Baruch Spinoza – God, nature & ethics

Baruch Spinoza – God, Nature & ethics

There are many sources of wisdom and advice about how to live a ‘good life.’ Buddhist teachers have much to say about how to minimise suffering and maximise wellbeing. But we can extend what is called ‘dharma’ – the body of wisdom and advice – to include many other non-Buddhist sources. In Western philosophy, other religions and indigenous cultures there are many teachers from whom we can learn. To my mind one such teacher is the Dutch philosopher, Baruch Spinoza, (also known as Benedict de Spinoza) who lived from 1632 to 1677.

Spinoza was, by all accounts, a mild-mannered, honest and tolerant man, much-loved by those who knew him, even by many of those who disagreed with him, his ideas were extremely controversial. Although he was born a Jew and was obviously a religious man who wrote a lot about God, he was rejected by both the Jewish and Christian establishments – many of whose congregations considered him to be an atheist or a dangerous subversive. If he hadn’t been able to live quietly in Holland making his living by polishing lenses, he would have had a difficult time living anywhere in Europe. The Dutch government was very tolerant of independent theological thinkers – something that was not true of most seventeenth century European governments. (Russell 1946: 592-603)

So, what were the ideas that Spinoza was putting forward that disturbed so many of his contemporaries? In the Ethics, which was published just after he died in 1677, he argues for a new way of thinking about God, nature and human moral behaviour. To quote Steven Nadler, Spinoza argues that ‘the universe is a single, unique, infinite […] substance. This is what is most real, and he calls it ‘God or Nature’ (Deus sive Natura). Spinoza’s God is not some transcendent, supernatural being […] He – or, rather, It – […] does not command, judge or make covenants. Understanding, will, goodness, wisdom, and justice form no part of God’s essence […] God is just the fundamental, infinite substance of reality.’ (Nadler 2011: 13) In other words, God or Nature is the totality of what exists. ‘God is identical with the universal active causal principles of Nature.’ (ibid. 14)

Spinoza had in his earlier writings argued that the bible was not the literal word of God and what he called ‘true religion’ was an ethical code determined by human beings and that church authorities should have no role in governing a country. These were highly controversial claims that challenged the beliefs of his fellow Jews and Christians, and the power held by the religious and political institutions of his day. No wonder he was not popular amongst the clergy and religious leaders. As if this wasn’t enough, he was now arguing in the Ethics that God was not a divine being who created, judged and guided human beings, but was instead the impersonal reality of the universe or Nature. This, to many thinkers of his day, was atheism – an attack on religion and a denial of God as most people understood the term.

Note that Spinoza’s idea that ‘God is identical with the universal active causal principles of Nature.’ (ibid. 14) has a profound similarity to Daoist notions of the Dao as the dynamic ‘way of nature’ – the underlying force that structures and regulates the natural world.

The idea that God or Nature is the totality of what exists resonates with the Buddhist notion of tathata or suchness – the actuality of existence. Implicitly, if not overtly, Spinoza emphasises the importance of attending to this world as a manifestation of God, indeed as God, rather than emphasising the importance of attending to another world, a speculative reality beyond this one. To be aware of being here, being a part of this contingent reality of relationship and connectedness, is to be aware of God. For Spinoza, this profound contemplation of the interdependent nature of the universe, gives rise to an equally profound sense of wonder and respect for all aspects of reality, all manifestations of existence.

Spinoza argues that the ‘highest form of knowledge […] is a thorough understanding of Nature and its ways.’ (ibid. 16) This is the path to what Spinoza calls ‘blessedness’ or wellbeing – what in Buddhism is called ’sukha’ or freedom from suffering. For Spinoza, the path to peace and wellbeing was through understanding – freeing ourselves from the bondage of delusion, superstition and authoritarian institutions. He also argued that we need to free ourselves from what he calls ‘the passions.’

Spinoza’s idea that God is Nature – that God or Nature is one unitary substance inclusive of everything that exists, and that all parts of this unitary substance depend upon each other for their existence – is very similar to the Buddhist notion of dependent-origination or interdependence. Of course, there is a difference in the way these ideas are expressed – the term ‘God’ usually being absent from the Buddhist narrative. Spinoza, like many Buddhists, argues that it is only by conventions of thought and language that objects, ideas and things can be considered as separate or discrete, for in truth they are all interdependent aspects of an infinite and indeterminate reality.

Once we begin to believe in the separateness of things, rather than the unitary nature of the universe, we feel ourselves to be apart from other beings and objects. This feeling of separation and division is often painful and hard to endure. We then try to heal this fiction of separation by desiring and clinging to things. Sadly, this desire to own or consume causes us endless frustration and dissatisfaction. We are trapped in our dualistic thinking. We want to hang on to what is passing, clinging to fictional substances temporarily held apart from everything that is. Spinoza used the term, ‘vanitas,’ to describe this craving for pleasure, fame, wealth and all the other things we crave and cling to – cravings that can never be satisfied and that only gives rise to dissatisfaction and agitation. Blessedness, wellbeing and peace of mind can only be achieved when we free ourselves from vanitas or craving.

These misguided attachments to objects (houses, cars, money, status, roles, ideas, beliefs and values), as if they were absolutes, can be linked to what Spinoza describes as our bondage to what he calls ‘the passions’ – those reactive emotions such as hatred, anger, fear and envy, in which we appear to ourselves to be passive in the power of outside forces. Bertrand Russell quotes Spinoza: ‘An emotion which is a passion ceases to be a passion as soon as we form a clear and distinct idea of it.’ (Russell 1946: 598)) We might also think of this as being like the subtle change that occurs when we are mindful, when we observe an emotion or thought without reactivity. When we pay attention in this way a space opens up between us and the emotion or thought – we are no longer in the grip of the thought or emotion – the ‘passion’ as a controlling agent is dissolved. Once we understand and accept the relative nature of reality we no longer feel an obsessive attachment to any part of it. Russell: “In so far as a man is an unwilling part of a larger whole, he is in bondage; but in so far as, through the understanding, he has grasped the sole reality of the whole, he is free”. (ibid)

For Spinoza, what Christians or Jews might call sins are not transgressions against God’s will (for God has no will in the usual sense). Sins, like notions of evil or goodness, are ethical values determined by human beings. These moral structures are not absolutes – dictated by a divine power– they are always being revised in the light of changing understanding and circumstance. This relativism contributed to Spinoza’s wise generosity of spirit. He advised that we should develop the ‘active emotions’ including happiness, love and tolerance, which are grounded in understanding, rather than cultivate (or repress) the ‘passive emotions’ or ‘passions,’ such as anger, resentment and frustration, which are caused by conditions or circumstances outside our control. Again, note how these ideas chime with Buddhist thinking about ethical structures and values – values we each have to determine and take responsibility for.

According to Russell (1946: 596), ‘Spinoza, like Socrates and Plato, [and, we might add, the Buddha] believes that all wrong action is due to intellectual error: the man who adequately understands his own circumstances will act wisely.’ Understanding comes through disciplined attention to how things are in the world, through practices that develop the critical powers of the mind leading to an intense clarity of awareness.

Spinoza argued for untrammelled freedom of belief, opinion and expression in a commonwealth of equals – the freedom of all citizens to ‘philosophise’ – that is, to think for themselves and to be tolerant of the thoughts and beliefs of others. It is only in this way that the arts, sciences and human culture as a whole can flourish. To ‘philosophise’ is also to understand Nature – the universe and all its constituent aspects and parts. Through such understanding, always open to revision and development, we can learn to live in harmony with the universe, with each other and with all beings. This seems also to echo the Buddha’s teachings about awakening and enlightenment – Buddhist practice as a path to freedom from delusion, anger and craving – a path of endless renewal, learning, letting go and being kind.


Nadler, Steven. 2011. A Book Forged in Hell: Spinoza’s Scandalous Treatise and the Birth of the Secular Age. Princeton University Press.

Russell, Bertrand. 1946. A History of Western Philosophy. London: George Allen & Unwin.