Spinoza’s Ethics: Freedom and Determinism
by Alfredo Lucero-Montaño
1. What remain alive of a philosopher’s thought are the problems that he addressed, as well as the questions that he posed.
However, his answers are limited to his time and circumstances, and those are subject
to the historical evolution of thought, yet his principal commitments are based on the realities that concerned him.
That is what resounds of a philosopher’s thought, which we can theoretically and practically adopt and adapt.
Baruch de Spinoza is immersed in a time of reforms, and he is a revolutionary and
a reformer himself. The reforming trend in modern philosophy is expressed in an eminent way by Descartes’ philosophy.
But Descartes, the great restorer of science and metaphysics, had left unfinished the task of a new foundation of ethics.
Thus Spinoza was faced with that enterprise. But he couldn’t carry it out without the conviction of the importance of
ethics in a fundamental aspect of existence: the moral destiny of man.
Spinoza’s Ethics is based on a theory of man. He does not approach the problems of morality—the
good and evil, why and for what of human life—if it is not on the basis of a conception of man’s being-in-itself,
namely, that the moral existence of man can only be explained by its own condition. For Spinoza, to work up an ethics is not
to elaborate an external theory of morality, but to go deep into the intrinsic, radical, and essential constitution of the
It is impossible for a
man not to be part of Nature and not to undergo changes other than those which can be understood solely through his own nature
and of which he is the adequate cause (E4p4) .
Spinoza’s commitment is
essential for his search of mankind’s reason. His ethics is an attempt to give reason to the human facts that usually
are not susceptible to a rational explanation and are condemned to the pure irrationality. Particularly the moral facts—what
Spinoza abridges as “the emotions and actions of men”—have been considered as a realm of existence that
eludes any understanding. So the essence of our existence was conceived as an unreachable and unexplainable twilight zone,
in which science and reason cannot have access. Man can explain everything, know everything and dominate everything, but himself.
His own actions, the essential of his being, were marginalized, were put outside
of his reach. Thus the specifically human would be a universe determined by an external power to man and alienated from his
Despite modern rationalism’s
dubious commitment to rationalize the whole of existence, it seems certain that Spinoza’s project to make intelligible
the moral world, and give it an immanent basis, is a project that grants his thought a perennial significance.
2. The fundamental aim of Spinoza’s Ethics
is to naturalize and rationalize human
life , in opposition to the philosophical tradition that looked the realm of “the emotions and actions of men” as something
extra-natura or anti-natura, alien or
opposite, to a rational understanding. In this sense, Spinoza writes in a notable passage:
Most of those who have written about the emotions (affectibus) and human conduct seem to be dealing not with natural
phenomena that follow the common laws of Nature but with phenomena outside Nature. They appear to go so far to conceive man
in Nature as a kingdom within a kingdom… They will doubtless find it surprising that I should attempt to treat of faults
and follies of mankind in the geometric manner, and that I should propose to bring logical reasoning to bear on what they
proclaim is opposed to reason, and is vain, absurd and horrifying…I shall [therefore] consider human actions and appetites
just as if it were an investigation into lines, planes, or bodies (E3pref).
Spinoza does not only think,
in accordance with his time, that nature is written in numbers and it has in itself a casual and mathematical rationality,
but that everything can be “demonstrated in geometrical order,” including ethics itself.
For Spinoza, likewise modern
rationalism, nature losses its demonic character and acquires even a divine status: In his pantheistic conception, “God
is one,” there is only one substance, an absolutely infinite being, consisting of infinite attributes which thought
(spirituality) and extension (spatiality, corporeity) are only known by man. God is not just thought, as Descartes believed,
but also extension as the Spinozist heretical theology states. This means that the divinity is in the physical nature as it
is in thought itself. Moreover, nature is divine itself. Everything is God, and God is everything.
If thought and extension have been unified in this basic premise, if monism tries
to resolve, in an essential unity, the dualism between spirit and matter, infinite and finite, absolute and relative, eternity
and temporality, we must understand that man, with all his affects, cannot constitute a sui
generis reality outside of nature. If God itself is not extra-natura, by any
means can man be: human world does not constitute “a kingdom within a kingdom.”
But Spinoza’s naturalism takes with itself—together with the possibility
to deal with the human affects as if they were “lines, planes, or bodies”—the possibility that freedom could
Men are deceived in thinking
themselves free (E2p35schol).
In the mind there is no absolute, or free, will. The mind is determined to this or that volition by a cause, which
is likewise determined by another cause, and this again by another, and so ad infinitum (E2p48).
Here freedom seems to have no place in an absolute and necessary order, or when Spinoza
writes: “that all things in Nature proceed from an eternal necessity and with supreme perfection” (E1app).
Certainly there is no freedom, if we understand by it the power of doing an action
without cause or reason, if we conceived free action as the human possibility to act with independence of the determining
causes. That would be freedom conceived as self-determination, as causa sui, for
instance, like in Kant or Sartre. Here we must point out that Sartre’s idea of freedom certainly takes place as the
exact counterpart of the Spinozist notion: freedom is an absolute indetermination,
a “complete and unconditioned” freedom—anti-natural, unjustifiable and absurd. Sartre’s existentialism
not only asserts the irreductibility of human condition, but it precisely assumes the extra-natura
character, opposed to reason, of the “vain, absurd and horrifying” absolute freedom. And far away from the Spinozist
notion, Kant’s idea of freedom is outside of nature, outside of natural causality, and nevertheless it is rational (not
a natural “cause”), for it belongs to the practical reason order.
On the other hand, in Spinoza’s
rationalism takes place the most strict identity between “cause,” “reason” and “nature,”
in which cause is the same thing as reason, reason is the same thing as cause, and cause is the same thing as a necessary
causality or determinism: “From a given determinate cause there necessarily follows an effect” (E1ax3).
In other words, this determinism
means that the same causes produce the same effects through a chain of uniform, determined and necessary items. Consequently,
it makes freedom incompatible with rationality, and with nature and its causal realm. Now we can clearly understand that to
assert, as Spinoza does, the rational and natural condition of human life implies questioning freedom.
Can we really explain what man is within a strict monist and deterministic philosophy?
Can we talk about ethics in a universe ruled by necessary causal laws? Is it not a contradictio
in terminis to speak about a “deterministic” ethics? How can we explain within a perfect order the universal
presence of human imperfection, like man’s irrationality, destructiveness and evil? Can it be an ethics “demonstrated
in geometrical order”? Could Spinoza really achieve his project of a strictly deterministic ethics that eliminated all
sense of freedom?
Spinoza’s Ethics precisely oscillates
between these alternatives: if there is ethics, there is no absolute determinism, or vice versa. If the former, then the determination
is reduced, and it is not anymore incompatible with freedom; the causality ceases to be absolutely necessary (implied in a
consequent determinism). If the latter, the emphasis put on a strict determinism—as a guarantee of rational perfection
and absolute truth—ethics becomes impossible; it disappears in a straightforward manner to the consolidation of determinism.
These two possibilities seem to be present at the same time in Spinoza’s ethics, creating tensions and contradictions
within his system. Nevertheless, there is an ethics, and this means that there
is a mode of determinism combined with freedom. The Spinozist ethics, explicitly or implicitly, establishes several meanings
3. Certainly, Spinoza writes of “good” and “bad” affects:
pleasure, love, devotion, hope, confidence are good affects; pain, hatred, mockery, fear, despair, are bad affects. For Spinoza,
affects are rationales as much as they express man’s belonging to nature, that is, his inclusion in a universal causal
order by which he is necessarily affected. However, the affects can favor or not man’s being:
I shall understand by
pleasure ‘the passive transition of the mind to a state of greater perfection,’ and by pain ‘the passive
transition of the mind to state of less perfection’ (E3p11schol).
Nevertheless, what is fundamental in Spinoza’s gaze is that man has an originating
tendency, a kind of élan vital, an effort or essential impulse to persist in his
The conatus with which each thing endeavors to persist in its own being is nothing but the actual essence of the thing
Desire is the very essence of man; that is, the conatus whereby man endeavors to persist in his own being (E4p18dem).
In contrast with those that might
see in the human condition some originating tendency to destruction or death, like Freud who asserts that “the aim of
all life is death” or Heidegger who understands human existence (Dasein)
as a “being-toward-death,” Spinoza holds that death is external or extrinsic: “No thing can be destroyed
except by an external cause” (E3p4).
For Spinoza, the good affects are those that favor the originating conatus of life, toward its expansion and perfection, to joy and happiness. The bad affects, on the contrary,
disturb the being’s impetus:
Pleasure is an emotion
whereby the…[man’s] power of activity is increased or assisted. Pain, on the other hand, is an emotion whereby
the…[man’s] power of activity is diminished or checked. Therefore pleasure in itself is good…[and pain is
in itself bad] (E4p41dem).
I shall mean by ‘good’
that which we certainly know to be the means for our approaching nearer to the model of human nature that we set before ourselves,
and by ‘bad’ that which we certainly know prevents us from reproducing the said model (E4pref).
Here it is necessary to notice
that the existence alone of the “bad” affects could be a sign of a break in the supposed human perfection ; if not, how can we really understand melancholy, grief, fear, hatred, death, in a realm where every thing “endeavors
to persist in its own being,” and in a realm that is subject to the most necessary and divine rationality?
The fact alone of the existence
of a difference, or contrast, between good and bad affects is a proof—grounded
on freedom—of the ethical condition of man. For a strictly deterministic system there is no place for qualitative distinctions:
every thing is indifferent, apathetic, neutral, because everything is precisely
necessary. The difference between good and bad
affects implies the negation of the perfect causal order, or it reveals the existence
of an imperfection, and therefore the possible character of determination. The
diversity then implies the different alternatives of possible, unlike and opposite causal links: some favorable to man’s
essential nature and others opposite to it, some of life and others of death. It seems that we live in a world determined
by a kind of necessity-in-the-circumstances (relative necessity), and not one of absolute necessity: what is, but it could
not be; what is this way, but it could be in another way. That notion of necessity-in-the-circumstances is related to freedom.
On the other hand, the difference
does not only exist, according to Spinoza, between good and bad affects, but also between emotions and actions; between the passive life which is affected by the exterior , and the active life which, on the contrary, is a cause itself, and not only an effect. The “power of activity” that moves human nature “by reason
of its essence or by reason of its cause,” and produces its own motion—from inward to outward, and not from outward
to inward—means anything else but the fulfillment of the conatus itself:
Besides the pleasure and desire that are passive emotions, there are other emotions of pleasure and desire that are
related to us in so far as we are active (E3p58).
Since reason demands nothing contrary to nature, it therefore demands that every man should love himself, should seek
his own advantage (I mean his real advantage), should aim at whatever really leads a man towards greater perfection, and,
to sum it all up, that each man, as far as in him lies, should endeavor to preserve his own being (E4p18schol).
For that reason, melancholy, hatred, sadness (passive affects) are not actions (active affects), and for the same reason, the actions agree with the good
So no emotions of pain can be related to the mind in so far as it is active, but only emotions of pleasure and desire
Certainly, the difference between
passive and active affects, between passivity and activity, shows the “human weakness in the ethical struggle”
, or in Spinoza’s words, it shows the essential difference between bondage
We shall readily see the
difference between the man who is guided only by emotion and belief and the man who is guided by reason. The former, whether
he will or not, performs actions of which he is completely ignorant. The latter does no one’s will but his own, and
does only what he knows to be of greatest importance in life, which he therefore desires above all. So I call the former a
slave and the latter a free man (E4p66schol).
A free man thinks of death least of all things, and his wisdom is a meditation of life, not of death (E4p67).
For Spinoza, the real freedom would not consist hence in acting gratuitously, without cause nor reason, but on the contrary to act according
with the necessary nature of man:
To act from reason is
nothing else but to do what follows from the necessity of our own nature considered solely in itself (E4p59dem).
It is in the nature of
reason to regard things as necessary, [to wit, as they are in themselves] (E2p44cor2dem).
In other words, for Spinoza, freedom means to obey the determined conatus through which man “endeavors to persist in its own being,” acting in agreement with “the
clear and distinct ideas” that show the universal rationality, and in conformity with the necessary and eternal truths
of nature. Thus freedom would not be but the fulfillment of the own necessity of being:
The conatus to preserve
itself is nothing but the essence of a thing, which…is conceived as having a force to persist in existing and to do
those things that necessarily follow from its given nature. But the essence of reason is nothing other than our mind in so
far as it clearly and distinctly understands (E4p26dem).
In this sense, we might say that
the change between the passive life and the “free” and active life is nothing but the change of one bondage to
another one: to leave acting from the external causes (passive affects) and to subject oneself to the internal determinations
(active affects) which are absolutely more determining. Freedom then would be just the outcome of a fixed, determined and
immutable nature, an absolute and necessary nature, but not a possibility itself. Spinoza does not admit that “free”
action can fall on our own nature and transform it, that is, freedom cannot be creative and produce true changes; therefore
it could not explain the ethical condition of man.
However, in another sense, we
cannot think that “active” life and “passive” life are indifferent, nor that the change of one to
another does not, in some way, implie freedom. It, explicitly or implicitly, shows the condition of the ethical activity (man’s
active understanding of himself), even though it is conceived in a limited way and it fulfills in conformity with a supposed
nature or a necessary essence.
We could even say that the paradox is double: for it not only expresses that freedom
consists in necessity, but that necessity involves, at the same time, freedom; man’s necessary nature--his rational
conatus to persist in his own being--is not absolutely necessary: it does not inevitably
fulfill as in a spontaneous and automatic manner, like a natural instinct. On the contrary, it is a free acquisition, possible
and contingent, borne in the effective man’s activity, through which could it take place or not. Certainly, the conatus is just “conatus” in the sense as “tendency”, possibility or potentiality, “endeavor,”
struggle and conquest of freedom. It properly is not a force, or a spontaneous impetus, which takes place with natural and
universal facility. Spinoza seems to acknowledge the latter when he writes: “If men were born free, they would form
no conception of good and evil so long as they were free” (E4p68).
Actually, for man, the conatus is a potency,
a “desire”, an “endeavor,” which requires human “work”, to wit, requires art (activity)
and artifice (virtue); it is a cultural outcome and not a natural one; it is moral and free, not spontaneous nor absolutely
determined. However, for Spinoza, the real active and free life is something very difficult to reach:
If the road I have pointed
out as leading to this goal seems very difficult, yet it can be found. Indeed, what is so rarely discovered is bound to be
hard. For if salvation were ready to hand and could be discovered without great toil, how could it be that it is almost universally
neglected? All things excellent are as difficult as they are rare (E5p42schol).
Beyond this explicit acknowledgment, freedom is present in the Spinozist system showing,
in many ways, the inconsistency of determinism. Man can and must ruled over his passive affects; he must arise above the vital
determinism and produce an active and rational life:
Therefore the more we
endeavor to live by the guidance of reason, the more we endeavor to be independent of hope, to free ourselves from fear, and
to command fortune as far as we can, and to direct our actions by the sure counsel of reason (E4p47schol).
All the Spinozist actions (“conatus,”
“desire,” “virtue”, “power”) do not mean anything else but freedom—the human power to influence over the causal chains, and thus transform human nature. It is true
that freedom is not absolute or uncaused, and neither anti-natura nor extra-natura, but it also means that man’s nature is not a closed, immutable, causal realm. That is why
we have history, culture and ethics.
4. Beyond the effort of Spinoza’s
thought to apprehend the reality, beyond his rationalistic commitment, the facts themselves, with their qualitative diversity
and “motion and rest,” overflow the Spinozist system. In effect, the fluidity of human activity exceeds the rigid
and limited margins of Spinoza’s determinist scheme within which he tries to rationalize the ethics. It only is possible
in an unnecessary, changing, imperfect order, that is, in a human not divine order. Ethics is only possible as the world recovers
its human dimension: imperfect and perfectible, essentially qualitative, always subject to siege by irrationality and nothingness,
always open and in gestation. In a geometrical order there is no ethics: there are no passive and active affects, there is
no difference, there is no conflict nor struggle, neither life nor possibility.
Certainly, there is no ethics
in pure indetermination, nonsense and vacuousness. The human world is an ethical world because within it there is also causality,
rationality, differentiation, sense, and “conatus to preserve the nature of the thing itself.” Spinoza’s
actuality is not due to his determinist rationalism, but to his endeavor to seek the logos
of the human affects, and to understand the paradox of freedom intrinsically, but not contradictorily, related to determination.
It is not due to his monism or pantheism, but to his recovery of the human nature and its own affects. It is not either due
to his univocal optimism, but to his advocate for vital values. In sum, it is in his effort to conciliate man’s passions
and actions, that is, the natural and moral horizons of human life.
On the most extreme antithesis
of Hobbes’s homo hominis lupus, we can implicitly find Spinoza’s homo hominis deus, but contemporary ethics stands on the fruitful hope that neither
lupus nor deus, but homo hominis homo . In this sense, Spinoza is a fundamental contribution for an ethics based on the
human condition itself.
Finally, there is no ethics without freedom. Even in Spinoza’s deterministic
conception there is an “ethics” in the broad sense. Because an indifferent and apathetic universe (consequent
of an absolute determinism) is not a “human world”, therefore, freedom is present. Freedom means the capacity
of “option,” “value” judgment and “decision,” because there are, one way or another, open
alternatives and possibilities. The
ethical reality is the work of man’s “endeavor” and “action” constantly assumed by “the
power of reason” and “virtue.” For Spinoza, the aim of ethics is to show the “necessary” fulfillment
of man’s nature.
De Dijn, Herman. “Spinoza’s
Ethics: From the Sorrows of Reason to Freedom and Beyond.” In La ética de Spinoza. Fundamentos y significado. Actas del Congreso Internacional: Almagro, 24-26 de octubre, 1990. Ciudad Real:
Ediciones de la Universidad de Castilla-La Mancha, 1992, 495.
Gonzalez, Juliana. “El
proyecto de una ética determinista. Spinoza.” In Etica y libertad. Mexico: UNAM, 1989, 97-110.
Savater, Fernando. Invitación
a la ética. Barcelona: Anagrama, 1982, 38.
de. Ethics. Trans. Samuel Shirley. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1991.
Benedictus de Spinoza, Ethics, trans. Samuel Shirley (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1991).
References to Spinoza are
given by the internal form, for example, ‘E’ stands for Ethica (followed by the number of the part), and so the
following terms: p(roposition), dem(onstration), schol(ilum), ax(iom), app(endix), cor(ollary), pref(ace), etc.
In the following I heavily draw on
Juliana Gonzalez, “El proyecto de una ética determinista. Spinoza,” in Etica
y libertad (Mexico: UNAM, 1989), 97-110.
For Spinoza, man as part
of Nature could be assailed by external causes, and the passions resulting from them (E4ax, E4p5).
See Herman De Dijn, “Spinoza’s
Ethics: From the Sorrows of Reason to Freedom and Beyond,” in La ética de Spinoza.
Fundamentos y significado, Actas del Congreso Internacional:
Almagro, 24-26 de octubre, 1990 (Ciudad Real: Ediciones de la Universidad de Castilla-La Mancha, 1992), 495.