since also, besides God, no substance can either be or be conceived, it follows, according to Spinoza, that "the idea of God, from which infinite numbers of things follow in infinite ways, can be only one." (II 4). The oneness of divine nature should be studied first, since it is first in the order of knowledge and in the order of things, but it is usually considered last. On the other hand, those things which are called objects of the senses are believed to stand before everything else. Hence it comes to pass that there is nothing of which men think less, when studying natural objects, than of divine nature; and when afterwards they apply themselves to think about God, there is nothing of which they can think less than those prior fictions upon which they had built their knowledge of natural things. It is no wonder, therefore, if we find them continually contradicting themselves (see II 10 Note). But as soon as we make use of the true knowledge of the divine nature, we begin to realize more and more the importance of the doctrine of the attributes for the Spinozaistic conception of God or Substance.

    Since there is but one substance, and since substance is by its nature prior to its modifications, it follows that the many live in the One, and cannot be conceived without the understanding of the One. Also, since the highest thing which the mind can understand is the "One Substance," it is most important for man to gain a deeper knowledge of it. Spinoza demonstrates that everything which can be perceived as constituting the essence of nature pertains entirely to the One Reality, or God. That we have the capacity to understand this Spinoza assures us in the following statement: "The human mind possesses an adequate knowledge of the eternal and infinite essence of God." (II 47). Furthermore, God is the cause of material things in so far as he is considered under the attribute of which they are modes; the ideas of these things, of course, involve the conception of their attribute. And lastly, although there are two kinds of attributes, the known and the unknown, and two kinds of modifications, the infinite and the finite, yet the idea of God, which can be only one, underlies them all and is the fundamental conception upon which the understanding of everything that is in nature depends.

    Spinoza explains repeatedly that Nature or God possesses absolutely infinite attributes, and that each one of these attributes expresses the infinite essence of the divine nature in its own kind (in suo genere). This idea of the infinite attributes represents the infinite power or omnipotence of God. "I could show," says Spinoza, "that the power which the common people ascribe to God is not only a human power (which shows that they look upon God as a man, or as being like a man) but that it also involves a weakness. But I do not care to talk so much upon the same subject. For it is not possible for any one properly to understand the things which I wish to prove unless he takes a great care not to confound the power of God with human power and the right of kings."

    Spinoza's idea of God's power cannot be understood from an anthropomorphic point of view, nor can his infinite attributes be comprehended numerically. According to Spinoza, the power of God is nothing but his active essence, and therefore it is as impossible to conceive that God or Nature is inactive as it is impossible to conceive that God or Nature does not exist.

    As soon as we begin to think of the different modes in nature as modifications of the one substance, we learn to understand clearly that individual things depend essentially upon the One Reality. But there is a distinct difference between the pantheistic conception of Reality, and the hentheistic view. Spinoza was a hentheist, not a pantheist. The many who from the pantheistic point of view, say everything is God, can never come to the one reality which unites all these separate things into one; such as land, water, air, man, beast, etc. They do not have the true idea of oneness. Their ideas are fragmentary inasmuch as pantheism presents to their mind's eye only fragments of the one substance, each as an entity in itself. According to Spinoza, each thing is but a modification of the one substance. But their pantheism eliminates for them, Spinoza's idea of the attributes, the only bridge, so to speak, which can unite the many and the one, or which can lead them from the pan to the hen.

    There is a Greek phrase: hen kai pan (hen-one, kai-and, pan-all). The pantheists have taken the pan first, finding it easier to conceive everything than to conceive the one. Engrossed in this misconception, they involve themselves in obvious contradictions due to their imaginations, abstractions, and generalities. Understanding Spinoza's teaching only in part, that is, considering only his idea of the modifications, some have called him atheist, others fatalist, and still others pantheist. For unless they begin to affirm his idea of the infinite attributes in an adequate way they can never bridge the gap between the modes and substance. Let them, however, begin with the hen (one) and they will realize that the pan (everything) constitutes but the many-sidedness of the one totality. Therefore unless we understand Spinoza as a hentheist, we cannot truly be said to understand his principles.

    With this fundamental conception of the one substance in mind, we realize Spinoza's purpose in stressing the importance of the third kind of knowledge. We can see why he was more interested in ethics than in metaphysics. He wanted to explain only those things "which may conduct us, as it were, by the hand to a knowledge of the human mind and its highest happiness." As soon as he discovered that there existed an eternal good having power to communicate itself, he at the same time realized that the mind can cause all the emotions and images of things to be related to the oneness of God. To understand the One before the many and the One in the many helps us to understand ourselves and our emotions and to love God.

    Who of us does not desire to know more clearly what man's goal in life really is, and what the ways and means of attaining it are? If true understanding is concomitant with the essence of man, does it not follow that man has the capacity to reach his goal? Obviously, the main step in the attainment of such an objective is a true understanding of the nature of this goal. Is it one thing, or is it a multitude of things? We must see clearly, if we wish to reach mankind's highest goal, that that goal can be neither the peak of the highest mountain nor the greatest fortune in money. Man's purpose in life is not a tangible thing and cannot be grasped with the senses. Is man so constituted that he is able to grasp only visible things? No! Man's mental faculties enable him to understand the essence of things, and so to realize intuitively the nature of the highest goal. The nature of this understanding, moreover, is a certain awareness surpassing mere personal likes and dislikes. It is an awareness which affirms the existence of an eternal reality, and which we experience with our thinking minds. With such an affirmation we are able to strengthen ourselves and to withstand the influences which tempt us to live as non-thinking beings. As soon as we realize the eternity of the One Substance called God, the ethical side of our everyday lives becomes as natural to us as the more usual material phase. The realization of this fact creates in us a new interest: the ethical-social interest. We begin to "take ourselves in mind."

    In order to know what can set men free we must learn to use our minds ethically, and not only instinctively. We must find ways and means of living according to the guidance of the unifying or ethical reason (integration). Ethical depth has a very practical value, for it helps us to control our lower nature. The highest kind of knowledge is not merely of a metaphysical significance, but mainly of a biosophical value, for it can help man to free himself from confused conceptions and prejudices.

    In order to understand this idea of ethico-social life fundamentally and to be able to practice it under all conditions, it is necessary to see clearly that individual things are nothing else than modifications of the attributes and that the attributes express the essential oneness of God. But the acceptance of Spinoza's doctrine of the attributes involves the understanding that Spinoza's teaching, in its true sense, is hentheism.

    Just as the attributes demonstrate to the thinking mind, the nature of that which we call God, so do the modifications demonstrate to the senses the nature of substance. If, however, we use our senses in connection with individual things without understanding the essence of these objects we acquire only a confused conception of them and become enslaved by them. But as soon as we begin to make use of the third kind of knowledge, we come in contact with the essentialities of things.

    There is only one infinite and eternal reality, and it is prior to all manifested and conditioned existences. Thought and Extension must never be interpreted as a kind of infinite duality. They are expressions of the one substance and underlie all the modifications, thus also man. All things, and therefore all human beings, are one (hen) in essence. Thus it is necessary to understand that Spinoza's God is not made up of an infinite number of pieces, but is always one. Everything is in the one substance, but nothing is prior to substance. Consequently, as man arrives at the knowledge of the union which the mind has with the whole of nature, he understands and lives in harmony with the One in the many. It is the nature of the thinking mind to tend towards the highest kind of "oneness" (amor dei intellectualis) and this oneness brings freedom or salvation.

    "If the way which, as I have shown," says Spinoza, at the conclusion of the Ethics, "leads hither seems very difficult, it can nevertheless be found. It must indeed be difficult, since it is so seldom discovered; for if salvation lay ready to hand and could be discovered without great labor, how could it be possible that it should be neglected almost by everybody? But all noble things are as difficult as they are rare."

From The Spinoza Quarterly - Tercentenary Issue
November, 1932