Jacques Maritain Center : Natural Theology / by Bernard Boedder, S.J.

SECTION 6. -- Spinoza's proof that God is the only substance, and that everything else is a mode of God.

124. According to the pantheistic theory, expounded in Spinoza's Ethics, there is only one substance, unproduced and infinite -- God.{53} Besides God, no substance can exist or be conceived to exist: consequently, whatever is, is in God; it is a mode or affection of the Divine Nature.{54} God is not the transient or external cause of all things, but their immanent cause;{55} they are all determined by the necessity of the Divine Nature to exist and to act in a certain definite manner{56} Hence it follows that so-called freedom of will is a chimera,{57} and that things could have been produced by God in no Other way or order than as they have been produced.{58}

These are the leading tenets of the thirty-six propositions, in which Spinoza, in the first part of his Ethics, explains his views about the primary cause of all things. From the general refutation of pantheism given above (Th. X. § 78), it is evident that these propositions contradict external and internal experience, and contain a virtual denial of the first principles both of speculative and of practical reason. Yet they are worked out with a show of exactness which has captivated while it has imposed upon many minds. It becomes, therefore, worth while to deal with them in some measure. We shall, however, confine ourselves to the one underlying fallacy on which the entire system is based. This is his misuse of his ambiguous definition of substance, which we shall examine briefly, and then pass on to the principles by which the German pantheists Fichte and Hegel, in spite of the unpopularity of their systems, have led the way to more modern forms of monism.

Spinoza rests his proof that God is the only possible substance on the proposition that one substance cannot be produced by another substance,{59} which is a virtual assertion of pantheism. This proposition is proved by a series of previous propositions,{60} all of which are based on the definition of substance with which he starts. Substance is defined by Spinoza as "that which is in itself and is conceived by itself alone, that is to say, that of which the concept can be formed without involving any other concept."{61}

This definition is patently ambiguous, and in order to make sure whether Spinoza's sixth proposition is really implicitly contained in it, we must inquire into the different ways in which the definition may be understood. Its meaning depends upon the interpretation of the phrase, "that which is in itself and is conceived by itself." This may signify (1) a complete individual, physical being, as distinguished from its natural properties and accidental modifications; it may also signify (2) a self-existing being, a being under all aspects independent of any other being, whether as an underlying subject in which it inheres, or as a cause from which it proceeds. On the first interpretation, Spinoza's definition of substance is almost identical with the scholastic definition; on the second, his definition is not applicable to any but the first Being, the Divine Essence, and as this Essence cannot be multiplied, Spinoza's Prop. vi., "One substance cannot produce another substance," follows from it, and this involves Pantheism. Yet the absurdity of pantheistic monism (Th. X.) proves fully that nobody can interpret substance in the second meaning of Spinoza's definition without committing himself to sheer nonsense. Now as to the steps of reasoning by which Spinoza reaches his famous Prop. vi., it will be enough to remark on the first. His Prop. i. runs thus: "Substance is prior in nature to its affections."{62} In proof of it he says nothing but that it follows from his definitions of substance and of mode. We have said enough about the former. The latter is as follows: "By mode I understand an affection of substance or that which is in something else by which also it is apprehended."{63} This may signify a substantial principle imparting to the whole its specific character, or a natural property really distinct from the being of which it is predicated, or an accidental modification of a being. Thus the soul of a dog is in the matter of its body as a specifying principle (forma substantialis): the faculty of understanding, considered in its operations, is in the human soul as a natural property really distinct from the soul; and the derangement of mind is in the lunatic as an accidental modification.

If, then, we take Spinoza's definition of substance in the first of the two senses given above, and his definition of mode in the first of the three senses just explained, his first proposition is false. It is not true, for instance, that a dog is prior in nature to the specifying principle called his soul. Taking the same interpretation of the definition of substance along with the second and third interpretations of the definition of mode, we find the first proposition to be evidently true; for it is undeniable that natural properties and accidental modifications of a particular being cannot be conceived, except as following the existence of that being. In so far as they do not follow its existence in the order of time, they at least follow it in the order of nature, that is to say, their existence cannot be conceived but on the supposition that the being exists of which they are predicated. Finally, if we take Spinoza's definition of substance in the second sense given above, and his definition of mode in any of the three senses explained by us, it appears at once that his first proposition is altogether false. We have proved that God is physically and metaphysically simple. He is therefore not a substance like matter, which can be raised to diverse substantial degrees by the reception of diverse specifying principles. Nor are there in Him natural properties to be conceived as something under certain aspects really distinct from His essence, and following that essence, in the way that an act of our understanding is really distinct from and follows the essence of the soul. Much less can God be the subject of merely accidental modifications.

But in what sense does Spinoza take his two definitions? Explicitly he does not tell us. Yet in the arguments by which he supports his following propositions{64} there is not any force, unless substance be taken in the second sense; and, as he declares creatures to be affections or modes of the One infinite substance,{65} mode is taken in the third sense explained by us. Hence it is evident that in Spinoza's very first proposition there are hidden two false suppositions, the one that substance is synonymous with self-existence, the other that self-existence is changeable. The first of these two assumptions we have refuted in Th. X., the other will explicitly be refuted in Th. XXII.{66}

{53} Ethics, Part I. Prop. vi. vii. viii. xi.

{54} Ibid. Prop. xiv. xv.

{55} Prop. xviii.

{56} Prop. xxix.

{57} Prop. xxxii.

{58} Prop. xxxiii.

{59} Prop. vi.

{60} Prop. i-v. incl.

{61} "Per substantiam intelligo id quod in se est et per se concipitur, h.e. id cujus conceptus non indiget conceptu alterius rei, a quo formari debeat."

{62} "Substantia prior est natura suis affectibus."

{63} "Per modum intelligo substantiae affectiones sive id quod in aijo est, per quod etiam concipitur."

{64} Prop. ii-vi.

{65} Prop. xiv. xv. 66.

{66} See also Appendix II. pp. 449, seq.

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