On Spinoza

Leszek Kolakowski

From Metaphysical Horror (Penguin, London 2001 p. 78-80).

That the indivisible Whole, or the Absolute, is 'in' all particular things, and therefore in each of us, is a belief that appears, variously phrased, in the works of nearly all Platonist thinkers, including Ptorinus, Proclus, Damascius, Eckhart and Nicholas of Cusa. However difficult and awkward it might have been to make this idea compatible with the idea of the self-contained One, they all attempted it. We find it even in Spinoza, who was faced with formidable, almost intractable problems when he tried to express this view in his basically Cartesian idiom, designed for an entirely different purpose. Thus Spinoza, while denying that the esse of substance belongs to the essence of man {Ethics II, Prop. 10, and Scholium), says that particular things, being 'modifications' or 'affections' of God, express Him (I.15.Cor.). The body and its idea are the same thing differently seen - as, he observes, some Jews vaguely {'quasi per nebulam'} perceived when they said that God, His intellect and the things encompassed by His intelligence are all one and the same. Spinoza even claims that the human mind is itself part of God's infinite intellect (II.II.Cor.) - even though God, being indivisible, clearly cannot have parts (I.13) - and that the eternal intellectual love of God of which we are capable is part of God's infinite self-love (V.i6). It is axiomatically true for him that all things are 'in' God, and no less obvious that God cannot be 'in' things, since in this usage 'in' implies absolute dependence. So, since he cannot speak of God's presence 'in' us, he sees human beings - and all beings, for that matter - as God's modifications or affections. This in spite of the fact that substance, being immutable and indivisible, cannot ‘modified' or 'affected' in the sense of being changed by the actions of individuals. However, these apparent contradictions can be made to disappear if we assume that every particular thing simply is God - God modified or God expressing Himself. Spinoza seems to be echoing Eckhart, in a modernized dialect. Eckhart tried to explain the same intuition as a spark of divinity in us, or God's birth in the soul; Nicholas of Cusa tried to explain it by calling the world an explicatio of God (in the sense of unfolding) and God a complicatio of the world (in the sense of coiling or furling). God is like a point on a line: present everywhere, never divided, always one. Atman is Brahman.

Unlike the early Neoplatonists, the pseudo-Cartesian of Amsterdam ('pseudo' because no trace of the Cogito or of 'subjectivity' remains in his theology) did not think that the Absolute was ineffable. He seemed satisfied with the riches of his language. But empiricist and rationalist critiques were soon to shatter his laboriously built monument to 'geometrical' method. The train of modernity was heading ineluctably into the same abyss of double-Nothingness: step by step, both the One and the Cogito were being converted into nihilum. Certainly neither has disappeared completely: metaphysics - as a search for a self-rooted Being - has survived, relegated to life in a kind of philosophical demi-monde. But its language has been largely de-legalized.

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