Baruch Spinoza: If Triangles and Circles Could Speak

It may seem odd to the reader that after I have posted the conclusion of philosophy in our modern era with existentialism, and as we turn our attention to science and religion, I begin this new section with the 17th century philosopher, Baruch Spinoza, whom we have not before mentioned.   That was not by design, but by another happy coincidence, or some might say, by God’s leading.  I’m not sure that there is a real distinction to be made between the two.

As I have at least inferred in the past, I do not see “miracles” as contrary to the laws of nature or suspension of those laws;  rather, I see miracles as defined by Dr. Nida: where the eye of faith sees the hand of God at work.  One prepares for such an experience by cultivating an attitude of thankfulness.  Such an attitude is not possible for a person who believes that he or she is responsible for, earned, or deserves, all the good and necessary things that he or she has.

I recognize that human perception of, and interaction with, the physical world is not limited to the recognized five senses.  Just as migratory birds find the same locations of their nests season in and season out, year after year; or a dog or a cat happens to be transported to a distant, strange place and yet finds its way back to its owner and home; or horses and other animals become jittery upon what turns out to be the approach of a storm; human beings have senses far beyond those which we verbally acknowledge or cognitively recognize.  Nor can such perceptions and their interpretations be processed entirely by logic.  Oftentimes logic impedes that sensitivity; it is often expressed in terms of intuition or the creative impulse.  Some philosophers, such as Bergson, recognized that some truths are accessed, not by logic but by intuition.  Are there other ways of perception; other natural senses?

I began this series of posts concerning theology in the modern era with a discussion of civil disobedience, which perceives truth to transcend written laws and popularly held beliefs, and acts in conformity with that perception of truth while accepting the consequences.  We examined notions of Natural Law, of unity of spirit and matter, and of justice in the context of right relationships.  We then examined faith in action through the memories of my mother and father.  From there, we have discussed scientific developments in our modern era, and itheir influence upon philosophical developments in the concreteness of modern life.

We will now address issues of science and religion during our modern era.  I will begin with Baruch Spinoza who is recognized as the first modern philosopher to reject the dualistic view body and soul.   He also viewed God, not as a personal God, interfering in human affairs, whether by punishment, whimsy, human petition or prayer.  Rather, his theological view is perhaps best described as pantheistic.   When Einstein was pressed concerning his religious views and experience, he owned agnosticism, not atheism;  he rejected any God expressed in anthropomorphic terms, citing Spinoza.

Therefore, it seems appropriate to introduce the subject of science and religion with Spinoza.  Although I have forgotten the origin of many of my ideas, I do acknowledge great debt to him.  Rather than attempt to summarize him in a few words, less well chosen, I will set out here a number of quotations of his work which are posted on the web site,


  • When you say that if I deny, that the operations of seeing, hearing, attending, wishing, &c., can be ascribed to God, or that they exist in Him in any eminent fashion, you do not know what sort of God mine is; I suspect that you believe there is no greater perfection than such as can be explained by the aforesaid attributes. I am not astonished; for I believe that, if a triangle could speak, it would say, in like manner, that God is eminently triangular, while a circle would say that the divine nature is eminently circular. Thus each would ascribe to God its own attributes, would assume itself to be like God, and look on everything else as ill-shaped.
  • The briefness of a letter and want of time do not allow me to enter into my opinion on the divine nature, or the questions you have propounded. Besides, suggesting difficulties is not the same as producing reasons. That we do many things in the world from conjecture is true, but that our redactions are based on conjecture is false. In practical life we are compelled to follow what is most probable; in speculative thought we are compelled to follow truth. A man would perish of hunger and thirst, if he refused to eat or drink, till he had obtained positive proof that food and drink would be good for him. But in philosophic reflection this is not so. On the contrary, we must take care not to admit as true anything, which is only probable. For when one falsity has been let in, infinite others follow.
  • Again, we cannot infer that because sciences of things divine and human are full of controversies and quarrels, therefore their whole subject-matter is uncertain; for there have been many persons so enamoured of contradiction, as to turn into ridicule geometrical axioms.

Letter  56 (60), to Hugo Boxel (1674)

  • My opinion concerning God differs widely from that which is ordinarily defended by modern Christians. For I hold that God is of all things the cause immanent, as the phrase is, not transient. I say that all things are in God and move in God, thus agreeing with Paul, and, perhaps, with all the ancient philosophers, though the phraseology may be different; I will even venture to affirm that I agree with all the ancient Hebrews, in so far as one may judge from their traditions, though these are in many ways corrupted. The supposition of some, that I endeavour to prove in the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus the unity of God and Nature (meaning by the latter a certain mass or corporeal matter), is wholly erroneous.
  •  As regards miracles, I am of opinion that the revelation of God can only be established by the wisdom of the doctrine, not by miracles, or in other words by ignorance.

Letter  21 (73) to Henry Oldenburg , November (1675)

  • I make this chief distinction between religion and superstition, that the latter is founded on ignorance, the former on knowledge; this, I take it, is the reason why Christians are distinguished from the rest of the world, not by faith, nor by charity, nor by the other fruits of the Holy Spirit, but solely by their opinions, inasmuch as they defend their cause, like everyone else, by miracles, that is by ignorance, which is the source of all malice; thus they turn a faith, which may be true, into superstition.

Letter 21 (73) to Henry Oldenburg ,  November (1675)

  • I do not think it necessary for salvation to know Christ according to the flesh: but with regard to the Eternal Son of God, that is the Eternal Wisdom of God, which has manifested itself in all things and especially in the human mind, and above all in Christ Jesus, the case is far otherwise. For without this no one can come to a state of blessedness, inasmuch as it alone teaches, what is true or false, good or evil. And, inasmuch as this wisdom was made especially manifest through Jesus Christ, as I have said, His disciples preached it, in so far as it was revealed to them through Him, and thus showed that they could rejoice in that spirit of Christ more than the rest of mankind. The doctrines added by certain churches, such as that God took upon Himself human nature, I have expressly said that I do not understand; in fact, to speak the truth, they seem to me no less absurd than would a statement, that a circle had taken upon itself the nature of a square. This I think will      be sufficient explanation of my opinions concerning the three points mentioned. Whether it will be satisfactory to Christians you will know better than I.

Letter 21 (73) to Henry Oldenburg ,  November (1675)

Variant translation: The eternal  wisdom of God … has shown itself forth in all things, but chiefly in  the mind of man, and most of all in Jesus Christ.

  • You seem to wish to employ reason, and ask me, “How I know that my philosophy is the best among all that have ever been taught in the world, or are being taught, or ever will be taught?” a question which I might with much greater right ask you; for I do not presume that I have found the best philosophy, I know that I understand the true philosophy. If you ask in what way I know it, I answer: In the same way as you know that the three angles of a triangle are equal to two right angles: that this is sufficient, will be denied by no one whose brain is sound, and who does not go dreaming of evil spirits inspiring us with false ideas like the true. For the truth is the index of itself and of what is false.
  • But you, who presume that you have at last found the best religion, or rather the best men, on whom you have pinned your credulity, you, “who know that they are the best among all who have taught, do now teach, or shall in future teach other religions. Have you examined all religions, ancient as well as modern, taught here and in India and everywhere throughout the world? And, if you have duly examined them, how do you know that you have chosen the best” since you can give no reason for the faith that is in you? But you will say, that you acquiesce in the inward testimony of the Spirit of God, while the rest of mankind are ensnared and deceived by the prince of evil spirits. But all those outside the pale of the Romish Church can with equal right proclaim of their own creed what you proclaim of yours.
  •  As to what you add of the common consent of myriads of men and the uninterrupted ecclesiastical succession, this is the very catch-word of the Pharisees.  They with no less confidence than the devotees of Rome bring forward their myriad witnesses, who as pertinaciously as the Roman witnesses repeat what they have heard, as though it were their personal experience. Further, they carry back their line to Adam. They boast with equal arrogance, that their Church has continued to this day unmoved and unimpaired in spite of the hatred of Christians and heathen. They more than any other sect are supported by antiquity. They exclaim with one voice, that they have received their traditions from God Himself, and that they alone preserve the Word of God both written and unwritten. That all heresies have issued from them, and that they have remained constant through thousands of years under no constraint of temporal dominion, but by the sole efficacy of their superstition, no one can deny. The miracles they tell of would tire a thousand tongues. But their chief boast is, that they count a far greater number of martyrs than any other nation, a number which is daily increased by those who suffer with singular constancy for the faith they profess; nor is their boasting false. I myself knew among others of a certain Judah called the faithful, who in the midst of the flames, when he was already thought to be dead, lifted his voice to sing the hymn beginning, “To Thee, O God, I offer up my soul,” and so singing perished.

Letter  74 (76) to Albert Burgh (1675)

  • Nature is satisfied with little; and if she is, I am also.

As quoted in The Story of  Philosophy (1933) by Will  Durant, p. 176

See, also, for an excellent summation of the key points of Spinoza’s philosophy.

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